Crossing back to the U.S.A
Yes, this view from our cockpit while at anchor in Charleston, South Carolina, leaves no doubt that we are back on American soil & water. In the last few weeks, we have bid farewell to the lovely Bahamas, crossed the Gulf Stream, and continued our homeward journey along the US east coast.
Some have been wondering about the gap in our postings. No, we haven’t been too stressed or too busy to find wifi as has been suggested, although it has been challenging to access it, and no, Kevan, we’re not on our way to Iceland complements of the Gulf Stream. Those who have speculated that we may be too relaxed to either find Internet access or to care, are pretty much right on. I have shaken my lethargy enough, though, to put fingers to keyboard, and begin to catch-up. Tim, meanwhile, is in the v-berth catching up on Facebook.
This Ariose Note will focus on a milestone for us: the crossing. We’re often corrected when we identify ourselves as novice cruisers – after all, there’s a fair amount of water we’ve left in our wake these past 8 months – but what we’ve accomplished does pale in comparison to what so many veteran cruisers achieve. We have made quick progress from baby steps to what might be considered adolescent forays in the world of sailing, but we do have a long way to go. Still, this crossing was our longest passage yet as measured by time (56 hours) and distance (over 400 nautical miles – that’s a little over 700 km!). For a couple for whom sleep is only a slightly lesser priority than breathing, who have relatively little off-shore experience, and who just days before had aborted a rather exhausting first attempt at crossing [Departure Delayed], we were rather pleased with ourselves.
We spent our last night in The Bahamas just outside the colourful Old Bahama Bay marina & resort at West End. This was quite apt in a full-circle sort of way as this was where we landed 4 months before when we completed our west-to-east Gulf Stream crossing. We knew that anchoring wasn’t permitted in the basin outside the marina but paying their high docking rates (3x what we paid previously) would have put an unacceptable dent in our now-thin funds.
We really needed the calm area it offered to secure Poco on deck, though. No more towing our dinghy on passages: a lesson well learned from our last attempt. In an uncharacteristically Canadian act of defiance, we dropped our anchor there anyways. Kerplunk – so there! With no signs posted, we planned to feign ignorance if challenged. It never really occurred to us that there might be more than the marina’s concerns for their profit margins behind this ban. The next morning, we did find out that there might be other reasons. Resuming our nice-Canadian character, I emailed a note of appreciation to the marina for turning a blind eye to us while there. I also, helpfully, I thought, suggested they consider the option of installing a few economical moorings. This westerly-most point of Grand Bahama Island is an important landfall for Gulf Stream-weary cruisers, and yet the exorbitant docking fees were forcing some to take added risk by either continuing on or anchoring in unsafe conditions, and were forcing others to compromise their high ethical standards by sneaking in. It was the morally right thing to do for a good corporate citizen, I argued, and would be a positive promotional act that would foster a reputation of supporting the cruising community. We’re not holding our breath for that.
I was up as the sun rose, and intended to let Tim sleep as I got us underway. Any investment in rest now may pay off on our overnight, I thought. (Proving that I, too, can solo sail might have also had something to do with the plan.) I hoisted the main while we were pointed into the wind, prepared the foresail for unfurling, had the key in the ignition as a just-in-case, and moved to the bow to weigh anchor. Sailing off anchor is a particular pleasure we’ve come to savour. There’s something gratifying, something ever-so-satisfying in that soundless transition from the anchor holding us secure to it lifting off the bottom, and feeling the release as the sails fill with air and we silently slip away.
Weighing anchor. I used to find that a strange expression. After countless mornings over the last 8 months, hauling the many pounds of heavy-duty chain rode by hand, putting every fibre of arm, back, and leg muscles into the job of getting our 35 pound anchor back into Ariose’s roller, “weighing” now seems like a fitting term. In most conditions, that is when there’s a bit of wind, or current, or it’s well buried, getting the anchor up takes my full strength. This time, though it proved impossible. Why not use the windlass (the anchor winch) you may ask? The one I spent weeks reconfiguring our ground tackle set-up so that we could mount it on the deck at our bow? It’s been little help. That’s a story we’ll detail whenever we get around to updating our project pages and lessons learned. Suffice to say that measuring chain is not as straightforward as one would think, and being a measly 1/16” off renders a windlass pretty much ineffective. Disappointing. Well, at least weighing anchor does provide much-needed exercise for us.
