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.
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.
“One thing about the sea. Men will get tired, metal will get tired, anything will get tired before the sea gets tired”
Sitting at anchor enjoying the nice breeze and the shade provided by Kate (and her mom’s) newly designed boom tent is a good payback for all the sweat and effort, all the tense moment when we couldn’t see an end to our work and it seemed that we could never leave. Gazing at the nearby beach, observing any kind of wildlife, from sea birds to dolphins to bros riding jet skis and rude power boaters (there are few kind individuals in the category) put all this preparation labor on perspective. Now it’s time to enjoy.
Nonetheless to fully enjoy our new life afloat we had to go trough countless details and preparation. A couple of passages in the open ocean and very soon we found where our preparation lacked and how bad our sea legs were. Cooking meals, resting and even personal hygiene can become difficult tasks out there. Exhaustion by sun exposure, waves shaking and wind can bring to episodes of delirious speech with a low deep tone of voice. Auditory hallucinations are not rare either and happen when your brain mistakes a particular sound for a baby’s cry or for somebody calling your name.
It took a long time to get our sea legs and cruising routines back on track. Sea legs are what keep you standing (or sitting) on top of a vessel accelerating and decelerating under the action of wind and waves. I suspect sea legs are a combination of motor control (governed by the cerebellum in the brain) and muscle tone of the core, so it takes training and exercise to establish a harmonic posture in relation with a shaky floor.
The very first offshore legs put us in survival mode, with the rolling and tossing of the boat depriving us of our natural strength, appetite and comfort. Even without being fully seasick, we were carrying a sort of malaise. We hung in there resting as much as we could and holding on as of we were waiting for the ride to come to a stop.
“One thing about the sea. Men will get tired, metal will get tired,
anything will get tired before the sea gets tired”
An engineer’s observation about the collapse of Texas Tower 4 in 1961
Gradually we built up some resistance and developed routines. On board Tranquility we use a 4 hours watch system that starts at 20:00 (8 pm, First Watch) and cover the rest of the 24 hours so the boat is never unattended.The person on watch is in charge of navigation duties, making sure the boat stays on course, keeping a proper lookout for hazards and weather change and updating the Ship’s Log. The other crew member lays in the bunk, trying to rest but ready to be summoned in case of “all hands on deck” situation, or “condition one” as we like to call it. We strictly stick to the schedule but we are also flexible in case conditions arise or if it’s time to make landfall.
Beside navigation duties we have daily chores that are split between the two of us and include cooking three meals a day and washing dishes, redding up (Pittsburghese for cleaning), ensuring that the cockpit snack bag is always full, washing and drying rags, towels and clothes, waste management (composting toilet redd up, trash and recycle locker) and Personal care and Beta care.
The watch schedule and the work routines help to keep us busy and comfortable. When it is properly planned a passage at sea will be mainly smooth, with occasional rougher bits, so it’s important to be ready to face the unpleasant weather in good condition and spirit. If you let the boat get dirty and messy it will affect your well being. If you don’t eat, drink or rest enough you will be tired soon.
As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and so we are picking up with the old habits and safety protocols, by trial and errors. Three years ago, we sailed the opposite route in much worse conditions, during the winter and in a barely fixed boat. Now we remember that trip as if it was not a big deal. Why we became such wimps? It’s probable that memory erases the bad parts and retain the good ones.
We are still learning a lot, and we are lucky that Tranquility behaves so well. She is a tough girl, we have been the weak ones so far. She protected and transported us during the first thousand miles of sailing while experiencing winds in the range of 4 to 40knots, the latter number only briefly during thunderstorm gusts.We have an ample range of sail area available to adapt to different wind and sea conditions and the modifications to the deck and sail controls seem all very successful. The introduction of a third reef in the mainsail, the new boom vang, the sheeting blocks for the staysail, the bowsprit for the cruising gennaker all contributes to a finer sail tuning and ultimately boat handling.
Now we are taking a prolonged stop in the friendly Fairhaven, in the South Coast of Massachussets. This is the place where Joshua Slocum rebuilt his 36ft. gaff rigged sloop Spray, before setting sail for the first ever recorder singlehanded circumnavigation of earth 121 years ago. Incidentally this is where we purchased Tranquility, fixed her up and set sail in November 2013.
We don’t have such an ambitious circumnavigation plan, but we feel the power of the maritime lore of this place. Fairhaven is the fairy tale New England village in front of the rougher city of New Bedford, the “city that lit the world”, the whaling capital of the world portrayed in Melville’s Moby Dick and the city where Tranquility was on stands in a boatyard while we feverishly prepared her for sailing. We have so much connection to this area, friends that keep helping us, favorite places and memories. We are going to keep sailing, visiting other wonders of New England, but this is probably going to be our home base for the next few months. Until winter will force our next move.
Daydream is a Columbia 9.6 originally built in 1977 and professionally rebuilt since 2005 by a boat engineer, ready to sail. She is an ideal boat for liveaboard, exceptionally spacious for a 32 footer and with all the possible comforts, and tons of extra. The boat is on the hard in Clinton, CT and will be available from Spring 2014.