Thursday, August 29, 2013

s/v Rhapsody in Blue Delivery, Part 4 (of 4): Bittersweet

The final day of the trip dawned clear, warm, and calm.  The horn for the ferry docked just upstream of us woke us rather abruptly as it made its first departure from the dock at 6:00 AM, and we got underway early.  We headed out to sea with the falling tide giving us a fair-current boost, and turned north toward Georgia and our destination.

There was no wind, the ocean was calm and flat as we motored steadily.  The universe today was a very simple place.  But that calm gave us time for refection.  We had been so busy with the mechanics of getting the boat north, that we hadn’t really thought about what would happen when we got there. For Dan and me, it was a trip, a delivery, a job, and a chance to get to know some interesting people. But at the end of the day when we tied up at the dock, Rhapsody would have a new owner and Melissa would be temporarily homeless.

Dan and I sold our first home, a cute townhouse with an impressive view of Boulder, Colorado’s foothills, to a young woman for whom this would also be a first home.  Admittedly, it looked bleak compared to when she first saw it, now with all our rugs and furniture and artwork gone. She looked at the custom-made inset pantry and talked about bleaching the pine floors we’d installed, and asked how we could stand to part with our home. “But,” we said, “all the important stuff is coming with us.  Our friends, our memories, our pictures, our pets … what we’re leaving behind are just walls.”

“It’s a different kind of sheltering relationship with a boat, though, than with a house,” speculated Donna.  With a house, you somewhat take it for granted, because shelter is its only job.  In contrast, the boat shelters and protects you, but you also protect it.  You learn to understand its messages and needs (“trim my sail a bit, wouldja, it’s too loose and flagging, and I can get more speed from this wind;” “these waves are uncomfortable and if we keep bashing into them something’s gonna break, let’s turn about 15 degrees down and we’ll ride better and get there just as soon”) and that makes the relationship feel symmetrical, almost symbiotic, almost human.  Maybe this is also part of why boats are called “she” and not “it.”

I caught Melissa once or twice patting the mast reassuringly, giving the helm a little hug, and whispering “you’re a good girl” to the boat that had been her home, her teacher and companion in many sailing adventures.  They had grown together and had many good times and some tense ones, but now, like high school graduation, they were going on to new adventures … separately.

And like high school graduation, there was a sense of inevitability about it, and a sense that outgrowing this boat was a marker of success.  Because ultimately, Melissa had learned what she needed to learn from Rhapsody, but this boat was designed to be light and responsive in mild conditions; it wasn’t designed to be big enough or stout enough for her future plans of crossing oceans.

That didn’t make it any less bittersweet when the sea buoy and lighthouse for St Simons’ inlet came into view.  The wind that had been still all day, gently rose enough for one last spirited hour of sailing, Melissa at the helm one last time.  Then we were in the inlet, up the river, and there was the marina. Melissa docked gracefully in the wind and current – she knew this boat.  The broker met us at the dock to take our lines, and it was over.

Bittersweet Finale: Melissa's last sail at the helm of Rhapsody, on the way in to St Simons, GA.  Her new ocean-capable boat is currently getting its final touches at the factory and will be delivered next month.

Marking the End: the lighthouse at the inlet, St Simons, GA

s/v Rhapsody in Blue Delivery, Part 3 (of 4): Storms

Although we had planned a layover day in St Augustine, there was no “resting” involved.  Dan and Melissa hauled 2 carloads of possessions off the boat to her son Justin and daughter-in-law Jenny’s house, Donna and I did a lightning-fast tour of the Plaza, St George Street and Flagler College. That was enough, Donna said, to make her certain she wanted to come back and spend more time in the town.  Careful … that’s what happened to us too.  First time we passed through the town, we stayed for a day.  The second time, we were there for a week.  Then the third time, we stayed for the entire season, and we’re planning on being there at least through the holidays when we make our southward migration this year. (Do you see a trend here?) We brought Melissa’s outboard in for service, topped up the boat’s supply of water, visited Tony and Michelle’s lovely new-to-them historical house and Justin and Jenny’s newly-built house west of town, went out for a nice dinner, and prepared to get underway again early the next morning.  There was just two days’ travel to go.

