On Thursday in Southport, North Carolina, we woke up to 28 degrees F (-2 Celsius!). That’s the morning I promised myself that despite any tendency to seasickness, if there was a good weather window for an outside ocean hop and a chance of getting south (and warmer) faster, I’d be on it. I was wearing all my warm clothes; five layers on and I’d run out of warm clothes and was now dipping into Blair’s to no avail – too dang cold!
On top of that, the ICW south through South Carolina and Georgia is pretty skinny water these days. The Army Corps of Engineer surveyor boat, Sanderson, docks here at our marina in Southport at the end of every day. At the end of each day when they come in to fuel up, Blair chats up the surveyors who’ve been running up and down the ICW and all the inlets, taking soundings and graphing them. These guys tell us that the ICW is no longer commercially viable and is used primarily by pleasure boats rather than tugs and barges. Apparently, there’s little money available to dredge the shallow areas of the ICW through the Carolinas and Georgia. Frustratingly, I spent a good two hours one morning at our marina, perusing the various cruiser websites with our charts open – flagging all the areas of caution, which areas we must transit on a mid-to-high tide and which areas absolutely must be passed on nothing but high tide. One of the postings said ‘Transit this area on high tide – no kidding!’. There were so many shallow areas that, in addition to the cold weather, the skinny waters were another reason for us to look for a good weather window to bust loose into the Atlantic and make tracks south, and make them fast. So our view is a little different this time south. The first time south, we wanted to see all the neat stops along the way; Beaufort, Charleston, Savannah, and all of Georgia with its tall swamp grasses. This time, we’re just wanting to be warm and we think that, in the interest of getting warm, we’ll give these places a miss this time through.
Well, as it turns out there was a good, long weather window starting Friday. So, at first light Friday morning, we dig out our heavy life jackets, install thick webbing jacklines to run the length of Strathspey which we will tether ourselves onto if we need to go out of the cockpit, and we hoist the radar reflector so all the ships out there can see us. We agreed to four-hour shifts behind the wheel for this 44-hour trip but I’d be lying if I said I was looking forward to my night shifts without company. We calculated our waypoints (latitude and longitude for every major point south) and sent them to Brooklyn and our friends Steve and Sandi aboard Yonder in Florida; the idea being that if, for some reason, we don’t arrive, they will know what our intended sail plan was. We left the comfort of our marina at 10 am Friday morning and, as many boats passed us heading down the ICW, we felt a little odd as we headed in the opposite direction out to the Cape Fear River inlet and into the ocean. When we reached our first waypoint south of the inlet, I texted Brooklyn that we were on our way!
All day Friday there was a slow rolling swell and very small waves but when we pulled up our mainsail, Strathspey steadied and leaned her shoulder into a good sail south. A 50 foot trawler, Acapella, was off our stern for most of the afternoon but besides the trawler and a tanker off our starboard, we couldn’t see any other boat – or land for that matter. Around 2 pm, a pod of dolphins joined us and dove and surfaced under our bow, blubbery yet sleek and supple. There was one who just decided to position himself right below our bow under our anchor roller and kept pace with us, rising to the surface to get air periodically and then dipping down, undulating up and down, never more than a foot before our bow. The sun shone warm all day, although we knew it would be cold as soon as the sun set. At 3 pm, we were far enough off land that we finally lost all cell phone reception. Around 3:30 pm, we spot a mast far ahead on the horizon and feel encouraged that there are more of us out here. At 4 pm, I spot another sailboat on our starboard about five miles closer to shore. This all feels good to know that we have company. But once darkness falls, we no longer can see any other boats, not even their lights.
We pass Charleston at 4 am Saturday morning and the vhf is alive with chatter as this is a busy port. We hear a container ship inbound to Charleston in the channel calling out to a sailboat ‘Captain, I’m going to need you to make a hard starboard immediately’. We coast on by the Charleston harbor entrance and I go down below for a good three hour sleep, out cold, Blair on watch. A goodly amount of trust here…
We’ve been motor-sailing all night trying to make good time but at 8 am Saturday morning, north of Savannah, we turn off the motor so Blair can check the oil. At the same time, he tops up our diesel tank with the contents of the spare five-gallon jerry can we carry in our starboard locker. With the motor off, it is wonderfully quiet but not such a good idea as we are only travelling at 3.6 knots and our ETA at Fernandina Beach is now 29 hours – way too long!
