Wednesday, July 26, 2023

An Offshore Sail ... finally

The vane of the windvane

Previously, I had made my way to Fernandina Beach from Green Cove Springs, finally moving north, but caught by a heavy squall just as I entered the anchorage. This story picks up the next day; a day of preparations. 

Despite the gusty winds on Monday, I had re-secured the dinghy, tightened up my rig, and worked on prepping Ruth Ann to go offshore. I was still contemplating my actual strategy. The winds were forecast to be quite light for most of the morning on Tuesday. I was concerned that I might get out on the ocean and get stuck out there without any wind. The choice was to either jump offshore or to continue motoring up the ICW. Ultimately, I decided that if I took the ICW I would have to motor for sure, but if I went offshore, I could motor all day long and not be any worse off ... but ... if the wind picked up, I would be sailing. Worst case, if the wind never showed up, I could pull in at St. Simons Sound, and head up through Brunswick to get back on the ICW. 

Sometimes, I can get bogged down overthinking and procrastinating, but I pushed through it and Tuesday morning, Ruth Ann and I left the Fernandina Beach Anchorage, turned toward the ocean on the St. Marys River, and we were on our way. The mainsail was already raised, with the flying jib and the staysail hanked on at the bow and ready to be hoisted. After only a couple hours, the wind had filled in and I raised the head sails. A short while later, I pulled the engine stop, and peace returned to my world. It is always such a magical moment when the engine is turned off. For a short while, the missing rumble of the engine makes the silence even more magnificent.

I began sailing right toward my destination, Port Royal Sound just into South Carolina, north of Hilton Head Island. It was so good to be sailing again, and ocean sailing to boot! We were on a broad reach, the fastest, yet most comfortable point of sail. The wind was blowing across Ruth Ann, perpendicular to our heading. On a broad reach, a boat is flatter in the water, not healing over, and the sails are at their most efficient. It was glorious! 

I had ordered a windvane from South Atlantic in Argentina. It had been hanging on Ruth Ann’s transom since 2022 and I finally had a chance to fiddle with it. It is a servo-pendulum windvane which means that the windvane does not steer the boat, but its rudder actuates a pair of control lines which steer the helm using the boat’s own rudder. It is a bit like when you stuck your arm out the window of a car when you were a kid, raising and lowering your arm using your hand like an airfoil. The same force that moved your arm, pulls a control line and turns the wheel. 

I had made a couple beautiful control lines out of dyneema, because I have a lot of it around. However, dyneema is a very slippery material and my fancy control lines kept sliding out of the clamps on my ship’s wheel. Ruth Ann’s long keel allows her to carry on without me for a couple minutes anyway, so I went below and grabbed some standard line. Sailors always have extra rope around. 

With the less slippery control lines, I got the windvane working for the very first time and had it steering Ruth Ann for a few hours. My newfound freedom allowed me to wander around the boat and enjoy the ride. I also checked my running rigging and other gear for chafe or wear. It was completely soul-enriching to be out on the ocean, on my own boat, while she steered herself. We were all simply joyous.  

I also got to catch some cat naps. After passing Brunswick, there wouldn’t be any big ship traffic until Savannah. As the windvane steered us toward South Carolina, I took twenty minute naps down below. What a feeling, being confident enough in my boat, her systems, my work, and the universe that I actually slept as we sailed toward our destination. 

After lying down for twenty minutes, once my alarm sounded, I would get up to have a look around outside. Twenty minutes is a good round number, but it is also about the length of time it would take a freighter to come over the horizon and get close to us. After a half dozen cat naps, I stayed in the cockpit for a while enjoying the night. The sunset had been wonderful, but the stars were amazing once it got dark.  

Sunrise at Sea

We were sailing about ten miles offshore, far enough from any other light source that the sky filled up with stars. Landlubbers would hardly imagine how thick the stars actually are. Words like ‘million’ and ‘billion’ are just a little easier to comprehend when all the stars are allowed to shine uninhibited by local light sources. The Milky Way was a huge, bright river of stars running all the way across the sky. It was magical.

And then it started to get weird. 

