Subtitle: Are We There Yet?... or... Who is Gale? Trip Report 1998
There is an old question. Why do men go to sea? Is it for the adventure ? Is it for the romance? Or, is it for the sense of accomplishment and independence? Perhaps,... but I would like to offer a more likely explanation. The reason men go to sea is to get wet, I mean really wet. And did I mention cold? .... and although not very "nautical"...the term "ride'um cowboy" takes on an entirely new meaning.
Sailors must be prepared. Foulies, safety harness, handheld VHF, GPS, extra batteries, more extra batteries, PFD's, flashlight, watch, sleeping bag....yep, all there!....now for the "important" stuff...Jimmy Buffett tapes, sunblock, shorts, T-shirts, and sandals.....now we're cooking! Ok, throw in a pair of jeans in case it is cool at night....hmmmm, cold weather sailing gloves....naw...heck, it's 80 degrees F on Hartwell Lake. We're ready...let's do it!
On a rainy morning, Dave Cowart and I left the upstate of South Carolina for the coast. We were headed to a coastal marina to meet up with a delivery captain to deliver a sailing vessel to a north eastern US location.
The weather wasn't looking too good. Some severe storms were passing through South Carolina on their way towards the coast. Once there, the low pressure cell driving the storms was supposed to move out to sea and bring in fairer weather behind it by about noon on the following day. Indeed this was the case.....for South Carolina.
We reached the marina late that evening, found the boat and settled our gear onboard the 40 foot vessel. With everything stowed and settled in, we decided to go out and find some dinner. Before dinner, however, we met the neatest couple from Canada. Steve and Carrie. They had experienced some "crew" problems and invited us over for refreshments and to chat. Gosh, these cruisers are the nicest people! Their vessel is named "10 Karat"...or as Steve says... cheap gold. This was the first steel yacht that I had been aboard....she was very nice!
The skipper had spent all of the previous day provisioning the boat. I was convinced that we would eat like kings. The fuel had been topped off, and the water tanks were full. We had charts of the coast and the Intracoastal Waterway, and between the three of us, we had 3 GPS's. All we lacked was a full tank of propane to run the galley stove.
We woke early the next day, ate breakfast and listened to the weather forecasts. Since the weather wasn't supposed to clear until about noon, we elected to delay our departure by a few hours, do a little last minute shopping and fill the propane tank. Then, around noon, we would cast off from the dock and run north along the Intracoastal Waterway until the weather reports improved. Then, as the weather permitted, we would go offshore and catch the Gulf Stream, ride it around Cape Hatteras, and continue to our destination..
As noon arrived, it still looked a bit overcast, so we donned our foul weather gear and set out on the ICW. There was a 15 knot NW breeze so we unfurled the main and motor-sailed at about 6.5 knots through the Carolinas. As we approached Wrightsville Beach and the Masonboro Inlet, it was nearing sunset. The sky was still cloudy but beginning to clear. NOAA Weather Radio was calling for winds out of the north blowing 15-20 knots eventually turning northwest. We decided to go "outside" at Masonboro.
And so it began. As we left Wrightsville Beach behind us in the twilight of the evening, the skies were partly cloudy, the wind was blowing 20 knots (23 mph) out of the North and the seas were running 8 to 10 feet. With the GPS as our guide, our first waypoint was the sea buoy at the eastern reaches of the Cape Lookout Shoals. We steered a course of about 80 degrees, running towards the East and the Gulf Stream. The northerly breeze made for a fast broad reach across the next 65 nautical miles.
The boat was sailing quite well and we had good boat speed at 7.5 to 8 knots even though we had reefed down on the main and genoa by about 25%. It was a nice ride.
We were a crew of three sailing around the clock, so our watch rotation was 2 hours on, 4 hours off. In the cockpit, the night breeze was growing colder, the wind speed was slowly increasing, and the seas were building. As we crossed the shipping channels leading into Moorehead City and Beaufort, we encountered a number of freighters headed to port. We passed between them, quietly in the night, without incident.
By dawn on the second day out, we had rounded the light at Cape Lookout Shoals and were now on a close reach upwind to Diamond Shoals Light off of Cape Hatteras, some 70 nautical miles away at a bearing of 45 degrees. We were in the Gulf Stream now, still making 7.5 to 8 knots boat speed on a close reach. The wind was up between 25 and 30 knots (29-35 mph) and the seas had grown to 15 feet. The boat handled the conditions much better than we did. By this time, every member of the crew had had a bout with seasickness. No one was eating. Water and Gatorade were the meals of the day.
It was becoming a cold, wet ride, and the thought of getting out of that warm sleeping bag, to don all that gear and to go sit in that wet cockpit was becoming less and less appealing. The air temperature during the trip was generally in the low to mid 50's F. The windchill temperature was not pleasant. As we continued toward Hatteras, the conditions worsened. Seas were now running 20+ feet, driven by a sustained wind of 35 knots (40+ mph), gusting to just under 50 mph, out of the North. The Gulf Stream was moving backward at over 5 knots. Freighters were lying a hull to the seas and riding out the storm. By midnight, we had reached the light at Diamond Point but we were going no further. The boat was making 8 knots through the water but our speed over ground on the GPS was barely 2 knots. We were going nowhere fast, we had 35 knots on the nose, we were in a gale, in the fog, in the Gulf Stream, and we were tired. We had clearly sailed directly into the center of a stationary low pressure cell. As later research would prove, we were at the Cape near the peak of the storm....for many hours sailing into 35+ knots (40+ mph) of North wind, close hauled, as the Gulf Stream attempted to flow north. Poseidon had shown us he still had teeth. With these conditions, including the fog, we knew that we would not likely be seen...or to see....the freighters. We turned about and headed back to Cape Lookout Light with hopes of making landfall at the closest inlet, Moorehead City.
