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Which Way? Which Way? December 31, 2013

Posted by Katherine Harms in Uncategorized.

We aren’t lost, as the title might indicate. We are challenged. It is a weather challenge, not a sense of direction. We are committed to a path southward, but as in all things, there is more than one way to skin this cat, apologies to cat-lovers everywhere.

Our trip from Wrightsville Beach to our present anchorage beside Cumberland Island National Seashore was tumultuous, to put it mildly. We have experienced following seas before, and our experiences have led us to plead with well-meaning friends not to wish us following seas. Maybe in the old days of square-riggers, sailors loved following seas, but Larry and I do not. Wind may interact with a boat from any compass direction, all 360 degrees, but wind coming from any hindquarter is the least desirable. We had following seas during this entire passage, and we don’t want them again anytime soon.

The first problem is the movement of the boat. The boat sits in the surface of the sea, and every movement of either water or wind moves the boat. When seas come from the side or the front of the boat, the energy that moves the boat forward modifies outcome of interaction with wind and wave. When the seas come from behind, the forward energy only adds to the force generated in the boat. I’m not an engineer, and someone may argue with the way I describe what happens, but here is the bottom line: when the winds come from any direction but behind, I can fairly easily adapt my movement in the cabin below decks and move with confidence here and there by learning the patterns of the motion; when the winds come from behind, it is much harder to do that, because there is no pattern. When the movement of wind and wave from behind is constantly modified by the movement of large ocean swells from the side, the seas become even more confused, and it becomes impossible to identify patterns that allow safe, confident movement in the cabin.

The second problem is that our boat does not like following seas. Our rudder is constructed in such a way that, as the wind builds up from behind, the rudder becomes less and less nimble. Maybe nimble is not the best word to describe rudder performance, but it will do for now. It points to our problem – maintaining a course when running before the wind. It can be done, but it requires constant attention. In the time it takes to check the display for the ETA to the next waypoint, the boat can move thirty to sixty degrees off course. Sailors are taught to steer with gentle, tiny adjustments, but in the confused seas we traversed, a tiny adjustment was completely swallowed up by big realities.

We were not suffering with a storm, either. Well, not a local storm. There was a storm far out in the Atlantic that was the source of our wind. Our problem was simply the force of sustained winds in the northern quarter of the compass. During the course of our travel they came from NW, N, and NE, and then backed up to NW again. Seasoned weather watchers know that backing winds are a sign of an impending storm, something that was forecast before we left. Our plan was to arrive at St. Marys Inlet before that storm set in. We accomplished that mission, but it was a struggle. The winds varied from 6 knots to 26, even gusting up to 30 knots. It was actually hard to talk about them as “sustained,” because they never were. In any 10 minutes, they varied as much as 10 knots. It was maddening. Probably it would be best to say that they were very gusty, which only added to the confusion of the seas.

Food is a major challenge under such circumstances. We ate cold cereal for breakfast. For lunch, sandwiches did the trick. Still, people need at least one hot meal each day. A hot meal does more than provide nourishment. It simply feels like a better meal, and that bodily and emotional gratification is important. For hot food, I followed my storm rule: one pot to heat and one bowl to eat. It wasn’t the right time for gourmet dishes and elegant presentation.

Simply keeping one’s balance is a battle in such tumult. It was a struggle just to remain in one place. It was hard to sleep, too. Despite stuffing lockers full of towels and placemats to immobilize pots and pans, we were only able to suppress the movement, not stop it. Ceaseless turbulence moved objects a fraction of an inch at a time, and eventually things slid and banged again. Nothing was broken, thank goodness, but we had no peace.

We had some fun when Larry’s birthday arrived. I went up to the cockpit shortly after midnight for the watch change. It was 30 minutes into the 27th of December. I wished Larry a “Happy Birthday.” He responded “Fine. Can you just take the wheel? I need some sleep!” That was the celebration. At that point, the best gift was a three-hour nap.

We arrived at St. Marys Inlet almost simultaneously with the front that would become a storm offshore. When we finally moved inside the jetties that guard the inlet, we had our first peace since exiting Cape Fear two days before. Ahead of the oncoming front, a warm front colliding with cold air over the Atlantic, there was thick haze – or thin fog, if you wish. We could not really see much beyond the next marker, but that was enough. It felt wonderful not to be wallowing any more.

As we moved out of the river and into the waters behind Cumberland Island, it began to rain. It wasn’t ferocious, just an annoyance. We easily found our favorite spot and dropped the anchor. “Home” at last.

The remainder of Saturday and all of Sunday can best be described as total collapse. We were exhausted in body and mind. We did nothing that required prolonged mental effort. We read light fiction. We allowed ourselves to sleep any time we wanted to. Then it was time to get back on course.

As for our question – which way? – we are not in the same situation as Alice who got lost in Wonderland. When she asked the Cheshire Cat “Which way?” the answer was, “It all depends on where you want to get to.” We know where we want to go. The problem is not the destination but the journey. When we had internet, before we set out for St. Marys, we downloaded the weather forecasts out seven days. The storm that built up as we arrived on Saturday afternoon was expected to blow itself out on Sunday and leave quiet seas behind on Monday through Wednesday. We had expected to continue our trip south at least to Cape Canaveral starting Monday. That path is still available, but the experience along that path is not likely to be delightful in the near future.

Seven days is much too far out to be reliable for weather forecasting. When we rechecked the weather on Sunday morning at Cumberland Island, things had changed, not for the better. In fact, back to back cold fronts and other complicating factors led NOAA to issue a forecast that included the statement that boating conditions at Cape Canaveral and south would develop from hazardous to dangerous over the course of the week. Well. We weren’t going there.

Our other option is to “do the ditch,” which is to say that we could take the ICW. We have never followed the ICW along the path through north Florida, because it has the reputation of being very shallow. People report running aground when the depth is charted at 16 feet. Still, many, many boats traverse this route successfully every year. It is a safe path when the open sea doesn’t look welcoming. If we don’t move forward, another week will pass, and we will still be at Cumberland Island.

Which way? Which way? We have a choice. We haven’t made a choice. This is the news so far.

May 2014 be a blessed and happy year for you!

God bless the USA!

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