Maiden Voyage

 

Friday, 3 May 2002

0500:  Our crew, Rich, Doug and Travis arrive at Meadows Lane and we load our gear in the brand new Bronco we rented to be able to carry everybody and everything to the airport. The SUV is packed to the gills.  I am hyper and maybe a little too jovial for the crowd at this early hour as we drive up the B-W Parkway in the dark!

0600:  After Ty turns in the rental, we get in line for the Air Tran check-in. Because we made our reservations very recently and our tickets are one-way, all five of us are tagged for a complete luggage search. In addition to our carry-ons, four of us have two big bags (each crew member brought one bag, then we gave them an extra bag full of gear). The inspectors pull out life vests, pillows, boots… you name it, as passengers in line look on with curiosity. 

0700:  Our plans to arrive in plenty of time are all for nothing as we learn our flight has been delayed THREE HOURS due to need for crew rest! We sit together in the waiting area and read sailing articles and the “Cruise Gouge Book.”

1100:  Finally airborne! All laugh at Doug who had insistently requested a window seat (“I’m a geographer, I like to see where we’re going!”) and got exactly what he asked for:  a window... looking out at nothing but a great big jet engine!

1300:  Tampa!!!  The guys gather the bags while I get rental SUV number two. It is HOT! This vehicle is slightly smaller than the Bronco, and we have bags on our laps as we head for St. Pete.  Having bought snacks using the Air Tran vouchers (small compensation for putting us 3 hours behind schedule), we decide to skip lunch and head straight for the boat.

1345:  Hello Liberty!  Our boat looks great! We show her to the crew and pass the bags aboard in a human chain. Everyone quickly stows their clothes – all are amazed to see there’s enough room for everyone to have their own drawers – no need to live out of a suitcase.  Our cook, Travis, gets big eyes when he sees the galley, claiming it’s bigger than his kitchen at home!  He’s also thrilled at his assigned berth in the bow of the boat and shrugs off our warnings that it’s also the bounciest point on the vessel.

1415:  Doug stays behind to wash down the deck while Travis and I drop off Ty and Rich at West Marine for supplies.  Travis drops me off at Publix for provisions, then heads back to West Marine. He stays with Ty and Rich to take them back to the boat, and then joins me just as my first cart is about to overflow. I hand Travis one of the four pages of the grocery list and get a second cart. I’m running around with a walkie-talkie answering calls from Ty who’s saying, “Have Travis go back to West Marine and get me a caulking gun and another washer!” Nearby shoppers give me strange looks…

I’m thankful I split the list into categories and avoid backtracking all over the store. Even though I figured on spending about $500 on food, I start to get worried as the second cart fills up.  Luckily, Doug shows up to help and we start on cart number THREE! I leave a cart for a minute to get more bread and return to find an old man rummaging through our food! Guess he thought it was a bonus cart or something...

The cashier and bagger are amazed at the quantity and are interested in our trip.  Total cost: $530… $10 per person/per day… not bad! The bagger is very helpful and we fill the back of the SUV, the front seat and half the back seat, forcing Travis and Doug to squeeze in with the eggs and tomatoes!

Back on Liberty we form another human chain to pass the dozens of bags aboard. Much to Doug’s amazement, three carts of food miraculously disappear into the fridge, freezer, and cabinets.  We do a good job of organizing cabinets according to bakery items, canned goods, fruits and veggies, etc. All this storage is great!

Once all the food is stowed, I head off to K-Mart for a few miscellaneous items (trash can, extra silverware, etc.). Meanwhile, Ty and Rich have been working non-stop on the many little jobs necessary before getting underway.  They screw the lee cloths onto the berths and fasten eyebolts onto the bulkheads. They discover that the anchor chain is not attached to the boat! (That would have been interesting, had they put out the anchor and watched the chain follow!)  They mount the new clock and barometer, put a latch on the head door, mount a winch handle holder in the cockpit, bolt a D-ring in the cockpit for clipping our harness tethers to, etc. etc. etc. It’s a non-stop day for all of us – stressful and harried! Tradition and superstition say you never start a voyage on a Friday, so it’s a good thing we didn’t plan to get underway until the next morning – we need every minute.

Travis makes his first meal for us, pork adobo on rice, and we all enjoy it around the table together.  I make my third trip to K-Mart with Doug while Ty, Rich and Travis keep working.  Finally, when we’re sure we won’t need the car anymore, Doug and Travis return it to the airport and catch a cab back.  We all hit the rack at 11 pm after showers at the marina bathhouse. Ty and I are in the aft cabin, Rich and Doug in the upper and lower pilot berths, and Travis is in the v-berth.  I can’t help myself and call out, “Goodnight John Boy!”

