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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.