The massive cold front that had passed us yesterday had moved offshore and was being replaced by a large high pressure cell over the eastern seaboard. For us that meant northerly winds for a few days until they clocked again in front of the next cold front, and the possibility of some more offshore sailing. We were particularly interested in this opportunity as our previous offshore under similar weather conditions had worked out well and because the upcoming stretch of the ICW loomed ahead of us like the small intestines of a giant. Here, there are many inlets that are really impassible for sailboats because of their depth and shifting shoals. At each inlet there is a tree-like fan of estuarial rivers that rush inland for miles in twisting, meandering tidal marshes. The tides here are ferocious: 7-8 feet throughout South Carolina and Georgia. At the crest of each tree where the rivers of one inlet run close to the rivers of the next, man has cut a small channel to connect them into the Intracoastal Waterway. This means that the ICW passage south involves heading SE down one river to its inlet, then SW back up a more southerly branch of the inlet's rivers to an interconnecting channel, S through that channel to the next river, then SE down to its inlet, etc. etc. etc. All of this while contending with huge tides causing large currents in under-dredged channels that spend more time going east and west than north or south. We did this last year, and although it was beautiful & fun at the time, we were not looking forward to doing it again, so the weather window and our new found confidence in our double handed offshore sailing led us to consider another trip offshore.
Sunset off of Port Royal Sound
The Beaufort River empties into the large and deep Port Royal Sound that has a long channel out to its sea buoy past the Hilton Head Resort Island. We had several miles of this passage to reconsider our offshore choice but when the time came to fish or cut bait, the gentle 15 knot NE winds made it a simple decision and we continued down the channel to the ocean. Once past the sea buoy, we hoisted main and jib on a broad reach and settled in to our passage. The weather was warm and the winds stayed in the 15-20g25 (gusts to 25) range all night. After the sun set the stars came out in the moonless sky, our autopilot doing his duty as the miles ticked off behind us. About 4am, we were off of the St. Johns sea buoy and, it being too early to head in to Jacksonville, decided to head for St. Augustine another 30 miles south. The guide book for this port suggests the channel is often shoaling and so the buoys are not on the chart. We called the TowBoat US captain about an hour out and he assured us the channel had been recently dredged and gave us instructions on the buoy approach. He did note that there was an ebb tide flowing and that the channel might be a bit rougher than usual. This, it proved, was an understatement.
Saturday, 11/30/13 - Passing On Saint Augustine Inlet
About 9 am we arrived at the St. Augustine sea buoy and the seas were in the 7-8 foot range. We located the green #1 and red #2 buoys and headed towards them. The channel beyond was, however, lost in a sea of breaking waves and it was not possible to locate the next #3 and #4 buoys that would give us a line on the channel. We called the TowBoat captain again and he gave us the course to steer but prudence overruled our desire to get into port and so we waited until the towboat could come out to guide us into the channel. At about 1000 hrs he called and said he was at red #4 but that the seas in the channel were "like a washing machine" and he was seeing 8 ft depths in the troughs. That was a no-brainer for us and we considered our options: wait offshore in 7-8 ft seas until high tide, beat north 30 miles to Jacksonville, or continue south. The weather report was calling for decreasing winds clocking to the East and so it became a simple decision for us to continue south.
Honey, can you see the next buoy? I can't!
We originally thought we might head for Ponce De Leon Inlet but the sun came out and the winds decreased to 15-20 knots on a broad reach as we headed south toward Fort Pierce inlet. Another 20 degrees to port and 90 miles away lay the Hertzel Shoal Lighted Buoy off of Cape Canaveral so we figured we were on a roll and headed for there. The winds held beautifully as we approached the Cape, building to 20-25 knots gradually as we approached on a beam reach. About 5 miles from the buoy Jeff noticed that the helm did not seem to be connected to the rudder any more and was spinning in his hands! We spent some frantic moments determining that: a) we still had a rudder, b) the autopilot was still connected to it and c) the problem lay somewhere in the cabling between the rudder quadrant and the wheel itself. Relieved in this knowledge, we reenabled the autopilot and continued around the point. Around 0100 Neala was on the helm when she reported two large ships approaching directly toward us in the night. The winds were still 15-25 kt but the seas had built to around 10 feet and so the ships would disappear when we dropped into the troughs. Of course, our running lights being much closer to the water than their lights, we would drop out of sight to the large passenger cruise liners too. Jeff called them both on the VHF and ensured they both had us on their AIS and radars. One, a Carnival ship, would pass a mile astern of us and the other, a Disney ship, would pass a mile ahead of us on their way into Port Canaveral. Close enough for us but far enough away to be a safe passing. The moon had still not come up and the night was very dark. Northern Lights sailed beautifully on into the night, sliding up and down the large seas without complaints.
