Friday, December 28, 2007

Living the Dream

The other night, I returned to the boat to spend my first night alone since leaving Lunenburg. Justine is now home in Canada, and I've determined not everything in my experiences is meant for the blog.

I found it hard to be in St Augustine for Christmas. I was supposed to be in Cuba by now, after all. I'm trying, I really am, to at least appreciate the fact that I'm in warmer climates. This time last year there was an inch of ice on the hull as she lay dockside in Dartmouth. That was a miserable existence. I really do have something to be thankful for.

I again recall that first night, sitting on deck alone as Ed and Logan slept below, as I watched the last corner of Nova Scotia disappear into the darkness and the Cape Sable Island light fade into the horizon. I remember that feeling of, "I'm really doing it! My journey has begun!". As I sit feeling trapped in the St Augustine anchorage, unable to get further south on my own, I no longer spend the hours planning the next jump. My thoughts now turn inward on my reasons for doing this trip at all, why I make certain choices, and why I react the way I do and make decisions I regret. I've always believed in there being a reason for everything, but I have the feeling that the reason for my current situation will be a long time presenting itself. I feel it's more accurate to say now that my journey didn't really begin until I found myself here alone.

I'm putting the word out to any experienced sailors interested in sailing at least to Key West, and perhaps to Cuba. Mans or womans. If mans, please apply with photo.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Santa Drives a Boat

The words are not flowing as freely as before, and it cannot be for lack of material or inspiration, because I've met the most phenomenal people in the last couple of weeks, and I know the friendships created will last a lifetime. It's difficult to express just how astounded and grateful we are for everything that was done for us in Charleston. I will try to do my best.

Things began to look up immediately following my last entry. While on our way back to the dingy to row back out to the mothership, I said, "Hey, lets see if anyone is home on the boat with the nice deck lights, see if we can find out where they got them". We approached the fellow aboard, with the pick-up line, "Hey! Nice spreader lights!". He tried to tell us his name was Mark, but we're pretty sure his REAL name was Santa, because within 10 minutes of meeting him, it was decided that our sails would be taken to the nearest North Sails, and fixed properly. I was definitely on Santa's 'nice' list. In the coming days, we found ourselves with 2 new harnesses with inflatable life jackets, binoculars we can actually discern shapes and colors through, wood and a hand plane for various unfinished projects, including a name board for the dingy, which we've named James ("Home, James! And don't spare the horses!"). Then, as if that weren't enough, we were offered a berth at the finest marina we've encountered on this entire trip. He welcomed us on his boat, to use email and make long-distance phone calls, watch movies, and of course great meals and company! Even Effie took to wandering over, and before long started spending the nights there. I'm reminded of the old adage, "Practise random kindness and senseless acts of joy". I hope that one day I'm able to find a way to pass along the same kindness and practise the same selflessness he showed to us.

And he wasn't the only one.

Jeff and Jodi live aboard their sailboat in the marina, and we just clicked right away. My intuition tells me that we'll be in each others company again, perhaps back in Nova Scotia in a year or two, as they have plans of perhaps cruising up that way. I'm dumbfounded at their generosity and organization, as they loaned us their EPIRB until Annie Laurie is safely home in Nova Scotia. For those who don't know, EPIRB stands for 'emergency position indicating radio beacon', and if I were to find myself in a perilous situation, a flick of a switch would send a signal via satellite to the coast guard, and search and rescue would know exactly where to find us. Jodi arrived with the beacon, having already made the arrangements of changing the information that would be encoded in the distress signal, should we pull that switch. This includes the name of the vessel, port of registry, and its general specifications. This has provided us with such incredible peace of mind, as our communication system aboard is limited to a VHF radio, which, we have proven, is next to useless beyond 20 miles of the shore, or the nearest ship with the same radio. The digital signal from the EPIRB on the other hand, can be detected from anywhere on earth.

So as you may imagine, leaving Charleston was one of the hardest things I've had to do, perhaps aside from rounding Cape Fear. Thank-you Santa, Jodi, and Jeff. Hope to see you sooner rather than later!

Speaking of Cape Fear, that experience gave us that extra push we obviously needed to go over some essential safety training. Justine tried on an immersion suit, to get a feel for their awkwardness and to learn some of the important details involved in donning one. For example, if you don't make the effort to expel the extra air in the waterproof suit before you zip it up all the way, air can end up in your feet, and upon landing in the water, your feet will be where you're prefer to have your head, that is, above water.

While dockside, we also took the opportunity to take almost everything we could off the boat, to dry on the dock in the sun, and to reorganize everything that had dislodged itself from its proper storage place during the violent motions in the gulf stream. A bit more of the waterline got painted, and the transom went from black to white, to match the rest of the boat. We had a few spectators through the week as we did our maintenance, including a Ukrainian sailor who asked, "So, no mans?". I don't know how we do it, but somehow this boat continues to see great improvement, and gets from A to B, without mans.

