Hazel was Pooped (episode II)

As we left the “caped” crusaders in the last episode it was 1500 hours (3:00 p.m.) on Sunday, October 10, 2021. Rhett and I had just passed south of Cape Charles and were entering the North Atlantic Ocean. The wind was blowing 20+ knots out of the north-northeast and the Coast Guard had posted a small craft advisory. Once in the North Atlantic Ocean, our plan was to pass east of Cape Henry at the southeastern entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, and set a course for Cape Hatteras and its notorious Diamond Shoals at a range of 120 nautical miles. After Cape Hatteras, we would head for Cape Lookout, Cape Fear, and points south.

Our cape hopping down the Atlantic Coast. Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Cape Fear are often described as “the three great capes of North Carolina.”
Putting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel astern of us. In retrospect, I think my “smile” is a mixture of relief to be out of the Chesapeake Bay and a mask to hide my unbridled fear about what might come next.

Once clear of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, our first problem was navigating the relatively shallow northern half of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. While the mouth of the bay appears big and uniformly deep when viewed as a satellite image (above), looks can be deceiving. The nautical chart below zooms in with deeper water in white and shallower water in shades of blue (the darker the shallower). The big-ship channel in and out of the Chesapeake (for the freighters and tankers) is south, closer to Cape Henry. Given Hazel’s diminutive 5-foot draft, her captain (yours truly) had elected to avoid the big ships and shave a few miles by cutting a corner and sticking to the northern end of the mouth of the bay. While this strategy was ultimately successful, it wasn’t without its share of “excitement.” Given the wind speed and direction, and that it had been blowing hard for 24+ hours, the seas were running big and some of the sand bars were—in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s words—”moaning.” Long story short, we successfully navigated around the shallower bars with breaking waves and were soon out in safe water.

Nautical chart of the mouth of the Chesapeake with Hazel’s track in black. Note shipping lanes in the southern end of the mouth of the bay. The soundings [depths] on this chart are in feet.

The rest of that day’s sail and our night sail from Sunday into Monday morning was exhilarating—granted, a bit on-the-edge—but exhilarating nonetheless. The wind continued to blow strong and the seas continued to build. However, if our forecasts were correct, the wind would soon mitigate to a more comfortable level—at least that was the forecast.

The next morning (0600 hours on Monday, October 11), 24 hours after embarking from Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, I reviewed our progress and was happy to report to Rhett that as a reward for our challenging sailing, we had made 155 nautical miles of southward progress (178 statute, or land-based, miles) and were closing in on Cape Hatteras.

155 nautical miles is by far the most distance I have ever covered in Hazel in a 24 hour period. My rule of thumb is that 120 nautical miles in a day is very good progress for a small, conservative cruiser like Hazel. 155 nautical miles (30% more) is a fantastic distance, especially without any appreciable help from ocean currents (if your normal highway cruising speed is 70 MPH, think of driving 90+ MPH).

The good news is that the wind seemed to have topped out in the low 30 knot range and wasn’t building further. Further to the good, after sailing through the darkness, we were starting to see color in the eastern sky and we would round Diamond Shoals and Cape Hatteras in the daylight. To the not so good, as Hazel rocketed southward at top speed, we had the Outer Banks of North Carolina close aboard to the west, and the northward flowing Gulf Stream immediately to the east—we had no option of turning back or slowing down. We were committed. Although the wind seemed to have topped out, it certainly hadn’t mitigated: we would round Diamond Shoals with 30 knots of wind behind us.

While we had a lot to contend with that morning, it’s worth noting that mariners of the past had a lot more challenges in this part of the ocean. These challenges included imprecise navigation and world wars.

While we were committed and had a narrow slice of ocean we had to transit, at least we knew exactly where we were. As a modern sailor, it’s difficult for me to imagine being a southbound sailor of 50 or 100 years ago, depending on celestial navigation, dead reckoning, and visual cues from light stations and the land to navigate this part of the ocean. While a northbound vessel rounding Cape Hatteras can stay away from shore and enjoy the northward push of the Gulf Stream in settled weather, a southbound vessel must “thread the needle”: too far east and a sailor is attempting to “swim upstream” in the Gulf Stream with a nasty chop of waves generated by the wind blowing against the current. Too far west and the sailor risks breaking waves from the shallows of Diamond Shoals. The images below illustrate this point.

Image of Cape Hatteras to the west, the northward flowing Gulf Stream to the east, and the thin slice of ocean between. This view only shows the land of the Outer Banks. While Diamond Shoals is underwater (and not showing in this view), it’s shallow, constantly shifting, not navigable and sticks 10 miles into the ocean.
Comparison of Hazel’s northbound route in June (further offshore and enjoying the Gulf Stream’s help), and Hazel’s southbound route, cutting close to Diamond Shoals.

Bottom-line, although we were dealing with a bit of weather, we knew exactly where we were, where Diamond Shoals was, and where the western wall of the Gulf Stream was (yes, the Gulf Stream meanders a bit over the surface of the ocean).

The danger that was posed by world wars was additive to the challenges of imprecise navigation and an entirely different matter.

I’m writing this blog post around December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. I think if most of us were asked what was the biggest loss of life on American soil in a world war, we’d say, “That’s easy, Pearl Harbor.” However, shortly after Germany declared war on the US in late 1941, German U-boats set sail for the US Atlantic Coast and in the first seven months of 1942, U-boats sank 233 ships on the US East Coast and Gulf of Mexico and killed 5,000 crew and passengers—more than twice the death toll of Pearl Harbor (interestingly, the information about losses off the US Atlantic Coast was censored from US citizens by the government and military under the guise of not wanting to discourage American’s about the war effort). U-boat commanders lurking in the Western Atlantic quickly recognized that Cape Hatteras was a navigational focal point for ship traffic, and the area was nicknamed Torpedo Junction.

Bottom-line, although Hazel, Rhett, and I had a lot to worry about, we didn’t have to sail a zig-zagging course or travel in a naval escorted convoy in an effort to evade German torpedoes.

Pretty good swell coming up on Hazel’s starboard quarter.

While the problem of imprecise navigation has been solved and the problem of U-boats has been resolved, we still had weather and ocean currents in October 2021. As we got within visual distance of the decommissioned Diamond Shoals Light Station, kept sailing south and held on. While it might sound courageous (or dumb), it really wasn’t. At that point we were just doing what we had to do, we had no choice.

The abandoned Diamond Shoals Light Station circled in red. The structure I’ve similar to an oil rig platform.

Episode III and the conclusion of “Hazel was Pooped” is coming shortly (I promise)!

2 thoughts on “Hazel was Pooped (episode II)

  1. Great stuff Dano! Love your writing, it’s a great respite from work and the weather. Fair winds and following seas. Talk soon

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