Saturday, 4 May

0530:  A rotten night’s sleep for me – restless, keyed up and apprehensive.  Reveille isn’t until 0600, but I can’t sleep anymore. Ty and I go for another shower (knowing it will be our last long shower in a week), then come back and rig the jack lines which run fore and aft on both sides for snapping our harness tethers onto once we’re out at sea. We rouse the crew and all enjoy a quick, light breakfast.  The crew takes a few last photos and stands by the lines. Anticipation is in the air… we are READY!

0730:  UNDERWAY!!! In spite of the tight slip we have an easy, uneventful departure from the pier.  Ty does the hard part, then I take over the wheel and steer her out into the bay. We have about 8 miles of waypoints leading out the channel to the Gulf of Mexico and all hands are on deck checking out the tropical scenery – quite a change from Washington DC! Porpoises surface in front of the boat – a great sign!

Our first obstacle is the Pinellas draw bridge.  The first couple of tries to hail the operator on the VHF radio go unanswered. Finally we’re acknowledged.  Great relief after envisioning another big delay like we had at the airport.  With a 60-foot mast, we weren’t going anywhere until that bridge opened!  We only have to wait 8 minutes for the opening, and then we’re back underway.  A nice feeling of power to stop traffic like that! 

0830:  Farewell St. Pete!  We head out the inlet into the Gulf of Mexico past white sandy beaches. The water is Florida turquoise and the sky is a brilliant blue.  Around noon we start standing our scheduled watches with Doug and I on deck until 1500 followed by Ty and Rich until 1800.  Travis serves some great rotisserie chicken and pasta with veggies. After dinner Ty and Rich go below to try and rest up for their mid-watch. Doug, Travis and I watch the land disappear from sight, and then turn our eyes westward to watch a brilliant sunset at 8 pm.  The conditions are perfect for seeing the green flash and the three of us stare intently as the brilliant orange orb slips below the horizon.  I’m almost sure I see green, but it isn’t much of a flash as the sun disappears. Travis films the whole thing, so we’ll see!

We rig the boat for night sailing – the first time to run through what will become our nightly ritual:

  • Go to the electrical panel and turn on the running lights
  • Check to see that running lights are working
  • Turn on red lights in the cabin
  • Get out the spotlight, plug it in and test it, then keep it close by in the cockpit
  • Change the radar display to “night” (black background with white contacts vs. white background with black contacts)
  • Turn on instrument, compass and engine control lights at the wheel
  • Put on safety harnesses

    Our first night at sea is easy.  The only contacts are shrimp boats that look like huge jellyfish from a distance in the dark as their deck lights shine on their outstretched nets. They show up very clearly on the radar, so we get some experience tracking contacts both visually and electronically.  Good practice for the big boys we’re sure to encounter out in the Atlantic.

    Sunday, 5 May

    In the morning everything is covered with salt, including us.  Damp, crusty clothes and a hard cockpit seat make it very clear that we need to shop for a helmsman’s cushion during our refueling stop in Key West.

    0730:  24 hours already and we’ve gone a whopping 175 miles – 25 more than expected!  We’ve motored the whole way due to light winds.   Sails are up for a while, giving us an extra knot or so, but soon the wind shifts and the flopping and banging cause us to lower them again.

    1200:  Land ho!  The Florida Keys come into sight.

    1300:  We arrive in Key West.  The water is emerald green. We’re going to refuel and get some ice, but we’re not so sure we want to leave!  The water is crystal clear; the weather is perfect… who wants to go back to DC?

    We take on 70 gallons of fuel – twice as much as we thought we’d need. The marina rents us a slip for three hours and we all go ashore for some Key West liberty. Doug and Travis take off for parts unknown. Ty and I head to West Marine for spare navigation light bulbs and Rich, the only smart one in the crowd, stays in the air-conditioned comfort of the boat for a snooze.

    We buy two “Sport a Seats” at West Marine – folding cushions that give a backrest or fold down flat.  The best purchase of the trip!  They turn out to be very versatile and comfortable. Doug, Ty and I all buy new boat shoes for better comfort and gripping on the wet decks.

    Doug and Travis return from exploring all of Key West on foot. They walked for miles. I’m so tired I can barely walk the block back from West Marine.

    1630:  Underway again, we leave behind the busy harbor and obnoxious music blasting out at the boaters from the shore. Travis serves up some great pizza as we head out the channel. Someone questions my purchase of three whole pizzas, but I don’t see any leftovers when we’re done!

    With predictions of six-foot seas farther out, Ty makes the decision that we’ll travel via Hawk Channel, a well-marked but narrow route between the Keys and the reef.  Did someone say REEF?  Close investigation of the chart shows water far shallower than our keel on both sides of the channel. The thought of Liberty meeting up with a coral head makes us more vigilant than ever.

