Monday, August 19, 2013

s/v Rhapsody In Blue Delivery, Part 1 (of 4): Gulf Stream

After the remarkable collection of adventures that was our June, I really needed to just hang out at home for a while and appreciate the Chesapeake.  I announced that I didn’t want to go more than about 25 miles from Annapolis by land or water for a month.  Luckily, it didn’t work out that way for me; a sailing opportunity intervened.

A Florida acquaintance (now friend), Melissa*, had bought a new boat.  Part of the deal involved trading in her present boat.  But the boat was in Key Biscayne, FL and the dealer was in St Simons, GA.  No problem; we’ll sail it there!  Melissa invited Dan and me, and another friend, Donna, to come to Florida and help bring the boat north.

The boat: Rhapsody in Blue is a 2006 Hunter 36.  (Photo by Michelle Bennett and Tony Boldt)

Depending on our route, the trip would be around 400 nautical miles.  We allowed ourselves a week to get there.  That left enough time for weather or other unforeseen circumstances, but still meant we were going to keep up a pretty good pace.  This wasn’t cruising or a sightseeing vacation, getting a boat to a specific place on a schedule – a boat delivery – is a job, although we hoped to have a bit of learning and a bit of fun along the way.

We flew in to Fort Lauderdale late on a Saturday night, and Melissa proved herself to be a wonderful hostess as well as a competent and organized sailor.  The boat was ready to go, and our favorite provisions (as confirmed with lots of back-and-forth emails beforehand) were laid in.  We unpacked and settled in for a few hours of sleep before our planned departure on the morning’s tide.

Captain and owner Melissa

Donna was a weekender whose first overnight trip at sea was this one, but she had Coast Guard background

Dan took a lot of flak for being alone at sea on a boat with three women.
Next morning, we motored out the cut just as planned, and headed out to sea.  Just a few miles out we entered the incredible blue – that blue – of the Gulf Stream.  The plan was to use this strong north-flowing current to our advantage, adding a couple of knots to our boat speed.  There was another reason for staying away from land, as Melissa explained.  This was Florida in the summertime, and thunderstorms are a regular occurrence.  The land soaks up the sun’s energy and heats up, the air rises (convection), and ultimately the energy is released in some epic lightning shows.  But just a few miles out, the water maintains a more constant temperature, and storms are fewer.   That doesn’t mean there were no storms – the Gulf Stream has so much energy it creates its own weather – but the odds were better.  The forecast for this afternoon and evening was about a 40-50 percent chance of storms, but we were hopeful that they would be isolated enough that we could steer around them.  We watched the storms building over land as Melissa, an airline pilot by profession, taught us how to read the storm clouds, which she nicknamed “marching elephants.” Crisply defined ones that look like a head of cauliflower are building dangerously, but if the edges get wispy they’re collapsing and not an immediate concern.  She pointed out examples of both in the distance as the day went on.

You can see the clouds building over Miami, but it's blue skies out in the ocean where we are.

Here is the boost we got from the Gulf Stream: our speed through the water was 6.19 knots (I'm pointing to it); but our speed over ground at the top of the chartplotter is 8.8 knots!

Winds were light, the weather and the company were pleasant, and the miles slid past, with the autopilot doing most of the work.  I drew the 3 AM watch (my favorite, both because that watch includes the opportunity to see beautiful sunrises and the fact that being awake then is in sync with my biorhythms) so I went to bed early.  At about 2 AM I heard the boat creaking and groaning. I didn’t know fiberglass boats could do that, I thought only romantic historical wooden ships creaked and groaned, in novels and movies.  There was precisely zero chance I would fall back asleep with that, so I grabbed my foul-weather jacket and went to the cockpit, offering to relieve Donna early, since I was awake anyway.  What had awakened me were building thunderstorms, and although the winds were not excessive, they were kicking up waves in the Gulf Stream currents we rode.  Melissa and I shared the watch while pinkish lightning was flashing to our right, to our left, and behind us, impossibly bright in the dark ocean night.

Not a minute after Donna had retired, the sky opened, absolutely drenching us.  There wasn’t a lot of wind with the storm, luckily, but in the time it took me to raise my hood my hair and shirt collar were soaked.  “Have you ever been in a storm this bad?” asked Melissa.  “Um, yeaaaah,” I answered reluctantly, unintentionally sounding almost bored when I felt anything but, remembering a Navy trip with Dan on the Fourth of July underway off the Delaware coast where the lightning made the holiday fireworks look puny.  “And last time I was in a bad storm, I promised myself that I’d never put myself in that situation again.  Mmm hmmm.  Rrright.  We see how that turned out.”

A half hour later, the storm was over and the ocean was our friend again.  There were some distant flashes and rumbles, but the clouds were breaking up and between the breaks were a soft black sky and a billion stars.  We were easy company, sometimes quiet and sometimes chatting.  There’s something unique about being with someone else late at night when you can’t see each other’s faces, that inspires confidential conversation.

We continued to make good time as the night gradually faded.  Sunrise at sea is a visual symphony rising to a crescendo, although this one was tame due to the lingering clouds.  Or maybe I was just tired, and unable to summon the energy to appreciate it properly.  The day continued, we made uneventful progress, riding the Gulf Stream with the Florida coast just visible in the distance.  There were storms over the land, but none near us.  By mid-afternoon we faced a decision: continue on for a second night to come into the St Augustine inlet in the morning, or come in the Ponce inlet, anchor for the night, then continue to St Augustine the next day.   (to be continued)

Hazy sunrise at sea

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* Melissa had just recently moved aboard Rhapsody when she (along with several others) was featured in this 2011 post about new liveaboards.

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