Passing States On The Atlantic

Twilight 75nm offshore

July 28 – August 3, 2018

    Midnight… July 31, 2018.

     Today has just become yesterday.  Tomorrow has just become today.  July has just become August.

     As I sit in the cockpit, a striking waning gibbous moon, still fairly low in the sky and only three nights past full, shines brightly through the dodger window.  It’s brightness is the only thing partially obscuring the millions of stars which veil the night sky above.  Not a single cloud can be seen from horizon to horizon.

     The moon casts an intense and coruscating beam of light across the surface of the unsettled seas, leading from directly under the moon straight to our boat.  Though it is purely the result of optics relative to our position, it has the appearance of a spotlight… Mother Nature in control of an imaginary light board at a concert, with Exit as the onstage soloist.

     A depth gauge is among the four screens on the instrument panel front of me, illuminated in a soft red light to minimize the effect on our night vision.  Normally, it would be displaying only dashes as we are sitting over a staggering five thousand feet of water (it’s depth limit is well under a thousand feet).  However, now it blinks sporadically, repeatedly showing depths ranging from thirty five to sixty feet.  Is it a pod of dolphins?  Kris heard the unmistakable blow of one surfacing a short while ago before our watch change.  Maybe a whale… or just a mundane school of fish.  Whatever it is, something has been tracking underneath us, shadowing our movements for the past hour.  Quite eerie.

     The loud creaking of the reefing line in the boom is constant, as it strains under the loads created by winds approaching twenty knots.  Just as constant, though much more subtle, is the hum coming from our autopilot Jeeves every time he makes a steering adjustment to maintain our course.  During the past eighty four hours, he’s been remarkably well behaved.  Bit of down time… now he’s back in the game.

    Occasionally, the disconcerting noisy snap of the mainsail or genoa sail overwhelms all the other sounds, as Exit rolls back and forth in the motion of the swell, causing the sails to relax as a roll to one side releases the load, and then snap and bang as the roll back to the other side reloads the sail with wind again.  

     Every now and then it is significant enough to send a vibrating shudder throughout the boat.  If it is allowed to advance out of control, it could tear the sail or even break the boom, so it must be heeded as a plea from the boat that a course adjustment or sail trim is in order.

     Powerful roars erupt from the water around us, sounding not unlike a passing semi-truck on a highway, as a passing wave breaks or is crushed underneath the weight of the hull.

     I have my jacket on for the second night in a row.  It’s been six months since the damp night air on deck carried enough of a chill to warrant wearing one.

     We glide through the night, floating atop a feisty sea at between six and eight knots of speed, a welcome turnabout from earlier in the day.

     We had started the engine at 7:00am, unable to maintain even one knot of speed, and it’s droning noise had carried on for seven hours.  Quite the departure from the previous three days which had been absolutely brilliant sailing. 

     In fact, apart from a two hour stretch on the second day, when a passing storm forced us to run the engine as we passed fifty five miles offshore from Cape Fear, this morning was the only time we had run the engine since raising anchor three and a half days ago. 

    Though we had been struggling somewhat with our sailing angle, we had managed to run the engine for less than ten hours of the eighty four hours we had been underway.  For us, this was a big deal.

     Now, under the power of our sails alone, the unnatural engine noises are replaced by far more organic sounds I much prefer.

     Our friend James, aboard S/V Nomad, expressed to us that three days offshore was merely enough time to “go feral”.  We still hadn’t quite deciphered the precise subtleties of that idea but were getting the gist of it.  Four days is what it takes to really get into a rhythm on an offshore passage as far as sleeping, eating and watch schedules, as well as getting to a point of coming to a state of Zen one-ness with the boat.

     Eee-ahh… Eee-ahh… Eee-ahh… 

     The moment of reflection vaporizes instantly as the annoying London police car sound blares out again… Jeeves is tired.

     Back to the reality of constant challenges that come part and parcel with cruising aboard a sailboat.

     Fortunately, a reset is all it takes this time, averting the need to rig up our backup autopilot, Schumacher, as we eventually had to do between St. Marys and Charleston.

