Cape Hatteras to Charleston
November 1, 2018
Our crew, Bruce Rich, arrived around 3p on October 29th to get settled in and start learning the boat. I ended up working until the last possible minute and at 4:30p told my colleagues that I needed to jump off the call and would be back in about 30 minutes. If you know anything about my job, you’d know I spend my entire day on conference calls.
Taking advantage of having crew aboard, we tossed off the dock lines at 4:45p on October 29th. This is important because some of our friends came to wave goodbye as we motored off for our planned 5p departure. Whoops, really sorry you guys – but we love the fact you did that. And we will miss you dearly.
Unlike our sail north during the summer, the Chesapeake Bay was surprisingly calm. We had a fantastic weather window as far as getting around Cape Hatteras goes. What you should look for when crossing south around the Cape is dead calm waters. Motor around it – and in all cases, you do NOT want any winds with a Northerly component. The opposing winds and current are incredibly dangerous for this part of the Atlantic. The gulf stream is too close to land and the shoals extend too close to the stream, which makes reality come to life for the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
We had southwest winds under 5 knots for our trip – not great for sailing, but perfect for staying safe. Honestly, there was nothing eventful for this part of the trip to Charleston. I didn’t get seasick, I didn’t break my toenails operating the salt water pump, and I didn’t worry the boat would break. I joined Erik for his 3a-6a shift and I must say, it was incredibly peaceful – lots of stars, flat seas, and just fun.
After we cleared the Cape, though, that’s when crazy shit started happening.
Sunrise – day two
After incredibly calm seas and light winds, Bruce took the 9-12a shift, and Erik and I took the 12-3a. Nothing interesting happened – the moon had not yet risen and there were some high clouds so we didn’t have a brilliant sky full of stars. The winds had shifted and we now had northerly winds. Northeast around 12-15kts. We had both the main and the genoa set. Ok, one thing that did happen on our shift was an accidental jibe. The winds had been northeast at the time, but abruptly shifted to northwest. Since we had the preventer set, when the sail backwinded it just made the boat shake a little. For a cat, with a preventer set, that’s about the extent of an accidental jibe.
If you are asking why we were doing shifts together, it’s quite simple: I am afraid of sailing in the dark. I worry I won’t know what to do if I’m by myself. I’m being honest here. So until I’m comfortable, Erik will join me at the helm, and even if he falls asleep, he’ll be nearby and this gives me great comfort.
Bruce came to relieve us at 3a, so we climbed back into bed hoping to get a couple hours of sleep before our next shift. About 40 minutes into our rest, I felt the boat abruptly turn starboard. I also felt a lot of shaking and heard Bruce resetting the genoa. It didn’t feel right to me – because I’m still such a new sailor, pretty much everything doesn’t feel right!
Erik was asleep, but I woke him because I was worried. Erik went above deck to see what was going on and it was pure chaos. The winds were so confused behind us, constantly shifting east and west and were getting stronger. This caused another accidental jibe on Bruce’s watch, but it wasn’t the ‘nothing event’ that we had earlier. This time, the autopilot stopped working. Which is why with a northwesterly wind we were turning starboard – the boat was trying to turn all the way around and into the wind.
I came up on deck and right about that time, we both saw another sailboat about 300 yards off the beam in front of us. The captain of that vessel raised us on the radio and Erik advised he was managing the situation but to give us way while we reset course.
We were hugging the coast – maybe 3-4 miles off, but it was dark and we were getting tossed quite a bit with 3-5 foot seas, so there’d be no attempt at finding the problem until daylight.
Erik and Bruce got the boat back on track and he came back to bed. I wouldn’t sleep anymore that night – not until Erik was back on the helm. Which would be the 6-9a shift.
After about 12 hours of manually steering the course, Erik found the problem: the reservoir came off and after a few minutes of dinkering with it, Erik got it fixed, refilled, and we were back on autopilot. For those worried about safety here, the hydraulic pump for the autopilot is in our port lazarette. Erik was harnessed and tethered to the safety rail during the repair mission. #safetyfirst
I was feeling pretty comfortable and insisted on taking my first night shift solo. I took the 6-9p that night. I see why people say it’s pretty peaceful, but I have to admit that I don’t like when it goes dark. Maybe if the moon was up, if there weren’t any clouds, and there was no wind and waves, I’d dig it, but that was not to be. Winds started clocking above 20 knots, almost directly on beam and I was cold and just wanted my shift over. Thankfully, I couldn’t see the seas so I can’t tell you how big they were.