With the boat on a broad reach and the seas following, we covered the distance back to Cape Lookout Light in only 8 hours, where it had taken us 12 hour the day before. It was now the morning of our third day out, we were headed for a sheltered harbor, but it still was not to be our day. Poseidon wasn't finished with us. The wind was still blowing 35 knots and the seas were still running 20 feet. Dave was moving across the salon towards the companionway steps when the wave hit. The boat shuddered under the impact. He was launched across the salon, landing in the navigators settee with feet flung over his head. Yes, we had taken a knockdown. As the boat righted and Dave rolled back onto his feet, he noticed that the microwave from the galley had missed him by only a couple of inches. It was lying shattered at his feet. As Dave looked out of the companionway, he could see that the cockpit was awash, however everyone was o.k. At that time I had the helm and had quickly gone from the starboard side of the vessel to the port side of the vessel. My safety harness tether was stretched tightly from the jackline on the starboard side. It happened so fast in the dark of the night. There is no doubt that without the fastened safety harness I’d have gone overboard and would probably not have been here to co-author this report. Over the next many hours these rogue waves would continue to hit us periodically from abeam. Although the waves were consistently running at 20+ feet, there were walls of water that just had to be double that height....at least at this point, they sure looked it.
During most of the trip, sleep had been impossible, in fact, rest had been impossible as the boat crashed and fell from atop the waves. One moment I would be lying in the berth, the next moment airborne for what seemed like an eternity, only to crash hard on the berth as the boat fell from the wave and shuddered. This was the routine. Fatigue was beginning to take it’s toll. Of course it was night at the time of this knockdown, but there seemed to be little difference in the darkness of the day and that of the night. From our viewpoint there was no sun and moon. It was just dark and darker. We had put on all of the clothing that we had brought aboard just to stay warm.
Unfortunately, there was no way we were going to make it into Moorehead City. From the Cape Lookout Light we would have to sail some 25 nautical miles dead to windward and we had proven last night that we couldn't do that. So we took the only choice we had left. Masonboro was another 65 nautical miles on a broad reach. While none of us savored the idea of another 10 hours at sea or making landfall at midnight, it was a harbor we could reach. The delivery wasn't going to happen. We headed for Masonboro. We were now close enough into shore to pick up some chatter on the VHF. The Coast Guard was advising of gale conditions along the Outer Banks and Cape Hatteras. They were also looking for a sailboat overdue on a passage between Little River and Hatteras. Imagine that.
The further we sailed toward Masonboro, the better conditions became. The wind slowed from 35 to 25 knots (29 mph), still out of the North. The seas calmed to only about 15 feet and our spirits began to rise. It was a good time to meet the US Navy. The aircraft carrier Guam and its support vessel the Providence informed us that they were actively engaged in launch and recovery exercises and were restricted in their ability to maneuver. They were obliged to hold a course to windward and requested that we change course to pass astern. We told them our sad tale of 50 hours fighting the gale off Hatteras and of our strong desire to make Masonboro Inlet without having to sail to windward. The Guam's response was that of understanding, "We will make 15 knots for the next 20 minutes. You should be able to pass astern us without difficulty. Best of luck with your landfall at Masonboro." Within minutes, those two motionless monsters on the horizon, sprang to life and crossed in front of us. Two hours later, in the late evening, the lights of the aircraft were still visible as they buzzed about the Guam.
Finally, the glow of Wrightsville Beach began to fill the clouded sky. Our destination was in sight! As the boat approached the sea buoy at Masonboro inlet, as if on cue, the clouds cleared and that full moon whose face we had not seen in 2 days, lit up the scene as if it were daylight. Did I say “as if on cue”? I think not. The same God to whom we prayed gave us the light that we needed....when we needed it. He was with us throughout this voyage, keeping us from harm’s way....lest we *never* forget that.
I guess it was my lucky day as I again had the helm. At midnight, we entered the channel at Masonboro Inlet, managed to stay off of the jetty, dodged a harbor dredge and began to motor down the ICW, using a spotlight to find the daymarks and paying close attention to the depth. We were not going to deliver the boat, but we had made it. We were safely in the waterway and we were on our way back to where we had started. As we motored along the Cape Fear River, we heard a VHF Security Broadcast from an inbound Coast Guard Cutter. They had that missing sailboat in tow, her crew exhausted.
So, they had made it and so had we. We had spent 58 hours at sea, 45 to 50 of which were in gale conditions. We had logged close to 400 nautical miles on a delivery to nowhere. We had rounded Cape Hatteras twice, destroyed a microwave, and convinced the US Navy to yield the right of way on the high seas. But most importantly, when the situation grew dire, we kept our heads, we found a reserve of willpower we didn't know we had, and we found we had a new appreciation for those thing that are important in life.
We anchored the boat and we slept.
Post Script: We know that sailors weather these conditions and far, far worse. This story was not to imply that there was any heroism or that there was any superhuman effort that others could not have done as well or better. There was just something about being "out there," just the three of us, on a small sailing vessel in a gale. The enormity of the ocean and the power of nature is awesome. It is just *our* story, *our* experience and we wanted to share it.
Furthermore, we were well aware of storm tactics that we could have used, such as heaving-to or even delaying the trip by a few days; however, our schedule did not permit us to delay or to ride the storm out. Sometimes "schedules" and "prudence" conflict. In the big scheme of things and with the information we had available at the time, we believe that we made the right decisions. Besides, if we had delayed the trip, we would probably have gotten too much sun....and listened to too much Jimmy Buffett.....and......
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