For long our plan of sailing exotic destinations has been put under salt for many reasons. Little by little we removed our impediments and finally set our course South.
We departed Brunswick on Monday 24th and made it only as far as New Smyrna Beach, FL, a mere 120 miles away. We transited the Ponce de Leon Inlet right at sunset and dropped anchor in a random shoal just off the ICW.
The reason for such a short hop was health. Both of us felt pretty sick, not only for the crazy motion of our small craft but also for something that we ingested pre departure. I spare you the recounts of symptoms and experiences of this illness, nothing pretty. Without some disappointment we had to make the call to pull over and anchor, to heal and re-gather strength.
We sail a primitive boat, with limited auxiliary power so everything we do has to be timed with favorable weather conditions. Weather is a Master we have to obey.
We had such favorable conditions at the beginning of this week in the form of 15-20 knots blowing from the West allowing us to move South along the Florida coast and reach a favorable hop spot to Bahamas. We could have made it not stop in three days, but we decided nothing good could come from keeping at sea in our sick condition.
Now that we blew this weather window we may have to wait quite a bit. We felt pretty bad about it, as rookies who can barely handle discomfort. It was a tough call, especially knowing what the weather had prepared for us and what is showing for the next days.
Even if our current status is not what our imagination envisioned we are indeed “on the road” in a place we have never intended to visit as often happened before. Our Master will decide how long we will have to stick around and what will be next for us.
A little more than one week ago we were at anchor in Cumberland Island, enjoying the warm weather and the gentle wind. Mornings are still chilly this time of the year in these Southern lands and seas, but when the sun shows up they climb quickly and make it a wonderful place to be.
We anchored in the north side of Cumberland Island, by the ruins of Cumberland Wharf. Right in front of the stumps left from the old pier the water is deep enough for us to be still floating at low tide. Unfortunately it is a not very protected anchorage and can only be used with wind from the E or the S. That prevented us to stop here in other trips, but this time weather was with us and we had a pleasant day and night on the hook.
Kate wanted to take a stroll in this particular area of Cumberland Island to see the first African Baptist Church, built in this settlement in 1893. A beautiful forest, with many trees down from recent tropical storms, surrounds the Settlement, so thick that it is almost impossible to cross out of the only road that is built in the area. We disturbed peaceful armadillos, looked at wild horses from a safe distance, picked up juniper berries, while walking through the forest.
There is a need for loneliness and remote areas that has a profound effect on me. It must have something to do with my feet, which are my main form of transportation right now. In quiet an unobstructed places early mornings became my treat retreat. No internet connection means freedom from constant feed and social media. It calms my urge to express quick and shallow thoughts.
Places like this have a restorative effect. There is nothing wrong with people, but I don’t particularly like what is built for people. Roads, parking lots, concrete surfaces, they all bring clutter and negative vibes. They all serve a purpose: take you fast and comfortably to a place where you can spend money.
In the morning I usually take some time before making coffee to write whatever comes out of my mind, without a specific aim. Then I make coffee and continue with writing or reading as I wait for Kate to wake up. It is my only private moment aboard Tranquility. Kate usually enjoys the same privilege at night when I crash earlier than her.
There is an article about Tranquility’s refit coming up in the May issue of Good Old Boat Magazine. I’ve been in touch with the editor working on few details of the story and pictures. It makes me feel a little like a professional, the exchange of information back and forth, the check coming into the mail, the editing process. I am trying to read and write better, with more intensity, and focus. I am not sure if I could ever make a living out of it, it should be nice indeed. Writing itself stabilizes my mood. I become cranky and distracted when I don’t do it enough. So you won’t get rid of me so easily.
After Cumberland Island we sailed with a clear blue sky and enough wind to move consistently toward our destination: St.Marys. I am rather pessimistic when it comes to estimate our progress, especially when we have to use our slow motor. It might not be very powerful but is indeed perseverant, and we sailed quicker than expected to destination. There we reunited with our friend Bill and other people we got to know when we were in the boatyard for a month of hard work. We visited and saw their progress, indeed slow but perseverant. If you keep moving you eventually get there.
Saturday the strong Northerlies kept us at anchor. We tried to make it to Fernandina Beach in the afternoon but the effort was not successful, we couldn’t make way in a bend of the river, where the current and the headwind brought us to a dead stop. We retreated a few hundred feet back and dropped the anchor again, then we waited for the next day when the wind dropped, and started to move timing the tides, ebbs and flow, trying to get to the inlets at low tide to use the next flood.
