Tranquility rests in the wide anchorage, dressed in her full cruising gear, hanging from a 22lbs Bruce anchor clawed into the seabed. Bed cushions, laundry and anything that would benefit from the touch of the hot Bahamian sun and the fresh airs are out on deck or hanging from the lifelines. The wind-scoop (a spoon shaped nylon chute) hovers on top the front hatch funneling the breeze into the cabin, while the boom tent increases the shade surface on the deck and shields the cockpit from view.
The wind generator spins happily, replenishing our motor’s battery bank. At its side, the solar panel chugs the photons that hit its surface and sends them down below, where our electronics line up on the chart table to receive the precious juice. Charles Vane, our faithful wind vane self steering apparatus, hangs folded up on the stern. He is off duty, and probably dreams about the times when he was a feared pirate. The white dinghy bobs around in the wavelets just few feet off the stern, secured to the mother ship by a black painter line.
This is a typical scene that recurs every time we reach a new anchorage where we plan to spend few nights. We are in Allen’s Cay (or Allan’s Cay, depending on who you ask), a beautiful island in the Northern Abacos. The reason for our stay, beside the obvious experience of the marvelous nature in this uninhabited island, is a dab of strong easterly winds that are supposed to blow for a couple of days with peaks at 25 knots. Allen’s Cay is well sheltered from all the weather coming from the Eastern quadrant, so it checks both leisure and safety boxes.
We are traveling SE so every time the weather shows its angry face either from the E or the S we have to take a knee. Tranquility is happy to beat upwind. Us not so much, especially when the winds exceed 15 knots. We can handle and endure everything below that but we don’t put ourselves voluntarily into the business of making upwind progress when the breeze is too brisk.
Because of stronger winds we have to stay put for a couple of days and we would have to do the work of snorkeling, forage for conch and fish as well as taking care of never ending repairs and upgrades.
This waiting time is filled with interesting activities. We dug out our entire food supply for inspection, cleaning, inventory and organization purposes. We finally learned what we hoarded in weeks of constant access to groceries store. We are well off for a long time and we just need to get few perishables along the way and harvest the rest ourselves from the ocean.
Kate also caught three small fishes, which I quickly cleaned, scaled and cooked. They appeared to be small Whitebone Porgies and they were delicious. It reminded me of the simplicity of the life I was living in Venezuela and Panama, where most of the commodities where scarce, but where very little was needed at the same time.
For long our plan of sailing exotic destinations has been put under salt for many reasons. Little by little we removed our impediments and finally set our course South.
We departed Brunswick on Monday 24th and made it only as far as New Smyrna Beach, FL, a mere 120 miles away. We transited the Ponce de Leon Inlet right at sunset and dropped anchor in a random shoal just off the ICW.
The reason for such a short hop was health. Both of us felt pretty sick, not only for the crazy motion of our small craft but also for something that we ingested pre departure. I spare you the recounts of symptoms and experiences of this illness, nothing pretty. Without some disappointment we had to make the call to pull over and anchor, to heal and re-gather strength.
We sail a primitive boat, with limited auxiliary power so everything we do has to be timed with favorable weather conditions. Weather is a Master we have to obey.
We had such favorable conditions at the beginning of this week in the form of 15-20 knots blowing from the West allowing us to move South along the Florida coast and reach a favorable hop spot to Bahamas. We could have made it not stop in three days, but we decided nothing good could come from keeping at sea in our sick condition.
Now that we blew this weather window we may have to wait quite a bit. We felt pretty bad about it, as rookies who can barely handle discomfort. It was a tough call, especially knowing what the weather had prepared for us and what is showing for the next days.
Even if our current status is not what our imagination envisioned we are indeed “on the road” in a place we have never intended to visit as often happened before. Our Master will decide how long we will have to stick around and what will be next for us.
Among the many projects we are hurrying to complete there is one that concerns our security while at anchor or when we leave the boat to go ashore.
In our world without air-conditioning, the possibility to lock ourselves in when we go to sleep and still be able to have some airflow from what is the biggest opening we have is a big advantage.
Beta likes to roam on deck when possible and we want him to be able to go in and out of the boat even when we are not onboard. On the other hand, in warm climates it’s good to be able to leave the boat locked while letting air in and out. It makes a more comfortable boat at our return and also it avoids that Beta gets baked in the process.
I followed the concept that James Baldwin’s developed for his boat Atom to design our anti-intrusion bars. Here is a picture of the bars he built from his website.
We made some changes to the design to make it more simple to build and less expensive overall. The bars go in place of two of the three drop boards that locks the companionway. The top drop board sit atop and locks the companionway, and they all slide into solid stainless steel tracks that I installed back when I rebuilt the companionway.
The bars are made of 1/2 inch 316 stainless solid rod bought on Buymetal.com and sent from Pennsylvania, which makes Kate even prouder as she is originally from Steel Country.
The construction took 3 hours and James helped with the welding and the use of his equipment and power tools. I have to say that metal construction is fun, exciting and very useful. I look forward to polish my skills in this subject.
Well, to be precise we are back to one of the places from where we started. Our sailing trajectories often look like orbits and a big point of attraction is Brunswick Georgia.
Brunswick is where we stopped longer than anywhere else so far on our Tranquility tour. Incidentally, Brunswick is also where I lived the longer since I left Italy.
The perfect excuse to come back was the participation to the 1 Day Play, a theatrical event in which we took part two years ago when we were regular residents. We had such fun and gathered so much positive energy in that event that when we heard the call for writers, directors and actors we could not resist.
In the last edition Kate acted and I wrote one of the plays. The leopard does not change his spots, and so we did the same again.
As the name implies the 1 Day Play happens during a 24 hours span: producers, writers, directors and actors all meet Friday evening, bringing random props and costumes with them. The producers Evy and Emmi shared a schedule that would guide the efforts of everybody to be ready on stage at 7 pm on the very next day, having written, directed, rehearsed and produced the six short plays, just 22hours after the first meeting.
At 10pm I joined the group of six writers in the Old City Hall to write a 10 minutes play with three female characters (we had a shortage of male actors). The result was a sci-fi thriller set in a distant solar system where the three characters need to find a way to repair their ship and leave a hostile planet.
I am once again impressed with the magic that I witness in the 1 Day Play. The limited time works like a catalyst in the artistic chain reaction, forcing the writers to a simple and raw script that then get refined by the intervention of directors and actors, who have to do their best with limited time and technical resources. This teaches us an important lesson on how limits become opportunities.
I am thankful to director and actor Betsy who curbed the roughest areas of my dialogues, and Fredi and Jessica for their acting, and to Peggy for coming up with an incredible Jello-Brain!
So as often happen one thing leads to another and after our successful artistic endeavor we found ourself sleeping on our old couches in Susan’s place and varnishing and painting the interior of Tranquility with some nasty paint. We also indulged in eating our favorite food all over town, visiting friends, building safety bars for our boat, and other million entertain
As soon as we got back, we are stuck in a whirpool of maintenance and upgrades, and social life.
This final preparation is important though. We decided we will sail soon away from shore, probably for a long time, and in order to do so we have to build escape velocity to win the pull that this place is exerting on us.
The idea of snorkeling, eating tropical fruit and discovering new places and cultures are equivalent to strong propulsion jets that are helping us knocking out the departure list.
We will reach the point where careful and thorough preparation will become just an exercise of obsessive behavior and resistance to change. That will be the very moment when we will have to push harder and defeat the gravitational pull of comforts, friends and family, and what is known to us and head into something a little different, that we have longed for.
A little more than one week ago we were at anchor in Cumberland Island, enjoying the warm weather and the gentle wind. Mornings are still chilly this time of the year in these Southern lands and seas, but when the sun shows up they climb quickly and make it a wonderful place to be.
