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Do Wishes Come True? December 16, 2012

Posted by Katherine Harms in Cruising.
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You can study the weather and analyze the weather and memorize the weather forecasts all you want. You get what you get.

After we assured ourselves that our steering was good to go, we began studying weather in earnest. It was Monday. Things looked promising for a departure on Tuesday, but we would arrive on Wednesday in St. Augustine during a driving rain. That would not be good. Those little red markers would be hard to see in those conditions, and it would not be fun to stand on deck peering through the raindrops. Later, we would have reason to ponder this prognostication.

A front would pass through Charleston on Wednesday bringing strong winds and big waves at sea Wednesday night and Thursday. Still not good.

On Friday a high pressure system would begin settling things down along the Atlantic coast, and on Saturday at St. Augustine, winds from the east at 5-10 with clear skies and 10-mile visibility were predicted. We made a baseline calculation of an arrival in early afternoon, unfortunately ebb tide. The contours of the St. Augustine inlet don’t bottle up the current the way we see it in many places in the Bahamas, so we felt we could navigate safely despite the ebb. Normally, we would not want to go in with wind against the tidal current, but such a light wind is really not a problem. We knew that we would contend with a northeast swell most of the way along the coast, too, but we chose to hope that it wouldn’t be too miserable. We were tired of waiting.

We departed Charleston around 9AM on Friday morning. The early morning fog was thinning. Although we could see the wall of cloud out to sea ahead of us, it was actually a quite beautiful morning. When we turned south, we began to wallow as expected in the combination of northeast swell and waves shaped by light breezes that varied from northwest to northeast. At first it was reasonably comfortable, but over the course of the day and through the night, the wallowing intensified.

This sort of ride is not something to write home about. It is exhausting. The long-period swells merged with shorter-period waves to create movement that could never be predicted. We have ridden big, slow swells in the past that were quite magical. We have ridden following seas that had a rhythm we could almost predict. This time, there was no predictability and certainly no magic. The motion was almost syrupy. It was easy to be fooled by a short interval of smooth riding. More than once I thought I could step forward safely only to find that as I stepped down, the floor moved away from my foot and I nearly lost my balance. Or vice versa. We seldom feel queasy on the water, but we had a few episodes this time. We happily ate chicken soup for supper, because it was soothing for our tummies.

This time of year, night is twelve hours of real darkness. This time of the month, the tiny crescent moon sets a couple of hours after the sun. With some clouds developing, it can be very dark. Fortunately, it is also pretty lonely, with few other boats around. A seaway that is crowded and also dark is extremely uncomfortable. We had the company of another sailboat behind us for a while, but he either made a course change or slowed down and even that fellow-traveler was gone.

When the sun rose, we observed another big wall of fog far out to sea. Through the morning hours as we approached St. Augustine, the cloud drew near, and by the time we were six miles out from the St. Augustine sea buoy, we were engulfed in thick fog. Fog! None of the weather predictions had mentioned fog. The Passage Weather graphics showed visibility at 10 miles all day along the northern coast of Florida. We were in a pickle. We needed good visibility to find our way into St. Augustine. That narrow channel is bounded on both sides by serious breakers that could pound a boat to bits. We had last year’s track for a guide, but we didn’t know if shoaling might have changed the path. The markers might not even be in the same place as last year.

What to do? If we could not go to St. Augustine should we turn back to Jacksonville or proceed around Cape Canaveral? Neither option sounded desirable.

We first called TowBoat US to ask about the channel. The Jacksonville Towboat site answered, but as soon as we asked if the channel to St. Augustine had changed since last year, the Sea Tow captain in St. Augustine interrupted. (TowBoatUS and Sea Tow are competing towboat companies. However, in this situation, they chose not to try to compete.) That’s how it is on VHF. You never know who is listening. In this case it was all to the good. The Sea Tow captain in St. Augustine told us that the channel had not changed since last year. The markers were all in the same place, but there was one new marker. This meant that our track from last year should be the right path to enter this year. He also shared his local knowledge of the behavior of the tidal current, telling us that by 3PM it should begin to slow down. When we asked him if the fog extended all the way into St. Augustine, he said it had been patchy all day.

With that information, we decided to verify first if we could find the sea buoy. Larry turned toward the buoy and I went out on deck. The fog seemed to be getting thicker and thicker, and we were almost upon the buoy before we could see it. This did not seem very promising. That buoy is huge. The channel markers are little red nuns and little green cans. Very small by comparison to that buoy. We headed back out to sea and discussed our options.