Again, with the use of sails and motor we did remarkably well and we darted through the marshes of Florida’s barrier islands, a journey made of dolphins encounters, birdwatching, fighting the currents and the shoals. My mind that usually see the darker picture, predicted that we would have to stop in Amelia Island and wait for the next tide the following day. Instead, winds, currents and a little help of the motor when needed, put us all the way past the Talbot Islands to a free public dock in Jacksonville, right before the St.John’s River. There we celebrated, with delicious food and with a dose of spy movies to be precise.
With this unexpected progress, we arrived earlier than I thought to Palm Cove Marina, so Kate could go easily to her doctor’s appointment.
Why am I so pessimistic? My mind often wanders about how to build faith. Not in the religious term, or maybe so, but for me faith means a deep motivation and sense of direction. It’s possible that my interest in psychology comes from a desire to know deeper why faith is so volatile, why, basically, the mind gets in the way of your everyday life, with worries, negative thinking and other sort of anxiety-driven doubts.
Every reduction of this problem to a mechanistic view never really answered my questions. What’s the role of bad thoughts, of second guessing, of self pity? Is it something we can dismiss easily as just wrong or unadaptive or something to cure and eliminate? Is being happy and have a positive outlook to be normal?
These are some big philosophical questions, big crevasses that are hard to fill by knowledge. Depression is real, and it is no joke. It affects everybody, but in peculiar individuals, particularly sensitive ones, it takes an enormous toll and becomes a struggle.
I recently read a little more about one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace. He was clinically depressed. And he was one of the most successful writers of his generation. Eventually he could take no more and committed suicide. I am sure he experienced extreme happiness, an perhaps extreme boredom. I can imagine his life was intense and full under many points of view, with vertiginous highs and bottomless lows.
Looking at people with severe clinical depression makes me withdraw from my self pity and negativeness. I don’t consider myself depressed. I have indeed my moment of darkness, boredom, laziness, cowardice and so on. Still, I look to people that show profound faith and hope with a bit of envy, as an example, or maybe as a myth, because we tend to share only our nice part with others. The undesirable thoughts and behavior are hidden by a curtain of shame. Even there, I look for faults. It seems that people obsessed with Positive Thinking go in a downward spiral because it’s so hard to really be positive all the time. Showing just the positive and shiny parts, they hide the dark ones.
Robert M. Pirsig, who also suffered from severe depression, wonderfully put it in words in an article he wrote for Esquire called “Cruising Blues”:
You can be sure that the same mechanism that makes depression unavoidable also makes future elation unavoidable. Each hour or day you remain depressed you become more and more adjusted to it until in time there is no possible way to avoid an upturn in feelings. The days you put in depressed are like money in the bank. They make the elated days possible by their contrast. You cannot have mountains without valleys and you cannot have elation without depression. Without their combined upswings and downswings, existence would be just one long tedious plateau.
I found that moving slowly, a little bit like Tranquillity, gets you out of any situation. Keep moving slowly and things will get better.
Another disturbance in these day of rest, is the role of fear and attraction. There is a common saying that you fear what you desire. My current fear is thinking about sailing the northern route across the Atlantic. At the beginning of all this it was like a fun idea that Kate and I created once we started our boat project. The scary part at this point is that we might do it. When you start considering that a thing may happen Fear shows up, and it can be paralyzing.
There is this stretch of ocean between Newfoundland, Canada and Iceland called Irminger Sea. Named after a Danish explorer, this part of ocean that borders the East Coast of Greenland is considered one of the windiest of the planet. It is studied by oceanographer because of its peculiar oceanic currents, that sink and resurface, and play a fundamental role in the nutrient cycle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Is that scary? Yes, but it is also exciting, daring, emotional. It’s a place where not many people go. But somebody did, in many different crafts, with the more diverse crew.
Geronimo St. Martin, an Argentinian physician made it solo in a 20 ft fiberglass production sailboat, named La India. He later made it to Norway, Spitzbergen, and the Arctic circle, before turning around to reach Cape Horn, on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean.
A family of 5 who call themselves the Coconuts (two adults, three kids, now four with the last delivered while wintering in Iceland) made it on a racing boat in October, not exactly the “right” time of the year.
These examples don’t mean that this is an easy and comfortable trip. But it’s possible.