We anchored in the north side of Cumberland Island, by the ruins of Cumberland Wharf. Right in front of the stumps left from the old pier the water is deep enough for us to be still floating at low tide. Unfortunately it is a not very protected anchorage and can only be used with wind from the E or the S. That prevented us to stop here in other trips, but this time weather was with us and we had a pleasant day and night on the hook.
Kate wanted to take a stroll in this particular area of Cumberland Island to see the first African Baptist Church, built in this settlement in 1893. A beautiful forest, with many trees down from recent tropical storms, surrounds the Settlement, so thick that it is almost impossible to cross out of the only road that is built in the area. We disturbed peaceful armadillos, looked at wild horses from a safe distance, picked up juniper berries, while walking through the forest.
There is a need for loneliness and remote areas that has a profound effect on me. It must have something to do with my feet, which are my main form of transportation right now. In quiet an unobstructed places early mornings became my treat retreat. No internet connection means freedom from constant feed and social media. It calms my urge to express quick and shallow thoughts.
Places like this have a restorative effect. There is nothing wrong with people, but I don’t particularly like what is built for people. Roads, parking lots, concrete surfaces, they all bring clutter and negative vibes. They all serve a purpose: take you fast and comfortably to a place where you can spend money.
In the morning I usually take some time before making coffee to write whatever comes out of my mind, without a specific aim. Then I make coffee and continue with writing or reading as I wait for Kate to wake up. It is my only private moment aboard Tranquility. Kate usually enjoys the same privilege at night when I crash earlier than her.
There is an article about Tranquility’s refit coming up in the May issue of Good Old Boat Magazine. I’ve been in touch with the editor working on few details of the story and pictures. It makes me feel a little like a professional, the exchange of information back and forth, the check coming into the mail, the editing process. I am trying to read and write better, with more intensity, and focus. I am not sure if I could ever make a living out of it, it should be nice indeed. Writing itself stabilizes my mood. I become cranky and distracted when I don’t do it enough. So you won’t get rid of me so easily.
After Cumberland Island we sailed with a clear blue sky and enough wind to move consistently toward our destination: St.Marys. I am rather pessimistic when it comes to estimate our progress, especially when we have to use our slow motor. It might not be very powerful but is indeed perseverant, and we sailed quicker than expected to destination. There we reunited with our friend Bill and other people we got to know when we were in the boatyard for a month of hard work. We visited and saw their progress, indeed slow but perseverant. If you keep moving you eventually get there.
Saturday the strong Northerlies kept us at anchor. We tried to make it to Fernandina Beach in the afternoon but the effort was not successful, we couldn’t make way in a bend of the river, where the current and the headwind brought us to a dead stop. We retreated a few hundred feet back and dropped the anchor again, then we waited for the next day when the wind dropped, and started to move timing the tides, ebbs and flow, trying to get to the inlets at low tide to use the next flood.
Again, with the use of sails and motor we did remarkably well and we darted through the marshes of Florida’s barrier islands, a journey made of dolphins encounters, birdwatching, fighting the currents and the shoals. My mind that usually see the darker picture, predicted that we would have to stop in Amelia Island and wait for the next tide the following day. Instead, winds, currents and a little help of the motor when needed, put us all the way past the Talbot Islands to a free public dock in Jacksonville, right before the St.John’s River. There we celebrated, with delicious food and with a dose of spy movies to be precise.
With this unexpected progress, we arrived earlier than I thought to Palm Cove Marina, so Kate could go easily to her doctor’s appointment.
Why am I so pessimistic? My mind often wanders about how to build faith. Not in the religious term, or maybe so, but for me faith means a deep motivation and sense of direction. It’s possible that my interest in psychology comes from a desire to know deeper why faith is so volatile, why, basically, the mind gets in the way of your everyday life, with worries, negative thinking and other sort of anxiety-driven doubts.
Every reduction of this problem to a mechanistic view never really answered my questions. What’s the role of bad thoughts, of second guessing, of self pity? Is it something we can dismiss easily as just wrong or unadaptive or something to cure and eliminate? Is being happy and have a positive outlook to be normal?
These are some big philosophical questions, big crevasses that are hard to fill by knowledge. Depression is real, and it is no joke. It affects everybody, but in peculiar individuals, particularly sensitive ones, it takes an enormous toll and becomes a struggle.
I recently read a little more about one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace. He was clinically depressed. And he was one of the most successful writers of his generation. Eventually he could take no more and committed suicide. I am sure he experienced extreme happiness, an perhaps extreme boredom. I can imagine his life was intense and full under many points of view, with vertiginous highs and bottomless lows.
Looking at people with severe clinical depression makes me withdraw from my self pity and negativeness. I don’t consider myself depressed. I have indeed my moment of darkness, boredom, laziness, cowardice and so on. Still, I look to people that show profound faith and hope with a bit of envy, as an example, or maybe as a myth, because we tend to share only our nice part with others. The undesirable thoughts and behavior are hidden by a curtain of shame. Even there, I look for faults. It seems that people obsessed with Positive Thinking go in a downward spiral because it’s so hard to really be positive all the time. Showing just the positive and shiny parts, they hide the dark ones.
Robert M. Pirsig, who also suffered from severe depression, wonderfully put it in words in an article he wrote for Esquire called “Cruising Blues”:
You can be sure that the same mechanism that makes depression unavoidable also makes future elation unavoidable. Each hour or day you remain depressed you become more and more adjusted to it until in time there is no possible way to avoid an upturn in feelings. The days you put in depressed are like money in the bank. They make the elated days possible by their contrast. You cannot have mountains without valleys and you cannot have elation without depression. Without their combined upswings and downswings, existence would be just one long tedious plateau.
I found that moving slowly, a little bit like Tranquillity, gets you out of any situation. Keep moving slowly and things will get better.
Another disturbance in these day of rest, is the role of fear and attraction. There is a common saying that you fear what you desire. My current fear is thinking about sailing the northern route across the Atlantic. At the beginning of all this it was like a fun idea that Kate and I created once we started our boat project. The scary part at this point is that we might do it. When you start considering that a thing may happen Fear shows up, and it can be paralyzing.
There is this stretch of ocean between Newfoundland, Canada and Iceland called Irminger Sea. Named after a Danish explorer, this part of ocean that borders the East Coast of Greenland is considered one of the windiest of the planet. It is studied by oceanographer because of its peculiar oceanic currents, that sink and resurface, and play a fundamental role in the nutrient cycle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Is that scary? Yes, but it is also exciting, daring, emotional. It’s a place where not many people go. But somebody did, in many different crafts, with the more diverse crew.
Geronimo St. Martin, an Argentinian physician made it solo in a 20 ft fiberglass production sailboat, named La India. He later made it to Norway, Spitzbergen, and the Arctic circle, before turning around to reach Cape Horn, on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.
A family of 5 who call themselves the Coconuts (two adults, three kids, now four with the last delivered while wintering in Iceland) made it on a racing boat in October, not exactly the “right” time of the year.
These examples don’t mean that this is an easy and comfortable trip. But it’s possible.
So why this fear? Because I am scared I am not disciplined enough to cope with potentially severe conditions? Because I think that my body is not strong enough to endure the trouble? That my mind will resolve to panic in a difficult situation? Because it is a place so remote that emergency responder may not get to? For sure, all the above.
Human mind assumes it is more likely to face death attempting that route rather than another one. It may be true but calculating the odds could not be that simple or possible at all, and death has very humorous ways to get to you. Fearing the Irminger Sea is both wise and stupid. Wise because it puts you in the face of a very hostile environment. It’s stupid because any Sea or Ocean is worth respect, and we as sailors should pay the same attention, awareness and preparation every time we go out at sea.