Tim got up, and despite his impressive strength (Shirley unashamedly buttering up Tim here so that she may continue to call on his brawn as needed), he was not able to get the anchor to budge. While in the Bahamas’ crystal clear waters, if we couldn’t actually see the anchor on the bottom, we would dive on it to verify that it was indeed dug in, and that our chain would not be putting any coral at risk. We realized we had neglected our usual practice, and neither of us had actually checked on the anchor. When setting it, we had dragged a little, but we had come to a firm stop when the anchor took. Good, was what we had thought then. From this morning’s perspective, maybe that firm hold was not so good. It seemed that the forces conspiring to keep us in the Bahamas a little longer were at work once again.
I started the motor and nudged us forward as Tim continued to wrestle with the anchor, hoping it would release with this added encouragement. Finally, with much grunting and groaning, peppered with a few expletives, up it came. Much to our surprise, the anchor brought with it a stainless steel treasure from the bottom: a full pulpit! We had likely hooked ourselves on a sunken sailboat and ripped its bow railing off its deck. Grand Bahama Island was hit by Hurricane Matthew last fall and perhaps it was one of its victims resting below that had secured us all night. We then thought that a fouled bottom might be the reason anchoring there was prohibited. We were relieved that we got off so easily.
Once underway, we had a slow and rolly start. We were on a broad reach for hours, with swells spilling wind from our sails as they lifted and dropped us. We headed north-west as we angled toward the great Gulf Stream. Our moods rolled with the swells: a touch of grief in bidding adieu to what had been an incredible experience sailing the Bahamas, a bit of repulsion about returning to the obscene development and mega-yachts overflowing the Florida waterways, apathy about having to repeat the ICW monotony, a mix of anxiety and eager anticipation about what may lay ahead in the crossing …
As we’ve shared before, the northward flowing Gulf Stream running between The Bahamas and the US east coast and beyond can be an ally or a foe, determined by the various directions. When current, winds and intended direction are in harmony, the Gulf Stream is well behaved. When there’s dissonance between any of those factors, well, it can turn nasty. There had been several days of winds from a southern quadrant that were predicted to continue for the next couple of days, and obviously, we were heading north, so there was every indication that this would be a comfortable crossing. We looked forward to it.
We were especially eager to feel the Gulf Stream’s power. We had been consulting with weather/routing guru Chris Parker, and he had advised that we’d gain several knots in speed going with the current, but it seemed to take an agonizing long while before we did. About 8 hours after departing the Bahamas we began to feel that liquid magic carpet under us. Suddenly, we were moving. Usually, we average 4-5 knots on passage, although that can really vary. We’ve ghosted along at less than a knot in light winds, and have had a some vigorous sails of 7 knots (about 12-13 km/hr). By land standards, that doesn’t seem like much. In a small boat on big water, with the waves rushing by, literally at arms’ length, 7 knots feels fast. As our speeds increased, we reduced our canvas, and yet, within a couple hours, we were steady at 10 knots and occasionally topping a thrilling 11 knots! It was tempting to bring out full sails and let Ariose really fly, but that seemed a little greedy if not ill-advised. We adjusted our heading to near due north to continue along the Gulf Stream’s axis. We were in no hurry to get off this ride.
As dark descended, we further reduced our sails, something we now always do on overnight passages. When alone at the helm, in the dark, we prefer to err on the side of under-powering Ariose rather than risk becoming overpowered if conditions intensify. Reefing the mainsail, a little tricky at the best of times, becomes a full-on ordeal in the pitch black, in heavy winds and seas, especially when one of us is groggy (and likely cranky) from being wakened. This is a routine worth sticking with. Our routine for scheduled watches, though, was one that might benefit from some tweaking.
After lots of reflection on Tim’s less-than-desired response to overnight passages, he recognized that the anxiety he felt might be more of a factor in the ensuing sea-sickness than the motion itself. Tim has always taken first shift at the helm since I’m usually able to fall asleep earlier in the evening. As darkness descends, and the winds and waves seem to magnify, his sense of loss of control amplifies as well. Once usual bedtime passes, growing tiredness exacerbates it all. By the time I’d take over a few hours later, his psychological unease would be peaking and with it, nausea would be rising and before long, his stomach would be expressing its displeasure. Maybe a different schedule and some light pharmaceutical intervention could help ward off that vicious cycle. So this time, as I took first stint at the helm, Tim took some Gravol and headed to bed. The medication proved effective for both of us: Tim was able to sleep and I was able to relax and enjoy the early night shift knowing he was fine.