So why this fear? Because I am scared I am not disciplined enough to cope with potentially severe conditions? Because I think that my body is not strong enough to endure the trouble? That my mind will resolve to panic in a difficult situation? Because it is a place so remote that emergency responder may not get to? For sure, all the above.
Human mind assumes it is more likely to face death attempting that route rather than another one. It may be true but calculating the odds could not be that simple or possible at all, and death has very humorous ways to get to you. Fearing the Irminger Sea is both wise and stupid. Wise because it puts you in the face of a very hostile environment. It’s stupid because any Sea or Ocean is worth respect, and we as sailors should pay the same attention, awareness and preparation every time we go out at sea.
But I am also attracted by novelty, and at this point of my life a tropical beach with bar, wi-fi connections, crowded anchorages, fine dining and warm clear waters is not something that intrigues me anymore. Remote and rugged, quiet and isolated are all adjectives that sound more attractive. There is eternal beauty that waits to be discovered. Even cold assumed a new desirable meaning. The only thing I still can’t go over is cold water. I have a natural, visceral fear and avoidance of cold water. In this Kate is much braver than me.
So what am I really fearing? I am fearing the effort, the amount of preparation it takes, the awareness, and the bare thousands of miles in cold water, fog, strong winds? The fear of failure, that comes from the judgements of others?
I can’t make my fear shut up. Fear is energy. Fear is useful. In this case fear is telling me not to underestimate the task and to be prepared for it. And there is only one strategy that doesn’t work with fear. Avoidance. When you avoid fear you bring it with you for the rest of your life.
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.
Sometimes we embark in ventures and projects with a clear idea of our goals, a defined timeline to respect and the necessary resources. We put in our best good will and hardworking ethic, because we really want to make it happen. Of course, it doesn’t go as imagined, but we correct our actions to still make it to the arrival.
Then the unexpected struck. Sometimes it’s truly the work of fate, other times it’s a miscalculation we made, something we forgot to take into account, a costly mistake. When it depends on external factors we tend to be more proactive or forgiving, but if the fault is ours, we get mad at ourselves.
At least this is how I do.
A friend of mine returned a call after few weeks. He was abroad for work but The Immigration Services called him back for an interview to renew his green card. All of the sudden I remembered that I too am expected to be interviewed again sometimes next winter. I forgot about that.
I immediately realized that our much dreamed Caribbean sailing was at risk, because I am supposed to fill a very long and complicated form with data I already submitted, return in front of an officer after two years on a yet not defined date, bring the same evidence that my marriage is as lawful as two years before, pay another expensive fee, have my biometric taken for the second time on a not yet defined date to make sure I did not incur in genetic mutations. And pay a separate fee for it.
That made me sad first, then mad, then depressed again. Last night I had a dream that I was sailing to Scotland in winter. Is my subconscious telling me that am bound to an uncomfortable future ?
Going to the Caribbean anyway and wait to be summoned at will could be very expensive and risky. If we miss the interview then they may revoke my status. Staying in the US for another winter it’s definitely more expensive, not counting that we already visited this coast twice.
The mindset of setting sail from this known coast to less known horizons was the fuel that propelled our journey to cruising. Events out of our controls had already delayed/modified the plan in the past, for the best, to be honest. The frustration of things not going according to the plan is something that I already know and I learned how to cope with.
Still, it hurts.
And still, having to modify the plans again will bring different opportunities. Every fork on the road opens up a new universe of opportunities. What is waiting behind the corner of this not wanted plan?
So while we prepare for this unmpteenth encounter with the bureaucrats and modify our route, we ask ourselves: what fantastic opportunities are in front of us?
There is a still atmosphere in Tranquility’s cabin. Kate tastes her latest culinary feat and approves it. <<It’s very good!>> I can hear her saying. Tonight we are going to have polenta and chickpeas and sardines fused in a tomato sauce, a revisitation of an old recipe from a camping trip in the woods of Maine.
Food is ready, deck is secured for what Hermine will decide to throw at us during the night and Labor Day’s morning, as we rest a little while the other boats around us hurry out for the last hours of nice sailing, before it gets too windy. Rest, after all this is what I am supposed to do. I have a cold.
Tranquility sits in Newport Harbor, holding tight to a mooring ball that a kind friend, Clarissa, is letting us use. It sits right in the center of the carnivalesque parade of Labor Day tourists, super yachts, and classic racing. There are better days to visit Newport, but our un-planable voyage doesn’t take into account what’s better or desirable. Things just happen. And so this is going to be the place where we will weather this weird Tropical Storm that just brought destruction to what used to be our home port, Frederica Yacht Club.