Then we decided to test the concept of navigating by steering on the track. We turned around and while Larry steered on the track we had made to the sea buoy, I stood on deck and watched for the buoy to appear. The sun seemed brighter in the sky as we made this run, and the buoy appeared in the mist sooner than I expected. That was encouraging. We followed the track and saw the buoy. That worked. However, at this point the fog began to thicken and close in around us. I was reminded of being in Maine. It really didn’t feel like the Sunshine State at all.

We turned out to sea again. We talked about Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral again. We even talked about trying to go all the way to Lake Worth, another 50 hours away. But we wanted to go to St. Augustine! About that time, I realized that the sun was glaring in my eyes. I looked up and saw a sun streak on the water. Above, there was a tiny hole in the fog and the sun was in the midst of a tiny patch of blue. The fog was thinning around us, and we probably had a quarter of a mile of visibility. I said to Larry, “If it could be like this the whole way, I think I could be okay.” That was all he needed.

We turned around and followed our track to the sea buoy. This time we had a good sighting in plenty of time to feel comfortable about things. We rounded the buoy, and Larry steered to the track. I stood on deck watching. Suddenly I saw the first red marker. I screamed out, “Marker! Marker!” We both got very excited. If we could find this one, then surely we could find the rest.

At this point, the track turned west toward St. Augustine, and we began to get a good view of the breakers to the north. The wind picked up, too, from the west, of all things! This wasn’t the prediction, either. A west wind on the ebb tide was the best thing we could hope for, of course, because the water would be smoother. A west wind against the breakers roaring in on the northeast swell, however, was ferocious. The breakers roiled up and broke at the cap of each wave, and the west wind caught the spray. The view was terrifying and entrancing at the same time. The sound was like the roar of Niagara Falls.

I turned forward again to look for my marker, but out of the corner of my eye, something moved. I turned back toward the breakers and there was another sailboat. He was only a short distance behind and northeast of us, and he was headed right for the breakers! Larry got on the radio and called to him to come over behind us. It was a terrible fight for that boat to cross the very spot where waves were beginning to shape up as the water shallowed, but he made it. Whew! Later in the day we would hear a boat call TowBoatUS from a similar location, because they had grounded. We weren’t able to hear how they got free, but any boat caught in that melee for long would be toothpicks.

Now it’s time to tell you. The entrance to St. Augustine is not charted on NOAA charts. NOAA takes no responsibility for telling anyone that it is easy to get into St. Augustine. The inlet is drawn on those charts, but no depths are recorded and no markers are shown. They say they can’t chart it because of frequent shoaling.

The boat behind us almost certainly was trying to use what little information the NOAA chart has, and it isn’t enough. When we first looked at the NOAA chart and saw how inadequate it was, we despaired of visiting St. Augustine. When we came last year, we used a privately annotated chart and notes from a captain who had transited this entrance many times. We entered on an optimal day – clear sky, bright overhead sun, and flat water. Local knowledge is essential. In our saved track, we had it. Apparently the boat following us did not. Nor was he very interested in learning. Larry called out to him when he was in danger, and he did make the move, but he only briefly acknowledged the call. He never spoke again to say anything or ask any questions. At one point he actually turned around and went back toward the sea, but soon he changed his mind again and turned back toward St. Augustine. I looked back from time to time, but we simply could not take responsibility for him.

Our next marker appeared right on time. Shortly after that, I asked Larry if he were having problems with the current, because it appeared we were moving southward. Indeed, the current was making it difficult to hold our course. Then to my amazement, I saw a sailboat coming toward us, north of us. His course seemed to me to be perilously close to the breakers, but he called out to us and told us we were drifting too far south. He said we needed to move north in order to pass between the next red and green. Larry increased power and forced our way northward. To make things more interesting, the fog thickened again at this point. Due to the reduced visibility, it was hard to make out the next marker, but as soon as I saw it, I saw that we appeared to be perfectly on track, which Larry confirmed.

This marker put us near the jetty at the inlet. That could have meant a serious increase in the current, but we arrived there after the strongest part of the ebb. The wind, the current and the waves all simmered down at this point, and with thankful hearts, we watched the fog thin out enough that we could see land and distant boats. We were safely inside.

We made a call to the marina and soon were moored south of the Bridge of Lions. We were glad to turn off the engine and look around at calm water. We hadn’t been there a half hour when we noticed the fog thickening again. It grew so thick that we could only see the boats immediately adjacent to us. We could not see the bridge or the land in any direction, even though it couldn’t be more than a hundred yards, and there are lights everywhere! We were well and truly socked in. If we had not grabbed our one moment to come in, we would never have had another.

