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.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Shipwrecks off Cape Hatteras are legendary. So dangerous is this offshore passage that the Cape was a major factor prompting the federal government in 1808 to begin construction of the Intercoastal Waterway, a dredged inland route for commercial traffic spanning more than a thousand miles along the east coast. Dave and I prefer to sail the ocean and avoid motoring the mostly monotonous parade of second homes peppering the Waterway. But when it came to sailing around the outside of Cape Hatteras, I was chicken.

A little geography lesson will help me make my point. Picture a map of the United States. Moving from south to north, Florida hangs like Caesar’s thumb of condemnation from the bottom. Georgia and South Carolina curl shyly westward in a graciously southern arch. North Carolina juts eastward again, forming a great elbow at Cape Hatteras. There is a second westward scallop curling through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and beyond.

To sail from Virginia to Florida, I--as WILD HAIR’s unofficial navigator--had to understand why boats shipwreck off Cape Hatteras. Unfortunately, our guidebooks were silent on the topic as they routed recreational boaters down the Waterway. Interviews with seasoned sailors were most telling.

Problems around the Cape seem to have a few causes. First, conditions are dangerous when winds blow from the south-west because those winds build powerful waves in a matter of days. Always in sailing, winds are relatively benign until they drive wave action; it is the combination of winds and waves that kills. If we were to experience this condition, we would round the Hatteras landmark and meet south-west winds and waves on the nose. We could literally be driven backward into the shallow shoals of the Cape.

The Gulf Stream—a northbound river within the ocean—further confounds navigation. Think again of the shape of the east coast and you will not be surprised that the Gulf Stream nearly touches both the coast of Florida and Cape Hatteras. Scooting around the point of Hatteras is like threading a needle between the shallow shoals and a river moving four to five knots in the wrong direction. With WILD HAIR's top hull speed of eight knots, the river current is something we could not ignore.

Finally, a local magnetic disturbance—a planetary phenomenon—is charted in the area. Compasses are known to be an astonishing 11 degrees off. Today, however, the danger of an inaccurate compass can be mitigated by GPS feedback.

Knowing all this I became fearless.

I watched the weather and picked a departure day when the winds were solidly from the north. After charting our route, I calculated a departure time that would put us off Cape Hatteras at 7:00 am, giving us plenty of daylight to deal with anything unexpected that might arise. I studied current satellite images of the Gulf Stream and determined that we’d have a distance of roughly eight miles from the shore before entanglement with the river’s fastest moving outer edge. Plus, none of the Gulf Stream’s notorious swirling eddies were in our path. Finally, we confirmed that our GPS was functioning on the chart plotter, and put fresh batteries in our backup handheld GPS unit. All these tasks were performed under the watchful partnership of my husband, Captain Dave.

In the end, our navigation around Cape Hatteras was—happily—uneventful. The overall experience was confidence-building and far more interesting that motoring inland channels.

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