Losing Sight of Shore

A long-time racer heads into open water for the first time
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Publish date:
02-Lydia12-01

I arrived on the docks of Beaufort, North Carolina, in late April with two backpacks filled with new gear—everything I’d need for my first offshore passage. Though I’d been sailing for 16 years, graduating from dinghies to keelboats to a J/122, I’d spent my time racing and, in all those years, had never been out of sight of land. Fortunately for me, time-tested captain Andy Burton was headed home to Newport, Rhode Island, after a season in the Caribbean, and I was to join the delivery crew of his Baltic 47, Masquerade. Perhaps even more serendipitous was the fact Andy is just starting to take paying crew and teach them about passagemaking and seamanship, so I got to be a trial run for him while learning from an expert.

Jeff (left) and Andy navigate through some nasty weather

Jeff (left) and Andy navigate through some nasty weather

Knowing I would recognize neither boat nor the captain when I arrived, I asked the dockmaster where I could find Masquerade, and he pointed the impressive silhouette out to me. “The white one, she just got in,” he said. And, indeed, springlines were still being cleated off. Andy came up to greet me and soon was both showing me aboard and introducing me to my two fellow crewmembers, Jeff and Rory. We left the boat in search of dinner and as we walked toward shore, Andy paused to look back at Masquerade. “My dad used to say that if you don’t have to look back to admire your boat when you leave her, you have the wrong boat,” he said, the first of many such adages he’d pass along in the coming week.

We docked out around 0900 the next day, at which point I received another piece of Andy’s wisdom as part of our safety briefing: if you go overboard, you will probably die. Stay on the boat. He also gave me a crash course in how to work the AIS and autopilot.

For the next couple of hours, we made a steady 7 knots over ground on a close reach under full sail. Later the plan was to bear away about 90 degrees and make Cape Hatteras that night. From there, it would be on to Hampton, Virginia, where we’d wait out the worst of a weather system before continuing northward.

Rory points out cloud formations as Masquerade approaches a squall

Rory points out cloud formations as Masquerade approaches a squall

Eventually, Andy and Jeff went below (although being in the hot cabin with the rolling waves felt like being tumble dried) while Rory kept an eye on the horizon, pointing out dolphins and jumping fish to me. For a while, we played a sort of I-Spy where we watched for objects in the water and tried to guess what sort of garbage they were. A balloon, a trash bag. We hadn’t seen land in hours, but sadly there was still enough of debris out there to keep us occupied.

The other source of entertainment was the VHF. At one point we spent a full half-hour listening in on transmissions from the Coast Guard as they tried to assist a sailor whose boat was taking on water. They kept asking for his location, and although responding, he seemed to be ignoring the question. He said he was near the Coast Guard base. Which Coast Guard base? Near the… Coast Guard! The climax came when the unfortunate captain revealed that his wife and children were aboard with him. I waited with anticipation for each update, but we were out of range before the family was safely collected from their stricken vessel.

Jeff was on watch first, but I stayed on deck with him, afraid of getting seasick below. He adjusted the autopilot to make the turn up to Cape Hatteras. Andy explained to me that many people avoid setting a pole and winging out the jib because they think it’s difficult, but it’s actually a simple maneuver if you know how. Then, of course, he showed me exactly how, and in no time we were wing-and-wing, running northward to Cape Hatteras.

Away from land, it was less humid, but the early afternoon sun was beating down. The steady bobbing rocked me to sleep on the cockpit bench. I woke up in a puddle of sweat. I’d packed for the frigid spray of New England, not the southern spring. The waves shifted from lazily rocking us to punching the starboard side of the transom as we approached Cape Hatteras. Surfing down them was incredible, and likewise was our yawing. The twisting was completely foreign to me with my inshore background. We spent the next 12 hours with a preventer rigged to keep us from gybing. Masquerade was making about 10 knots.

Watching the boat kick up an impressive amount of spray, Andy said, “As soon as you think about reefing, it’s time to reef,” so we put two in the main, sacrificing almost no boatspeed.