But I am also attracted by novelty, and at this point of my life a tropical beach with bar, wi-fi connections, crowded anchorages, fine dining and warm clear waters is not something that intrigues me anymore. Remote and rugged, quiet and isolated are all adjectives that sound more attractive. There is eternal beauty that waits to be discovered. Even cold assumed a new desirable meaning. The only thing I still can’t go over is cold water. I have a natural, visceral fear and avoidance of cold water. In this Kate is much braver than me.
So what am I really fearing? I am fearing the effort, the amount of preparation it takes, the awareness, and the bare thousands of miles in cold water, fog, strong winds? The fear of failure, that comes from the judgements of others?
I can’t make my fear shut up. Fear is energy. Fear is useful. In this case fear is telling me not to underestimate the task and to be prepared for it. And there is only one strategy that doesn’t work with fear. Avoidance. When you avoid fear you bring it with you for the rest of your life.
Today January 27 is dedicated to San Giovanni Crisostomo. I know that because it brings me back to the stories I heard from my Grandmother Imode. San Giovanni Crisostomo is the protector of the town of Asola, where my Grandmother was born. Every year on this very day the silver torso of the Saint is put on display for the people to honor.
My Grandmother was a great storyteller. She was born ten years before WWII started and she lived through the fascist regime of Mussolini. Particularly she had to endure and participate as other school kids at the time to the events of the Fascist youth organization. During these infamous events , she and her companions would mock secretly the pompous chants and ceremonies of fascist indoctrination. I can’t imagine anything less coming from school kids. A child-like mind it’s the best antidote against fascim.
I also learned from other stories how her brother Vigilio refused to enroll in the army, and hid in the country. The women of the family would bring him food in his hiding spot. Imode had not met her husband Giuseppe at that time. My Grandfather was a little older than her and during the War he joined the Partigiani faction (the resistance army who contributed in fighting the Fascist Regime and their Nazi allies). He and other partigiani were taken as hostage by German troops and released in exchange for safe passage during their retreat through a Partigiani controlled territory. Because he safely made through that dangerous situation I am here alive today.
The collection of her stories was not limited to the the serious and harsh times of the War. She had also plenty of funny and incredible stories told in a combination of mantuan dialect and italian. Today I can still understand perfectly the dialect but for some weird brain circuitry if I try to speak it my Spanish gets in the way.
She told me so many times about St.John’s celebration that one time, roughly twenty years ago, I insisted to go. I was in high school at the time and I had to take a couple of days off to do the trip. After all it was a family event, so skipping school was not a big deal. I was also too young to drive and my Granma never learned to, so we took a train from Milan Central Station, and got picked up by relatives in Asola. I remember reading a volume of Father Brown Mysteries from G.K.Chesterton during the train ride and looking out the windows to the farmland of South Lombardy.
That day 20 years ago, I went to mass with my Granma and observed the Priest and the Major opening the shrine where the torso of the Saint is stored, each with his own key. Then we walked through the busy fair and hang out a bit in town, but the spirit of my Grandmother’s tales was gone. Asola had already lost the magical rural character, agriculture got eventually more dependent on machines and peasants had to find other means for sustain themselves. The service industry was about to be created to absorb them. This is the reason why some 50 years ago my grandparents, moved to the north of Milan to seek employment bringing their two young daughters with them. Urban life and job security took place of the magic tales I used to hear.
In the rural culture this moment of the year was crucial. It’s the end of January, days are starting to get longer and the extended daylight time allows for more working hours in the field. It’s time to get ready for spring, ten days earlier bonfires were made in honor of San Antonio. It’s time to go back and clear the fields, make ashes, prepare for the sowing. Winter’s reach is far from gone and the temperature are still low. In fact, according to another legend the three coldest days of the year (28-29-30 of the month) called “Giorni della Merla” are about to come. But somehow the worst is behind and people look at the upcoming Spring with hope and expectations.
Even if the magic was gone, I always like to go back to Asola, visit my relatives and enjoy the culinary treats of the Mantova region. Everywhere in Italy food is amazing, but I have a little suggestion: next time you go there visit the City of Mantova and the adjacent territory. You won’t be disappointed.
Going back to my grandmothers tales about rural life is in real resonance with this period of the year. Similarly to old times rural culture,life on the boat is dependent on seasons and daylight time. Short days mean for us long night watches when sailing, and shorter work days at anchor. In the morning it is dark and cold it’s hard to get out of bed, and when night comes early it prevent us to do much work other than sitting in the cabin and cook meals.
Today January 27th is also new beginning for us. We are not making any bonfire, or honoring relics, but if feels like a new chapter. We came to Jascksonville to get all squared up with Basic Safety Training. Sea Survival, Fire Fighting, First AID, Personal Safety and Social Responsibility, and we succeeded.
We took care of bureaucracy and established a new domicile. Days are longer and temperatures are mild to warm. The steps to get ready seem infinite, but we keep knocking a few off the list. I can’t wait till there will be only excuses on the list. I am trying to make 2017 a NO EXCUSES year. Wish me good luck!
I am crossing my fingers as I am writing this but it seems we almost made it through the ICW. Almost because we post-poned our departure again, 6 hours from the original idea of leaving right at low tide around 6:30 am.
Here is what happened.
We woke up in Morehead City, NC where we spent few days waiting for decent weather to sail offshore and keep sailing in a general south west direction. Everything was ready from the night before, we just needed to leave the docks, raise the sails and go.
It was 5:45am when I ventured outside heading for the restrooms. The sky was dark grey, rainy and windy, the nervous chop of the bay slapping Tranquility loudly. The temperature was 39F. For as much as I wanted to ride the Northerlies and get past Cape Lookout to finally head straight to the above average warmth of Florida, the scenario of this early start was not encouraging. The drizzle in particular was very disheartening.
Back under the blankets and with coffee in our mugs we held a brief crew meeting (Kate, me and Beta) and all agreed to postpone departure to next high tide with the idea of spending the next six hours napping,taking showers and in general being comfortable.
At first I was a little mad at myself. I considered that a “chicken move”. But then I acknowledged the wisdom coming from Kate and Beta. There is no need to make your life more miserable when you already are sailing in winter on a tiny sailboat.
We should still have a good 24hrs or so of Northerlies, enough to cover the 100 miles that will put us past Cape Fear and on a SW course parallel to shore. Then we expect another blow between Thursday and Friday, a cold front passing through and bringing other strong northerlies. This time the forecast indicates that it’s not going to be as long lasting as this past one, and by then we should also be hugging the SC – GA coasts with milder temperatures compared to North Carolina, which by the way, we are very happy to leave behind.
This North Carolina endeavor has been cold and rainy, with a lot of idle time waiting for the weather to behave properly.
It sure is challenging and rewarding to be able to sail inland waters, ditches and all, but it also very labor intensive and slow. It’s something between a chess game and an endurance race, played against a very capricious opponent.
With our electric motor we belong offshore, and that’s where we are heading.
When I think about our journey I like to think we are on a pilgrimage, even when it’s not clear what is the destination. I may not know the destination of the journey, but I know the sense of it, or at least this is what I tell myself. It sounds more or less like this:
Redesign life through interaction with nature and the discipline of sailing.
On this pilgrimage we are currently in Portsmouth VA, where our Columbia 29 MK1 was manufactured in 1965.
According to advertising material of the time Columbia Yacht Corporation opened its eastern plant in 1964 situated on a nine-acre on 2400 Wesley street in Portsmouth,Virginia. Looking at her now, 51 years after leaving the factory, Tranquility is in a very good shape.
We didn’t want to walk for 1 hour under the rain to visit a site which with all probabilities has completely changed. I feel a little proud of our little boat, still sailing. Sometimes I have weird dreams of making her lighter, without an engine and other “extras”, to enhance her sailing abilities, but then I wake up to reality when I think about boatyard time and realize it’s not time to do that. Not yet, at least.
