Nothing goes according to the plan

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?

Hermine meditations

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Beautiful yawl in Newport Harbor

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?

East Coast Northbound: climbing capes

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The Capes

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

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Sunrise in Wrightsville Beach

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.

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LOOKOUT BIGHT VIEW, NORTH UP

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.

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LOOKOUT BIGHT FROM ESE

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.

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Walking the dunes
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Facing the Atlantic Ocean

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.

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Lookout Bight gets busy with any type of craft during weekends

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.

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“You are riding it, dude. Check it out!”

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”.

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Beta and I checking the approach to Ocean City

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.

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Our first landing

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.

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Neighbors in West Ocean City

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.

 

East Coast Northbound: surviving 4th July

Leg 2 Charleston SC, to Little River Inlet 106NM

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.

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Provision & Co. in Southport, SC

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.

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The vast Army facility at Sunny Point

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.

East Coast Northbound: Brunswick GA to Charleston SC

 

This time we picked very light conditions to roll out of the inlet and soon after some bobbing around the wind was enough to start reefing the mainsail and learning how to tune our new to us Norvane Self Steering wind pilot. The predominant SW kept blowing stronger and stronger forcing us to gybe every few miles to hold our broad reach course to the North East. The shallow water of the Atlantic coast provided a carpet of short steep waves. It was a bumpy ride, with objects flying all over the boat. We did not respond well to the solicitations of the environment, trying to hanging in there without much enjoyment.

We also encountered the first ugly thunderstorm off Blackbeard Island. We went into T-Storm preparation, reducing sail area, wearing foul weather gear and battering down all the hatches and when we were ready to face the monster nothing too bad happened as we slipped in between squalls. We spent the rest of the night dodging ship traffic in front of Savannah and charging harder ahead making good speed.

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Encounter in Charleston Harbor

The next morning we were approaching Charleston and we decided that it was enough for the first leg of the trip. Thanks to the limited power of our electric motor we had no option but to tack our way into the harbor as it was obviously an upwind course. Luckily the inlet and the harbor are very wide and with the wind decreasing Kate and I revised out tacking maneuvers on and on. Eventually we arrived to the anchorage in Ashley River, right in front of Charleston City Marina, and dropped the hook for a well deserved rest. As I spent most of the night up I was pretty exhausted, and Kate took a great care of me. She literally fed me and put me to bed.

As soon as our body were rested we “dinghied” in and walked around the City. We obviously went straight to the library and on our way there we found out that the library is right beside the Emanuel A.M.E. Church where nine people lost their lives. It was June 17 2015 and many people were commemorating the sad event as we walked by.

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As it happened before we decided to stay longer in Charleston, to re-organize the boat interior after the first offshore leg and to make it our base to visit family in Pennsylvania. This time we rented a car and went for a long car trip, with Beta in tow. The occasion was the celebration of Sister Janet jubilee for her 50th anniversary as a Franciscan nun. The ceremony was very moving yet joyous and I was truly admired with Janet and her sisters’ dedication throughout their actions and words.

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Beta visiting the misty West Virginia
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Family group portrait at the Sister Janet’s jubilee
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Casual meeting in Charleston, brother Bernie!

Before and after the road trip we spent some time in Sullivans Island. We found a secret and creative anchorage and we rowed ashore. This pretty island has an infamous past being the main port where african slaves were brought into the New World. The only reminder of this traumatic past is a little section of Fort Moultry Museum and a bench overlooking the marshes where the Toni Morrison Society place a “bench by the road”. As the commemorative plaque reveals “nearly half of all African Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island“.

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bench by the road

Today Sullivan’s Island is a quiet residential destination, where the ‘haves’ enjoy their time on the beach. During our walk we found time to visit the local library which is dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe, who was stationed on Sullivan’s Island as a private in the United States Army in 1827 and 1828, and who used the island setting as the background for his famous story, “The Gold Bug.” The library and many other spaces of the island are located in the disused fortification of the island.

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Eventually we finished our week stay and the weather conjured for another departure. It was time to leave Charleston. We felt like this time we had the opportunity to get to know each other a lot better.

East Coast Northbound: Leg 0, False Start

It’s time for me to write about our journey from Georgia to the New England area. We decided this is going to be our summer/fall cruising ground, so for a while our sailing will be shorter and local. As we came to a soft landing in Buzzards Bay I found more tranquility within to review our progress and Kate’s impressive photographs also helped my memory, so in the next few days I’ll recap the steps that brought us here.

Sailing has a beneficial effect on my writing and I am actively working on different topics. I am trying to publish an article about Tranquility’s refit and working on a science fiction novel I’ve been on for a while. Besides,  I am attending an online course on how to monetize my blog. It seems that the first important task in this process is to “find my niche”. I have no clear ideas of what is my niche yet. Do you?

From Frederica River anchorage to Frederica River anchorage, 14NM

I start this recap with our first fail of the trip. Back at the beginning of June we thought we were ready to catch some good South Easterlies and start our climbing along the East Coast. The expectations about starting the journey were heavy on us, especially after being tucked in the marshes for the first two Tropical Storms of the season. We felt anxious and wanted to leave very badly, feeling disgusted by any extra job list and preparation routine.

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The view from Tranquility’s cabin during Tropical Storm Colin

We picked an afternoon departure with an ebbing tide to weigh anchor. The sailing in St.Simons Sound, was promising and Tranquility moved fast and secure in the smooth waters, but as soon as we entered the inlet things started to get hairy. Big steep waves lifted by the wind blowing against the tide crashed on our bow as we were trying to keep Tranquility close hauled in the long shipping channel out of the Sound. Shoals on both sides did not allow for any leeway and soon we had to start tacking.

During the first tack we go stuck in the trough between two waves. As the boat stalled the jib started flogging very hard and by the time we  got control of the boat again I noticed a rip in the fabric in the vicinity of the clew. I ran to the foredeck and while Kate was controlling the jib sheet I furled the sail. I immediately hoisted the staysail and tried to make up my mind on what had just happened.

It was clear that there was no other call than to go back to the anchorage, as we needed our jib for the miles on. We knew that in Frederica River at least we had the resources to fix it. We turned around and with following wind and tide we rolled on the big waves until we were safe in the lee of Jekyll Island.

Sailing back in protected waters, our minds were focused on how the departure was a failure. Instead of being out sailing we had once again to deal with few more issues, more work to do. We were happy that after all nothing too bad happened but we were definitely bummed and demoralized as we were again dropping anchor in Frederica River, the curse was still on.

