Monday, April 24, 2023

Rookie Mistakes

Wednesday was going to be glorious. I had sailed Ruth Ann enough to be quite confident as a sailor again. My personal and business calendars were cleared to take advantage of a weather window. And I had stocked up on provisions, moved down the river, hauled the dinghy aboard, ran the jacklines (safety lines), and made some pasta to eat along the way. 

And then I made two rookie mistakes. Even worse, I also failed to heed previous advice from two salty sea captains; ironically both from the nautically rich State of Massachusetts. 

First Rookie Mistake: In my planning, I had become fixated on how good the winds were going to be on Wednesday and Thursday for sailing north. I had looked at the waves and swell patterns in the early planning stages but had not checked again nearer to my departure. I had done a lot of planning and preparation, but I had let me focus get too narrow. 

Second Rookie Mistake: Along the same lines as the first, I failed to recognize a potential hazard in my plan. The East Wind was going to be great for sailing once I had gotten out into the ocean and I was timing my departure so that the tide would carry Ruth Ann and I out; rather than flowing against us. The cardinal sin of that logic was to ignore what can happen when the wind is pushing against a current; tidal or otherwise. 

Both mistakes are basically the same mistake. Getting busy planning in a very narrow sense rather than being open, purposefully open, to a wider range of possibilities. It was a perfect example of what Nicholas Nassim Talib calls a “Black Swan,” an unexpected event that had out-sized effects on the full situation. 

In the image above, we started from the Marriott Anchorage which is just out of the frame in the upper right corner. Ruth Ann and I backtracked down the ICW to the St. Lucie River and turned out toward the Atlantic. As we meandered down the shifting channel of the inlet, I could begin to see some waves crashing on the shore. The inlet is not very wide and there is significant shoaling on each side. By the time I got to the oddly shaped jetties, I knew I was in a bit of trouble. 

The main flow of water is down the channel, of course. There is some water sluicing off through the shallows, but the main volume follows out through the jetties. All that water meets the ocean – and the east wind that day – right where the jetties pinch together. The waves were amazing and stood straight up as the flow collided against the ocean and the wind.

A full third of Ruth Ann’s hull was out of the water several times. Not from our speed (obviously) but from the violence of the steep angry waves and the short period between them. Ruth Ann would climb up a wave and hover in the air before crashing down, not into a trough but on top of the next wave as they were so close together. A wave or two later and the bowsprit went skyward again and crash downward all over. In such violently confused seas, it would have been near fatal to try to turn around in the small space inside the jetties. Turning around meant that at some point Ruth Ann would have been side to the waves which were big enough to just roll her over. There were a couple boats fishing in the wind shadow of the jetties and they must have thought I was either a salty son of a bitch, or stupid or crazy. I’m quite certain it was one of the latter two. My only choice at that point was to gun the engine and push through. 

We made it through the jetty gauntlet and into the ocean. 

Outside the jetties I had hoped for relief, but the problem was we were still in the flow from the river and tide. The waves had mitigated slightly but were still quite big and close together. I couldn’t turn sharply out of the flow for Ruth Ann could still get in danger when side to the waves. It was a fight to keep from getting physically thrown around by keeping Ruth Ann headed into the waves. I angled her as gently as I could to the ENE and slowly fought our way out of the flow. Turning around was slightly less dangerous outside the jetties, but turning around meant going back through the roller coaster. I did not want to turn back but I especially didn’t want to go back through that maelstrom. The inlet was sure to settle down, but not until the tide changed which was five or six hours from then. There was really nothing to do but to ride it out and try to make some way north. 

A few years ago, I wrote an article about marine consignment shops for Good Old Boat Magazine. In doing so, I met Capt. James Corbett in Salem, MA. I’ve mentioned the good captain several times over the years. His sage advice was “You’ll remember all your sins at sea.” I “heard” him and hear him still, but need to heed him.

I love my little boat, but if I had actually recognized the intricately designed French mast and rig, I might not have ever bought her! When I converted the rig from stainless steel wire to Dyneema rope, I was confronted with stem balls. Stem balls are a highly engineered flexible terminal on the upper ends of the stays. They were not obvious to me because they were at the top of the 35 foot mast. I had already decided to rig Ruth Ann in Dyneema and had, in fact, already bought the rope before I saw the stem balls. It took good deal of research to find stem ball terminals that could accommodate Dyneema, but I finally did and they work great! They did, however, cost me a couple months in the boatwork process.

My last post described a beautiful and angry squall that tore through the Stuart anchorage last Sunday. In the aftermath of that storm, Ruth Ann’s boom had disconnected from the mast. The boom is the spar (“stick”) that holds the bottom of the mainsail. It attaches to the mast by a swivel called the gooseneck. When I removed the boom to take the mast down last year, I recognized that the gooseneck was unusual, but I did not stop to study and understand it. Huh. 

While cleaning up from the storm, I lifted the boom with a halyard and topping lift and fit it back on the gooseneck. It seemed to click into place and I never thought about it again -- until after the roller coaster ride through the St. Lucie Inlet. After crashing and crawling our way out into the Atlantic, Ruth Ann’s boom was hanging limply by the sail rather than the gooseneck. My sin was thinking, or accepting, that the gooseneck had fixed itself when the boom seemed to click into place. Capt. Corbett came back to remind me. And now I remember. Don’t cut corners. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t let stuff fix itself without explanation. 

We were out of the river flow but it was still pretty rough. I was doing all I could to keep Ruth Ann pointed into the waves, but there were two wave sets about 30° or 40° apart. I contemplated trying to fix the boom, but when I set the autopilot into one set of waves and held on for dear life as I crept forward, by the time I reached the mast, the next wave set was nearly abeam and Ruth Ann rolled so violently from side to side that she was likely to throw me overboard. Now I knew, whether I accepted it yet or not, that I was going to motor all the way to Fort Pierce and pull in for repairs. 

