Between Hurricanes


        The Chesapeake Maritime Museum in Saint Michaels, Maryland invited me to speak at their annual Small Boat Festival and I agreed.  Saint Michaels is six hundred nautical miles north of GANNET’s slip at Skull Creek Marina on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island.  I wanted to sail up.  The problem was that my speaking dates were in early October.  I would be sailing at the height of the hurricane season.

        I prepared GANNET in early September and then I waited.          

        Hurricane Florence was a thousand miles to the southeast

heading for the Carolinas.  A mandatory evacuation was ordered for the entire South Carolina coast, but lifted for Hilton Head just before it was due to go into effect. 

        Florence came ashore early Friday more than two hundred miles to the north and brought only moderate wind and rain to Hilton Head.  Hoping to ride trailing south winds, I waited until Monday morning and pushed GANNET from her slip into a gray dawn.

        The marina is two miles from where Skull Creek enters Port Royal Sound.  I raised sails and cut the Torqeedo, but our speed dropped below two knots, so I turned the electric outboard back on and motor-sailed at three knots to the mouth of the creek, where I removed the Torqeedo and outboard bracket from the transom in smooth water.  A wise decision because the south wind increased to twenty knots apparent, roughing up the sound as we beat our wet way eight miles to open water with three foot waves breaking over the foredeck.    

        Finally we were able to turn ENE and ease sheets, but with the wind SSE only to a beam reach.  GANNET was still taking waves and heeled 30º and the tiller pilot was working too hard, so I put a reef in the main.

        Our route naturally divided into three parts:  Hilton Head ENE to Cape Hatteras 350 miles; Hatteras north to Cape Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake 100 miles; Cape Henry to Saint Michaels north another 100 miles.  I put in four waypoints all well offshore:  off the entrance to the shipping channel into Charleston; the edge of Frying Pan Shoals off North Carolina’s aptly named Cape Fear; the edge of Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras; and Cape Henry.

        Averaging better than six knots, we passed Charleston at 8:00 that night.  Lights of nine ships were visible to the west of us and I knew that on this sail I would never enter the monastery of the sea.  I am a creature designed to go out not along, across oceans not beside coasts.  But this time I would seldom have the ocean to myself, land always on one side, ships on the other.

        After a night of decreasing wind and a rainy morning, the next afternoon saw us pass a mile west of the platform on the tip of Frying Pan Shoals where the video of the American flag being shredded by Florence was taken.  We were in 89’ of water twenty-nine miles offshore.  The contrast couldn’t have been greater than four days earlier.  A pleasant, sunny afternoon.  Ten knots of wind. Two foot waves.  I have been in hurricane force winds at least eight times, but always in deep water far at sea.  I cannot image the waves such wind must create on shoals.

        Another atypical aspect of this sail was that I almost always could receive NOAA weather forecasts on my handheld VHF.  Usually I have no access to outside weather information and look at the sea, look at the sky, and look at the barometer, in each seeking signs of change.  The NOAA forecasts were of mixed value, sometimes being actionable, sometimes causing unnecessary worry.

        The forecast that night, along with the GRIB I had downloaded with the LuckGrib app Monday morning, was unfortunately accurate.  It said the wind would go north on Thursday, heading us, and increase to 20+ knots.

        That and three ships passing to the east caused me to gybe to port at sunset, putting distance between us and the ships and getting GANNET as far north as possible before the wind shift, which came at 8:45 and began an almost sleepless night.

        As I gybed the little sloop back to starboard, lightning flickered to the west.

        Light, fluky wind had me standing in the companionway trimming sails every half hour or so, until at 10:00 PM I noticed that the sky to the southwest was pitch black and realized the thunderstorms were moving toward us.  I barely had time to furl the jib to a scrap before they hit with a brief burst of 25-30 knot wind, followed by blinding rain, and a half hour of close lightning strikes and deafening thunder.  Back in the Great Cabin I listened to big drops of rain splatting on the deck.

        When the rain eased, the wind went light and fluky. 

        In foul weather gear I went on deck and unfurled the jib.  Because I didn’t know if all the thunderstorms had passed, I left the reef in the main.  Spectacular lighting flashed through black sky ahead.

