Thousand Mile Sail

Boat owners who hire a delivery crew to move their yachts often escape the trials and tribulations that result. My recent voyage moving a friend’s boat south turned out to be just such an adventure.David Tingle, Susan Mickelson and I set out for Stuart, Florida from Hinckley Yard in Melville, Rhode Island on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 aboard Pete Sloss’ Snowhalk. David, a master
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Boat owners who hire a delivery crew to move their yachts often escape the trials and tribulations that result. My recent voyage moving a friend’s boat south turned out to be just such an adventure.

David Tingle, Susan Mickelson and I set out for Stuart, Florida from Hinckley Yard in Melville, Rhode Island on Tuesday, November 3, 2009 aboard Pete Sloss’ Snowhalk. David, a master with nearly 45 years of boating and sailing experience, surveyed the boat thoroughly before we got underway. David was meticulous in his inspection, repairing minor things that most delivery captains would likely ignore. For example, a worrisome twist of lines had set in the main sheet between the sheaves which no one had been successful in removing. David, however, with his knowledge of how the sheaves swivel, eliminated the twist and tightened down set screws to hold the line straight.

Our Tuesday morning departure from Hinckley Boat Yard was accompanied with a pleasant breeze from the east. We motor-sailed past Newport and out into Long Island Sound. We aimed for the east side of Block Island and passed its high cliffs in the afternoon on an easy reach. We took a southwest heading for the mouth of the Chesapeake and settled in to sail the fairly calm Atlantic.

By nightfall Tuesday, a windshift kicked up enough swells to make for a rough ride. Susan and I were on deck when a thunderstorm developed off our starboard beam. Suddenly, we were hit by a massive gust of wind. The boat heeled violently under full sail, and I spent several minutes fighting a vicious wind. Then, as fast as it had arrived, it left us

Throughout the day on Wednesday, the wind calmed until we were required to turn on our motor. By afternoon the wind was very light and we were depending almost entirely on engine power to move us at 6.5-7 knots. The weather, however, was due for a change as a low pressure system was forecast to come offshore in the next 24 hours.

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Around 1600, approximately at the latitude of Cape May, New Jersey but 50 plus miles to seaward, David and I discussed how far we could go before encountering bad weather. It seemed that Ocean City, Maryland would be easy to reach, but perhaps Rudee Inlet at Virginia Beach would be possible. While we were sitting in the cockpit, our discussion was suddenly interrupted by the engine’s warning whistle. The overheated engine immediately shut down with its temperature gauge pegged to the right. The boat, with its sails sagging, nearly came to a halt in the calm sea.

We went below and opened up the engine compartment. David began his litany of diagnostics that included checking oil, coolant level and soundness of the v-belts. I climbed back into the cockpit to sail toward the closest harbor, Cape May, 50 miles away. While David and Susan dissected the cooling system, I made the best of the light air sailing on the flat sea, pleased to squeeze nearly three knots of speed out of the light wind.

David checked all the hoses, took apart the heat exchanger and made all efforts to find any obstruction or leakage. They refilled the coolant bottle and bled air out of the system, all with no success. Two minutes after starting the engine, the temperature would exceed normal running level and required shutdown. Limping along under full sail with no wind, we moved barely half a knot. We called SeaTow to meet us at dawn. At first light the tender had arrived to tow us in the last 11 miles.

When we arrived at Utsch’s Marina, we opened the engine again for further inspection. As he anticipated, when David removed the water pump he found its impeller shaft broken. He called his mechanic friend, Josh in North Carolina, who was able to locate the part from Westerbeke and ordered it to be sent by express delivery. That evening we walked the 200 yards to Lobster House where we overindulged in fresh seafood. During the night, we heard high winds howling through the rigging and were happy that this frontal passage occurred during our time in port.

The next morning, the winds continued to blow powerfully out of the northwest. We did laundry, repaired some small things, replaced a bulb in the starboard running light and cleaned up. The roller-furler in the mast decided not to operate in both directions, so David made the necessary repairs (later he decided that it had a relay which was sticking, but would operate after turning the power off and then on again).

By 1000 the new water pump arrived. David attacked the engine and by 1400 he had it running perfectly. Still, the wind was too high to allow for a safe approach to the fuel dock so we waited until 1600 to maneuver over there. By sunset we fueled and cast off with a favorable wind, headed south crossing the mouth of Delaware Bay.

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On Saturday the ocean was as smooth as a lake. We motored down the coast of Delaware, a rhumb line course toward Cape Hatteras that took us farther offshore. On Sunday we passed the mouth of Chesapeake Bay too far east to see Cape Henry Light or any of the familiar Virginia Beach coastline. Once around Hatteras, we turned west toward Cape Lookout and the wind favored our course, allowing us to sail a steady reach. By sailing west southwest, we avoided the Gulf Stream, heading more or less toward Charleston. Due to so much motor-sailing, the result of unfavorable or nonexistent winds, we were running low on fuel.