In the next couple of days Kate dropped her phone in the water, making us a one phone family. Our old android tablet that we use for navigation decided to give up, the display no longer responded to our finger touch. Two foam cushions that form our sleeping bunk blew off the boat during a squall as they were left on deck to air out. I was able to retrieve one of them during my row back to the boat but the second one was lost forever. Instead of one step forward we were three steps back.

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Our friend Bill helped repairing our jib

We thought we were ready, truth was we needed more preparation and time. With the not so happy mood of who has no choice but keep pushing the stone uphill, we put together some a work and a shopping list, restock our supplies, sew a strong patch in the jib with the help of our friend Bill and his good sailmaking skills, and we were ready to try again, with a mission to stay out as long as we could on our North East quest.

Sailboat delivery with a twist(er) Part III: The Gulf

Click here for Part II

A wet re-start

It took a while to get back to the regular rhythm of life at sea. The storm created a big, rolling swell that we admired for hours. Slowly we put more and more sails up as the wind decreased, not too quickly, as if we had no energy for more trips to the mast nor for operating halyard and winches. We sat there. Everybody onboard was exhausted so we bobbed a little more without pushing the boat and ourselves.

It felt like I was washed out, my belongings scattered and damaged. Like formatting the hard drive of a computer. My watch was also missing. It was a beautiful watch that my dad gave me as a present. Boats are very good in swallowing objects, so I thought I would see it again at the end of the trip when we would unpack and repack into our suitcases.

The worst part of the storm was the damp interior and the lack of dry clothing left behind. Before leaving Ft.Myers we meticulously washed all the beddings and clothes to have a comfortable passage to Houston. With no change of clothes and no dry bunks for sleeping we still had to sail for more than 450miles. There is nothing more miserable at sea than a damp boat. Patiently we arranged the cabin the best we could to have a little comfort, but our hearts were as heavy as a piece of waterlogged driftwood.

As night approached so did thunderstorms. I couldn’t watch any more lightning on the horizon without fear and stress. I stood by the Radar display on the alert. Luckily this time it was only rain, even though we would die for some dry weather to help containing the moisture level onboard. The winds decided to blow directly from Houston so we put the boat on a motor-sailing duty and we stuck on that, but our progress was slow. We played with the revs and the autopilot and the mainsail but nothing could un-stuck us from a wretched two knots of speed over ground.

Mississippi or Loop Current?

It was obvious that an adverse current had its hand in it, but without a knot-meter we couldn’t calculate how strong it was. Thw Gulf of Mexico proved to be a tough stretch of water, more than we expected. The adverse current did not ease for another day. All kind of hypothesis thronged our conversations: at first we believed it was the influence of the Mighty Mississippi mouth even if we were at least 100 miles south of it.

Ther Loop Current and relative eddies in the Gulf Of Mexico
Ther Loop Current and relative eddies in the Gulf Of Mexico

Then we considered the Loop Current influence. This warm water current could sometimes extend far north into the Gulf, before circle back and slip in between Florida and Cuba creating the Gulf Stream that heads north through the Atlantic. We couldn’t check our hypothesis and when we had a chance we called a distant ship on VHF to ask if they knew anything about it. The captain was annoyed by the current as well but he was apparently ignorant of the phenomenon or maybe he was just aware that he could not do much about it.

Oil Rigs

When passage planning for the Gulf of Mexico portion of this trip I considered and decided to sail south of the Oil Rig extension for as much as we could, before turning NNW and head for Galveston. The Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas is disseminated with platforms of any size and shape, and any work conditions. Before the trip many people told me how some of them aren’t active and not even lit during the night. Obviously no one could prove this rumor personally without hitting one.

Platforms in the Gulf of Mexico
Platforms in the Gulf of Mexico

After being swept by a furious storm and barely progressing against the Mighty Mississippi current or whatever it was, the idea of shortening the trip by more than a 100 miles taking a direct cut through the jungle of platforms was a siren song we could not resist. We plotted a straight course to Texas that brought us in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico drilling operations. At the beginning it was heart bumping, but after a while we took confidence sailing through oil rigs and all the related marine traffic.

People are often concerned about traffic and maritime operations while offshore sailing. In theory this is a concern that only a singlehanded sailor should have, as there are going to be times when nobody is standing watch on deck and he or she should adopt strategies to minimize risk of collision. A well manned vessel with crew standing watch all the time should be able to avoid any collision. The truth is that the Ocean is not as populated as we think it is, and the congested areas are very few and it’s usually where sailors pay maximum attention and further aids are offered (like buoys, pilots, etc.).

Still, the Gulf can be pretty busy in terms of marine traffic. Facing an area with high density of marine traffic and miscellaneous obstacles can be a source of stress for the crew of a small sailboat with limited instrumentation. But after a little time to get used to the new horizon, sailing through the oil rigs was not bad at all, and we were lucky not to end up on one of the infamous unlit platform that allegedly populate the area.

What bothered us most was the not cooperation from the wind, very light and mainly adverse, and with a 13,000 lbs displacement boat our only option to get to the completion of the trip was to motor. Motoring through oil rigs was just a boring and repetitive task. The inboard diesel proved to be very frugal but we were growing anxious about the lack of wind and the possibility to run out of fuel. That’s why we started talking about an on-the-go refuel stop at one of the oil rigs!

First we picked that card as a last resort dictated by fear. Even when we put down the math and realized that the fuel onboard was just enough to get to destination, we still wanted to try the new experience of asking for fuel to an oil rig.

Friendly Oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico
Friendly Oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

After we located our target, it took few attemps to get somebody answering our VHF call, and then few extra efforts to explain what our intentions were. We realized that passing fuel to cruisers was not an everyday task for the workers on the rig who were definetely surprised by our request as they kept looking for a supervisor who could authorize it. Finally somebody on the phone gave the consent and we started the operation: at first a line was sent down from a bridge to collect our empty jerry cans. At the end a piece of paper with two words: trade please.  The lack of wind and waves made the operation easy even though the vicinity of the huge metal pilings was haunting my concentration during the manouvre. When the jerry cans came down filled with diesel we had nothing to trade but some cold cash and a thank you note. I believe booze was what they were looking for, but this is just speculation.