We held our breath when we got the first reports from Georgia, while our brave friends were doing all they could to save the salvageable. The impact was severe and a lot got lost or damaged, but luckily our closest friends weathered it fine. Hermine shouldn’t have the same impact up here, but we hold tight as this one already showed its capricious character.
I did not retrace the steps that took us here in Newport yet. The story of our cruise North is stuck in Ocean City MD, and a chapter or two are still due. I haven’t yet found the time and energy to bring you up to date. I will comply with my intentions, but this time it may take me longer than expected.
I am not in a creative drought, nor I am too busy sailing. My mind is focused on a new writing project, and so this blog is affected. I am trying to develop a new blog, and this time I am want to re-start from scratch. The best gift that long term cruising has given me so far is some time and tranquility to grow a seed that was probably inside me for a very long time.
Time doesn’t erase older parts of you and so I have to eventually deal with whom I used to be, or to be more precise, with what I used to do. I used to study and experiment with human behavior. From a selfish point of view, I tinkered trying to change myself. For my paycheck, I helped others face change. In either case I discovered that change is inevitable, sometimes sudden, and when I was exposed to sailing for the first time, some unexpected reactions transformed me.
The aim of my new project is to see how well Psychology and Sailing mix. Not very much is out there on the topic. My research found that most of this hybridization consists in Sport Psychology applied to competitive sailing. After all, even racing is a discipline that rests on mental pillars, like strategy, decision making, coping with stress and team building. But I suspect there is more.
Ok, I spilled the beans, would you follow me on my new course?
Sailing in the vicinity of capes is always tricky. Wind, waves, tide and other natural events shaped their appearance and at the same time those forces are influenced by the mass of land they collide with. A vessel rounding a cape is subjected to variable conditions, and for this reason it’s always a good idea to give extra miles when rounding a headland or promontory.
The East Coast of the US has several capes that influenced our route in many ways. Mainly they were obstructing our NE progress. After Cape Hatteras, we could all of the sudden head almost due North, and get faster to cooler weather. Sometimes to go around the coast feels like climbing mountains, the effort increases close to vertical peaks.
Wrighstville Beach to Lookout Bight, NC 72 NM
A group of open water swimmers was taking advantage of the early hours and of the momentary absence of boat traffic to practice. Tranquility was the only boat under way and from the cockpit we watched carefully the colorful swim caps and kept a good distance from them. It must be a popular group in Wrigthsville as we counted at least 50 people taming the inlet at 6 am. The sun was barely up but it was clear it would be another hot day.
We had enough wind to leave the Masonboro inlet and head ENE again, but soon we hit lighter conditions and the boat speed suffered. We were hoping to get there at dusk but the pace was not ideal. The wind picked up later when we were already in sight of the Beaufort inlet and the sunlight was gone. After the last gybe we had all the rolling waves hitting us almost on the beam as we were following the bearing of two red buoys marking the entrance of the bight.
We were trusting our chart plotter that was giving us a depth of 30 ft. It was a lie. Right when we heard the sound of braking waves and realized we could be in trouble, the boat hit the bottom with the keel. A sandy bottom judging from the sound. The long keel of our boat just bumped in a sand bank, we turned immediately to port where we found deeper waters and we adjusted our position to the blinking red buoy.
We had approached the entrance with a too tight angle and the Navionics Charts had assured we were in no danger. It was a lucky way to demonstrate how chart plotters are not the solution to navigation problems. Had we listened more carefully to the sound of the sea or took a wider, more conservative angle of approach and we could have avoided that. Good lesson for the future.
After the surprising and scary bump we were sailing in flat waters as the land had already cut the swell from the ocean. This time it was upwind as we turned SSW to get in the lee of the sand dunes. It was time to decide where to anchor. We observed the anchor lights at the top of masts, trying to judge the distances from the beach, from other anchored boats and find the good depth to drop our anchor. With a quick look at the horizon it became also obvious that a line of thunderstorms was on our way.
After a little recon we let the anchor sink to the bottom in 17feet of water and I was giving enough chain and rode out to absorb the thunderstorm charging for us. Just as I cleated the anchor rode and positioned the anti chafe gear the squall hit us with some violent wind gusts and blinding rain from the NW. As the anchor had no sufficient time to set, it started to drag away from the beach towards deeper waters.