        Constant wind shifts kept me awake until 1:00 trimming sails, and had me up again for good three hours later.

        The next morning the wind finally increased to ten knots and settled on the beam. 

        I was down below in the Great Cabin enjoying the settled sailing when I was suddenly startled by a tremendous roar.  I leapt to the companionway to find a military jet streaking overhead and two ships to the east.  Definitely not the monastery of the sea.

        While sitting on deck that afternoon I noticed a demarkation of water, a clear line between light blue and dark green.  As we passed over it our speed decreased by a knot.  We had just left the Gulf Stream.

        That night the wind veered from NNW to NE in a minute, backing the jib and activating the tiller pilot off course alarm. 

        I went on deck and got us sorted out close-hauled on a port tack, parallel to the coast and unfortunately heading out toward the shipping.  The night, then lovely with silver light on the water from a gibbous moon, Venus and Jupiter in the sky astern, would prove to be another of limited sleep.

        The wind quickly increased as predicted and by 10 PM  GANNET was pounding into waves.  From the companionway I repeatedly furled the jib deeper and deeper.

        Usually I maintain my passage log in my MacBook, but the next   day so much water was coming into the cabin despite the spray hood I did not dare remove it from its waterproof case.  Later I discovered that the middle toggle securing the side of the hood had broken enabling water to get under it.  I recorded our noon position in pencil in a notebook with waterproof paper.

        My breakfast was a protein bar.  Mixing my usual uncooked oatmeal and trail mix was far too difficult.  My dinner was another protein bar.  I did manage to have a can of chicken and crackers and dried apricots for lunch.

        I tacked from port to starboard at down when we were 35 miles ESE of Cape Hatteras.

        It was a day of brutal beauty.  Wind 20 to 25 knots, gusting 30.  Dark blue sea.  Six foot white crested waves slamming into and over GANNET.  GANNET’s white deck and sails.  Boat speeds of 7 and 8 knots between waves.

        I spent some time on deck, braced with my legs and hanging on with both hands.

        Ships were often near and one diverted course for what I felt was a too close look at the little sloop.  Perhaps he wanted to see if we needed help.  We didn’t.

        An hour after sunset the wind eased to less than twenty knots and veered to the east as predicted.  Easing sheets made life aboard tolerable again as we beam reached north ten miles off the Outer Banks.

        I left the reef in the main and the jib deeply furled the next day.  We could have carried full sail, but there was no point.  We were not going to make Cape Henry before sunset and I wasn’t going to enter the Chesapeake at night.

        As we ambled along in pleasant sunshine, foul weather gear, food bags and cushions dried in the cockpit.

        Just before sunset I decided to heave to fourteen miles south of Cape Henry,

        In light wind, I brought GANNET’s bow into the wind to come about and the boom fell off the mast.  This happened once before in the Indian Ocean in the middle of the night.  The nut comes off the bolt holding the boom to the mast fitting.  I had used LockTite on that nut.  Still it came off again.  With minimal hassle I managed to get everything  back together in the easy conditions.  I even still had some daylight in which to work.

        A rigger advised me to use a bolt instead of a Clevis pin at the gooseneck.  It has been bad advice and I will return to a Clevis pin.

        I managed to get some sleep unit 1:30 AM when then twenty miles SSE of Cape Henry with 7 or 8 knots of wind from the SW, I untied the tiller, gybed and headed in.

        I had thought I might get back to sleep for an hour, but I didn’t.  More than a dozen ships were slowly circling, waiting to enter the bay.

        First light Sunday morning found GANNET sailing fast just off Cape Henry and toward a plethora of buoys marking multiple shipping channels, regulation zones, and shoals significant to shipping but not GANNET.

        The Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel  crosses the twelve mile wide mouth of the Chesapeake.  Most of it is a causeway not far above water level which dips into tunnels at two places to enable ships to pass.  I headed for the northern opening.  According to the current tables in Aye Tides, we had a knot of current against us, but we sailed easily through at 5 knots.  The second phase of the sail was complete.  Saint Michaels was now a hundred miles north.

        NOAA weather gave a Small Craft Advisory for Monday with east wind 20-25 knots, gusting 30, 5’ waves and rain, so I worked my way twenty miles northwest to Mobjack Bay on the Virginia side and anchored to wait it out.