    We’re motoring along nicely when red fluid unexpectedly squirts out of a black port on the binnacle (at the wheel). The Captain determines it’s hydraulic steering fluid.  Most likely the tank was overfilled and it’s now escaping out the vent. It continues to squirt out at random intervals – just what we don’t need in these waters! Luckily, the steering gives us no trouble.

    Doug and I take the watch for five tense hours of constant position and water depth checks.  He gets the most out of his GPS, letting me know exactly how many feet off course I am. We can’t lose our focus for even a minute.  Salt water splashes us in the face when we hit a wave just so. Red and green lights appear to port… a boat heading straight for us? No, it’s actually red, green, red – a bridge on the shore!

    Amid the stress and concentration, Travis suddenly jumps up and points excitedly at the water, saying nothing more than “Ooh ooh ooh!” “What? What is it?” Doug and I ask worriedly. “Flying fish!” he answers and dashes for his video camera. We roll our eyes and turn back to the chart, laughing.  (I can’t believe there’s someone else who gets as excited as I do!)

    We are relieved to turn over the watch to Ty and Rich at 2300 and go below for much-needed sleep. 0330 arrives much too soon.  I wonder how I’m going to drag myself out of bed, but I snap on my harness and head for the cockpit. This is a tiredness I don’t often feel.  The cool night breeze instantly perks me up.  We do our standard watch turn-over, passing down information about current position, course, miles traveled, intended track, contacts and which way those contacts are heading. I gaze warily at the lights all around us – but soon my foggy brain takes in the big picture and once again the radar is my best friend. The stress eases as we become more comfortable with our duties.

    Monday, 6 May

    Sunrise is beautiful on the water. Doug and I congratulate ourselves for a second night passage. Travis starts rattling pots and pans in the galley and soon the wonderful smell of bacon comes wafting up into the cockpit, along with Ty and Rich to take the 0800 watch. We all enjoy scrambled eggs and bacon as we pass Key Largo.

    0830:  The incessant noise of the engine cuts off – we’re sailing! Winds are 15 knots and we’re making 7.3!  Fantastic!  The blessed silence is a welcome treat.

    Doug and I hit the rack after breakfast (a real treat to have Travis take care of all the clean-up) and emerge hours later to find the coast three miles off our port beam lined with high-rise buildings.  Miami!  Rich is at the helm, smiling from ear to ear as the boat ghosts up the channel, fancy motor yachts fore and aft.  Rich’s skill at trimming the sails is a real bonus as we figure out how this boat handles. 

    “Ooh ooh ooh!” Travis yells and points.

    Sea turtle. 

    The weather is perfect.  We count at least five large ships around us as we cross Miami’s shipping lanes.  Ty hails an outbound tug and tow to learn his intentions and we alter course to give him plenty of room.

    The winds haven’t increased, but our speed has picked up noticeably. We watch it rise from 7.3 to 7.8… and soon we’re screaming along at 10 knots under sail!  Welcome to the Gulf Stream! It starts close to the coast and we intend to ride it right out to sea.  The buildings on shore grow smaller and more faint until we are all alone, just Liberty and her crew with nothing but water for 360 degrees.

    The boat is heeling about 15 degrees.  We have to hold on to handrails just to move around below decks.  Travis asks if this is how it will be the rest of the trip. Probably!

    “Cool!”

    Travis joins us on deck to film flying fish and porpoises who join us from time to time. He amuses us with his constant quest for just the right angle. He attempts to waterproof his camera by wrapping it in plastic bags and duck tape. I deny his request to climb to the top of the mast.

    1800:  Doug and I assume the watch.  The winds pick up to 18, then to 20 with a few gusts to 22 knots. We are close hauled and really moving out. The waves are on the bow and we are pounding into them. I don’t think anything of it.  We have our orders and we stay on course.

    It’s dark now and it’s a bit rough, but Doug and I are used to the motion. After crashing through one particularly big wave, Rich pokes his head up in the companionway.  “What did we hit?” he asks. I assure him we didn’t hit anything – it was just a big wave, but I get the feeling he’s not convinced.

    We’re relieved at 2300 and I’m acutely aware that the Relief Band on my wrist is not working as well as it has been up until now. Doug, Rich and I have been using the bands with their constant electrical jolts to keep our stomachs settled, and we have them cranked up to max power now. Ty and Travis are unaffected by the motion.  In fact, we’re all amazed at how Travis can ride in the v-berth in these conditions with no ill effects.

    Now below decks, Doug and I are more nauseous than ever. I take a plastic bag to bed with me and we wonder if this is what we were putting the others through down here. It’s a whole different feeling below than topside. Suddenly we’re feeling very guilty for the rough ride we gave them.  It had snuck up on us so gradually that it never occurred to us to shorten sail or change course!

