Monday, June 1, 2015

Fort Pierce to Southport dodging squalls

May 17, 2015

Sunday evening. We are sitting in our slip in Harbortown Marina, Fort Pierce, Florida. We have been traveling for months now and we are getting tired. Not tired of the adventure or tired of sailing or tired of living on SeaClearly. Just tired. We are ready to move on which, in this case, means north up the east coast. We have been here for 3 weeks waiting for the weather to give us a big window so we can bite off a big chunk. We have asked our weather guy the same question - "Fort Pierce to Southport, NC?" - so many times that I think he is getting annoyed. But, we finally got a window that looks like it will work.

As we sit listening to the live music coming from the restaurant, we worry. We don't worry about the thunderstorms and squalls that are predicted along our 4 day path. It is forecast to be mostly very mild wind with occasional squalls to 40 or 50 knot winds, lightning, locally high seas, that sort of thing. We don't worry about the 4 nights in the ocean watching for ship traffic as we pass some of the biggest shipping ports on the east coast.

No, we worry about getting out of the slip. We have been all the way to the Virgin Islands but getting SeaClearly into and out of docks is still nerve-wracking. We have met people who have, literally, been around the world who's biggest fear is docking their boat. Maybe that's why they kept going.

We watch the wind and current swirl around the marina. There is a pretty good tide here so it moves some water. We are more than halfway down the fairway and backed in to the slip. Once we pull out and clear the pilings, we will have to make a quick determination whether we will be able to turn left and drive out or if our bow will be pushed to the right forcing us to back out of the fairway. There really isn't room to turn SeaClearly around in this space. The wind is strong enough today that the bow thrusters should not be depended upon as a salvation. They can't overcome stupid. We plot docklines and strategies, envision scenarios and position fenders. We ask the marina to have some dockhands available.

Then, morning dawns on Monday and it is beautiful. The wind has dropped to around 10 knots, the tide goes slack right on schedule, the sun is shining. We drop all but the last two critical docklines. We edge SeaClearly forward, the dockhand tosses the stern line and waves us goodbye and we, anticlimactically, drive out of Harbortown with no drama at all. You always feel like you wasted a lot of time worrying when things go well. Or, maybe they go well because you worry. Regardless, we are on our way again!

The slack tide in the marina comes about an hour ahead of the slack tide going out of Fort Pierce Inlet. So, our quick, easy departure results in catching up to the incoming tide as we head out towards the inlet. We are motoring into a 2 - 3 knot current getting out to the ocean. But, it is a gorgeous day and an easy ride despite the current so we slog through, enjoying the moment, clear the mid-markers and turn north. The sails are up immediately and the engine is off 3 minutes later. We would continue to sail comfortably all day on Monday until just before dark.

The wind was predicted to become mild but stay southeast and it did exactly that. We need 10 - 12 knots of wind to move SeaClearly and, as night fell, we didn't have it. However, since the winds were in a favorable direction, we could motorsail and make really good speed by generating our own lift. We power-sailed all through the night and covered a lot of water. Cape Canaveral came and went. We were close to shore and had the lights to our left all night. The next day was more of the same. We cruised along on a nice ocean, making time north.

Unfortunately, we knew that we were playing the weather systems and that we would lose our wind entirely, get those thunderstorms and, then, face the possibility of a cold front reaching us and bringing nasty weather before we could reach Southport . We might have to bail out as early as Fernandina Beach, Florida or maybe Charleston. We checked in with Chris Parker via the SSB radio and got the latest update. Basically, the forecast was the same. Look out for strong squalls, get somewhere by Thursday and then find someplace to sit for Friday - Sunday.

Hmm. This presented a quandary. At our normal predicted rate of travel, (we use 5.5 knots as a reasonable average that we can maintain over a 24 hour period between sailing and motoring) we might make Charleston just in time for bad weather. And then be stuck there. We were not going to have any wind except during the possible strong thunderstorms. So, we changed plans. We would strap everything to the deck, put the hammer down and burn diesel to make it to Southport before the weather front arrived. Of course, 'hammer down' in a sailboat is not exactly blazing speed. But, if we could straighten our path and make a bee-line for Southport and maintain 6.5 knots, we could shave about 12 hours off of the trip.

Before we left Fort Pierce, knowing that we would probably see squalls, we had mounted the storm tri-sail on the mast-track and had it bagged on deck ready to go. Our rigger, back in Oriental at the beginning of our trip, had pointed out that we didn't have to wait until the wind was over 40 knots to use it. Why stress your mainsail? Put it up early and use it like a triple reef. After all, we were either going to have no wind (in which case no sail works well) or a lot of wind in storms (in which case a small, strong tri-sail makes sense). Mostly, we were motoring. So, we tied the mainsail tight to the boom and raised the storm tri-sail.

During a particularly calm period on Tuesday, we went out on deck to dump the jerry cans of diesel into the tank. This would allow us plenty of fuel to make the flat-out run up the coast. As I went out onto the deck to start the process, the dolphins showed up! They came from nowhere and headed straight for our bow.


More dolphins!

Bigger dolphins!

Since we were jamming along at 6.5 - 7 knots, SeaClearly was pushing a good wake for them to play in. They hung around for a half hour and entertained us. Eventually, they remembered that they had some dolphin things to do elsewhere and disappeared. We resumed the operation of dumping the diesel into the tank through our Baja filter (a funnel with a screen filter) and settled in for the evening.

As evening approached, the edges of the horizon started flashing with the first of the lightning. The radio got busy with Coast Guard weather warnings as the storms fired up. "Seek shelter immediately." No shelter in sight. "If caught in open waters, go below decks. Avoid ungrounded metal." Really? We kept powering along with our storm tri-sail and our big genoa as the foresail. Kind of an unlikely sail configuration. But, in the event of running into a storm, we can furl the genny pretty quickly and leave the tri-sail for stability in the big wind.

We threaded between the storms all night long. We kept watching the radar and listening to the radio updates and wondering when our luck would run out. It didn't. Junie got rained on a little bit during her middle-of-the-night watch. Mostly we just got an awesome not-too-distant display of lightning in the night. We kept the motor at about 2800 rpm and ate miles.

Storms chasing us from behind.

This storm was moving east and out of our way. We dodged
these all night long.

As we closed in on Southport, NC on Thursday, our charmed period expired. Our timing for arrival was screwed up by our fast trip so we were coming into the Cape Fear River, a very big river, at full ebb tide. Three and a half knots of current. Right in our face. The weather front was arriving and the wind switched around to the east-northeast. Right in our face. But the waves were still being pushed from the south so they were coming from behind us. All in all, a mess. Of course, there was a dredge parked mid-channel and a cargo ship coming down-river as we were coming in. Lovely.

We manipulated the channel and all of the obstacles and made the turn towards Southport marina. It was Thursday, May 21st at just about 5:00 pm. We executed a perfect landing despite 20+ knots of wind. We all looked fairly disheveled but I know we looked happy. We managed to put a lot of miles behind us moving north. Then we took the prudent advice and signed up at the marina for at least 3 days. It was a good run and puts us within just a few days of getting home. Feels good.

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