A sailing pilgrimage

When I think about our journey I like to think we are on a pilgrimage, even when it’s not clear what is the destination. I may not know the destination of the journey, but I know the sense of it, or at least this is what I tell myself. It sounds more or less like this:

Redesign life through interaction with nature and the discipline of sailing.

On this pilgrimage we are currently  in Portsmouth VA, where our Columbia 29 MK1 was manufactured in 1965.

According to advertising material of the time Columbia Yacht Corporation opened its eastern plant in 1964 situated on a nine-acre on 2400 Wesley street in Portsmouth,Virginia. Looking at her now, 51 years after leaving the factory, Tranquility is in a very good shape.

We didn’t want to walk for 1 hour under the rain to visit a site which with all probabilities has completely changed. I feel a little proud of our little boat, still sailing. Sometimes I have weird dreams of making her lighter, without an engine and other “extras”, to enhance her sailing abilities, but then I wake up to reality when I think about boatyard time and realize it’s not time to do that. Not yet, at least.

Tranquility is probably happy to be underway again after two weeks in Hampton VA. The family trips went well and we much enjoyed the time together, the request for the removal of the conditions on my permanent residency is in the mail, heading for Vermont, and we hope for a quick response. Now it’s time to go back to sailing.

The first sail after the break was nice and fast. The boat moved at a good pace down the Elizabeth River pushed by northerlies, surrounded by a surreal vulgar display of power. Aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, hospital ships and other less familiar types were docked or under shipyard care while jets, helicopters, and Command and Control aircraft buzzed around.

Navy ships under repair in Norfolk VA
Navy ships under repair in Norfolk VA

We reached the free public docks in Portsmouth, VA where we met a bunch of fellow cruisers docked for the night. It’s coldish, and we are not used yet to be with no heater. Temperatures are expected to plunge further in the next days, so we are moving carefully, using the days that are in the low 40s to stay at anchor and save money, and digging in our sailing budget to dock and use shore power when it goes down to 32 as it will.

It’s our second trip southbound, and for one reason or another, it seems that we can’t avoid to run late and face cold weather again. Days are short and we find ourself in bed after dinner at 7pm and up after 7 when the sun finally comes back. Our sleeping bag and each other’s body temperature are our best allies, even our cat limits his night roaming to snuggle with us and find warmth.

The good thing about it is that we can read a lot, write, cook hearty meals, listen to the radio. Kate and I are playing tug of war over a book titled Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a reportage written by Jeremy Scahill about the use of private contractors for security and military operations in war zones. It’s a bit repetitive in its construction, but it’s dense with truly scary information mostly about what happened in Iraq and in other unlucky places on earth.

Weird enough where we are now it’s only few miles away from Academi‘s (the new name for Blackwater) main facility: 7,000 acres (28 km2) in the Dismal Swamp. There is a canal where Tranquility could sail that runs between Chesapeake, Va to South Mills, NC. Unfortunately the canal is closed after hurricane Matthew created some obstructions on the tight ditch. I guess we will have to delay hearing gunfire until we get to Camp Lejeune.

More than marshes, barrier islands and wide sounds, it’s the military presence (with the colorful addition of their competitors in the private sector) that sadly dominates East Coast landscape by sea, a reminder of America’s strength and beliefs, if someone forgot.

On a lighter note I spent time focusing on the launch of the new website, Psychology of Sailing. I had the opportunity of interviewing few specialists, both in the Psychology and Sailing fields, about this project. I feel that I am researching the topic widely before I can confidently write about it. I forced myself to a deadline, so time is running and soon I have to break this doubts and publish.

To know better the world of live aboard cruisers I am also conducting a survey with the aim of studying a little more the phenomenon. I you know anybody cruising for more than 6 months please ask them to contact me.

If you want to receive the first post and you are interested in following this new website you can subscribe at Psychology of Sailing here. Help spread the word!


ICW days

Like in a dream we left Fairhaven and sailed offshore for more than 400miles. Then it was like waking up in Norfolk at mile 0 of the Intracoastal Waterway (aka ICW)  during a creepy cold week and don’t know exactly what to do. In front of us there were long motoring hours along rivers, channels and sounds with one eye on red and green markers and the other on the depth sounder. Our electric drive had come to the final test. The boat needed more improvement and downtown Norfolk was not exactly very welcoming for a sailboat. If we had a destroyer or a aircarrier it would have been more easy to find parts and labor. We had a slow wake up, like if we were sleeping in and craving for a robust coffee. Then the bad cold weather disappeared and we had no other choice than to start moving.

