Part 1: Smooth sailing (Oriental, NC)
Sailing North Carolina is getting better by the day. When we leave Oriental, it is 70 degrees and sunny, the wind is calm, I am wearing a t-shirt, and dolphins are swimming alongside Hideaway as we make our way towards Beaufort, North Carolina. This is finally starting to shape up to the kind of trip I imagined when we first decided to set sail for the Bahamas.
It looks like we’ve finally turned a corner with the weather and our grueling sailing schedule, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be putting on my sunglasses (rather than a hat and gloves) to head out onto the Neuse River.
As we unfurl our sails in the warm breeze, I am grinning, the cats are purring, the dolphins are frolicking and the boat is humming. In a word, this is perfect.
Part 2: Cruisers everywhere! (Beaufort, NC)
Turning up in Taylor Creek to see 20-30 other boats anchored is like turning up to a high school reunion – we keep pointing at boats we recognize, trying to recall the last time we crossed paths. A woman shouts from her cockpit, “Hey, Hideaway!” as we cruise by, as though she recognizes us from somewhere, too.
The town of Beaufort looks quaint and southern, with white picket fences and sprawling front porches lined with rocking chairs. The main street is only about 800 meters long, so the houses seem outnumbered by the boats in the harbor, which is probably what makes Beaufort such a popular cruising stop – it’s small, unpretentious and cute. And it’s welcoming to cruisers.
Motoring through the crowded creek, it is hard to concentrate on steering when I’m distracted by the dolphins swimming in the channel to my left, wild ponies grazing on an island to my right, and a reproduction pirate ship leaving the creek (apparently Beaufort hosts an annual Pirate Festival). I point excitedly to my left, then my right, and shout for Ryan to look at the wildlife while trying to maneuver through the crowded harbor without hitting anything.
The sun is still shining at 3:30 pm when we pull in (a new record arrival time for us). Ryan is pointing towards another Catalina 34, which has a wide open space beside it, roomy enough for us to drop anchor in. I am excited to see another Catalina, so I am visually cataloging all the similarities to our boat, including the cat lounging on deck, when a skinny, sun-tanned woman rushes up into the cockpit and yells something indecipherable at us in a southern drawl.
“How’s it going?” Ryan says to the Catalina lady, smiling and ignoring her unfriendly tone.
“There ain’t no room in hee-yer,” she says. “It’s awful tight and there’s a lotta boats.” She was standing defensively with one hand on her hip, the other holding a spatula.
“There’s plenty of room over here,” says Ryan, pointing to the empty space next to the Catalina.
“There’s a noreaster blowin’ in about 25 knots tonight so these boats’ll be swingin’ round,” she says. “There ain’t no room.”
“We’re not supposed to get 25 knots until tomorrow night,” Ryan says.
“Suit yerself, but this ain’t a good spot,” the Catalina lady says again.
“How long have you been here?” asks Ryan, which I know is his subtle way of asking, “Where do you get off telling people where they can and can’t anchor?”
“That explains it,” Ryan mumbles under his breath. “You have a nice day now,” he says loudly, which in Ryan-speak is polite for “screw you.”
I could tell he was considering for a moment dropping anchor next to the Catalina lady, just on principal, but instead we moved on towards the back of the creek, where we happily drop anchor next to a boat who doesn’t mind having neighbors.
Then, not even five minutes after we cut the engine, I hear Ryan yell, “No WAY!”
I pop my head up to see who else is giving Ryan a hard time, and see a catamaran with the distinctive name “Oz” on the side. Unbelievably, Oz is our old mooring neighbor in Port Washington, New York. What are the chances?!
And as if running into Oz again isn’t enough excitement for us, I get a Facebook message from Jessica on Serendipity, who writes the blog MJ Sailing, and who I’ve never met before, saying “Hey, I think you just anchored right behind us!”
The next thing I know, we are on Serendipity, hanging out with a gang of young cruising couples, drinking wine, trading disaster stories, and trying to come up with a collective plan for getting to Charleston, South Carolina. We all agree it is way too cold to linger in North Carolina any longer.
