Friday, December 11, 2009

This Isn't The End

It hadn't really occurred to me that my dad might require some tips on steering the boat. As soon as we cleared Government Cut and I was relatively comfortable that we were far enough off Miami Beach, I went below to make breakfast. The only instruction I left dad was, after that next red buoy, hang a left and run parallel to the beach.

We were motoring, as there was little wind on this hot sunny summer day. When the engine is running and you are down below, it's difficult to hear anything that might be going on above deck. I was too preoccupied with bagels and eggs to realize that dad was trying to inform me that both the steering and compass had spontaneously busted as soon as I handed him the wheel. "The compass keeps spinning in circles, and I keep turning the wheel further and we keep going the wrong way!". We had circumnavigated the red buoy, and were once again inbound towards Miami. This trip was going to be a learning experience for both of us.

We had roughly set our sights on Beaufort, North Carolina as our next port. The first 48hrs in the Gulf Stream were very encouraging. Making 9kts over the ground at the time it seemed like it might be a very short trip. That first night was our last sight of Florida, as the distant lights of West Palm Beach faded with the morning light. From here, we'd be going out of our way if we were to follow the coast. Every few hours, distant threatening thunderclouds would form, and the gut-wrenching alarmist warnings on the VHF would only make matters worse, instilling panic. The electronic voice seemed to suggest that it was unreasonable to be making such a passage this time of year offshore, when frequent storms are inevitable, and impending doom seemed almost certain.

The storms stayed at bay, and cheerfully, we sailed onward.

Our first sight to make the empty sea seem less lonely was a NASA commissioned ship, out to recover the booster rockets from a launch at Cape Canaveral two nights earlier. I called them on the VHF for an update on the tropical cyclone probability, as we were now out of range of the regular shore-based broadcasts, and last I'd heard there was a high probability of tropical storm development with a particular area of low pressure in the eastern Caribbean. If development had continued, I was considering ducking back towards the mainland, and possibly pulling in to Charleston to hide from the weather if necessary. The ship informed me that the low had dissipated, and so we continued to aim for the waypoint at Beaufort.

As night number two fell upon us, the skies were crystal clear and the wind was steady, pushing us along at a comfortable 6 knots, as we continued to get a bit of help from the Gulf Stream. The wind continued to build as midnight approached, and though I'm sure it never exceeded 25kts, I became increasingly on edge. The seas were confused and I still have no idea why; the current was from behind, the wind was from behind. It was still hot, so Dad and I both stayed on deck as the autopilot did the work. As I laid down snuggling into my flannel pillow case and a super-cozy blanket Phil had sent along for the trip, I thought about how great it was that my little boat was such a 'dry' boat (no matter what the sea conditions, the cockpit generally stays dry). So, before I knew it, I was drenched and choking on a load of warm seawater. My new favorite blanket and only physical reminder of Phil would now be slimy and salty for the next 4 days and would not be there for my comfort.

Aside from being soaked, the incident left me with the feeling that something worse was on the way. The wind was already 15 kts higher than forecast, and I had a million things running through my head. After the 'rogue' wave, dad had retreated below to avoid a soaking in the case of a repeat performance. He popped his head up for a second and asked something along the lines of 'Is this normal?', to which I said, 'Yeah! This is nothing...'. He believed me, and it was in fact a true statement, though I really didn't feel that way at the time. I tend to lose the nerve required to be at sea in a small boat when I spend too much time living the easy life ashore, as I'd done for close to 6 weeks in Miami. Well most of it was the easy life, except for the part when I got hit by lightning.

Aside from the NASA ship, the sea was completely devoid of traffic until 4AM on the 4th day, when both Dad and I had inadvertently fallen asleep on deck, and he woke first to see a city of lights just off our starboard quarter. He jumped up and quite innocently asked, "What is that?". It took me a few seconds to process what was happening. Every single deck light was brightly lit, it looked like a city skyline. I couldn't find a red or green light amongst the sea of lights to indicate the direction in which the ship was traveling. I figured one of the hundred white lights I could see was a stern light, and the ship was moving away. But as my eyes came into better focus I could see the ship's green light, indicating they were moving across our stern, meaning we had just cut on front of them. We had just completed a game of chicken with a very large ship that was probably never aware we existed. This was exactly why I hadn't wanted to do this trip alone, so someone could always be awake and be on the lookout for 200-ft ships bound for Charleston. It happened anyway, but we were lucky.