Refueled and happy for the help from our new friends we resumed our course to Houston and during my evening watch even the wind started to blow and turn South. I opened the jib and staysail, trimmed the main, adjust the windvane autopilot and started playing with the revs to see if we could finally turn off the engine. The wind was light tough probably too light for a boat like the Southern Cross, but I was ready to trade a lower speed for the quiet of sailing. The boat moved at 5+ knots, which was a surprise and made for a very smooth ride. This time the Loop Current was our loyal escort as we caught the Westward eddy pushing towards Houston. At dawn we entered Galveston Bay and reached Clear Lake City, where the owner proudly docked the boat in his slip.

southern cross 31
Southern Cross 31 drying her sails

We spent an extra day helping the owner and his wife to empty, re-organize and clean the boat, plus we made few repairs and improvement that we identified during the trip. Unfortuantely my watch never re-appeared, joining my phone and few other belongings in the casualty list. In 14 days trip we left Georgia, sailed south in the Atlantic, cut across the middle of Florida and spent some intense days in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the fatigue and the effort we were happy to succeed and glad the new owner could enjoy the boat close to home. He got himself a sturdy and safe boat that went through some serious tests keeping the crew safe during a very demanding trip.

Sailboat delivery with a twist(er) – Part II: green eye in the sky

Click here for Part I

Third Leg: Ft. Myers, FL to Houston, TX

We saluted the coast of Florida with a nice sailing between Sanibel Island and Pine Island, dodging the plethora of mostly drunk powerboaters going up and down the bay. We decided to use Boca Grande to get out into the Gulf and when we finally approached the channel I was so glad to leave the inlet and the powerboat traffic of the weekend. Winds were 10-15 knots from the SSW, so we put the boat on a close reach, let the tiller in the hands of the Monitor and enjoyed sailing on the gentle swell.

waves1
Offshore sailing in the Gulf of Mexico

It was slow sailing, to be honest, as the Southern Cross 31 needs a bit of sporty conditions to move the 13000 lbs of displacement, but we were happy to make progress towards our destination while enjoying the perks of being at sea: a well equipped, fully provisioned boat, following our watch rotation and enjoying tasty meals cooked on the stove. The next day, Sunday the barometer started to fall to 1004mb and the wind backed to SE. I was worried about that reading, but I was still confident for our positive weather forecast and I went into my bunk for my rest time.

Southern Cross 31 leeward side
Southern Cross 31 leeward side

<<Fabio! Come out!>>. A green eye in the sky crowned by a circle of black clouds appeared in front of me as I cleared the companionway. I had just been summoned on deck from my bunk and I noticed it was getting pretty windy. It’s late afternoon, just an hour before my watch starts. The crew on watch was speechless because they just observed a pod of several dozens of dolphins jumping by and I am not quite sure if I they called me because all hands on deck were needed or just to share the sublime panorama of a violent storm brewing. The green color of the sky was so beautiful yet so menacing. I have never seen a sky like that one before.

Thunderstorm flashes made us understand how quickly we had to move and we prepared the boat for heavy weather. After the previous thunderstorms on the East coast of Florida we were well trained and we reduced the sail area very quickly. The storm’s edge slammed into the boat and for the next minutes the vessel was battered by blinding rain and blown nearly horizontally. We bit the bullet after this first hit but the evil sky showed no sign of mercy.

This system seemed not only more violent than the ones we encountered before but also the squalls were long lasting and so Roberto and I had to reschedule our watches to take turns on the tiller to catch some rest. With the minimum sail area possible (3 reefs in the mainsail and a reefed staysail) we managed to have enough momentum to keep the wind after the beam as we rode the big swell lifted by the storm. We kept working in the dark, removing the rolled up inflatable dinghy from the deck and storing it inside, in the fear that the storm would take it. The thick clouds neutralized the light of the moon and the night was pitch dark, only the flashes of lightining strikes showed the frightening sea conditions before leaving me dazzled.

I couldn’t decide wether I preferred to see the waves or to be surprised by a crest of water crashing on deck. The low pressure system showed no sign of dissipating, and beside a brief moment of calm while in “the eye” of the storm, the wind and the even bigger waves resumed their action. Again, I was lying in my bunk trying to have few minutes of rest when Roberto called me on deck. As I was donning my rain gear I could hear thunders and see lightning, the heralds of another stormy squall that hit us with incredible violence as I was climbing the ladder to the cockpit. The boat this time buried the toe rails and the starboard deck deep in the water. The water reached the cockpit coamings, and from up high the windward seats we could watch the green sea underneath as if we were on a rollercoaster approaching a dive loop. Even the little sail area was too much for the wind conditions. With no other option than take them down I started to crawl my way to the mast where without much elegance I let go of the mainsail halyard and the staysail too. I tied down the staysail the best I could while battered by painful raindrops and then I crawled back into the cockpit.

We were now running bare poles, occasionally blown over by a stronger gust but at least we got rid of some pressure from the mast and the rig. Like a cork the boat was going up and down the wave crests, responding slowly to the inputs of the tiller, but surely going the directions we wanted, with the wind behind the beam. Unfortunately it wasn’t finished for us.  A sail we thought it was stowed started to act wildly: the roller furler let go a little portion of the jib that started to flog and shake the forestay wildly. At first we were paralyzed by this occurrence, asking ourselves “and now, what?” We soon realized that we couldn’t afford any paralysis. In those conditions (still well above 40 knots) the flogging of the sail could break the forestay and put the whole rig in danger. Roberto made it to the foredeck and started to play with the spinnaker halyard to bridle the sail. This temporary fix worked for very little and soon more effective measures were required. Again Roberto engaged a wrestling match with the wind this time to pull the jib all the way down from the roller-furler. I don’t know how but I am very glad he succeeded. I was at the helm, trying to avoid any dangerous gybe running after the storm and I could only see Roberto’s headlamp shining from the bow.

Roberto after the storm sleeping on the jib
Roberto after the storm sleeping on the jib

Like the last of Hercules’ labors the dousing of the jib was the last hazard of that long night. As the dawn light spread across the clouds the wind remained of gale force slowly decreasing. Now it was time to admire the 20 feet high, sometimes higher waves that were towering around us, the spindrift flying around and the turbulence drawn by the gusts on the back of the waves, the spectacular turquoise water under the foaming tips of breaking waves. With no much energy left we surrendered to the finest spectacle offered by Nature. Without electronic instruments to measure wind speed we could only estimate their force referring to our past experience. I personally never been in such conditions before and I can say that I experienced the strongest wind and highest waves of my life. We agreed that more than 40 knots blew for the most part of the night, with 50 and stronger gusts during the near knockdown. The night time and the bad weather surely contributed to increase the sense of danger and perhaps affected our perception, but there is not doubt it was a hellish night of severe weather.

