Friday, March 29, 2013

Attack of the forty foot…Paris Hilton?

Listening to "Silence Is Golden" by Forro In The Dark

I sit at the dinette table listening to music, lulled by the rocky motion of Paragon and the sounds of Drake making pasta with clam sauce.  It’s cold cold cold outside and, what with the steamy boiling water and the heat from the hydronic heater, the windows have a foggy condensation that obscures the outside.  I take my hand, wipe a swath clear, peak out and see...a forty foot Paris Hilton running her hands through her hair and staring back at me.  

Well kids, we’re not in Oriental anymore.  

The last month was absolute madness.  I felt as though Drake and I were in a little red wagon  careening down the side of a mountain, desperately holding on and unsure of whether we would land triumphantly or crash and burn in a mini fireball.  We had a firm date (heh!) set for departure, crew scheduled, and notice given at the marina all the while looking at a to do list that never seemed to end but, in fact, seemed to expand by the hour.  Systems that had previously worked meticulously (for years!) suddenly gave up the ghost when sensing our demanding schedule and left us scrambling to diagnose and fix eleventh hour problems. 

Finally we reached a point where the things left on the list no longer prevented us from leaving and...

We left.

We left Oriental, North Carolina after several long years of work, sweat, despair, tears, setbacks, breakthroughs, and finally triumph.  

Originally our plan was to leave on the 15th of March which fell on a Friday, but in keeping with superstition we delayed a day and decided instead to leave the next day.  We used that Friday evening to have a gathering to get a chance to say goodbye to some of the amazing people we had met during our stay in Oriental.  Some who came we had known for years - one couple we had met just days earlier - but all had affected our lives in some way.  They came bearing gifts of wine, knowledge, charts, boat cards, well wishes, and good conversation...I have to say that both Drake and I were touched and so pleased to have been a part of this wonderful community.  

Saturday morning dawned clear and chilly, and we pushed off of the dock at Sailcraft Marina for the last time with Adam, the first crew of the trip.  We had met Adam earlier in the year and had been exchanging emails, and the occasional chat over coffee, since our first meeting.  When Drake and I discussed wanting to have crew Adam was one of the first contenders.  With a background in both racing for fun and recreational sailing, he impressed us with his competence, confidence, and personality-wise he seemed as though he would be a good fit.  

A last sunrise over Whittaker Creek

Motoring out of Whittaker Creek we passed the sleepy marinas and began the three day journey up the Intracoastal Waterway to Norfolk, Virginia.  Our first big destination was New York City and the original plan was to head up to Ocracoke, wait for a weather window, jump out of Oregon Inlet, then head offshore straight to New York.  In a perfect world it would take us about three and a half days to get there, but in the event of inclement weather we had several places (Cape May or Atlantic City) where we could tuck in to wait out the storms.  Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy had created such shoaling in the inlet that it was now impassable with the Coast Guard reporting a depth of two feet or less.  

Another option was to motor to Beaufort, NC, await a weather window, and then go around Cape Hatteras before heading North.   Thankfully, due to some good advice and common sense on our part, we decided that route was just not worth the risk.  For those not familiar with this particular area, Cape Hatteras is known as the graveyard of the Atlantic and with good reason.  It is the meeting place for the Mid-Atlantic Bight and the South Atlantic Bight and also where the South flowing Labrador Current and North flowing Gulf Stream collide producing rough seas and dense fog.  Add in the Diamond Shoals, which extend for up 14 miles or more offshore, and the frequency of Nor’easters which scream down the coast with alarming frequency at this time of year and you have a recipe for disaster.  Combining the opposing currents, storms, and potential for rough seas seemed foolish when we still needed to complete shakedown sails on some of Paragon’s systems.  Finding out that a key element didn’t work while motoring/sailing along the ICW could be inconvenient...finding it out off of Cape Hatteras could be deadly.  

So Intracoastal Waterway it was. The first day was a bit of a push since we had to motor almost 65 miles to reach our first anchorage.  Several people had told us that we MUST stop at Coin Jock Marina, but in order to fit that into our time line we had to make some serious miles on the first day.  This was not such a difficult task with three people aboard.  Anyone who has traveled the ICW on their own knows that even simple things like grabbing lunch or going to the bathroom can be difficult...pulling over is not really an option, so things must be coordinated carefully.  Splitting time at the helm between Drake, Adam, and I meant that everyone had a chance to rest, eat, nap, and marvel at the root beer coloured water that was a result of tannins leaching from the surrounding trees.  Drake even had a chance to climb the mast to get a bird’s eye view of our journey.

Drake hanging out on the spreaders

As dusk neared we pulled into a lovely and deserted anchorage.  On the way in we passed two free standing trees on the edge of the little bay and I was delighted to discover that what I assumed were leaves actually turned out to be birds perched on every branch.  Combined with a spectacular sunset it made the first anchorage of our journey magical.

The next day was easier and we reached our desired destination in Coin Jock just as the Marina was closing its doors.  The man working that evening, JD, was even kind enough to wait an extra moment or two to catch our lines as we pulled up to the dock.  Many a cruiser had insisted that we must (MUST!) stop here because, despite its tiny size and remote location, the restaurant had wonderful prime rib.  I have to disagree with them.  It wasn’t was some of the best prime rib I have ever had.  Anywhere.  Should you happen to find yourself within a day or two of this little hamlet I strenuously recommend a detour to enjoy the hospitality and fabulous food.  (Did I mention the complimentary homemade chips they set on the table?  To. Die. For.)

