Saturday, May 26, 2012

Full Circle

Our last anchorage on the ICW

As we sailed into Southport last Wednesday, I thought about how we had started our Antares journey in Southport almost exactly 4 years.  In May, 2008, Craig and I boarded a PDQ catamaran as crew to help Captain Martin Tate deliver the boat from Southport, North Carolina to Gloucester, Massachusetts.  It was to be a 5 night, six day passage 100 miles off shore and my first sail where I wouldn't see land.  We needed a meaty offshore experience before fully committing to life on a boat and this was a wonderful opportunity to jump in.  The trip gave us just about everything from a nasty storm to debilitating seasickness.  I had never been seasick before and was knocked flat before we got out of the Southport channel. From my journal entry on May 14th, 2008; Sick doesn't do it is an all-consuming violent launch of pain.  One can think of nothing else as the body becomes an alien invader of the mind.  Martin's response of "Don't worry love, you'll be get your sea legs in 12 hours" didn't help much.  I couldn't fathom getting through 5 minutes.

I did recover and the next day, wrote about my first glorious 24 hours offshore:

There is nothing tedious about this kind of travelling.  Winds and waves change, the seas can be deep grey, then royal blue with sparkles, then patched with aqua green.  Craig spotted a shark's fin and Wendy pointed at a sea turtle sunning itself on the surface.  During my first night shift while I was watching the spark and dance of bioluminescent creatures, a dolphin pulled up beside us for a few seconds."  I also remembered a quiet and peaceful fog with the sun filtered out by a white isolating blanket for a full day.  

We had six days of Martin's instruction and patience.  He points to the tip of his baby finger and says that is how much he knows about the sea but it isn't true.  What I like about him is his respect towards the ocean and all of her finicky moods.  He has been on the water all of his life and is still humbled by the sea.  

I was smitten with long distance sailing after crewing for Martin and we continued with the process of buying the boat.  Many of Martin's practices are alive and well on Alberta Crewed.  For example, we keep an hourly log when we are moving where we minimally track our location, weather, winds, boat speed, sail decisions, traffic, and any other observations that help us stay safe.  The log has come in handy on several occasions.  An example is our recent travel through the ICW where I added information about currents.  It helped us begin to see patterns in water movement.  Most importantly, it is a backup to our GPS.  We know where we are at any time with or without our screens.  I pay attention differently when I keep track on a regular basis.

This past Friday, we had the honour of hosting Martin and his wife Margaret, a seasoned sailor herself, for our last journey of the season from Southport, North Carolina to the boatyard in Wilmington where we are leaving Alberta Crewed for the summer.  Although I can point to a cell on the tip of my baby finger as an indicator of how much I know about sailing, I'd like to think I'm not as green (in all ways) as I was when I last sailed with Martin.  We had a glorious day and I was proud of how far we had come since our last time in Southport.  Thank you, Martin and Margaret.  

Martin and Margaret
Student and Teacher

Friday, May 25, 2012

Alberta Crewed's Final Blessing

Karen, Jeff, Ed, Maite, Me, and Craig
I first met Karen Kennedy Woodman in 2008 at the Miami sailboat show.  She and her husband Jeff were PDQ sailboat owners (Hull #1 from the Canadian boatyard) and their new Antares Yachts company was in its infancy.  Craig and I once owned a small retail store and although it was not on the scale of Antares Yachts, it has given me a new found respect for those who venture into their own businesses.  We committed to Hull#1 with the new Antares company and four years later, we docked at Charleston where Karen could finally see an Argentine built boat.  When she first saw Alberta Crewed, Karen literally hugged the boat.  She knows these vessels well and poured through every part of the hulls to see how ours was faring.  I was honoured by and delighted with her response and I now feel Alberta Crewed has received her final blessing.  Thank you, Karen.

Karen and Jeff and their terrific children have been gracious hosts and we have really enjoyed spending time with them and seeing the area as they took on tour guide roles.  Friends Maite and Ed joined us for a weekend on the boat and thanks to the Woodmans, we all toured Middleton Plantation on foot and by horseback.

We waited out tropical storm Alberto which headed away from shore and left us with quiet days at the Charleston dock.  We toured the Aquarium, downtown historical buildings, and returned for a second visit to the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier.  It is now a national historical monument and gave an in-depth account of life on board during WWII through to the Vietnam war.  

