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rounding cape hatteras ~ a sailor’s fear (part two)

Posted by on October 28, 2012

October 12 – 14, 2012

~Part Two~

After our near run-in with the monstrous, orange car carrier freighter, we didn’t relax until we were well away from the Chesapeake Bay shipping lanes. Once we were sure all was good again, we turned our focus to sail adjustments. The wind was strengthening to 30 knots, so we needed to reduce sails for the night. Our sail combination of choice was a double-reefed main and a half-furled jib. Once the helm felt good in my hands, Wil went below for his off-watch snooze.

Having anticipated temperatures falling into the low forties (F) for the night (not including wind chill), I was bundled up in several layers. From the waist down, I had on a pair of long Johns, a pair of jeans, foul weather bibs, socks, and tennis shoes. My torso wore a long John shirt, a polar fleece, a hooded sweatshirt, the foul weather bibs, and a foul weather jacket. I wore a woolen buff around my neck, pulling it up over my ears, along with a winter hat on my head that was pulled down over my ears. Then, the sweatshirt hood was pulled up over my head, topping it off with the hood from the foul weather jacket. Finally, a pair of gloves on my hands. Now, just imagine how far I had to loosen my safety harness in order to get it on over top of all those layers. I could barely move once all was said and done!

As the night progressed, and as predicted, the wind and waves picked up. Most of the waves were 5 to 7 feet (~2 meters) at our stern, surfing the boat nicely down their faces. However, several times throughout my watch, I would hear a stronger wind gust coming, and about the time it would catch in the sails, the waves grew in height (to ~10 feet), also bringing a much bigger rogue wave from the port side. The white water with each of the bigger waves, reminded me of boogie boarding at the beach. Each rogue wave rocked the boat so quickly from the different angle that I had to brace myself and hang on. I was working so hard just to stand at the helm, I actually began to work up a sweat!

By the time it was Wil’s turn to take the helm at midnight, the weather was beginning to steady itself. The wind and seas became more consistent, and much easier to steer. Wil only had to watch as a tugboat and barge passed on the horizon, as well as look for any flashing buoys.

I dreaded my 4 a.m. watch. I didn’t sleep well in anticipation of rounding Cape Hatteras. Also, it’s a difficult watch to wake up for, not to mention the thought of returning to the cold of the night. Begrudgingly, I pulled on all my winter clothes and safety gear, and packed my snacks for the morning hours. As dreaded as the beginning of this watch is, the end reward is amazing. As my watch progresses, the sky begins to lighten, showing the ocean waves for the first time since nightfall. There’s a sense of relief, knowing I’ll be able to see what’s on nature’s plate. Then comes a most spectacular sunrise, and everything seems peaceful.

The second day of our passage was absolutely gorgeous and fun-filled. As we neared Cape Hatteras, the water color changed to a deep, clear blue, and we could feel the warmth rise off the water. Everything about the water spelled Gulf Stream. We were only about 10 miles offshore, so we were either sailing along the edge of the stream or within an eddy. In fact, for much of the day, we could see the distinct line between the green water and the blue water.

Sailing in the blue water brought great fishing and lots of wildlife sightings. We caught a King Mackerel, as well as a few small Spanish Mackerel and false albacore. We saw five sea turtles swimming near the surface. We think they were Loggerheads, but we’re still trying to find out. About 50 or more Atlantic Spotted Dolphins swam with us for at least a half hour. Not only did they swim at the bows, but also swam along side and behind us. The dolphins stayed with us until we came to the end of the blue water. Our guess is that they prefer the warmer waters filled with fish, and stopped when they reached the colder, green water. A shark (possibly a black tip) was the only wildlife sighting in the green water.

Atlantic Spotted Dolphins swimming at the bow

dolphin watching at the bow

a gorgeous day off Cape Hatteras

The second night at sea was upon us, and the winds and waves were diminishing, just as predicted. Even with the lighter winds (15 to 20 knots), we were still making excellent time. Our calculations had us arriving in the Cape Lookout area between midnight and 2:00 in the morning.

As a rule of thumb, we generally don’t do harbor entrances in the dark. It’s not smart, and it can be dangerous. However, once we rounded Cape Lookout Shoals and had the land protecting us from the northeast winds, we would have calm conditions. At the same time, we’ve spent a lot of time in this area and are quite familiar with Cape Lookout. Therefore, we decided to attempt the entrance.

Entering an anchorage at night is almost like walking blindfolded, especially when it’s pitch black. All we could see was the beam of light from the light house and the red flashing buoys. Using the iPad with Navionics charts and GPS, as well as watching the depth sounder, we were able to line up the buoys, and according to the chart, place us exactly where we needed to be. In the case of an iPad or GPS error, we made sure not to hug the shoreline.

At first, I was barely motoring 2 to 3 knots, unsure about our surroundings. Gradually, as my comfort level grew, and knowing we had 30 feet of water below the keel, I pushed our speed up to 4 to 5 knots. Wil was at my side, and we were both working together to navigate the entrance.

Suddenly, the boat jerked, and jerked again before coming to a stop. The depth sounder’s last reading was 4.7 feet. It was 1 o’clock in the morning, and we had just run aground. Not a good feeling when it’s middle of the night and you can’t see a thing!

Fortunately, by persistently throwing the engines in hard reverse, and by adding a little bit of wiggling back and forth, we were able to work ourselves off the sandbar in under 10 minutes. Not an easy task in the dark when you can’t see if the boat is moving. It’s all done by feel.

Once off the ground, we managed to steer our way around the shoaling, and into Cape Lookout Bight. Since we were coming into the anchorage on a Saturday night / Sunday morning, I suggested to Wil to turn on a spot light. For all we knew, there could be small power boats anchored right in front of us. When he shone the flashlight across the water, an anchored sailboat without a mooring light came into our view. There were also a few other small boats anchored for the night. At that moment, we decided to go no further and drop the anchor right in that very spot. If necessary, we could move the next day.

It was 1:30 a.m., and we were anchored in Cape Lookout, NC. The entire trip from just south of the Potomac River, around Cape Hatteras and to Cape Lookout, had taken us just 38 hours. A most satisfying achievement . . . and it felt good to be warm again!

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