The sea state after the storm
The sea state after the storm
A breaking crest coming for us
A breaking crest coming for us

We tried to resume the regular schedule onboard, allowing the crew to rest after the long night, but we soon realized that something was wrong inside the boat. Somehow water found its way inside the cabin, soaking everything on the starboard side, from the navigation station (charts, log book, electronics) and on the rest of the cabin, where Roberto and I stored our luggage, soaking the mattresses and the fresh lining in the bunks. All our phones, stored in a drawer, were gone after a deadly bath in salt water.

Monitor Windvane back on duty
Monitor Windvane back on duty

We couldn’t believe it but all the starboard side of the boat was wet and so our belongings and our sleeping place. I’ve lost many phones before to salt water (mostly falling in the water while boarding dinghies) and although it is a bad feeling, you know it’s just a phone. What was very upsetting was the bedding and clothing. I was left with only one shirt and one pair of shorts, more or less soaked from the night before. We were still 500 miles from Houston, still with thunderstoms around us and on a boat that was not as comfortable as when we left. I was suddenly reminded how important is to have completely a watertight boat.

Click here to read Part III

Sailboat delivery with a twist(er) – Part II: green eye in the sky

Click here for Part I

Third Leg: Ft. Myers, FL to Houston, TX

We saluted the coast of Florida with a nice sailing between Sanibel Island and Pine Island, dodging the plethora of mostly drunk powerboaters going up and down the bay. We decided to use Boca Grande to get out into the Gulf and when we finally approached the channel I was so glad to leave the inlet and the powerboat traffic of the weekend. Winds were 10-15 knots from the SSW, so we put the boat on a close reach, let the tiller in the hands of the Monitor and enjoyed sailing on the gentle swell.

waves1
Offshore sailing in the Gulf of Mexico

It was slow sailing, to be honest, as the Southern Cross 31 needs a bit of sporty conditions to move the 13000 lbs of displacement, but we were happy to make progress towards our destination while enjoying the perks of being at sea: a well equipped, fully provisioned boat, following our watch rotation and enjoying tasty meals cooked on the stove. The next day, Sunday the barometer started to fall to 1004mb and the wind backed to SE. I was worried about that reading, but I was still confident for our positive weather forecast and I went into my bunk for my rest time.

Southern Cross 31 leeward side
Southern Cross 31 leeward side

<<Fabio! Come out!>>. A green eye in the sky crowned by a circle of black clouds appeared in front of me as I cleared the companionway. I had just been summoned on deck from my bunk and I noticed it was getting pretty windy. It’s late afternoon, just an hour before my watch starts. The crew on watch was speechless because they just observed a pod of several dozens of dolphins jumping by and I am not quite sure if I they called me because all hands on deck were needed or just to share the sublime panorama of a violent storm brewing. The green color of the sky was so beautiful yet so menacing. I have never seen a sky like that one before.

Thunderstorm flashes made us understand how quickly we had to move and we prepared the boat for heavy weather. After the previous thunderstorms on the East coast of Florida we were well trained and we reduced the sail area very quickly. The storm’s edge slammed into the boat and for the next minutes the vessel was battered by blinding rain and blown nearly horizontally. We bit the bullet after this first hit but the evil sky showed no sign of mercy.

This system seemed not only more violent than the ones we encountered before but also the squalls were long lasting and so Roberto and I had to reschedule our watches to take turns on the tiller to catch some rest. With the minimum sail area possible (3 reefs in the mainsail and a reefed staysail) we managed to have enough momentum to keep the wind after the beam as we rode the big swell lifted by the storm. We kept working in the dark, removing the rolled up inflatable dinghy from the deck and storing it inside, in the fear that the storm would take it. The thick clouds neutralized the light of the moon and the night was pitch dark, only the flashes of lightining strikes showed the frightening sea conditions before leaving me dazzled.

I couldn’t decide wether I preferred to see the waves or to be surprised by a crest of water crashing on deck. The low pressure system showed no sign of dissipating, and beside a brief moment of calm while in “the eye” of the storm, the wind and the even bigger waves resumed their action. Again, I was lying in my bunk trying to have few minutes of rest when Roberto called me on deck. As I was donning my rain gear I could hear thunders and see lightning, the heralds of another stormy squall that hit us with incredible violence as I was climbing the ladder to the cockpit. The boat this time buried the toe rails and the starboard deck deep in the water. The water reached the cockpit coamings, and from up high the windward seats we could watch the green sea underneath as if we were on a rollercoaster approaching a dive loop. Even the little sail area was too much for the wind conditions. With no other option than take them down I started to crawl my way to the mast where without much elegance I let go of the mainsail halyard and the staysail too. I tied down the staysail the best I could while battered by painful raindrops and then I crawled back into the cockpit.

We were now running bare poles, occasionally blown over by a stronger gust but at least we got rid of some pressure from the mast and the rig. Like a cork the boat was going up and down the wave crests, responding slowly to the inputs of the tiller, but surely going the directions we wanted, with the wind behind the beam. Unfortunately it wasn’t finished for us.  A sail we thought it was stowed started to act wildly: the roller furler let go a little portion of the jib that started to flog and shake the forestay wildly. At first we were paralyzed by this occurrence, asking ourselves “and now, what?” We soon realized that we couldn’t afford any paralysis. In those conditions (still well above 40 knots) the flogging of the sail could break the forestay and put the whole rig in danger. Roberto made it to the foredeck and started to play with the spinnaker halyard to bridle the sail. This temporary fix worked for very little and soon more effective measures were required. Again Roberto engaged a wrestling match with the wind this time to pull the jib all the way down from the roller-furler. I don’t know how but I am very glad he succeeded. I was at the helm, trying to avoid any dangerous gybe running after the storm and I could only see Roberto’s headlamp shining from the bow.

Roberto after the storm sleeping on the jib
Roberto after the storm sleeping on the jib

Like the last of Hercules’ labors the dousing of the jib was the last hazard of that long night. As the dawn light spread across the clouds the wind remained of gale force slowly decreasing. Now it was time to admire the 20 feet high, sometimes higher waves that were towering around us, the spindrift flying around and the turbulence drawn by the gusts on the back of the waves, the spectacular turquoise water under the foaming tips of breaking waves. With no much energy left we surrendered to the finest spectacle offered by Nature. Without electronic instruments to measure wind speed we could only estimate their force referring to our past experience. I personally never been in such conditions before and I can say that I experienced the strongest wind and highest waves of my life. We agreed that more than 40 knots blew for the most part of the night, with 50 and stronger gusts during the near knockdown. The night time and the bad weather surely contributed to increase the sense of danger and perhaps affected our perception, but there is not doubt it was a hellish night of severe weather.

