Hilton Head Island, SC, to Wilmington, NC, Offshore.
Continued from Cape Fear, NC, or a Cape to Fear…
The engine had been running for quite some time as we motor-sailed into the wind, so Brian turned it off to top up the oil and keep things running smoothly. As we bobbed about the ocean, we were visited by a large pod of small spotted dolphins. The dolphins surrounded the boat, surfacing frequently, and shortly thereafter, began slapping their tails vigorously against the surface of the water, first one dolphin, then sometimes four at the same time.
I ran around with my camera, trying to document it as best I could (there is one photograph below which shows them slapping the water), all the while reporting their every move down to Brian. “What do you think it means?” I had a strong sense that they were trying to tell us something. Perhaps they were concerned because we weren’t moving? They hung around the boat for quite a long time as we bobbed aimlessly in the ocean, letting the wind and waves have their way with us.
A short while later, they swam off to the southeast, and we started up the engine and continued to head farther offshore to the northeast, towards Wrightsville Beach or possibly Beaufort, NC. We could see lightening over the Cape Fear channel and decided that not to take our chances there. NOAA confirmed that there would be scattered showers and thunderstorms over the Cape Fear area throughout the night and into Monday morning. Being the amateur mariner that I am, I was worried about A) entering the unfamiliar channel at night and in the middle of a storm, and B) anchoring in an unfamiliar anchorage at night and in the middle of a storm. I suppose these could be a concern for anyone though.
We monitored the weather reports on the VHF closely for several hours, but conditions seemed to be worsening. At some point, we decided to cease our route farther north and wait for a break in the storms at Cape Fear. We were about 20 miles offshore from the channel when Brian hove-to to get some rest and wait out the storms. Night had fallen, and although there were lines of cumulous clouds to our east and northeast, there was a bright moon and a few stars above us.
Around 12 AM, a line of towering cumulous clouds appeared to the northeast of us. We could see bright flashes of cloud-to-ground (water in this case) lightening that appeared to be heading towards us. We had heard no reports of this new storm line on the VHF, so we watched the clouds to see what they were doing. At 12:45 AM, NOAA reported an organized storm line offshore to the southeast of Frying Pan Shoals moving northwest at 10 knots with frequent cloud-to-ground lightening. Boaters were advised to move inshore and seek safe harbor as quickly as possible. This was frightening news because it confirmed that, yes, the storm was indeed heading straight for us, and it was also heading straight for the Cape Fear channel, which was where we wanted to go.
We pulled down the sails, fired up the motor, and left our little patch of moonlight behind us. Illusion was racing the storm to the Cape Fear, even though there were still other thunderstorms – that we could see – over the channel. When we were five miles out from the channel, we passed a large container ship anchored in the pilot boarding area. It was lit up like a hotel in the middle of the black waters and clouds, so we radioed to ask for a radar report on the storm’s movement. There was no response. We thought briefly that maybe we could move out of its path if we turned to the southeast. We motored three or four miles in this direction, but it became apparent that the storm line was too long for us to dodge, and we were just heading into another smaller storm line off in the distance.
As several storm lines moved in on us from three sides, we pulled a 180 and made the run for the channel. We knew that we would be passing through one or several storms over the next two hours as we passed into the channel, but we hoped to avoid the worst of it, which was the line moving in from offshore, just northeast of us. We put on our life jackets and readied the ditch bag (just in case!), while I placed our two fire extinguishers in different parts of the boat. It wasn’t the rain or wind, or high seas (which were only about 3 feet at the time), that I worried about, but rather the lightening was the key concern, because we weren’t sure what kind of damage it might cause to the boat, and we were about to go through a full-on electrical storm.
We began to hear thunder as the storm got closer; I counted the seconds between the strikes, first 12 seconds, then 10, then 8, etc. The lightening became blinding, stretching across the sky above our heads and striking the water less than a mile away. Around 3:30 AM, I called my parents and asked them to check the radar for us on the computer (yes, I called my parents in the middle of the night and completely freaked them out – but hey, I was really worried about the boat getting struck by lightening, and I never did that when I was a teenager, so I feel entitled….just kidding, Mom and Dad!). Anyway, we couldn’t tell exactly what the storm was doing, how big it was, or how fast it was moving, and we were close to the entrance to the channel, so we needed to know right then. We didn’t want to put the boat at risk, if there was any way to avoid it.
