December 13, 2008.
We’ve been loosely traveling with a pair of other boats and we had been discussing the weather for our upcoming jump offshore. There was some nastiness off the Georgia coast, a bit of which we experienced last night in the anchorage. There were small craft warnings in effect until 0600 on Friday off Georgia. I figured that if we left at 0800 we could ride the ebb tide down the 13 miles to the inlet at Port Royal Sound and into the ocean. It would be after noon before we were in “Georgia” waters.
When we woke on Friday after a sleep deprived night, the forecast had changed a bit. We went online and checked every source for weather that we could. There were small craft and gale warnings in effect until 1000 hours, now the wind was supposed to come from the west before veering and coming from the north. I figured that the 20 to 25 knots forecast would knock down the sea state after several days of gales from the south. Our intended route would be taking us along the western side of the gale warning area.
We still weren’t sure about leaving so we decided to stay until Saturday, and then the other boats decided to leave. That’s about when I hatched a rather ill advised plan. There’s an anchorage about 8 miles closer to the ocean than where we were in Beaufort. I reasoned that if we hauled anchor an hour after the other boats, we could head down to that anchorage to spend the night before leaving for St Augustine on Saturday.
That way, by the time we were just about to the new anchorage the boats that had left earlier would be out the inlet. We could call them on the VHF and get a first hand report on the conditions they were encountering. If things looked good we would keep right on going and if it looked to rough we would stop and wait until the morrow.
Like clockwork we called and got a report of surprisingly lovely conditions so we kept going. I had already put a double reef in the mainsail, making it as small as possible. We rolled out half the genoa and sailed down the river and out the several mile long inlet.
Conditions were a little choppy near the inlet but once out to sea, things smoothed right out. We were soon skimming along at 7 knots under the full genoa and a double reefed main.
We were making really good time with 15 knots of wind in fairly benign conditions. At sunset we debated reducing the size of the genoa while it was still daylight. When it comes to reefing, the old adage is that “If you think of doing it, then you better do it”. So we reefed the genoa down to half size.
The winds had been from the west and shortly after sunset started to build. We found ourselves blasting along at 8 knots with only the small mainsail and about half the genoa out. We pulled in some more of the headsail and were still banging along with a double reefed main and just a slice of genoa out.
This is where the rollicking good sail became something a little less than “good”. The wind was now about 20 knots but the sea state was starting to build. We had small rollers passing harmlessly under the boat from the side. So with our two small sails up the motion was not uncomfortable. It’s funny how something as small as an additional few knots of wind can change a situation. When the wind built to 25 knots, Veranda with her tiny sails was once again blasting along at 8 knots but the comfort level was starting to drop considerably. In retrospect, its all kind of a blur, but during the night the wind built to 33+ knots and the rollers were now accompanied by the occasional breaker.
The worst part about the random rogue breaker was that we were traveling parallel to the waves. When a big roller passed under the boat from the side we felt like we would topple 15 feet down into the trough of the wave but the wave simply passed under us. When a breaker comes through you don’t know what’s going to happen. It can break before it reaches you, it can break over you, it can break just after passing you or it can grab you in its curl and break with you. Our saving grace was the fact that we had enough wind to keep the boat driving through the curl of most of the breaking waves.
We had several waves break over the boat leaving us a salt encrusted mess. We had a couple that scared us and one that almost made me start to pray. The one I like to call “The Big Nasty” caught us just right and drove us sideways down into the back of the preceding wave. We had over a foot of water up on the port side deck and water, a lot of water, made it into the cockpit. Unfortunately, Christy was below when it broke and the sound and motion of that wave was terrifying. Everything in the boat went flying and it sounded like we had hit something very big and very solid. That was definitely a holy shit moment, with only another 92 miles to go!
We’re a center cockpit boat so we sit pretty high above the water. That was the first time we’ve ever had water get into the cockpit. I’m not talking about some splashing, I’m talking about solid water running in. It was also one of the very rare times we’ve ever worn our life jackets while underway and it’s the first time we’ve ever tethered ourselves to the boat while we were in the cockpit. Edy, are you proud?!!!!
After a few hours the sea started to be influenced by the wind veering from the north. We were taking huge waves on the starboard quarter. When talking about wave height it’s easy for people to exaggerate the size of the seas. The formula for determining wave height is something like “terror x anxiety divided by number of hours of sleep x the square root of the number of miles from safe shelter” I’m too tired to do the math so I’ll just relate an observation. The top of our radar arch is about 11 feet above the water. I can say for certain that the seas were 4 or 5 feet higher than that. But again, because of the big wind we were able to outrun most of the trouble, but that speed was also scary.
We would be surfing down the face of a wave and the boat wanted to broach and turn sideways to the face, the result of that would be catastrophic. But as the bow of the boat started to round up, this presented more of the headsail to the wind which pushed the boat back to our original course. The result was even more speed, often catching one then a second and even a third wave in quick succession. We were often seeing speeds in the 10, 11 knot range.
Through all of this the autopilot was a stud. The wind and seas were big and the forces involved were incredible but the autopilot steered through everything. Between the auto pilot and the balanced sail plan, Veranda did a very nice job of taking care of us.
We did have one casualty though. We lost a crew member over the side, the egg timer. While we are under way at night we set the egg timer for every 20 minutes, we get up look around the horizon, check the radar, chartplotter and AIS so that if we doze or lose track of time, we will still be aware of what is going on. He’s gone and while he could be replaced I doubt that we’ll need too, I think it’s gonna be quite some time before Christy is talking to me again and agrees to do another offshore overnighter.
Once again AIS proved its value as we crossed crowded major shipping lanes off Savannah and Jacksonville.
So we arrived in Saint Augustine a little worse for wear and exhausted. No egg timer equals no sleep. We anchored right in front of the downtown area and cleaned up the boat and stowed what had taken flight during the trip, which was an unbelievable amount of stuff.
Town is beautifully decorated for the holidays and by luck we arrived just in time for the “Parade of Lights” boat parade.