Luckily we had no obstacles in our path and finally the anchor set bringing our bow to the wind and waves. I calculated that we dragged at least 200 yards before the anchor found a good bite and started to dig into the sand. The thunderstorm raged for few minutes more, before continuing on and leaving a quiet night behind. When visibility improved we noticed we were a little distant from the beach, but we were now trusting the holding of our ground tackle.
We spent few days in the bight. One day we swam ashore and walked all around on the beach. The next day we hiked the beach and the dunes and made it to the other side in the hotter and sunnier day I experienced this summer. We made it, but it was a serious feat. During these hikes, we talked a lot about ideas, a torrent of ideas. Business plans, life plans, travel plans a big collection of our imaginary world had been discussed, analyzed and then dismissed or saved for later discussion. We thought about possible uses of shells, writing ideas, financial investments. Walking enhance our imagination to the point that we could even end up arguing furiously over an imaginary plan that is far from having any foundation.
I consider the Lookout Bight one of the nicest place on the East Coast of the US, especially if you have the opportunity ti visit it on a boat. Crowded during weekends, it is remote during weekdays and at night it is absolutely quiet. We swam a lot and I even did my first bottom scrub since we launched the boat. The day we left, when the conditions we were looking for to face the longest and most difficult section of the trip finally came, I noticed a sand shark surfacing and trying to reach my breakfast pot… Even though I am aware how harmless they are, I am glad I went scrubbing the hull without knowing about it!
Lookout bight to Ocean City, MD 289 NM
We expected very light conditions for an extended period of time before venture out of the Bight to round Cape Lookout first, and Hatteras later, and that’s exactly what we got. We had an upwind first part to get around the cape, so light air was actually good, as the flat seas didn’t obstruct too much our progression. Once around, we received a little help from the Gulf Stream that pushed us NE.
I think the best explanation ever of how an ocean current works is from the Disney/Pixar movie Finding Nemo, when Crush the turtle shows it to Marlin <<You’re riding it, dude. Check it out!>>
It was a very nice ride indeed. The Gulf stream current flows close to the Outer Banks Coast. We were sailing downwind about twenty miles offshore in light winds and still we had a steady progress of 4kts even 5kts at times. On a calm ocean we slipped into our watch routine mile after mile and had no visits from thunderstorms. The depth sounder took a peak of what’s outside the Continental Shelf and settled to 385 feet (apparently its maximum reading), but according to the charts we were in an area of 1600ft of depth. Kate shivered trying to imagine such an ocean depth. Here the water was really blue and turned violet when the sun was setting.
The round of Hatteras went almost unnoticed. For the entire trip we kept talking about it like it was Cape Horn or Good Hope. Even if it’s blasphemous to compare it to some of the most stormy capes in the world, Hatteras has a bad reputation among sailors in the East Coast, and we were constantly warned when they heard us talking about going around. Cape Hatteras is also known as “the Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of many shipwrecks happened in the area. The presence of the Gulf Stream, the fierce storms that hit both in winter and summer, and a very thin and steep Continental Shelf make this cape a place not to underestimate and to avoid in bad weather.
After Hatteras we turned the bow North and passed the Chesapeake entrance to continue along the Delmarva peninsula. Our destination was Ocean City where we had the mission to find supplies, regroup and organize the next leg. I remember looking at the charts and asking Kate “How is Ocean City?”. She replied that she spent few summers there when she was a child. “It’s a crazy place you must see”.
Ocean City was attractive to my eyes because of its easy inlet in case we arrived in the dark (as our habit) and for the presence of marinas and shopping facilities. After three weeks at anchor we needed to replenish our fresh water and get a good deal of food. With some 300 miles to get to New England it was one of our last chances to stock up.
We obviously arrived in the early AM in pitch dark and I hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF to ask if the inlet had any recent change from what the charts were telling us. They gave us green light and we approached carefully. With so many buildings and lights it wasn’t difficult to find our way into the inlet and we reached our destination, Ocean City Fisherman’s Marina at 3 AM, tying up at the fuel dock waiting for them to open.
It was a Saturday morning and fishermen were already leaving. Kate called the owner of the Marina at about 3:30AM convinced that she would talk to the voice mail. Instead she woke him up. She apologized but he reassured her that he was coming earlier anyway because of the early birds coming to the fuel docks, so he told us to go tie up to a near slip and that we could talk later.
