Friday 22 May, passage Cayman to Chesapeake day 8:
To start with, an anecdote. If you are not careful, the Gulf Stream can get under your skin, like a drug addiction (not that we’ve ever taken drugs, but we’ve watched enough American movies to be experts). You love it, but you hate it. You think you are a master of it, but it masters you. You can’t just sail along side it, you want to be in it. When it shows you its good side, life is good. When it shows you its angry side, it can be life threatening. It demands measured respect by the bucket full.
Ok, scene set. Back to the blog!
According to our weather route plan: to get around the notorious Hatteras, without wind against the strong Gulf Stream current that exists there, and then the further 130nm into the safety of the Chesapeake, we have to arrive at the Hatteras no later than 8am Saturday. That would be a record breaking (for us) 600nm in 2 1/2 days out of West Palm. And currently, we are killing it…. just. We’ve plotted the Gulf Stream, we’ve followed the line and the wind has played its part well, thus far. If we continue to do 245nm per day that puts us at the Hatteras 6am Saturday. We can do it! And unconsciously, I’m already addicted.
At midnight, we are relieved the thunder cells coming out of Georgia all miraculously missed us last evening. The wind has also filled in nicely to 15kts and we are on an ideal beam reach. We are again sailing fast in the sweet spot of current as we pass South Carolina shoreline 75nm to the NW. To use Pete Goss’s favorite line: Life is good! Well, the speed is good but the ride is quite uncomfortable, like driving a sports car across a field.
Oana asks: “You think this bumpiness is only in the Gulf Stream, like we experienced last year? Should we get out of it?” Last year, when it got too bumpy, we had exited the stream and the sea had instantly smoothed off. But then we lost the Gulf Stream and didn’t find it again until close to the Hatteras…. where it bit us firmly on the backside! But right now, this perfect wind is well aligned with the current direction and should not cause a lumpy sea. “No” is my reply. “I think the ride quality is just because we are now sailing fast against this huge incoming Atlantic swell”.
But somewhere in my rather small brain an alarm was ringing. Yes, I can feel us having a hobby-horse motion as we go over the swell peaks every 10 seconds, but there is also an increasing lumpiness in-between that motion. Needless to say, we continue. We are on a mission, right? We need the current flow advantage, so we have to put up with the side effects. And the thrill cannot be denied. Cloudy is thundering along, spray flying from the bow, she is completely dominating the sea. Cloudy clearly knows there is a mission. [editor note: no she doesn’t, Glen is just pushing her too hard!].
Oana heads down to bed at 1am. The aft cabin is already untenable for sleep, so she puts a mattress on the saloon floors where the motion is less in the center of the boat. The saloon settee/seaberth is there for the taking, but for her preferred sleep position (“crashed airplane”, as she calls it!) the settee is not wide enough. She’s not happy today. This motion, starting with the large Atlantic swell, has got her sea sick, again. So it’s super important that she gets some rest.
At the next waypoint, the Gulf Stream chart indicates the flow simply stops. Like the end of an unfinished highway. We then have to turn north for 50 nm, over a section of much less current, before we should pick it up again. But at the waypoint that I set for this turn, we still have a good 4kts of current and we are sailing wonderfully on a broad reach.
The wind is now gusting to 22kts and we are going faster than ever. The ride quality had deteriorated even further though, so I reduce sail and that slightly improves things. It’s tempting to just keep going in a straight line while the Gulf Stream is clearly still here (was the highway extended without NOAA knowing?). But 15 nm directly in front of us is another one of the Gulf Stream’s flaws: a massive squall cloud with its lightening flashes every second, like warning beacons announcing “come in only if you dare”! The Gulf Stream seems to generate such local weather effects along the line of the warm water current flow, especially at night. The ancient mariners probably used them to know where the warmest sea was, hence the location of the best current.
Not wanting another dice with an electric storm, we reluctantly turn to port towards our next Gulf Stream waypoint. This puts us further off-wind and the genoa is now in the dirty air of the mainsail. It will need to be poled-our to starboard if we are to maintain speed and stability. Cloudy is seriously lurching all over the place, and even more so now that the boat speed has dropped. I really don’t fancy being on the foredeck getting the pole out.
Here I’m going to digress again. We get lots of comments about us not wearing life jackets or harnesses when on deck. Well it’s both true, and yes, bad practice (children, please don’t do this at home). But working while wearing those things is neither pleasant nor easy. Plus, I’ve always said (thought), if I ever do go over the side it will be on a calm day when my senses of self preservation are not high. And for sure I won’t be wearing a PFD or harness on one of those days.