        The wind and rain came and went as predicted.

        I woke at 6:00 AM Tuesday morning to a starry sky and a light east wind. 

        I raised the mainsail and the anchor, unfurled the jib, and by 6:20 we were gliding out of Mobjack Bay at three knots.

        I expected to day sail the remaining distance to Saint Michaels.

        I didn’t.  A full moon and my tendency once I start sailing to keep going prevailed.

        After a sunny, light wind, hatches open day, sunset found us two miles west of Smith Island.  A partial rainbow was to the east.  Six pelicans  in a line glided silently past at boom level, and as GANNET glided nearly silently north at four knots in five to six knots of wind  I decided to keep going.

        I got snatches of sleep sitting at Central. 

        I set alarms at various times, but always woke before they went off.

        I saw five ships pass.  None close.

        The wind remained light and at dawn we had thirty miles to go.

        Saint Michaels is on the east side of a peninsula, requiring a nine mile leg to the northeast before a final twisting five miles south.

        I mounted the Torqeedo on the stern, but tilted it out of the water before at 2 PM we made the turn south and started beating into a stiff south wind. 

        The last two miles to Saint Michaels are complicated by a shoal that can be passed east or west, then a basin of deep water, before a final narrow channel that is in places less than ninety yards wide. 

        Bright sunlight reflecting on the water made it impossible for me to locate buoys.  I had my iPhone with me in the cockpit and followed the course toward them shown on the iSailor chart, glancing repeatedly at the depthfinder, and eventually the buoys appeared as promised.

        I went west around the shoal in two tacks, but I was too tired to short tack the narrow channel and lowered the Torqeedo and whirred the last mile and a half.

        I had been told to take any empty slip at the Maritime Museum and ready to secure my dock lines turned into one where I found to my surprise and consternation that the museum docks do not have cleats, a first in my long and varied experience of the sailing world.  Fortunately we were sheltered from the wind and I was able to loop the lines around pilings.

        We had covered a hundred miles in thirty-three hours, six hundred miles in nine days, two of them at anchor, with many more sleep deprived nights than ocean passages thousands of miles longer.  I was a tired old man.

        The next day I explored the museum and Saint Michaels.

        For anyone with interest in boats, Chesapeake Bay and how men made their livings from its waters, the Chesapeake Maritime Museum is a fabulous place, with boats and exhibits inside and out and a lighthouse visitors can enter and climb to the top.

        To my eye one of the prettiest boats is ELF, built in 1888 and said to be the oldest active racing yacht in America.  I saw her go out on a Sunday race my first weekend at the Museum.

        Saint Michaels is a small, charming town, whose main street is tourist oriented and whose quiet side streets are lined with beautifully restored and maintained old houses and brick sidewalks.

        However Saint Michaels has some odd limitations.

        There is only one small grocery/liquor store and no place to do laundry.  Am I the only sailor ever to arrive with wet, dirty clothes?

        The nearest laundromat is ten miles away in Easton.  An inexpensive shuttle goes there, but Carol was flying in the weekend of the Small Boat Festival and would have a rental car, so I let my clothes fester.

        The Small Boat Festival was scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, but boats began to be trailored in a few days earlier.

Many of them were beautiful. 

        The Mississippi artist Walter Anderson believed that the distinction between artist and artisan is false.  I do too.  To built a boat in wood is to create a poem.

        The Small Boat Festival did the impossible:  it turned me into a big boat owner.  GANNET was the longest boat on G Dock.  She also had the least freeboard.  What?  I thought.  Do these people want to stay dry?

        I gave my talks, which seemed to be well received.  Carol flew home.  GANNET and I were ready to sail south.  And Hurricane Michael came ashore and headed toward us.  I began to wonder if GANNET is a hurricane magnet.

        The still strong remnants of Michael were due to pass the south end of the Chesapeake Thursday night.  I considered waiting it out at Saint Michaels, but I had developed a mild case of my self diagnosed and named malady captiaterraphobia, fear of being trapped by land.  In Saint Michaels I was surrounded by land in all directions and a hundred miles from the open ocean.  I decided I could find a safe anchorage before Michael arrived, said good-bye, and left Tuesday morning in a flat calm.

