A Trip Up the Coast
Hi there! It’s been nearly two weeks since our last post. Yeah, we’re slackers. Actually we’ve been up to something pretty awesome, which I’m about to lay out in this post, so get ready!
We’ve been… wait for it… sailing a boat up the east coast on a delivery from Fernandina Beach, FL back to Annapolis, MD. That’s 6 days and 550 nautical miles of off shore sailing. Not bad for a couple of liveabords who, just a year ago, knew basically nothing about sailing. Ah-mazing.
So, how the heck did we get here? Matt had been on two previous off shore deliveries on boats whose owners are customers of his company. He’s come back both times raving about how cool it is out there on the ocean, so I had been dying to get in on the action too. I figured getting the experience would be a great way to prepare myself mentally for when we throw off our own lines and head South. Our experience on the ICW was one thing, but off shore – as in 60 miles from land, in the middle of the Atlantic – is quite another. So, when an opportunity came up we jumped onboard (pun intended!). We were excited to sail not only with each other, but along with our friends Tim & Mischelle, who had cruised the Caribbean years before and were looking forward to cultivating their sea legs once again.
For the next five days we would be calling, Odyssey, a 36′ Beneteau sailboat home. I’ve been getting quite used to the comforts of our catamaran over the past year, so spending the next few days in a monohull would be a new challenge. Not only is it about half the space (12′ beam vs 23′ beam), but it sails very differently from our boat, and I anticipated I’d be spending the next few days living on an angle while getting tossed around at the mercy of the ocean. Fun times.
Matt & Tim flew down to FL the day before to get the boat prepped and to do the provisioning, so when Mischelle and I arrived the next day we were ready to go. I thought I would be more nervous than I was… I knew the ocean was no joke and it would be an intense few days, but I was with three experienced sailors (ha – yes, I’m including Matt), and I was looking forward to the time to pick Tim & Mischelle’s brain as to how we would need to prepare for our own trip South someday. And we are planning our “someday” to come sooner rather than later!
Day 1: As we were preparing to leave the marina, the sky began to darken and a storm rolled in from the coast. It was looking pretty ominous, but the forecast was calling for clear skies right off the coast, and Tim assured us that once we reached open waters it would dissipate. We passed a salty looking sailor on the dock who told us that the storm was packing 60mph winds and dime sized hail. Odd, since the guys had been monitoring weather all day and they weren’t seeing anything that could validate his epic forecast. We thought about postponing a few hours to pay it safe, but decided against it since every other source – aside from our new friend – was showing it breaking up once we were in the ocean. People and their opinions…I guess it’s the same no matter where you’re at. We headed out to sea around 5pm and, as predicted, the storm cleared up and we were rewarded with an awesome sunset and a dolphin escort!
The first night was pretty uneventful. Since we were out in the ocean, we didn’t have the option of anchoring and would spend the nights taking shifts at the helm. There’s really not much to do since the auto pilot was doing most of the navigating, except for watch for other boats and monitor the wind. Auto pilot really is the best thing ever. (I made a note to give our a tune up and/or whisper sweet nothings to it when we returned so that it keeps working hard for us).
We divided the shifts into two hour slots, with one person being ON (aka acting as El Capitian) during their slot, and the other person there for back up (or to keep said Capitian awake).
10-12: Deanna ON / Matt as back up
12-2: Matt ON / Deanna as back up
2-4: Tim ON / Mischelle as back up
4-6: Mischelle ON / Tim as back up
By 6am, Matt & I would migrate to the cockpit to relieve Mischelle & Tim and to enjoy the awesome sunrises you can only see out in the middle of the ocean at such an ungodly early hour. I’ll admit, it was pretty tough the first night to stay awake. I tried reading, but that made me even more tired. Listening to music helped a bit, as did staring up into the brightly lit night sky to see the stars, and the small patches of stars and space you could just make out beyond the stars. The sky really is amazing out there with nothing around to spoil the view. I discovered Luminosity – an app that has a bunch of simple games on it to keep your brain alert – which really helped too. I played a game that gives you basic math problems to solve – 2+5, 17-3, etc – and was briefly stumped when I got a simple division problem. It took me a second or two to recognize what the heck the symbol was. I blame that one on the brain fog and not my intellectual capabilities.
Day 2: We woke up the next day to another unexpected treat – we were in the Gulf Stream and the water was this unbelievable blue color. Matt’s tried to describe this color to me from his past two trips, but it’s definitely something you need to see in person to appreciate. I like to think it’s all of that pristine water from the Caribbean that's being pulled up the coast that makes it so blue. Another bonus was the extra few knots of speed we had gained by hopping in the stream. We were cruising along at over 5 knots in light wind.
Seeing water that beautiful makes it hard to go back to the milky waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Yuck.