The way things have gone, we might stay here right through Christmas. When we left Baltimore on November 4, we had our hearts set on being in Lake Worth at Christmas, but one thing simply has not led to another as we hoped. It is starting to look as if St. Augustine at Christmas might be exactly what we always wanted.

 

The Long Way Home June 23, 2012

Posted by Katherine Harms in Cruising.
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Fort Jefferson is no longer in use and is curr...

Fort Jefferson is no longer in use and is currently part of the Dry Tortugas National Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On January 6, 2012, we moored our boat in St. Augustine, Florida, the beginning of our winter cruise. We went barefoot all day every day, except when we ventured ashore. From there we traveled south stopping at Lake Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Miami Beach, assorted locations in the Keys and finally at the Dry Tortugas. On April 27, we turned eastward, bound for Key West, and ultimately for Baltimore. On April 27, our desire to be in Baltimore by June 24 seemed like a very doable proposition. What could possibly prevent us from making that date even if we dawdled here and there?

What, indeed?

We felt that we had to leave the Tortugas for Key West, because east winds were predicted to build up over the next several days. Strong east winds would make it difficult, and even unadvisable, to trek eastward to Key West. We wanted another day or two in the park, but we had not planned on staying for a week. We hurried back to Key West and settled in to wait for better weather to proceed further.

Those east winds kept us hunkered down in Key West for a week. With easterly winds we had a choice. We could sail, which would mean constant tacking and a very long slog, or we could wait for lighter winds and motor. We were destined for a bashing if we rushed, so we waited. The passage to Lake Worth was worth the wait – quite pleasant. We had light breezes and a full moon to make the night watches memorable.

We arrived back in Lake Worth on the morning of May 6. We expected to pause there, refresh our groceries and fuel, and then head north. Big thunderstorms with winds in excess of 25 knots kept us hunkered down, but we had lots of time. We waited. We have never previously spent a spring in Florida, so maybe this is normal. We found it quite interesting.

On the 20th we thought we were beginning to see an opening to make our run to Chesapeake. I actually downloaded some weather forecasts for such a passage, but in the days that followed there were not one but two tropical storms along the coast of the Carolinas. Each day we looked at the weather along our projected route, and each day we were convinced we should continue to wait.

Finally, about the 29th, things began to look up. Ten-day forecasts indicated there might be a window to depart on May 31 or June 1 and sneak past Hatteras into the Chesapeake anything ugly at Hatteras ramped up. On the morning of June 1 we reviewed all the forecasts and made a decision to go. As readers of this blog know, we ran into a 45-knot thunderstorm as we were passing Cape Canaveral in the Gulf Stream and lost our boom and mainsail. We ran into Port Canaveral to pull ourselves back together and watch for a new weather window. If you missed that post, you can read it  here.

On the evening of June 7, the signs looked promising. A cold front that had piddle-poked its way through Georgia accompanied by thunderstorms with 50-60 knot winds was supposed to pass to the south of Canaveral by the 8th. We thought we could anchor near the Canaveral locks to give ourselves a head start the next morning, but we got caught in another thunderstorm that pushed us out of the canal channel and into shallow water. The next morning, we discovered that the front was still to the north of us. Would it never pass?  We had another little adventure before we could get out of there, and you can read about it here.

By the morning of June 9, the weather charts showed the front dissipating and already south of Canaveral. The winds along our route to the Chesapeake were predicted to come from the east and then clock around to the south. We were not too worried about them, because they were predicted to be light, 10-15 knots or even less. We topped off our fuel and headed out to sea.

We were aware that there was still a prediction of some storm activity that day, but it was supposed to drift off to the southeast. Unfortunately for us, the line of activity extended far enough out to sea to build up before our eyes in the late afternoon. We turned away to the west in an attempt to dodge, but the clouds continued to soar and darken. Then we turned around to look behind us toward Canaveral. It was deep dark black behind us. There was no turning back. We simply had to make the best of what was in our path.

As things turned out, the line of storm activity did continue to make its way to the southeast, and the apparent storms weakened and lost their terrible aspect before we reached them. By the time we crossed that line, there were only a few innocent-looking puffs still passing by.

The night was uneventful, except that it was very dark. We should have had a third-quarter moon for some light, and we did see it occasionally along the way, but we were dogged by thick clouds for the whole trip. I thought longingly back to our run from Key West to Lake Worth when the sky was clear and the moon was almost full.

