Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Long Way Home

Cielo and her crew departed Culebra on Thursday, May 8th bound for Norfolk, 1300 nautical miles to the North-Northwest. Eight and a half days days later we ended up in Beaufort, NC, a full 225 miles short of our destination. Though the official reason for ducking into Beaufort was a storm brewing off of Cape Hatteras, the crew's desire to exchange strong winds, high seas, and cold soggy gear for dry land and a stiff drink may have also factored into the equation...

Thursday, May 8th - Departure Day

After spending two full days getting Cielo ready for the passage, we motored out of Culebra around 7 a.m. We bid a fond farewell to one of our favorite islands as we worked to set our spinnaker in 10 knots of air. With the wind behind us, the air was warm and Cielo's crew sunbathed on deck and settled into an easy routine and watch schedule. All was perfect until around 2:00 p.m. when Kevin looked up from his book and uttered one of his two favorite phrases, "what's that sound?" (in case you are wondering, his other favorite is "what's that smell?"). We quickly identified the sound as coming from the bow and specifically from the spinnaker (our big light air sail). The fabric of the large sail had gotten caught over the bow pulpit and was starting to tear. Not good at all. Kevin rushed forward but not before the bottom two inches of the spinnaker ripped off and began dragging in the water. Sitting in the cockpit, Lizz was sure that the entire sail was going to rip away, leaving us with no means of propulsion (other than the engine) in light air. Fortunately, the "rip stop" fabric of the sail lived up to its name and the damage was contained. We imagine we may have looked a little funny flying our misshapen jagged sail, but since we were all alone in the middle of the ocean, we didn't much care.

Friday, May 9th - Fish Tale

Day two of the spinnaker run. The motion of the boat was so comfortable we started calling it our "magic carpet ride". We were able to hang out below decks, prepare food with ease and miracle of miracles, get some easy sleep whenever we weren't on watch. We were also able to drop multiple lines in the water for fishing. At about 2:00 in the afternoon, the reel on the fishing rod started screaming. The reel has a drag and a ratchet on it, and when a fish strikes the reel lets the line out with resistance, and makes a loud "vvrrzzzzz" sound. The difficult part is that our cheap reel is grossly undersized in terms of resistance and line capacity, and as such we've got a history of losing big fish. Our only hope when we get a strike is to get the boat stopped in a hurry and start fighting the fish before he empties the reel of line and swims off with an oh-so-unfashionable necktie consisting of an expensive lure and 300 feet of fishing line. Stopping the boat when sailing downwind with our behemoth of a spinnaker set isn't easy, but with the three of us working together we managed it just in time. Kyle fought the fish in, Kevin gaffed it (a gaff is essentially a VERY large fish hook on the end of a 4' handle), and aboard comes a 25lb spearfish - our biggest fish yet! Less than an hour later we were enjoying sushi in the cockpit, gliding along the open ocean under the spinnaker as the sun set in the west and the moon rose in the east.

Saturday, May 10th - Here's to Swimn'

Saturday brought a continued 5-10 knots of air and we continued sailing under the spinnaker. We were thrilled with the motion of the boat and the progress we were making, but less excited about the heat. Since we were moving exactly with the wind, we basically had no breeze and everyone pretty much spent the day lounging around and avoiding the sun. As the day wore on, the smooth, glassy ocean started to look too cool and refreshing to resist. About 5PM we decided to take a dip in the ocean. We snuffed the spinnaker, brought the boat to a standstill, and into the water we went. Nothing that we could write would convey just how incredibly cool it is to swim in 15,000 feet of clear blue ocean water. The water is so blue it looks fake, like a blue version of the green screen they use in television. The water has a depth and clarity that are unimaginable. We dropped a penny, and you could still see it 60 seconds later as it tumbled down into the abyss. From below Cielo looked like she was floating in air. It was absolutely incredible, definitely one of the coolest experiences of our lives.

Sunday, May 11th - Calm Before the Storm

By Sunday our wind had was no longer from right behind us, so we dropped the spinnaker and began motor-sailing in light air. Since we were listening to the weather reports daily over the SSB, we had at least some notion that Sunday would be the last day of totally settled weather for the trip. As such, we decided to take full advantage. We enjoyed a nearly perfect day of smooth motor sailing, sunbathing, took another fabulous swim in the ocean, and grilled our freshly caught fish for a dinner of fish tacos. As we enjoyed a glorious sunset over our grilled dinner and a cold beer, Kyle joked that in the movies, the perfection of our day would have foreshadowed disaster to come. "It was the last time they'd see the sun..." he intoned in an overly dramatic narrator's voice. Pretty much, he was dead on.