By Monday afternoon we were 40 miles offshore of Charleston with deteriorating weather ahead of us. Ducking into Charleston would have required extra hours of travel, so we decided to push on to Fernandina and Amelia Island. While that turned out to be a good decision, it was not without consequences.

Around sunset, a cluster of storm cells developed first to the east, then to the west, and then all around us. We furled the jib and started the engine, pelted with rain and knocked by hard winds. With the lights of Charleston and then of Savannah lighting the sky to the west, we motored on with the mainsail held by a preventer and the genoa partially furled. The seas began to build to nearly 7ft, lifting us up and sending us hydroplaning down waves in the dark, thrusting us up to speeds of 10 knots at times. The wind required us to start the engine occasionally, using up what precious little fuel we had left.

By morning we were 60 miles from Fernandina with seas calming and the wind shifting from the east. It seemed we would have an easy ride into port until storm cells began to show up on the GPS display again. Around 1100 I could see a cloud coming our way, its image revealing itself on the GPS as a green splotch at the edges, yellow inside and then a red spot in the middle. As it headed our way, we took in the jib and held on. Sure enough, pounding rain and gusts over 40 knots hit us hard. I fought with the wheel, trying to keep us fairly on course while taking the gusts by heading up. The battle raged for half an hour. There was an hour’s break and then another onslaught. By 1300 or so, we passed the storms. With shifty and gusty winds, we sailed in a steady direction to allow sailing on to Fernandina at about 6.5 knots.

We arrived at Fernandina Harbor Marina in the late afternoon where we fueled and tied up. We spent the night at the marina before getting underway the following afternoon. Winds were still high during the night but seemed to calm down the next morning. David went up the mast to replace the bow light and inspect all the stays, fittings, etc. He made Susan ride the boatswain’s chair up, which she did with a mixture of trepidation and sportiness.

By noon, it appeared that the weather was improving enough to get underway in the afternoon. Around 1400, however, the major low-pressure center from the remnants of Hurricane Ida approached. Dark clouds to the west barreled over us in an ominous formation, and the wind gusted over 30 knots. The conditions were ripe for a tornado, but luckily we were spared.

The winds howled all night and through Thursday morning, continuing to hold us fast to the pier. Around 1500 in the afternoon, conditions had improved enough to get underway. We headed out to sea, relieved to find following wind with seas no more than 4ft. The passage around Cape Canaveral by midmorning was fairly rough due to the south-traveling waves colliding with the northbound Gulf Stream over the 30ft-deep shoals. Shortly after rounding the cape, we sailed closer to shore in slightly calmer waters.

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An hour after sunset we entered the jetties at Fort Pierce and made our way to the first marina. Unfortunately, it was completely filled (as best we could tell in the darkness), so we groped our way down the unlighted Intracoastal Waterway to a second marina with a restaurant on the pier. Several friendly people seated outside jumped to help us with our mooring lines, and it was not long before we sat with them at the outdoor restaurant, alongside a band, bar and loud people.

By 0400 the next morning, we picked our way through the darkness, finding the channel between the unlighted markers. Once out of the pass back into the Atlantic I took the watch for the final 20 miles to Stuart. It was one of the most pleasant legs of the whole trip because the following winds and seas kept Snowhalk moving comfortably at 8 to 9 knots. As the sun rose in a pink sky, I was able to watch waves send high plumes of spray off the coastal reef just offshore. About ten minutes from the sea buoy at Stuart, I woke David and Susan for the final run. As we steered through the pass at Stuart, I saw a manta ray jump clear out of the water, plunge back in and then jump again, spurred on perhaps by the great spray from waves breaking on the rock jetty.

We made our way through the inlet, stopping to fill the diesel tanks so they would be full for the next trip. We eased on down Manatee Pocket to the Hinckley Yard, our depth gauge reading only a couple of feet beneath the keel. With our journey over, we moored, and cleaned up the boat. I was the first to leave, bidding goodbye to David and Susan, before heading out around noon for the West Palm Beach Airport. While I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, I was glad the 1,000 plus miles of sailing had come to an end. It might take me a week or two before I find the interest in heading out on another such trek.

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The author, Steve Coleman, made the return trip from Stuart to Newport in just 6.5 days on June 23. Setting out with a different crew, he did not suffer any mechanical problems nor any bad weather that had previously plagued his trip last fall, ultimately proving that one cannot predict with any certainty the time it will take to make a long trip.

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