After 9 days in Charleston, the boat and crew were better than new, and we set sail to wherever the wind would take us, which turned out to be St Augustine, Florida. It's the oldest city in America, and I imagine it's the most touristy too. I miss Charleston and our friends there. We've been 4 days in St Augustine now, and I don't think either one of us has met anybody 'from' here. But it's certainly gorgeous to walk the historic streets, all of which have the distinctly Spanish feel about them. The famous "Fountain of Youth" beckoned to us, but after arriving at the end of Ponce De Leon Blvd, we found they charged $7 each to enter the park. We took a photo of the fountain at the entrance instead, and I'm sure it's (almost) as nice. The pawn shops remind us that we're far from Scotian roads, and how, in many ways, America is a different world. The Dingy Police take their jobs very seriously around here when you tie your dingy in a Restricted area by accident, such as a marina. We were shocked, as I'm sure any boater would have been, when we got back to the marina early in the morning after a night at the A1A Brewery, and there was a lock and chain on our dingy! Apparently we we're meant to register and pay $10 to leave our dingy there, which, okay... I knew, but choose to ignore. So on principle, we had to find another way out of this situation. I went down the dock until I spotted a boat and a guy inside watching a movie. I knocked, and he lent me some wire cutters. Turned out they were too small for the job, so I eventually realized that the seat of our new dingy (around which the chain was wrapped) was actually easily removed with a #2 Robertson screwdriver. I ran back and traded the wirecutters for a screwdriver, and unscrewed the seat. I ran back to return the tool, as the Dingy Police were walking down the far dock, in our direction. We pushed off, as he ran down the ramp, asking us how we would like it if he phoned the police! Justine was on the ball, as she called back, "Our Captain... HE didn't tell us anything about a fee! He'll be in to speak with you in the morning, if you'd like!". Sweet success.

We will spend Christmas here, and are already planning to cook up a storm on our new BBQ, which we traded a small winch and spare ships wheel for at the famous Sailor's Exchange up the road. Merry Christmas to all our Family and Friends, old and new, from Laura, Justine, and Effie too.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day

I sit in the comfort of the University of Charleston library, still finding it a bit difficult to relive the three day sail from Oriental to here. If I don’t write tonight though, it may be a while before my next opportunity.
I regret that our experiences after leaving Oriental were such that they overshadow all the good that came from our time at the town dock, so I will promise to give Oriental and the people we met the recognition they deserve in a future entry.
We left Oriental at 0900 one day last week. It was 4 hours of motoring down the ICW (with no more groundings!) before reaching Beaufort, where we could then leave the waterway and head back out into the Atlantic. Once offshore, a strong westerly breeze kept our speed up to 6 knots for hours… it seemed like we would be around Cape Fear in no time, and into Charleston late the next evening.
Then we learned a little something about the Gulf Stream.
The wind continued to pick up, and early on day 2, we had strong northwesterlies. We had both noticed the change in the water, primarily its warmth, but also the abundance of a certain kind of seaweed that is indicative of the stream. It’s around this time that things start to go a bit hazy… I don’t fully recall my decision making processes, or what I thought our situation was, or how I was reading the various signs. I think I doubted for a long time that we were in fact in the gulf stream, I never thought it would be so close to shore. I heard a lot of warnings about finding yourself in the gulf stream in a northerly wind, and the winds were already veering to the north, and the seas were building, and breaking frequently. Somewhere, sometime, one by one I guess, sails starting ripping. The line holding the clew (one of the corners) of the jib to the boom snapped, and that was it for the jib. I went up on the foredeck to try and tie it back on with another line, but it was flogging around madly, and when the bow went under and I went in to my waist, I thought, ‘this is ridiculous’. The downhaul for the jib is in the cockpit, so Justine pulled the sail down, and we left it at that… I decided to let the sail go, allowing it to flog around at will, and bit by bit over the following hours, or days I guess, we watched it go into pieces. I wasn’t risking going forward again unless it was absolutely necessary. In moments like these, you don’t really think about the monetary value of such items, despite their necessity for the trip south to continue. Well, you don’t think about it when one sail goes, but then when the mizzen busts to shreds and the reef point in the main tears a 2-foot hole in the sail, such things do begin to cross your mind. But safety of the crew and getting into the nearest safe port are first and foremost.