Monday, May 12th-Barf-o-Rama

"What a difference a day makes"....this phrase was the title of Kyle's first guest blog and the first words Lizz uttered to him as she climbed into the cockpit on Monday morning to relieve him from watch. The flat seas and light winds from the previous day had been replaced by wind of about 25 knots and a steadily building sea. Kevin and Lizz were used to this weather and the rocking motion of the boat that came with it, but Kyle, not so much. By 9:00 a.m. he'd already barfed a few times and was looking increasingly green. He quickly agreed to apply the scopalamine patch that he'd turned down for the first few days of the trip and after a few more leans over the side and a long nap, he began to feel better. Unfortunately, the wind and waves continued to build, making the motion on Cielo less and less comfortable. In addition, we were taking heavy spray into the cockpit and occasionally, into the boat. We switched out our bathing suits for foul weather gear and braced for what was to come.

Tuesday, May 13th - The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Had we known how crappy Tuesday was going to be, we would have appreciated Monday more. Our Monday morning weather forecast had called for significant moderation by Tuesday. Instead Tuesday's sunrise shed light on our first gale, with 30 to 35+ knots of wind and 15+ foot seas. Yep, you read that correctly. The wind continued to back from the west around to the north, forcing us to sail north and east, AWAY from our goal. Adding insult to injury, the seas were from the North-Northeast, and so we were pounding directly into them. Unfortunately tacking would send us to the southwest, even further from our goal, so we needed to hang on to this tack as long as possible. At about 9AM, with Kevin on watch and Kyle and Lizz napping below, things started to get out of hand. A series of particularly large seas and strong gusts culminated with Cielo plunging her bow through the face of an exceedingly steep wave. Twelve inches of green water washed over Cielo's decks from stem to stern, gallons of which found their way below decks, including about three gallons that landed on Lizz's head as she slept on the settee. Lizz came bursting topside, dazed and drenched, to find Kevin furiously trying to reef the sails down further and come about to the opposite tack. In the process of tacking, we damaged the staysail cover and the furling line for the genoa, (temporarily) which left us with a significantly reduced sail plan. We would spend the next 24 hours sailing slowly and uncomfortably, and in largely the wrong direction.

Wednesday, May 14th - Moderation

By Wednesday, the wind and seas finally began to m
oderate. Cielo was again moving fast, but with the wind still out of the North, she was still heading North-Northwest. The weather forecast for the next few days was starting to solidify, and it wasn't looking good. Two more low pressure systems were going to move off the US east coast in quick succession, both packing gale force winds. The second one was what really concerned us however. It would bring strong gale force winds out of the north on Friday night, around the time we would be rounding Cape Hatteras, landing us right in the middle of something called a "North Wall Event"***. Our only option was to sail hard and fast for the Gulf Stream and divert into Beaufort, NC before the storm. Under the best of conditions we would have a margin for error of just hours. Unfortunately, we were not forecast to get anything remotely resembling the best of conditions. By nightfall our wind was supposed to die completely for a 24 hour period, then build rapidly to gale force from the Southwest. By 11PM Wednesday, we were motoring into adverse current, desperately looking for the Gulf Stream.

Thursday, May 15th - A Little Reprieve, and a Really Big Fish. No, Seriously.

Once again, what a difference a day makes! By Thursday morning the sea was glassy and calm, and there wasn't a breath of air. Motor time! With an eye on both the clock and the fuel gauge, we motored on in continued search of the Gulf Stream. Unfortunately we couldn't seem to buy favorable current, and it appeared we were stuck in one of the eddys that runs counter to the Gulf Stream. We thought we could still make it to Beaufort, but it was going to be tight. About 10AM, Kyle yelled something from up in the cockpit. "FISH! FISH ON!" Kevin had dropped the fishing line in the water at daybreak, and the drag on the reel was screaming under the load of something big. Kyle got the boat stopped quickly and Kevin grabbed the rod. Thirty minutes of exhausting fighting later, we finally brought another spearfish alongside the boat. This one was a monster. Somewhere between 60 and 80 lbs, we had to use a spare halyard to lift him aboard. It took Kyle and Kevin three grueling hours to clean and steak him.