The weather forecast shows a lethargic 5 knots of wind in the morning, and so we decide to take the “outside” route (the Atlantic Ocean, rather than the longer, more protected “inside” ICW route) to Masonboro the next day.
Part 3: Bad idea (Atlantic Ocean – Masonboro, NC)
Someone should really advertise ocean sailing as the “secret to weight loss” in the backs of women’s magazines because I swear to you there is nothing you want to eat when you’re on a boat pitching from side to side in 25-knot winds and 6-foot swells.
It wasn’t some hair-brained idea to go out to the Atlantic Ocean, forgoing the protection of the ICW to get to Charleston. I assure you we studied our weather charts carefully the night before and worked out this route would be faster and more pleasant. The winds were forecasted to be 5-15 knots from the north, so they would be behind us, making for a smooth, if not boring ride. Or so we thought.
By about 11 am, the winds have crept from 15 knots up to a gusty 25 knots and it starts raining. Which means it is freezing cold, as well as windy. So we put out more sail and cut the engine, hoping to gain some speed, conserve our fuel and get out of the rain.
But by 12 pm, with the wind gusting up to 31 knots, the boat takes on a rolling, wave-surfing pitch that has Celia throwing up and cowering on a bathroom shelf, leaving Ryan and I feeling nauseous, cold and miserable.
Actually, that’s how I feel. Ryan, on the other hand, says he feels “alive.” Although I noticed “feeling alive” doesn’t make him any less enthusiastic to leave the helm when his watch is up.
If there is one thing I am grateful for, it is having an auto-helm to steer in these conditions while I ball up my hands inside my mittens and count the minutes until Ryan takes over.
Huh. The auto-helm appears to have died. There is a lot of beeping and a flashing message saying “drive stopped.” I think, like me, the auto-helm has just had enough. It refuses to hold its course in heavy gusts, and so Ryan and I spend the next 6 hours taking turns at the wheel, steering by hand until our shoulders are sore.
Trying to hand steer with gusts of 30 knots blowing over your starboard side feels a bit like trying to steer a car in a straight line while a battering ram drives into the right side of your car every 10 seconds. I force the wheel to the right, pushing against the force with all my might until it subsides and I can relax. Then I brace myself to fight it again in another 10 seconds. Then another. And I repeat the process for 6 long hours, rhythmically straining against the pull of the boat.
I keep thinking about the single-handed sailors of old legends, crossing oceans without auto-helms and I wonder how they survived.
And to top the day off, by the time we reach Masonboro Inlet, it is pitch black. So, we have the added challenge of maneuvering between the unlit channel markers in the dark, trying not to hit them while we bounce around in the waves. Ryan’s job is to scan the horizon with a flashlight while I stare out at the black water, feeling like I’ve gone partially blind. I can’t tell if the lights I see up ahead are 10 feet away or a mile away, which has me terrified of the things I can’t see and skeptical of my digital chart plotter.
Thankfully, we reach safety in the form of a dock at Seapath Yacht Club, which also offers a hot shower to cleanse our tired spirits. As soon as we are docked, I fold myself into the couch, turn on the propane heater and cease to move or speak. Ryan and I look at each other after a few minutes of silence and laugh one of those thank-god-THAT’S-over laughs, and give each other an exhausted hug.
“How about we take the inside route tomorrow?” says Ryan. I just nod.
In truth, we are feeling pretty proud of ourselves for surviving a grueling journey with our spirits still in tact. In the end, North Carolina doled out one-third sunshine, one-third friendships and one-third stormy weather. And if I had my choice, I’d take the first two-thirds and toss out the last.
But I don’t get to choose what gets thrown our way. Though I’m reassured that we can survive the storms, even if the experience is unpleasant. At the very least, we’ve come away from North Carolina with a little more confidence in ourselves and our boat.
Now, for more of that sunshine…