Sunday, October 29, 2017

Cruising Season 2.0 Has Begun!

Hooray - at last, we've started moving south again! Dawn, Piper and I kicked the new season off with a six day, 452 NM trip from Deale, MD down to Little River, SC. The weather made it more challenging than the reverse trip, which we did nonstop offshore around Hatteras in light weather in late June. This time we did a large portion of the trip, Norfolk to Beaufort NC, via the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), which is a similar distance but considerably slower than going offshore since you don't continue moving 24/7. I'm continuing to fly through mid-November and had a 6-day trip reporting yesterday (10/28), and for a while it looked like we wouldn't make it to Little River in time - plan B was to dock in Beaufort and commute out of New Bern. But thanks to a couple of early morning starts we were able to put in serious miles and get it done. Our itenerary was as follows:

Sat, Oct 21. I landed at DCA at 5pm following a 7-day international trip, during which I had a 48-hour layover in Paris on which Dawn accompanied me (thanks John & Trina for dogsitting Piper!). We rented a car and spent most of our time in Normandy touring the D-Day beaches, landing zones and battle sites. I had been considering getting off the dock immediately after getting in, but that only made sense if we were exiting the Chesapeake and going offshore. A big low pressure system and associated cold front forecast for Tuesday made that inadvisable, and there was no sense leaving early if we were going via the ICW because it's roughly 24 hours from Deale to Norfolk meaning we'd arrive there around sunset. So instead we went to Happy Harbour dockside restaurant for a farewell dinner with John & Trina and dockmates Gus and Michelle.

Sun, Oct 22. Up at 4am and off the dock by 5. It was, of course, pitch dark, but we're quite familiar with Shipwright's Harbor and Herring Bay by now so navigation was quite easy. The main danger is crab traps; to keep from fouling one, Dawn stood on the bow with the spotlight until we were out of Herring Bay. This providing an exciting moment when the spotlight's lanyard somehow came loose and Dawn accidentally dropped it in the water! It was good MOB (man overboard) practice anyways, since our spotlight floats. I just dropped a waypoint immediately, slowed the boat, turned around, and inched back towards where we dropped the light. Dawn found it using a headlamp, I stopped the boat alongside and used a boat hook to shepherd it towards the lifeline gate, Dawn leaned wayyy down (with me holding tightly to her legs!) and fished it out of the water. Sweet - those things are like $75!

The rest of the day down the Bay was uneventful, with light air motoring and later motorsailing in light southeasterlies. After sunset the wind picked up a bit and backed, and we got in a couple hours of actual sailing on a close reach during the night.

Mon, Oct 23. We entered the always-busy Hampton Roads inlet just after 3am; it took several hours to navigate the huge Norfolk naval base & dockyards, downtown wharf, and lower Elizabeth River to the start of the ICW. There's a bascule bridge near mile marker 6 (MM6; all distances on the ICW are in Statute Miles, not NM) that doesn't open between 6:30am and 8:30am, we were trying to beat that. We were a few minutes late but the bridge tender let us and another boat through anyways after a 20-minute delay, since the adjacent railroad bridge was down and preventing transit since several minutes before 6:30. While we waited for the bridge we enjoyed the sunrise & admired the other boat (S/V Arun). Our delay at the bridge had a bit of a cascade effect: we missed the 8am lockthrough at Great Bridge Lock (MM12), which delayed us an hour till the 9am lockthrough, which meant a greater portion of the day was spent fighting against increasing southerly winds, which meant we didn't make it to our preferred anchorage at MM65 (Broad Creek), instead tucking in behind Buck Island near MM60. It turned out to be a good choice because we had perfect protection from the south while the winds howled all night. I saw a high of 30 knots when I got up at 2am to make sure we hadn't dragged at all. Later we heard that south of Albemarle Sound boats reported over 50 knots of wind in some wild prefrontal storms.

Tues, Oct 24: The wind had abated considerably in our anchorage by sunrise, and PredictWind's PWG model showed much less wind for the morning than previously predicted (though the GFS remained elevated). I was originally planning to just reposition to Broad Creek but in light of the possible easing I decided to check out conditions on Albemarle Sound and cross if it looked ok. Oof, I needn't have bothered. Once we were on the sound itself, wind was right on the nose at 20 knots gusting 23. We were pounding into big short, square waves and making less than 2 knots headway, and turned around after a mile to flee for the protection of the calm anchorage. The rest of the day quite a few boats joined us there, looking to position themselves to cross the next day.