Saturday is warm and sunny and long. If I do a 360, all I can see is a slow-moving container ship on the horizon and a smaller tanker closer to us and nothing else but water all around us. Overnight runs aren’t terrible social; one of you is usually sleeping while the other tries not to sleep and keeps a close watch on all those lights – the blinking, red, green, yellow ones – the ones that surround you constantly. We’re still trying to get into a rhythm here but the four hours on duty, four off seems to have fallen by the wayside as Saturday is a nice day and we’re having a wonderful sail. But, in the back of our minds, we both know that we need to sleep today so we can be up for a shift or two tonight. My friend Jeannie on Estelle talks about the ‘cruiser’s diet’ for those sailors who have an unfortunate bend toward seasickness. I am definitely on the cruiser’s diet now and, after very little to eat other than soda crackers and soup for the last few days, I fantasize about what I’m going to eat when we stop. I also fantasize about making a stop at the first hair salon I see. My hair has been tied up under a toque for two days and two nights and getting twizzled to a friz so I’ve got a really good start on some dreads right now. Either I use a bottle of conditioner or I need to get it all cut off.
After such a wonderful sunny Saturday, now it’s Saturday night and it’s a particularly dark night. The stars come out as scheduled but it’s gotten a little cloudy. We can still see the horizon on our starboard as that is the US east coast lit up. But, the moon is waning and not scheduled to make an appearance until 4 am and, even at that, it will be a very sad bit of light for us.
Saturday midnight we are on a course due south past the fairway buoy off Brunswick, Georgia and I am at the wheel with Blair sleeping down below. Our AIS tells me that there is a container ship, Independence II (a 300 meter car carrier), off to Strathspey’s port on its way to Brunswick and then I hear an exchange on the vhf radio between the captain of Independence II and the pilot boat who is going to drop off a pilot to bring the ship into the Brunswick harbour. They agree on a meeting location (1.5 miles SE of the fairway buoy) and a time (02:22) and, most importantly, that the ship provide a good long ladder for the pilot to climb up to the ship on. So, according to our AIS, Strathspey is definitely on a collision course with this ship but there are extenuating circumstances what with the pilot coming aboard. I hate to wake Blair up as sleep is so critical on these longs overnighters, and I think that we have 2 hours to play with, but I also see that we are traveling at 6.5 knots and Independence II is travelling at 11.7 knots so now I am sure I’d like a second opinion. I call down to Blair… gently… so he won’t think it is an emergency and bolt upright. He gets dressed in his foul weather gear as it is still cold out on the water and comes up into the cockpit. After I explain the situation, we discuss it and then we call Independence II. We want to know if the Captain sees us on his radar – he does. We want to know if he has any instructions for us – none just yet…’hold your course Strathspey and I will call you if there is any change’. So we do. A half hour later, another sailboat calls Independence for confirmation that the big ship can see them which the Captain confirms. 20 minutes later, Independence calls us to say ‘Strathspey, maintain your speed and course, we are turning a sharp starboard at the sea buoy and you should be able to pass in front of me’. It is a leap of faith – faith that this captain knows what he is doing. Independence II turns a sharp right and I say to Blair…’ I can read the name on his boat, we are way too close’. Blair is monitoring our AIS and he sees that we no longer are on a collision course and says that these guys know what they are doing – follow that captain’s instructions. In the dark, everything seems way too close. In the end, we were a good long way away and, as Strathspey motored south and Independence headed upstream to Brunswick, the captain said ‘Thanks for your co-operation Strathspey’.
After Brunswick, we had another four hours south to the entrance to Fernandina Beach and that was when the weather figured we had been way too lucky for way too long. The wind turned east and the waves were on our beam broadside and we rocked and rolled side to side for a good long time. There were the ‘threesome’ waves – a good rock and roll, one–two-three. And then there were the ‘fivers’ – Rock, rock, rock, rock, rock ….then back to normal. We alternated for four hours between easy motoring, the threesomes and then the fivers. Finally we reached the St Mary’s River channel into Fernandina Beach, well marked with many, many red and green lights to show us the way in and we made a hard right and started in. By 6:50 am we were docked at the Fernandina Harbor Marina getting re-fueled, by 7:30 am we were in our slip and by 8:30 we were sleeping like it was our job!
Good friends, Steve and Sandi, who we met five years ago sailing in PEI, stopped in to see us at dock here today. What a great time getting re-acquainted, and re-affirming that our trip south is well positioned. We’re on their ‘flight path’ between their home in St Simon’s, Georgia and their boat, Yonder, in St Augustine, Florida. We’ll have to be careful about spending too much time with them as they keep talking about what a good idea it is for us to follow them south to Mexico on their boat.
So…. here we are – it’s warm, we are in shorts, T-shirts and flipflops and the Espar heater is NOT on! Our cruising friends will be saying ‘ OK, where is Mary and what have you done with her on this two-day overnighter’ but right now, Blair keeps telling me he is really proud of me to have done this, despite my ‘mal de mer’ and I have this great big smile on my face because my feet aren’t cold anymore!!!!