Anchored at Cumberland
View from the pool deck.

You Have Nothing to Fear but Cape Fear Itself.

Written on Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I have the watch on a nearly perfect Wednesday afternoon. The wind is blowing 20 - 30 knots from the west. We're 60 miles offshore from South Carolina, beating down to Cumberland Island Georgia under a reefed main and jib. The mess in the cabin below and the splint on my finger are the only evidence that today is the reward for having conquered Cape Fear yesterday. 

We still aren't sure how we so badly miss-judged the weather. I want to talk to a meteorologist I know to ask him what we did wrong and to learn about Capes, such as Fear, Hatteras, Good Hope.  We will sail around many capes during our cruise and sailing near Cape Elizabeth in Maine was not adequate preparation. Perhaps we needed to be reminded that wise sailors are humble sailors. We'd been quite smug about our sailing decisions and about our willingness to wait for a weather window for every departure. We thought we had excellent weather for this four day passage from Hampton, Virginia to Cumberland Island. A four day cruise .. (cue Gilligan's Island theme music) a four day cruse.

We left Hampton on Saturday, November 13th and sailed down Chesapeake Bay, and then turned on Pine Top as the sun set and motored for the next 20 hours around a placid Cape Hatteras and an indifferent Cape Lookout. The plan was to spend four days at sea and reach Cumberland Island on Tuesday or Wednesday. We would gladly sail slowly rather than work Pine Top. EW wisely told his sister that we would call her on Thursday or Friday, while I had blithely posted the four day plan on the blog so other friends and family members expected to hear from us on Wednesday. The weather reports had indicated two days of very little wind and a few hours of 20 - 30 knots along the entire coastline on Tuesday. La Luna loves 20-30 knots in the right conditions. We were heading south and we expected to be south of Cape Fear before the winds rose, but truthfully we didn't think about Cape Fear as more than a point along our way. 

Mistake #1. I did not fear Cape Fear. Heck, I didn't even respect Cape Fear. My entire focus was to get safely and easily around Hatteras. The only thought I gave to Cape Fear was to try to remember whetherDeNiro was the villain in the movie "Cape Fear", or was Nolte the villain. I dimly remember that there was a storm in that movie. Shoulda been a clue.

Mistake #2. Fuel Management Issue Part Deux. As you may remember, we had a fuel management issue in New England that required a 68 mile sail into New York Harbor. EW felt that since we had motored for 30 hours, we should drop in to Beaufort, North Carolina (this one is pronounced BOW-fort) for diesel, and we arrived at the dock at eight in the morning on Monday. The tanks only took 30 gallons and the cantankerous dock master said that our Perkins should only use 3/4 of a gallon every hour in calm seas. We had wasted his time by coming in. For us the choice was a mixed blessing. On the one hand we wasted at least four hours getting fuel we didn't need. On the other hand, since we lost those four hours, we ended up needing the fuel. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

While on the dock, we chatted with some other boaters including some charming gentlemen from Connecticut. They had come outside to Beaufort, crossing the Gulf Stream twice and told a tale of 50 knot winds and surfing down the waves at 18 knots. Not my idea of a comfortable sail. We chatted and talked of harbors and marinas. I told them the "propane lady" story and they were a wonderful audience. Meanwhile, EW was drawn into conversation with a salty character who lived aboard two rafted sailboats in the harbor. The gentleman aboard S/V Cosmo and I listened with one ear to the other conversation. They also planned to leave the harbor and head south within the half hour. 

Mistake #3 We did not heed Local Knowledge. "Local Knowledge" refers to that information locals know to be fact. As an example, the Salty Character talking with EW said, "You might have some trouble in this channel at low tide. They were supposed to dredge it three years ago." That's local knowledge and we generally respect it. So we decided to pick up a mooring for a couple of hours, shower on board, have lunch and untangle the topping lift from the flag halyard (or vice versa). Now Salty Character had also looked up at the nearly pristine blue sky and said, "See that line of clouds right here? That's the Labrador Current.  And see those over there? Those ones are over the Gulf Stream. When you see two formations coming together like this, you know it'll get nasty at Cape Fear". Formations? Those were wisps, hardly clouds at all. There was no wind. We had blue skies and sunshine and would round Cape Fear that night, long before the predicted 20-30 knot winds. We waited for the tide to turn and left Beaufort (the BOW-fort one).  

