Adventures of s/v WILD HAIR


Our land life took on form, solidity, routine. We had mastery of a limited set of skills. We had habitual expectations of others and ourselves. Going sailing, we let go of our attachments to our roles, views, and rituals. We persist because we are growing in this shapeless and dynamic world.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

St Simons, GA to Cape Fear, NC

Someday, I’m going to write a story about St Simons, Georgia. It will speak to the genuine warmth of the people, the Tennessee Williams provocative quality of the air, the complex textures of green, the steal-your-breath expanse of coastal salt marshes, and the comic faces of wildlife coming or going or staying. The area has wrapped itself like a song around my soul and charmed me to the core. Being a NASCAR-loving “red” state, I never expected to hold the place and people so dear. But, despite my fondness for this residence of many months, it was time to go.

Norfolk, Virginia and the promise of the Chesapeake Bay called to us. For Dave, this trip was especially meaningful. With family roots in Suffolk, Dave spent childhood summers running barefoot with a pack of cousins through the backwoods country of Virginia. Dave’s only brother Bill, a man who lost his fight with cancer some years ago, was a sailor, navel architect, dedicated husband, caring father of three girls, and my husband’s personal hero. We visited often throughout the years. Today, our nieces are grown and married; two of the three remain in the Norfolk area with their families. Although we never lived in Virginia, Dave and I were excited to sail home to new waters.

We have found that leaving port is a process. Coming back to the boat after an absence follows a pattern and that pattern will not be rushed. First, we have a day of relaxing into the boat. This is a time where we gear down, start to check the systems and remind ourselves where we left off in things like the quantity of diesel or drinking water. We check-in with friends and settle-up with the marina.

Then is the day of provisioning. This is the day we buy everything we think we need, including food, spare parts, and supplies. The all-day project involves calculating what we expect to use and multiplying by 1.5, buying the items we need at a dozen different stores, and finally stowing everything away into the nooks and crannies of the vessel. To avoid cockroach infestations, all cardboard packaging is removed; I repackaged everything into Ziplock bags. With kitten Dinghy as our newest crew, we added a cat box, litter, kitten chow, and climbing rope to our provision requirements.

Then is the day of readying ourselves and the boat. We study the weather, track local tides, fix what’s broken, mount the radar reflector and the US flag, chart our course, reinstall the canvas bimini and dodger, and confirm the working order of batteries and navigational equipment. This is also the day to fill any depleted water or fuel tanks.

Sometimes this day stretches into two. Or three.

Wanting to build our skills, we elected to take the first leg of the Georgia-Virginia trip from St Simons to Cape Fear as a nonstop offshore passage. The leg would take us three days. Cape Fear too was something of a personal landmark. Cape Fear, North Carolina was where we bought WILD HAIR two years ago. It was the starting line of our retirement adventure. Because we found its “bad-ass” name much more intimidating than “Fitchburg, Wisconsin,” “Cape Fear, NC” is tattooed to WILD HAIR’s hull as our official US Coast Guard port-of-call.

Traveling offshore is grueling hard work and I’ve yet to meet anyone who likes it—especially in the first three days as the body acclimates. We knew we were in for a chore. The doldrums of summer sat atop Georgia with light south to south-west winds, hot and humid 90-plus degree temperatures, and calm two-foot swells. This is typical July weather and not an excuse to delay.

In the final moments of preparation, fellow-sailors and marina neighbors Fort and Michelle arrived to send us off. Graciously armed with gifts of pickle relish I forgot to buy when provisioning, treats for the trip, and a barbeque lunch to take away our immediate hungries, we bid farewell. Tide was at slack. It was time to cast off.

Offshore, Dave and I wear scopolamine patches behind our ears to ward off sea sickness. Although they don’t do 100% of the job, they do okay. With them on we can function. We can eat.

July in Georgia is stifling. Worse, over the course of three un-air-conditioned days we kept all the hatches and portholes closed so that kitten Dinghy couldn’t unknowingly escape. Below decks was beyond uncomfortable. Our small 12-volt fans did little to move the air as we attempted to sleep, jostled in the rolling sea. My mind couldn’t help but wander to the millions of slaves ripped from their families and packed into the bellies of airless, sanitation-absent, ships. The depths of cruelty are without limit.

There is too much shoaling and shipping activity along the coast to simply put the boat on auto-pilot and go to sleep. Our watch schedule worked well as we took turns sailing on 2-hour shifts through the night and 4-hour shifts through the day. I cooked, David cleaned up. Hourly, we logged our latitude and longitude, speed, and course so we’d have something to tell the US Coast Guard should we need them.

It was a bit spooky passing Charleston harbor in the middle of the first night. Container ships arrive and depart at all hours. Spotting them visually and on radar, we managed to adjust our course to keep them several miles at a distance. They move much faster than we do. If WILD HAIR was in their path, they would most certainly sink us!

Unfortunately, we lost our XM Sirius Radio signal. Although this was nonessential equipment whose absence was immaterial to our safety, the navigation equipment was programmed to tell us—by beeping every 30 seconds for 3 days—that the signal was gone.

Sleep-deprivation hallucinations started for me on night two. Several times alone in the dark I saw large whales crossing our bow; I was sure we’d collide. At one point I turned to starboard and saw the heads of hundreds of seals swimming abreast of us in the moonlight. (Seals are not found in these waters.) Later, I distinctly heard a Latino man sneeze just behind the vessel. I recognized each of these hallucinations for what they were as they were happening: harmless and humorous. I reminded myself not to detour from our plan in my current state of exhaustion. My judgment to improvise couldn’t be trusted.

The weather treated us favorably as predicted storm cells passed or disassembled miles away. The wind was fickle at our stern causing the Genoa head sail to snap noisily. To accommodate the winds, we traveled 20 nautical miles off course.

Arriving at the mouth of the Cape Fear River was glorious. The morning was beautiful. Our earliest memories aboard WILD HAIR flooded back as we followed channel markers up river. At South Harbor Village Marina, we plugged into shore power, turned on air conditioning, slept, showered, ate, did laundry, played with Dinghy, plotted our next course, watched TV, and slept some more. Peppered in our conversations was the realization that we were very happy coastal cruisers. Although we could sense our bodies were starting to adjust after three days, perhaps we didn’t need to go offshore for 15 days as part of the Caribbean 1500 Rally just yet. Perhaps coastal cruising one to two days at a time to the Caribbean would make us happiest.

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