Tranquility is probably happy to be underway again after two weeks in Hampton VA. The family trips went well and we much enjoyed the time together, the request for the removal of the conditions on my permanent residency is in the mail, heading for Vermont, and we hope for a quick response. Now it’s time to go back to sailing.
The first sail after the break was nice and fast. The boat moved at a good pace down the Elizabeth River pushed by northerlies, surrounded by a surreal vulgar display of power. Aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, hospital ships and other less familiar types were docked or under shipyard care while jets, helicopters, and Command and Control aircraft buzzed around.
We reached the free public docks in Portsmouth, VA where we met a bunch of fellow cruisers docked for the night. It’s coldish, and we are not used yet to be with no heater. Temperatures are expected to plunge further in the next days, so we are moving carefully, using the days that are in the low 40s to stay at anchor and save money, and digging in our sailing budget to dock and use shore power when it goes down to 32 as it will.
It’s our second trip southbound, and for one reason or another, it seems that we can’t avoid to run late and face cold weather again. Days are short and we find ourself in bed after dinner at 7pm and up after 7 when the sun finally comes back. Our sleeping bag and each other’s body temperature are our best allies, even our cat limits his night roaming to snuggle with us and find warmth.
The good thing about it is that we can read a lot, write, cook hearty meals, listen to the radio. Kate and I are playing tug of war over a book titled Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a reportage written by Jeremy Scahill about the use of private contractors for security and military operations in war zones. It’s a bit repetitive in its construction, but it’s dense with truly scary information mostly about what happened in Iraq and in other unlucky places on earth.
Weird enough where we are now it’s only few miles away from Academi‘s (the new name for Blackwater) main facility: 7,000 acres (28 km2) in the Dismal Swamp. There is a canal where Tranquility could sail that runs between Chesapeake, Va to South Mills, NC. Unfortunately the canal is closed after hurricane Matthew created some obstructions on the tight ditch. I guess we will have to delay hearing gunfire until we get to Camp Lejeune.
More than marshes, barrier islands and wide sounds, it’s the military presence (with the colorful addition of their competitors in the private sector) that sadly dominates East Coast landscape by sea, a reminder of America’s strength and beliefs, if someone forgot.
On a lighter note I spent time focusing on the launch of the new website, Psychology of Sailing. I had the opportunity of interviewing few specialists, both in the Psychology and Sailing fields, about this project. I feel that I am researching the topic widely before I can confidently write about it. I forced myself to a deadline, so time is running and soon I have to break this doubts and publish.
To know better the world of live aboard cruisers I am also conducting a survey with the aim of studying a little more the phenomenon. I you know anybody cruising for more than 6 months please ask them to contact me.
If you want to receive the first post and you are interested in following this new website you can subscribe at Psychology of Sailing here. Help spread the word!
Electric vehicles (EV) are the future of light duty vehicle, with some forecast that put internal combustion engines (ICE) to soon be less competitive when compared to EVs. Other experts are more conservative on how soon this is going to happen, but it seems clear that ICE is fated to become obsolete as EVs are “the rational, economic choice”.
But what is the situation with marine electric propulsion? Can small sailboat be propelled by electric motors?
Over the water, the most common form of auxiliary propulsion for sailboats over 25ft is marine diesel engine. This proven technology benefits from many years of successful use and a well established industry of dealers and technical repairs. It’s easy to say that the diesel ICE dominates the market on sailboats. Before owning a boat with electric propulsion, my only experience was with diesel engines and, less often, gasoline outboards.
THE DIESEL BIAS
Diesel fuel has a couple of good features: a high flash point that allows a relatively safe handling and a good energy density that provides satisfying motoring range with limited storage required. Today new, smaller and more efficient units fit easily in every engine room. Marine diesel give a sailboat an extended range under power and enough horse power to face any difficult situation.
When I first faced electric propulsion it was a quirky novelty, something I was not prepared to deal with. The most important discovery was that we all share a diesel engine bias. The common temptation is to approach the topic trying to ask the question if electric propulsion can replace the diesel engine.
After carefully going through a lot of research, re-doing myself the installation, and using it for more than 2000 nautical miles, I finally have an answer.
No, electric propulsion can’t replace the diesel engine. What it did for me was to change the way I see and use auxiliary propulsion.
A DIFFERENT MINDSET
It is common practice on a sailboat to turn on the engine not only when you need to maneuver around tight docks or anchorages, but also when wind or wave direction shifts to an undesired angle, when the speed drops under a certain threshold, if the battery charge is low or to fight against tides and currents. No matter what is the source of the annoyance, it takes little effort to fix it. Just turn the ignition key on, wait one second and put the throttle in gear and the problem is solved.
Fuel and general consumables are what sit between the choice of motoring or not motoring, and they are usually very easy to find everywhere and reasonably cheap. This mindset implies that power is abundant and available at all times, we can get to destination in less time, going through very little trouble.
Electrical propulsion on the other hand, requires a switch from this mindset, from considering power abundant to scarce. Scarce however doesn’t mean non-existent, it simply means that your reserve has to be cared for and maintained.
ANATOMY OF OUR “LOW COST” SYSTEM
Tranquility, our Columbia 29 built in 1965 is powered by an inboard electric propulsion. The conversion from presumably an Atomic 4, was performed by a former owner who installed an earlier model from the company Electric Yacht. The motor is a simple DC Eltek brushed motor mounted on a 2 to 1 gear, and it works at 36Vdc-65Vdc (48Vdc nominal), with a maximum peak of 130Amps and 100Amps continuous. The power conversion is estimated equal to 6 horse power. It is small and weights a little more than 40 pounds.
Here is a video of Tranquility’s conversion to electric propulsion:
At the time of purchase the boat and the propulsion system needed serious updates, and we were forced to replace the existing battery bank with a new one. We opted for eight 6v Trojan T-125 batteries connected in series for a total capacity of 240ah at 48v. The reasoning behind the choice of a “traditional” lead acid 6v battery is both economical and practical. Lead acid batteries are at least five time cheaper than Lifepo4, and our sailing budget is very limited. Also, in case of a single battery failure it would be easier to replace one “golf cart” battery in different places of the planet, without dealing with expensive shipping and duties.
We use wind, hydro, the grid and fossil fuels to o recharge our batteries. In details, we installed a 48v wind turbine, a 20amp AC to DC battery charger powered by the grid when we are at the dock and by a portable gas generator when at sea, the 12×12 fixed three blade propeller that regenerates power under sail when boat speeds exceed 5 knots.
CRUISING WITH ELECTRIC PROPULSION: THIS IS HOW WE DO IT With our current system we are able to motor in calm conditions at 3 knots while drawing 20 amps for approximately 15miles before we need any recharge. This estimated range is considered an ideal situation and we try to avoid to use our motor for that long. If we have to motor for more than 1 hour for instance, we would use our gas generator on deck to give some power back to the batteries. The motor rarely runs at more than 20 amps, and when it happens my hearth races as if they were taking my blood rather than electrons from the battery plates.
If we are drawing more than 20 amps it’s because we are fighting headwinds, currents in a narrow passage or a maneuver that requires high thrust, situations that should not last long if we plan our sail wisely and that not affect too much our power reserve. We always try to be very conservative with our batteries but at the same time we are happy to know that we can demand more power if conditions arise. How little we can motor became a game for us, and we feel particularly accomplished when we don’t use it at all.