While enjoying a watery gold ocean at sunset, flecked with deep teal shadows and the snowy white fizz of our wake, I spotted a small stack of red lights off the bow. Next to that was a blinking white light, which resolved itself into the telltale pulse and flash of a lighthouse as we drew near. Andy confirmed that it was Hatteras Light. Looking at the AIS, Rory noted that our course would thread “between the shoals and the abandoned lighthouse.” That sounded a bit ominous to me as night had fallen and the waves were still smashing us about. Taking my own look at the AIS, I noted little tally marks denoting wrecks all around us. There was an eerie storybook perilousness to it all.

We settled into a three-on six-off watch schedule, with me sharing Andy’s watch while I got acquainted with the boat’s procedures. I spent most of our 1800-2100 watch at the transom gazing into our wake, which was a storm of phosphorescence that winked dark as each fresh wave beat them away. There weren’t any stars visible, but the churning lights in the water made for a happy contrast.

Masquerade at the dock in Beaufort

Masquerade at the dock in Beaufort

Three hours passed quickly, and as our watch came to an end, we were still bashing about. Naively, I took my boots off when I got below, hoping to quiet my footsteps and not wake Jeff (who had three precious hours left to sleep). Big mistake. The boat pitched, and I skidded across the galley in my socks, only stopping when plastered against the settee. Of course, what goes up must come down, and before I knew it, I was sliding cartoonishly back again. Half ice skating and half climbing, I dragged myself to my cabin. Once there, braced between the bulkheadss, I had a trial-by-fire education in stringing up a lee cloth before collapsing into bed.

When I woke up, everything was miraculously still and quiet, and I was somewhat surprised to find that just five hours after my slip ’n slide adventure I could now stand up while putting my foulies on. Returning on deck I found Hatteras Light was now long in our wake and so were its unfriendly waters. The 0300-0600 watch was a frigid affair, but other than the chill, there was, again, little to report. As the sun began to rise, Andy made us oatmeal, and we returned to our bunks.

We were coming up on Virginia Beach when I awoke several hours later. Rory, who grew up in Ireland, delighted in the fighter jets flying formations overhead. To the east, the massive profiles of Navy frigates lurked on the horizon.

Rory reefs the main in preparation for a windy night at sea

Rory reefs the main in preparation for a windy night at sea

We also watched as a squall poured down from the north on the radar, but had so much time to reduce canvas we ended up re-setting the jib just to get up to the storm and get it over with. When it arrived, the droplets came so violently that there was some shouted discussion of whether they were actually hail. The waves broke around us, but the surf never had the chance to spill down the side, getting snatched up by the wind and whipped into the air instead. Rory noted gusts of 45 knots. Jeff handed me a pair of ski goggles just so I could see my camera.

Then, as fast as it came it was gone: blue skies to one side of us and a wall of purple mist to the other, the first blast of a system that we intended to wait out in Hampton. As we continued on, we passed the Navy aircraft carrier #69, the Dwight D. Eisenhower. After the relative VHF silence of the past 12 hours, I delighted in listening to them menacingly insist that passing boats stay at least 500 yards away. By the time the next squall hit, we were in the Hampton Yacht Club’s bar, watching it through a large picture window.

The next day we left just after noon, and before we started our watch rotation I spent a lazy afternoon watching the horizon and dreaming of home. Apparently, the boat had picked up a stowaway flock of flies in the Carolinas, which Rory and Andy decided to dispatch. They furiously wafted them from the cabin. Then, Rory took a rolled-up magazine and got to work chasing (and occasionally smashing) them. Though I didn’t have the heart to help with the massacre, it provided no small amount of entertainment. “Here’s a headline for your article,” Rory said breathlessly, diving after another one, “38-year-old Irish man goes crazy, jumps overboard chasing flies.”

The other wildlife attraction was a weirdly large number of pelicans, maybe 20 of them in the span of a mile or two, even though we were still far away from shore. It seemed that one’s perspective on the way the planet moves is different out beyond the sight of land. Something about physically watching the sun disappear to one side and then, 10 hours later, watching it reappear on the other side makes you really feel the Earth spinning faster than imaginable. Similarly, watching the American coastline pass by, mile by mile, has improved my perspective on U.S. geography, as the sweet, sprawling towns of the south were replaced by glittering city lights come nightfall. In a matter of days we went from summer back to frigid early spring. It all seemed much smaller than I’d believed.