© Kate Zidar

Norfolk to Pungo Ferry Marina (23 miles) Saturday 30th November

Late start on Saturday looking for filling up the tanks for our honda generator. We made some progress down Elizabeth River thanks to good northerlies that pushed us down the first part of the Intracoastal Waterway. We thought we were the slowest ass on the ICW but “Ra” a solar powered trimaran was even slower than us, at least at the beginning. With no mast the weird boat overtook us at the bridges, that we dramatically found all closed so we had to spend the waiting time doing donuts under sail as close quarter tack and gybe practice for Kate. After the Great Bridge Lock we packed the mainsail and rely 100% on the setup electric drive/ generator, keeping a cautious 3,5 kts average. The generator keep us going but it is noisy and we can’t really listen to music and we have to speak louder. When the dark hours caught us we were close to an abandoned marina. We read that somebody before us used it as a mooring so we approached the abandoned fuel dock with caution. With great surprise we found somebody to handle lines to. It was Oliver a singlehanded sailor (with two dogs) that overtook us (like many others) just afer the lock and that had the same idea to moor on the abandoned marina. The place was very creepy and the night extremely cold.

© Kate Zidar
© Kate Zidar

Pungo Ferry Marina to Coinjock (18 miles) Sunday 1st December

A nice warmer day saluted us on this motoring trip. We moved across wide winding turns and swampy shores, a very short trip that left us some daylight to explore the surroundings. Unfortunately there is not much to do or see in Coinjock and to me it looked like a truck station on the highway, a stop and go place with two marinas and one restaurant that is famous for a 32oz prime rib. I instead ordered Shrimp and grits that is becoming one of my favorite southern dishes.

© Kate Zidar
© Kate Zidar

Coinjock to Manteo (29 miles) Monday 2nd December

Finally the first proper sail in the ICW! The wind in the morning was very light but soon we had enough breeze to turn off the electric motor and to move at a much more adequate pace. We sailed on flat waters in a sunny day all the way inside Manteo harbor where we moored at Waterfront Marina. We had the pleasure to meet the Dockmaster Carl Jordan, who came to get our dock lines and very kindly introduced us to the village answering with a smile to all our questions. Manteo is a great little town, small enough to be pictoresque but well equipped with everything you may need. There is a town dock that is free of charge for longer stays. We wished we had enjoyed a longer stay but the weather forecast pushed us to leave very early the next morning, for a long trip to Hatteras.

© Kate Zidar
© Kate Zidar

Manteo (Roanoke Island) to Hatteras (45 miles) Tuesday 3rd December

Long boring motoring day across Pamlico Sound. We had a little thrill with the current in the channel close to the Oregon Inlet, but after that short moment we had a bit of sailing in those narrow channels escorted by flocks of birds. We arrived in Hatteras in the dark and we performed a silent ninja approaching to Village Marina. Once moored we found out that the Island was shut down because of the recent bridge misadventure (more info here) and there was no open restaurant  in miles. After walking around the whole evening looking for any possible food we sadly come back and exhausted we dined on Cup Noodles. In that very moment it was a noticeable culinary experience. We did one day stop over in Hatteras because of rainy weather and also attracted by this famous location. We rented bikes and wet but happy we biked to Hatteras Lightouse for some tourism. I also bought myself an anticipated christmas present: reel and rod for offshore fishing.

© Kate Zidar
© Kate Zidar

Hatteras to Ocracoke (23 nm) Thursday 5th December

We were hoping for more sailing that day, but the forecasted wind delayed a bit too much and we again had to motor and to use the noisy generator to keep up with the batteries. We moored at the Town Dock (right beside the ferry) that was pretty cheap and had power and restrooms but no showers and no hot water. We had a nice island time . We found the good restaurant we were hoping to encounter in Hatteras (Gaffer’s). Here we met some nice people that introduced us to the life on the island.

© Billy & Becky
© Billy & Becky

Ocracoke to Oriental NC (49 miles) Friday 6th December

After some organizational hassles during the departure we finally set sails. Well this time the wind was a bit too much from the West and Tranquility was immediately heeling on starboard side fighting with some choppy seas first in the southern part of Pamlico Sound and later at the mouth of Neuse River. Kate had some KO time so I had some solitary steering that made me appreciate once again the ease of handling of Tranquility. With no autopilot but just well trimmed sails I could leave the cockpit and do some work on the foredeck while the boat was keeping the course with no hesitation. As the wind increased the seas became more steep but we kept going and tacking and Kate resurrected from the bunk to enjoy the sailing and giving a huge hand on deck. We finally approached Oriental in the dark.,doing a great job finding the channel and approaching the harbor, with perfect coordination and teamwork despite the hard and cold day. We finally decided where to moor, so we got prepared. At some 30 ft from the slip in perfect aligment we got stuck. I couldn’t believe it, there was a shoal just in front of the slips, where other boat were moored. How could that be possible? We tried our best to get out, hoisting sails, hanging from the side, but nothing worked. My mouth stopped to obey me and I wans’nt able to comunicate with Kate in a proper comprehensible language mixing up english, spanish and italian. We were both weared, hungry and just looking for an end to that journey. The last 30 ft of that leg were the most arduous. We kept it together and decided to bring two lines to the pylons of the slip with the dinghy.  Once the lines were attached we put them on the winches through the bow fairleads and winched the boat out of the shoal into the slip. (see diagram). After the misadventure we spent one more day in Oriental, also because it was raining all day long, and we discovered why we got stuck: for some reason the wind direction influence the tide in the harbor so we entered with SW wind that lowers the water in the harbor, while wind from NE raise the level. We left with good NE on Sunday morning with no problems headed for Beaufort.

