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ICW Southbound – Racing The Cold

ICW Southbound – Racing The Cold – Deltaville to St. Augustine

We did it. We are officially living on a boat. It took a whole lot of logistics, but somehow we pulled it off. We sold our house and 2 cars on the exact same day. We rented a 10×10’ storage space for the few items we couldn’t let go of and we moved onto Vidorra with our remaining possessions. Two days later on October 25th 2015, we cast off the lines from the dock and began our journey south. We hadn’t yet completed stowing gear and personal belongings, but it was cold and we needed to move south. Final preparations for our journey would have to wait until we find slightly warmer temperatures.

 

Not wanting to start off too extreme and make an open ocean rounding of Cape Hatteras (Graveyard of the Atlantic), we decided to take Vidorra down the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW) to Beaufort, NC. This would enable us to get our sea legs in the protected waters of the inland waterways. I had recently taken Vidorra on a shakedown cruise with a buddy around Hatteras to the North Carolina Outer Banks. We found ourselves in a freak storm with 40kt winds and 15’ seas. Vidorra rode through the storm very well, but it was 48 hours of extreme discomfort which I would prefer to never experience again. I learned on that trip that I will be a more competent Captain if I never expose my family to those conditions. So the ICW was a clear choice for us to at least bypass the notorious Cape Hatteras.

After leaving Deltaville, we found ourselves very busy navigating the ICW and adjusting to life on a boat. Just about everything takes longer than expected. There isn’t much opportunity for actual sailing on the ICW, so we motored constantly. We typically run one engine at a time. Vidorra cruises well at 5 knots in calm waters with one engine at 2500 RPMs. Running the second engine buys us only 1 knot and halves our fuel economy. Averaging 5 knots gives us a 50 mile day average assuming we’re up at first light and press until sunset before anchoring. The days are short this time of year and the pace feels brutally slow.

The strange thing about moving so slow is that it feels like we’re still living in the fast lane. While we’re moving at a snails pace, things feel like they’re happening fast while like navigating through draw bridge openings and trying not to run aground in the shallow channels. Each bridge has an opening schedule or sometimes may open upon request. In order to keep Vidorra moving we have to plan for these schedules and adjust our speed accordingly. The varying currents can impact us quite a bit as they can range from several knots on the nose or from behind depending on where we are. So it’s a constant challenge calculating ETA’s and adjusting speed to bridge schedules. We saw tons of boats cruising South on the ICW. It’s exciting to see others that are traveling and searching for warmer weather and adventure.

Once in Beaufort, NC we gave ourselves a little time to complete our provisioning and organization on Vidorra. As well as visit with my Mom and stepdad, Craig, who live in the area. It was nice visiting my Mom and having a manageable pace working on the boat while waiting for a weather window to sail offshore to Charleston, SC. Luke did great on the first leg down here and really got his sea legs about him, but he was happy to get off the boat and have some space to run.

We spent 10 days readying ourselves and the boat. Boat projects are endless and the learning curve is steep for living on the boat. We didn’t even give ourselves one day to live on the boat before leaving. So it’s all new for us. The things we didn’t think of are plentiful. And the things we brought along that we’re not sure we’ll need are even more abundant. One of our projects was removing all the anchor chain and rode to clean and mark sections. If you want a good workout, try wrangling 800′ of chain and rode. That stuff is seriously heavy and the 1” rode very difficult to work with.

We departed Beaufort on November 10th, 2015. It was a beautiful day coming out of the Beaufort Inlet. The waters off North Carolina can be nasty. And nasty they became on our first offshore passage south. Luke sat on his perch watching as the ocean swells began to build. As we turned south we felt the power of the South East 20 knot wind fill the sails and Vidorra sailed at a solid 7 knots.

I need to take a detour here and talk a little about weather forecasts. I have learned to not pay much attention to NOAA forecasts. At this point I had already come to factor that NOAA forecasts are extremely conservative and in order to prudently plan weather I need to add between 50 and 100% to their forecast. I also don’t trust their weather buoy real time data. If they say it’s blowing 10 knots out of NE I can pretty much count on 20kts out of the SE or other random direction. In a sailboat sailing close to the wind, this is a big variation. I was once within sight of a NOAA buoy and the real time data it was putting out wasn’t remotely close to what I was experiencing. I’ve found several other resources to be much more accurate. I now use predict wind which offers several different forecast models. The Canadian model was dead on accurate along the east coast and all through the Bahamas. As we came further south the GFS because our trusted model.