The sea state after the storm
The sea state after the storm
A breaking crest coming for us
A breaking crest coming for us

We tried to resume the regular schedule onboard, allowing the crew to rest after the long night, but we soon realized that something was wrong inside the boat. Somehow water found its way inside the cabin, soaking everything on the starboard side, from the navigation station (charts, log book, electronics) and on the rest of the cabin, where Roberto and I stored our luggage, soaking the mattresses and the fresh lining in the bunks. All our phones, stored in a drawer, were gone after a deadly bath in salt water.

Monitor Windvane back on duty
Monitor Windvane back on duty

We couldn’t believe it but all the starboard side of the boat was wet and so our belongings and our sleeping place. I’ve lost many phones before to salt water (mostly falling in the water while boarding dinghies) and although it is a bad feeling, you know it’s just a phone. What was very upsetting was the bedding and clothing. I was left with only one shirt and one pair of shorts, more or less soaked from the night before. We were still 500 miles from Houston, still with thunderstoms around us and on a boat that was not as comfortable as when we left. I was suddenly reminded how important is to have completely a watertight boat.

Click here to read Part III

Sailboat delivery with a twist(er) – Part I

I like boat deliveries. It’s one of those sailing jobs where you are actually paid to sail. Sometimes when skippering private or charter boats I end up sitting somewhere doing maintenance and waiting for guests that undertake short trips, mostly day trips in protected waters. Nothing wrong with that but when it comes to sail a boat and squeeze miles out of her, deliveries are my favorite because you are on the clock and your customer satisfaction depends on how quickly you can move the boat from point A to point B. Even if it’s not a race, and the safety of crew and vessel are of the utmost importance you can’t simply take it easy, you have to keep going and sail as efficiently as possible to destination.

Southern Cross 31 before departure
Southern Cross 31 before departure

Deliveries are good learning opportunity as you have to sail different boats, try different designs, gear and equipment. When the owner of a Southern Cross 31 was looking for skipper and crew to move his recent purchase from Brunswick, GA to Houston, TX I immediately felt like I wanted to jump onboard. I found the route interesting as I never sailed the Gulf of Mexico (never been to Texas either) and I was curious to see inland Florida through the Okeechobee Water Way. On the other side, the reputation of the Southern Cross 31 as a very seaworthy boat was another attractive feature of this project.

Designed by Thomas Gillmer, the Southern Cross 31 is a stout, double ender cutter. Her full keel and heavy displacement of 13,600 lbs (for a 31 footer) suggest that she is not a bolt and that her windward ability may lack some efficacy. The cutter rig however allows for a generous amount of sail area and flexibility in terms of adjustments to various sailing conditions and wind force. The SC31 is also known to have a very comfortable motion in high seas, and being relatevely roomy and able to carry supply make a boat for sailors that intend to go long distances.

As other designs built with the same philosophy (which can be dated back to the pioneeristic work of Colin Archer) such as Westsails, Allied Seawind and some of Bob Perry’s designs, this type of boat is often considered as the ultimate bluewater boat, for the extreme sturdiness and quality build, the conservative sail plan and hull shape above and under the waterline.

While I am not a great fan of the design, this delivery was a great opportunity to test my opinions first hand. It’s incredible how dogmatic and opinionated you become as soon as you start sailing, and it’s good to remind myself how little I know about boats and how much to learn is out there. I have to admit that even if I developed preferences and opinions about designs and outfittings, I like almost any boat. It’s hard to explain but there is something interesting in all of them!

To help me in this trip I once again had the luck to have Roberto, that helped me before with leg one and leg two of Tranquility’s trip. He helped me very much in assessing the boat conditions, making all the adjustments we needed and offering solid manpower during the hardest parts of the trip. He is the kind of person I’d sail anywhere with, and I am glad I could share another trip with him.

First Leg: Brunswick to Ft.Pierce

The first part of the trip was harder than I expected. Not only did the crew have to learn how to properly set up a boat that’s been filled with the latest equipment and accessories but never really sailed hard, also the weather didn’t cooperate. Since the beginning we had our share of hard work trying to make South and East against a moderate southeasterly breeze.

Just after leaving St.Simons Sound we had to steer clear of the shoals out of Jekyll and Cumberland Island, and that took us almost 20 miles to the East, and very little to the South. That same evening Coast Guard issued a severe thunderstorm watch, with a whole set of damaging winds, torrential rain and lightning strikes. We listened to the advisory on the VHF radio and having lived few months on the coast of Georgia I experienced how most of the times those advisories resolved in a bluff, much ado about nothing, and we were hoping to get a bit of a favorable blow from the W to finally start to make progress towards our destination. We furled the jib away, took one reef in the main and left the staysail up with blind optimism.

This time USCG predictions were accurate and the first hit of the squall sent the boat on her side and as I was taking the tiller from the hands of the Monitor Windvane, Roberto had to run to the mast and reef the mainsail down to reef number three. Lightnings were all around the boat, very loud and creepy and in just few minutes we were completely soaked and shivering. After the first violent blow we managed to stabilize the boat and put her on course for maybe half an hour before the wind died again and turned from the South, leaving us wet and with little progress done.

To try to put miles behind us we spent the night motorsailing and the same happened the next day. Luckily we had a reliable inboard Yanmar diesel engine and we didn’t hesitate to crank it up when necessary to make progress to point B. Again, 24 hours later, off Cape Canaveral we had severe thunderstorms but this time we were well prepared and we anticipated the downburst and kept a good control of the boat during the squalls giving also the owner the opportunity to be at the tiller on a fresh broad reach in near gale conditions.

Light breeze the next days put our arrival time in Fort Pierce for late night and after tackling the inlet channel riding a strong incoming tide we made a sneaky approach in the dark and tied up in a marina with the plan to refuel in the early morning and continue to Mile 0 of the Okeechobee Water Way in Stuart, Florida.

Second Leg: Okeechobee Water Way (OWW)

Loaded up with fuel we began the long motoring days of the OWW through the St.Lucie River. The calm waters and little traffic allowed us to reorganize the boat and make the necessary repairs and upgrades.

Despite thousands of dollars spent in equipment and gear (including enough spare parts for a couple of circumnavigations), this boat had been sitting on a dock in Brunswick for several years and never sailed anywhere. A sad story heard before, the dream of long distance sailing vanished and the boat moved in different hands a couple of times. As often happens during deliveries this was more of a sea trial that pointed out the condition of the boat. Thinking back to our experience on Tranquility and other boats I am starting to understand how you need a passage of at least 500 miles to really put a boat through a minimum test. Few systems that worked perfectly when the boat was tied up to a dock started to fail, the brand new sails were not properly hoisted, the fridge failed and the AIS stopped transmitting.

