I’ve heard it said that communication is important in a relationship—especially in a sailing partnership—but I guess I never really believed it…until a couple days ago.
When I think back on Hazel, Rhett’s and my 5-night, 614 nautical mile passage from Beaufort NC to Hyannis MA, I picture the difficulty of the sailing as an inverted bell curve—the beginning and end of the sail was tough and the middle was a relatively easy.
While our overall goal was to sail north-northeast, given that our departing port of Beaufort NC is tucked in just to the west of Cape Lookout, the passage began with a 16 nm sail to the southeast to round Cape Lookout Shoals. We left the marina around 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 24 and were sailing to the southeast couple hours later on a port tack, close reach in a stiff east-northeasterly breeze. It was crazy to be a full 10 nm offshore but only a couple miles west of Cape Lookout Shoals. At one point we looked to the east and saw a maelstrom of “confused seas” with waves breaking on each other from all directions. I looked at the charts and—sure enough—that part of the shoals showed a MLW (mean low water) depth of 4-feet. Yikes!
Once we rounded the shoals’ flashing warning buoy on our port side, we hardened up on the wind and beat due east as the sun set and the wind freshened to 20+ knots. This made for a long night of beating to windward into a head sea (the opposite of a “friendly” following sea) as we tried to make northward progress while staying out of the Gulf Stream. “The Stream” flows north and when the wind is from the north, the combination creates a short-period, nasty chop that I wanted to avoid. The next morning—as advertised in the various forecasts that I follow and subscribe to—the wind eased and shifted from the northeast to southeast, ideal for our northward sailing. As we worked ourselves into the Gulf Stream and “flew the ‘chute” (hoisted the spinnaker) our speed over ground northward was exhilarating. At one point our GPS showed a speed of 10 knots.
We had started the passage on the full moon and we reveled in a succession of days of good weather, breathtaking sunrises, sunsets and moonrises, and fair winds and following seas, I began to wonder—began to hope—that perhaps Poseidon had tested us early and the remainder of our passage would be “smooth sailing.”
That line of thinking and hoping continued until the morning of our penultimate day of sailing, Monday, June 28. At that point it became clear that we would make landfall in the Nantucket/Martha’s Vineyard/Cape Cod area sometime the next day. Rhett got on the satellite phone and started inquiring about marina availability and I started studying the “large-scale charts” of the area (whereas small-scale charts show a large area of the ocean and coast with limited detail, large-scale charts show a smaller area of a coast but in more detail). Hyannis MA, looked like a good destination and Rhett worked her magic to get us a marina reservation there (satellite phone calls have low quality, high latency and drop frequently so it’s an exercise in patience). Up until then I had only reviewed the large-scale, coastal charts briefly and thought we could just “bop in” between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard that night and, “boom” we’d be in Hyannis—just that simple. However, when I carefully examined the large-scale coastal charts it became clear that although 10 nm of water separated Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, the “best” passage in all that 10 nm was the narrow Muskeget Channel. I projected we’d get there about midnight and the more I examined the channel the less I liked the looks of it—especially when attempting to transit it at night. My intuition was backed up by a note on the chart that read, “Muskeget Channel is subject to numerous shifting shoals. Strong tidal currents make navigation dangerous.” At that point, I thought two things: No way do I want to attempt Muskeget Channel in the middle of the night, and I guess this is Poseidon not letting us off the hook so easily.
Our best option would be to alter course to port and sail around the western side of Martha’s Vineyard and then turn east and sail a tricky 30 miles waypoint-to-waypoint through Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound from midnight to 6:00 a.m. to arrive at the mouth of Hyannis Harbor shortly after daybreak. While these two bodies of water look nice and wide on a map, there are numerous shoals and rocks and it would be imperative for us to “stay on our lines” (the “connect-the-dots” lines between waypoints).
