A Snail’s Pace

July 18-20, 2018 

    Just when we thought everything looked good.

     Out of the North River without hitting any mud…  I had insisted on a redemption re-match at the helm coming out this time.

     Outside the St. Marys inlet there was two to three feet of chop, but fifteen to twenty knot winds behind us seemed promising.

     Yet, by nightfall we had been struggling with the sailing for over eight hours, and had slowly extended our distance offshore to fifteen miles.  Our adjustments were intended to reduce the overall rolling motion the boat had been experiencing for quite some time, caused by the angle and size of the swell which was now three to five feet, as well as maximize our options for altering our angle of sail if needed.

     Even with the winds steady at fifteen knots, the relentless swell pitching the boat back and forth was causing insufferable slapping of the sails as they relaxed and reloaded with nearly every roll.  The noise was not only obnoxious, but also an indicator of a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on the sails, rigging, and mast.

     Experimenting… main only… genoa only…genoa and main with one reef… genoa partially furled… all still had the same end result.  The combination of sailing angle, as well as swell direction and size, made for slapping sails; and altering course seemed the only way to keep the sails filled and quiet.  

     Even so, we just couldn’t get up any speed whatsoever.  It seemed as though the speed indicator never got above three knots during our first twenty four hours.

     The following morning, we were visited by two inquisitive dolphins.  I have a note in the log joking that, we are moving so slow they must have thought we were a floating shipping container and moved on.

     At noon, we found ourselves in the path of a mahoosive thunderstorm.  Dark and very ominous looking, elongated and strangely shaped clouds stacked up on the horizon and bore down quickly towards us.

     Already fighting to wring even two knots of speed out of our sails, we chose to fire up the engine, drop the main, and furl in the genoa.  Within minutes, twenty to twenty five knot winds blasted through and the sea all around us was covered in messy white caps and breaking waves.

     Thirty minutes later, the wind had stabilized back to below twenty and we started putting sails up and turned off the engine as the breeze dropped back down to fifteen and then ten.

     Later in the afternoon, a pod of fifteen or more dolphins approached us.  We weren’t moving any faster, but they seemed much more content to show off for us, staying with us for over fifteen minutes.

     Still, we just barely crawled along.  Measuring speed at a sailor’s pace, quite different from the mindset of a typical dirt dweller, is something we have gotten more and more used to… yet this was ridiculous.

     We suspected that there must currently be a massive barnacle buildup on our hull and prop, causing enough resistance to affect our speed by what seemed to be 30-40%.   

     We had monitored bottom growth constantly in the Bahamas, and cleaned the hull a couple of times.  It was almost spotless when we departed the Bahamas, just over a month ago.

     Kris was adamant that I was not going in the water for a look, while we were underway… it simply was not open for discussion.

     I was adamant that some sort of visual confirmation was required here.  If there weren’t barnacles, then maybe we were tangled up in something that was being dragged along under us.

     As a compromise, I climbed down on the transom and stuck my dive camera down in the water with the video recording.  I randomly panned back and forth, in what I believed to be the right general direction and then pulled it out of the water and had a look at the video.

     The rudder could be be seen, moving in and out of the frame, as though the camera had been operated by someone who wasn’t looking at what they were recording.  The prop was beyond the field of view, but bits and pieces of the hull could be seen at times.

     Sure enough… the rudder and what could be seen of the hull was covered in a blanket, not of stringy algae, but rather, of solid barnacles that appeared to be an inch or more thick.  No doubt about it, this was the primary culprit responsible for our snail’s pace.

     The barnacle growth could only have happened while Exit sat at anchor on the North River for three weeks.  The river must have an amazing amount of passing nutrients and organic matter, because the speed at which the barnacles attached and grew to the degree they did seems rather remarkable.

     In hindsight, we had noticed a startling degree of algae growth on the top ten meters of the anchor chain and snubber as well.  It was severe enough that I had to scrape it off with a screwdriver and wire brush before we pulled up anchor.

Underneath that beard of algae is 1/2″ chain

     But, for some reason at the time, I never put two and two together, recognizing that our hull would simultaneously be suffering the same fate as the anchor chain.

At the same time, there’s no way we were ever going to be getting into the muddy  North River.  Even had we recognized the extent of barnacle growth on our hull and how much it would impact our speed, we would have been more than content with moving slow over swimming in water we had seen crocodiles inhabiting…

     Eee-ahh… Eee-ahh… Eee-ahh…

      Jeeves again.

     The barnacle situation would have to wait.  At least the autopilot reset this time, but Jeeves had become more and more temperamental on this passage.  It was becoming a problem.

     At 5:00pm, another thunderstorm descended upon us.  Again, we dropped the sails and fired up the engine, not knowing how full-on things would get.  Our current inability to achieve any speed under sail made things particularly dicey when the seas started kicking up a fuss.

      This storm was not as immediately intense as the previous one had been; the winds never reached twenty knots.  But what it lacked in wind, it more than made up for in rain and lightning.

     After two and a half hours, it was obvious this was no passing squall; it certainly didn’t appear that things were going to let up anytime soon.  We shut down the engine and ran with a double reef in the main and only half of the genoa out, hoping to keep just enough speed to steer, but minimize the amount of sails slapping around in all the messy seas.

     At 11:00pm,  Jeeves decides he’s had enough.  No amount of resetting the system makes any difference.  A couple of minutes pass and the alarm triggers again… Reset… Hand steering through the entire night in these storm conditions is going to be brutal… Alarm… Reset… Alarm…

     Jeeves is done… he’s thrown in the towel and already gone to bed.

     There seemed to be only one viable option, and in my opinion, it did not involve sitting at the wheel in the rain all night.

     This was the perfect time to break out our backup autopilot.