Painting of George Washington in Charleston City Hall, infamous for the horse's position
Deck of USS Yorktown

Prior to our trip up the ICW, my knowledge of US history was limited.  I am not in any way an expert now but our brief times in communities along the coast gave us a glimpse into the impact of ongoing conflicts throughout US history and how the landscape has been shaped by them.  Veterans wear their caps proudly and are revered for their service.  A WWII veteran we met on Yorktown shared some of his experiences on battleships with us and I was humbled by how he carries his memories with deep emotion.  I would like to learn more and hope we can explore these areas further in the fall.

We are on our last leg to Wilmington, NC where we will leave the boat and pack up for our Canadian home.  Time passes too quickly and I can't believe we are again at this end of the season ritual.   

Saturday, May 19, 2012

To Race or Not to Race

Global Ocean Race participant

This morning’s email from our weather service provider was a don’t-even-think-about-it kind of message as he forecast the possibility of the system forming just north of us getting a name.  We don’t like storms with names.  It is an indication that they are mean.  We will therefore delay our departure north and stay safely tied to the dock at the Charleston Marina.  The only rocking we get here is from the wakes of 300 metre long freighters that pass by a few times each day.
On the flip side, our dock neighbours for the past week, four Class40 racing boats, headed out into the stormy mess at 10:30am sharp.  They are the remaining vessels in the Global Ocean Race that began last September in Mallorca, Spain and covers 30,000 miles around the globe.  This is the last leg which takes them back to Europe, and they crossed the start line this morning because that was the schedule.  Weather-shmeather.  I pictured them rubbing their hands with glee and yelling, “Named tropical storm!  Bring it on!”
I say this with tongue in cheek because while the dock was active with last minute preparations, the sailors were serious and somber.  One of the boats was de-masted on Leg Two from South Africa to New Zealand.  They seem like dare devils to me but they know the risks better than anyone and I imagine they are not having much fun this afternoon beating against strong north winds that are blowing against the Gulf Stream.  The resulting waves will be high and close together.  It is a world class race so they will be pushing the edge with their sail size and trim and trying to make some miles with the wind at their bows (the worst place for good sailing).
So why do they do it?  I wanted to know and began reading sailing race stories, particularly those around disasters, before we bought the boat.  In recent history, the Fastnet race in 1979, and Sydney-Hobart race in 1998 with unexpected 170km/hr winds and waves up to 20m high, cost a total of 21 sailors their lives.  All stories subsequently written about the two races are rife with head-shaking wonder that more people weren’t lost.
I read the books because I am fascinated by what makes people do this, and how they survive in impossible situations.  The most tragic and fascinating story to me is the one about Donald Crowhurst who embarked on the first around the world solo race in 1968 with 9 other participants.  Struggling financially, he was desperate to win because of the cash prize.  I won’t give the ending away but it is captured in a compelling documentary movie called Deep Water.  Check out this link for a recent article about the Crowhurst tragedy.
I don’t think many other racers are in it for the money.  The cash prizes don’t come close to covering the costs.  Perhaps there is some ego involved in winning but sailing is the most humbling thing I’ve ever done.  As soon as I get too smug about it, I am inevitably brought to my knees by Neptune and his troops.  
Perhaps it is the attraction of increasingly sophisticated technologies that enable humans to go faster and further on water.  Circumnavigations that used to take months can now be finished in a matter of weeks.  Fast can definitely be fun.
Of course human triumph within the elements plays a significant role.  We are land dwellers trying to live at sea.  Athleticism on a racing boat has a whole new meaning when the arena, team mate, and opponent is the ocean, with one not knowing which she will be at any time.  One's mental and physical stamina, creativity, and problem solving skills are tested to extreme measures.  

Recently, Antares sister ships Escapade and Field Trip had a friendly competition in the Atlantic Cup race from the Virgin Islands to Bermuda (Atlantic Cup Link).  I enjoyed following the pre-race banter of secretly adding extra weight to each others' boats, and the subsequent postings of their progress and finish.  Mark on Field Trip commented that the boat really sailed well as he kept engine hours to a minimum, and I caught some wistfulness in his blog posting about how he could really get into racing.  It seems both crews had a great time testing the boat and their skills.

The biggest problem with racing is that it is set to a human schedule regardless of weather (in many cases).  As Craig and I watched our dock mates leave, the starting line excitement was enticing but I was grateful that we would be staying tied up.  Although the current weather forecasts are nothing close to the Fastnet and Sydney-Hobart storms, these experienced sailors will undoubtedly be challenged.   