     For us, this is truly a passage of passing states in the Atlantic.  

     Not just in the sense of nonstop passing of geographical states while fifty to eighty-five nautical miles offshore since departing Charleston… South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland… with Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut still to come before reaching our destination of Block Island, Rhode Island.  

     But also a continual passing of states of mind along the way – from bliss and elation to exhaustion and frustration.

******

     We set out from Charleston, SC at noon on July 28th with as promising sailing conditions and forecasts as we could hope for.  Nearly a week without major storm fronts forecasted anywhere along the East Coast; only the occasional unforeseeable thunderstorm or squall which is part and parcel to this time of year along this coast.

     Our Navionics program said this would be a seven hundred nautical mile passage… more than twice the non-stop distance we had ever attempted previously.  Six days and change…

     From the ship’s log:

July 28: 11:45am – Anchor up.  Making for Block Island, RI – 699nm @ 5 days 19 hours; Forecast is fair weather with <20 knot winds for a week

18:00 – Winds SSW at 10-12 knots; swells have increased to 3-4ft.

22:00 – Killer full moon if the ominous building clouds would just give way.

July 29: 00:30 – No rain but 20-25 knot winds blew through during Kris’ two hour 10-12 watch.  Having to delay pushing toward Gulf Stream to steer away from big swell.  Wind currently SW at 16-18 knots.  Winds making 4-6ft. seas surly and stacked up with some 6-8 footers passing through.

01:30 – Daggerboard down now; trying to keep waves more astern.  Wind SSW at just under 20 knots.  Seas are still very snotty with the occasional 7-9 foot monster crashing by.

04:20 – Winds <15 knots and seas settling slightly.  Just saw first ship lights of the night on horizon; currently 50nm offshore

     By 8:00am, the winds had shifted south and dropped below ten knots, and the seas had settled to between two and four feet.   

     We were even visited by a pod of dolphins. 

     The afternoon proved to be quite challenging.  Winds that constantly changed speed (from below five to over fifteen knots) as well as shifting direction, in addition to a two hour squall that forced us to run the engine, resulted in us continually having to change course and adjust our angle, relative to either the wind, or swell, or both.

     During our second night, we finally became aware we were fully inside the coveted Gulf Stream currents.  In a “south-ish” wind of only seven knots that was shifting all over the place, the speed indicator in our cockpit displayed a sad three to four knots of boat speed.

     Yet, when we checked the chart plotter (which monitors speed over ground via satellite GPS, instead of utilizing the paddlewheel under the hull which the cockpit speed indicator uses), we found our actual speed to be ranging from five and a half to seven knots.

     We were picking up two and a half knots of speed with the favorable current… yes!!!

     Throughout the night, things proved to remain interesting.  

     There is a ship’s log entry indicating:

02:30 – Spent last hour making sure we didn’t get run down from behind by a 1200 foot ship moving at 15 knots;  Never received an answer to our repeated hails on VHF – obviously no one on watch.  Have turned on transom light and been shining a light on our sails… thanks M/V Gerd Maersk… good seamanship.

     An hour later we passed by Cape Lookout.  Though we had been seventy-five nautical miles offshore all night, the shoals of Cape Lookout, stretching outward far from the coastline, sat less than forty miles off our port side.

     By 4:30am, as my watch ended, winds had finally climbed above ten knots.  That, as well as our better than two knot Gulf Stream boost, had combined forces and we were currently racing along at an impressive eight knots.  

     We had spent most of the the night flying under a full moon.

     Kris, who had the previous watch, definitely got the shit deal on that one.  She had enjoyed the privilege of sitting through over two hours of rain and slop… bad luck there.

     During our third day, we started seeing a lot of boat traffic, which had been conspicuously absent up to that point.

     At one time, we were converged upon by a two hundred foot Coast Guard cutter, a six hundred foot freighter, a thousand foot container ship, in addition to three other ships… eek!   We found ourselves threading a needle in an ocean of endless expanse.

img_0065
WTF???!!!