My fate was sealed when I checked the tides at Fort Pierce and my arrival would time quite well with a tide to carry us in. There was no sense in burning up diesel and hoping against hope that the seas would abate. I’ve come in at Fort Pierce before and know it well. Although the tidal current is very strong there, the Ft. Pierce Inlet is wide without any pinch points to cause surprises. I only had to hang on for four more hours or so. 

And that brings me to the other Captain I did not heed. Hanging out in the Stuart Anchorage, I had the pleasure of meeting Capt. George and his family. At some point, George made an ominous reference to the sea state off the coast of Florida in an east wind. I remember hearing it but forgot about it in the time since. There is basically nothing between Europe and Africa to interrupt any winds out of the east. I remembered Capt. George for sure, when I got out into the Atlantic with a stronger than forecast east wind, having to fight to keep my boat and me afloat and alive. Whenever Ruth Ann got more than 45° off the waves, the next one knocked her into a strong roll. I had to concentrate on the waves as they approached while trying to judge the changing wave sets and how to steer into each subsequent change. From time to time, I snatched a glance at the compass, and knew that we were headed mostly due east straight offshore. I thought that the waves would settle down if I got into deeper water. Ruth Ann and I wrestled our way at least four miles offshore and got into sixty feet of water with no discernible change in the wave action. I had to change tactics and just concentrate on getting in at Fort Pierce. 

When I finally turned toward the shore, Ruth Ann rode the waves much better when they were coming in under her stern quarter than when we were crashing into them head on. However, we needed to make our way north, so I was holding our heading tight; right at the edge of comfort and chaos. When it became dangerously rolly, I would head back out to sea for a while and later turn in again. We zigged and zagged in the changing wave sets, and I pulled every foot of “north” I could hang on to as we rollicked in the waves. Hilariously, my SPOT satellite tracker only pings every 10 minutes, so our course looks like a pretty direct path toward Fort Pierce rather than the drunken line that it was. 

I was hungry and tired and holding on for dear life. It only took a few seconds of distraction to miss that the next wave set would hit us badly. Ruth Ann would twist and roll and I would hang on to the wheel with a death grip. Thankfully, out on the ocean the waves were a little more spread out. Though some of the troughs were surprisingly deep. We would suddenly crest a wave and then float down through space in infinite time until the bowsprit buried itself in the next wave. It was sickening and exhilarating all at the same time. What a ride!

Along the way, I thought I saw a sail. It was comforting that I might not be the only fool out there. But as I got closer and noticed the depth was decreasing, the chartplotter finally showed me that the odd triangular shape I was seeing was not a sail but a buoy marking a shoal. I was, indeed, the only fool. Well, me and a ship so large they weren’t even feeling the waves, but only one. 

Then a dolphin swam by. At first my brain only noted that a large living creature was in the water next to the cockpit, but just before I might have panicked I recognized it was a harmless and friendly mammal. It was a pair of dolphins actually, and they played in Ruth Ann’s bow wave for thirty or forty minutes in the semi-clear waters of the Treasure Coast. 

I passed the nuclear power plant, the trees where I knew the Blind Creek Nude Beach was, and finally approached some buildings I could recognize as the north end of Hutchinson Island. I was getting close finally. A large ship, actually the one I mentioned above, came out of the inlet so I could judge exactly where I needed to go. I was still steering in toward the beach, riding the waves, then out toward the ocean again and back. It was still amazingly violent. I don’t know how else to describe it. I rocked back and forth with the boat as we careened over waves and fell into troughs. I would still get caught occasionally by the next set and had to hang on while Ruth Ann rolled side to side and I leaned each opposite way like I was riding a mechanical bull. But now each time I swung her bow through to the other heading, I could see the sea buoys marking the entrance to the inlet. 

Finally, we arrived at the channel markers, but had to go just north of them before turning into shore in order to ride the waves comfortably. And as soon as I turned … peace and quiet came back. The waves would gently lift Ruth Ann’s stern, she’d do a little shimmy at the top before dipping as the wave passed underneath her. It was such a contrast to the maelstrom we had come from, it felt like rowing on a pond. Nevertheless, I had to mind our heading and keep the waves coming under her from a tight angle. Off to the north, a catamaran was coming in as well. After several glances, I could tell that we were on a collision course and that they had the right-of-way, so I cut our speed slightly. The catamaran eased into the channel just ahead of us and we were out of the ocean. 

Here's the calm part, after the turn into the Ft. Pierce Inlet:

On the way in, the Jetty Park was off to port. I spent many hours there a few years ago. When I had a boat project here in Fort Pierce, I would head out to the jetty after a long day or sometimes for lunch if I had run into town. I sat there and watched the boats going in and out and dreamed of sailing my own. It was then that I recognized how strong the current was and I was glad to have the tide with us rather than against us. 

After coming all the way into the inlet, I circled around the big spoil island to check out the anchorage below the North Ft. Pierce Bridge. There is a less current there, but it was fairly full, so I pulled in just behind the same spoil island and dropped the anchor. 

What a day. I was disappointed that we had only made it to the next inlet, but I was exhilarated as well. My little boat had brought me in safely. She had gone wherever I had steered her; even in the worst seas that I have ever experienced. We fought together for more than six hours and hadn’t turned back. It wasn’t as far as we planned but it was forward, toward our destination. We had not turned back. Ruth Ann is strong and seaworthy and I trust her now, even more than I had before. I made supper, did some research online about my fancy French gooseneck, checked the anchor again, and went to bed. 


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