Monday, June 2, 2014

Back to the Ocean

I'm a decent navigator/weather router, I really am.  And I should trust myself more.

The weather had prevented us leaving after 6 days in Fernandina, when I would have really preferred, on the night of the full moon.   But a few days later, we had our predicted weather.  By all the forecasts, the wind would start out being in our faces, raising waves from the northeast, but by afternoon would clock southeast, then south, and moderate.  That would also tie in well with the tides, if we left around lunchtime or a little after, tides would be slack or falling and carry us with fair current out the inlet.  In addition, even though we wouldn't have a full moon, this night looked quite promising, fair wind, clear, and only a few hours of total darkness after sunset around 8:30 and before moonrise a little after midnight.

I predicted that about 28 hours would see us docked in Beaufort, SC, in the early evening, and fair currents would carry us up the long Port Royal inlet.  My only concern was that if anything -- anything -- slowed us down, we would get in after dark, and we didn't have radar.  So, reluctantly, we decided to leave early, against the tide and before the seas settled down, just to have a bigger margin of daylight safety on the arriving end.

And so, out the channel we went, beating into ugly, lumpy 3-5 foot seas.  This was my first clue that I should have trusted my initial assessment to wait until the afternoon -- just as predicted, the wind was against us. (insert frowny-face emoticon here)  After about 5 hours we were off the big-ship entry channel for Brunswick, GA and seriously considered calling it quits and going back "inside" to the shelter of the ICW. But we thought maybe, just maybe, things were settling a little, and it sure would be nice to get to Beaufort tomorrow instead of next week, so we cheered each other up and went on. Surprisingly, we had cellphone coverage even that far out.  We had two friends back in St Augustine who were tasked to alert the Coast Guard if we were seriously overdue; we could keep them apprised of our status just by posting regular Facebook updates every few hours.  And as the afternoon dwindled, the seas did too (**ahem!** Just as I had initially predicted! We should have waited!)  It slowly got more comfortable.

We don't tend to have deep philosophical conversations underway, even when (like this day) the autopilot is doing all the work and there is little navigation to require our attention.  At the same time, I can't lose myself in a book, not when its so much more interesting to watch the subtle but ever changing ocean there before me.  I can read any time, like on a rainy day in port.  So we sat, mostly silent but occasionally chatting about trivial, shallow subjects, and made steady progress northward.  By late afternoon we were generally 5-10 miles off the Georgia shore, never completely out of sight of land, but not really close enough to see any detail.

As it had on our last "outside" run from St Augustine to Fernandina, again the ocean seemed weirdly empty.  A few dolphins, a few turtles, and a lot of jellyfish.  Around dinnertime, though, we had the most lovely visitor when a small songbird, who could easily have fit in my hand, landed in the cockpit.  He looked frazzled and dazed, he didn't even look like he would survive the flight back to shore.  I couldn't tell if he was too young to be afraid of us, or just too tired to care.  He hopped into the galley and ate the crumbs of bread left over from our lunchtime sandwiches, and propped on the rim of the small bowl of fresh water we offered. He joined us for dinner - we had lentil soup, while he ate a couple of dead bugs that had fallen on the cockpit floor. He perked up amazingly after his "meal." He perched for a while on our nautical charts for all the world as if he was checking his route, then flew away. "Stay safe, little one," I whispered; "thanx for the memory!"  Later, I submitted the approximate lat-long where he had joined us, and some photos, to the Birding Aboard website.  If citizen scientific observers like us all report these little hitchhikers, it might help understand migration patterns of these rapidly declining songbirds.  And as a bonus, they told us a little about him: "...blackpoll warbler (female or first-year male)...This bird is on a very long voyage! It winters in South America, and breeds in the northern boreal forests of Canada. It's quite possibly a first-year bird, making its way north for the first time."  Wow.  I guess I needn't have worried about him making the 6 miles or so to shore.

