Passage to Charleston, in English

Even though this was only a one-day ocean passage, there were many factors to take into consideration when we planned it. When you drive somewhere you really only have to calculate how long it will take you based on how far it is and how fast you will drive. On a boat there are a couple of other important things to factor in. First and most important is the wind. Most non-sailors probably think the sails are like big bed sheets you hang up so the wind will push you toward your destination. In fact, the sails are more like airplane wings and the difference in pressure created by the air flowing on either side of the sails is what pulls the boat forward. You can read probably more than you want to know here.

We watched the weather reports, focusing on wind predictions, and saw that last Wednesday the wind was predicted to be from the northwest at 10-15 knots. This is a fairly light wind for most sailors, but we just repaired the mainsail and we wanted to take it easy on the first few times out so we could evaluate the repairs and look for any more potential issues in conditions where it wouldn’t be under too much stress. Also, the angle of the wind was favorable relative to our expected course. You can go almost anywhere on a sailboat, but you can’t sail directly into the wind.

The other important factors we needed to consider were the tides, both in the place we were leaving and in Charleston. If the tide was against us in either place we would be fighting a current pushing us away from where we wanted to go. And if the wind and current are moving in opposite directions, you can have a nasty chop that makes being on a boat an uncomfortable proposition. Izzy and I don’t like that at all.

I checked the tide tables to see when it would be best to leave Southport, and I also checked the tables for Charleston to see when a good arrival window would be. Then I did some calculations. If we were sailing at 6 knots it would take us so many hours, at 5 knots this many, at 4 knots that many, and so on. We chose our departure time accordingly and figured depending on the wind speed we’d arrive in Charleston between 7am and 12pm. Perfect. You never want to arrive in port in the dark if you can help it.

We had a perfect passage out the Cape Fear River with the outgoing tide pushing us along. When we got out into the ocean we discovered the wind was from the northeast, not northwest, so it was directly behind us instead of beside us. That meant we were going downwind, and this is the slowest point of sail. Seems counterintuitive, but downwind is the only time the wind is actually pushing you and you’re not taking advantage of the airfoil capabilities of the sails. You can see an overview of points of sail here.

We initially sailed “wing and wing,” which means one sail was way out on one side of the boat, the other sail way out on the other side. This is normally a pleasant, but not particularly fast, point of sail. I thought, if this keeps up my arrival predictions go out the window. But after a while, the wind came around to where it was predicted, from the northwest. On our course, that meant the wind was blowing over the side of the boat, or abeam. So both sails went out over the other side of the boat and were now functioning in their most efficient capacity, as airfoils. And we went fast. Oh no! I hadn’t calculated for 7 knots, let alone 8! That meant we would arrive in Charleston hours before we wanted to. But it was so enjoyable to be sailing after all the worry about our mainsail and all the motoring we’ve done since we bought EV, we just sat back and enjoyed the ride for hours.

I kept checking the weather reports and they said the wind would drop sometime in the evening so we decided to let EV strut her stuff figuring we’d eventually have to motor into Charleston. But the wind never died down. By midnight we were only an hour away from turning into the approach to Charleston harbor so I altered course a bit, taking us more downwind (slower) and away from Charleston (more distance.) But still, we’d arrive before daylight.

Finally, when Jack came on watch we reduced sail. In this case that meant we took down (doused) the jib, the one in the front, and we reduced the mainsail size (reefed) by rolling up most of it on our window-shade-like furler. That left us with just a small triangle of mainsail up and that finally cut our speed down to 4.5-5 knots. Still pretty fast, considering.

We probably should have reduced sail before nightfall when it’s easier to see what you’re doing and had a slower sail overnight, but sailors are almost always reluctant to do that when conditions are good and the boat is under control and moving well. We just kept thinking the wind was going to die down and we’d get as far as we could before we had to start the engines and motor in.

As it turned out, the combination of altering course and shortening sail put us into the harbor at daybreak, perfectly timed to have enough light to pick a good spot to drop the anchor. And then the Coast Guard spotted us. They were friendly and polite but we so wanted to go to sleep!

All in all, it was a good test for the repaired mainsail, which looks good except for the missing #4 batten, and we love how well EV sails, at least in optimum conditions. We know it won’t always be that way but we’ll enjoy it whenever it is.

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3 Comments

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3 Responses to Passage to Charleston, in English

  1. TomG from Sag Harbor

    What a great description of sailing strategies and tactics! I really learned something about how sailors put their minds to the task at hand. For example, I never knew sailing straight downwind was less than ideal, or why. Many thanks!

  2. Linda Evans O'Connor

    Thanks for the English explanation!

  3. Anita

    So much to know about to move your house down the coast. Thanks for the lesson in sailing, Marce.

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