I hear the ping of an email telling me that our storm now has a name: Alberto.  He is too early for the season and should have formed near Africa, not here.  Someone forgot to give him the schedule and proper coordinates.  Looks like we are going to be seeing more of Charleston which is just fine with me.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


We have been stereotypical, map-gripping tourists in our explorations of Savannah, Georgia and downtown Charleston, North Carolina.  Scarlett O'Hara thought the two cities "seemed like aged grandmothers fanning themselves placidly in the sun" and they indeed carry the charm and grace of southern elders, sipping their iced tea on their porches while pondering life from white wooden rocking chairs.  

At the same time, they carry deep battle scars from the American Civil War and I sometimes sense that a few folks are still upset that the south lost.  In downtown Charleston, we came across an overgrown cemetery with several Confederate Army soldiers’ tombstones and found this spanking new Confederate flag on one of the 19th century graves. 

It was in Charleston that the Ordinance of Succession was signed withdrawing South Carolina from the Union and resulting in the formation of the Confederate army.  The first shots were subsequently fired here.  
Savannah on the other hand managed to survive the war relatively intact, staving off General Sherman’s “scorched earth” tactics with early surrender.  With 22 lush parks between gridded streets of churches, mansions, and centuries old oak trees, she is a Grand Dame of the south and we marvelled at how well her buildings have been preserved.

In a trip last fall along the U.S. east coast, my sister-in-law Marcy wrote about the “ests” she kept finding as she and my brother-in-law travelled to the same cities we are now seeing as we head north.  It seems like every city and town boasts having the largest tree, oldest church, biggest bridge, best statues, and winning-est teams.  Savannah has the dubious honour of being the spookiest, as determined by the Duke University Department for Paranormal Activity.  It carries the “Most Haunted City in the U.S” distinction and our marina’s proximity to three huge cemeteries, one made famous in John Berendt's book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, affirms that title.  One can go on Haunted Tours in both Charleston and Savannah and a tour guide we met said that serious ghostbusters come from all over the world just to see if they can sense the spirits that apparently haunt the areas.  We stuck to the daytime trolley tours.

We are now docked in a Charleston marina, exploring the area and waiting out some nasty weather before embarking on our last leg of the season to Wilmington, NC where we will be leaving the boat.  The beauty of playing tourist from the boat is that at the end of the day, we return to our home instead of a hotel.  

Monday, May 7, 2012


This big, beautiful "super moon" that rose a couple of nights ago is causing all kinds of flooding problems because it is closer to the earth than usual.  Tides are higher and lower than average which means currents are also stronger and faster.

The stock market is easier to predict than the currents on the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway).  In keeping with one of our most valuable navigation strategies, the ask-around method, we assumed we would get all of the information about ICW currents from the seasoned sailors who gather at the dock for coffee every morning.  Our cruising guides and navigation charts gave directions like "currents change every 3 miles through this area".  Change from what to what?  When? Which direction?  With 9 foot tides and up to 3 knots of currents, we needed more information about when, where, and how much.  Our dock gurus looked at us blankly, shrugged their shoulders, and said, "Good luck with that."  After decades on the ICW, they had no idea.  All we knew, in the words of a former president, was that they would be  "either fer us or agin us" and so far they are usually agin us.

Currents are water movement and tides are the rise and fall of water levels.  They are both caused by the gravitational pull of the moon but are also affected by the earth's rotation, shoreline configuration, ocean floor topography, and in the case of currents, temperature and wind.  The currents we are dealing with in the ICW are primarily caused by the water rushing in and out of creeks and rivers because of the rising and falling tides but we have yet to see much of a pattern in speed and time.  At times it seems we will be sailing with a rising tide yet will have 3 knots of current against us.  That can make quite a difference when we are only going 6 knots.   Then it will suddenly change directions.  Here is a chart we used last week with the ICW route marked by a pink line.  Every time we turned a bend into a new river or creek or one flowed into or away from the one we were in, we knew the current might change.  Hence the stock market effect.

We can tell how fast the current is going using our transducer which tells our speed relative to the water.  If it only reads 3 knots and our GPS says we are moving at 6 knots then we have a 3 knot current helping us out.  In keeping with our second navigational mantra which is to never rely completely on technology, there are ways to read the currents without electronics.  The most obvious is to watch any stationary object in the water such as a channel marker post, mooring ball, or anchored boat.  I can see how the water wraps around it and leaves a line as it rushes past.  In this case, the current is moving from right to left.

Floating debris can give us an idea of speed and direction if we are stationary and this morning I looked for anything floating past to use the current to help me steer the boat away from the dock as we were leaving.  In this instance it pushed the bow of the boat off first.  We also watch other vessels around us to see if the current is pushing them sideways which we really care about when passing under bridges between abutments or are trying to avoid shallow water.

