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!