We checked in easily and with the BoatUS membership we were granted a discount. We stayed two nights for 101$, which considering the season is not bad at all. In the morning we noticed that ours was the only mast in the marina (and probably in all West Ocean City). All around us sport fishers and other type of powerboats were the only boats.
We walked a lot, but all the shopping was close by so we quickly completed the list of our errands. On a saturday night we walked to the board walk, which is this crazy loud, sugar fueled, amalgam of people flowing up and down. Kate wanted me to try any sort of sugary extra caloric eatables and I settled for sea water tabbies and caramelized cashews. On the next monday we left early with a fully provisioned boat to get to Cape Henlopen, with the plan to sit there and wait for a good weather window.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
We hit the two months mark since we have moved back aboard Tranquility. So far it has been 24/7 work and I suspect it won’t end very soon. The difference with the previous condition is that now we are finally untethered: we sold the car, we have a provisioned and fully mobile boat and we took care of few bureaucratic conundrums strictly related with life on land. So now we can move where it pleases us!
Not too fast, though. The brake at this point is the condition of the boat that keep changing over time. We are making constant improvements in the degree of comfort and sailing performances since the beginning of April. Like the life cycle of a star, the interior and the deck keep going through a alternate state of expansion and contractions. Tools and parts come out of storage, the content of every locker and box has to be moved around, and everything shifts and gets hauled somewhere else. Every time things are put back together we can see the improvements, but then the next job brings more chaos aboard. It is definitely not easy to live and work on a boat, and this is so far limiting our mobility. Luckily we can work at anchor so we don’t have to necessarily be tied to the land, and every trip ashore we unload garbage and unnecessary items gaining more and more living space.
Despite this apparently erratic behavior our preparation happened with a specific spreadsheet-assisted path. Every step put us closer to certain milestones and eventually to the end of the preparation and the beginning of the trip.
The first milestone was to leave the docks. After two years spent running a landlocked life, Tranquility was able to get unchained and make a very slow progress toward the next step, the boatyard. It took us a few days to get there. Our destination was rather close but we experienced issues with some freeloading marine animals and vegetables that were squatting peacefully on the bottom of our boat seriously limiting our speed on the water and ultimately on the ground. Once we were lifted outside of the water they were brutally eliminated, with little or none compassion. This slow pace made for nice time outdoor, timing the tides we moved from anchorage to anchorage, savoring wonderful sceneries between St.Simons and Cumberland Island, all the way into St.Marys and the boatyard.
St. Marys Boat Services became our new home for 1 month. Personally I have been in many boat yards before but this particular one deserves a special mention. It’s very uncommon to find a place where you can both live aboard while working and have free access to their tools. I am not talking about a drill or an angle grinder. Here you have access to a woodwork and a metal shop equipped with table saw, drill press, lathe, welders, belt sanders and other exciting shop tools. The managers are friendly and ready to find a way to help you in every possible way. The community of liveaboards has set some common spaces and rules of cohabitation so it’s easy to meet interesting people, ready to share stories and knowledge.
On the hard we had the opportunity to lose and find again Beta, our cat, who jumped ship for two weeks. We also had a good look at our bottom, dropped the rudder, had a machine shop put a square key in it for a new tiller cap, we replaced the propeller, removed and fiberglassed two thru-hulls, repaired a water intrusion in the deadwood, repainted the topsides, sanded the old bottom paint and put 5 coats of new antifouling, installed a Norvane self steering, new lifelines, interior wood work and painting. I probably forget a lot of other jobs that happened while we were looking for our cat or trying to stay cool in the hot Georgia climate. I have never been a fan of 44oz Jiffy mart fountain drinks, but working in the Georgia heat made me change my mind and I learned how to add more water to the ice after the drink was gone to extend the cooling effect. This is life without refrigeration.
I’d like to go through the details of our work as I did in the past but lately the pace is too high to both work and write about it. I even feel a little guilty in writing this post as the job list is waiting for my attention. You would wonder what possibly is left to do on Tranquility after a two year refit. If you owned a boat before you probably know the answer. If you didn’t, think twice about buying a boat. The reality is that a boat is never fully finished and wrapping up projects may take more time that you can possibly expect.
Eventually splashing time arrived, after one month exactly. I feel proud of what we did in this amount of time, I am usually pretty unsatisfied with my speed, but not this time! We immediately enjoyed being at anchor in the marshes of Camden and Glynn. The first day at anchor, right in front of the boatyard, we simply laid down and did nothing for the whole day. Then little by little we resumed our course, together with high doses of Battlestar Galactica. Now we are back where we started, saying goodbye to friends and provisioning the boat for a long trip, and of course checking off few more jobs on the list.
