Despite the alcohol I didn’t sleep well that last night in Hampton. I woke up early to an overcast and cold day, with a knot in the stomach. I spent the first part of the morning trying to install the Iridium e-mail App on my old, backup, iPad. It took me a while, in part because I couldn’t remember the password and had to call my daughter Marina (she uses that iPad from time to time to watch movies). When I was done the iPad could no longer connect to Wifi or GPS. Something had happened when I downloaded the new software. No Wifi meant no Sat-Phone (I have an Iridium GO) and no AIS. No GPS meant no navigation either. Essentially, the backup iPad was useless, we would have to do with only one.
It must have been close to noon on November 3th when I asked Carla and Richard to cast off the lines. It was a badly coordinated and executed maneuver that cost Antares a big scratch on her port side, close to the stern. It still hurts me when I remember. It was blowing some 15Kt and as soon as the boat was free with the engine in reverse the bow started to move to starboard out of control. I managed to get out of the slip but ended up hitting the wood wall at the entrance of the Marina. This didn’t help to improve my confidence which was already out of balance.
As soon as we were in the Hampton channel we set the mainsail and motor-sailed until we reached the exit of the Bay with a wind coming from the north east at 15-20 Kt. A few other boats were coming along. I was focused on getting over the underwater tunnel, exiting the Bay and moving away from the shipping lanes. When we rounded Cape Henry we unrolled the genoa, set course to the South East and engaged the wind-vane (Carla would later baptize her as Constancia). We were surrounded by heavy, grey, skies but the sailing conditions were quite pleasant. Richard prepared some gourmet sandwiches for lunch with burrata from the Eastern Market in DC. By sunset we were east of False Cape and we decided it was time for our first “captain hour” – Gin & Tonic for me, and a Margarita for Richard and Carla. Drinks were followed by dinner; a delicious beef stew, one of the many meals that Richard had prepared and frozen. We called wives and boyfriends using the Iridium Go and then started two hour watches. The wind had come down a bit and the first part of the night was uneventful. Things began to deteriorate after midnight. We had a sequence of squalls and the wind was shifting towards the East blowing at 20-25Kt, gusting to 30Kt. By 4am I was somewhat concerned about not being able to clear the shallows at the NE of Bodle Island (or Oregon Inlet). But Antares, with Constancia at the helm holding the course, was sailing very close to the wind, cutting through the waves without even pounding.
The morning of November 4th brought rain and a frisky wind blowing hard from the east. I contacted by VHF the other boats heading to Bahamas to compare notes regarding the crossing of the Gulf Stream. By then I was having doubts about heading east and crossing the river with the wind in our face. Toby Hyns, the captain of Comocean, told me that Chris Parker had, again, suggested we continue south and cross at a point 100 miles south-south-east of Cape Fear, where the river narrows down to 30 miles and the current flows east. I decided to follow the advice and continued sailing south. That day we wasted some time setting up the stay sail – the lines, halliard, and running back stays were not installed properly ! Something that could have been fixed quickly at the dock took a couple of hours with the boat riding over the waves and going nowhere. Still, by 3pm we were east of Cape Hatteras and by 6:30 we had rounded and set course towards the south west. It was a relieve to be sailing away from this cape, famous for all the boats and crews that have been lost in its waters. We had our daily ritual of cocktails and appetizers, and before the night was upon us we dined fettuccini, with chicken and a sauce rich in herbs de province.
The hours that followed were not very pleasant and I had little sleep. The wind was most of the time over 25kt, the seas had built up, and we had spray coming over the dodger and water flowing through the decks. Antares and Constancia didn’t complain much though and the person on watch could stay dry by sitting close to the companionway. A little after 4 I was off-watch falling asleep when Carla called me because the wind had died down and the boat rounded up; we were going back north (by then she was not yet on top of the operation of the wind vane). I put my full-weather gear and went outside; it was poring. I had no option but to turn-on the engine, roll the genoa, and reset the wind vane. Little has been written about this but, the truth is that a good wind-vane can do a great job steering a boat just using the apparent wind created under power, even when there is very little true wind. As soon as I was done I went back down, undressed, and turned into my bunk. Richard replaced Carla.
When I woke up on November 5th it was daylight and Richard was brewing coffee. There is nothing like the smell of coffee in the cabin early in the morning. We were some 30 miles south east of Cape Look Out and there was little wind. There was a perfectly concave rainbow in the eastern horizon connecting two points in the ocean many miles apart. I drank coffee, downloaded e-mail and GRIB files, and checked the text weather forecasts. No surprises. In the afternoon the clouds started to dissipate and we were able to see the first patches of blue sky since our departure. The ocean was calm and had acquired some luster.