Later our AIS display looked like we were at the outer edge of a literal armada of ships.  We were relieved, after recalling a conversation we overheard on the VHF not long before, to decipher what we were actually seeing on the screen as local fisherman using AIS to track and identify their fishing gear, not individual ships… whew.

Still, that had to be a mess of fishing nets out there just to starboard.  Best to avoid those as well…

     Another challenge we faced was the fact that we had been cursed for days with an almost nonstop stint of cloud cover, severely limiting our solar charging capabilities. 

     Sailing for days on end is something we aspire to do.  However, the downside of sailing for days on end involves not getting any sort of battery charge from the engine.  While we are underway, the electronics we run tax the battery banks much more quickly than while we are anchor…

      Not a problem if the solar panels are bathed in sunshine during the day.  But after experiencing extensive cloud cover for days in a row, we start running a power deficit that the solar panels can’t keep up with.

     So, for only the second time since installing our solar panels in February, we had to run the genset for the sole purpose of charging our house battery bank.  The previous situation was due to a week of rain and clouds while we were at anchor in the Bahamas.

     I had recently calculated that, since February, our solar panels had generated nearly 35,000 amp-hours of power.  The genset would have needed to run for over twelve hundred hours to create that same amount of battery charge.  That’s about a thousand dollars in diesel fuel, alone. 

The solar charging system install had already proven to be worth more than its weight in gold.  

     If we finally had to fire up the generator as a result of sailing in cloudy weather instead of motoring, well then… so be it… no brainer… no problem.

     With the autopilot being one of the primary offenders in the category of offshore energy consumers, in the future, we may just have to do more hand steering, especially when it’s cloudy out.

     As midnight approached on our second night, Cape Hatteras was about forty miles behind us, putting us right about at the halfway point of our passage… three hundred sixty miles… a solid six knots averaged consistently over sixty hours.

     We were impressed with ourselves.

     One hundred fifty six nautical miles in a twenty four hour period was a record for us. It was only the second time we had broken the one hundred fifty mile marker.  Plus, it had been almost entirely under sails alone, aside from the two hours we had decided to run the engine during the storm. 

     However, as is often the case, our luck would not hold out.

     The free push we had been receiving from the current quickly began to dwindle away.  As the Gulf Stream veered to the east, the four knots of current we had been riding on dropped down to only one knot.

     Around 10:00pm, a fleet of a dozen or so passing fishing boats had been clearly visible in the distance.  After that, we didn’t see a light from another boat anywhere on the horizon all night.

     By 7:00am, the winds, which were only about forty five degrees off our stern, had died to less than five knots.  

Offshore storm clouds
Offshore morning storm clouds

     Unable to maintain more than one knot of speed, our steering became sluggish and we struggled with the two to five foot swells coming from the same direction as the wind.  

     Any option of just sitting and drifting until the wind improved was ruled out.  Without steering, we would end up helplessly bobbing around in the swell until we were taking far too big of waves directly on our beam.

     Eventually we acknowledged that we needed to call on the Perkins for assistance.  One important compromise we have learned over the past year is that, as cruising sailors, we may strive to do things a certain way; yet, when push comes to shove, everything aboard the boat is a tool to be used at the discretion of necessity or safety.

     Not using the engine when it’s needed, based upon principle, is perhaps more block headed than using the engine when it’s not needed.  It’s just another resource in the tool box… maybe the question more often should be am I currently using the best tool for the job at hand?

     The wind direction had forced us to angle farther west, towards the coast, than we had wanted.  With the engine now running for the foreseeable future, we tried to push farther back offshore. 

     After seven hours of motor-sailing, the winds finally increased to above twelve knots.  Though we could sail again without the relentless drone of the engine, we were once again having to point ourselves far too much in the direction of Maryland instead of New York.  

     Another compromise we’ve learned is sometimes the wind just won’t cooperate, and you have to accept that.  We were seriously starting to consider the possibility of heading on in to the mouth of the Chesapeake.  