OUR TESTING GROUNDS
Coastal sailing is the most demanding situation for auxiliary propulsion because of narrows, currents, navigational hazards that make sailing hard work and sometimes extremely time consuming. For these reasons, most of our sailing is done offshore where we don’t need auxiliary propulsion. Since we fixed our boat and hooked up the electric propulsion we have been sailing the East Coast of the United States from Massachussets to Georgia round trip with electric propulsion. As we are planning to take on more distance sailing, we considered that a successful test.
Occasionally we useD the ICW, especially on the southbound trip when we went from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC. In that situation, time was a constraint as we were cruising in cold weather and our priority was to get south as fast as we could.
One day for example we needed to sail from Manteo NC, to Hatteras, NC via the Pamlico Sound. The forecast gave us very light wind for the next day, not great sailing conditions. If we waited, we would have to face strong headwinds for the rest of the week and get stuck there. Considering the scenario, We decided to leave early, hooked up our gas generator to motor all the way in a flat Pamlico Sound. Because of the short winter days we arrived at night but once there we had no worries about when to leave for the next leg of the trip that was done under sail.
The rest of the trip we sailed and motor-sailed along “the ditch”. A gentle breeze is sufficient to sail faster than we would motor, and we also tolerate to move slower if that is possible under sail. Carefully timing the tides we can motor faster using less power and so our journey is entirely planned in consideration of weather patterns and current.
THE ART OF COMPROMISE
Kate and I live aboard and cruise full time. So far electric propulsion has never been a concern, nor we live it as a limitation. After some adjustments in our cruising style, we quickly adapted to it. Cruising with an electric inboard propulsion means to compromise. The reduced range limits our possibilities in terms of routes and landing options. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave earlier from places we like to take advantage of a favorable weather window. Sometimes we had to stay longer in places we liked less. More than once a sudden calm, a favorable tide or other “disturbances” led us to places we din’t plan to visit. With this limitations, we learned that it’s not a coincidence that most of the main harbors are built in locations accessible under sail in most conditions, as historically that was the only way to get there.
ELECTRIC PROPULSION MAKES BETTER SAILORS
Electric propulsion forces us to keep sailing even when the boat speed goes below 3 knots. These limits had forced me to work on having a better sailboat. Because of limited power we keep our bottom as clean as possible (I often dive myself or hire a professional when I don’t feel like). Because of our limited power, we purchased better sails for light air and installed a retractable bowsprit to increase our sail area. We spend more time studying landings on the charts, including alternative points of refuge in our planning and always trying to match the tide and the current. Paying closer attention to weather is another consequence of dealing with a limited range. Even if it would not be our first choice sometimes we have to leave at night or arrive with the dark. In other words, our sailing skill and navigation competence have improved thanks to electric propulsion.
What I am doing today is a sort of a beta test, the science fair version of astrophysics. Considering our limited budget and resources, the results are encouraging and what is really exciting is that there are optimistic signs that this technology will be more and more viable for future use and diffusion in the marine industry.
Even if we are being thrifty, we are aware how our battery bank have a relatively short lifespan. Well cared lead-acid batteries can last 7-10 years but the test of electrical propulsion is a harsh one, that’s why we are doubly careful on how we treat how power reserve
With this in mind, I look forward to what may be available in 2020 in terms of batteries and their cost. The electric car industry, Tesla in primis, has shown the world that the technology is already here and that only scale production and policy are the limits to a wider diffusion. The marine industry is opening up to LiFePo4 technology for power storage, and even if today is still very expensive, there is no need for technological breakthroughs, just a more mature industry and a wider market.
I would use Lifepo4 batteries today if I could afford them. This way I would extend my motoring range by 40% at 50% the weight of my actual setup. In this way I would be less concerned to push down harder on the throttle if I feel like, or worry about the time between full recharges, as lead plate sulfation would not be an issue. I this way I would feel more confident and leave behind our gasoline generator. The much decreased weight would give me better sailing and motoring performance in return. In other words, power will still be “scarce” but less so.
A SMALL MINORITY
We rarely encounter other cruisers with electric propulsion (but thanks to the internet we met a guru and now we know some others) and we feel that somehow we are an anomaly, especially when it’s a calm day and other vessels motor at full steam, while we bob around with full sails trying to catch any breeze and spending very long time to cover few miles. Sometimes it’s not fun. We are lucky that our sailing doesn’t have to follow a particularly strict schedule, so it’s not dramatic either.
When we purchased our boat the type of auxiliary propulsion was not among the most important criteria in our selection, and the fact that Tranquility came with electric propulsion was somehow a coincidence. We thought that we could any time switch to a different system if we wanted to, but after trying it we got intrigued and realized that even with its limitations electric propulsion works for us.
Today electric propulsion would be my first choice for a sailboat up to 35ft. Its minimum maintenance, the fact that is quiet, reliable and simple and has no fumes from fuel and oil are the perks that balance the labor that takes to sail more, which coincidently is why we are on the water in the first place.
We are living a very peculiar lifestyle, we get to experience situations that very few people have access to. The good and the bad, like walking on a disused railway track like iconic vagabonds.
It happened yesterday, when we took our much needed stroll to the grocery store to gather provisions, 2.7 miles away from where Tranquility is docked. It may seem far, but to us it is a reasonable distance to cover for food. Walking gives us a nice opportunity to see the places we are visiting, have sometimes meaningful conversations, exercise. It took us almost an hour to get there, walking in the countryside of the Delmarva southern tip, passing by a golf course, fields of cotton, horse ranches and a cemetery. The path was not well suited for pedestrians, but at least traffic was not too bad, and the mild and sunny afternoon was a special treat.
When I walk in America I always feel a little bit subversive. First I always notice that nobody else is doing it. I am of course not talking about big cities, or downtown strips where people walk purposely on sidewalks that keep them safe from traffic. In that case they probably just parked the car not far away or left the train to cover the last steps to get to their destinations.
I am talking about walking in city outskirts, suburbs, small towns and strip malls. As live aboard cruisers we end up in random places where we need to get supply, or just visit particular sites, and we don’t have a car, mainly because we cannot carry one with us onboard I guess. Everywhere we need to go, we go on foot, hire a cab or rent a car if that requires long traveling. And we feel strange. Drivers give you “the look” (a combination of astonishment, curiosity and pity ) as they pass you, some of them even press on the pedal trying to “rolling coal” or honk to acknowledge your presence. It’s no coincidence that roadsigns state “stop for pedestrian” rather than “stop for people”.
Walking is becoming more and more dehumanizing. Pioneers who once used to walk through plain and savannas are now regarded as “pedestrians”, somebody who is in the way of the traffic flow. If this sounds a little too dramatic just consider for a second the very basic concept of “Jaywalking”, which happens when a pedestrian crosses a roadway where regulations do not permit doing so. It is considered an infraction but in some jurisdictions, it is a misdemeanor or requires a court appearance.
What happens where there are not designated paths for pedestrian? Would that be a case where walking becomes a criminal act? “Jaywalking” is a clear sign that the road belongs to cars. That’s why we felt somehow safer when we walked alongside the railroad tracks, luckily not in use anymore. When we walk a random intersection we often ask ourselves if an officer would be entitled to fine us for Jaywalking. If you walk in America you know that it’s not always clear where you are supposed to step around intersections.
People we get to talk to always offer us rides or the use of their car out of kindness, when they learn about our walking intentions. I figure they must be concerned about our safety because to their eyes it is abnormal to walk few miles for groceries. It’s not just that, it is straight-out dangerous.
Every time we hav to explain that it’s ok for us, that this is how we exercise and add other reasons to motivate this bizarre behavior of walking. Plus, on our boat we don’t have very much floor area so walking is very enjoyable every time we have a chance to do it.
The lack of safe walking paths all along the east coast is discouraging. The more people stop walking the more trails and walking path are disappearing. I am sure urban planners like Kate would have sophisticated explanations why America is so badly designed for walking, but it seems reasonable to boil it all down to one main responsible: cars.
