Friday, December 16, 2016

Where have we been?

Dolphins lead us across the Little Bahamas Banks.

In the last post we ended with saying we were at home and Layla was “on the hard” in the boat yard in Beaufort, NC.  Much time has passed since that post – we need to catch up.  Despite our lapse in posting, we want to re-assure y’all that we and Layla are doing just fine.

We re-cap here the last of the sailing adventure from the Bahamas to Beaufort.

Crossing from Bahamas to St. Augustine, FL

As many of the other cruisers, we also decided it was time to leave the Bahamas.  Hurricane season was upon us, and for us, the safety of the boat yard in NC seemed to be the best idea - despite the required long travel north.  That plan would prove to be a very good plan as we would discover weeks later as we watched Hurricane Matthew churn up the Bahamas, and the US east coast.

We were pleased to be joined by Robyn and Tony on Alleycat Too on this passage.  We departed the Abacos, passed over the Little Bahama Banks, and crossed from Memory Rock on a 260 mile, 3 day/2 night passage to St. Augustine.  It was comforting to have a “buddy” boat with a working AIS to alert us to boat traffic.  We had a wonderful trip motor/sailing most of the way, with clear nights highlighted by hourly check-in on the VHF radio with Alleycat Too.

 "Buddy boat" crew for the passage from Bahamas to St. Augustine:  Tracy and Bud with their South African friends, Robyn and Tony from Alleycat Too.

Several bands of rain greeted us on the Little Bahamas Banks. 

We took 2-hour watches at the helm for much of the passage.  Our autopilot, our third crew member, performed effortlessly, requiring few small adjustments to the course.  We were free from the prison of the wheel, allowing us to watch for other vessels, and gaze at the stars and the sleeping mate in the cockpit.  We could wander about in thoughts about sailing, oceans, travel, life, and endless paths for us to follow next.  When not on watch, we fished, watched for dolphins, made snacks for the mate on watch, or continued our daydreaming.  It didn’t take long before the exhaustion of watches caught up with us.  After the first night when we weren’t on watch, we spent most of our free time napping in the cockpit. 

Sunset over the open sea signaled the beginning of night watches.

Sleep was our treasured time when relieved of being on watch.

We chose the departure primarily based on the weather forecast.  Weather reports are notorious for being undependable, particularly about the wind - both speed and direction.  We put in our request to the sailing gods for 10-15 knot southeast/southwest winds to give us a nice push north to sail into the Gulf Stream.  While the weather report granted our wishes, we actually received shifting winds, primarily from the north, with south to southeast swells.  We endured hours of irritating rolling with insufficient wind for sailing.  We kept the sails up to help maintain more comfortable motion with the seas.

Seas were calm but the swells across Layla’s stern kept us rolling most of the way.

We were thrilled to see once again the wonders of the Gulf Stream - our increased speed, the deep cobalt water, and the little explosions of flying fish leaping above the waves and scattering before the bow.

We arrived in St. Augustine mid-day on a rising tide.  We grabbed a mooring ball at the St. Augustine Marina, put the dinghy in the water, and joined Tony and Robyn for the required “passage celebratory” rum and coke. We returned to Layla to sleep, and later, to find a big juicy hamburger for dinner. 

Customs and Immigration were our first tasks after arriving in St. Augustine.   There is no other way to express our experience - customs and immigration darkened our very souls.  We expected difficult entries in visiting 2nd and 3rd world countries, but never expected it from our own country.  The process was made more difficult by the fact that St. Augustine is not a primary port of entry.  Although there is a customs officer at the local airport who can clear arrivals into the country, he was on vacation when we arrived.  Our first call to Customs and Immigration did not go well.  We were scolded as if we were toddlers because we did not call immediately when we moored the boat.  We called back later to clarify our options and this time we connected with the exceptionally kind and helpful Officer Mother Teresa.  It sometimes just depends on who you get to answer your call.  We also assisted Robyn and Tony with their visas which involved hours of travel by rental car to/from the main office in Jacksonville, endless paperwork, serious interviews, and “yada, yada yada” it all got resolved days later when the agent returned from vacation. 

We thoroughly enjoyed St. Augustine mainly because of our growing extended family of South African ex-pats.  From more catamarans we met Alison and Andre, and Bret and Gideon.  We shared dinners, sundowners, stories, as well as, assisted in boat projects and more visa paperwork.  Two weeks flew by and then it was time once again for tearful goodbyes.   