Shortly after my navigational revelation, Poseidon upped the ante yet again by freshening the breeze from a comfortable 10-15 knots to a solid 20+. We doused the ‘chute and hoisted our fore-n-aft sails with a single reef in the main. By this point it was afternoon on Monday and I found napping difficult as the adrenaline was starting to pump anticipating our midnight landfall. Therefore, Rhett and I did what any sensible sailing captain and crew would do in a similar situation. With the wind blowing and swells rolling, we had a cockpit dance party. We cranked our favorite “All Funked Up” playlist as the soundtrack and with the sun low Hazel danced to the north at 6 knots on a port tack, broad reach. Rhett and I tethered to Hazel shook our tail feathers to Parliament, War, EWF and George Clinton.
As the sun set and daylight faded, we began to see the Gay Head light on the western shore of Martha’s Vineyard off our bow. On our charts, the light was abbreviated “Al WR 15s 175ft 20M” indicating that it was an alternating (Al) white and red (WR) flashing light with a 15 second period with the light 175 feet above sea level and, in ideal conditions, visible from 20 nautical miles. That all checked out with what we we saw on deck and gave us comfort. As we continued our approach, I programmed the 11 waypoints that we would use to vector through Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound into Hazel’s GPS and chartplotter. The 11 waypoints covered 30 nm of distance with less than 2 nm separating some waypoints and the longest run between waypoints being over 7 nm. Some waypoints were near to where a physical buoy should be and some were directly on top of a buoy (with the helmsman expected to navigate around the buoy). As I considered the night ahead and how I might get some sleep amidst the vectoring I was happy to see that the longest run was roughly in the middle of our 30 nm of navigation. We should reach that stretch about 2:00 a.m. Rhett and I made a plan that she would get some early sleep and I would wake her when we neared the 7 nm stretch. After we got Hazel on the line between the two waypoints, Rhett would take the helm and pilot Hazel for the 7 nm and allow the captain (me) to get 40 or 50 minutes of sleep before our final intricate navigation.
All was worked to plan early in the night. Although overcast, the first quarter moon had risen and offered some light and if we assiduously protected our night vision with Hazel’s red saloon lights, we could just make out the outline of Cape Cod to the north off Hazel’s port beam and Martha’s Vineyard to the south off starboard. The wind was sill blowing in the 20 knot range but was now well “abaft the beam” (behind us) and we were on a dead run. As we neared the waypoint and buoy that marked the beginning of the 7 nm run, I called down to Rhett in the saloon to begin rousing her. As expected, it was 2:00 a.m.—not as expected, it was very cold (for us) and we were bundled in foul weather gear and knit caps.
Now as the captain (me) handed over “the con” (the conduct of the ship) to the first mate (Rhett), the captain briefed the first mate on the situation. However, what the captain neglected to communicate was that a buoy lay directly at the end of the 7 nm run. The captain then retired to the saloon for some much needed rest.
As I began to wake a half hour later, I could see from the primary GPS display in the saloon that we were nearing the next waypoint. Hazel felt like she was sailing well and I called up to Rhett in the cockpit that I was awake and would be on deck shortly. As I continued to doze in that blissful interstitial place between sleep and wakefulness, I suddenly heard my first mate cry out, “Buoy, buoy ! Straight ahead!” Even before I could make it on deck, Rhett had the wherewithal to disengage the electronic autopilot and take evasive action.
After a few frantic moments, we breathed a sigh of relief as the bell buoy slipped past our port beam and quarter and receded into the inky night. That’s about the time I realized that there was really something to this whole communication thing. Perhaps it was both Poseidon serving up one seemingly “final” challenge for the passage, and also offering me a good life lesson.
Fair winds and following seas!
PS: As denouement and if all of the above weren’t enough, it turns out that Poseidon wasn’t quite done with us. When we started up Hazel’s Diesel engine about 8:00 a.m. that morning to enter Hyannis Harbor, we found that the engine wasn’t pumping raw water to cool itself. In an early morning rolling and pitching Nantucket Sound, we had to diagnose the problem and then change out the raw water pump impeller that had failed. After remediating, Poseidon decided that we had endured enough and let us pass safely into the inlet and marina for much needed shore food, showers and rest.