Rounding Cape Fear

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of the worst storm I have ever been caught in. Off the coast of South Carolina Ryan and I hit a strom that would test us for 36hours, a journey that would take four days. This is what I wrote in my log book and emailed home to friends and family the following day.

Nov 22, 2007

We left Beauford mid-day Wednesday with the sun shining and our spirits up, happy to be back on the open sea and out of the long, slow, winding intracoastal. We set the rod with my brand new “spoon” lure which literally looked just like a spoon and a substantial hook. They told us it could catch anything; tuna, mahi mahi, or even shark.

We were sailing along nicely heading off shore, because the wind was coming straight from where we wanted to go, with the engine off, both our sails up, traveling at about 5.5 knots, with auto 4000 at the helm. Happily, Ryan and I were reading, eating and enjoying the occasional dolphin who decided to come up and say hello. When all of a sudden we both jumped up to see the rod bouncing around, to my excitement I thought we had our first fish, wrong. The rod had some how snapped up and was now being chewed up by our wind generator ("wind generator" or turbine, used to charge the boat batteries). I pulled the rod down and reeled it in, that was it for the spoon today. Little did we know that this was only the first and most insignificant of things to break on our rounding of Cape Fear.

As night fell the winds picked up to 15 knots and a substantial swell rolled in. We climbed on deck to put the first reef in the main (“Reef” to tie part of the sail down to de-power). We started up our four hour watch cycle so we could get some sleep. Around 2 am the wind really started blowing, even with the reefed main the boat was still over powered. We furled (“Furl” same idea as reef but rolling) away part of the jib which was sufficient until about 7am when the nice sail took a turn for the worst. Winds picked up to 30 knots gusting 35 according to the VHF forecast. I woke Ryan up for his watch then jumped on deck to put a second reef in the main as well as furled the jib in even further.

At this point sleep was hard to come by, with the substantial heel and massive up and down climbing of the boat over the mountains of water. The waves were higher than the spreaders and now started breaking, filling the cockpit with white water soaking everything. Auto 4000 could no longer handle the monstrous waves and we had to hand steer, soon after the auto 4000 died completely this did not allow us to ever leave the wheel, making this much more strenuous.

The wind started shifting to the North West bringing in a nasty cold front, temperatures became unbearable. The Salus 1800 suits were mandatory with sweaters gloves and toques. After eight hours of struggling on a starboard tack approximately 100 miles off shore we decided to tack over and head closer to shore where we hoped the waves would die down. During the tack disaster struck, a huge gust came and ripped the jib sail through the middle. We were forced to furl it in all the way, leaving us with only the reefed main, making the boat extremely difficult to handle in the enormous waves. The winds kept building. All of a sudden everything seemed to die completely and then all I saw was white. The first of three squalls hit. The squalls were filled with what felt to be bullets of hail which made us have to look away from the waves and drive blind.

During the second squall after we thought nothing else could go wrong. I yelled “RYAN, RYAN” to wake him up. Our trusty wind generator had been ripped off the back of the boat and was now being dragged by its wires. The wires were severed shooting electric current down the shaft and as we tried to pull it back in, we would get a vicious zap. Eventually we muscled it back on board and put it down below in the mess of all the stuff falling off the shelves and don’t get me started on the leaks.

We decided to pull down the main entirely to prevent it from ripping as well and started up the engine. With no sails up the boat became extremely unstable and sleep was now impossible, falling from on side of the berth to the other.

Even with the engine at full steam we were hardly moving, trying to fight the now constant 35+ knot breeze. These winds held up for over 36 hours.

Finally, Friday midmorning the sea started settling. Eventually the sun poked its self out from the clouds, a few birds flew over to give us company and we could finally get some rest. We hadn’t eaten properly since the storm started only a few granola bars and a box of Oreos. I whipped up a batch of spaghetti on the still very rocky boat, it tasted awesome. Then calls were made on the sat phone to home and Anika, mildly telling them how we were and what we had just conquered.

We pulled up the main again and hoisted a small spare storm jib, which yes, we should have had up during the storm. We decided to head for Savannah Georgia where we could fix up the boat. We motor sailed the rest of the day and night until we noticed our diesel gage was empty. We must have used a lot more fuel fighting the storm than expected. There was still 30 miles to go. We shut her down to save what fuel we had left for docking. The wind had now died to virtually nothing and without the genoa jib our speed was a measly 1.5 knots and fighting the Gulf Stream. We changed plans again deciding we just needed to get to the nearest marina, which was still 20 miles away, at 1.5 knots that was still 13 hours of sailing.

We kept good moral and slowly crept into Hilton Head. We took a direct coordinate to the channel. When we saw land and what we thought was the channel we set a close haul course directly to it. Where we were headed was actually a false channel and the real one was 10 miles directly into the wind. When we found the proper (paper) chart and plotted our location we realized there was an extremely shallow shoal ranging from 6ft to a half a foot of water and protruding 5 miles off shore directly in our way. From where we were located to go around the shoal could have added a good five hours putting us well into nightfall, meaning we would have to navigate the channel in the dark. After studying the chart thoroughly, we found a really narrow unmarked area that showed to be 6ft deep through. There was no choice, we had to try. We sailed as close to the shoal as possible then decided to start the engine to pass through the most critical part. With me on the helm and Ryan yelling compass bearings from the Nav station down below (using a simple handheld gps which only provided longitude and latitude), we managed to get through at some points only having 4ft of water. This was the most stressful part of the trip. Being stuck on a shoal over night in the ocean could be catastrophic. Later the dock master said we were crazy and that he has never known a boat to go over the shoal.

Once in the channel we still had 6 miles to go and the sun was falling rapidly. Now inland the wind died completely and the boat completely stopped moving. We drifted until dark. There was no choice but to use the last of the diesel.

In the dark narrow channel there was little room for error. The tale ends with us swaying off course, running aground and getting hard stuck in the mud. With no diesel to pull us out, only 100 yards away from the marina we called it a night at least we were safe and out of the channel and in calm water.

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