    Ty and Rich head west to get off to the side of the Stream where it’s a little less lumpy. The ride smoothes out considerably.  Nevertheless, I get little rest on my five hours off. It’s dark and the boat is lurching and rolling.  I look at my watch at 0330 and don’t remember ever feeling this tired.  Time to go on watch.  I notice Travis has moved from the v-berth and is now crashed out on the salon settee.  Aha – so even he isn’t immune to this motion!

    Tuesday, 7 May

    We’re now over 50 miles off shore and going farther out by the minute. Several ships pass nearby, one of them within one mile and we track them constantly on the radar and visually.  Their lights start as a faint glow on the horizon when they’re about 11 miles out.  At about 8 miles we pick up their range lights, then the red or green running lights come into view showing us which side of the ship we’re looking at.  It’s eerie to be out here with these monster ships, but amazing to see how easy the lights and radar make it to figure out their heading in relation to ours.  I love having the radar right there at the wheel and can’t imagine why anybody has them below at the nav station.

    0800:  Travis discovers how easy it is to make French toast and serves up a delicious breakfast. Just like camping, everything tastes better in the great outdoors.

    The weather is beautiful again and the sailing is perfect. I’m fast asleep in the aft cabin when a tremendous noise sends me flying out of bed toward the cockpit. I’m sure the mast has just crashed on deck. There stands Ty by the electrical panel, apologizing for not letting me know he was starting up the generator!  It’s as noisy as the engine and starts with a bang.  We run it twice a day to cool down the refrigerator.  I put in a pair of earplugs and stumble back to bed.

    The day is wonderfully uneventful. Unlike being in Hawk Channel, open ocean sailing is much less stressful. By now we are used to Travis’ “ooh ooh’s” and don’t jump to the radar when he points out the latest bird or mammal.  We keep a constant watch for traffic, but staying exactly on course isn’t as crucial. The sense of responsibility on watch, however, never lets up. The goal is to keep the water outside the boat and the people inside!

    The night stars are as bright as can be, and the Milky Way stands out much more clearly than ashore. We watch a bright light move quickly in a straight line across the sky -- the International Space Station!

    Wednesday, 8 May

    It’s early morning and Doug and I are on watch.  It’s still dark.  There’s nothing on the radar screen, but I pick up two lights to starboard. A ship’s range lights? I point them out to Doug and we both look back and forth between the radar and the lights.  They’re getting bigger, but we can’t make out any red or green running lights. Still nothing on the radar. A stealth ship!  Suddenly an image from the previous morning comes to mind.  “Doug, I think that’s the moon, rising behind some clouds!”  Within seconds, the clouds part and what had appeared to be two lights merge into the sliver of an orange moon. Wow.

    We find that we’re now living watch to watch instead of day to day.  Already we’ve lost track of days and only need to get through the next few hours.

    After changing charts frequently in the Gulf and off the Keys, the chart we’re on now is deadly boring. We travel no more than an inch during a whole watch!

    Travis, Rich and Ty watch a ballistic missile submarine pass by on their watch.  We only see one contact during our 1200 to 1500 watch. It is hot and we are really sticky and smelly.  Suddenly I have a great idea – we can use the cockpit shower rather than getting seasick and knocked around in the small shower below!  Doug, Travis and I put on our bathing suits and enjoy a cool, fresh water wash down while we take turns averting our eyes. Talk about refreshing! We rouse Ty and Rich when it’s time for their watch and tell them what a great treat they have to look forward to. We feel 100% better and wonder why it took us so long to figure that one out!

    Travis is still doing his best to film the flying fish that pop out of the water every time he puts his camera away.  He misses a shot of a shark fin that Doug spots off the starboard beam. 

    1630:  Ty tunes in the Single Side Band radio and Herb comes in loud and clear.  Herb is a civilian who spends hours every day talking to sailboats at sea to learn their current weather conditions and give them a much more accurate forecast than the National Weather Service. We’ve been listening to Herb from our short wave receiver at home for months.  Now we’re actually out here – one of the boats benefiting from his great service. He alerts us to a nor’easter expected to hit Cape Hatteras right when we’re scheduled to be there. This is right in line with the prediction from the weather service we’ve been using.  Ty makes the decision to head for Beaufort, North Carolina and take the Intracoastal Waterway from there. The chart shows Beaufort is still a hundred miles off. Ty and Doug do the “dueling GPS” thing again – both of them huddled over the chart plugging in the new waypoints.

    Lasagna, garlic bread and salad make for a wonderful dinner. The only thing missing is a little red wine. I look at Travis and tell him he has spaghetti sauce on his nose.  Without missing a beat he tells me, “I’m saving that for a snack later.”