What was frustrating for the first 24 hours was trying to make our way west. We were 80 miles out, and southeast of Cape Fear’s ‘frying pan shoals’ and all we wanted to do was head back toward the continent. No matter how hard we tried, including motorsailing and steering a course of due west, we were going due south. In a current that runs 4knots in a northerly direction! South is good, but 80 miles out when all you want to see is land, west (or at LEAST southwest) is much better. I just didn’t get it… and I feel rather dense, slow, dimwitted, whatever you may want to call it, for not having gotten my head around it sooner. Perhaps lack of sleep, perhaps fear of the situation we were in, the incredible burden of responsibility I suddenly felt knowing I had another life in my hands, maybe all these things prevented me from accurately assessing the situation. Night was falling on Day 2, waves were frequently sweeping the entire boat and filling the cockpit with water, Effie was crying so loudly and mournfully, terrified and locked down below, and the wind was gale force… it bothers me to think of that sound. Justine later told me, that night as the sun disappeared below the horizon, all she could think about was, ‘There it goes… and it has to go all the way around the world again before it comes up. That’s so far to go!’. It was truly an awful feeling.
It was the longest night of my life, for certain. And I think Justine’s too. There was no moon, and the clouds began to hide the stars early in the evening. I could hardly bring myself to look at the waves, what little I could make of them from the whitecaps after they broke. But the seas were becoming confused, coming from the west as well as the north, and it seemed important to watch each and every one, and to steer into them rather than letting them hit the boat from the side. Of course neither of us slept, we each went down below for 2 hours each at some point in the night, the rest of the time we were on deck together, just for moral support. Although clipped in, Justine said that every time she heard a wave break over the boat, she would lay there, waiting for some sign that the boat was back on a good course, and that there was still a hand at the helm.

About an hour before sunrise, the boat lit up with an orangey glow. We looked off the stern, and there was a flare in the sky. Someone had fired a flare, perhaps from a vessel in distress, what else would it be? This remains one of the most disturbing parts of the passage. I tried calling the coast guard, but we were too far out for them to pick up our radio signal. We were concerned for our own safety at this point, still struggling to break out of the stream, shaking from cold, and seasickness and lack of rest and our inability to eat anything for the last 48hrs, so how could we possibly turn around to investigate? We couldn’t, yet it greatly distressed us, the thoughts that another small boat not unlike our own was in trouble, and people had fired the flare as a last attempt to call for help. We saw a container ship a few hours later, and tried to relay a message to them, but with no response. It haunts me.

In the morning, the waves had grown only slightly from what they were at the final light of the night before. The wind was now a northeasterly gale, and I finally realized that we were in some sort of counter-current, running off the edges of the stream itself, in the opposite direction. Now, with that mystery finally figured out, came the decision to run with it. Turn the boat southwest rather than northwest, and start surfing. This is where I approached the limits of my experience on small boats. It seemed a bit precarious to me, putting such massive waves behind the boat, it seemed like they could ‘catch-up’ with us, and as they were still breaking often, I just saw them rolling the boat over, as we surfed down the sides of them. Perhaps there was no danger of that at all, and that’s my inexperience talking; I worry about things I don’t know about, and always come up with the worst possible scenario. I call down to Justine that I was turning the boat around and the motion was going to feel a lot different in a minute. I waited for a lull in the waves, the most that could be expected in such conditions, and spun her around. For the next 18hrs, it took so much energy and concentration to keep her stern to the waves, and not allow us to become broad-side to the swells. Constantly looking at the compass, then looking behind, then compass, then behind. We often got warning waves… ones that would crash really close behind us, then would be followed by a train of the 3 largest waves of the last ten minutes. The sea was kind in this manner, because we were delirious and our minds would wander and eyes would close until we would hear these periodic wake-up calls.

Once the wind was behind us, I decided to set a sail. Why not, we still had one left to work with! I set the genoa, then realized the bottom shackle holding the tack of the sail had fallen off. That damn roller furl set-up has been nothing but trouble! Justine hauled it back in, and we set the main, double-reefed, since the single reef was torn, and this helped us remain more balanced and allowed us to throttle back the engine a bit and conserve some fuel.

Through it all we managed to keep our sense of humor and positive attitude. A visit from the gulf stream dolphins helped to lift spirits. Gulf stream dolphins are unlike the ones back home. For one thing, they’re huge! Another thing, they’re so rambunctious and energetic, they’re like the children you went to elementary school with that should have been on Ritalin. I saw a few Portuguese man-of-wars, the jelly fish with ‘sails’, and Justine yelled down to me asking if it was possible that there were hummingbirds way out here! She had seen her first flying fish.

I never felt like we weren’t going to make it… it was just knowing what we had to face between ‘now and land’ that was difficult. The boat took an awful beating, far worse than anything I’ve ever put her through, and likely worse than what her previous 2 owners had as well; she’d never before lost sight of Nova Scotia. So there was always that uncertainty… that she’s not been put to the test like this before, and despite my every effort in the last 18 months to make her sound and seaworthy, perhaps I missed something.

