Experience: Knowing When Not to go Offshore

Knowing when not to set sail is as important as knowing when to leave
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BRIDGE-OF-LIONS-LIGHTNING

On my living room wall, I have a print by Canadian maritime artist John Stobart that I inherited from my father. Stobart specializes in the Age of Sail, and the print, “Decks Awash,” is of a square-rigged ship with a full press of sail, heeled over in a hell of a blow. It’s my favorite, and I enjoy it immensely. However, I was also always glad it wasn’t me on that deck, until a short while ago when all that changed.

A good friend, Alex, had just finished competing in St. Augustine Race Week where he’d snagged third place on his newly purchased and repaired J/29. Now he needed some extra hands for the trip home to Jacksonville, a run I had made many times through the well-marked inlets and up the St. Johns River. That afternoon I told my family I would be back by dinner the next day, and off I went, believing this would be a nice easy ride home.

We paddled out to the moored J/29 on a coal-dark night through light rain and set up camp in the cramped and leaky saloon while an incoming nor’easter established itself over the area. The cold and wet sapped our spirits, the only sign of warmth coming from the nearby St. Augustine Lighthouse’s all-seeing eye.

Early next morning we linked up with Elmer, another crewmember and loaded up with supplies at the fuel dock. Under threatening skies, we cast off lines and made haste for the 0830 opening of the Bridge of Lions along with two other sailboats that would accompany us on the transit. Almost without warning, bolts of lightning began to stab the waters around us from a cloud directly overhead. There was no delay between the flash and boom, and no place to run. Somehow none of the boats were struck. One of the bolts was so close I heard a sizzling sound just before the flash. I took some comfort in the fact that the tiller I held was made of wood, though I doubt that would have made much of a difference.

With the pungent smell of ozone in the air, the sky opened up and released a deluge the likes of which I had never before seen underway. The drops pounded so hard on our heads and shoulders that our foulweather gear was useless, and we were soon soaked to the skin. No, there was no bimini or dodger to hide under: this was a racing boat!

Soon after, we reached marker R60, the point where the decision has to be made whether to head out to sea or continue up the ICW. What we had just experienced was but a preview of what was to come for the day: a forecast of 20-25-knot winds on the nose with large surf and long wave periods that I thought would convince Alex and Elmer to stay on the inside for a wet but smooth ride home. The guys, though, were gung-ho for an adventure, and I guess that meant I was outnumbered. I cast a plaintive glance at the two other sailboats, which wisely made the turn into the ICW. In for a penny, in for a pounding...

A large pair of dredges loomed ahead, parked in the center of the inlet as the pitching of the boat lifted the short-shaft outboard out of the water causing it to ventilate loudly. That wouldn’t do, so it was up with the sails and off with the Tohatsu. After that we carefully threaded the narrow pass between the vessels and made for the outer markers, moving smartly now with the ebb. Within minutes the mist closed in over the town, and the world became a Stobart painting. Drenching cold water alternated between fresh and salty, and it wasn’t long before I was shivering. Let’s see, 55 miles to the mooring upriver in Jacksonville. This was going to be a long day!

Alex had recently purchased his boat, getting a great deal on it after it sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Irma; and while he’d done a commendable job repairing the fiberglass and gelcoat, he hadn’t gotten around to much else. As I wrestled with the tiller, I, therefore, had scarcely more in the way of navigational tools than Ponce de Leon: a compass and a Windex…until the Windex blew away.

Pressing on, the winds freshened, pushing the little boat on her ear till the lee rail was awash. We climbed the combers and slammed into the troughs. Up ahead I spotted the only living thing we would see all day: a loggerhead turtle looking very much like a large pile of brown jetsam that raised its head for a look at the crazy fools who were out on a day like this.

Elmer took the helm at 1130, and after some time as rail meat, I headed below to get a position from the nav app on my phone. As I fiddled with my phone in the saloon amidst the roll, pitch and yaw, I realized, too late, that my stomach did not appreciate the present accommodations. I quickly exited the saloon as my breakfast quickly exited me—in full view of my disgusted shipmates. How humbling.

Alex took this as a sign to reduce sail, and since the main had no reefing line or cringles we dropped it and the boat rode much better. Unfortunately, the slow passage of the houses on shore also now indicated that we were making a lot of leeway—no surprise on a day like this. It had been a long time since I’d suffered from seasickness, although I’ve seen it many times in other people.

By 1630 I had recovered somewhat and was back at the helm, hiked out and holding the tiller with both hands. The rain had now lessened a little, and the wind had clocked enough to allow me to hold a course of 330 degrees. I steered as close to the wind as I could, though it was hard to tell without that Windex.

Then I saw it: a fully loaded container ship heading out from Mayport. Yeah baby! Less than eight miles to the inlet. Our spirits soared.

There followed another couple of cold, wet hours. Every few waves we’d slam hard, the boat shuddering as we were doused with copious spray. I felt bad for Alex and Elmer, who stoically endured the brunt of the green water high up on the rail. I knew they weren’t enjoying this, but didn’t someone say that a bad day sailing is better than a good day in the office?

Eventually, it started getting late, with less than an hour until sunset. The wind clocked a few degrees more, and we were able to run parallel with the coast. We also formed a plan to run up to the south end of the inlet, tack and sail to the markers using the lee of a jetty to smooth things out. The scudding clouds remained thick and the light quickly drained from the evening sky. Alex turned on the running lights, and the compass glowed with a comforting red light.

We were now traveling east along the riprap and I wondered aloud when the rocks would end and allow us to turn into the inlet. We’d all had enough fun and wanted to get in for the night. However, I also know many stories of long passages that ended in disaster because of an impatient helmsman.

Finally, we saw the marker that was clear of the rocks, after which we were just getting ready to tack when we were blinded by a giant spotlight. Alex immediately jumped on the VHF and spoke with a tug captain who had a container barge in tow and was transiting the mouth of the St. Johns. This, in turn, forced us to stand down and wait for the leviathan to exit and turn south.

Eventually, with the inlet finally clear, we were able to fall off the wind and split the markers. Luckily for us, we caught the flood. For the first time, we could ride with and not bash through the swells. Better still, they quickly diminished until we were in smooth water again. Nonetheless, Alex decided that maybe we should forego the last 25 miles and called his wife with a request to transport three cold, wet sailors back home from the docks at Sisters Creek, still short of Jacksonville. 

Things Done Well

• We wore life jackets and worked as a team, sharing our duties without complaint

• We didn’t panic, trusting in ourselves and our sailing ability

• Alex and Elmer picked up the slack while I was sick

• We stayed well off the lee shore

Things done not so well

• The ICW would have been a wiser (if slower) route

• We knew about the rain forecast, but a check of the weather radar before leaving would have revealed the oncoming electrical storm

• Both main and jib should have been capable of being reefed

Boating writer Robert Beringer sails his Catalina 34, Ukiyo, out of Jacksonville, Florida

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