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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