It’s been a long time since we went on a passage at sea. There was a period when we did a few offshore crossings and we learned so much from them. Things we forgot, apparently.
My first mistake was not taking seasickness medication well before we left. I thought of it just as we headed out past St. Simon’s Island and ran downstairs to take half a Dramamine which used to work for me before. And then we hit the chop in the inlet. Not since a memorable vomit-inducing passage from Bermuda to Annapolis have I experienced such violent pounding of a boat through the water. We knew it would be rough at first because the winds were on the nose but they were predicted to clock around to a fair sailing breeze so we figured the initial pounding would be worth it.
Our second mistake was not to rig the main and jib halyards while we were still in the protected waters of the ICW. By the time we were ready to raise the sails we were faced with an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous trip out on deck. I went out first and uncovered the mainsail but by the time I finished that I climbed back into the safety of the cockpit exhausted and queasy. Then I took over the helm while Jack went out on deck and rigged the halyard.
When he got back I said, “I need some air,” and climbed up on the stadium seat in the back of the cockpit. Bad move. Because it’s higher, the motion is exaggerated. I immediately felt sick and just about made it to the port rail where I knelt and fed the fishes for about five minutes. I’m not entirely sure Jack noticed even though I was about four feet from him. He was too busy concentrating on keeping EV steady in the waves.
We managed to raise the mainsail without further incident, and what a marvel that was! Escape Velocity’s mainsail is like a big window shade, with a roller in the boom and the sail gets pull up by an electric winch. When it’s time to drop the sail, it rolls back up into the boom. Easy peazy, and good for us old folks.
The jib involved another trip out on deck to remove the sail cover and rig the halyard. Shoulda done it before, at least the halyard part. We’ll know next time we go out in these conditions. Finally, after two months of owning Escape Velocity, we had two sails up but we weren’t actually sailing. The wind never clocked around and stayed on the nose for the duration.
Should we turn back? Heck no, it took too long to get out here. We’ll soldier on and motorsail through the night. Watch on, watch off.
And then, as Jack said, our autopilot failed to take over. And our backup autopilot went to lunch too. But still, we decided to keep going. Instead of pleasant three-hour night watches scanning the horizon for boats every 15 minutes, we took one-hour turns hand-steering on a nearly moonless night.
Steering a compass course is difficult, but we realized early on that none of the compasses in our cockpit agree. There’s a regular magnetic compass; each autopilot has its own; and the chartplotter gives us course over ground, which is actually the most valuable and accurate reading but difficult to see in the dark. We found the iPad to be the biggest help to navigation. I would choose the course we needed to sail on the iPad, talk Jack into it by saying “a little left, a little right” and when he was right on target I’d say, “That’s our course; what’s the compass read?” and so we’d steer to the easy-to-see magnetic compass. Every hour or so we’d check that we were still on course.
After midnight we realized that an hour’s rest wasn’t helping, so we tried an hour and a half on the wheel at a time and did that until first light. Meanwhile, we were coming to grips with the radar. We never had it before, and spent our previous passages peering into the darkness to scan the horizon for lights. If we saw something we then moved on to step two, which is figuring out what it is, which way it’s going and how fast, and most importantly, is it going to hit us? The radar nearly takes that fear away. We can see on the screen any ship in the area, and usually see within minutes if it’s of any concern to us. Twice during the night we could see that a ship was going to cross our path. The first time we slowed down a little to let it pass well ahead of us, and the second time we changed course slightly until it went by. Both times we attempted radio contact but got no answer. Still, no harm, no foul.
By dawn I realized my biggest mistake. No food. That’s not exactly true. We have a boatload of ingredients but with our watch schedule and still getting our sea legs there’s no way either of us could have cooked or even made a sandwich. We were starving and I didn’t have anything prepared ahead of time.
Most of our previous passages were on a small sailboat with two sea berths and four crew. That meant we stood two-man watches and “hot-bunked.” That means two people are out in the cockpit standing watch while two people are sleeping down below on the sea berths in the main cabin. At change of watch the off-watch now take over the two sea berths, still warm from the previous occupants, hence the term “hot-bunking.”
Because there are two people down below who need their sleep, we came up with the patented “snack bucket” which lived in the cockpit and got replenished every day. We filled it with energy bars, nuts, raisins, gum, and whatever the individual crew members requested. That kept the on-watch from going below to root around for snacks and potentially waking the off-watch. It didn’t replace real meals, which were prepared ahead of time and frozen in boil-in bags but it kept us nourished in between.
If we’d had a snack bucket filled with trail mix or granola bars we’d’ve been a lot better off, even without an actual meal. Another lesson (re)learned.
About 10:30 am we started the long approach into Charleston Harbor. Three hours later we dropped the hook behind a marsh island about 2 miles south of the city, near delirious from hunger and exhaustion. We both showered and napped on and off the rest of the day.
We went 179 miles in 29 hours. We made a lot of mistakes, but once again, we didn’t hit anything, nothing hit us, there were no lawyers called in, and no blood. I’d say that’s not a bad day.