Everything in America is designed around cars, the most important form of transportation, in particular commercial areas like strip malls, shopping plazas and such.
When we were living in Georgia, the sight of a person walking on the side of the road would trigger a big flag. I remember saying this to Kate: “Oh look at that guy, he’s walking (not jogging) the causeway… that’s a big flag over there” meaning that when a somebody in civilian clothes walks somewhere the reason must be a problematic one: a broken down vehicle, a homeless situation, too poor to own a car, a person up to no good. “Can you imagine being there? With this heat?”
Now that we don’t own a car anymore our point of view completely switched. Now we are the anomaly, the vagrants, the subversives. At a certain moment during our walk, Kate stopped and looked at me saying: “I feel weird, we are not supposed to be doing this”.
“You are right” I said, “It shouldn’t take us three hours to do groceries, it all should happen faster, so we can do more things”. Time is a valuable resource, therefore it is better to do things as quickly as possible, especially moving, at the expenses of something that makes us truly human like walking.
Walking upright is one of the basic human characteristics, a revolution that boosted our survival skills allowing humans to walk faster and farther, facing up to spot potential dangers, and liberating our upper arms to accomplish more tasks. It is sad how today walking is somehow endangered, how fitbits and other exercise apps had to be invented to force people to walk more. Walking is so unusual that it changed name: all becomes a workout and people can’t wait to go hiking during weekends, to regain the health we lost for not walking in the first place.
I like to walk, a lot. I think that together with sailing it is my favorite form of transportation. Walking is even cheaper, you only need a pair of good shoes, and that only if you are picky walker. Any shoes are fine.
Walking is becoming more and more a privilege, regarded only to who have the time to afford it or to who live in communities where walking is not a russian roulette played with cars.
It took some effort to pull away from the coast. We are growing fonder of social interactions, family, friends, random people watching on a NYC train. We spent good part of early fall visiting people, re-establishing connections in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York City but also back in my home place, northern Italy. We met newborns and introduced each other to old friends and colleagues on both continents. As much as we are embracing an hermit-like lifestyle relationship and social interactions seem to grow stronger, as if quantity of interaction was not a good indicator of their qualities. This sailing life is not exactly as sequestered as one could think.
Once again we have been adopted by a kind family of Fairhaveners, and by the community at large. We have always felt like at home there, but eventually, after all we wanted to do was brushed off the wish list and after we enjoyed time with kindred spirits, we had no other excuse to linger in the ever cooler South Coast of Massachusetts and eventually we had to sail South. A pilgrim is thankful for the hospitality, but they know when it’s time to leave.
And so we left with the same destination in mind as three years earlier, this time on a more outfitted boat, a better stocked pantry and a tireless helmsman, our Norvane self-steering. The memory of the previous trip had faded in a blur of discomfort and fast downwind sailing. Going offshore in the North Atlantic in November is no joke under any circumstance, and this time we had it worse.
Relentless westerlies winds kept us far offshore, more than we actually desired to, pushing us dangerously close to the outskirts of the Gulf Stream. At first it was a spanking breeze, that later became near gale condition from WNW. Heeled on a close hauled course with nothing but a small portion of the mainsail and the staysail, pounding into increasingly bigger waves, Tranquility made slow steady progress to windward. The forecast pictured an approaching cold front bringing strong Northerlies. We were looking forward to it but the weather was late to the meeting and so we could only keep our boat bow to the waves, which was hard but safer than have the breakers on the beam. At that point we would see ten feet high waves, crest to trough.
Finally the Northerlies came so we sailed on a broad reach with winds and waves on our starboard quarter. Immediately the boat’s speed took off. It was adrenalinic. I had to take the helm from the Norvane and carefully anticipate winds and gust to avoid Tranquility taking off on the wave shoulder, accelerating to windward and exposing her beam to the breaking crests. Soon the companionway was boarded up as some of the crests were dumping gallons of water into the cockpit and on top of us. Kate and I had our fair share of showers from “rogue waves” as we called them. Down from our bunks we could hear the slosh of ocean water all over the deck, followed by the watch keeper’s curses.
Eventually I grew too weary of steering and decided to take the mainsail down completely and running on the staysail only. The boat immediately slowed down and became more docile, the Norvane flawlessly kept her on course as I switched roles with Kate. Winds and waves conjured to give us a good angle of approach to Ocean City, MD. After stopping here on our way North we benefit again of the easy inlet, probably the only good harbor on the Atlantic side of the Delmarva peninsula.
This place in winter felt even more like a bubble. You can look out the window and see the deserted beach of Assateague Island, or you can try another window and see waterfront properties with private docks sitting still in the brightest november day, empty and quiet, a lot of square feet of living space heated and cooled for none’s use. Ocean City MD is the outpost of humanity, the front that tries to resist the big emptiness flowing in from the ocean, the ruins of an idea that everybody knew was wrong but none could do anything to stop, an endless succession of buildings, streets and corners that are struggling to keep up with the passing of time, deserted by the general lack of interest. They keep silent trying to withstand another winter, in need of funding, maintenance, and love above all, only visited by scavengers who benefit from the lack of summer crowd.
Scavengers like us, who found a nice crack in this fabric and we wedged in, with fenders and dock lines and anchor and all. From three days offshore where Mother Nature gave us no discounts, to a temporary protected nest. In these ruins we plugged back in the social discourse to find out things don’t always change for the best and so we diverted our attention from that to fulfill our cruising needs, electrical power, showers and a chance to serendipitously acquire another object to expand our unassorted collection: a stowaway Kite.
Once defrosted in the waterfront comforts we sailed back to the anchorage. It had been a very, very long time since last time we dropped the hook. Since Cuttyhunk in September, if I recall, roughly two months earlier. It always feels a lot different when we are at anchor. It’s like the zero point, everything from there is just adding stuff. Adding shore power, adding freshwater, adding internet, social interactions, malls, driving, noise, smell, shame and judgmental looks.
At anchor we focus on the basics cooking food and eating, house keeping, reading, writing, sleeping long hours, watching Fellini’s movies thinking that Italy in the 60s was the most advanced peak humankind has ever reached (the romantic idea soon demolished by remembering the undisputed hegemony of DC party during those years), eating more, periodically changing the orientation of the solar panel to ensure that the maximum output is kept.
At our peculiar age, a precise step in the western society where on average we are supposed to increase our footprint acquiring a house, a car, hopefully a second one, that rice cooker, maybe a drill press for the garage, we are contained in these tight fiberglass walls that resist the natural expansion of humankind, tossing back everything that does not fall into a place, with objects constantly mixed and reshuffled by a washing machine-like motion that put moisture in the mix, leaving us, members of the advanced western society, crawling in tight corners trying to ignore the growing chaos, with our focus absorbed by primary technological needs. Eventually we reach the point where we can’t retreat any more and we have to surrender, re-organize the space through simple actions that take the entire day.
These walls resisting the colonialist expansion teach us an important lesson. Our living space is growing smaller and smaller. It takes some time at anchor to fight back and put things into place, to cut back, discard, stop acquiring. It can only take so much expansion before the growth become a double edged weapon. There is one thing I can say for sure: living on a boat has its limitations. Planet Earth is a similar type of vessel floating in an inhospitable space, and it can only take so much growth.
Sometimes we embark in ventures and projects with a clear idea of our goals, a defined timeline to respect and the necessary resources. We put in our best good will and hardworking ethic, because we really want to make it happen. Of course, it doesn’t go as imagined, but we correct our actions to still make it to the arrival.
Then the unexpected struck. Sometimes it’s truly the work of fate, other times it’s a miscalculation we made, something we forgot to take into account, a costly mistake. When it depends on external factors we tend to be more proactive or forgiving, but if the fault is ours, we get mad at ourselves.