As we were steaming around the inlets of the East Coast of Florida, we found and removed some seawater inside one of the lockers under a bunk that was not there before the trip. We used all our brain cells to try to unfold the mystery, with little success. The occurrence did not repeat so we put our mind at rest.

The crazy freshwater-macerator-holding tank system for the boat’s head failed almost immediately but Roberto was smart enough to MacGyver a fashionable repair that allowed us to use the head again, even better than before. Then the fridge stopped working, so I had to start pulling out feasty banquets of meats and perishable food to avoid the spoiling of our provisions. The spirits were high when we moored in Indiantown, FL at the local marina (obviously after working hours) where we also enjoyed the company of other cruisers and a load of fresh beddings from the laundry.

Port Mayaca Locks: Roberto waiting for divers in the lock
Port Mayaca Locks: Roberto waiting for divers in the lock

Not all evil comes to harm, and so do the failures onboard. During the trip the new owner had the chance to assess the boat and to have an idea about what he really needed onboard and what were haute couture sailing accessories. His desire was to undertake an offshore passage and learn more about sailing. Instead of waiting on an armchair for his boat to be delivered, he bravely decided to be part of the trip despite a recent injury that limited his mobility. Together we formed a cheerful trio that endured the difficulties and discomfort of long distance sailing.

Lake Okeechobee: it's like to be in the middle of the ocean
Lake Okeechobee: it’s like to be in the middle of the ocean

The rest of the trip on the OWW depended on locks schedules. Divers doing extraordinaire maintainance on Port Mayaca locks messed up our timing and progress, as we had to wait for two hours tied up to dolphins. Once they let us pass, the crossing of Lake Okeechobee was like an offshore passage, as in some portion of it no land was on sight. We chose the Route #1, directly across the lake, as it is the most direct way. We encountered hostile armies of mosquitos when we anchored out of Moore Haven after missing the last opening of the lock by 5 minutes. The clutch and the throttle failed right there during anchoring operations, so we had a nice repair project to deal with. Luckily it was no big deal so we enjoyed a quiet afternoon, spotting birds and alligators and eating more chicken.

Ft.Myers signed the return to civilization, and busy life. After a comprehensive provisioning at the local supermarket, refueling and deserved showers, we checked online weather forecast that stated no hazardous weather was on our trajectory for the first part of the trip. We also found a solid block of ice to keep our provisions fresh.. Everything conjured to make a prompt departure the very next morning.

Click here to read part II

Seek and Destroy

Mid March may not be the best time to start thinking about 2015 resolutions. Getting through the first quarter of the year however helps to skim the unreasonable off the cauldron of expectations. The recent  approval of my permanent resident status (Green Card) gives us more oxygen and several degrees of freedom to think about the next moves, and what is going to be with our lives. So with this renewed spirit one should think that now the way is all downhill (or downwind). Well, that’s not exactly the case.

First we have to ask ourselves one question: are we ready to resume cruising? Sadly the answer is no, and even if it’s unreal to think that one day Tranquility will be in perfect shape, with every detail addressed and we will be full “ready”, loaded with enough cash to sustain the costs of cruising, we have to be honest and admit that the day we are cutting dock lines and sail away is not imminent.

We were contemplating a summer cruise of New England shores, the same shores that saw us on the first chapter of our endeavor. The idea was to leave Coastal Georgia in May-June and head north to savor the wonderful summer in New England. That area had been my home for two summers, the first one as professional crew on Superyachts, and the second as a boat owner who was assembling his boat to go cruising. In neither case I had the option to freely roam the coves and anchorages and to explore historical and naturalistic points of interest, as I was alway “on duty”. It seems that this desire has to wait a little longer.

But why this is not possible next summer? Well something happened while we were wintering in Brunswick, waiting for the green light of the Green Card. And that something was me. I started to take apart Tranquility even more than I did during the previous months. One piece leads to another, and nearly every single component of the deck has been removed. The boom lays down on the deck, the electric motor and batteries hauled out, part of navigation station ripped off. Kate and I observed this process happening with fear and awe, as spectators of an ineluctable fate.

Removing rotten teak on the bow stem
Removing rotten teak on the bow stem

There no such a thing like a small or partial refit. Tranquility was in shape enough to sail the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and she did a good job in protecting us from the severe winter but yet she is not as we imagine her. There is a real Tranquility and a dream one, and the reason why we are investing more time and money is because this two Tranquilities are still too far apart from each other. To bridge that gap the extent of the refit must be enlarged.

Refurbishing the galley
Refurbishing the galley

It is extremely difficult for someone doing their first refit to accurately assess the time, expenses and details of preparing a boat for a voyage. I did other refits on different boats, and no matter the budget and the expertise involved it seems that project management and boat refits cannot go hand in hand. The process is pretty much the same: I start with a little improvement, like re-grouping the batteries in a more rational position and then I have to modify the existing navigation station to host the batteries, remove the existing electrical system, build new floor, and so on… For some reason this path lead to the replacement of the existing ladder and the creation of new and bigger counter space. Little by little every out of date part of the boat is going to be replaced or repaired or refurbished.

A little more destruction
A little more destruction

We have to say that Brunswick is definetely a good place for refitting your boat all year around. Almost too good as departure keep being postponed.

Brunswick, where the hell is that?

This is where we live
This is where we live

We initially moved to Brunswick when James Baldwin offered me an apprentship after visiting us on Tranquility. We were transiting in Jekyll Island, getting ready to land in Florida and find us a good spot to make some money and improve the boat. We never make it further than St.Mary’s on the State Border. We decided instead to give James and Brunswick a chance. After one year we are still here and this must mean that Brunswick is not a bad place at all.

Even if sometimes I feel like we ran aground in the marshes of Glynn, it’s remarkable how many good things happened to us here. We had been introduced to the South, with its culinary specialties (see Oyster Roast and Low Country Boil) and the proverbial courtesy warm hospitality of the population. Soon enough we friended some special people, keen souls who are rooted here or following a similar pat, ran aground. Kate is already a notable person in the community and I personally learned a lot working side by side with James Baldwin, having helped him in many of his sailboat refits.

Tranquility is not ready also because my standards have risen and seeing what James did on other boats changed the idea of what is possible and impossible in terms of boat customization. While we were summering and wintering here few important things had happened. Kate and I got married in very hot day in Woodbine, GA. Subsequently I applied for a Green Card which was approved just recently. The Green Card process itself was very demanding and time consuming, kind of a part time job. No wonder it was a very busy time here in Georgia!