     The last thing we wanted to do was resort to motoring all the way from Maryland to Rhode Island; but we also had very little confidence that we would find winds more favorable to get us north once we were inside the Chesapeake. 

     We weren’t ready to give up yet.  As long as we could keep moving in a reasonably forward direction, we would continue on and remain patient.

     The strategy at this point was to just try to keep sailing.  

    Possibly a blessing in disguise, our navigational dilemma was temporarily put on hold when Kris discovered a large nylon washer on deck, near the mast.  It was obviously broken… it was obviously for a big bolt… big bolts hold together big things on the boat… not good.

    Further inspection revealed the washer to be from the bolt securing the boom to the mast, or the gooseneck; the same bolt Kris had discovered had lost a nut while we were at anchor in Marsh Harbor.  

     In Marsh Harbor, the bolt had unscrewed itself halfway out of the mount, leaving the boom hanging precariously.  Fortunately, we had been able to get the bolt re-threaded through the mount and secure the nut back in place.  Even more fortunately, it had been caught before we had gone sailing again.

     Now, one of the nylon washers had split and fallen out while we were underway, leaving an un-tightened nut on a bolt that kept our boom from falling off… a boom currently under the load of a mainsail in twelve knots of wind… not good.

     I found a spare washer in the locker under the salon table I refer to as The Hardware Store. The repair seemed pretty straightforward.  Much less dicey than the last time, since the bolt was still in place.    

     The big question was could I do this while we were sailing at five knots, with the mainsail up?

     As long as the boom didn’t get shoved around once I took the nut off, it seemed like a quick fix.  So I told Kris to manually take the helm… and keep the boom steady… please.

     The nut came off… Kris kept the boom steady… the washer went on… Kris kept the boom steady… the nut went back on… Kris kept the boom steady… Voila!  Another crisis averted.

     In addition, an important point was reinforced:  while underway, periodic inspections of the equipment, rigging, and deck area, even (and especially) in rough conditions, helps to maintain the safety of the ship and crew.

     Confident that the boom was, once again, secure, we could turn our attention back to trying to keep Exit headed in the right direction.

    We spent the entire rest of the evening and night adjusting our angles of sail to compensate for wind shifts.  Over twelve hours, our heading changed from pointing towards the entrance of the Chesapeake, to headed for New York Harbor, to pointing due east into the Atlantic Ocean, and eventually back towards Block Island.

     By morning, we still hadn’t given up.  However, winds approaching twenty knots and swells that were building again to upwards of five feet were forcing us to rethink our approach.

     Our biggest shortcoming had been an inability to sail dead downwind (with the wind directly behind us) under many conditions… our inability for sure.  Still unsure how to safely deploy the reaching pole for the genoa, we oftentimes couldn’t keep that sail from luffing.  And without a preventer rigged up, the boom and mainsail crashed and banged around far too much in many situations.

     Our few previous attempts at a wing and wing configuration (both sails fully sheeted out on opposite sides of the boat) had been marginal, at best, as we were never really able to get the sails even approaching perpendicular to the hull.

     But necessity breeds ingenuity.

     If we could just sort out running dead downwind, our course would be perfectly lined up with Block Island.  What was needed was a bit of open-minded experimentation.

     We agreed that trying to figure out how to rig up the fifteen foot reaching pole on a pitching deck, while moving at six knots through very confused seas in fifteen to twenty knots of wind, sounded like a recipe for disaster.  We would have to forego that part of the experiment for now, and rely on partially furling in the genoa to keep it from luffing if necessary.

    After some discussion, we rigged up a temporary preventer.  It was a line, just tied off near the back of the boom and run to a forward deck cleat.  I still had to go forward any time the boom was adjusted to release and re-secure the line to the cleat.   Primitive… but functional.  

     The preventer eliminated almost all of the boom movement and sail noise caused by our rolling motion in the swell; and, even more importantly, eliminated any risk of an accidental gybe.