The forecast was for storms, so we decided to run this leg “inside” on the ICW.  Staying inside gave us many options to tuck in to shelter whenever the sky looked ominous.  But it also meant that we were going to be motoring all day, no sailing in those narrow confines, and one of us would be driving at all times, guided to deep water by following a zigzag series of buoys.  Very different from the freedom of being in the open ocean and letting the autopilot and the sails do the work!

Remember that “boost” we got earlier in the trip, taking advantage of the Gulf Stream current?  Today, that bill came due.  Currents were against us all day, carrying us south as we motored north like going the wrong way on an escalator, robbing us of a knot or more of speed.  But with four of us taking turns driving, the trip was easy and the passing scenery interesting as the clouds continued to build.

By mid-afternoon the sky was ominous and gray and we were looking for a sheltered place to spend the night.  We made arrangements with a small marina a couple of miles ocean-ward of where the ICW crossed the St John’s River near Jacksonville, just an hour or two from where we were.  They also had fuel, which was useful since our slogging progress against the foul current had used more than we’d anticipated for the day.

Then began the heart-thudding race.  If my life were a movie, this is where they’d cue the suspenseful music in the soundtrack.  Melissa’s “marching elephants” were gathering and circling us, the skies were rapidly darkening, and the big boats were headed for the relative safety of open water, where they had room to run from the storm instead of risking being pushed aground.  We could see the safety of the marina we were headed for, barely a mile away, but the currents against us grew stronger and our forward progress slowed even more, like one of those running-in-place nightmares.  The gathering storm wasn’t slowing, though.  It was looking like we were going to get very, very wet.  As if that wasn’t enough adrenaline, the needle on the fuel gage was looking up at the bottom of the “E.”  Would we run out of fuel at any minute and, adrift in a river too deep to anchor and not enough wind to sail, be helpless in the storm?  (We later learned that we had fuel, but the gage was acting glitchy.  Too bad we hadn’t known this at the time.  It would have saved us some stress.  Some, but not all; those skies were scary-dark!  And later we learned just how scary: this was what Melissa called a “level 5” thunderstorm – that’s pilot-speak for really big almost off the charts nasty storm – that dropped 2-4 inches of rain in parts of Jacksonville, and a tornado touched down less than 5 miles from us according to NOAA's summary report of the storm [pdf].

We tied up with the help of two sturdy dockhands just as the first fat drops of rain were falling.  Another drencher like we’d had on the first night, this time with lots of wind as well.  But this time we were all snug and dry and secure.  Bad weather like that is almost fun, seen through a pane of glass. Good food and a fair amount of rum and laughter completed the evening, and if the laughter was a bit shrill with released tension and the impending end of the trip, well, who’s to blame us? [to be continued]

Heading north through the Bridge of Lions on a cloudy day.  Today is the only day of the trip we would be "inside" on the ICW instead of out on the Atlantic.

Gathering clouds in early afternoon.
We had just tied up in the marina near Jacksonville when the thunderstorm hit; here's what that same storm looked like from the anchorage back in St Augustine, about 35 miles away.  (photo by Heather Alsobrook)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

s/v Rhapsody in Blue Delivery, Part 2 (of 4): Company

We had made excellent time so far with the help of the Gulf Stream.  We were ahead of schedule and tired from the previous night's storms, so we opted to come in and anchor for a sound night’s sleep.  Besides, Melissa had had little experience anchoring with tides and currents while Dan and I had a lot; this was a chance to build that skill.  We could pass on our knowledge and reciprocate her help teaching us how to read thunderstorm clouds.

We called TowBoat U.S. for some local knowledge (information and guidance) on the inlet, since none of us had used it before.  Good thing we had -- there were some active dredging operations going on and the scene we saw on the river was very confusing.  Markers had been moved or removed compared to what was on our chart and the the water was scattered with buoys,  barges, and pipes.  The hints from the towboat guy were spot-on, and by following them, it was pretty straightforward coming in, and a short distance to the anchorage we’d selected.  But when we dropped the anchor, instead of swinging to the wind as a boat at anchor would normally do, the boat sat sideways.  Melissa was baffled, and assuming the anchor had failed to set, quickly raised it to try again, with the same result.