Anyway, we can’t afford to live in a perpetual dream of boat perfection. Wether Tranquility will be closer to perfection or not, winter is coming, this time with some tropical weather and crystal clear waters waiting for us. The time of the distruction must end… just let me deal with a couple little more things that I don’t like…

Misty Mountain Hop

Mountain wilderness has always fascinated me, long before the ocean did. The Alps are just at a stone’s throw from my hometown in Italy, and most of my growing up memories are related to walking in the woods, swim in mountain lakes and climb rocky peaks.

When it was time to figure out where to travel for our New Year’s Holidays it wasn’t difficult to pick the mountains. Kate and I needed a change of scenario from Coastal Georgia and the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Atlanta were the closest available option. Relatively close, I have to say, as it takes almost 7 hours driving to get there from Brunswick.

Even if life is sweet in the marshes of Glynn I felt the need to look at a different landscape. It takes some courage to find the time and the determination to do it, to subtract it to social life, work and money and general everyday schedule that ends up trapping our lives. It so much rewarding to be able to leave and go, and see what you haven’t seen before, and I am so lucky to share this attitude with Kate. We can say that we took  our souls on a date.

New Year's Eve ©Kate Zidar
New Year’s Eve ©Kate Zidar

With the burden/blessing of a multiple course feast we had for New Year’s Eve and tired by the consequently cooking and clean-up we jumped on the car the very first day of 2015 and started the journey. We killed two birds with one stone (I am practicing stone’s related idioms) visiting Kate’s siblings in Atlanta. It was nice to spend holiday time with family. Atlanta is so close yet so far there are not many opportunities to do it in the course of the year, when the Schedule reign.

After the Atlanta stop we drove up the mountains to a cabin in Chattahochee National forest. The forecast for the weekend was heavy and non/stop rain. Leaden sky, misty and grey, a true Appalachian atmosphere. We had to make a change in our plan, from hiking to sight seeing, using our car to explore the scenic roads of the Blue Ridge mountains.

Cabin portrait ©Fabio Brunazzi
Cabin portrait ©Fabio Brunazzi

UNICOI STATE PARK

Nestled in the Georgia Mountains, Unicoi is a state park that surrounds the 53-acre Unicoi Lake on Smith Creek. Kate dragged me to see the Lodge, which is a fancy building that serves conference groups, families and individuals with guest rooms, meeting space, restaurant and catering. We had no business there but to get a bit of free wi-fi to continue our planning of the visits. Nonetheless the staff was very welcoming and allowed us to walk around freely and to visit the building. They also gave us a straight forward advice: if we are interested in booking a room during low season we should just bypass the reservation area of the website and call the lodge: when the season is low they are always willing to meet your budget for a room in the lodge. Forewarned is forearmed.

HELEN, GA A FAKE ALPINE TOWN

Economic development strategies are to be judged by their effectiveness and the one that transformed Helen, GA into a touristic destination was a very successful one, even though bizarre. Once a logging town, Helen suffered a severe economic depression until a group of businessmen decided to invest and create a replica of a Bavarian village in the Alps in the 70s. Even national franchises as Huddle House and Wendy had to surrender to the style imposed by the zoning authority. Today Helen is a popular destination, with many restaurant and shopping areas.

We were unimpressed by Helen (as you see no pictures were taken), which is a bit disgusting for the kitsch style and the obvious inauthentic architecture. We had to take at least a stroll through the city and dine out. Thanks to Kate who is always able to extract local knowledge from store employees, we found the best restaurant in town, which obviously is not Bavarian and it doesn’t even have a Bavarian-style building. Bigg Daddy’s proved to be an authentic non-german restaurant and we still remember with pleasure the Jumbo Wings with lemon pepper hot sauce!

ANNA RUBY FALLS

Kate and the Falls ©Fabio Brunazzi
Kate and the Falls ©Fabio Brunazzi

The twin waterfalls lie in the hearth of the Chattahoochee National Forest and can be reached after a short and pleasant walk from the parking lot, the ideal condition for our rainy day. So when we hit the road to our NW route to McCaysville we made our first stop at the falls, where we had a wet little hike, some moment of meditation in the mist and a curious encounter with a pine-needle/spaghetti worm.

The spaghetti worm ©Fabio Brunazzi
The spaghetti worm ©Fabio Brunazzi

MOUNTAIN CROSSINGS

Visiting the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center at Neels Gap was like a pilgrimage for us, as the site is an important crossing of the Appalachian Trail. In 2012 Kate and I took a summer trip to Maine and we visited Baxter State Park and Mount Katadhyn, the northern end of the AT. We were fascinated to learn about the AT and dreamed that one day we could hike it.

The Hostel at Walasi-Yi ©Kate Zidar
The Hostel at Walasi-Yi ©Kate Zidar

Walasi-Yi is a Cherokee word for “big frog” and it’s the original name of this area at Neels Gap. The native american people used to have a village very close to the actual position of the building, but they had to leave through the infamous “Trail of Tears”, the removal of the Cherokee Indians and other native tribes from their life long home in 1838. According to eyewitness John G. Burnett, “… many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefoot. […] The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire.”

A recount of the "Trail of Tears"
A recount of the “Trail of Tears”

The actual stone building was built in 1934. Through the years it served as restaurant and dance hall, and today it houses a Hostel and an Outfitter shop right on the Appalachian Trail, which passes through the building, marking the only covered portion of the trail’s 2100 plus miles.

HANK B.

Our itinerary was designed around a specific appointment. We wanted to go and visit Hank, a man we met exactly one year ago in Cumberland Island. He was very interested int Tranquility, sitting at the dock by the ferry and we started to chat. After few words, we were all sat in the cockpit eating nuts an talking about sailing, and life afloat. He offered to trade his mountain cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains for our boat. We felt very tempted but we sticked with Tranquility. When we decided to go up in the Blue Ridge Mountains we called him, to see if he was still around, and he invited us to meet him in McCaysville, where he lives.

Old copper mine in Ducktown, TN ©Kate Zidar
Old copper mine in Ducktown, TN ©Kate Zidar

Hank took us on a tour of the area, first crossing the border to Tennessee, where we visited the abandoned copper mines in Ducktown. The scars of the mining is still evident, but trees are starting to grow back and repopulating the area. For Kate this was the sign of a profound legacy with her Pennsylvania ancestors who used to work in a mine town.