Our remarkable little visitor -- blackpoll warbler
We watched the sun set, and switched into "night" mode.  We turned on the red light in the cabin (to preserve our night vision), turned on the running lights and the lights on the instruments.  We were already wearing our life jackets, now we clipped our tethers onto brackets in the cockpit -- our personal rule after dark no matter how benign the weather, clipped in at all times unless you're below in the cabin -- and readied headlamps and searchlight.  The afterglow gradually faded.  With few clouds and no moon, an absolutely impossible number of stars were visible.  I couldn't recognize any of the familiar constellations; the sky was so crowded.  "Can a night ever have too many stars?" I mused.  The weather was warm, the winds had settled down and were gently pushing us northward, and we were still marveling at our little visitor from earlier in the evening.  Life was good.

We each took turns napping while the other stood watch, and the night passed pleasantly.  Around 2 AM we were off the entry channel to the busy port of Savannah; there were more ships in that stretch than we had seen in the entire previous 20 hours.

It was clear now that we were traveling too fast, and we would get to the Beaufort sea buoy well before daylight and while the current against us was at its maximum, over 2 knots.  Plus, the wind was starting up again, so we decided to drop the mainsail.   See, here's where I know I'm a better navigator than I let on, because I was concerned this would happen ... but I just didn't want to wait until midday to start, "just in case."  (Note to self: checking your calculations is not the same thing as second-guessing yourself!)  I clipped myself in at the helm and carefully turned us into the wind while Dan clipped himself to the jackline and went forward to drop the mainsail.  My eyes were glued to the mainsail as Dan lowered it, when the sail was brightly lit by a flash of bluish light.  "Sh*t!" I thought.  "Lightning!  My biggest fear!  I was so freakin' careful with the forecast, there were no predicted t-storms today.  Where did that come from?"

But I never heard the rumble of thunder that should have accompanied it.  What I heard instead was, "Babe." Dan's call was soft, drawn out, voice full of wonder.  "Did you see that? Biggest shooting star ever! COOL!"  It wasn't lightning after all.  A small meteor had exploded, right where he was looking while guiding the sail down.  Close enough that the light of its passing had illuminated our little world.  I missed it, I was looking the other way -- at the sail from the back of the boat, instead of across the sail from the side.

After that, of course, everything was bland by comparison.  We got to the sea buoy early even though we had slowed down, and just hung out floating near it until it got light.  Sunrise at sea?  Eh.  Normally I love it, enough to volunteer to crawl groggily out of bed for the 2 AM - 6 AM watch.  Look at the eastern horizon.  Is it starting yet?  Is it just a tiny bit lighter, charcoal gray there instead of black?  Then later, yes, definitely, I can see things -- the boat, my hand in front of my face, the shapes of clouds, of waves -- no color yet, just shades of steely gray, but light.  There is light again, and I understand the relief that primitive people must have felt. The timing, perfect suspense like a symphony until the first spark of light touches the horizon, and whether the night was magical or scary, it doesn't matter, it fades into the ordinariness of day.

Sunrise at sea: No matter how the night was, scary or wonderful, it is over. "...And I think its gonna be alright / Yeah, the worst is over now / The morning sun is rising like a red rubber ball."
The wind was blowing from the south while the current was coming from the north (Yes, yes, I had predicted this, blah, blah, blah, I hear you, Self.) making for lumpy confusedness everywhere.  But it was light enough to see the channel, so we started in, and after about an hour of hand-steering to mitigate what we could of the sideways waves and foul current, we were in the shelter of land and moving smoothly.  Then it was a pretty trip up the winding Beaufort River, past the historic town, through the swing bridge, and we tied up at the marina where we planned to stay for several weeks, do some boat work, and rent a car to explore the surrounding cities.  First, though: an email telling our friends to stand down, we had arrived safely; a toast to said safe arrival; and a nap!

I couldn't get away without another photo of our hitchhiker! 

No comments:

Post a Comment