We had a lovely sail that afternoon and evening. Three other, slightly larger and faster sailboats were near us most of the night. I talked on the radio with the captain of one of them. As the wind slackened and came more on the nose, they started their engines a couple of hours before we did, and the last of them called me on the radio as they rounded the buoy about five hours ahead of us. I suspect that five hour lead made all the difference. The wind was building in the early hours of the morning. During EW's6 to 9 shift we discussed our approximate point of sail after Cape Fear and prepared to unfurl the jib. 
As we rounded the bouy, the wind increased,came at us on the nose and the seas that greeted us were 5 feet and choppy. We could not make headway toward our goal, and tried much longer than we should have to find a combination of sails and direction that would allow us to sail. There were two: one would take us to the northeast, back north of Cape Fear and toward the Gulf Stream. If we sailed in the other direction, we'd land hard on Frying Pan Shoals. We had to bring in the jib, reduce the main and sheet it in to the middle of the boat to provide stability, and use the engine to move us forward. We were now 6 or 7 hours behind our companions of the night. We were stuck at Cape Fear and the weather got worse.

Over the course of the day I grew furious with NOAA Weather Radio. They use automated voices to provide the weather that is keyed in by someone who obviously 1) didn't have any local knowledge and 2) did not listen to "current conditions", take new observations, or update the forecast for over 8 hours. The channel at Cape Fear uses a female automated voice to recite current conditions and a male voice to provide the forecast. For hours I would turn on the forecast to hear "Her" relate the current conditions at Cape Fear as winds of 19 - 22 knots with 6 - 8 foot seas. "Him" would follow with the forecast of 10 to 15 knots of wind and 4-5 foot seas except in "occasional" storms. From the looks of the skies to the south they had occasional storms. We had one squall after another, marching toward us from the west. Winds were 20 knots at the start, and built to 30 in the morning. Over night we experienced sustained gusts of 40 and 45 knots. The seas built from the south to 12-15 feet. NOAAweather radio didn't acknowledge the storm until 8:00 PM Tuesday night and by that time both "Her" and "Him" had lost all credibility with me.

For nearly 24 hours La Luna threw water over her deck as she buried her bow in a wave, or stopped and shuddered when hit cross-ways by a particularly nasty wave. Casey, the trusty auto pilot steered a course west south west, and while the sound,wind and motion made it seem that we were moving quickly, we were only able to make 1.5 to 3 knots "course over the ground". (Which means actually moving forward). Very slowly we were moving the boat away from Cape Fear and Frying Pan Shoals. We stood three hour watches, checked the radar, and held on. Off watch, we'd curl up on the starboard side and try to sleep. EW made sandwiches for lunch on Tuesday. I know I fed us something for supper but can't for the life of me remember what it was and don't believe I ate much. We both tried to keep hydrated and tried to sleep off watch. 

This is the worst storm I've experienced, yet I wasn't afraid of the conditions. I was afraid of what might happen, such as the storm getting worse or that the "scattered thunder storms" might head in our direction. On deck, I sat in the cockpit holding on with my right hand around the main furling winch.  I cannot describe the feeling of watching La Luna meet every wave. Some came right at her bow. Others on her forward quarter. One large wave hit her broadside with an amazing bang as water rushed up onto the deck and poured down below into the galley through a vent. EW slept through most bangs and bumps but that one had him jumping up with a "What the hell happened?" La Luna just plowed ahead. She might heel over with wind and waves, then come back to a more reasonable slant. She never wavered. She's a stout, well-built blue water boat. Our job was to keep her off the rocks and not screw up. As long as the auto pilot worked, three hour watches were - if not easily handled - handled.

However, I did screw up, twice, fairly early in the day. The forward sail is a furling jib. To make it smaller in high winds, or to bring it in altogether one of us hauls a furling line and the other keeps some tension on one of the sheets. The sheets are two one-inch ropes that keep the sail on the appropriate side of the boat and at the right tension for the direction of the wind. In the morning, while we were still trying to sail, I handled the sheet on a tack and lost control of it. These sheets are tied to the sail at one end and to a winch near the cockpit. I didn't get it winched in quickly, lost control of it and that line began whipping where it was slack. (Remember snapping the dish towel at your sibling when you are doing dishes? Now imagine being hit by a one inch thick rope snapped by wind at 30 knots.) I was hit in the forehead twice and as I tried to grab it the line snapped on my pinkie finger. Man did that hurt! Thankfully, we'd picked up some finger splints for the first aid kit and I quickly got back on deck.  The second time I miss-handled a line we were giving up on sailing and were furling the jib. The mistake resulted in getting both sheets into a tangled mess. We furled the sail and EW had to leave the relative safety of the cockpit and go forward to free up the sheets. 