     With at least ten knots of wind, we found that we could keep the sails filled with minimal slapping, and move comfortably dead downwind with three to four foot swells chasing us.

     We sheeted both the main and genoa farther out than we ever had before.

     This became a game changer for us.   Suddenly, we had the option of running dead-downwind, something that had caused us nothing but grief up to this point.

     We experimented with the wing and wing setup throughout the afternoon, as the winds slowly climbed to above twenty knots.

     At least one reef in the main overnight had become standard practice for us.  We figured it was better to potentially lose half a knot of speed overnight to insure we didn’t get caught unprepared if a squall hit, or have to wake the sleeping off-watch person to deal with an increase in the winds.

     Tonight, as the sky offered up another spectacular sunset, for the first time we put a second reef in the main before furling in the genoa.

     The winds had climbed to between twenty five and twenty seven knots, and six to nine foot seas were described in the ship’s log as downright stinky.

     With no certainty as to how the night would progress, we had to plan for the worst and hope for the best.  We weren’t sure if the winds would increase, and these were the most intense winds we had ever experienced off anchor.  Kris expressed more than a small amount of trepidation regarding the current conditions. 

     But, with two reefs in the main and no genoa out, we should have been good for up to forty or fifty knots, so we felt confident that we were solid with how much sail we had out.  After re-setting the main sail and preventer for the night, we rode out winds upwards of twenty knots through the night.  

     As an extra storm precaution, we had even removed the midship dorades (scoops to allow wind below decks) and replaced them with covers to further reduce any potential points of entry for the ocean.

     As it turned out, the winds never increased above twenty seven knots.  It was more than we had ever sailed under.  But, especially with the winds behind us, it ultimately turned out to be quite digestible.

     By far, the most intimidating element was the swell that continually rolled in from behind us.

     I realize that NOAA’s wave assessments can be quite distinct from reports sourced from the average sailor.  NOAA rates waves on a scale based upon average wave height, of which 50% of the waves are higher than.  But, as an “average sailor”, I must confess that it is actually those waves in the above-fifty-percent category that really grab your attention.

     So when I say, waves came up behind us that were seven to nine feet, I am not trying to stretch my semantics into a salty yarn.  

     Following swells, not all but some, crested above our stern arch and davit while we were in the trough of the swell… a structure which stood just above my head level… which stood six feet above the deck… which stood three feet above the water… nine feet in total… chasing us down from behind.

    Fortunately, we were maintaining six knots speed, barely slower than the passing swell. 

    Consequently, instead of following waves breaking on our stern and pooping the cockpit, we were picked up by the rising swell and, as it passed underneath us, we surfed back down the other side.

     This delicate balance continued throughout the night.

     With the rising sun came another day.  We had maintained confidence in Exit and she had delivered.  After sailing for twelve hours straight with winds in excess of twenty knots (reaching a high of twenty seven), we had, once again, learned about Exit’s capabilities.

     For us, it was an open ocean storm with unlimited potential for disaster.  For her, it was home.

     Day six seemed to be the day we fell into a real rhythm.  Two days prior we had struggled so much with wind that we began to doubt we’d make it past the Chesapeake Bay entrance.  Day five had been a great day of sailing; but experimentation with running wing and wing, as well as winds between 20-27 knots for twelve hours had made for some tiring, daunting, and stressful periods.

     By mid-afternoon of our sixth day at sea, we were only fifty five miles southeast of New York Harbor.  We had settled into a comfortable stride, and hadn’t used the engine in forty eight hours.

    As the sun set on what would most likely be the last night of our passage, the winds once again picked up to over twenty knots. 

     Flying along at between six and eight knots, our speed made the five to six foot swells that approached from our stern quarter feel remarkably smooth.  Inside of smashing through them, or being tossed from side to side as they rolled passed, we surfed atop the waves as they passed underneath us.  Considering the conditions, we were experiencing an unbelievably effortless sail.