OK, so back to our passage south. At this time, I was still in the semi-trusting stage for NOAA forecasts. Well, the 10 knots of easterly wind with 3’ to 5’ seas forecast became a solid 25 to 30 knot out of the South East with 8’ to 10’ seas. So we bashed our way south against the gulf stream rounding Frying Pan shoals in just nasty conditions. The crew was tough and determined, but sick. Even Luke was seasick. Fortunately, I don’t experience motion sickness and was in good condition to man the helm the remainder of the trip.

Events at sea have kind of a strange and surreal feel to them. It could be fatigue, or perhaps they really are strange. One event stands out from this passage. A 50’ monohull transmitting on AIS was approaching us at around 2am on our first night out. Our Raymarine chartplotter calculates the Closest Point of Approach (CPA) for nearby vessels. Basically, it tells us very accurately how close we will approach while on our current bearing. This guy was on a collision course with us from miles away. We were sailing as close to the wind as possible and really didn’t want to veer off course for him since that would likely add another tack to our already uncomfortable sail around Frying Pan Shoals. I hailed him multiple times on the VHF but received no response. As he neared within several hundred meters I began repeatedly hailing him with no response. We were on a collision course and I wasn’t yet ready to change course. He finally returned my call and admitted he hadn’t seen us despite my lighting the boat up like a Christmas tree with every light possible including our spreader lights which light up our sails. He claimed he couldn’t talk on the radio because they were taking such a pounding in the heavy seas. There was a lot of unease in his voice. This is when I decided it would be a good idea to fall off and allow him to pass up wind. And so he passed us within 100 meters. He didn’t have a single light on. So it was just a silhouette passing us very close in the night. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought it was a somewhat strange human interaction out at sea. Especially considering the seas didn’t seem rough enough to justify his concerns and didn’t explain his complete lack of awareness for us being there.

The next day the seas and winds settled and we had a beautiful clear 2nd night at sea. We arrived in Charleston about 6 am 40 hours after departing Beaufort. We successfully completed our first 2 night passage at sea. Fortunately, this was the worst prolonged conditions we have seen since. I’ve learned a lot about reading weather forecasts and developed more patience for waiting for the right conditions to sail. It simply isn’t worth sailing in rough seas. Although, in my defense, I know how miserable sailing in the cold can be and I wanted to get Vidorra and crew south before winter fully set in. So it was a bit of a trade off. In hindsight, I probably should have continued on south in the ICW a bit further.

Charleston was a nice but brief visit. We spent 2 nights there and really didn’t have much of a chance to explore the town. But it was good to get off the boat and let Luke run and play.

At sunrise, we sailed out of the Charleston Inlet and pressed on South. The winds were out of the NW at 25 knots which powered Vidorra up to a solid 8 knots with an aft quartering seas. While we were making great time, the motion was uncomfortable and the crew was all sick again.

The inlet to St. Augustine is very tricky under the best of conditions. NOAA doesn’t chart the inlet because the shoals move frequently. And the navigational aids have either broken free or have moved. The charts simply read, seek local knowledge. We arrived at 4:30pm on the 2nd day out with the crew exhausted and sick. So it left a tough decision. Tackle the inlet with 25 knot winds against and outflowing tide through a poorly marked channel or spend another night at sea and press on south in conditions that were forecasted to worsen. I made the call to enter the channel. This was, without a doubt, the scariest moment yet on Vidorra.

We did our research on local knowledge and learned that we need to hug the remaining red channel markers and the green markers are out of place and missing. The saying goes red right return. It seemed easy enough. Well the waves started rising drastically as we entered the channel. Steep isn’t the word for them. They stood straight up and were at least 12’ high. Once in the channel there was no turning around. Fully committed, I revved up the engines and began riding the waves in. Imagine riding waves on a 25,000 lb boat. With the outgoing tide we were barely moving at 3 knots which adds what feels like hours to the ordeal. It took every bit of concentration to keep Vidorra in the channel as the waves and currents were fighting to land her squarely on the southern shoal. At one point we were in only 8’ feet of water with waves breaking around us. Just as things seemed to be spiraling out of control, we cleared the worst of it and everything settled to perfectly calm waters. Schwew, we’ll chalk that one up to a little luck.