Current was to blame.  Water being far denser than air, the current was pushing the boat with far more force than the wind, so the boat was lying to the current, which was uncomfortably for us, exactly crosswise to the wind.  One of Dan’s Navy colleagues once told us that depending on the shape of the boat and the keel, it can take 20 or 30 knots of wind to overcome one knot of current in determining the direction a boat at anchor will point.  This was one of the cool things about the trip – the four of us came from different sailing backgrounds and experiences, yet each one of us taught at least one new thing to each of the others, and learned something from each of the others.  What I love about sailing – easy to learn, but impossible to master.  There’s always something new to challenge and delight you, and room to grow.

Melissa, Donna, and I had all first met online, so it’s not particularly surprising that our evening consisted of some Internet time along with an excellent dinner.  In an amazing coincidence, I checked Facebook only to discover that our friends Tony and Michelle had just crossed the Gulf Stream as they returned  from the Bahamas with their boat A La Mer (“to the sea” in French) … and had come in the same inlet that we had and were tied up no more than a mile from us. Our plans were to spend a day St Augustine where Melissa would offload most of her personal possessions from the boat to store with her son and daughter-in-law who lived there. Tony and Michelle also lived in St Aug and were bringing their boat to a mooring there, so we quickly made plans to sail together the next day.

And that next day was the one that will stand out in my memory as the perfect day on this trip.  We sailed blue water on pleasant breezes, and had company both human and aquatic.  Dolphins played in our bow wave, then hurried over to play with Tony and Michelle.  There were sea turtles, manatees, and (maybe) a distant whale.  We took pictures of A La Mer under sail, and they took pictures of us.  By midafternoon we saw the St Augustine lighthouse on the horizon, and a few hours later we were waiting for the next opening of the familiar drawbridge.  A few hours after that, we were at the familiar (oops, maybe a bit too familiar to us?) alehouse across the street from the marina. [to be continued]

The ligthouse at Ponce de Leon Inlet

A quiet anchorage ... we had it all to ourselves

Our dolphin escorts putting on a show for us (photo by Donna Ferron)

Dolphins bring out the enthusiasm in all of us.  Melissa getting a closeup dolphin photo and video.

Our friends' boat A La Mer, homeward bound.
Waiting to come through the Bridge of Lions

Chillin' out at the end of this part of the journey, at the A1A alehouse across the street from the marina with Heather, Syd, Tony, Michelle, Kristopher, me, Grace, and Dan.  Melissa and Donna stayed at the boat to meet up with her son Justin and his wife.

Monday, August 19, 2013

s/v Rhapsody In Blue Delivery, Part 1 (of 4): Gulf Stream

After the remarkable collection of adventures that was our June, I really needed to just hang out at home for a while and appreciate the Chesapeake.  I announced that I didn’t want to go more than about 25 miles from Annapolis by land or water for a month.  Luckily, it didn’t work out that way for me; a sailing opportunity intervened.

A Florida acquaintance (now friend), Melissa*, had bought a new boat.  Part of the deal involved trading in her present boat.  But the boat was in Key Biscayne, FL and the dealer was in St Simons, GA.  No problem; we’ll sail it there!  Melissa invited Dan and me, and another friend, Donna, to come to Florida and help bring the boat north.

The boat: Rhapsody in Blue is a 2006 Hunter 36.  (Photo by Michelle Bennett and Tony Boldt)

Depending on our route, the trip would be around 400 nautical miles.  We allowed ourselves a week to get there.  That left enough time for weather or other unforeseen circumstances, but still meant we were going to keep up a pretty good pace.  This wasn’t cruising or a sightseeing vacation, getting a boat to a specific place on a schedule – a boat delivery – is a job, although we hoped to have a bit of learning and a bit of fun along the way.

We flew in to Fort Lauderdale late on a Saturday night, and Melissa proved herself to be a wonderful hostess as well as a competent and organized sailor.  The boat was ready to go, and our favorite provisions (as confirmed with lots of back-and-forth emails beforehand) were laid in.  We unpacked and settled in for a few hours of sleep before our planned departure on the morning’s tide.