The system of dams on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar
The system of dams on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar
olympic course
Olympic Course on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar

The second point of interest that Hank showed us was the system of dams on the Ocoee River. TVA manages the dams to produce electricity and to control the river flow for recreational purpose. The whitewater course on the Ocoee River was created for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and it is dependent by the water control system of the dams. In Spring, when they open the water, a group of kayakers and whitewater rafters gather to run the first wave down the river. Sounds like great fun!

TALLULAH GORGE

The gorge from up top ©Kate Zidar
The gorge from up top ©Kate Zidar

Weather improved the following day so before driving back to the lowcountry we stopped in a gorge-ous place. Tallullah Gorge is a set of waterfalls that flows in a steep little canyon. The interpretative center give tons of informations about the history and the nature of the Appalachian Region, and the trails around the waterfalls are easy and accessible.

The gorge at the bottom ©Kate Zidar
The gorge at the bottom ©Kate Zidar

Walking around the gorge on a finally sunny day gave us the opportunity to discuss some of the plans we have for 2015. After a static 2014, where we consolidated our situation after leaving New England in a hurry, we expect to start travelling again. There are plans to point Tranquility’s bow on a northern route later in Spring/Summer, to explore the great crusing grounds of New England. There is also a plan for a family meeting in Italy next August, in the beautiful scenario of the Alps. Quod erat demonstrandum, I live on the Ocean but I belong to the Mountains.

Blue water, green land

It’s been a while now since last time we went cruising. I am lucky enough to go out for quick daysails with James Baldwin on his F27 trimaran in St.Simons Sound. Tranquility is chained to the dock, her interiors are torn apart once again, tools and building materials scattered all over and a rich ecosystem of sea creatures is growing on her hull.

Trimaran

Tranquility tied at the dock
Tranquility tied at the dock

The long-term landlubber world is back with sweet and sour feelings. The awe for huge size fridge and freezer, water and ice dispenser, laundry anytime, full size shower and wide spaces is slowly disappearing and fading behind the curtains of normality and habit.

From this safe and comfortable territory the visions of the open ocean are haunting me. As frequently happens for the process of remembering, which is bounded to the sense of smell, what keeps stalking me is the smell of blue waters. Out there, starting dozen of miles from the coast and extending to thousands, there is a peculiar smell, a smell of fresh air and spindrift, a smell of gliding birds and jumping fishes, a smell of biomass drifting just below the surface busy in their photosynthesis and cellular respiration cycles, a smell of clouds and winds and evaporation and condensation. This is blue water smell.

This is where you find blue water smell
This is where you find blue water smell

When you miss something you start to recognize its value. That’s how I feel now that we have to stay on land for some more time, looking for a future departure that has not a date yet. The comforts of life in the society are not enough to nourish a soul who experienced the blue water. I feel that too much comfort is killing me.

But life on land is not without pleasures. I am enjoying having breakfast in the backyard, in company of a wide range of color and sounds. The squirrels are busy running up the pecan trees, birds are quietly scooting around, flying bugs patrol the weeds. Behind the fence I face while sipping my coffee lays a whole universe of intricate vegetation. This adjacent lot is part of the priopriety but has gone fallow, and when that happen in South Georgia you have to expect a massive uncontrolled growth. And so, among the duties of a busy land life and the never ending boat works, we are fashioning to embark in a new adventure: recapture the jungle and make it livable, ensuring a good level of biodiversity and creating a little and safe niche for human activities.

Safe Backyard facind the jungle © Kate Zidar
Safe backyard facing the jungle © Kate Zidar

The first step of this adventure started cutting the combination lock of the gate with the grinder. Once the access was granted we started the exploration of the jungle and made our own way to the creepy shed buried into the vegetation. Inside the shed we found any kind of treasures, including a couple of chairs to add to the collection of the backyard, more tools for the garden, building materials, a lots of other items all piled in a chaotic way.  After this first incursion, we withdrew behind the safe line of the fence to elaborate a future attack strategy.

Conquering the shed © Kate Zidar
Conquering the shed © Kate Zidar

This gardening adventure is keeping my mood up from the blues of blue water nostalgia as I am elaborating a personal project: I would love to make a place for Zen meditation practice inside the garden. I think it’s a good way to immerse myself in the nature and temporarily substitute the smell of blue water with the smell of a garden. The presence of nature is very important to me, there I find real comfort in this increasingly industrialized and technological society.

An improbable playwright

         “Writing is a fine thing, because it combines the two pleasures of talking to yourself and talking to a crowd.”

Cesare Pavese, This Business of Living (1935-1950)

 

Writing the play in Old City Hall, Brunswick GA
Writing the play in Old City Hall, Brunswick GA

The last time I wrote a theatrical play I was a student, probably ten or more years ago. Nonetheless when I saw the opportunity to do it again I responded promptly even if this time I had to write it in a second language and a third language too (I wrote few lines in Spanish). This invitation was conformed to my umpteenth and most recent re-statement “I have to write more”.

24 Hour Play is an event that took place last Saturday in Brunswick, GA when six writers, six directors, and a bunch of actors gathered with only 24 hours to write, direct, rehearse and stage 6×10-minute plays, and with the mission to make it happen. I did my part writing “Wanderers”  from 10 pm to 4 am. Writers were given very few rules and a lot was left to pure imagination. Kate also participated acting in one the six plays, called Noir-esque, and showing a great talent on stage. You never stop learning from your partner.

Theater is magic. I have very few stage related experience but every time it is a great emotion and a personal success that I can’t explain. There is a chemical process that happens all the way from the script, to the production, the direction and the acting. In every passage things are refined and polished.

The first time I experienced this process we were a bunch of youngsters randomly assorted to set up a show with only one prompt: the main theme had to be “Black&White”. It was an event organized in a dormient neighborhood city of the Greater Milan. The event featured a B&W photo exhibit, African percussion and choir concert and, of course, theatrical performance. I had no previous experience in theatre thus I was nominated as producer, writer and actor. We couldn’t find many volounteers so somebody had to cover multiple roles. We gathered as many experienced actors as possible and they really taught everything to novices like me. The result was a show of four plays divided in two acts that was very successful.

I witnessed this thing happening again during the 24 Hour Plays. My script mutated through this process as better lines for memorization (and sense!), new ideas on how to set the story and new stage elements appeared along the way. These mutations bred a hybrid that really pleased my senses and understanding. I have to thank the director Megan Desrosiers, and the team of actors Itzel Fernandez, MacKay Hall, Bill Piper, Elliot Walsh who transformed my script in a living creature. I also have to thank Lulu Williamson, Evy Wright and Emmi Shepard Doucette for the big job of making all this happen. I would do it again tomorrow!