The next morning I went on watch at 4AM, shortly before the eastern sky began to lighten. By 6AM I was growing nervous. Morning light made it painfully clear that we were on course to intersect yet another big storm cloud. I felt uncomfortable to make the dodge on my own judgment. Sometimes it really is a challenge to be sure which way clouds are moving. I didn’t want to do it, but I waked Larry. He came up to help me look and think. He decided to turn on the radar, and that enabled us to feel more confident about the path the cloud was taking. Again it seemed that a dodge to the west might help.

Unfortunately, it also seemed as if the clouds to the west were thickening and darkening as they moved east, becoming stormy ever farther to the west. We tried to turn to a path that would pass behind them, but they were building up on the tail of the system. No matter how far west we ventured, the clouds ahead of us grew dark and rainy. Yet there was no lightning. There was rain and some wind, but we were not too worried about that. Eventually, we bit our tongues and proceeded north again. We ran through a big rainstorm, but it was gentle and peaceful. Whew!

The remainder of the trip till we reached Hatteras was rocky but endurable. East winds predicted to be light were 20-25 knots. We know how to batten down fairly well by now, but things still tumbled now and then. As the winds clocked around to the south, the intensity fell a bit, mostly under 20 knots, but the waves wallowed us more. It is something we simply learn to live with. Remember that we were not able to sail, which makes a difference in the ride, because we had lost our mainsail and boom. We deployed our staysail which gave us some improvement in stability.

We were almost exactly opposite the easternmost point of Cape Hatteras on the morning of June 12 when the engine surged and wheezed and then stopped. We were nearly 75 miles offshore at that point. We had no mainsail. It was not something we wanted to hear. We have had that experience more often than we like, but this time it was not a crisis. The fuel tank was empty. Larry had planned to switch to the second tank about noon, but his calculations were apparently too optimistic. It was a bit disconcerting. It never feels good to hear the engine stop when you didn’t plan it. However, we had another full tank, Larry switched over, we bled the lines, and we were good to go again.

We started the engine, brought up the autopilot, and were almost back on course when the autopilot turned the boat to starboard unexpectedly. It turned, and turned and turned – in a big circle. Larry turned off the autopilot and went below to get power steering fluid. It is easy to forget about this item, and very fortunate that we had the problem in mild seas. He filled up the reservoir, and soon we were on our way again.

At that point, we heard a weather forecast that reminded us it was definitely time to move on. A big Hatteras blow was building up out at sea, and it was going to be no fun at all before the day was out. Our weather forecasts had told us all along that we needed to be inside the Bay ahead of this blow, and the forecast for the next day made it imperative. We hustled onward.

We made our way toward the Chesapeake. When we round Hatteras, I am emotionally ready to get into the Bay, but in reality, it takes a while. Gusty winds building up from the west added to our sense of urgency, although they died down in the middle of the afternoon. The night watches were gloomy until the moon finally peaked through some time after midnight. We finally approached the green marker for the turn into the Bay the next morning.

We had yet one more challenge to face. We arrived on an ebb tide. The tidal currents at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay are noteworthy. The chart warns that people have been thrown into the structures of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge by careless disregard for these currents. We had no problem like that, but we did have a real challenge to make any progress. We were barely able to make 4 knots when we turned that corner, and by the time we approached the tunnel notch that leads to the Thimble Shoal Channel we were only making 1.4.

We were reminded of our experience going to Tidewater at the end of summer in 2011. We had such a buildup of mussels on the bottom of the boat then that we could barely make 1 knot on our run over to Tidewater to get the bottom cleaned. As we tried to enter the Bay against the outgoing tide we had the same feeling. It was our third time coming into the Bay from sea, but it was the first time we faced the ebb at its max. It was a forceful reminder of the power of the tides. We could hardly make any forward progress. We got very excited when we saw that we were finally making 4 knots again, and it was almost dizzying to make 7 knots after the tide turned.

We tied up at Bluewater Yachting in Hampton, VA, to wait out the north winds predicted for the next day. North to northeast winds on the nose at 20-25 knots would make it a real battle to go up the Bay to the Piankatank River, our first planned stop. We arrived in Hampton on Wednesday, intending to depart on Friday. We actually departed on Saturday with winds predicted to be 10-15 knots from the northeast.

In the marina there was hardly any wind at all. We were lulled into the hope that we would have an easy day of it. No luck. By the time we re-entered the Bay, the winds were fully 25 knots from the northeast, and we were in for it. It was a battle all the way to the Piankatank River, but as always, once we entered the lee of Stingray Point, things calmed considerably.