Rory and Jeff support from the cockpit as Andy sets the jib

Rory and Jeff support from the cockpit as Andy sets the jib

When I woke up for the noon watch, I was greeted with hot tomato soup and grilled cheese. In the damp chill that had been lingering offshore, it was absolute bliss. Andy keeps his crew well fed, surprising me with little luxuries like fresh basil from a plant that lives in the galley. There are also always orange slices. “Of course, it’s for scurvy,” he said matter of factly.

When Atlantic City appeared on the horizon, it looked like buildings jutting straight out of the ocean. The land around it is so flat it was invisible until we’d nearly arrived. Rory would be leaving us there to return to his regularly scheduled life, and on our last afternoon together, we all sat around the table drinking tea while Andy regaled us with tales of his adventures at sea and perhaps even greater adventures at the bar upon his return to shore. He seemed to know someone wherever we went and had a turn of phrase from his father for every occasion. “As my dear old dad used to say, any fool can be uncomfortable,” he stated as he poured milk into a ceramic creamer instead of straight from the carton into his tea.

As we left Atlantic City, Andy had me practice hand steering by compass, which is easy in concept but challenging in execution. There were enough waves that steering by a sight on shore was occasionally imprecise and frustrating, but rewarding nevertheless. When Andy periodically popped his head up to ask how I was doing, I called back, “Good, getting better, I think!” As if to encourage me, a pod of dolphins visited the boat for half an hour, circling around and reappearing each time I thought they’d finally left me. The northern water was a deeper blue and the dolphins looked bright and silvery in contrast. I’d set myself the goal to steer for three hours, and by the time Andy called me down for dinner, two of my fingers had turned pale and yellowish from the cold.

We were becalmed that night during my first solo watch, and no matter how much I cranked the sails in, I couldn’t get the boom to stop bouncing back and forth. Adding insult to injury, a cold rain beat steadily down for the final two hours.

When my alarm rang at 0300, I was still shivering. It was only halfway through my time below, but we were supposed to be passing through New York City, and I was not going to sleep through that change in scenery as I had Cape Hatteras. Still, I put off leaving my relatively warm blankets for about 15 minutes before finally climbing on deck. Once there, I found Andy hand-steering us toward the East River. The rain had subsided to a cool mist that glowed in the city lights, and the river surface was glassy. It was one of the most beautiful views of the city I’d ever seen. I took photos, while Andy did jumping jacks to stay warm.

Because the East River required his expertise, our watches got a little scrambled, and I wasn’t on again until late the next morning, when I woke up to fog so thick we couldn’t see either side of Long Island Sound. Jeff said that we were about to be crossing the lane of two high-speed ferries, wished me good luck and then left me alone to anxiously monitor the ships on the AIS, waiting for either to make the slightest move from their berths. Sure enough, they were soon whizzing across the sound.

The author hand-steers north of Atlantic City

The author hand-steers north of Atlantic City

Neither came close enough to require evasive maneuvers. However, I did get an uncomfortably good view of the one heading west. The current seemed set on dragging us back to NYC, and we were lucky to make 5 knots that afternoon. The wind still hadn’t recovered from the lull a few days earlier, and we had another 50 miles to go. I spent much of the day fantasizing about taking a hot shower.

My last watch of the passage was spent gliding toward Newport in the dead of the night. For the first time since Cape Hatteras, phosphorescence slipped by in our wake, and as if coaxed out by their oceanic counterparts, the stars reappeared too. Near midnight, Andy came up and asked if I wanted to go below and warm up for a few minutes during the final approach. I think he was also asking for a moment alone at the helm, coming into his home port after a long, long time away.

After the dock lines were tied off and the shore power hooked up, Andy and I sat below, quietly reflecting on the voyage while warming up our fingers. There are many lessons that only experience can teach, and thinking back over our trip, I found too many to count between the tech, the conditions and the boat handling. It certainly had been a long but exciting week, and the end was met with mixed emotions. I was desperate to be home but also sad it was over and, of course, already eagerly anticipating my next chance to go sailing. 

To learn more about Andy Burton’s safety at sea courses, visit burtonsailing.com

Photos by Lydia Mullan

August 2019

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