    We’re expecting 22 knots of wind tonight.  All hands are on deck at the 1800 change of watch section as we put a triple reef in the main and furl the jib partway.  The boat is yawing all over the place. This is the first time for this sail combination.  I know it would be much more comfortable on a different heading, but Ty stresses that we have to stay on this course.   I have to hand steer to keep her on track.  Doug and I laugh at how Ty and Rich set the sails, then said, “Ok, you got it,” and went to bed!   We are doing fine, but we are on our own! I know that no one is getting much sleep below with this uncomfortable motion. I wonder how it would be in a less stable boat.

    Travis is with us in the cockpit and asks when we can expect more sporty weather.  Doug and I warn him to watch what he asks for. I glance to the left and out of nowhere comes a wave much larger than the others.  I can see it’s going to hit us broadside and I call out, “Hold on!” Too late.  Doug, the cushion he’s on and his Gummy Bears slide right off the seat onto the floor of the cockpit as the boat rolls to starboard, putting the rail in the water.

    Eyes wide, Doug picks himself up and we give Travis a look that says clearly, “What did we tell you?”  Even so, it’s not “sporty” enough for Travis!

    I count the seconds until Ty pokes his head up through the companionway. Right on cue he appears and says, “What the hell was that?” “Just a big wave that hit us the wrong way. You can go back to sleep now.”

    We’re still picking up Gummy Bears when Rich pops up.  I ask him how he made out during the roll and if the lee cloths did their job of holding him in the rack.  He shakes his head and I expect him to tell us how rough it was. He surprises us by saying, “I was laughing my ass off down there.” Turns out he looked aft as we heeled and all he saw were both of Ty’s legs flying up and over his head, rolling the poor Captain in a somersault against the bulkhead. Ty had failed to mention that when he came up, but joins us now to laugh at his misadventure on the huge king mattress.

    Travis goes below for a head call and comes back up a little while later shaking his head.  We ask him what’s up and he says, “That toilet seat is like a guillotine for guys!”

    We continue on and pick up a contact twelve miles straight ahead.  We watch its lights and radar track as it moves toward us in a classic Constant Bearing Decreasing Range (CBDR) scenario. If we don’t do something, we will come far too close and possibly collide. I try to hail the ship on the radio to no avail. Doug and I talk it over, then I tell him to come right ten degrees. We watch as the angle between us opens up and the massive dark blob with highly separated range lights ghosts down our port side.

    Travis stays with us on deck for the whole watch in the dark.  He keeps us in stitches with his funny stories and catches us off guard with unexpected jokes. He announces, “Well, tomorrow’s the big day.”  “What? Landfall?” “No,” he answers.  “It’s the day I put on a clean shirt.”

    Thursday, 9 May

    We are old hands at this open ocean stuff now! (As long as the weather holds).  Not much to report as we turn over the watch.  Winds are light, so we’re moving along under power, but the sails are still up.

    0015:  Doug and I are just settling down into our berths when the motor eases back, then stops.  Hmmm. Ty is down below and calls up to Rich, “Did you do that?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. Ty begins checking the engine and I remind him of a lesson he taught me long ago:  always look for the most obvious cause. “I’ll bet we’re out of fuel on the first tank.”  Ty says we can’t possibly be, but one dunk of the dipstick into the tank and my suspicion is confirmed. I know what this means – time to bleed the engine.  Booo. It’s dark, we’re a hundred miles off shore… but a quick assessment of the situation tells me we’re ok: the sails are up and we’re moving along nicely.  We still have about 15 gallons of fuel in the spare tank – enough to get us into Beaufort once we get closer and once Ty gets the engine started – and he WILL get it started – he’s done it before on other boats. 

    0030:  Ty repeatedly loosens the tiny bolts on the engine to bleed out air bubbles.  Travis climbs into the engine compartment and sits on the other side of the block working a pump by hand.  Rich is at the helm and I’m the gopher. I run back and forth repeating orders to “Try starting her up again.  Ok, stop!”  Doug is keeping the engine doors from banging into Ty and handing him paper towels to sop up the diesel that’s bleeding out.  After several fruitless tries at the engine, I crank up the generator to keep the starting batteries charged.  Rich turns her over again and voila!  The annoying engine noise that has grated on our nerves until now fills the cabin and has never been more welcome.

    We let her run for a few minutes and congratulate Ty and Travis for their good work. Quick calculations of fuel usage compared with distance to Beaufort tell us the rest of the night will have to be strictly under sail, no matter how light the winds.  Now to the west of the Gulf Stream we’re still making almost 7 knots of speed with only 7-10 knots of wind.