Sailing in the dark, I could hear the waves around me, but I couldn’t see them. While listening to the waves, I tried to guess what they looked like and what they were telling me. A strange slap on the waves caused a glow of bioluminescence. I assumed that we were running through a cross current or something that had changed the texture of the waves. Then a strange line lit up a couple feet below the surface for nearly the length of Ruth Ann. Suddenly, there were little spots lighting up; randomly at first and then in short rows.

And then a huge crashing splash on the other side of the boat. I had been looking the other direction, but when I turned toward the sound, a whole patch of ocean was lit up. Soon there were splashes all around me. One splash, just to starboard, caused a bright enough glow that I could see the dolphin thrashing around under the surface. There were several dolphins and they must have been feeding on something. 

And then the dumbest, most movie-cliche thing that has ever happened to me … happened.  

A flying fish came soaring out of the water! And I had just caught the motion out of the corner of my eye when it hit me square in the chest and fell into the cockpit. It flopped around and then fell into the slot between the cockpit wall and the hatch that is the cockpit floor. She was much bigger than I would have expected; probably ten inches long and nearly as big around as my wrist. When I tried to grab her, she rattled around in the slot at the edge of the cockpit. I had heard that flying fish have a distinct smell and I will not forget her oily scent, like opening a can of sardines that had gone off. 

Photo by Mike Prince, Creative Commons

And then it was on. I was almost embarrassed at the rambunctious and reckless feast the dolphins were having. Flying fish began jumping all over; eight or ten of them landed on Ruth Ann’s deck. I tried to save them all and a couple were so startled by my big bright flashlight that they writhed around, jumped a little higher, and went over the side. It took me so long to find one of them that when I threw it back, I wasn’t sure it would survive. And I didn’t find one sad, small guy until the next morning. 

Dolphins and flying fish and bioluminescence all together was completely surreal. It was amazing how far the fish can leap/fly. And coated in the glowing seabound cousins of fireflies, they looked like LED encrusted drones flying around. I saw them dart through the water, kicking off little glowing trails and I saw the dolphins in hot pursuit painting the ocean in huge arcing brushstokes of a strange green light.

And almost as abruptly as it started, the glowing was gone and the crashes and slaps went silent. 

Soon after, when I was twelve miles or so off Savannah, the wind just died. I had made it into Wednesday, but the wind was gone. The sails hung loosely and flopped back and forth, slamming against the sheets and blocks – from the rolling waves, not from any wind. It was time to change the plan and I fired up the engine, deciding to head toward the coast and into the Wassaw Inlet, just south of Savannah. The inlet was far enough away from the port that I wouldn’t have to deal with any ship traffic. It was, however, going to be three or four hours before I got back to the coast. I switched the control lines of the windvane for the belt of the autopilot and went back to napping. It was about three thirty Wednesday morning and I had been on the water since nine o’clock Tuesday; up since about six that morning before. Every twenty or thirty minutes I got up and looked around but there was no one else. 

It was light out by the time I could see the coast. The Wassaw Inlet is a little tricky and shallow, I had to be on my toes to make it over the bar and safely into the Wilmington River. There was one anchorage on the chart not too far inland and not much else that looked inviting. Another option turned out to be just a wide spot next to the ICW, but I was keen to return to the Herb River. That was where I had been the week before Christmas when a winter storm was blanketing most of the Eastern half of the United States. Five nights in a row it got down into the twenties after I had found a dock nearby. It seemed poetic to arrive at the same spot while sweating. 

By the time I got to the Herb, I probably could have motored all the way to South Carolina. It was about three hours to get back to shore and then almost four hours to get all the way up the river to Thunderbolt, Georgia. I ended up staying there for two days to rest and recover, and to figure out my next move. I was so far from the inlet I had entered, it didn’t make any sense to go back out that way. It would be shorter to head to the Savannah River and go out that way, or just cross into South Carolina on the ICW; either way it was plenty hot and I needed to keep going north.


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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Catching the Squalls

Gunnison Crossing Sunset

I spent about seven weeks in Green Cove Springs, Florida to be near my mail service. There it was convenient to order parts and be able to pick them up rather than paying again for shipping. I did a bunch of small projects on Ruth Ann and attempted, yet failed, to see either a dentist or a doctor. Routine checks would have been nice at each, but they will have to wait until I return in the fall. I cleaned up and organized the cabin, actually got rid of some stuff that I don’t use, and got in the water, with a mask and fins, a couple times to scrape the barnacles off both Ruth Ann and the dinghy.  