EW had to go forward three times during the storm. Those were the times I was most afraid. He is very careful and we were both strapped to the boat with a harness.  We run a jack line on both sides of the deck so that we can strap in when working outside the cockpit, but it is still possible to get washed overboard. That is what terrifies me. He was careful, and he did what had to be done. Every time.
We ate, we slept, we stood watch, we waited it out and we dealt with anything that happened.

You don't stay dry in a storm like this. After his first soaking, EW would wear full foul weather gear on watch. My splinted finger made it difficult for me to get into and out of the weather gear trousers. It was fairly warm, so I would wear a pair of jeans on deck take them off after my watch and put on dry pants the next watch. We ended up with a lot of wet clothing after the storm.

Before the storm, we had a rule on La Luna: Barb does not have to be alone on the deck in a thunder and lightening storm. I hate them. I've been known to get a bit weepy with fear during a nasty storm inCasco Bay. Well, there is no crying on watch.  "Him" had ominously predicted "isolated" thunder storms after midnight. Of course the only one we experienced occurred during my nine to midnight watch. By then EW had gone forward twice, once during my watch. He needed his rest. I sat on the floor of the cockpit with my feet on the companionway ladder, holding on to the wooden hatch. (No metal for me!) I did not cry. The lightening gave me a great view of the seas as the storm passed overhead. There is no crying on watch.

While I had lost most faith in "Him", we continued to listen to the weather and once "Him" caught up with the actual conditions the reports seemed to be more on-target. I began to believe that the storm would abate on Wednesday morning, as promised, so when EW awakened me for the three to six watch, I was hoping for some improvement. The winds and seas were still strong as EW told me we were still getting 45 knot gusts, but the skies were clear and we could see the stars. My euphoria was dampened as EW said, "They're getting hail and watching for tornadoes on shore. Mariners are advised to keep an eye out for rapidly changing conditions." "What the heck does that mean?" I screamed, "and what am I supposed to do about it?" (Not one of my finer moments.) "Look, nothing is going on right now, you can see stars all around. Just keep an eye out and call me if you see something." And he went to sleep.

I sat in the cockpit, right (uninjured) hand around the winch, watching the sky as we continued motoring into the early morning hours. There was no unusual sound -- though the wind, smashing waves, and fluttering main made more than enough noise to mask most things. One moment there were stars all around, the next moment I looked to port and saw black. I was startled, but it didn't look like an oncoming tornado or waterspout. It was too uniform in size and too straight-sided.  I stood up and looked again. Wow. The inflatable dinghy had been very securely tied upside-down the deck. EW had used the pad eye on the bow of dinghy to secure it tightly to the deck and that had broken. The dinghy was standing up on the port side of the deck in 30 - 40 knots of wind.

I called down to EW, "Honey .. you need to see this." He got right up and started on deck in his shorts. "No, you'll want shoes for this -- and probably your foulies."  "Am I looking at something or doingsomething?" He was a bit tired. "Just take your time, but get ready and get up here." He did. When he came on deck, I pointed out the dinghy. "What the hell? Why didn't you tell me the dinghy was in the rigging?" "I didn't have the words for that." (Later we both agreed -- that if I has said "The dinghy is in the rigging," EW would have replied "What do you mean the dinghy is in the rigging?" He really had to see it for himself. This photo was taken after sunrise. 


He did go on deck in the dark, but there was no safe way to get it back down in those conditions. Wetightened the jib sheet behind it and left it there until after 9:00. During that time, EW said it was an effective stay sail. As the wind and seas calmed, EW went forward an d I turned La Luna to port. The shift in wind direction caused the dinghy to fall back on deck where EW secured it once again. 
Shortly after that, the wind began to shift and we gradually turned La Luna to starboard until we were on course for Cumberland Island. We discussed making a 68 mile detour to Charleston but decided that since the boat and we were fine, we'd just sail south, well away from the Cape Fear Zone. It was a lovely two-day sail. We deserved it. 

I took this photo as we set sail for Cumberland Island.




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