November 10th & 11th, 2013
Avoiding the shoals around Cape Hatteras, NC
35° 09.214’ N, 75° 17.076’ W
Disclaimer: We can’t remember exactly what the night of the 9th was like… since as we’ve mentioned before, time ceases to have much meaning out there. The wind picked up that afternoon and we turned off the motor in favor of the sails. Since the wind was still coming out of the west at a beam reach, we cruised south at a stately speed of around 6 knots. As the winds steadily picked up, we think it got pretty rough because we don’t recall much detail except that it was difficult to sleep. With our swift speed, we calculated that we’d be rounding Cape Hatteras a few hours after daybreak the next morning.
“Hydrography is not charted on Diamond Shoals due to the changeable nature of the area. Navigation in the area is extremely hazardous to all types of craft.” – NOAA Nautical Chart
As we approached the northern part of Diamond Shoals before actually rounding Cape Hatteras, a culmination of geological, oceanographic, and weather events would apparently coincide to thwart the thus-far smooth sailing of our vessel. The Gulf Stream, a northwardly moving current off the east coast, nearly makes landfall just off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. This current pushes an incredible amount of sand and silt up against the three Capes that dominate the coast of the Carolinas: Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, and Cape Fear. This causes an unpredictable shifting shoal (nautical term for shallow sandbar) off of each cape that extends about ten miles into the sea. Thus, sailors who are inclined to make a southern journey are confronted with the choice of possibly running aground on the treacherous shoals, which have claimed hundreds of ships in the past few centuries, or sail against the strong current presented by the Gulf Stream. The previously forecasted conditions, under which we had departed, would not have posed too great of an issue. We planned to sail deftly between the Diamond Shoals of Cape Hatteras and the aforementioned Gulf Stream. However, as we approached the cape, the weather forecast on the VHF became increasingly worrying. Winds were predicted to blow from the NW at 5-10 knots, then 10-15, then 15-20, then 20-25 with gusts up to 30. Likewise, the seas went from a calm 1-2 ft. to 4-6 ft. (see previous post regarding waves heights and averages as reported by NOAA). These were not the winds, nor the seas, that we intended to sail upon, but being the foolhardy folks we are (and with no other real alternative), we battened down the hatches, said our prayers, and once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
Unfortunately none of us had our wits about us during this beating to take any pictures, but these older ones seem to catch a similar feel…
At some point (we can’t recall exactly when), our mainsail got an itty-bitty tear in it, so we immediately furled it to prevent it from becoming more of a problem. Hours later or perhaps the next day (all we know is that is was in the middle of the night because Natasha had to abruptly awake Clay) our mainsail ripped again. This time it was another full lateral tear that required several rolls to reef it enough to regain proper tautness on the sail that was still in use. Later, while tacking, the jib got stuck on a cleat and lost a few non-critical stitches. In short, our sails are worn and need to miraculously give birth to brand new ones. =)
What should, under “normal” circumstances (whatever those may be), have been an 8-10 hour cruise to the west from Cape Hatteras to Cape Lookout (where we intended to make landfall) turned into nearly 20 hours of “beating to windward”. This sailing term describes the process of sailing upwind, which, as you might point out, is technically impossible. No sailboat can directly sail into the wind, so generally you must partake in the skillful act of tacking (which basically just means a discouragingly zigzag line back and forth over the line you wish you were travelling). Due to this process of tacking, we joyously managed to eek out a humble average of 1.5 knots along our intended course. This progress is, for lack of a better word, abysmal. The small comfort we were able to take was in the two or three sailing vessels in sight that were similarly flailing around in the wind and waves. At times, they even appeared to be doing worse off than us…, which made us feel much better. After all, we had chosen to neatly tack back and forth as close to shore as we dared (in order to lessen the wave height and intensity), while they appeared to be darting way offshore into the fray.
Even with our carefully planned tacks to stay in calmer waters, our robust little Sedna had not yet been tested for water tightness against oncoming waves. You may recall that our last offshore jump consisted primarily of “surfing” down really high waves. This time, though the waves weren’t quite as high, we were sailing directly into them. We found out that water liked to come into the cabin through multiple orifices: the head vent fan, the main cabin vent fan, and most generously the forward hatch (though it was shut tight). I guess we couldn’t have had a true sailing experience without getting a little wet. Our stuff was soaked. Since the forward hatch’s seal was apparently inadequate (despite Natasha’s half-hearted attempt at sticking the old crusty seal back on with a super adhesive), each time we crashed into a wave head on we would watch despairingly as a small shower of water came flowing into the bow of the boat. We had to regularly bale out the forward bilge (which doesn’t connect to the main bilge with the automatic pump) and flush the excess water down the head (nautical term for toilet). Every time someone tried to lay down to sleep on the leeward side (which is of course the lower side and the one that is easiest to keep from falling off your berth during your sleep), they would be happily greeted by the most adventurous droplets of sea-water that found their way through the main cabin vent fan and onto our faces or already soaked pillows. We acknowledged the following sunrise with weary eyes and muddled brains.
But it wasn’t all bad. While Clay attempted to get some rest sometime in the middle of the night, Travis and Natasha pulled a dual-watch in order to help each other out with the frequent tacks that our new route required. Playing word and question games to stay awake, we got tons of practice tacking while Captain Bootleg slept. As a friend recently reminded us, “smooth sailing never made a skilled sailor”!
With Clay at the helm during the wee hours of the morning, we got Sedna repositioned for a more direct route past Cape Lookout and into Raleigh Bay where we could turn northward and motor into Beaufort Inlet. By morning the seas had calmed considerably, Natasha (if not the other two) had managed to catch a few substantial hours of sleep after the sun rose, and spirits were rising the closer we got to promised relief from the waves and wetness.
~ Travis & Natasha