At least this is how I do.
A friend of mine returned a call after few weeks. He was abroad for work but The Immigration Services called him back for an interview to renew his green card. All of the sudden I remembered that I too am expected to be interviewed again sometimes next winter. I forgot about that.
I immediately realized that our much dreamed Caribbean sailing was at risk, because I am supposed to fill a very long and complicated form with data I already submitted, return in front of an officer after two years on a yet not defined date, bring the same evidence that my marriage is as lawful as two years before, pay another expensive fee, have my biometric taken for the second time on a not yet defined date to make sure I did not incur in genetic mutations. And pay a separate fee for it.
That made me sad first, then mad, then depressed again. Last night I had a dream that I was sailing to Scotland in winter. Is my subconscious telling me that am bound to an uncomfortable future ?
Going to the Caribbean anyway and wait to be summoned at will could be very expensive and risky. If we miss the interview then they may revoke my status. Staying in the US for another winter it’s definitely more expensive, not counting that we already visited this coast twice.
The mindset of setting sail from this known coast to less known horizons was the fuel that propelled our journey to cruising. Events out of our controls had already delayed/modified the plan in the past, for the best, to be honest. The frustration of things not going according to the plan is something that I already know and I learned how to cope with.
Still, it hurts.
And still, having to modify the plans again will bring different opportunities. Every fork on the road opens up a new universe of opportunities. What is waiting behind the corner of this not wanted plan?
So while we prepare for this unmpteenth encounter with the bureaucrats and modify our route, we ask ourselves: what fantastic opportunities are in front of us?
There is a still atmosphere in Tranquility’s cabin. Kate tastes her latest culinary feat and approves it. <<It’s very good!>> I can hear her saying. Tonight we are going to have polenta and chickpeas and sardines fused in a tomato sauce, a revisitation of an old recipe from a camping trip in the woods of Maine.
Food is ready, deck is secured for what Hermine will decide to throw at us during the night and Labor Day’s morning, as we rest a little while the other boats around us hurry out for the last hours of nice sailing, before it gets too windy. Rest, after all this is what I am supposed to do. I have a cold.
Tranquility sits in Newport Harbor, holding tight to a mooring ball that a kind friend, Clarissa, is letting us use. It sits right in the center of the carnivalesque parade of Labor Day tourists, super yachts, and classic racing. There are better days to visit Newport, but our un-planable voyage doesn’t take into account what’s better or desirable. Things just happen. And so this is going to be the place where we will weather this weird Tropical Storm that just brought destruction to what used to be our home port, Frederica Yacht Club.
We held our breath when we got the first reports from Georgia, while our brave friends were doing all they could to save the salvageable. The impact was severe and a lot got lost or damaged, but luckily our closest friends weathered it fine. Hermine shouldn’t have the same impact up here, but we hold tight as this one already showed its capricious character.
I did not retrace the steps that took us here in Newport yet. The story of our cruise North is stuck in Ocean City MD, and a chapter or two are still due. I haven’t yet found the time and energy to bring you up to date. I will comply with my intentions, but this time it may take me longer than expected.
I am not in a creative drought, nor I am too busy sailing. My mind is focused on a new writing project, and so this blog is affected. I am trying to develop a new blog, and this time I am want to re-start from scratch. The best gift that long term cruising has given me so far is some time and tranquility to grow a seed that was probably inside me for a very long time.
Time doesn’t erase older parts of you and so I have to eventually deal with whom I used to be, or to be more precise, with what I used to do. I used to study and experiment with human behavior. From a selfish point of view, I tinkered trying to change myself. For my paycheck, I helped others face change. In either case I discovered that change is inevitable, sometimes sudden, and when I was exposed to sailing for the first time, some unexpected reactions transformed me.
The aim of my new project is to see how well Psychology and Sailing mix. Not very much is out there on the topic. My research found that most of this hybridization consists in Sport Psychology applied to competitive sailing. After all, even racing is a discipline that rests on mental pillars, like strategy, decision making, coping with stress and team building. But I suspect there is more.
Ok, I spilled the beans, would you follow me on my new course?
Sailing in the vicinity of capes is always tricky. Wind, waves, tide and other natural events shaped their appearance and at the same time those forces are influenced by the mass of land they collide with. A vessel rounding a cape is subjected to variable conditions, and for this reason it’s always a good idea to give extra miles when rounding a headland or promontory.
The East Coast of the US has several capes that influenced our route in many ways. Mainly they were obstructing our NE progress. After Cape Hatteras, we could all of the sudden head almost due North, and get faster to cooler weather. Sometimes to go around the coast feels like climbing mountains, the effort increases close to vertical peaks.
Wrighstville Beach to Lookout Bight, NC 72 NM
A group of open water swimmers was taking advantage of the early hours and of the momentary absence of boat traffic to practice. Tranquility was the only boat under way and from the cockpit we watched carefully the colorful swim caps and kept a good distance from them. It must be a popular group in Wrigthsville as we counted at least 50 people taming the inlet at 6 am. The sun was barely up but it was clear it would be another hot day.
We had enough wind to leave the Masonboro inlet and head ENE again, but soon we hit lighter conditions and the boat speed suffered. We were hoping to get there at dusk but the pace was not ideal. The wind picked up later when we were already in sight of the Beaufort inlet and the sunlight was gone. After the last gybe we had all the rolling waves hitting us almost on the beam as we were following the bearing of two red buoys marking the entrance of the bight.
We were trusting our chart plotter that was giving us a depth of 30 ft. It was a lie. Right when we heard the sound of braking waves and realized we could be in trouble, the boat hit the bottom with the keel. A sandy bottom judging from the sound. The long keel of our boat just bumped in a sand bank, we turned immediately to port where we found deeper waters and we adjusted our position to the blinking red buoy.
We had approached the entrance with a too tight angle and the Navionics Charts had assured we were in no danger. It was a lucky way to demonstrate how chart plotters are not the solution to navigation problems. Had we listened more carefully to the sound of the sea or took a wider, more conservative angle of approach and we could have avoided that. Good lesson for the future.
After the surprising and scary bump we were sailing in flat waters as the land had already cut the swell from the ocean. This time it was upwind as we turned SSW to get in the lee of the sand dunes. It was time to decide where to anchor. We observed the anchor lights at the top of masts, trying to judge the distances from the beach, from other anchored boats and find the good depth to drop our anchor. With a quick look at the horizon it became also obvious that a line of thunderstorms was on our way.
After a little recon we let the anchor sink to the bottom in 17feet of water and I was giving enough chain and rode out to absorb the thunderstorm charging for us. Just as I cleated the anchor rode and positioned the anti chafe gear the squall hit us with some violent wind gusts and blinding rain from the NW. As the anchor had no sufficient time to set, it started to drag away from the beach towards deeper waters.
Luckily we had no obstacles in our path and finally the anchor set bringing our bow to the wind and waves. I calculated that we dragged at least 200 yards before the anchor found a good bite and started to dig into the sand. The thunderstorm raged for few minutes more, before continuing on and leaving a quiet night behind. When visibility improved we noticed we were a little distant from the beach, but we were now trusting the holding of our ground tackle.
We spent few days in the bight. One day we swam ashore and walked all around on the beach. The next day we hiked the beach and the dunes and made it to the other side in the hotter and sunnier day I experienced this summer. We made it, but it was a serious feat. During these hikes, we talked a lot about ideas, a torrent of ideas. Business plans, life plans, travel plans a big collection of our imaginary world had been discussed, analyzed and then dismissed or saved for later discussion. We thought about possible uses of shells, writing ideas, financial investments. Walking enhance our imagination to the point that we could even end up arguing furiously over an imaginary plan that is far from having any foundation.