     A much older Autohelm model, it utilized a small and removable piston style ram connected between the deck and a short tiller attached atop the rudder.  We had fired it up during the sea trial for a few minutes, and it seemed to work, but had never gotten it out again since that day.

     In the dark of night, aboard a boat surrounded by rain, lightning and super sloppy seas, one is definitely not going to find ideal conditions to try to sort out a backup autopilot.  But, hey… it is what it is. 

     The ram didn’t mount securely to the tiller and, in the end, had to be lashed on with a line.  No problem.

     However, the geometry of the mounting angles and distances was such that the ram didn’t have enough piston extension to fully turn the rudder as far as it is capable of turning.  This would be ok in mild conditions, where the autopilot is only making minor course corrections.  But, in rough conditions, when the autopilot is fighting rudder pull, swells and wave action, and struggling to maintain a heading, it really needs the full movement of the rudder to keep up.  It either has to work much harder to try to alter course substantially or possibly, in the end, just can’t compensate enough and sets off an alarm.

     The conditions were severe enough that the backup autopilot had to work quite hard, given its’ limited control of  Exit’s turning radius.  Nevertheless, despite any shortcomings, it worked like a champ throughout the night.  We were blessed with not a single autopilot alarm during the course of the evening, to both of our delight. 

     We considered calling the backup Autohelm Otto, but decided instead that Schumacher was more fitting, named after the nickname given to a Indonesian driver we met in SE Asia, all the way back in 2008 (less than two months into our travels after leaving the US, Schumacher drove us safely through the endless winding roads of Sulawesi all night long to deliver us to the location of an extraordinary traditional funeral we were allowed to attend).

     At 4:00am, entering my final hour of what had been a very long six hour watch, we were pummeled by our third thunderstorm in twenty four hours.

     In spite of the intensity of the two earlier storms, this third one stood out as being the most memorable.  

     The wind, blowing at a steady fifteen knots (it had held consistently above ten knots, oftentimes at fifteen or more for the past day), suddenly ceased entirely.  Then, after what seemed to be a brief pause by Mother Nature, momentarily holding her breath, the sky opened up and unleashed a torrent of rain.  

     Without even a whisper of wind, the deluge of huge raindrops dumped straight down from above in buckets.

     And yet, the seas all around us were completely still… like a bathtub.

     It was a very surreal moment.  The volume of rain coming down.  The absolute lack of any wind.  The sea as smooth and flat as glass but for the surface disturbance caused by billions of raindrops, their impact on the water generating a loud and relentless sizzle of white noise that surrounded us.

     For over an hour, Exit sat… no wind to carry us… no waves or swell to push us… adrift on the ocean in the rain.  Not much progress, but no slapping sails and no loud engine either.  A fair trade.

     When Kris took over the watch at about 5:00am, the storm had mostly subsided, with the rain diminishing and a slight breeze returning.  

     Just as the sky was beginning to display the first glimpses of another sunrise, I crawled into bed, exhausted, and was sound asleep almost instantly.

     Six hours later, I awoke from a thoroughly fitful sleep, thanks in no small part to Schumacher.   After tagging in for Jeeves, our new ace in the hole had performed brilliantly all night without triggering a single autopilot alarm.

     As I climbed the companionway stairs into the cockpit, I was greeted with yet another surreal scene.

    Kris sat in the cockpit with a smile on her face, and promptly introduced me to her new friend – a bedraggled looking baby bird which stood on the opposite bench, not three feet from her.

     Apparently it had happened across us hours ago while flying through the storm, and decided to take refuge on the only solid object available to rest upon for miles in any direction… Exit.

     After landing, the young fledgling, exhausted from what must have been a confused flight that had carried it twenty miles offshore, seemed content to simply hang out with Kris.

    She indicated that, though uninterested in the crackers she had offered, the little bird had rested repeatedly next to her in the cockpit on my flipflop for quite some time, between curious explorations hopping around the entirety of Exit’s deck.

     As I hurried to grab Kris’ iPhone, trying to capture a classic moment looking up into the cockpit from belowdecks, with Kris sitting on one side smiling at a frazzled baby bird who stood on the opposite bench looking back, the bird hopped up on one of the lifelines and flew away, towards the coast.

     We half expected it to fly back to the safety of our cockpit within a minute or so.  Obviously, it had gotten the rest it needed because it kept on flying.  We didn’t see the little bird again… maybe it eventually made it home and is currently spreading the story of being rescued by a giant metal island while caught in an offshore storm on the ocean…

     By mid-afternoon we were inside the channel approaching Charleston, but still nearly ten miles out from the actual inlet into Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter.  In the log, there is an entry of great exultation for the backup Autohelm last night.

     Thankfully, there was no opposing current to be dealt with at the inlet nor along the subsequent five miles up the South Channel and into the Ashley River, as we were still barely crawling along, even under engine power.

     We dropped anchor at almost the exact same place we had in 2017, the day after Christmas, when we were here last.  It was opposite the Charleston City Marina Megadock, just downriver (or upriver, depending on the tidal direction of the three knot currents) from a fifty five foot bridge we couldn’t get under.

     It had taken us two days and four hours to get one hundred eighty three miles… any speed records already in the books were well safe during that passage.

     It was self-evident that the barnacles needed to be dealt with immediately… but… the water wasn’t at all clear… the currents were gonna make things a bitch… it wasn’t the Bahamas any more; this was gonna be cold.

     I asked Kris if we should inquire with the locals regarding the potential for crocodiles in the Charleston Harbor. 

     Her response, it was probably best not to ask, made two things very clear.

     First, the hull WAS DEFINITELY going to get cleaned here in the Ashley River.

     Second, the person doing the scrubbing WAS DEFINITELY going to be me.

     Yep… this was not going to be one of those me-only dives that generated a great deal of envy from Kris.

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