We remained in the Piankatank one extra day, but then we had to move on. We needed to be in Baltimore before June 24. This date was important because our pastor since 2001 would be retiring on this date. He has been a great pastor and a warm personal friend. We will miss him terribly, and we really wanted to honor him on his special day. We rushed northward.

Ordinarily we love to dawdle in our favorite spots, but this time we hurried. The Patuxent River. Aberdeen Creek in the South River. Rock Creek. There was hardly time to notice how beautiful they are.

Thursday morning, June 21, we pulled in to Henderson’s Wharf at Fells Point in Baltimore. We will stay here for the summer. We have a long list of boat work ahead of us. So there won’t be any exciting adventures for you to read about. You probably don’t need a blow by blow account of hours spent haggling over parts and pieces or muttering because things don’t fit where they supposedly belong. This blog will be on hold till we set out again.

For now we are home. See you in the fall!

Weather or Not May 27, 2012

Posted by Katherine Harms in Cruising.
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Who would have thought that our plans to travel from Lake Worth, Florida, to Baltimore, Maryland, at the end of May would be halted not once but twice by pre-season tropical storms? Is this a message? Should we conclude that at this time, we are exactly where God wants us to be and where he wants us to stay for a while? 

We left Key West, FL, early enough in May that we thought it would be no trick at all to get to Baltimore before June 24. Our intention was to pause at Lake Worth long enough to refresh the groceries and do some laundry. We rented a car on May 11 to do our running, before settling in for some online tasks, which Larry completed on May 14. We studied the weather and thought that we might be able to leave soon, only to have Alberto crop up. This was bizarre enough to occupy our attention for a couple of days, but we kept looking ahead and thought that maybe Friday, May 26, would be a good day. By Wednesday, May 24, it was obvious that Friday was a bad choice, because Saturday, the 27th was going to be ugly. And things have not improved. 

Today I am looking at satellite imagery, and I cannot imagine how this happened. I am accustomed to think of tropical storms as small, compared to hurricanes, but this storm affects a huge swath of the southeastern US, and the northern Bahamas. I am watching it swirl over four states and I can hear the wind whistling around our boat in the safety of Lake Worth. We are in no danger of the brunt of the winds, at least for the moment, but how is it that a “little” tropical storm headed for the Georgia/Florida border is clouding our sky and whistling in our ears all the way down here?  

I checked the latest advisory and it had even more exciting news. There will likely be gusts at hurricane force in tonight in northeast Florida and southeast Georgia. The projected path of the storm continues to be revised as more is learned. It never gets better. When I view the satellite image on the short loop, I can see the center of the storm becoming a well-defined eye. What is this?9 

As if this were not enough, the storm will not go ashore and die away. This storm will subside to a tropical depression, for a couple of days, but when it emerges back into the ocean at or near Cape Fear, on the North Carolina coast, it will exit as a tropical storm. Well, that is the prediction. Not a little depression limping off to nowhere, but a real tropical storm headed out to sea. 

For us this news is not good again. After all, we said to ourselves that if we just waited for this thing to quiet down, we could go in a couple of days. NOT! When Tropical Storm Beryl exits the coast at Cape Fear, or somewhere nearby, it heads in a northeasterly direction that almost hugs the coast to Cape Hatteras. It carries with it winds at tropical storm speeds.  As near as we can tell, given the probabilities forecasts, when it gets to Hatteras it will join hands with some exciting action in the mid-Atlantic. North of Hatteras things break loose that we don’t want to be part of. When predicted winds are in the thirties, we like to stay in some quiet place till later, and that is the prediction for Friday and Saturday at the beginning of June.  

So. 

Who knows when we will get to Baltimore? We are in a good place right now. We are safe. Every service we can imagine to desire is handy. Should we suddenly need a haulout because of an unseasonal hurricane hit on the Lake Worth Inlet, we are in the right place. But this is strange. 

What does it mean? It means that people do not nearly have the handle on weather that some would like to claim. Is this unseasonal behavior a sign of the future? I doubt it. When Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, many prognosticators were sure it was a sign of impending doom for all coastal cities. It wasn’t. Even Ike was hardly the stress that Katrina was. The fact is that human beings are still too uninformed to make any predictions of weather for the long term. If you should choose to read Chaos by James Gleick, you might begin to understand why. 

I don’t feel inclined to jump to any conclusions about the weather patterns for this year or for years to come. I do feel blind-sided by the events of the past week or so. It is a learning experience. Make the most of your opportunities, and don’t whine when things change. 

We will be in touch as the situation develops.