Captain and owner Melissa

Donna was a weekender whose first overnight trip at sea was this one, but she had Coast Guard background

Dan took a lot of flak for being alone at sea on a boat with three women.
Next morning, we motored out the cut just as planned, and headed out to sea.  Just a few miles out we entered the incredible blue – that blue – of the Gulf Stream.  The plan was to use this strong north-flowing current to our advantage, adding a couple of knots to our boat speed.  There was another reason for staying away from land, as Melissa explained.  This was Florida in the summertime, and thunderstorms are a regular occurrence.  The land soaks up the sun’s energy and heats up, the air rises (convection), and ultimately the energy is released in some epic lightning shows.  But just a few miles out, the water maintains a more constant temperature, and storms are fewer.   That doesn’t mean there were no storms – the Gulf Stream has so much energy it creates its own weather – but the odds were better.  The forecast for this afternoon and evening was about a 40-50 percent chance of storms, but we were hopeful that they would be isolated enough that we could steer around them.  We watched the storms building over land as Melissa, an airline pilot by profession, taught us how to read the storm clouds, which she nicknamed “marching elephants.” Crisply defined ones that look like a head of cauliflower are building dangerously, but if the edges get wispy they’re collapsing and not an immediate concern.  She pointed out examples of both in the distance as the day went on.

You can see the clouds building over Miami, but it's blue skies out in the ocean where we are.

Here is the boost we got from the Gulf Stream: our speed through the water was 6.19 knots (I'm pointing to it); but our speed over ground at the top of the chartplotter is 8.8 knots!

Winds were light, the weather and the company were pleasant, and the miles slid past, with the autopilot doing most of the work.  I drew the 3 AM watch (my favorite, both because that watch includes the opportunity to see beautiful sunrises and the fact that being awake then is in sync with my biorhythms) so I went to bed early.  At about 2 AM I heard the boat creaking and groaning. I didn’t know fiberglass boats could do that, I thought only romantic historical wooden ships creaked and groaned, in novels and movies.  There was precisely zero chance I would fall back asleep with that, so I grabbed my foul-weather jacket and went to the cockpit, offering to relieve Donna early, since I was awake anyway.  What had awakened me were building thunderstorms, and although the winds were not excessive, they were kicking up waves in the Gulf Stream currents we rode.  Melissa and I shared the watch while pinkish lightning was flashing to our right, to our left, and behind us, impossibly bright in the dark ocean night.

Not a minute after Donna had retired, the sky opened, absolutely drenching us.  There wasn’t a lot of wind with the storm, luckily, but in the time it took me to raise my hood my hair and shirt collar were soaked.  “Have you ever been in a storm this bad?” asked Melissa.  “Um, yeaaaah,” I answered reluctantly, unintentionally sounding almost bored when I felt anything but, remembering a Navy trip with Dan on the Fourth of July underway off the Delaware coast where the lightning made the holiday fireworks look puny.  “And last time I was in a bad storm, I promised myself that I’d never put myself in that situation again.  Mmm hmmm.  Rrright.  We see how that turned out.”

A half hour later, the storm was over and the ocean was our friend again.  There were some distant flashes and rumbles, but the clouds were breaking up and between the breaks were a soft black sky and a billion stars.  We were easy company, sometimes quiet and sometimes chatting.  There’s something unique about being with someone else late at night when you can’t see each other’s faces, that inspires confidential conversation.

We continued to make good time as the night gradually faded.  Sunrise at sea is a visual symphony rising to a crescendo, although this one was tame due to the lingering clouds.  Or maybe I was just tired, and unable to summon the energy to appreciate it properly.  The day continued, we made uneventful progress, riding the Gulf Stream with the Florida coast just visible in the distance.  There were storms over the land, but none near us.  By mid-afternoon we faced a decision: continue on for a second night to come into the St Augustine inlet in the morning, or come in the Ponce inlet, anchor for the night, then continue to St Augustine the next day.   (to be continued)

Hazy sunrise at sea

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* Melissa had just recently moved aboard Rhapsody when she (along with several others) was featured in this 2011 post about new liveaboards.