    I’m deep in the middle of a dream when my internal alarm tells me it’s 0330 and time to get ready for watch. I stumble to the companionway, still half asleep.  I know I’m talking nonsense, but find myself telling Ty and Rich, “I guess I’d better go wake up that other guy.”  “Who, Doug?” they ask.  “No, that OTHER guy.” “Travis?”  “No…” Realizing there IS no other guy, I tell them, “Well, I guess I’ll go put on that thing.” “What thing?”  You know, that thing we wear up here in the dark. That…”   “Harness?” Ty asks, amused.  “Yeah, THAT thing.” From the looks they give me, I know I’d better get my act together if I plan on being a safe watch captain.  Luckily, once again the fresh air snaps me out of it!

    Doug and I assume the watch at 0400. The winds are still light, but increasing ever so slightly, just as called for.  We tweak the sails a bit and I hand steer to keep her at the right angle to the wind. We settle into the rhythm and the next four hours fly by as we enjoy the best sailing I can remember. I don’t want to turn over the helm when Ty and Rich come up at 0800.

    0925:  1000 miles! Average speed: 8 knots.

    Land ho! The coast of North Carolina comes into sight as we approach the inlet for Morehead City and Beaufort.  The wind has picked up considerably and Rich has the helm to take us in.  We leave the sails up in case the engine dies, but this makes it trickier to steer. The waves are much larger than we’ve grown used to, made steeper by the shallower waters. We surf our way into the inlet and prepare to lower the sails. Rich heads her up into the wind and Doug steps into position to pull on the furling line.  The jib sheet begins snapping like a wild whip in the wind and it lashes with full force against Doug’s side. I’m standing right beside him and see him grimace in tremendous pain at the same time that his new cap blows over the side.  There’s no way to get the sheet under control. It’s still whipping about wildly and we both pull hard on the furling line.  The sail finally starts to roll up. When it’s safely furled, he raises his shirt to reveal two long, ugly welts.  We get the main down and make a couple of unsuccessful attempts to recover the cap. Dodging boats going in and out of the channel, the third try’s a charm and Travis snags the cap with the boat hook – some small consolation for the whipping Doug took.  We later figure out a safer way to stand when furling the jib.

    Ty brings Liberty alongside the fuel pier at Morehead City – no easy feat with the wind blowing 20 knots.  We offload four bags of trash from the aft deck, glad to no longer look like a garbage barge. We break the marina’s record for refueling sailboats, taking on 101 gallons of diesel.  The water tank slurps up gallon after gallon of hose water, then Rich washes all the salt off the decks. Ty makes a run to a local convenience store for drinks, Moon Pies and more Diet Coke for Doug’s habit, then we all take advantage of the marina showers, commenting later on how badly those showers were rocking!

    We head out for the next phase in this multi-faceted voyage: the ICW. But wait – not so fast! As we motor from the marina to the river, our way is blocked by a tug which has dragged a huge pipe all the way across our narrow exit channel.  The winds are still blowing like stink, pushing us either toward the shore close abeam on both sides or backwards toward a steel vessel off the starboard quarter.   We are stuck here for what the tug captain says will be about ten more minutes of maneuvering.  All hold our breath while Ty expertly backs and fills, keeping the boat centered in the narrow confines. Finally the pipe and tug are out of the way. All take a deep breath and we continue on.

    What a difference motoring up the narrow ICW after four days of open ocean!  It’s strange to see trees and deal with other boats close nearby, but great to be able to move about the deck freely now. No more harnesses and we can leave the cockpit at will.

    1800:  We arrive at Whittaker Creek Marina in Oriental.  We could have anchored out, but decide the crew deserves some liberty and a good meal ashore.  The marina is nice, but the strong winds have blown the water out of the creek, leaving our allegedly 8 foot deep slip barely deep enough for our 6 foot draft. We stir up mud pulling in and have to coax the boat into the slip. Ty hooks up shore power, only to have all the mud clog the air conditioning and refrigeration systems.  We expect disaster after the circuit breaker trips a second time and send the crew into town to eat without us. A little bit of troubleshooting and cleaning out the strainers solves the problem and we join Travis, Rich and Doug for a great meal at the Oriental Steamer.  A little beer with dinner, a long, hot shower before bed, and a full night’s sleep in air-conditioned comfort have us all feeling a little spoiled.

    Friday, 10 May

    Reveille is at 0630 and within a half hour we’re underway again. Because we didn’t eat the steak we’d planned for the previous night’s dinner, Travis cooks up steak and eggs for a real breakfast treat.

    Another day of great weather.  We see a lot of beautiful North Carolina from her rivers and ICW canals.  An F-15 Eagle does a low level fly-over three times, followed by a REAL eagle a little later! Pelicans provide great entertainment as they dive bomb the water all around us in search of fish.