        I did not get far.

        Glassy water and near calm conditions had me chasing the slightest breath of wind all day.  At 4:30 PM dead in the water, I gave up and dropped anchor almost a mile off the shore, having covered all of nine miles since leaving the dock.  There was no shelter where I anchored, but we didn’t need any.  It was as smooth as the most perfect harbor.

        A light breeze blowing through the open hatches woke me at 4:30 AM.  We had several miles to go before reaching the main part of Chesapeake Bay.  In darkness broken by stars and a a few lights on the shore, I raised sails and anchor.

        The wind lasted for a mile, then died.  GANNET drifted until wind returned from the west and for a change her bow wave gurgled.

        At 3 PM I anchored twenty miles to the south and five miles up the Little Choptank River in 10’-12’ of water two hundred yards off the north shore.   NNW winds 35-40 knots, gusting higher, were forecast for the following night.

        Somehow the area around Savannah and Hilton Head has pre-empted the name Low Country, but the east coast is low for a thousand miles.  I am not aware of a coastal hill south of New Jersey.  The shores of the Chesapeake look exactly like Hilton Head.  Tall trees.  A few scattered homes.  Flat.

        Lots of birds.  Pelicans, terns, gulls.  And I saw a crab swim past.

        Several boats were working the river.

        Thursday was a quiet day at anchor.

        That afternoon I made my final preparations.

        I tied a line around the clew of the jib so it could not possibly unfurl.

        I put shock cords on halyards to prevent them rattling against the mast.

        And I let out thirty more feet of rode, for a total of 150’.  While I prefer to anchor on all chain, one of the advantages of mostly line rodes is that line is so easy to bring back in that I do not hesitate to let out more.  GANNET’s rode is 20’ of ¼” chain and 200’ of ½” plaited nylon line, which has a breaking strength of 6000 pounds, enough to lift the little boat three times.

        Rain drove me below while I was having a sunset drink on deck.

        I went to sleep at 9 PM.

        Wind woke me at 3 AM, gusting 37 knots and pushing GANNET around,  but there were no waves and she remained mostly level.  That was the highest wind I saw before I went back to sleep.

        Friday the wind continued to blow in the twenties.  None of the local boats worked the river.

        In misty rain I sailed off the anchor at first light Saturday morning, down the river, and turned south out in the bay.

        A Small Craft Advisory was in effect and it was accurate.  But the 20-25 knot wind was behind us and provided great sailing.

        The little sloop flew south.

        The mouth of the Potomac River is a surprising six miles wide, far wider than the Mississippi River at Saint Louis.  I was headed for an anchorage just inside the north side of that mouth.

        As we neared the river at 4 PM I lowered the mainsail, partially furled the jib, and moved the anchor and rode deployment bag onto the foredeck, tying the anchor to the pulpit so it could not fall overboard accidentally.  A good move because as we turned into the river we were stopped dead by 4’ waves like saw teeth, straight up and down.  They broke over the bow and swept the deck.  I instantly knew that anchorage was not going to happen  and that another all nighter was, and turned south.

        Again I got some sleep sitting at Central, counting the hours to dawn, but was continuously awake after 3 AM when I had to weave our way through a fleet of anchored ships awaiting dock space.

        The wind had decreased, so we slipped almost silently across bows looming high above us and along side brightly lit hulls.  I thought of how different the experience of the sea is of those on board than is mine.

        I had timed our arrival at the bridge/tunnel for dawn, and at dawn there it was two miles ahead.  I had been sailing under jib alone and now raised the mainsail.

        Again I headed for the northern break.

        A ship came out of Norfolk heading east for the southern break.

        As the sky brightened I watched cars and trucks move along the causeway and disappear as they descended into the tunnel.

        At 8 AM GANNET sailed through the gap and happiness washed over me as waves so often have.

        I had enjoyed visiting the Chesapeake, my time at the Museum, the Small Boat Festival, seeing friends again, but those waters are not mine.   Although we would turn south and follow the coast back to Skull Creek, there was quiet satisfaction in knowing that the nearest land ahead was three thousand miles distant.