Nevertheless, it was way past time for me to get out of Florida. Hurricane Season had started June First, but I had been distracted by the momentum I had established finishing the many projects on my list. So, I was late in leaving the Carolinas last December, and was now late to leave Florida this summer. My aspirational philosophy is: “If it’s too cold, move south. If it’s too warm, move north.” It’s been HOT the last few weeks! I will do better next year. 

My planned departure day from Green Cove Springs was last Saturday, so Friday night I moved over to the Public Pier. For twenty bucks, I spent the night at a dock where I plugged in to fully charge my batteries and filled up on water. Late that afternoon, despite a clear forecast, a big, strong storm moved through the area. I don’t like being at a dock generally, but I especially don’t like being at one in a storm. 

The Green Cove Springs Public Pier is a very nice facility. The floating docks at the end of the pier include five slips for medium-sized boats and a face dock that can accommodate much bigger ones. On most days, floating docks are very convenient as the boat and dock will rise and fall together. You don’t have to allow for the tide when tying up your boat. However, in the wave action of a strong storm, because they are different lengths and buoyancies, the dock and the boat can get out of sync. This sets up a nasty shock load each time the dock is falling as the boat is rising and vice versa. The dock lines yank at the cleats with brutal force at the apex of each cycle. 

Unfortunately, I also had the dinghy in the slip with Ruth Ann. The dinghy is a nesting dinghy which means that it comes apart into two halves that nest together to stow on deck in a small space. I had planned to take the dinghy apart just before leaving in the morning. More than once during the squall, I stepped off Ruth Ann to adjust her lines and the lines to the dinghy to prevent any damage to either. Keep in mind that this “stepping off” was happening while the boat and the dock were slamming around out of sync. 

When the storm had finally passed, it was still daylight and I needed a beer.

I hadn’t planned to go out that night but I went back to La Casita, a little Mexican place just up the hill from the pier and one of my favorites. A couple nights before I had had a wonderful dinner at Roger That Wings and Things. It was a little expensive, but the blackened mahi sandwich was exquisite, the fries were uniquely crunchy, and the coleslaw was divine (of all things), but the crowd was a little bougie for me and the staff was tolerably nice but somewhat aloof. At La Casita, the waitresses are all like everyone’s favorite aunt and the staff is cheerful and helpful. After you are seated, a runner brings out a basketful of fantastic house-made chips, with a bowl and a small carafe of salsa. They smile and pour some of the delicious salsa into the bowl while assuring you that someone will be right with you to take your order. The little carafe and the personal attention are such nice touches; typical of their attention to detail.  Every item I have tried there is wonderful and absolutely authentic. Friday, I had gone back for my regular: a couple shrimp tacos and a Negra Modelo draft or two. Once satiated, I returned to Ruth Ann and went back to work on my Departure To Do List.

In the morning, I was preparing to take the dinghy apart and load it on deck when my neighbor from when I was in Governor Creek showed up. He asked what was going on and I told him I was headed out. 

“Oh, darn,” he said, “I was going to ask you to crank me up my mast. My friend is coming to tail the winch, so he could lower me and you could leave as soon as I’m at the top.” 

That sounded more than a little sketchy, but Doug is a good man and a real sailor who struggles with a degenerative nerve condition. I agreed right away to stick around long enough to crank him up his mast. He left to go get his boat back at the creek and bring it down to the pier. 

I had disassembled the dinghy and set up the rack which I had built for it on top of Ruth Ann's cabin. I was cranking the halves up on deck and cleaning them off. I’ve only lifted them a couple times and almost dropped the aft half, scaring a couple who had wandered down the pier for some pictures. He offered to help, but I was fine -- just clumsy. A few minutes later, Doug’s friend showed up to tell me that Doug was stuck in the creek with an engine problem and didn’t want me to have to wait. I was free to go. 

My main concern that day had been to get to Jacksonville before another afternoon storm. The storm pattern had seemed to have established itself and I didn’t relish getting caught out on the water in the wind and rain of a Florida Summer Thunderstorm. I decided to put off tightening the rig because I could do that in Jacksonville before I headed offshore. Ruth Ann was mostly ready, so I checked her fluids, cranked the engine, untied the lines, and shoved off. 