    We pass through a swing bridge then head out into Albemarle Sound. It’s relatively shallow all the way across, making it crab pot heaven. The sun is falling rapidly, making this the worst possible time to snag a line with the prop. All eyes are riveted on the water ahead, calling out steering directions to help Doug at the helm avoid the annoying crab pot floats. Travis earns the title of “Eagle Eyes” for his superb lookout skills.

    Our anchorage lies just beyond the bay at the entrance to the North River. The channel is narrow and marked by several flashing lights. GPS, the radar, binoculars and some keen eyes lead us straight to the spot we’ve mapped out for dropping the hook. The hand signals Ty and I usually use to anchor are useless now that it’s pitch dark out, so Ty goes forward with a walkie-talkie and we execute the drill with no problem and no shouting. 

    After we are securely anchored Rich gives Doug a lesson in taking anchor bearings. He has been a great teacher throughout the passage. Meanwhile, I show everyone the advantage of being at anchor by pulling out a can of beer for any takers.  Rich snatches one out of my hand faster than I could say, “Who wants a – “

    Saturday, 11 May

    We awake to find we’re anchored amid dozens of crab pots that we couldn’t see in the dark the night before. Blind luck got us into the anchorage without snagging a line.  The wind is blowing stronger than it has the whole trip. Ty, Doug and Rich go forward to try out the anchor windlass for the first time, and it works like a champ as the big, heavy boat strains against the line and chain in the strong winds. As soon as the anchor is free I put the engine in gear and work my way through the crab pots into the channel.

    We’ve said goodbye to tropical weather and are all now in full foul weather gear.  The waterproof clothes prove necessary as we plow into the waves with 35 knots of wind on the nose. So much water is washing over the deck and onto the dodger that we have to stand on the seat to steer and see. It’s wild and woolly, but fun! Doug clocks one gust at 41.5 knots!  A narrow cut near Coinjock provides some protection, just in time to tie up at a fuel pier to get us through the last 200 miles. Our fender and line handling has greatly improved and we’re proud of what a great team we make.

    We head back out and continue to take lots of spray in the face. Crossing Currituck Sound, Rich looks like a drowned rat during his turn at the helm, but the wind dries him off quickly.

    1045:  Welcome to Virginia!  The wind has abated somewhat and we’re motoring along at 7.8 knots.  All of us are very grateful we got across Albemarle Sound the previous night before the winds piped up – not to mention having avoided Cape Hatteras under these conditions.

    I take the helm through yet another narrow cut.  Astern of us comes a large commercial boat that appears anxious to pass us.  I assume she will pass to port, but “Pink Lady” surprises all of us by passing to starboard on a blind curve.  To use Ty’s words, had another vessel been coming the other way, “we would have been toast.”  Just around the bend we come to the first of several swing bridges.  There are four boats lined up awaiting the opening, including Pink Lady, who has barged her way past the sailboats to get to the front of the line.  Ty gets on the radio and announces, “Pink Lady, you ought to have your Coast Guard license revoked!” A voice comes back saying, “Who’s that?” but he receives no answer – allowing everyone monitoring Channel 16 to know how reckless he’s been.

    Our timing through the next three bridges is impeccable. We wait no more than five minutes at each, even though they open only on the half hour or hour.  Passing through one bridge, a man comes running out waving his arms and yelling angrily, “No wake! No wake!”  I look behind at the tiny swell from our boat and we look at each other in amazement. We figure the guy doesn’t like sailboats.  After all the powerboats that have left us rocking in their huge wakes, we have to laugh at this guy’s overreaction.

    Soon we arrive at the Great Bridge lock. I’ve happily turned over all docking maneuvers to Ty on this trip until I get a feel for how the boat handles, but I bring her alongside for this one.  Piece of cake!  We tie up to the side, anticipating great adventure in the lock, only to be lowered a whopping eight inches! All that fuss for eight inches?  We slip the lines and follow the small parade of boats through two more opening bridges.

    1200:  Ships!  Big ships close abeam!  But these are tied up at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard!  What fun to pop out of the Elizabeth River into Norfolk’s harbor, passing many ships we’ve known our whole careers.  We alter course to get a better view of the mighty battleship Wisconsin on display at Nauticus maritime museum at Norfolk’s Waterside. Farther north we pass the Norfolk Naval Base piers, as impressive as ever with many destroyers, amphibious ships, submarines and carriers lining the sea wall.

    We’ve been monitoring several situations on Channel 16.  It’s a busy day for the Coast Guard. An announcement of a capsized vessel catches our attention.  There’s a person missing in the waters directly ahead of us.  As we approach the spot where the person was last seen, the lights of rescue vehicles flash from the shore. We slow the engine and all scan the water in hopes of spotting the missing person.  I see something black in the water and call out a quick turn to port. Doug sees it too, but we soon realize with disappointment that it’s a porpoise. A little farther on Ty spots an object in the water and we move toward it, only to discover it’s a balloon.

