Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Cape Canaveral, Florida 28º24.51N | 80º37.655W

We're the line going northwest, Great Sale to Cape Canaveral.
You never really know what you're sailing into when you head into the ocean. It's part of the allure. The weather guessers predicted very light winds from the east, clocking to the south and dropping during the night.

As planned, we lifted anchor in Great Sale, Abacos, mid-morning yesterday for a 24-hour crossing to Cape Canaveral. We sailed onto the Bahama Banks under this:

Good omen or bad? Either way, it was lovely.

Counter to predictions, we had a beautiful sail across the Bahama Banks toward Mantanilla Shoal, skimming over smooth turquoise water with a brisk breeze. What's not to love about that? It was northeast wind.

Northeast wind + Gulf Stream = bad. The Gulf Stream flows south to north, so any wind blowing against it kicks up waves.

We sailed safely off of the Bahama Banks into deep water without incident -- and without much swell so far. I made Chip take the 6-9 watch, because, for the first time, this impending darkness with a northeast wind riling the beast ahead filled me with foreboding. Not a we're-all-going-to-die fear but more of that uneasiness you have sitting in the dentist's chair before a root canal, knowing even at it's best, it ain't gonna be that great.

On second thought, the sun setting over the water is so calming.
On we sailed as the wind eased back, clocking more to the east, and the swell increased. I took the helm for my 9 to midnight shift in moonless, inky darkness. The swell was coming on our stern quarter, 4-6 feet with the occasional 8 footer. I could keep our course but not without a swaggering roll that was uncomfortable but just short of miserable. I found songs on the iPod that kept the same beat and worked the roll into my dance step. I had a pretty good dance routine going until I whanged my knee on the wheel. Ouch. At least it was dark, and, as far as I know, nobody was watching.

As the wind clocked around almost behind us, not quite, I tried to cheat it. We had been motorsailing for a while and having any sail up makes the ride smoother, so I had been letting out the main as far as possible to keep some traction in the swell. As the wind dropped, the pressure on the main also lessened, causing it to flop around occasionally when we teetered back and forth in the swell.

When Chip came on watch at midnight I told him I was getting worried we might jibe (where the wind gets behind the sail and bangs it across to the other side), so he rigged up a preventer using sail ties and line. I observed that it would likely give way if we really did jibe, but he said his goal was to slow down the boom to lessen the impact. A proper preventer (a rig that holds the boom in place to prevent accidental jibes) is on the very long list of things we need to do this summer.

So off I went to try to sleep in the wildly rocking cradle of a v-berth, stuffing pillows all around me to keep from flopping around too much, my own preventer. Just as I was drifting off, I felt the boat buck and heard a loud WHAM. I knew what it was. We had jibed.

I ran to the cockpit, and Chip turned over the wheel.

"Point into the wind while I get the preventer off," he said.

So, half asleep, I took the wheel in the pitch black and tried my best to point into the invisible wind and deal with the nasty swell, while Chip was up there in no-man's land on the cabin roof.

Our policy offshore is that anyone leaving the cockpit wears an offshore lifejacket with a leash tied off in the cockpit. While that is theoretically comforting, the reality is less so. All I could think about was if he went overboard, how I would reel him back in while keeping the boat stable.

Mid-thought the wind caught the sail and whammed it across the boat again, flying over Chip's head as he went spread eagle on the cabin roof, hanging onto, well, nothing. I got us stabilized again but couldn't tell if the boom had hit Chip on it's way across or if he had gone down on his own.

It's amazing how terrifyingly long two seconds can seem in the middle of a black, bucking ocean.

He jumped up and came running back to the cockpit.

"Point in again so I can drop the main."

In that moment I was deliriously happy that we had waited for this night to cross the Gulf Stream. Why? Because we took the time to fix the Dutchman flaking system that catches the mainsail as it drops. We had considered leaving the lines off and managing the sail the old fashioned way: Catching miles of billowing canvas, piling it onto the boom by hand and tying it in place with sail ties.

Instead, with the newly repaired system in place, Chip released the halyard, and the main dropped mostly into place, although the lightening wind and the roll of the swell made it messy. He quickly got it under control, and I turned the boat back on our old rolly course.

"That was fun!" Chip said, without a hint of sarcasm.

Well, the other of us didn't think so. We debriefed, and I went below trying to quell the piping adrenaline and get some rest.

Chip fought the swell until my 3 a.m. watch then dropped exhausted onto the cockpit bench while Bill Cosby and David Sedaris entertained me on the iPod.

About 20 minutes later, Chip came shooting up out of sleep yelling, "Squid!"

Of course I thought he was dreaming, even when he started clawing at the neck of his jacket.

"Oh, it's a fish," he said.

I pulled out my flashlight, and sure enough, here's what I saw:

The wayward flying fish that whispered in Chip's ear.
We had been seeing flying squid all day, thus the SQUID alarm, but this was a standard issue flying fish that had haplessly flown into the cockpit, right into sleeping Chip's ear and tried to flop under his collar.

Now who had adrenaline pumping? Both Chip AND the fish. The latter got pitched overboard, the former sent below.

The swell mellowed a little, and David Sedaris and I steered us through to just before dawn without further incident, other than the rush of seeing the knot meter hit an all-time high of 8.9 as the Gulf Stream carried us north. It did make me do a double-take when I first observed the real-life occurrence of set and drift, where the magnetic compass goes at odds with the GPS heading, because the GPS registers our northern flow in the Gulf Stream. The instruments might not have agreed on which way we were heading, but boy, were we getting there f a s t.

Chip took the last watch that brought the sun up behind us and our country before us.

Cape Canaveral ahead.
Just short of 24 hours after leaving Great Sale, we tied up in Cape Canaveral in green, murky water, tired and happy, ready for proper land showers and whatever culture shock might await.

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