Saturday, December 23, 2023

I Have Failed To Sail

[ Note: It has been an embarassingly long time since I posted to the blog. This post may explain some of why I've been distracted. ]

Well, I have failed to sail. My passage south for the winter has been almost exclusively motoring … again. In my last post, back in October, I proclaimed that I was going to sail as much as possible on the way south. Turns out that has not been possible. Mostly, it’s because the weather this time of year is fickle and stormy. I knew that. Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to hang out with my friend, Vic, in Beaufort, NC and make a little money. Besides doing a bunch of boat work, I did bonfires, beach volleyball, and pub crawling with a bunch of new friends, most half my age. It was a blast. I have no regrets. 

I left Beaufort in mid November and made it down to Mile Hammock Bay, a semi-protected cove adjacent to Camp Lejeune. On the way there, a gale warning was posted for the waters just offshore of my position. I dropped the anchor and hunkered down for what ended up being three stormy days. When the storm was over, my house bank batteries were very low. I ended up getting a slip for the next night at Swan Point Marina in Sneads Ferry to plug in. 

Charged up and itching to get back on my way south, I left Swan Point at first light and made good progress on my way south. I was gunning to jump offshore, but every time I was near an inlet to go out, the weather was not cooperating. Most tempting then was the jump from the Cape Fear River to Charleston, but that stretch only has a couple inlets safe to enter if I had to escape from the weather. We managed to make the short jump from the Cape Fear over to the Little River in South Carolina on a windless day, but a change in the weather was looming. 

I had also been trying to meet up with Kurt, who runs the Sailfar forum. His post in 2019 about a boat for sale had led me to Ruth Ann. I have thanked him, of course, but I wanted to finally meet him and shake his hand. He is in Georgetown and if I had gone outside, the safest route there would have likely been to enter Charleston Harbor and backtrack to Georgetown. In the end, running down the inside put me right near his marina where he had arranged for Ruth Ann and I to stay. We enjoyed four nights plugged in and warm during a cold snap. I had a great time hanging out with Kurt and his watermen friends. 

From Georgetown, I aimed to get down to Beaufort, SC in order to watch the weather and plan a jump from there to Brunswick, GA or Jacksonville, FL. I was back in Factory Creek where I had stopped on my way north. There is a dinghy dock at a town boat ramp and good access to groceries, hardware, and some restaurants. Also on my mind, the consistently overcast weather had taxed my house bank again and I was keen to absorb some sun and bring them back.  

A tight weather window appeared in the forecast, but I didn’t feel I could risk going offshore with such low power in my batteries. I navigate with charts on a tablet and if I was out on the ocean and lost the ability to power or charge my devices, I would have been in trouble. I let the window pass. 

In Factory Creek, I chanced to meet a couple sailors: Gavin on Disconnect, who took the weather window and got to Brunswick with a little excitement near the end. And Doc on Aait Verdan, who I enjoyed hanging out with for a few days. We had dinner aboard his boat, later pizza in town, and several pleasant conversations. 

The next chance to consider sailing offshore was down near Savannah. With no favorable weather in the forecast, I left Factory Creek and headed south again. It took a day and a half to get down to Thunderbolt, outside Savannah, and by the time I had arrived a major storm was brewing and I needed to find a place to hide.  

My original destination was the Herb River, just past the marinas of Thunderbolt, where I had anchored before. However, the forecast called for the winds to swing around during the storm and the narrow river was too small for swinging on anchor. I ended up in a fairly open spot on the Skidaway River.  

The coming gale was going to start with winds out of the south and just before the peak, a shift into the northwest. My storm strategy had to also include that the tides in Georgia are more than 6 ft. Taking this extra depth into account, I ended up with 220 ft of line and chain out in a spot where I could swing all the way around the anchor if need be. 

As the storm approached, I could see lightning over the City of Savannah. Huh, I hadn't had to think about lightning in a while. I am not certain what would happen if Ruth Ann was struck by lightning. Her mast is a 40 ft tall aluminum spar that I re-rigged with Dyneema, a synthetic rope that does not conduct electricity. I started to imagine the possibility that a lightning strike would come straight down the mast and blow a hole in the boat. A sailor has to think a few moves ahead like a good chess player. I decided that if water started to rush into the boat after a lightning strike, I could fairly quickly cut the lines that held my dinghy down on deck and flip it into the water. Of course, I would have to grab the oars for that option to be effective. The oars were hanging from a couple lifeline stanchions on Ruth Ann's starboard rail. In order to keep them from banging around while underway, I had also tied them tightly to the stanchions. The ties would slow me down in an emergency, so I went forward just before the storm and untied them.

I also put my wallet and passport in a dry bag and placed it by the companionway. Just in case.