Consistently firm winds propelled us for the first half of the night, allowing us to average an impressive 9-10 knots even with next-to-no canvas out. The big dipper guided us and as it progressed across the sky, I shifted which star I’d designate as our official beacon. Around 1am, I woke Tim who was tired but otherwise just fine, thank you very much. Success! He assumed the helm and I headed below. As usual, I found it hard to sleep, but got some rest nonetheless. Tim had an uneventful shift – uneventful is what we were aiming for – but winds calmed and by the time I was back on duty at 4am, we were bobbing on glassy swells. The Gulf Stream toyed with us, gently spinning Ariose in all directions, while continuing to propel us. At times, even as our bow was pointing south, we continued northward at 4 knots. I knew there was no chance of Tim getting any sleep with all the racket from the sails slatting, so I fired up the engine and motored on. Before long, the sky began its almost imperceptible brightening. As dawn breaks, I always feel a corresponding brightening of my mood and am filled with hopefulness for the day ahead. It’s my favourite time on overnight passages.
When we set out, we had plotted a number of destination options. We departed with a let’s-see-how-it-goes attitude. We could aim for landfall in Florida, or if all was well, in Georgia. With day 2 came several decision points. If we wanted to keep the passage short, we could aim for St. Augustine, Florida. That would have meant changing our heading and angling out of the Gulf Stream as the sun rose. Yes, we were tired and with that option we would make landfall just after sunset that evening, but no way! We were buoyed by our first night’s success and would go for a 2nd . We were drawn in by the speeds we were maintaining and craving a little more distance.
We had our next opportunity to opt out later that morning. We could begin our exit toward Fernandina Beach at St. Mary’s Inlet, 16 hours away right on Florida’s northern border. Nope. Although Fernandina itself is a lovely town, it’s flanked by massive pulp & paper mills and we well recalled the noxious smell from the belching smokestacks. The prospect of skipping over all of Florida in this one passage was seductive. Besides, the winds had returned and we had just turned off our motor and hoped that Ariose’s sails would carry us the rest of the way. (They did). It took a while for waves to build so we enjoyed a few hours of an exceptionally comfortable close reach in that sweet period of strong winds with little resistance from the water. Those were conditions we were in no hurry to leave. To add to the bliss, Tim pulled out his guitar and serenaded me most of the afternoon.
By mid-afternoon, the decision became clear. If we continued this glorious Gulf Stream ride, we risked getting ourselves into nasty weather forecast to hit the day after next. A front was moving in and bringing thunderstorms with it. We’ve become somewhat adventure averse, and had no urge to be out in those conditions. So, as we were close to parallel with Florida’s northern border, we changed our heading to north-west, and reluctantly angled our way out of the Gulf Stream’s pull and toward the Georgia coast. Brunswick, in St. Simon’s Sound, about 18 hours sail away, would be our destination.
As the sun dipped low, we decided to stick with the new watch schedule. I was feeling apprehensive about the prospect of getting through night 2, having only had an hour or two’s sleep since 6am the previous day. My usually optimistic outlook always takes a dive when I’m tired, and as we later found out, my cognitive skills do the same. At the same time, it had been the most comfortable overnight yet for Tim, and as the only other person on board, that meant a comfortable night for me too.
I enjoy night sails, and despite my weariness, this night was no different. It’s magical and as contrary as it sounds, I feel as far from and, as close to, reality as is possible. It’s precious time, alone with my thoughts and feeling one with the universe, under the immense night sky. Out on the ocean, hours and hours away from any sign of land, I can almost taste life’s fragility. While we’ve been on our journey, 2 inspiring women I know have passed away: one, far too young, just on the cusp of adulthood; the other had lived a full rich life. Memories of them, thoughts of mortality, and gratitude for life accompanied me through the dark.