St. Augustine, FL to Charleston, SC on the Outside

We decided to go on the “outside” to Charleston.  The weather said to go now – 3 days and 2 nights.  We were going solo.  On the morning of our departure, we almost did not make it out of the harbor.  We called the “Bridge of Lions” bridge operator on the VHF radio to request an opening.  We saw ahead of us that two other sailboats were waiting.  After the first boat passed through the bridge, we moved behind second boat in line for the bridge.  The second sailboat passed under the raised spans, but as we approached the bridge we saw the spans beginning to come down.  We were stunned.  Bud grabbed the VHF and called the bridge. 

“Bridge of Lions, this is Layla, the third sailboat going through the bridge.  Are you closing the bridge?  We are underway.  Do you want us to stop?” 

His reply, “Oh, I’m sorry.  I have stopped the bridge closing.  I’m holding it open for you.  You may continue through.  Only two vessels requested an opening and I saw two go through.  I’m sorry.” 

We took a deep breath and lined up to maneuver through the partially open spans.

“Have a good day Captain”, said the bridge operator when we made it to the other side. 

Bridge of Lions looks like this when open. Picture the spans much, much closer when the operator partially closed the bridge as we approached. 
The beautiful morning helped us shake off the “near miss”.  The next three days and two nights were among our finest hours aboard Layla.  For about 36-40 hours we had only the wonderful sound of the sea against the hull, and the breeze in the rigging as we sailed through the day and night without the engine.  While we were in the Gulf Stream, we put out a couple of fishing lines, and caught and released a beautiful mahi mahi.  We entered Charleston soon after sunrise and anchored in the familiar anchorage off of the City Docks and treated ourselves to eggs benedict on crabcakes at the Marina Variety Store Restaurant. 

Beautiful mahi mahi caught and released in the "stream" - Too much effort to clean it and the decks this time. 

Spotted dolphins joined us in the Gulf Stream from St. Augustine to Charleston.

We met up with an old friend, David Knott, to share a beer and savory duck-fat fries at the Tattooed Moose.  We then started watching the weather to plan our departure.  We did not see any reasonable weather windows for our passage north to Beaufort over the next week or more.  We did not like our options.  We could wait to see if the weather would improve, or we could just suck it up and face the challenges of slow day travel, shoaling, possible groundings, and obnoxious boat traffic offered by the intracoastal waterway (ICW).

Tiny sailors in tiny boats from the Charleston Sailing Club sailed through the anchorage nearly every day.

Charleston, SC to Beaufort, NC on the Inside

Most of our misgivings related to this route on the ICW were fulfilled.  We planned our days according to the tides as we aimed to avoid the shoaling, while heeding the warnings provided by the social network on “Active Captain”.  We still went aground several times, with two of those grounding requiring professional tows assistance.  Fortunately, the TowBoat captains were capable, professional and gracious.  To help with our bruised egos, they offered, “Great boat.  It’s OK. With that draft, it was inevitable.” 

Our friendly TowBoat captain to the rescue. Santa Claus lives in NC during the summer.

The stresses of the ICW compelled us to be focused on simply the process to get us back to Beaufort rather than to be connected with the environment around us.  However, at the end of the day after we anchored, we did find solitude that reminded us why we love this lifestyle.

Dusk at one of our favorite anchorages on the ICW on Thoroughfare Creek.

Dusk at our anchorage in Milliken Cove near Calabash, SC.

Sunset at our anchorage just off of the ICW near Ocean City Beach, NC after being towed off the shoal on the other side of the ICW.

After five days, we were anchored back in downtown Morehead City, just two blocks from our home.  We were excited.  The downtown was exceptionally lively, with several new restaurants that had opened since we had left, now more than 7 months ago.  The proximity of the City Docks to our house made it convenient for offloading a lot of gear over the next two days.  We then took the quick jaunt up the Newport River to the Beaufort Marine Center. Once again, Layla was safe in the boat yard.

Layla coming out of the water at Jarrett Bay.

Layla "on the hard" at the Beaufort Marine Center.

Next postings – Life back on land, Another road trip out west, Hurricane Matthew, and Big decisions on what’s next.

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