We spent the day mostly reading, talking about boat life, spotting the occasional dolphin, and playing an epic game of Scrabble in which I actually beat Matt. Our motion sickness meds were working just fine and no one was feeling the least bit queasy.
Matt & Tim put out a fishing line in hopes of catching some dinner, but the only thing they caught was a patch of seaweed that snagged the line. Whomp Whomp. No fresh fish for dinner tonight.
Day 3: More of the same. More reading, more Scrabble, more chatting. Mischelle did some watercolors…. she really is an amazing artist. She finished this watercolor of one of the Wailers (as in Bob Marley & the Wailers) from a picture she took at a concert in about 15 minutes.
I was struggling to get used to the motion of the boat, which was waaaay more violent underway on this monohull than our catamaran ever is. Just trying to cook was a feat in itself, with the stove gyroscoping wildly back and forth and the dishes sliding across the countertop. I really wish I would have taken a video of that. It was pretty wild. I decided that our meals would NOT require cooking unless I wanted to risk getting a face full of flame, which I did not. Sandwiches all around!
We caught a fish that day! A mackerel! Matt pulled it in and dumped a Bud Light down it’s gills to sedate it and keep it from thrashing around in the cockpit even more. Sorry for the gruesome pic below. Matt cleaned it right there on the back of the boat and I marinated the filets for dinner the next night (which went against the no cooking rule outlined above, but I figured that since catching a fish was such a rare occurrence, it would be worth the face-to-flame risk. That’s true love there, folks).
We ended the day with another beautiful sunset. Makes you realize just how big this world is.
We must have had fish karma, because we caught another fish that night when a tiny flying fish hopped right into the boat! This is exactly two more fish than we have ever caught before in the many fishing attempts on our boat. We threw this one right back though… he was more sardine size than supper size.
That night we had a small issue with the boat. Somewhere around 2am, the engine started sputtering. The RPMs kept falling then rising again, until the engine finally stopped. Not a good position to be in 60 miles off shore with 11,000 feet of ocean under you. The guys got to work and found the fuel filters were clogged with grime, which was starving the engine of fuel. Mischelle and I were in the cockpit, trying to hand steer the boat in 20 knot winds in the pitch dark. Since there was no moon, we couldn’t even make out a horizon line as a reference. Doesn’t everything just sort of all happen at once like that? Talk about an adrenaline rush. Luckily we were back in business within the hour, but the incident left us a bit too wired to go to sleep right away.
Day 4: Matt and I had the 6am morning shift and were feeling pretty rough due to our lack of sleep the night before. We were finally off the coast of Cape Hatteras – our halfway point – and the sea was showing us who’s boss by giving us huge 25 foot rollers that were tossing the boat around like a small pool toy. You can sort of see how wild they were in the video below, which honestly doesn’t even do it justice.
A huge swell would come up behind us, threaten to break over the stern of the boat, pick us up, and we would go surfing down the wave, usually on our side. Over and over again. A few times we dropped so fast, I had butterflies in my stomach like you have on a roller coaster. It felt like each wave would surely sink us – either from swamping the boat from behind, or by tossing us violently on our side and capsizing us. Matt was furiously trying to pick a course that would minimize the violent motion as best as he could, but it was not use – we just had to ride it out. This went on for several hours before it finally settled down. At this point the novelty had worn off and I wanted the hell off the boat. Suddenly, taking the ICW on our trip South didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.
When the sea leveled out, a few hairy hours later, we were actually able to do some decent sailing. We spent the better part of the afternoon cruising along at around 7 knots, with the boat heeled over on it’s side the entire time. Take note of the horizon line in the picture below…. the camera wasn’t at an angle… that was the angle of the boat. Our catamaran doesn’t sail this way, so it took a little getting used to. I was perched top side looking down on everyone else and getting a serious core workout. Good thing I had a light lunch that day or else It may have been more than the sea spray splashing down on everyone below.
We were treated to another beautiful sunset that night and spotted a few more passing freighters to remind us that we weren’t totally alone out there. Four days with nothing but ocean in all directions definitely starts to play with your head a bit.
That night we had engine issues again. Same deal – the fuel filters were clogged – and ironically, at around the same time too. Seems like 2am is the witching hour out there in the Atlantic. The guys think the boat must have had a bad batch of diesel before it left the Bahamas, which was junking up the engine. (Note: make/buy a contraption to filter gas from questionable marinas in the Islands). The guys fixed it again and made another important discovery while they were down there – the fuel tanks only held 20 gallons, not the 30 gallons the owner told us. We had brought along six additional jerry cans holding 5 gallons of diesel each, basing our calculations on a 30 gallon tank. We were running low on fuel and were still a good 20 miles off the coast. Looks like we would have to stop somewhere tomorrow once land was in sight.