If you like to see us on a map, check our Delorme track: https://share.delorme.com/sytranquility
The itch of going back to the ocean has often disturbed my ability to see all the gifts the Golden Isles provided us with, from wonderful friends to work opportunities, all surrounded by beautiful wilderness and by the warmth of a great sailing community.
Two coats of epoxy primer wrap Tranquility’s deck as I walk the dock in the cold morning, the first sunbeams reflects on the pure white forming little drops of dew on the surface. The hard work is slowing paying off and the grey tormented deck is already a memory. One more coat will hide any further mark of underlayer with an immaculate cloak, then the sexy two-part polyhurethane paint will have the perfect stage to play its glossy role.
Painting and sanding punctuate our days. The weather rules our schedule, as we are doing everything in open air, vulnerable to atmospheric change. We look for dry days, the warmer the better, but this time of the year in Coastal Georgia warm means humid and we have to adapt to good enough conditions. It’s always a little too windy or too humid or too cold. We don’t have the luxury to wait for the perfect day and we do the best with what we get. Other events, from family visits to work obligations, decide when we are able to continue working. We keep pushing but we can’t always walk at the pace we would like and our March deadline is getting closer every day.
As we work to change our mindset and we go through our belongings I am feeling a profound appreciation for the place we have been living for the last two years. The itch of going back to the ocean has often disturbed my ability to see all the gifts the Golden Isles provided us with, from wonderful friends to work opportunities, all surrounded by beautiful wilderness and by the warmth of a great sailing community. We and Tranquility went through a lot during this time, more than we could have possibly hoped for when we first launch from New Bedford, MA.
My parents recently visited us from Italy. It was their first trip to the US and we showed them around and took them to our favorite spots in this part of Georgia. We weren’t able to see them all, as they are too many. Through their amused eyes I could see once again how wonderful this coast is from many different points of view. There will a be time for goodbye and as we approach it the feelings of gratitude and nostalgia begin to pay us a visit. But it’s not time yet, we are still here and we have to keep the paint flow.
The “Idea of Self” has given me trouble since I had memory. When sailing became an unexpected reality in my life these identity troubles got complicated.
The very first time I sailed it was on a 51ft sloop with a dead engine that we took 136 miles away from departure to give her a brand new propulsion apparatus. I still remember that as no biggity, even though I should ask Fernando (the skipper) about it. All the work needed to push the boat with the dinghy through a swinging bridge in a choppy channel in front of a crowd of waterfront breakfast eaters was just new fun activity for an incompetent sailor like me.
Then there was the first dream about taking off on my own boat: it was a sailing Cayuco (dugout canoe type) from the Kuna people, my belonging stuffed in watertight barrels, coasting South American shores and pulling on the beach every night to enjoy a bonefire and a sound sleep on a hammock. No mosquitos were bothering me in those fantasies. I even dared picturing some offshore sailing in such a craft. It remained a dream when other events dragged me away from Kuna Yala before I could accomplish it.
What is left of that naive man today? Training and experience, in one word knowledge, added layers of complication to the art of sailing. The present is filled with words like safety equipment, ideal ground tackle, auxiliary mean of propulsion and proper sized elecrical wiring, as well as a lot of gadgets and products that “you can’t sail without” pushed by marketers and opinion leaders. It is extremely hard to make order in all this crap.
Since Tranquility owned our lives, I experienced shifts in what was to be expected from a boat, oscillating from “really just a hull that don’t take water in” to “safe, unsinkable, performance-oriented sailing machine”, sometimes being happy to fall in the first category, sometimes working hard to achieve the latter.
It’s hard to tell why Tranquility chose us, she won’t tell. Being far from the “perfect boat” she challenged our own Idea of Self, our needs and our goals. She proof tested our skills and endurance, she took the majority of our money, forcing us to visit places we had not planned to, before leaving us stranded in an unknown point on the chart. She made ask ourselves if we were ready and when that will be. In synthesis, she changed us.
I am happy I am a different myself, even only for the fact that there was a path in these years, any path really. I can still look behind, look at me now and think about what will come ahead. When past and present look alike, there’s a chance that the future won’t be different. So in the end I am happy about this incongruity.