And to nicely round-out the first leg of our journey, a pod of dolphins came to visit and play on our last afternoon at sea. I was glad to see how much Dad was enjoying the experience, as I myself had begun to take such incidences in stride. It's a bit sad to realize that you can come to view such an event as ordinary.

The toughest challenge of this part of the trip was actually the entry into the harbour at Beaufort, North Carolina. True to my cruising style, I had scribbled down a waypoint from online charts that would get me to the outer approaches of the channel, then I had a 'sketch' from a cruising guide that made the entrance look fairly straight-forward; red, green, red green, hang a left, hang a right, drop the hook, pop the cork in that last bottle of wine.

My first regret was that we would be arriving after dark. My second regret was the 4 kt tidal current running at its peak. My third regret was the two outbound tugboats coming around the corner towing an unlit barge, in an are where shoaling requires frequent dredging and the danger of running aground is ever-present. My final regret was not having the proper detailed chart. All the flashing red and green lights marking a winding path were all flashing different patterns that were clues as to which ones to aim for first (if I had the chart to break the code). All I could think of as I was made dizzy by the flashing lights was Phil's pinball machine, perpetually flashing !!100,000PTS!! !!100,000PTS!! It's a less exciting game when your boat is the ball, and large steel buoys and barges and tugboats and sandbars are the pins, and a strong current is trying its best to force you into a collision with at least one of them.

I found the pressure a bit intense as I struggled to figure out where we were, and constantly fearing we were on the verge of hitting bottom. My brain managed to organize all the lights into two possible channels, but I was at a loss as to which one I should follow. I looked up, and, no joke, a shooting star streamed directly down one of the two perceived channels. Good thing I believe in signs.

Around 1AM we were finally in the crowded anchorage. After dropping the hook and letting out enough chain to feel comfortable that we weren't going to drag anchor that night, I realized we wouldn't have enough swinging room when the tide turned and the current changed direction, so wearily I hauled up the anchor and was more careful the second time I set it down.

For the next few days, we would have it relatively easy. We were heading up the intracoastal waterway (ICW) to Norfolk, Virginia, so we would be motoring from mark to mark, and we could anchor somewhere every night for a good nights sleep. The only fear I constantly harboured, which would have been the same had we been out on the open ocean, was the frequent thunderstorms. The only downside of being in the constricted waterways was if a storm struck, I had little choice but to stay on deck and steer through it, to ensure we wouldn't be blown aground. At sea, I could run below and we could drift as we waited for the storm to pass.

At the end of Day 3 on the ICW, we arrived at the Great Bridge Lock. Last time I was here, my good friend Ben lived down the street. He and his wife had since moved to Cape Cod, so while I was a bit sad not to have friends in Virginia anymore, I had a reunion to look forward to later, that would mark the three-quarters-of-the-way-home mark, before the final hop back to Nova Scotia.

From the Great Bridge Lock, we made our last ICW run up to Portsmouth, Virginia, to wait for a 3 to 4 day weather window to sail directly to Cape Cod. We had managed to make it from Beaufort to to the Chesapeake Bay unscathed (as far as thunderstorms go), but this wouldn't be true for the next leg of the trip.

Most of the next 4 days was miserable. The water, and therefore the air temperature, got progressively colder, and there were frequent squalls, whose winds always seemed to oppose the prevailing winds, which made for sloppy seas. We were getting slammed around in a very unsteady and unpredictable manner, which causes me great anxiety, for no matter what I've put the boat through in the past, and how many times she's proven herself, in the back of my mind I'm always thinking 'maybe today's the day she springs a plank'. Of course, that never happened, but I have always feared that if I stopped worrying about it, that would be the time it finally happened. Now, months later and having lived ashore since August, I notice this aspect of my character re-emerging in many other situations. My favorite words of reassurance have become those of Sir Winston Churchill, roughly along the lines of 'I've had many worries in my lifetime, most of which never happened'. How often do we abandon moments of peaceful happiness as we worry about things that will likely never come to pass.

