November 6, 2009
"Charleston City Marina this is the 48 foot sailing vessel "Happy Valley". We have a reservation for today. We are a little early. We just sailed down from Cape Fear. It was Really Honking Out There."
This was the first radio call we had overheard since leaving the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.
Our intention in Beaufort had been to take our boat, Meredith, "outside" the ICW and sail nonstop to Charleston, SC. Weather had interfered with our plans and finally we took the slow boring route "inside" from Beaufort to Mile Hammock Bay and then on to the Cape Fear River at Wilmington NC.
Forecasts for the coastal waters from Cape Fear to Charleston improved steadily over the two days of our sojourn down the ICW and by the time we made Carolina Beach, a nondescript little diversion from the ICW just above the Cape Fear River, our decision was firm to proceed outside and run to Charleston by the direct rout.
Many advantages attached to not traveling the Intracoastal Waterway through North and South Carolina. Relief of boredom figures prominently among them. The length of coast from Beaufort to Charleston is uniformly unexciting and unworthy: a wasteland of sand, tall grass and scrub. The water, although expansive averages 1 foot in depth.
Bogue Sound and the coastal mid Carolinas are a Samuel Coleridge wonderland: "Water Water Everywhere and N'ere a drop to", well in our case, sail. A helmsman faces a vista of open water through which he or she must navigate a ditch only meters wide with twists, turns and secret little shoals moving around without notice.
The terrain offers few good anchorages (Waccamaw being an outstanding exception) and several challenges. The "Rock Pile", a 15 mile stretch of waterway north of Barefoot Landing is one such: very narrow and strewn with, no surprise here, rocks. Big ugly pointy rocks. And usually a stiff current.
Mainly the problem is boredom. Not interested in looking at improbably priced houses built in improbable places we would find little here to merit more than a quick glance. We have already glanced.
Meredith overnighted on Nov 5 in Carolina Beach located about 5 miles North the Cape Fear River.
Tidal currents dictated a late start from Carolina Beach, always welcome by the crew and we did not leave Carolina Beach until 9:30 a.m.
A flood tide was running on the Cape Fear River until 10 a.m. As a general rule you do not enter rivers when the tide is running contrary to either wind or river current. It is one of those "first rules of sailing". A flood tide on the Cape Fear River was contrary to both.
Having braved the Cape Fear River before we chose the valorous route and exercised discretion. We left Carolina Beach at 9 a.m. and entered the Cape Fear River about 9:30. My reasoning is that they do not call it the Cape "Fear" River because it is a favourite playground for little children and cute little bunnies.
A good handle of the tide tables is a handy thing to have at this point in the journey. Whether you are travelling the ICW or choosing to go "outside" you must travel about 12 miles on the Cape Fear River. The ICW leaves the river at Southport, a dreary little Erieau clone, located about 3 miles from the point where the river enters the Atlantic.
We entered the Atlantic a bit after noon.
Forecasts were for wind out of the North at 15 to 20 knots gusting to 25. Waves were 2 to 4 feet. Conditions matched the forecast precisely as we turned out of the channel to the Cape Fear River and set a direct course to Charleston. The extended forecast predicted winds to die down as we travelled south.
There are 3 coastal weather regions between Cape Fear and Charleston: Cape Fear to Little River Inlet, Little River to Murrell Inlet and Murrell Inlet to the Big C. Each region in turn had reducing winds after midnight although the waves were thought to build. As both wind and waves would be from our stern we were comfortable with our decision to make the long run.
Besides, Meredith had a new genoa which we had not yet tested.
Starting at Cape Fear we would travel 120 nm on the ocean to Charleston. Much of the trip we would be out of sight of land.
Good winds on departure saw Meredith attain a decent 6.5 knots almost immediately.
At 8:30 a.m. the next day we entered Charleston Harbour still travelling 6.5 knots.
The difference was in our sails. We started the trip under full sail - genny and main all at full extension. We ended the trip with 3 reefs in a depowered main and only the staysail on the foredeck. The staysail had a jury rigged reef in it.
6.5 knots with a postage stamp of a main and a handkerchief of a foresail. Even with this by 5 a.m. the waves off our stern quarter were overpowering the autopilot and I was handsteering. We were discussing whether to set up the windvane which is pretty good at helming in strong wind and waves off the stern.
It was exhilarating. Conditions were brisker than forecast and the 10 - 15 knot winds we thought would greet us at Charleston had grown overnight to steady 25 with gusts upward. At these velocities you do not bother metering the wind - you spend your time trying manage it and keep your boat under control.
Shortly after leaving Cape Fear we noticed a sailboat coming up on our stern, a mile or two further offshore than Meredith. All day we watched as this boat steadily and inexorably closed the gap between itself and Meredith. The seamanship of the crew of this boat impressed us even more than its speed. It moved through the water almost upright - no heel.
Meredith had heel limited to 15 degrees as always but the occasional errant wave got the best of us and we hit 20 degrees and sometimes 25. Connie is adamant that the little ball in the inclinometer found itself just below the 30 on more than one occasion. We adhere to the 15 degree rule out of a desire to appear like good sailors. Connie was not nervous about the trip but worried about what such excessive heel meant about our ability to control our boat.
We spent the whole day taking in sail trying to match sail to wind. The wind stayed ahead of us even when we "took two instead of one" in an attempt to anticipate conditions.
How, I wondered, was the other boat doing it? I wanted to track the boat and find the skipper. There were things to learn from this guy. His heavy weather sailing was exemplary.
Just before dark, about 6 p.m., the other boat was in decent binocular range. The magical skipper's secret was out: He was motoring! The boat had hauled in all of its sail. This guy was in 20 knots of wind and he was motoring. Good way to keep the boat more or less vertical. My desire to meet the guy went down with the sun.
Charleston Harbour found us worn out, sleep deprived, wind burned and still moving like a bat out of hell. What a grand night on the water.
Our poor Meredith however was a different story. It's genoa had been badly (but anxiously) furled in 30 knots of wind in the pitch black, it's main was cocked at a bit of an angle intended to depower its triple reef even further and the staysail had a somewhat untidy jury rig of a reef hand tied in the middle of the blackest part of the morning to try to keep the boat speed under control.
Entering Charleston we heard the captain of the other boat calling his marina.
Let me tell you pal. It honked a bit louder for some than others. Connie and I looked at each other and groaned.
We made the 9 a.m. Waupoos bridge opening and found our favourite anchorage a few hundred yards beyond. We got out the sail covers, and unfurled and refurled the genoa so it would no longer be embarrassed by its bedraggled appearance. A big breakfast of scrambled eggs, ham, onions and cheese in nice warm tortillas filled our tummies and we found ourselves in bed, warm and comfy, our heads still ringing with the wind.