I usually welcome change. Helping others going through change was part of my career back in pre-financial crisis Italy, so I can’t exclude I suffer from the prejudice that sees change as inherently good, necessary and unavoidable. Sometimes I look back with nostalgia to the man that wouldn’t hesitate to embark in an unsafe, uncertain journey on an ill-equipped vessel, and I wish I hadn’t changed.
Knowledge and experience can be a heavy and safe anchor, but when it grows too big it could block any movement at all. The restoration chapter of Tranquility has gone through the same pattern. We started performing the quickest cheapest and unfinished jury rig repairs to be able to leave before the winter gales, and now we would spend a considerable amount of time and money to make things “the best we can”.
There are definetely good learning coming from this endeavor, but the more we remain attached to a dock and in the range of hardware stores, marine suppliers and Amazon Prime, the poorer we become and the less likely we are to unmoor as the perfect boat is nothing but an illusion.
“Je connais des bateaux tellement enchaînés Qu’ils ont désappris comment se libérer!”
(transl. “I know so chained boats
They have forgotten how to break free!”)
Maybe Tranquility needed somebody who would give her an anti-age treatment, new life out of tiredness. Maybe she had something to teach two illiterate sailors like us, or she was looking for warmer climate to retire. Maybe it’s all or none of that, it’s very hard to get her to cough the story up. Or maybe she is not immune to different Ideas of Self battling for supremacy. She used to sail across the ocean, she has it in her bones and chances are that she misses it very badly.
I know boats that are never really finished but this doesn’t stop them from setting sail. And I have the suspect Tranquility is one of those boats.
The last post of the delivery trilogy was holding up my writing and creativity for too long, and writing it was like a big let go. There was also something else occupying my resources: our wedding re-enactment in front of family and friends. We called it “Family blessing and feast” because technically speaking we are already married.
We didn’t have a public celebration when we walked in the Woodbine Courthouse a little more than one year ago, just a handful of witnesses who had a free day and a secret but lovely suprise party from local friends when we got back. Even if for “The Law” we are a family we felt important to celebrate our union in front of our kin people and also to check if our families were somehow compatible. We had some good vibes about it but you are never sure until you try so why not try to organize a family blessing and feast in La Cialvrina, a wonderful resort in the Lys Valley?
Kate and I have been busy planning a destination wedding for 80 people in the Italian Alps, with guests traveling from all over, one of those things I loved but that I really hope I would not have to do again. We were in Italy for a month to give us enough time to put something together for the people traveling and to try to make that a vacation for them. The amount of stress and work involved grew as we approached the event, and beside some invaluable help and support from our friends and family (and the amazing staff at La Cialvrina!) we did it all by ourselves, planning, executing and improvising. And we did a darn good job!
Kate is a terrific planner and organizer and I like to work with groups of people, especially leading tours and organizing transportation. But that should be a well-paid job because it’s a lot of work that really wore us down. I understand now why people who get married do honeymoon… We really need a vacation! Unfortunately our honeymoon will be delayed to Spring 2016 and between here and there there is a big chunk of work to be accomplished. We hope it will coincide with our departure on Tranquility, the original project that exists since before we decided to get married.
So now we are back in Brunswick, with the jetlag gone trying to pick up life right where we left it before the “Italian affair”. The restoration projects on Tranquility need a restart and this time of the year the priorities are set by the weather: because of the frequent thunderstorms passing everyday over the Golden Isles I must do a good job in waterproofing the last leaks on the boat. A boat with dry interior is a luxury we are ready to pay the price for, even if it’s hard to stop leaks under huge rainfalls.
But it’s not just that. We now live on land, in a nice house with a wonderful and popular roommate, a band of happy animals, a backyard a bathtub and many other luxuries. Over time we got used to certain comforts and we also accumulated junk to store and maintain. The plan to go back to a full time living in a 29ft. boat requires a re-downsizing and re-organizing of our life and this takes some serious work too. Not only muscular work but also mindset work. Luckily we did it once already.
We are trying to figure out “how” but the important step is that the “what” is pretty clear. As happened during past endeavors planning, executing and improvising will happen if we keep our eyes on the goal, and the holy energy emanated during the “blessing” is the fuel we need to get us there. I promise to post a little more about the how when I figure it out myself a little better.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the lower speed for the quietness 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 flowing towards Houston. At dawn we entered Galveston Bay and reached Clear Lake City, where the owner proudly docked the boat in his slip.
There Roberto and I 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.
Unfortunately 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.