The trip down the river was uneventful. In fact, the afternoon storm had not yet appeared. I was watching the sky and checking the radar on my phone. At Jacksonville, we passed under the I-295 bypass, then I-95 itself, a railroad bridge quickly followed by the Acosta Bypass bridge, and then I had to call and ask the Main Street Bridge to open for us. Amazingly, there was still no storm brewing. I decided to go past the free docks at the Municipal Marina and head to the next anchorage. 

Well east of Jacksonville and down the St Johns River, I went under the Napoleon Bonapart Broward Bridge at Dames Point, got past the Port of Jacksonville, and still no storm. [BTW - N.P. Broward was a river pilot turned Florida governor in the early 20th Century] The anchorage I had picked was just past the port in an oxbow around Blount Island. The weather was still clear when I arrived, so I just kept going. I was making more headway than I had imagined that I could. 

About halfway between the Port and the Atlantic Ocean is Sisters Creek on the northern shore. The ICW crosses the St Johns there and a nice anchorage is just off the river. My original plan, that I thought I was still on, was to go straight down the river, out into the ocean, and head for Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, just north of Hilton Head Island.   

I got to Sisters Creek and realized it was Saturday evening. There are two parks and three large boat ramps on the creek right off the river. I had planned to use the anchorage across from the ramps, but the ramps are always busy on the weekends. Further it looked like a fishing tournament was going on and the cops had some boat detained on the face dock. I decided to keep moving. There was a beautiful and quiet anchorage, where I had been in January, an hour and a half or so up the creek. I didn’t even slow down. 

I wrote before about the difference, but south of the river, as the ICW cuts through Jacksonville, it is very urban. However, north of the river and past the boat ramps is wilderness; a huge marsh with seagrass and little sandy islands almost as far as you can see. Some of those islands nearly disappear at high tide, others are well higher than the tide line, and some even support small hammocks of trees. There are seabirds of all kinds as well as osprey and eagles. Ruth Ann and I gurgled back past the river intersection where I last saw the Summer Wind. As we came around a long curve, the last half mile before my destination, I could see a fishing boat sitting right where I wanted to put Ruth Ann. The little anchorage at Broward Creek only has room for a boat or two and I wasn’t about to nudge in there to drop my anchor while they were fishing. Now it was getting critical. There was another anchorage ahead but I was running out of daylight – and what if I found another fishing boat?

As we made our way along the creek, I was checking behind me to see if the fisherman ever left Broward Creek. As the daylight faded, my only choice was to keep rolling along. Just before Sawpit Creek and my anchorage, a woman in a fishing boat went screaming by and in a long arc – went into the creek. Oh, hell.  

When I arrived, however, she was down at the end of the creek where there was another boat ramp but at this end my destination was clear. It was a beautiful spot called Gunnison Crossing on the chart, but I couldn’t find any information about the name or its history. I’m always poking around online for local history. I followed along the south shore of the creek as recommended on Active Captain and found a broad space with room for a half dozen boats. I got the hook down and went below to start supper.  

That evening, I sat in the cockpit and enjoyed the birds. A lone egret stood stoically in the shallows waiting for her supper to swim by. A beautiful sunset lit the sky and made the clouds to blush. It was a nice respite. I was also looking into the weather and the tides. Not only had I made more miles than I expected that day, but because I had kept moving after the Sisters Creek boat ramps, now I was a third of the way to Fernandina Beach off the St. Marys Inlet. That inlet would have a gentler tidal current than the St. Johns River. Further, the anchorage at Fernandina would be a good place to tighten my rig and ‘ocean proof’ the cabin down below. I decided to head to Fernandina the following morning and then head out the inlet the day after.

Fernandina was only about four hours away, so I had a good casual breakfast and got moving by mid morning. I didn’t plan on going ashore for anything, so I would have lots of time to finish my boat chores on arrival. The forecast seemed benign that day, but I was concerned about the strength of the wind on Monday when I meant to be offshore. There was the potential for it to get a little sporty. 