Friday, May 16th - Shots Across the Bow & Can't This Thing Go Any Faster?

About 1AM Friday morning the wind began to fill in from the Southwest, as forecast.
Twenty-five knots quickly became 35, and we'd finally hit the Gulf Stream to boot. Good thing too, because we needed to average a record (for us) 7.75 knots over the next 12 hours to make it into Beaufort before dark. If we failed it would mean spending a night hove-to, riding out a nasty gale within striking distance of land, but helpless to do anything about it. In short order the seas built to catch up with the 35+ knots of wind, and we were flying along at 8+ knots through the water with a double reefed main and just a scrap of headsail flying. As we caught one wave just right you could feel Cielo accelerate as she surfed down its side and the SOG (speed over ground) jumped up to 15.2 knots!! At about 7:15AM, as Kevin was listening to the weather forecast, the VHF crackled to life, "This is US Navy Warship 72 conducting live fire exercises in the vicinity of...[coordinates]...request all vessels maintain minimum 12 nautical mile clearance." Kevin was focused solely on the weather and didn't digest the coordinates, but Lizz uttered "Crap..." from the cockpit. US Navy Warship 72 and their live fire exercise were directly in our path, and we were already six nautical miles inside the 12 mile exclusion zone. What's more, diverting around them would have added 20+ nautical miles to our trip, and would have meant there was no way we would make it into Beaufort before dark. Kevin got on the VHF and hailed US Navy Warship 72, the USS Vella Gulf, a 567 foot long Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser.

Kevin: "US Navy Warship 72, this is the sailing vessel Cielo, we are approximately 6 nautical miles SSE of your position. Please advise. Over."

Warship 72: "Roger, Captain. Request you continue SSE rapidly and expand your distance to 12 nautical miles."

Kevin: "Sir, we are headed NNW, to Beaufort, not SSE. Over."

Warship 72: "Request you head due East and expand your distance to 12 nautical miles immediately, Captain."

Kevin: "[pause]. Negative, sir. We have a crew member aboard who needs medication. We can not divert. What is your minimum safe clearance distance? Over."

Warship 72: "Three nautical miles, Captian. Any less than that puts you right in the danger zone."

By this point, we were 2.25 nautical miles away and closing fast. We gybed over to the other tack to give at least some clearance distance. Suddenly, a fighter jet screamed overhead at low altitude. Within five seconds, we heard a slow, growing whistle coming from above us. Lizz looked up to see a bright red bomb hurtling through the sky, close enough that she could make out the fins on the tail. Apparently it was just a drone that they were using for target practice. There was no explosion, and we never saw it hit the water, but it sure scared the hell out of us. Explosives or no, it would have been a decidedly bad thing for a several hundred pound drone to have hit us at a few hundred miles per hour. Immediately thereafter, Warship 72 started moving towards us at 30+ knots, and gave us a friendly escort until we were clear of the danger zone. We were very grateful.

At 6:15PM that evening, we entered Beaufort Inlet. By 7PM Cielo was settled into a slip at a marina for the first time in months, and her crew was headed off to the nearest bar. Kevin hadn't lied about the crew member who required medication. Kyle was in desperate need of a beer.

***North Wall Event -
The Gulf Stream is about 50-75 miles wide, moves at up to 4 miles per hour, and can be 10-20 degrees warmer than the surrounding water. Just north of Cape Hatteras the Stream takes a sharp turn to the Northeast. The northern edge or "wall" of the Stream is very clearly defined in this area (see picture at right) and the warm, fast, northerly flowing Stream is separated by as little as a quarter mile from the cool, still waters of of the North Atlantic. As low pressure systems move off the US east coast they frequently create gale and storm conditions. In the western half of these systems the wind and seas flow from north to south. When these south moving winds and seas hit the warm, north flowing Gulf Stream it creates incredibly steep, nasty seas and extremely aggravated weather conditions. This is a big part of what makes the area off of Hatteras and the Outer Banks the "Graveyard of the Atlantic".


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