But here we are in Charleston, having arrived at sunrise on Day 4. Safe and sound, and three days later, beginning to get back to our old selves. We have done more work to the boat in the past 2 days than I think I have done since replacing the stem last spring. We get up early and go for a walk, then come back to the boat and buckle down to work. Replacing worn-out halyards and other lines, stitching sails, making chafe-gear, mousing shackles… doing absolutely everything that comes to mind, so there’s nothing left for Neptune to say ‘Ah-ha, but you forgot about THIS!’.
I renege all offers I made for selling the boat for cheap. Still, most of my thoughts during those days, when not begging the sea itself to let go of the boat and let us out of the stream, were of Nova Scotia… of the last place my feet had been on her shores, and how when I get back, I don’t think I’ll be going to sea again for a while.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Motorboatin'

Portsmouth marked mile 'zero' on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), an often narrow sequence of rivers, canals, and sounds. Motoring has been essential for much of the distance we've made along the waterway thus far, and it's been great having a reliable 50hp engine. At times we must call ahead and wait for bridges to lift for us to pass under.

Our first stop was my friend Ben's place, just north of the Great Bridge Locks. Ben and his wife Brigid (and l'il Bud!) were so welcoming and provided us with every comfort. A cosy home to have showers, do laundry, wonderful dinners, bottomless glasses, a car to run errands, and a cosy bed for a couple nights reprieve from a damp chilly boat. The two short days we spent there ended too soon, and Ben was there to cast off our lines after we made a call to the Great Bridge Locks to inform them of our intent to catch the next lock opening.

There has naturally been more boat traffic in the ICW than out in the open ocean and many passing boats have been offering an ego boost for the boat, with their thumbs up and hollers of 'SUCH a pretty boat!!'. Justine and I are becoming very proud and are really enjoying the attention. We have more incentive everyday to make as many improvements as we can. Painting and tying on the baggy wrinkles have been at the top of the list. The weather is gradually getting warmer, and is helping to make all these tasks more pleasure than chore.

Navigating down the narrow waterway is proving to be challenging and a bit stressful. We're somewhat dependant on random advice from passing boats, such as the gentleman at the dock one day who said 'Look out for the second red mark at the mouth of the Alligator River after mile marker 80, stay to the green... even if you're in the middle of the channel, you will go aground. The dredge hasn't made it out to re-dredge the channel". If it wasn't for such incidences, then we surely would have been aground more times than we already have. Oh yes, our record is 5 in one day I do believe, for times run aground. Some groundings are worse than others, in terms of how stuck we are, and for how long, but so far we've managed to use the engine to power ourselves off the mud banks. It is all mud in this area, so running aground is not as serious as it may sound, it just has the potential to create a great inconvenience if we were to become stuck for long periods of time. We were under sail the other day, well within our marks, when we found ourselves hard aground for about 1o minutes, though it felt like much longer. It's impossible to know the depths for sure with the current technology aboard (though a friendly couple at the flea market yesterday in Oriental donated a proper lead line for sounding the depths and we can now retire the rock on a string we've been using until now). Even with an electronic depth sounder, it's generally too late in such narrow channels if you're on top of a shifted river bank.

About an hour after this grounding, we got up the courage again to set all the sails, as the Goose River opened up into Pamlico Sound and we had more sea room to play with. We approached Oriental a couple of hours before sunset, and motored in around the anchorage and docks looking for a good spot. Without a dingy, of course, ideally, we're looking for free docks so we don't have to swim ashore, and Oriental does have a transient dock. On our way to the dock, we realized we had stopped moving. There were boats everywhere, so I just assumed there would be enough water, but apparently they draw less water than us. We were good and stuck there too for a while. A little later, we were able to continue to the dock, and it was full when we arrived. A very friendly Brit named Mark tried very hard to accommodate us by moving his boat 'Jem' as much as he could to make room on the small wharf, but there was not enough water, and again, we were aground. Once we pushed ourselves out of there, we tried the other side of the wharf. We tried to tuck in by the concrete wall, as the locals said, 'Well, there's not much water there, but there MIGHT be', and, well... you know. What I won't do for a free parking place!

We gave up and went out to the anchorage. It was crowded with other cruisers, and I found a narrow spot between an American boat and a Danish boat. I snugged a bit closer to the Danish boat, and then... aground. Stuck. Teeter-tottering on her keel. Justine threw the anchor over for looks, we went below and made dinner and went to sleep!

In the morning Mark called us on the VHF to let us know he was leaving the town dock, so we could sneak in for 48hrs of free mooring. We will be visible on the webcam for the next 18hrs at least, www.towndock.net. I would recommend Oriental as a destination to any sailor, there's an interesting myriad of characters in this town, and so many people here are so interesting and helpful on all accounts, especially with our dingy search. We may just stay here a while, it seems as good a place as any to find a new tender.