Wed, Oct 25. We had anchored just outside Broad Creek itself in preparation for a nighttime escape, which we made good at 2:45am. The ICW offers few open-water opportunities for safe nighttime movement, but this is one of them. The front had passed during the night and the wind was now 270 at 12-15, making for a beautiful, reasonably comfortable upwind leg across the Albemarle. I'd been expecting to motorsail but was able to sail much of the way across, handsteering by the stars while Dawn slept below. The only slightly tricky part was going around Long Shoal to enter the Alligator River, but most of the buoys for this area are lit. Our goal was to arrive at the Alligator River Swing Bridge at dawn, which worked perfectly. It was a nice motorsail down the Alligator River until the wind died completely, then we motored into the long, straight Alligator-Pungo Canal. We emerged into the Pungo River shortly before 3pm, making a record-fast stop at Dowry Creek Marina to top off our port & starboard fuel tanks. By now the wind had kicked up again out of the NW, and after the river turned south at Belhaven we had a spectacular broad reach for the last hour down to our anchorage at MM140. We had covered 75 statute miles and put ourselves in a great position to make Beaufort by Thursday night, and still had a good hour to enjoy sundowners before sunset.

Thurs, Oct 26. Another predawn start from a protected but easy-exit anchorage, this time at 5am. The Pamlico River isn't quite as wide as the Albemarle Sound, and I wanted to arrive at the other side and start up Goose Creek at dawn. The cold front had stalled and it was considerably windier than forecast (NW @ 24 kts) making for a wet and wild nighttime motorsail across the Pamlico. Once in protected Goose Creek, it immediately eased to near-calm. We reemerged into Bay River at 8:30am and turned into the Neuse River near Maw Point Shoal at 9:30am. It was windy as hell out there and we started our first leg, a beam-to-close reach on a starboard tack, under double-reefed main and staysail. I was expecting a hell of a beat because the Neuse turns progressively to the right but the wind veered and eased, and we were able to lay our course the whole way 'round. It ended up being a fast and enormously enjoyable 3-hour upwind sail, though at times Dawn and Piper weren't quite so enthused.

So the anticipated slow part of the day ended up being fast, but the expected fast part of the day (Adams Creek & the Core Creek Canal) was excruciatingly slow thanks to a 1.3 knot foul current. Had I done my homework better, I would have read that westerly winds set up lowered water levels in the Neuse and northerly current in Core Creek Canal. Nevertheless we arrived at the Beaufort-Morehead City Highway Bridge (MM204) at exactly our planned time of 4pm, with a welcoming committee of dolphins! Piper, as always, went wild & looked like he was going to jump in to swim with them. From there it was only a short jaunt out of Beaufort Inlet to begin our offshore overnight to Little River. Unfortunately the wind eased rather rapidly & we didn't get to sail-sail any of it. But there was still enough wind to make the first 50 or 60 miles a fast, enjoyable main-and-Yankee motorsail under reduced power. The sunset was gorgeous; it felt great to be on the open ocean again. Our friends Erin and Kara on S/V Vela were just ahead of us, as they had been since Adams Creek. We talked on the VHF sporadically, but found that we lost contact after only 5 or 6 miles separation (our handheld could still receive at this range). This confirmed our suspicions about our VHF reception, which has been an ongoing issue since leaving Charleston in January - we originally suspected our radio and then a particular PL259 connector, which I had replaced. I hooked up our SWR meter in line with the antenna and the high reading confirmed we still have an antenna problem. Once in Little River, I climbed our mast and took off the VHF whip. It appears to be in very poor condition, with one partially-melted wire that looks like it may have been a product of last year's lightning strike (so maybe a direct strike after all?). A new one has been ordered, hopefully this finally solves that issue. Now if only I can figure out why our new HF autotuner still won't tune.

Fri, Oct 27. An uneventful night with little traffic and little wind, followed by an incredible sunrise over glassy seas. Considering the light conditions we took a little bit of a shortcut across 25-foot soundings at the tip of the Frying Pan Shoals south of Cape Fear. The light breeze continued clocking NE and then E, keeping our mainsail full as we turned ENE for Little River Inlet. The fair current we'd experienced all night continued to favor us and we got to the Inlet at 2:30pm, and on the dock in Little River before 4pm. During the day we'd made a lengthy and rather daunting list of everything we need to do before taking off for the Bahamas in mid-November, and we launched into it immediately after docking and early the next morning before I headed to the airport.

I'll be working trips until Nov 13, meaning every second of my free time has to be spent getting us and the boat ready to go. That's ok, it's a price worth paying for what promises to be an incredible cruising season. In my next post I'll give a preview of where we'll be going and what we'll be doing, and how Hurricanes Irma and Maria have affected those places and our plans.