The lovely Coin Jock Marina and Restaurant
(photo courtesy of Adam H.)

Leaving early the next morning we headed on to Norfolk for what we thought would be an easy day.  It was misty and a bit colder with rain showers slowly soaking us, but our spirits were high and the heater down below did a wonderful job of defrosting our wind-chilled cheeks.

The last twenty miles of the ICW just south of Norfolk has quite a few bridges (and one lock) that have to be traversed, but our timing was almost perfect and we arrived at the N&S RR Bascule Bridge #7 (usually open) and the Gilmerton Lift Bridge before its rush hour restrictions.  Throughout the day the Gilmerton Highway Bascule Bridge opens at specific times, but for three hours both in the morning (6:30 - 9:30) and evening (3:30 - 6:30) they are closed for commuting traffic which means if you arrive at 3:45 PM you have an almost three hour wait.    

Pulling within sight of the bridges just past 3 PM, we had already mentally dropped the hook in the anchorage that lay a mere five miles beyond in Portsmouth just across from Norfolk.  Adam had told us about his many problems and delays while dealing with the Gilmerton Bridge, especially with all the recent construction, but that had ended and we felt confident.  

The lift bridge was not the problem this was the railroad bridge.  Noticing it was closed as we approached, we hoped that whatever train was about to cross would hurry up and pass so we could make it through the next bridge before the 3:30 deadline.  When no train approached, and with our window swiftly closing, we talked to the tender at the Gilmerton Bridge who told us the #7 was temporarily out of order but that they were doing all they could to find someone to fix it and he wasn’t really sure what was going on since it wasn’t really his bridge and he really did wish us the best and a very good day to you.  Or something like that.  It was all very nice while being completely noncommittal.  

Thus began our wait.  Three turned into four, then five...and as the six o’clock hour approached with no bridge opening in site we started to seriously look at anchorages in the area.  Sundown was just over an hour away and we didn’t want to be caught circling in the dark.  The one other boat that had been waiting, a giant tug, finally gave up and turned around and we finally conceded that we should do the same.  

Circling as we wait for repairs to be finished
(photo courtesy of Adam H.)

As Drake turned Paragon around our VHF suddenly sprang to life.  

“#7 is opening, #7 is opening!”, the bridge tender shouted, and I am certain he could hear our whoops of excitement all the way from his control room.

Because of the long delays the Gilmerton Bridge tender opened his lift bridge, even though the rush hour restriction was not over, which allowed us to motor through and drop the hook in Portsmouth just as the sun was setting.  

The rosy glow of our first city anchorage

Drake, Adam, and I spent the next day wandering around Norfolk and picking up some extra provisions.  The whole area was remarkably easy to get around using a mixture of their light rail, water taxi, and cabs.  It also felt wonderful to get a chance to walk and explore a new area after being on the boat for several days.

Riding back on the water taxi

Rowing out to Paragon in the anchorage after a lovely day

The next morning, a Wednesday, dawned cool and breezy as we decided on the next move.  We had planned on leaving, but the weather looked a little unpredictable and we wavered; go today or possibly be delayed for almost a week.  

This is the point where we allowed something that should not have come into play affect our decision. 

 A schedule.  

Schedules have no business influencing voyage planning while sailing.  Sure, in the most abstract form they can be considered, but as a friend of mine said, “When I’m sailing you can choose the place or the time, but you can’t choose both.”

Adam had a plane out of JFK in New York on Sunday, so with that in mind we pushed off late Wednesday morning and headed out to sea.  Drake felt that we had a good chance of making some miles before tucking in to Cape May to await better conditions.  The rest of the afternoon went fine as we motored out of Norfolk and then, with sails up, we headed north into the night.  Things rather went downhill from there.

Motoring out of Norfolk
(photo courtesy of Adam H.)

On Thursday winds clocked to the North and increased until they were sustained at 30 knots with gusts up to 38.  Thirty-five miles offshore and unable to make much progress, Drake realized we would never be able to reach Cape May before sundown and decided to hove to.  We remained hove to off and on for the next 36 hours...making progress when we could in the 10-12 foot seas.  

During this time Adam was amazing.  My old nemesis, seasickness, had returned with a vengeance and I was violently ill for several days and unable to do much except wish for a swift and painless death.  He stepped up and attacked every new challenge with a steadfast hand and quiet confidence that was impressive.  In the midst of our sea trial, and with several things not quite working as they should, he kept a sense of humor about things that were beyond our control.  

As winds subsided and, remarkably my seasickness began to dissipate, we realized that we would be able to sail into Atlantic City before sunset.  A new course was set and we motored into the channel with plenty of time to spare.

Anchored in Atlantic City, NJ

Now I sit here at the dinette and, as the boat turns at anchor, occasionally see a giant Paris Hilton splashed on the side of the illuminated high rise casino.  I look around, shake my head, and think, "We're not in Oriental anymore…"