We set our phone alarms to 30 minutes and took cat naps between them for the rest of the night. After being awake most of the previous night we were exhausted. Jeff slept in the cockpit so he could hear if any of the sails started flogging and Neala slept in the salon below. Later we figured out we could have staggered our wake-ups and checked for traffic every 15 minutes but it was nice to be together and there was no further reason to be nervous as the boat sailed herself on towards Fort Pierce inlet in the night. In the morning, Jeff opened up the steering pedestal and saw that the chain sprocket that was attached to the helm shaft was loose. He tightened the two set screws and pronounced the steering problem solved. Or so we thought...
Sunday, 12/1/13 - A Close Call in Fort Pierce Inlet
Around 1000 we arrived at the Ft. Pierce sea buoy and began our entrance into the inlet. The seas were now about 6 feet from the east and there was another ebb tide running in the channel. This time we could see all of the approach buoys and, while the seas were breaking outside of the channel they were not breaking inside of the channel. We continued onward. Just approaching green #3, Jeff felt the helm start to slip again. YIKES! Losing steerage at this point in the entrance was a HUGE PROBLEM! As the boat swung south and aimed herself directly at the very large, very heavy, very steel, green #3 buoy that was plunging up and down in the waves, he dived for the autopilot control and, pressing the buttons rapidly in succession, quickly got us back on course headed back into the channel. BIG WHEW! It turned out that the autopilot could do a better job of keeping us on course than he could and so we were able to complete the entrance passage and take a side tie at nearby HarborTown Marina for the night. We've had a wonderful 2 months and this was our only "near-death" experience!
The helm drive shaft, key and sprocket in proper juxtaposition!
Entering the Fort Pierce inlet
Monday, 12/2/13 - Motor to Peanut Island Anchorage
We awoke well rested after the preceding adventures and decided to motor down the ICW in flat water and light winds rather than go offshore again. We had an uneventful trip the 44 miles down to Lake Worth and dropped the hook off of Peanut Island late in the afternoon. After sunset, we were assaulted by very loud music from the local cruise liner that was getting ready to head for the Bahamas. As we watched them head out the channel we realized with mixed emotions that this would be our last night on our trip south from Erie to Delray Beach.
Sunset in Peanut Island anchorage
Noisy cruise boat heading for the Bahamas
Tuesday, 12/3/13 - Home to Delray Beach
We got the anchor up at 0645 and were motoring to the Flagler Memorial Bridge soon after. We had a nice flood tide and made the 0715 opening about an hour ahead of our expected schedule. The tide kicker continued as we passed the remaining 9 bridges (!) on the last 20 miles of the ICW from Palm Beach to Delray Beach. We made the 1115 opening at Atlantic Avenue and the 1130 opening of the Linton Avenue bridge and were in our slip being greeted by our friends Terry & Jeannie by 1145. By spending three nights offshore we had shaved a week off of our southbound trip and were now ready to relax for a few days before flying back to Erie and Colorado for the holidays.
Ocean Avenue Bridge in Boynton Beach
Atlantic Avenue Bridge in Delray Beach
Heading into Tropic Bay marina
Jeanne, Terry & Don welcome committee
Home to Delray Beach, safe and sound
Celebrating our arrival with Vince's gift bottle of Veuve at Jeanne & Terry's
We've enjoyed this adventure for 2+ months - have visited lots of great places, met new friends, visited old friends, discovered beautiful little anchorages along the way, had some fantastic sailing, learned a lot about ourselves and mastered new abilities. We are currently enjoying our time here in Delray Beach and are looking forward to more sailing adventures in the future. We are currently planning to get back onboard sometime after the holidays to head for the Bahamas. We'll continue this blog when we do. Thanks for reading!