Sunday early afternoon, as I neared Fernandina, my radio beeped with a NOAA Marine Weather Warning. Off to the west, the sky had darkened and the National Weather Service was warning of a powerful thunderstorm moving east at thirty five miles an hour. It was already chasing me, but I was hoping against hope that I could get into the Fernandina Anchorage before it hit. There wasn’t anywhere else to stop anyway, so I kept moving. 

The Looming Storm

As I got near Fernandina, I was on the Amelia River which makes a hard turn to starboard and then curves to port in front of the downtown. I was very close, but the storm was already looming over me more than just chasing me. Just before the townm, I passed a small anchorage and considered steering quickly out of the channel to drop the hook there. Nevertheless, the spot was completely open to coming wind and a couple of suspect-looking boats were already there. These boats did not looked occupied, or even well taken care of. Who could know the quality of their anchor or the chain. I did not want to have to keep track of other boats besides my own in a storm. Through the marina mooring field just ahead was the main anchorage where I wanted to drop my anchor in the larger area there. 

But I was too late. 

Mill @ Fernandina

Just as I passed the big sawmill and the commercial fishing docks, the wind arrived. It was a blast of cool air with a few drops of rain like rubber bullets, but the worst was right behind it. By the time I got to the main anchorage, the storm was raging. It would have been exceedingly dangerous to attempt to anchor by then. My normal procedure would have been to find a spot, put the boat in neutral, walk to the bow, and drop the anchor. However, with the boat in neutral, and the wind pushing and shoving at Ruth Ann, I could not control the drift or even guess at where we would be headed. I don’t have a windlass either, so whenever I drop the anchor I am using my hands on the chain and rope. Further, there would be a tremendous yank when the anchor finally bit. Dropping the anchor right then would have endangered Ruth Ann, her anchor, the chain, my hands and fingers, and all the nearby boats.  

Thankfully, I had looked at the radar and knew that the storm was a line of showers. Terrifically strong, but a line that would pass quickly and all would soon be over. I just had to circle around in the anchorage until the howling wind and rain finally stopped. Luckily, there weren’t many other boats there. I had to hide behind Ruth Ann’s dodger, peeking out occasionally to keep from hitting anything. The wind was screaming, the rain was horizontal, and it was impossible to keep my eyes open for long outside the protection of the dodger. I kept Ruth Ann’s bow into the wind as much as possible but I had to turn around several times to stay in the anchorage area. She rolled wildly when we were beam to the wind, and we went careening ahead when the wind got behind us. 

And then it was over. The wind had suddenly faded. I was soaking wet from head to toe, but I could finally see where I was going. The sun started to peek under the clouds in the west and I circled to find a spot to anchor. Anyone who was watching must have thought that I was drunk. There was an obstruction on the chart, likely a sunken boat, and another boat at anchor near where I wanted to be. It took several passes to get into a spot in between the anchored boat and the sunken one to drop the anchor, but I finally did. With a sigh of relief, I went below to find some dry clothes and start cleaning up.  

Remember that ‘ocean proofing’ the cabin on my To Do List? Before I go offshore, I stow some things away and move others into lower, safer positions in the cabin to keep things from flying around when the ocean swell rocks Ruth Ann. How was I to know that I needed to ‘ocean proof’ the boat before heading down the creek and into Fernandina?!? Stuff was everywhere. 

It turned out that another storm was forecast for the next day, Monday. Some of the strongest wind was going to be in a squall between Fernandina and South Carolina; right where I would have to sail. I decided to put off my departure until Tuesday. The schedule change also gave me time enough to clean the boat up that night and then prep her for ocean sailing the next day. 

The wind was gusting strongly on Monday as I worked on tightening the rig and setting up the windvane. Now the forecast was looking a little light for Tuesday! Would I get caught offshore with no wind? Should I try sailing or just motor up the ICW? Which would be more fun? Which would be safer? 

Find out next time. 


If you enjoy this blog, please consider supporting my project. There is a link to become a Patron at the top of this page and just below that is a Paypal link for one-time donations. Patrons get early access to the blog, and depending on the tier: sunset images, BtP swag. excerpts of my coming book, Live Q&As and more. Even a couple bucks can help a lot. Thanks for your support.

Homeward Epilogue

sv Ruth Ann in Beaufort, SC, 12/23 Ruth Ann is the last in a series of boats on which I was attempting to escape. I found her when I found a...