    We return to our original course and speed and commence the final leg of our journey:  the trip up the Chesapeake Bay.  We’ve made the trip before, but always during daylight jaunts of two to three days.  A few calculations show us that amazingly, we’ll be in Deale first thing in the morning!

    This leg of the voyage proves to be by far the most challenging as the lights of the shore blend in with navigation aid and ship’s lights.  Ship contacts on the radar don’t look much different than the blur of land on the screen.  Unlighted navigation aids slip past us unseen in the darkness as we hurtle along at 8 knots.  Tugs and barges head north and south. I mistakenly believe a line of blobs on the radar is an error or false repetition of a signal.  In fact, it’s a steady line of ship traffic evenly spaced that’s approaching us from the starboard quarter.

    I’ve been watching one ship slowly grow closer over two hours, but his bearing doesn’t change.  It’s classic CBDR.  I’m battering Doug with navigation questions. A tug and barge pass between the ship and us and I finally determine that Liberty and the ship in question are both converging on the same mid-channel buoy. I decide to slow and alter course 180 degrees to put “our red to his red” in accordance with ship collision avoidance procedures.  As we turn to port, I’m startled to see a steady green light that neither of us had noticed before.  It’s so close I can see the hulk of the tower it’s on through the darkness. There is nothing on the radar. I mistake it for a navigation aid (but nav-aids flash, they don’t remain steady) and turn the wheel hard to starboard.  The green light turns to red, further confusing me. 

    Ty joins us in the cockpit and has to take in this whole situation at once:  the range lights of a huge ship ¾ of a mile away, the stern light of a tug and tow, an unknown bright light we’ve been watching for hours (turned out to be on shore) and this strange green-now-red light that seems to be moving all over. I peer through the binoculars and see a large patch of darkness under the red light. “It’s a sailboat!” The green changing to red tells me we cut across the bow of the boat – much closer than I would have liked.  Glancing at the radar, his signature shows up only sporadically as a very dim dot.  Ty and Rich come up to take over.  Doug and I are very quiet; trying to figure out how we could not have known the sailboat was there. His light must have blended in with the lights ashore, and with no radar signature, we missed him completely. I’m happy with the way I handled the ship and barge, but the sailboat incident shakes me.

    Sunday, 12 May

    Ty says he’ll take it for the rest of the night, but I come back out at the normal 0400 time, wanting to get more experience at handling these stressful conditions. I come up as Ty and Rich are working out their own challenging set of nav lights.  Once again, things are not what they seemed, and it’s a great consolation to discover how easy it is for anyone to get confused. 

    The line of ships Doug and I had to deal with earlier has long disappeared and the final few hours of darkness are almost routine. 

    We rouse Travis at 0430 as we approach Plum Point. His family has a house on the water nearby.  We hand him the cell phone with just enough juice left to make one more call.  He wakes his father and tells him to be on the lookout for us.  As we come abeam of Plum Point, we turn on the deck light and Travis sweeps the shoreline with the spotlight. All let out a cheer as the lights of a house on the shore flicker on and off in response.  What fun! They played flickering lights for about a minute as all of us laughed.

    0630:  We’re now in our home waters. I look at Ty and say, “I can’t believe we completed the mission.”  He gives me a look that says I shouldn’t open my mouth until we’re tied up at the pier. He is very serious for the rest of the way in. The rest of us, however, are busy happily stowing gear below and preparing for our grand return!

    We approach the familiar day marks in Herring Bay. I round the boat up into the wind while the men lower the sails. We strap them down and head on in.

    0715:  Precisely at the predicted time we arrive at Liberty’s new homeport.  Travis’ dad and stepmother are on the pier to greet us.  We are all tired but filled with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Ty pops the cork on a bottle of champagne and we drink mimosas in an early morning toast to a totally successful voyage!

    We’re offloading gear and I notice Travis sitting fully clothed on the head. “Do you want me to film you?” I ask jokingly as I walk by. I notice the camera lodged in the closet across from the head, pointed directly at him as Travis answers, “That’s what I’m doing.”

    Just one more example of how the crew made this trip extra special and fun to the very end!

    We traveled 1268 miles in 8 days.  Our maximum distance offshore was 120 miles, and we averaged 7.8 knots. We navigated around the clock in the open ocean, bays, rivers, and narrow canals, successfully avoiding reefs and large ships with no mechanical breakdowns and no serious injuries.  We had no rain and encountered no waves over 6 feet.  Our boat is safely in her new homeport, and thanks to a great crew and an awesome boat we are all a good bit saltier for this wonderful experience!

     

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