Again, the sea had been empty since we were overtaken by a Navy destroyer in the approaches of the Chesapeake Bay. We were three days along and I calculated our arrival in Quissett Harbour to be the following afternoon. We were as far from shore as we would be for this part of the trip, about 130NM from Long Island, and another black squall line with wicked fork lightning was fast approaching, and there was no avoiding this one. I had resolved to run below as it hit, but as my luck would have it, a long-liner appeared out of the mist and was on a path to cross my bow. I sent Dad below (no point in both of us getting struck by lightning) and crouched in the cockpit (like that might somehow have dampened the impact of the strike) and steered around the fishing boat and its trailing gear as the storm passed. Once safe, I called down to reassure Dad that the worst was over. Apparently he wasn't all that concerned. He was sound asleep.

After that squall, the sky turned an unnerving shade of grey, and for awhile the winds increased to 30kts, and whitecaps were appearing on the larger swells. Just 18 more hours, and we'd be in the safety of Buzzards Bay, west of Cape Cod. So anxious to get there, I decided to haul the sails in tight and motorsail the rest of the way. In the rough seas, I realized it would only be a matter of time before the remaining crud in the bottom of the fuel tank would be stirred up and clog the filters. At least this time, I could just just replace the secondary Racor filter, and wouldn't have to go through the hell that is bleeding the air out of the fuel lines of a Perkins engine.

I believe it was around 2AM when that old familiar racing sound of the fuel-deprived engine began. My newly refurbished autopilot had stopped working (electric motor was the culprit this time) so I had to wake up Dad to come steer while I went to replace the filter. Unfortunately, replacing the Racor did not fix the problem. I once again faced bleeding the engine, which, if you've been paying close attention since I began this blog 2 1/2 years ago, I have never managed to do, without killing the starter batteries and eventually relying on outside help (shorepower, borrowed generators, one person to press the manual fuel pump on one side of the engine while I cracked the various fuel lines on the other side). This would be my first attempt of this at sea. If I was unsuccessful, it could mean a very slow slog the rest of the way to Cape Cod under sailpower alone, and in the current weather conditions, this could take days.

I was very careful to do every step correctly the first time. Take the old filter off, fill the new filter with fuel before putting it on the engine, and tapping it repeatedly to ensure every last air bubble was out. I had never had to do this in rough seas in the middle of the night before, and as sleep-deprived as I was, I didn't have much faith in myself. Once finished, I clenched my hands together as Dad turned the ignition key, and to my amazement, it started immediately. First time ever, with my own two hands and no outside help. I finally felt I had conquered the last demon residing in my engine. So, 4 hours later, when it happened again, I had a lot more more confidence. By the third time (give me a break!) I was getting competitive with myself, and now it was all about speed. I knew I could do it, I just wanted to break my previous record.

We got into the lee of Elizabeth Island, Cape Cod, just as things were getting really nasty. I don't know how much longer I could have gone on, watching the waves build higher and higher from behind us. As we drifted into smoother waters, a thick fog settled in. Aside from the possibility of other boat traffic, I wasn't terribly worried about the declining visibility because, at least this time, I had charts for these waters.

Once inside Quissett Harbour, the sun broke through and the fog evaporated. We picked up a mooring, and a wireless signal, and were able to make contact with Ben's wife to let them know we had arrived.

When I had last seen Ben and Brigid on my journey south, they had a new addition to their family, a very excitable, energetic Chesapeake Bay retriever named l'il Bud. His personality hadn't changed at all, but l'il Bud wasn't so little anymore. For one of the most friendly dogs I've ever met, he has a most vicious 'smile'.

Once again Ben and Brigid opened up their new home to us, and we had a great time catching up on each others lives. We played on Ben's homemade parcheesie board and enjoyed great BBQ dinners over bottles of wine. Ben helped with various boat issues, arranging a mooring for us close to the dingy dock, fuel, fresh water, and he determined the most recent problem with the autopilot. Before leaving, I thought it would we prudent to change the fuel filter one more time, while in a calm harbour, still sitting on the mooring. I did, and do you think i could get that engine started afterwards?? After a frustrating couple of hours, it was Ben to the rescue.

I had looked forward to our reunion for so long, I was very sad to leave. Ben came aboard for a little tour as we motored out of the harbour, before jumping into his dingy and casting off. I wonder when we'll meet again.

I timed the tides correctly this time for heading north through the Cape Cod Canal. Once at the end of the canal, we had a beautiful sail across Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown. From here, it would be only 3 more days to the anchorage in Lunenburg Harbour. We were almost home.

Looks like there will have to be one more blog.