Day 5: We woke up to dead calm waters and no wind. Not a good sign, as we were low on fuel and needed to do some sailing today. Another bad sign – a red sky – which according to an old sailor saying, meant bad weather was to come today. Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Noted.
We chugged along most of the morning until finally… Land Ho!! The beautiful NC coast came into view in the distance. Pretty soon we were off the coast of VA Beach and could clearly see the oceanfront condos and sand dunes that dotted the beach. After four full days at sea, this was such a welcome sight. The guys found a marina just past the inlet that we could swing in and refuel before we headed north into the Chesapeake Bay on the last leg of our trip.
About early afternoon, as we were slowly motor sailing towards the inlet, we received an unexpected visit from US Customs and Border Control. You know, just to keep things interesting. We were the only non commercial sailing vessel for as far as we could see, so I guess we were an easy target and/or they were bored cruising the coast ala Miami Vice style. As their boat approached ours, we saw that there were guys from the police, coast guard, and homeland security aboard the boat, which was odd. It was like the United Nations of marine patrols. Two guys boarded and began asking Matt & Tim questions about the boat, which of course, they were stumbling over the answers since it was someone else’s boat. Who knows what the owners had stashed in some hidden compartment before they left the Islands. Matt and Tim scrambled around to try and find the documentation and safety gear that was required as the Customs officials poked around the boat, searching for contraband, illegal immigrants, weapons, or whatever caught their eye.
Meanwhile up on deck, Mischelle and I were at the helm navigating the boat when out of nowhere, came a storm cell bringing wind gusts over 20 knots. Chaos ensued. Suddenly a gust caught our sail and we did an accidental gybe, coming back around and nearly hitting the Customs boat behind us. We were able to regain the boat and point it upwind, but we were all a little on edge after that. I think the officials knew they had outstayed their welcome, and after 20 minutes of questions and light searching, they left our boat, probably laughing at what yahoo’s we were as they sped away. At least they could have offered us some diesel for our troubles. Ugh.
The VA Beach inlet was crowded with commercial tankers and military craft from the local Navy base. We saw a lot more Navy ships than usual, which makes us think they were doing some sort of drill. Either that or sh*t was going down. We made sure to steer clear of them as we navigated thru the inlet and towards the marina to refuel. Matt decided that this would be the perfect time for me to get some experience behind the wheel. It’s like putting a driver’s ed student on the 495 beltway during their first lesson. It’s just going to turn out badly. And it did. After a few minutes of back and forth steering – the wind was so strong I couldn’t hold the course to save my life – a gust caught the sails and we were gybing around in circles again. I’m sure it was an amusing sight to all of those freighters who were anchored in the inlet. So glad I could be their source of entertainment.
We made it to the marina just as the engines began sputtering, indicating we were out of fuel. Talk about cutting it close. What a day this had been already, and it was only late afternoon. The rest of the trip had been relatively uneventful, so all of this action today was pretty chaotic. Welcome back to land. Unfortunately, the adventure wasn’t over yet. Guess the red sky this morning – sailors take warning – was spot on with it’s ominous meaning. The home stretch up the Bay would be the worst leg of the entire trip, with winds at 20+ sustained knots and huge, choppy waves beating into the bow of the boat. It was so bad that Matt & Tim had to take turns hand steering (auto pilot was useless in these conditions) with hour long shifts well into the night. What a homecoming. Who would have thought the weather in the Bay would out rival the ocean? By 4am the weather subsided and the boys finally were able to get some sleep. We were all wrecked, and really excited to get home at this point.
Here’s what the cabin looked like after nearly 12 hours of high winds and violent seas:
Day 6: We were treated to yet another fiery sunrise this morning, but we could care less about the meaning. The chart plotter was showing familiar landmarks and we were counting down the hours until we’d be back on terra firma again. After a night like the previous one, we were just about over it. Mischelle and I sat in the cockpit sipping coffee and listening to a gardening show on NPR via satellite radio (which is another must have, BTW. I got sick of my ipod mix after day 2, and listening to news and public radio really does help pass the time and keep your wits about you).
By 10am we could see the Bay Bridge and by 2pm we were headed towards Jabin’s boat yard, where the boat would be docked and put up for sale. Look at all of the sailboats just off Annapolis… I think we saw about 6 boats the entire trip and there were now hundreds of them right in front of us. Made me want to turn around again and head out towards the peace and solitude of the ocean. I bet you 90% of these day sailors will never experience the trip we just had, unless of course, they’re on a cruise ship which doesn’t count. We got some major street sail cred on this trip, I tell you!
Coming into Back Creek, we took the time to reflect on the trip and celebrate our safe arrival with the last of the beers onboard. It was such a great experience and I’m grateful we were able to share it with such good people. Here’s hoping our next trip off shore will be in our catamaran on the way to the Bahamas for the winter! Cheers!