When we were tied to a mooring ball in heavy currents and winds, the boat was completely confused about which way to face.  Sometimes the mooring ball would be pushed back under the boat by the current and it was interesting to see which would win the boat direction competition.  Again, we could never tell.

With tides, we have to check our routes carefully in advance and co-ordinate particular points during the day with high tides.  "Hell Gate" is one where low tide is 2 feet.  Good name.  Throughout the day we hear radio calls for tow boats to pull unlucky boaters off of sandbars.  Sometimes it is the result of poor planning but in the ICW, sand shoals continually shift and charts are not always accurate.  The beauty of tides is that they do rise so usually just waiting will release the boat from the sand.

As beautiful as the ICW has been for us, we have to be on our toes and are tired at the end of our days. At the same time, the up-side to tides and currents is the "edge effect", where plants and animals live between two diverse ecosystems.  We see more birds at low tide picking the insects on the ground.  Alligators are found right on that edge of in-between water and land as they try to regulate their body temperature and hunt for food.  Jelly fish, urchins, and crabs are easier to see.  We like this kind of edge.

It's my turn to check the anchor.  I can feel the current shifting again.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Southern Hospitality

Anchored on the Brickhill River, Cumberland Island, Georgia
I asked the gentleman getting onto a motorboat named Reel Adventure how the fishing had been that day.  "Real good, ma'am.  Thank ya for askin."  He nodded at the ma'am part.  He spoke, as Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind describes, " the soft, slurring voice of the coastal Georgian, liquid of vowels, kind to consonants".  And slowly.  Hospitality takes time and we receive lots of it, likely because It is too hot to move or speak quickly.  We are stopped by anyone we pass to shoot the breeze.  I think it's so we can catch some of that breeze as it wafts by while we stand under the Spanish moss-dripping oak trees here on Jekyll Island in southern Georgia.  I'm not complaining.  While Scarlett O'hara vows, "I'll never be hungry again", I'm planning never to be cold again.  I'm surprised by how well I not only tolerate, but quite like, the heat and we've been deep into it from Brazil to here in southern Georgia.

On our way from Fernandina Beach, Florida to Jekyll Island, we anchored for 4 days in the Brickhill River which winds around Cumberland Island's west coast through marshlands, feeding several small creeks towards shore.  We were surprised to be the only boat anchored there.   This usually makes me nervous because there tends to be a good reason why there aren't other boats around (unanticipated winds, unpredictable currents, squalls, etc.).   We sailed right through those potential hazards and awoke to flat calm waters, jumping rays, and dozens of dolphins hunting nearby.  Glorious sunsets capped our equally awe-filled days of kayaking the creeks past snoozing alligators, and exploring the island on foot beside the armadillos and wild horses.  

The southern ethic of hospitality first presented itself through Debra, a Parks guide who walked us through the Carnegie Plum Orchard Mansion on our first foray to Cumberland Island's west shore.  We had set out on a dinghy ride and found a small public dock that unknowingly lead to the mansion.  Debra met us at the dock and gave us a personal tour which was an historical walk through the architecture, furniture, fashion, and class divides of the times.  At over 20,000 sq feet, the mansion was originally built by Lucy Carnegie as a wedding present to her son, George and his wife, Margaret in 1898.  Debra guided us through every room, including the indoor squash court, hunting room with gun and ammunition cases, and closets the size of my house.  I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams to play the piano in Carnegie Hall, knowing this would be as close as I would get, and used  the original sheet music that was sitting on the piano.

Note the original Tiffany lamp above the piano.  The beauty of this particular mansion tour was that we could actually walk through all of the rooms and get close-up looks at fixtures (including the silver match holders beside every one of the 11 toilets to cover odors with lit matches), original wallpaper, and cabinets.  Debra held our attention with stories of the particulars of life in this house; how the indoor pool would be emptied and filled everyday and the children would play in it as it filled up; how the young couple used so much ice that Lucy started charging them for it; where the servants had separate and parallel hallways to the main ones so they wouldn't be seen.
 Early 20th century Ice Maker
The next day we walked around the north part of the island to an early settlement built by freed slaves in the 1880's and discovered the house where they lived and ran a distillery across from a small non-descript building at the north end.  The building is tiny and rustic but happens to be the church where John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were secretly married in 1996.  

On Jekyll Island we are enjoying the luxuries of a marina.  This sand-dune ringed island is also quiet, and the grocery store is in a portable trailer right next to a wind-swept beach.  This afternoon I'll take my ice tea on the marina restaurant veranda under the outdoor ceiling fans and talk real slow to my neighbours about lots of nothing.  It's becoming clear why I like the heat so much.