When the edge of the front rolled through about suppertime, we were slammed with very high winds and torrential rain for about 20 minutes and then it went quiet. Later the wind began to build again and by 10:00 pm we were getting regular gusts into the high 20s. By midnight the gusts were reaching 35 according to the weather app on my phone which was reporting from Savannah about 7 miles up the river. Chances are that I had more wind in my spot nearer to the ocean. At the height of the early storm, I heard one of the oars fall out of the loop that held it on the stanchion. I was afraid I might lose it during the storm, so I climbed out of the companionway and stumbled forward in the wind and rain to pull both the oars back into the cockpit and secure them. Losing even one oar would have been like losing the engine to a car. 

I had managed to sleep a little but by the time the storm reached its peak, I got up again, put on some wind pants and sea boots, and just sat reading and listening to the howling wind. I needed to be ready to go help Ruth Ann if she needed me. The gusts must have been approaching 40 by then. 

The difference between a Squall where the winds are steady but high, and this kind of a storm with massive but intermittent gusts, is that as the boat wallowed around at anchor, a blast of wind would often catch Ruth Ann from the side, beam on. She would lean over, healing as if we were sailing; a somewhat disconcerting feeling at anchor. Ruth Ann probably never got further than 10 degrees off of vertical but when you're sitting inside with all the hatches closed, in the howling wind and rain, any sudden lean feels quite large.

It's amazing what you can sleep through after 3 hours of gusts over 35. By 2:30 or so, the winds had dropped and the gusts were back into the mid 20s and I slept at least 4 hours. When I finally woke and got out of bed again, the gusts were still reaching the high teens, but I made breakfast and knew that we had, and would, survive. At 10:30, I dressed, went forward to haul enough anchor line to undo the bridle, and to collect the kellet that I had deployed. A kellet is a weight on the anchor line about halfway toward the anchor. It helps the anchor hold and dips the anchor line below the keel when the boat is swinging around. Once that was all aboard and the lines coiled, I started the engine, hauled the rest of the anchor line, and began my trip south again. After a rocky night at anchor, I knew the seas offshore were going to be rough for at least another day, so I continued down the ICW on the inside. 

Two days later, I had thought I was running from some more weather in Georgia. I dropped anchor behind Jekyll Island to stop for a couple hours to time the tide going across St. Andrews Sound. When I checked the weather, I suddenly discovered it was now going to be worse in Florida. I spent the night there in the precarious spot where I hadn’t planned to stay, but made a reservation at a nearby marina for Saturday and Sunday, the worst of the coming storm. Another storm system with another windshift, but I had anchored in a spot that wasn’t safe enough to be long term.  

The next day, I moved my arrival at the marina up to Friday.  As Thursday wore on, the weather continued to build, the forecast changed rapidly, and I realized I needed to move. I called the marina to see if they had a spot for me that afternoon. When they did, I set to work. 

With wind in the 20s and gusts pushing toward 30 knots, I went forward to haul the anchor by hand; I have no windlass. After dragging us a few yards, I went back to the helm and put some forward throttle on. With that help, I managed to wrangle the anchor back aboard and started moving toward the marina. The dock attendants were talking to me on the radio. We were headed to a slip on the inside of their facedock. I had hoped for some wind shadow from the trees and buildings around the marina, but I managed to swing Ruth Ann into the slip in the stiff breezes anyway. We bumped the finger pier lightly on the way in, but I wasn’t worried about grace or showing off. With that the marina guys helped tie us up and we were safe.

The next day, the marina requested I move over one slip to make room for a catamaran, also hiding from the storm. After the move, I disconnected my flexible solar panels, lowered the dodger, and tied everything down. The dinghy got an extra strap of line and I tied some extra dock lines. We were as prepared as we could be. 

At one point, the forecast had called for gusts toward 50 knots. In the end, we probably had no more than forty there. The biggest impact was the changing wind direction, again. The wind started out of the east and backed around to the northwest. If I had stayed in that first spot, we’d have surely been blown up onto the gravel beach there. I was stuck at the marina for five days. 

I am done. I have no more patience for this weather and I think January will be similar. My plan now is to run down to Green Cove Springs, upriver from Jacksonville. I’m going to stay a few weeks for the fickle weather of this transition season to pass. Once the weather settles, I’ll plan to get back out and head further south. Hopefully, I’ll finally be able to actually sail. 

Postscript: I am uploading this from the free dock at Sisters Creek, east of Jacksonville. I was going to sleep in this morning because it was going to be cold. It hovered around forty degrees all night. At 3:30 this morning the wind changed direction and we were getting rocked around. I ended up making breakfast before sun up and as soon as it was light, I started moving. It was too fitting not to include. 

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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...