     To cope with all of the shipping traffic, New York has three traffic separation zones just outside the harbor, extending out in different direction.  Each zone is ten miles wide, with an incoming and outgoing lane separated by a stretch of ocean median.  Large ships are required to navigate within these lanes.  Two of the zones end approximately forty miles outside the mouth of New York Harbor.  The third continues all the way around Cape Cod and into Boston. 

     We were far enough offshore that we only had to cross the third, and northernmost, traffic separation zone, which we anticipated could be somewhat nerve racking and tense.  

    In actuality, while we watched shipping traffic, displayed on the AIS, moving in the lane opposite ours, we saw no boat traffic in the lane we currently occupied during our entire crossing of the separation zone.

     The only exception was what appeared to be a fishing boat playing chicken with a huge freighter about five miles away from us.  Watching on the chart plotter, it looked as though the smaller sixty foot boat made three separate attempts to cut just in front of the passing freighter.  Eventually, the captain must have decided tonight was not a good  night to die, as he finally acquiesced, and ultimately made a course change that brought him around behind the freighter… a much smarter maneuver.

     We anticipated that we would get to Block Island around noon, or early afternoon.  However, at 4:30am we misjudged what we thought was a final gybe that would bring us directly to the New Harbor channel.  

      Swell direction and wind shifts contributed to the error.  But, more than that, it probably came down to the fact that, after six nights at sea, we were just a bit loopy in our timing.  Ultimately, the result was nothing worse than a few additional gybes required to zig-zag into the channel and a bit later in getting there.  

    Considering it had been an epic sailing passage, we were adamant that we were going to sail the rest of the way, and not fire up the engine just to shave off a few extra hours.  

     After all, we had come eight hundred twenty three nautical miles in one hundred forty nine hours, and used less than ten gallons of diesel the entire time – a much better result than our Navionics estimate which calculates projected fuel consumption based upon an assumption that we would be motoring the whole way, or one hundred forty gallons! 

     Our arrival at Block Island, RI provided one of those sensory overload moments which seem more and more common on the boat.

     After spending six days eighty miles offshore completely by ourselves, a crowded anchorage provides a dizzying array of information, noise, distractions, and hazards to try to process.

     But, as far as crowded anchorages go, this was one of the most crowded we had ever experienced.  There may have been a thousand boats in the bay.

     I said to Kris, barely joking, it’s like traveling for six days, only to arrive at your destination… a Walmart parking lot.

     We had been recommended this place by Dena and James, on S/V Nomad.  As like-minded souls, we trust their judgement and perspectives.  They wouldn’t steer us wrong.

     What we obviously needed was a long nap, a few cockpit cocktails and a trip ashore to gain a better appreciation.

     But, first, we needed a place to anchor.

     Considering New Harbor is approximately one mile long by half a mile wide, there is a lot of space.  However, in addition to the sheer volume of boats, Block Island residents have taken a very virtuous and honorable approach to conservation, prohibiting anchoring in certain sections of the bay.

     We weren’t about to slalom through the entire bay looking for the perfect gap.  

     And, we had one further problem.  Even after returning to depths our charts indicated were less than four hundred feet, then one hundred, then seventy, our depth gauge still only displayed dashes. 

     Depth gauge no worky… shit.

     We asked a couple of people on the decks of boats we passed alongside of what depth the gaps next to them were… forty plus feet.  We had never anchored in water deeper than about twenty five feet.  Even at that depth, just under a 5:1 scope was the best we could do.

     The decision was made to drop the hook, back down on the anchor at 3000rpm (instead of our usual 2000rpm), and keep an anchor watch overnight if we weren’t confident by then.

     After the anchor had been set, I dropped a lead line off the stern with forty feet of line on it.  It didn’t touch the bottom… not ideal at all.  This meant we were at a 3:1 scope, at the most… half of the minimum we’d like.

     In spite of that, we sat in that spot for twelve days and held fast.  Even given the option of moving a few days later, we opted to stay put.  

     Though we would never do that again if we could at all avoid it, it was reassuring to know that our ground tackle was solid enough to carry us through.

     Chalk another one up to the Rocna anchor and half inch chain.

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