The storm had overtaken us minutes before. Rain poured down as I asked, based on the radar images, whether or not they thought we should carry on for the channel or turn around and wait for the storm to pass before entering the channel. My father informed us that, based on our SPOT location, we were in the middle of the worst of this line of storms, but there was another worse line of storms behind it. The storm had stretched all the way from Myrtle Beach, SC, to Beaufort, NC, so there was no dodging this one. He advised us to let the worst pass over and then follow it in, so that is what we did.
Although lightening struck all around Illusion, thankfully it never hit us. Within twenty minutes it had passed over, and we once again made for the channel, this time through a steady rain. Brian had stoically been at the wheel the entire time. He steered us into the channel about an hour later, while I pointed out the approaching beacons and helped him find the channel through the rain. Green, red, green, red, green, red, yellow, yellow, yellow – wait, there was a tugboat in the channel pulling a barge! About 100 yards from Illusion, a spotlight came to life and searched the waters around us before landing on the boat. It let out several giant blasts on its horn and swiftly passed very close to us in the narrow channel.
To say that we were on edge would be an understatement; we were soaking wet, tired, and cold, when we finally arrived safely in the Cape Fear River shortly after dawn. We dropped anchor at 11 AM Monday morning (way up the river) and finally collapsed into bed. Exaggerations aside, I had just completed my longest trip offshore (two full days) and weathered my first storm at sea.
A note about our SPOT tracking:
The SPOT has come in very handy thus far, but I have noticed a few things. If you are checking the live SPOT map on my Trip page, you may have noticed that it is a bit lacking as far as the updates are concerned. I have been told that you have to manually update the page to get new locations to show up. If you are following along in the future, then this page is the more reliable/accurate method to follow our progress. Thanks for following the journey!
Hilton Head Island, SC, to Wilmington, NC, Offshore.
It was a dark and stormy night (and oh was it ever!), but it did not start out that way. Brian will claim that I exaggerate, but I can’t squelch the creative writing degree in me. In either case, I will let you be the judge of this two-post series….
We left Palmetto Bay in the late afternoon hours last Friday. At dusk, we dropped anchor in Skull Creek at the edge of the Port Royal Sound, the entrance to the ocean, and had a quiet dinner. Our departure was imminent. We went to bed early and awoke with the sun the next day, refreshed and ready for the high seas. After a quick espresso, we were off. Illusion cut through some choppy water on the way out of the channel, but zigzagged her way smoothly out into the ocean. We sailed north for eight hours before the winds shifted slightly, and we turned the motor back on. Brian and I alternated watches throughout the day, but we didn’t keep track of the time. I lounged; I read; I napped in the sun. It was an all-around pleasant day of sailing.
The sun crept lower in the west as we approached the Stono River, Folly Beach, and then the Charleston Harbor – our intended destination. As Brian and I debated where to anchor for the next few nights, the NOAA weather station declared over the VHF that there was a bad thunderstorm moving east down the Cooper River from North Charleston. The storm had winds up to 60 miles per hour, lightening (which according to NOAA is nature’s number one threat to humans??), and hail. Since we definitely weren’t going to turn inshore into that, the next stop was Georgetown, SC, just a few hours up the coast.
I started having a deja vu when NOAA reported a new thunderstorm in Georgetown, not as bad as the one in Charleston, but with frequent cloud-to-ground lightening. But again, it was not a big deal to continue north up the coast. The boat was safer offshore than inshore at this point, and Illusion was performing well, so we carried on. Night fell quickly and soon we found ourselves beating into the wind. The sky was clear, with many stars and a visible Milky Way that crossed the sky over Cape Romain. It wasn’t a pleasant night, but it wasn’t too bad either. Illusion had come a good distance, which meant we would be able to get up to North Carolina faster than planned – an added bonus.