By midnight, fatigue began to overwhelm me. I debated waking Tim, but really wanted to allow him a little more sleep. Maybe I could nap? After doing a visual scan of the horizon, checking AIS for other vessels, and turning the VHF volume up, I set an alarm for 10 minutes, lengthened my tether and stretched out on the cockpit cushion. Ahh. What a relief to be off duty and to close my eyes for a bit. The alarm brought me back and I thought I was on to a good thing. Let’s try this again. I repeated the check then reset the alarm. I must have fallen asleep, and was nearly startled out of my skin when the alarm sounded. This time, there was no relief. I felt horrible, far worse than before. Time to hand the helm over to Tim. I woke him, briefed him on what vessels we were sharing the sea with and then fell into my first deep sleep in 40 some hours. I guess eventually the body makes sure it gets what it needs.
By 5am it was my turn again. I emerged from the cabin into light rain, with lots of lightening in the distance, and in the distance, thankfully, is where it stayed. With the cloud, dawn was a little more reluctant this morning, but its light brought the first of the channel markers into St. Simon’s Sound into view. Before long, the sky cleared. We were close!
Hours later, as we were about to enter the inlet, I raised the quarantine flag. Tim was up and pulled out his much neglected shaving kit to spruce himself up a little. Clearly, this returning to the US was quite an event! I had been trying to check-in to Customs and Border Patrol online as suggested by our guidebook, but after much frustration and having used up almost all the data I had just purchased, learned that the electronic process was for commercial vessels only. Meanwhile, Tim was doing his part by making an effort to look presentable should we be boarded, or have to visit a Customs office in person. Eventually, I reached a live body on the phone, and after a few cursory questions, we were given approval to enter. Q flag down & American flag raised! For a country that seems obsessed with monitoring us – we’re required to report our location each time we move while cruising US waters – strangely, no one was interested in my efforts to advise of our departure months before, and now, there seemed to be little interest in our return.
By 1pm, we had made our way into St. Simon’s Sound and were heading a short distance up a meandering section of the IntraCoastal Waterway (ICW). We cut one corner a little too tightly. Considering our cruising history, though, it seemed only fitting that we celebrated our arrival with a ceremonial grounding. Ariose’s keel was acquainted with the rich Georgia mud now under us. The tides here are a hefty 8 feet, so we didn’t have to wait long to be lifted off. Around the next bend (which we gave a wide berth), we set anchor alongside the Fort Frederica Reserve, for a well-deserved rest. Even if we hadn’t been exhausted, our surroundings would have felt dream-like. The lush green marshland grasses and chorus of blackbirds were a welcome and refreshing change from the Bahamas’ scrubby vegetation and ferociously sharp shores. The murky brown water? Well, that wasn’t so welcome. Our hearts will forever pine for The Bahamas crystalline green and blue hues.
Tim and I both seem to be on the far side of the continuum when it comes to how much sleep is needed to function well. Once anchored, we discovered how severely our sleep deprived brains had been affected. While relaxing in the cockpit, we idly watched twigs floating by us. An offhand comment wondering about the speed of the current carrying them along, lead us to challenge ourselves to figuring it out. It took 15 seconds for a twig to travel Ariose’s 30 foot length. This is not complicated math. All we needed to do was convert seconds to hours, and feet to nautical miles and we’d have the current’s speed in knots. At first we were amused by our inability to perform this calculation. We each came up with obviously incorrect result after result. We determined that the water was barely moving at a miniscule fraction of a knot. Couldn’t be. We also determined that it was flowing faster than the speed of light. Our eyes told us otherwise. After several pages of scribbles, and more time than we are going to admit, our amusement morphed to alarm as we were confronted with this hard evidence of how cognitively challenged insufficient sleep over a mere 2 days period would cause us to be. (In case you’re wondering, we finally determined that the twigs were travelling about 1.2knots. Well, at least we think that’s the answer.)
We settled in to our peaceful saltwater marsh refuge, surrounded by birdlife, and basked in our accomplishment. While we waited out 2 days of storms, we caught up on our sleep, and planned for our next homeward leg. We had mixed feelings about the upcoming 700 miles ahead of us along the ICW to the Chesapeake. Our southbound journey along this route was less than stellar. It was okay, mind you, but it was a once-is-enough experience that we were only repeating out of necessity. As I write this, though, we are docked in Portsmouth, Virginia and those 700 miles are already behind us. Much to our surprise, we’ve rather enjoyed ourselves. Travelling it during a different season and being more seasoned ourselves, has transformed how we will remember the ICW. Of course, there have been some annoyances along the way, but they have been far outweighed by the pleasures. In our next Ariose Note, we look forward to sharing some of the highlights. Until then…