© Fabio Brunazzi

Oriental to Beaufort (21nm) Sunday 8th December

Short trip with a nice speed under the mainsail only to favor visibility in the channels. We moored in Town Creek Marina, that is famous for the unfriendliness of the staff and confirmed the expectations. We are right now exploring the area and dealing with condensation inside the boat that is taking a big toll on us. The colder weather up north saved us from this phenomenon. As we are getting in warmer waters the temperature excursion and the humidity is contributing to an unpleasant experience.

© Fabio Brunazzi
© Fabio Brunazzi

Next step will be Southport NC, this time out in Onslow bay, to get some miles under the keel and some good wind in our sails, abandoning the populated but monotonous ICW. I felt protected and pampered during this route but also like a prisoner in confined spaces. I hope more offshore sailing will shake off feeling stuck.


Tranquility Voyage: Leg 2 Block Island RI to Norfolk VA – 385 nm

I believe there are mainly three reason that made this long passage possible: Tranquility, the weather and Roberto.

Starting from Tranquility I can only be happy about her. We purchased her following a positive feeling we had when we stepped onboard for the first time in a random yard (and positive reviews, especially on atom voyages website). We were anxious about testing her offshore, to confirm the accuracy of our intuition and the reputation of the Columbia 29 as capable of offshore sailing. The crew feedback is positive and unanimous: easy sail controls (reefing is a piece of cake), no sprays on deck (and on us), well balanced rig and performing sails (made in China) that allow to reach hull speed with winds of 10-15 kts. We felt safe for the entire trip, even during the most challenging moments.

We picked a very fortunate weather window departing Block Island last Tuesday at 11pm with northwesterlys blowing 20kts. The complicate part was leaving Great Salt Pond with the wind on the nose. We motored our way out the channel at about 1 knot, slow but steady, without pushing the throttle too hard worried about loosing charge and finding ourself stuck in a dangerous situation. As soon as we cleared the channel, we were in full sail on a beam reach passing Montauk and Long Island on our starboard side. The forecast was very accurate and we had costant NW winds with temperatures in 30s and 40s, cold but not too much. We experimented occasional light winds but for most of the passage we had constant favorable wind that made us decide to keep going and leave Cape May and Ocean City behind, aiming for Norfolk VA. A plan that SW winds forced us to abandon in favor of a stop in Wachapreague, 65 miles away from Norfolk. The perspective of having a dinner in a restaurant and a hot shower far outweighted one more night and morning at the helm. Navigating the salt marsh inlet was not a joke and we felt the mud under the keel more than once, but we eventually got there and had a great dinner, a deep sleep and a touristic morning waiting for the next high tide. The last portion of the leg was an easy and happy sail down to Cape Charles and the Chesapeake entrance where the approaching cold front got us and forced us to reduce sails and to a “sporty” cut to Elizabeth River and Norfolk; two long, cold and windy hours till we safely moored in Waterside Marina Sunday Morning at 2am.

The third and very important reason was our temporary help, Roberto. This passage wouldn’t be possible without him. Two crew and no autopilot would have been too extreme for a winter passage in the North Atlantic. We would’t have enough stamina and skills to do it. Plus Roberto is a kind of sailor I admire: even though he is a commercial licensed Superyacht captain with many years of experience he still has the enthusiasm and the feel for adventure to accept and enjoy such an unconventional and challenging trip. One image is representative of his contribution to the trip and Kate had the pleasure and the thrill to witness it: when she emerged from down below after her rest time she saw me and Roberto disassembling and reassembling the tiller while simultaneously steering the boat in choppy seas. His contribution was not only in terms of hands on deck, but he also suggested and performed important upgrades while keeping a joyful presence onboard. A fresh pair of eyes like Roberto’s couldn’t have come at a better time, when Kate and I needed a push and new ideas after the long, tiring and winding summer refit.

Now we are sitting in Norfolk, waiting for better weather, resting and upgrading our little home. We feel cozy in here and we can’t wait to continue our trip south along the Intracostal Waterway, a severe and interesting test for our electric engine as motoring will be crucial.