Erik made dinner for us that night – but I was anxious from my first solo night shift, so I just took Sparky and we climbed into bed. Bruce had the 9-12a so after Erik did the dishes, he came to join me until his watch at 12a.
I fell asleep pretty quickly, and so did Erik. But I was easily awakened when I heard the drive generator sputter and then stop.
At first, I thought Bruce turned it off on purpose, but then I heard him try to restart the drive generator. Once again, I woke Erik and asked him if it was normal that the drives had stopped. He said no, jumped out of bed and went above deck.
If you are wondering why we had our drives going with such strong winds, keep in mind that we had a broad reach (winds at our port quarter) and we were sailing south (against currents).
Erik tried restarting the generator several times, but it wouldn’t catch at first. Finally, it sputtered and started and we thought that would be the last of the drama – so Erik came back to bed.
Now, a little about how this boat works. First, this boat was configured for diesel engines, but Lagoon installed Solomon electric drives instead. This means the fuel filters for the drive generator are located in the starboard lazarette. A line connects the fuel to the generator which is located in the front cockpit. And the generator is connected to the drives, which are under our bed in the starboard cabin. I know, right?!
Under normal conditions, our generator has a self-normalizing throttle in that when there is any conflict such as an air bubble or even a piece of sand, the throttle will compensate by drawing more power to clear the line and keep the RPMs consistent.
Erik went up to relieve Bruce at midnight. Shortly after his shift started, the generator once again powered down and this time, Erik could not get the generator restarted.
We had 4-6 foot seas and consistent winds of 15 knots. But it was pitch dark again and we were 9 miles off the coast with northeasterly winds and a seastate that was pushing us closer and closer to shore.
I was on shift with Erik for this. Erik was NOT a happy camper, but he knew he’d have no choice but to empty the lazarette to reach the fuel filter. This was not easy – there is a lot of heavy equipment in there and there is not enough space and zero safety to simply put the contents on the deck. Working in partnership, we got enough emptied so Erik could reach the filter.
The fuel filter was replaced in a matter of minutes, but to my eyes, it looked like we were within minutes of reaching the coastline and nearby shoals. At one point I asked when the last responsible moment would be before we called for a tow.
Bottom line, what happened was the tank was dirty. This clogged the filter. Normally that is not a big deal, but in the middle of the night, under growing seas and wind, the drama was real.
After a few tense minutes of trying to restart the generator, it finally came back to life. Thank goodness!!
We resumed course and kept a vigilant watch until Bruce came back to relieve us. And then we slept.
The drama wouldn’t be over however – about 10 hours into this new fuel filter, the generator would once again stop, and Erik and I would once again be emptying the lazarette, so he could once again, replace the fuel filter. This time though, it was daylight.
Chaos comes in sets of threes.
During our afternoon watch, I heard a part clink itself down on the coach roof. Erik went to investigate and found that the eyelet that holds the pin for the boom (to the mast) unscrewed itself and fell off. Holy smokes – if that had happened at night we probably wouldn’t have seen or heard it. Impersonating MacGyver, Erik took a set of pliers and using the back end, re-attached the eyelet and re-secured both sides of the pin.
We had no more drama but then again, we’d had enough. And as we turned into the channel to Charleston, South Carolina, we were greeted by huge shipping vessels, a squall with gusts to 35 knots, and boats not showing up on the AIS.
The marina sent dockhands out to help us set lines. This would be a first as well. They needed us to dock Mediterranean style, stern in. Erik had never done this before, and he told me afterward his butt was a little puckered doing this, but let me tell you right now – he backed us in like a pro.
It was time for a beer or two, and a well-deserved HOT shower. Charleston would be our home for the next 4.5 nights. We’d leave this beautiful city in the middle of night 5 to get further south.