I consider the Lookout Bight one of the nicest place on the East Coast of the US, especially if you have the opportunity ti visit it on a boat. Crowded during weekends, it is remote during weekdays and at night it is absolutely quiet. We swam a lot and I even did my first bottom scrub since we launched the boat. The day we left, when the conditions we were looking for to face the longest and most difficult section of the trip finally came, I noticed a sand shark surfacing and trying to reach my breakfast pot… Even though I am aware how harmless they are, I am glad I went scrubbing the hull without knowing about it!
Lookout bight to Ocean City, MD 289 NM
We expected very light conditions for an extended period of time before venture out of the Bight to round Cape Lookout first, and Hatteras later, and that’s exactly what we got. We had an upwind first part to get around the cape, so light air was actually good, as the flat seas didn’t obstruct too much our progression. Once around, we received a little help from the Gulf Stream that pushed us NE.
I think the best explanation ever of how an ocean current works is from the Disney/Pixar movie Finding Nemo, when Crush the turtle shows it to Marlin <<You’re riding it, dude. Check it out!>>
It was a very nice ride indeed. The Gulf stream current flows close to the Outer Banks Coast. We were sailing downwind about twenty miles offshore in light winds and still we had a steady progress of 4kts even 5kts at times. On a calm ocean we slipped into our watch routine mile after mile and had no visits from thunderstorms. The depth sounder took a peak of what’s outside the Continental Shelf and settled to 385 feet (apparently its maximum reading), but according to the charts we were in an area of 1600ft of depth. Kate shivered trying to imagine such an ocean depth. Here the water was really blue and turned violet when the sun was setting.
The round of Hatteras went almost unnoticed. For the entire trip we kept talking about it like it was Cape Horn or Good Hope. Even if it’s blasphemous to compare it to some of the most stormy capes in the world, Hatteras has a bad reputation among sailors in the East Coast, and we were constantly warned when they heard us talking about going around. Cape Hatteras is also known as “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of many shipwrecks happened in the area. The presence of the Gulf Stream, the fierce storms that hit both in winter and summer, and a very thin and steep Continental Shelf make this cape a place not to underestimate and to avoid in bad weather.
After Hatteras we turned the bow North and passed the Chesapeake entrance to continue along the Delmarva peninsula. Our destination was Ocean City where we had the mission to find supplies, regroup and organize the next leg. I remember looking at the charts and asking Kate “How is Ocean City?”. She replied that she spent few summers there when she was a child. “It’s a crazy place you must see”.
Ocean City was attractive to my eyes because of its easy inlet in case we arrived in the dark (as our habit) and for the presence of marinas and shopping facilities. After three weeks at anchor we needed to replenish our fresh water and get a good deal of food. With some 300 miles to get to New England it was one of our last chances to stock up.
We obviously arrived in the early AM in pitch dark and I hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF to ask if the inlet had any recent change from what the charts were telling us. They gave us green light and we approached carefully. With so many buildings and lights it wasn’t difficult to find our way into the inlet and we reached our destination, Ocean City Fisherman’s Marina at 3 AM, tying up at the fuel dock waiting for them to open.
It was a Saturday morning and fishermen were already leaving. Kate called the owner of the Marina at about 3:30AM convinced that she would talk to the voice mail. Instead she woke him up. She apologized but he reassured her that he was coming earlier anyway because of the early birds coming to the fuel docks, so he told us to go tie up to a near slip and that we could talk later.
We checked in easily and with the BoatUS membership we were granted a discount. We stayed two nights for 101$, which considering the season is not bad at all. In the morning we noticed that ours was the only mast in the marina (and probably in all West Ocean City). All around us sport fishers and other type of powerboats were the only boats.
We walked a lot, but all the shopping was close by so we quickly completed the list of our errands. On a saturday night we walked to the board walk, which is this crazy loud, sugar fueled, amalgam of people flowing up and down. Kate wanted me to try any sort of sugary extra caloric eatables and I settled for sea water tabbies and caramelized cashews. On the next monday we left early with a fully provisioned boat to get to Cape Henlopen, with the plan to sit there and wait for a good weather window.
We left Charleston following the same pattern of the previous leg, leaving in light air and waiting for some afternoon wind, which came, as well as the much dreaded short period waves. We developed a little bit of sea sickness and generally tiredness when we had to dodge thunderstorms all night. We were lucky not to get too heavy squalls, but pouring rain got me quickly soaked. With little or no wind exhausted by the passage of these disturbances, I decided to heave to and just try to sleep in the cockpit.
At dawn, we decided to use the remaining daylight hours and the favorable tide conditions to bail out into Little River inlet, a nice inlet right at the border between the Carolinas. We identified a potentially good anchorage on the charts, on the lee shore of an undeveloped barrier island, Waites Island, and we went for it. Cruising life had already deformed our sense of time. We forgot that 4th of July weekend was underway. The memory came suddenly back when we started noticing a crowd of any possible craft roaming the inlet and generating continuous wakes.
We grew accustomed to all the wake and subsequent rolling of our boat and eventually, around sunset, the anchorage would become again our private property until the early morning brought new fast and furious vacationeers. We were happy to rest and we started to enjoy the show we were witnessing as if it was (and truly is) a fascinating natural phenomena, like penguins mating or wolves hunting. It was a truly American experience as we were not far from the popular Myrtle Beach, suns out, guns out!
Leg 3 Little River inlet to Southport NC 33 NM
After two nights at anchor we decided we were tired of Little River and left for a shorter leg, a daysail to Southport NC. From where we were, going around Cape Fear is a long way out and in again, and it makes more sense using “the ditch” to cut to the other side on Wrightsville Beach. Cape Fear river current is very strong and requires perfect timing so it makes sense to repair in Southport and time the next departure. We also had stopped here on our way south a couple of winters ago and we really liked the atmosphere.
Back then it was cold and not very populated, we gathered with fellow late migrators around the free town docks and shared meals and stories. This time, being the day before 4th of July we couldn’t find any spot in the anchorage or even at the marina. I performed few doughnuts around the fast running channel while Kate was making calls around to see where we could stop.
Luckily the Provisions & Co., a bar and restaurant right on the waterfront, granted us permission to stay overnight at their complementary docs and leave the next morning. We enjoyed the downtown crowd and a nice meal at the restaurant, and smiled to the many curious customers who came to the boat asking any kind of questions.
Leg 4 Southport NC to Wrighstville Beach, NC 23 NM
It was still dark when we slipped off the floating pontoon. As soon as sails were up and we entered the Cape Fear River we noticed a big help from the current and the winds. It was incredible to witness how the boat could sail at five knots on completely flat waters and very little wind.
The quiet flat waters were racing at about two knots in the back bay while we passed Sunny Point, a big Army terminal which serves as “a transfer point between rail, trucks, and ships for the import and export of weapons, ammunition, explosives and military equipment”. The area surrounding the facility is intentionally uninhabited to create a security buffer in case something goes wrong, and of course anchoring is prohibited.
The scenery is stunning and a bit desolating at the same time, but at least is remarkably different from the monotonous waterfront property with dock facility that becomes ubiquitous after you go trough the Snows Cut heading towards Wrighstville Beach. At that confluence a powerboat approached us and an oversized fella at the helm saluted me with “Happy 4th Bro” wielding a beer. We were on the “other side”.
A video is worth 1000 words. Check Kate’s work on “eating wakes for breakfast”
We anchored for a few days in Wrightsville Beach waiting for good weather for the next offshore leg and enjoying the ability to come and go to the public dinghy dock, even though the best feature was definitely the access to free showers at the beach. We also needed a little provisioning as we were planning to visit Lookout Bight, a natural park with no shopping facilities.