Dawn broke over a tranquil ocean on our second day offshore (see picture below). As the sun rose, the water appeared glassy, like obsidian, under a clear blue sky. The color was the deepest blue I have ever seen, smooth and soothing. There was no wind. Schools of fish passed us, boiling along the surface of the waves, dark patches, which flashed silver in the the light. Over the course of the morning, several pods of large dolphins swam by, ducking underneath the boat and surfacing below our peering eyes, on their way to breakfast (or lunch), and two small sea turtles frantically swam out of our way as we cut through the blue water.
In the afternoon, we noticed a line of cumulus clouds building to our west along the coastline (which you can also see in my pictures below). They eventually formed into two storm lines east of us heading southeast around Myrtle Beach, SC. In order to dodge them – which we did – we turned northeast and headed farther offshore, running parallel but in the opposite direction. This put Illusion on a course that would eventually take us around Frying Pan Shoals, NC (also called the graveyard of the Atlantic!), and up to Beaufort, NC, if we chose to do so.
We had just spent two full days offshore. Should we push the boat further before heading in? We didn’t know. We did know that the conditions offshore were going to deteriorate steadily over the course of the next few days, and high seas were predicted for Tuesday and Wednesday. It was Sunday evening, and the sun was starting to set, which meant that we had two options: we could head in at Cape Fear, or carry on and head in at Wrightsville Beach, after rounding the Frying Pan Shoals.
To be continued….
…and consequently when not to.
I will be the first to admit that I have cursed our boat countless times for its shortcomings and all of the work that Illusion has demanded of us (due to past neglect), but I have also grown to appreciate and love my little floating home. I enjoy life at anchor. The boat feels so much bigger now that we are on the open water, and after all of the work we’ve put into her, Illusion is quite comfortable both inside and out. Brian is putting together a post on his blog, Chasing the Illusion, about all of the projects that we’ve done on the boat over the past five months.
Since we’ve been at anchor, Brian has hooked up the wind generator and solar panel to help charge the batteries. With the wind blowing 10 knots and the sun shining, we are fully powered, refrigerator and all. Brian bought a used Kiss generator last year and it is extremely quiet. There is barely even a hum inside the boat and, instead of making that loud whirring or hissing sound that is so characteristic of other wind generators, it makes a soft whooshing sound. We run the generator once or twice a day or crank up the engine to recharge the batteries, but we are more than happy with amount of energy we are getting from the wind and sun right now.
One major perk about about staying in the anchorage is that we have plenty of neighbors. I’m not just talking about other sailors, but also the sea life. I have seen several a big sea turtles swimming around the boat, and we are starting to recognize the different pods of dolphins that swim by. It’s fun to take the dingy to shore (when it isn’t raining), and every trip feels like a new mini-adventure. However, there are times when depending on an anchor can be quite stressful. For instance, with competing currents and winds in the creek, the boat swings from one position on the anchor to another, and sometimes it can be quite rocky.
On Thursday, Illusion made her second attempt at leaving Hilton Head Island. Brian and I got a late start but had a pleasant sail around the backside of the island and across Port Royal Sound. We reached the other side of the Sound and decided to anchor in the Beaufort River around 10 pm. We planned to sail out of the Sound in the morning and continue offshore to Charleston. In the morning, Brian tinkered with the engine for a few hours, and then we made preparations to leave. About an hour before Brian went to pull the anchor, we heard a loud pop! but never located the source. We heard another pop! about 30 minutes later, but again we could not find any problems.
We started the engine shortly thereafter and Brian went to pull the anchor up, only to find that the rode (rope) had snapped a little way below the waterline. The boat hadn’t moved away from the anchorage, which led us to believe that it was the source of the strange pop we had just heard. We are uncertain about the reason for the break, but we have two theories. Either the rope had chafed on something (possibly a wreck?), or the rope was just too old. All in all, it didn’t bode well for Illusion, traveling with only one anchor (and the same rope rode) so we turned around and sailed back to Palmetto Bay. We can look at this incident as bad luck, or take it as good luck, which I am trying to do. We were quite lucky that the line didn’t break in the middle of the night, when we might have run aground or been pushed into a dock or another boat.