When conditions are bad my whole body goes into super alert mode. (I have the same effect riding a motorbike compared to driving a car). I will crawl on the deck if need be. I dont want the security blanket of a harness or PFD. I’d rather have my adrenalin and strong adherence to 1-hand-for-me-1-hand-for-the-boat. Meaning no matter what the task, the priority is to ensure I’m hanging on to something solid with at least one hand. I have 2 exceptions to this psych of mine: 1) when there are waves coming on deck, big enough to wash me off even if “hanging on”, 2) where other people/crew are involved. Tonight for instance, I would never let anyone else go on deck the way I do. That’s simply taking my responsibility seriously as Captain.
So I need to set the pole in pretty atrocious conditions. I crawl to the bow with deck lights and head torch on. Setting up the lines is relatively easy. The tricky part is always raising the pole and at the same time securing it to ensure it does not swing wildly like a giant baseball bat swinging at head-height level. But the deck really has a wild motion to it tonight. Normally, I can feel the right time to move from one place to another, using the motion to my advantage. But tonight it’s different. There is no pattern and just feels like a champion bucking bronco. Very unpredictable. In the darkness I can’t really see the sea state, but occasionally I see small peaks of white water above eye level, as opposing wave sets cross each other. These little peak waves are everywhere, like the sea is a massive boiling cauldron. But there are no waves coming on deck, just the occasional splash.
From a crouched position next to the mast, I go to haul on the pole-up topping-lift. And in that instant I have this odd feeling of levitation. My whole body is suddenly airborne and heading over the port side life lines. All too fast for me to grab onto anything. Very luckily, the shroud is between me and the deep-blue. I hit it hard and land on the side deck in a heap. For some reason I dont even think about what just almost happened. I get on with the job and get the genoa poled out and crawl back to the cockpit as fast as possible. That’s when I start shaking. But the adrenaline kicks back in with a squeal and a clatter from below. Oana’s mattress slid across the floor, the tool box from under the table following her. And something has landed on Oana’s head. “Something hit you?” I ask. Yes, your PC mouse, she responds. A PC mouse? That almost sounds comical in the scheme of things.
But then there is a sloshing noise and it’s inside the boat, not outside. What is that? There it goes again. With lights on, we see water pouring through the small window all over the galley. The window had been on the downwind side so I had deemed safe to be open, allowing some air into the boat. But the side deck is suddenly full of water and it’s sloshing through the window. A quick mop up and it’s back to the cockpit.
In this pitching sea, despite the 18kts of wind, the genoa and mainsail are flogging like crazy and the boat is going no where. Did I pole out the wrong side? So it’s back on deck again to pole out the other side. But still no damned improvement. I’m really exhausted now. Oana is seeing me struggling and wanted to help but I shout at her, “No”. I really don’t need any extra complications right now even though she means well. Super frustrated, I now furl away the genoa and try to get my brain in gear. It’s like my CPU just went on go-slow.
Firstly, I clearly need to resign my determination to stay in the current and get to the Hatteras on time. We absolutely need to get out of the Gulf Stream current before this extreme sea state shakes both us and the boat apart. If we turn seaward that squall cloud is waiting for us. But if we turn landward I need to gybe the main sail. That’s going to be VERY dangerous. Even if I manage to furl away the sail, taking the retainer off the boom and gybing just the boom will take a lot of coordination between Oana and I. An out of control 10m long boom in these conditions could be lethal. So we decide to put the motor on and tack the mainsail around. So simple…. why was that not my first thought? My Dad had always told me “it’s ungentlemanly to gybe – you should always tack. Much cleaner and safer”. Thanks Dad!
Having done the maneuver we motor out of the strong current and after 5 miles the sea calms down enough to gather our thoughts. I desperately need sleep. But first, I check weather. And confirm there is no way to reach the Hatteras before the wind changes north, unless we use the Gulf Stream. So we resign to plan-B. Shelter in Beaufort North Carolina, 140 nm away. We will wait there for the next Hatteras weather window.
With the motor on, we set course for Beaufort. And shocked to find we have 1 kts of current against us now and we are only doing 6kts SOG. Looks like this will be withdrawal symptoms from the Gulf Stream addiction. We need to be back to reality that 6kts is a good speed!
Then I sleep for 2 hours. A very deep and rather disturbed dreamy sleep. I can’t remember sleeping like that since being under extreme pressure during oil rig operations where adrenaline also kept me going when tired. And when pressure is relieved and adrenaline goes away, the body shuts down in the weirdest manner, to recover.
Oh. One small detail I missed. Looking for comfort food during all this, I opened the day fridge for chocolate and was greeted by an airborne jar of olives with no lid on. Olives and olive juice, went everywhere. I’m sure we will be smelling that for many weeks to come!
We end up the rest of the day having a very tranquil sail towards Beaufort and life is semi-good again.
I will end this log here, late afternoon. It’s far too long already and enough drama for just one blog. And our arrival day will be no less dramatic than today.