We did a lot of motoring that day and night to keep to our schedule – the reality of part time sailors. Just after five, with the sun almost touching the sea faraway in the west, we had our well deserved cocktails and then dinner in the cockpit with a glass of red wine (an exception). After my watch I went to my berth and was able to sleep straight for four hours. When I came out at 1am, for my second watch, the sky had disappeared; I had an open view of the universe with a ring of our Via Lactea cutting across. The moon was full up in the east, moving discretely and undisturbed. It was the first night I could really relax and simply contemplate. I wrote a long e-mail to Natalia from the navigation table, with only brief interruptions going outside to make sure things were ok. The fact is that AIS has dramatically transformed night sailing. It is such a relieve to be able to check on the screen of my iPad where a large barge of freighter is going, its speed, and more importantly, how close it will get to Antares. Still, in one of those excursions to the cockpit I forgot to put back my glasses and almost had a heart attack. I confused the moon with the mast light of a vessel that appeared to be dangerously close.
The next day, November 6th, we set course towards our point of entrance to the Gulf Stream. At some point we had to heave-to to change the fuel filter which was full of some type of algae. This is a relatively simple operation in a marina. With the boat moving around it can be challenging, particularly if you don’t want to spill diesel all over the cabin. Indeed, the operation not only involves taking out the fuel that sits on the bowl of the RACOR, but then pouring diesel to clean the bowl and, at the end, topping up the bowl with more diesel so that air doesn’t get into the engine. It took us a good hour to do the job; Richard was in charge of taking the diesel out of the jerry cans while Carla help syphon diesel. The day otherwise was uneventful. It was sunny and we were wearing shorts and T-shirts. We spent most of the time outside, talking, thinking, admiring the sea and its colors. No major intellectual activity beyond checking the course, downloading pictures of the gulf stream, and checking the weather. By five we were only a few miles away from the entrance to the GF and the swells were becoming larger even if we didn’t have much wind. We decided to fill the fuel tank before starting captain hour and so heaved-to again. Syphoning fuel from the jerry cans can also be a messy operation when the waves are tossing the boat around. When we finished I turned on the engine and engaged the wind-vane. I was a bit anxious about the crossing but a strong glass of gin & tonic followed by fried rice with chicken took care of that. The crossing, in fact, was quite pleasant. Except for the higher speed, we couldn’t tell that we were navigating in the mighty river. In retrospective, any boat bound to the Bahamas from the Chesapeake should seriously consider the route around Cape Hatteras. That night was again full of planets, stars, and galaxies. Only Richard and I were doing watches because Carla hadn’t be feeling well due to the lack of sleep. I learned how to recognize a few of the constellations and how to find the north star. It is sad, but in our big-city based lives we get used to nights without stars.
In the morning of November 7 we were some 20 miles south east from the stream with the wind blowing from the exact same direction where we wanted to go. Between us and Marsh Harbor we also had a region of adverse currents that we wanted to avoid. During the day we tacked back and forth to make as much progress south east as possible. Richard tried to fish but nothing came. At sunset, with a falling wind we reluctantly changed course to the south west to avoid the currents, even if it implied adding miles to the crossing. We indulged in one extra drink that night to compensate. But neither Richard or I slept much as Carla was still not feeling well.
At dawn, I was on watch in the cockpit trying to make sense of the changing shapes in the emerging horizon as daylight, almost imperceptibly, peered through darkness. Richard woke up and, like an automaton, put water on the kettle and turned on the stove. By the time the sun was indisputably up burning the mist and sharpening the curves and crests of the waves, we were drifting with no wind. It was a good time, it seemed, to check and tighten everything, change one more time the fuel filter, and add coolant and oil to the engine. And so we did, but only after having coffee and a copious breakfast with eggs and bacon.
When we were almost ready to go the wind started blowing from the east at 15Kt, as if it had been waiting for us. This would allow us to sail directly to March Harbor in starboard tack on a comfortable close reach. So, while Richard and Carla finished cleaning inside (and themselves) I set the sails for what I thought would be the final line to Marsh Harbor. Our spirits were high. I took a shower, changed clothes, and then went back to the cockpit to enjoy the breeze and the sun. It was a beautiful, warm, morning with almost a completely clear sky and gentle seas. Antares was sailing fast towards our destination. We were expecting to arrive to Marsh Harbor late afternoon the next day. We might not be able to enter if we run out of daylight and might have to heave-to outside the bay, but that was ok. We were already talking about what we would do once docked in Harbor View Marina. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans for us…