Because of all these further setbacks to our departure schedule, Brian and I are re-evaluating our original plan. Hurricane season starts in a month, which leaves us little cruising time in the Caribbean, and all predictions indicate that it is going to be a bad one. At this point in the season, it makes sense to sail north rather than south. It will be easier to find transient work over the summer in the states, we can live on the boat rent-free at anchor, will be more-or-less out of the storm path for hurricane season, we will have plenty of blue water sailing between here and there, and a plethora of new places to explore along the way. One thing is clear: we just need to sail the boat! So we are now planning to sail NORTH for the summer, then go south again next fall. Rest assured, a modified adventure is still on the horizon for Illusion.
We finally left Palmetto Bay Marina, but what we hoped would be the beginning of our southward sail turned into a sea trial when the engine overheated, the GPS stopped receiving, and we discovered that our rigging was, well, a bit off. Remember that we hadn’t sailed her since last March! Both Brian and I were nervous about sailing her for the first time in so long. We were certain something was going to break, but we didn’t know what it would be. We motored out of Broad Creek at 2:30 pm on Sunday, I drove while Brian worked out the reefing lines and put up the mainsail with one reef. The wind was blowing about 10 -15 knots from the east – perfect sailing conditions for Illusion. Just before we turned to go out into the ocean we unfurled the jib and continued to motor sail.
We started having issues with the GPS cutting out as we looked for the markers indicating the narrow channel out to the ocean, but this was an on-going issue, so we were only a little concerned. Brian’s parents and Larry followed us out in Larry’s 19 ft. Key West and shortly after we pulled the jib out, Brian’s Dad radioed to let us know that the mast appeared to be tilting slightly forward, odd considering that we had just adjusted tension in the rigging and it should have been tilting slightly back. We decided to pull the jib back in and proceed with the mainsail and motor. Then, all of a sudden, I saw smoke pouring out of the engine box.
Brian quickly pulled the choke because the engine was overheating. The channel was very narrow and we were still at the beginning, trying to locate the next green marker. Then, to complicate the situation further, the GPS cut out again. It would have been extremely difficult for us to make it through the narrow cut without the GPS, so we decided to play it safe and turn the boat around. Brian sailed back to Palmetto Bay, up Broad Creek, and then anchored under sail power (a first for him). The sail back was beautiful and calm. After all the nervous tension earlier in the day – knowing that something would go wrong, but what? – the minute Brian cut off the engine, I was able to relax; something had gone wrong and I finally knew what it was. Neither of us were happy to turn back, but it was obvious that we had some kinks to work out.
Oh and check it out…Illusion is clean again – and kind of fancy after all that work! Imagine that…no more fiberglass dust or project clutter.
I was a bit nervous as I strapped myself into the Bosun’s chair last Friday. It wasn’t that I was afraid of heights – I loved roller coasters and climbing (mostly trees) as a kid – but getting hauled up a tall pole on a swaying boat was entirely new to me. One of us needed to go up the mast to adjust the angle of the spreaders and then paint the top of them to protect them from the sun, and while Brian would have willingly gone, I wanted to give it a try.
Once I strapped myself into the chair, Brian began to haul me up using the halyard and another safety line. As I started to rise, I used my feet to work my way from the side of the mast to position myself over the boom. From there it was a straight shot up to the center of the spreaders, which is about halfway up our mast (which is approx. 49 feet tall). The higher I went, the more I began to swing from the rocking of the boat and the wind, so I embraced my primate roots and used my feet to grip around the mast.
I held myself steady between the stays as I checked the angle of the spreaders, and Brian walked up and down the dock to get a better view of their adjustment, hollering directions up to me. I matched up the angles as best I could considering that the spreaders had been handmade by Brian back in Rockville and weren’t exactly the same shape. When we were both fairly satisfied, he lowered me down to take a look for myself. To my relief, they looked much better.
Brian hauled me up again to paint the tops, but I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous the second time around. In fact, I stayed up there for another hour applying two coats of paint on each spreader. I have to say, I rather enjoyed it and the view is quite nice up there.
Also, for those of you who are wondering, we are leaving for Florida VERY soon!