Beaufort to Culebra: 14 days alone at sea

The water was flat as a skating rink when I left Beaufort on April 4th. The week-out forecast wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t horrible and stormy either. I’d have light wind the first day, with an increase to about 10-20 knots from the southeast on April fifth. Most importantly, I had my southerly wind component for the Gulf Stream crossing, a point that been hammered into my head from all the sailors I met. My plan was to sail east almost to Bermuda, and then turn south once I was lined up with Culebra. As I motored along and watched the land slowly fade out of sight, I thought to myself of all the scared dummies who had warned me about the Gulf Stream. “I’m motoring across it”, I though to myself. “I bet I won’t even notice the crossing.” If you literary scholars remember anything from English classes, this is called foreshadowing. I definitely noticed my crossing.

My last peaceful sunset for 10 days

Day one dawned early and blustery. By the time the sun popped, it was already blowing a jolly 25-30 knots, and the seas were starting to get worked up. I reefed the main and settled in with my working jib. I was still somehow in high spirits, which shows you just how blissful ignorance can really be. As the day progressed, I watched the wind grow to a steady 30, then 30-35, then gusts to 40, then a steady 40. At this point, the waves were towering over my head at 15 feet, and the wind had switched ominously to be coming from due east. I thought I was making great headway, until I looked at the GPS, and noticed a puzzling development. I was moving backwards. The sun was setting, the waves were huge, the wind was shrieking, and my boat could only go in two directions: Northwest, and North.

30 knots and all grins

When I pointed the bow Southeast, I moved WNW at 1.5 knots. When I pointed Northeast, I flew North at almost 8 knots. Going back wasn’t an option, since Beaufort was now to the southwest of me. My only choices were barreling north and waking up off the coast of Maryland, or… I turned my boat so it was pointing southeast. Then I lashed the tiller hard over to starboard. My storm jib wasn’t backed and I didn’t have my main up, but the combination of current and wind was somehow heaving me to anyway. I was now drifting WNW at about 1.5 knots- beam-to the big seas, but riding over them just as though I were traditionally hove to. Unfortunately, this meant I was slowly drifting up onto Hatteras. As I shut myself in for the night, I kept my eyes glued to my chart plotter. Throughout the night, I watched my boat get pushed closer and closer up towards that notorious point. I decided that if I got 30 miles off of Hatteras, I’d aim north and just ride it out. No matter where I ended up, it was better than introducing my boat to those nasty shoals.

Enhanced track line showing how far north I got swept during my night hove to in the Gulf Stream

Luckily by the time the sun rose again, the wind had died to 30, and the waves were a few feet lower. Ah, relativity. I was almost level with the southern point of Hatteras, and I decided it was time to get the hell out of there. I put up a triple-reefed main and decided on my new point of attack. The wind had shifted to a southeasterly. If I pointed my bow due east, I was making way to the northeast. I decided to go with it and hopefully slowly pull away from the GS. I figured I’d pull out all the stops, and started up the engine to add and extra knot and a half to my speed. As the sun rose, I watched Gecko slowly start to peel away from the Gulf Stream. A few hours later, not only was my bow pointing due east, but my boat was also going almost due east. I’d made it! As if on cue, the wind cut to 20 knots, and the seas mellowed down enough for me to grab a few hours of sleep. I’d done it!

Reefing the main in 25 knots

Four hours later, I was hit by what I though was a squall. It ended up pouring rain and blowing 30 for the next 24 hours, but with each minute, I was sailing further and further away from the cursed Gulf Stream. Day three saw the wind slowly dying out until I was completely becalmed. Since I only have a ten-horse engine and 15 gallons of diesel, I decided not to motor. It was still too early in my trip to rev up the old beast, and I was relieved to have a break from the intense motion of the past few days. I drifted around going nowhere and catching up on sleep for about 20 hours, until the wind picked up again.

Trying to steer in no wind

The next two and a half days were my least favorite. I had an 8-10 foot beam sea with wind on the nose. The first day it blew 20 with almost hour-long gusts to 30. The second day, it blew 15 with prolonged gusts to 30. The whole second night, I would wake when the gust hit, and then fall asleep, only to be re-awakened when the wind died and my now under-powered boat was getting slapped around by the rollers on the beam.

A decent breeze will make any sailor happy

Day seven was my Halfway Day, I decided. The wind and the seas died down, and I had a pleasant little breeze. This was also the point where I started turning to head south as well. I threw a bucket into the water and took a little ‘shower’ in the cockpit. I’d been hoarding a bar of espresso chocolate for my Halfway Day, and broke out a mini watermelon I’d been saving. I was clean, I had treats, and the wind was a beautiful breezy 15. I had my big headsail up, and Geck was making 5 knots. Right as the sun was setting, I went on deck one last time for a final check before settling down for a nap. I saw a big dark horizontal cloud on the horizon, directly upwind of me. Lots of profanities ran through my head as I clipped into my harness and ran forward to change headsails.

Cockpit bath time! My small pot also doubles as a shower ladle

The ensuing storm lasted 24 hours. It blew 30, and the waves were 10-15 feet. This time though, even when I was close-hauled, the waves were still hitting me on the beam. They were breaking over my boat just forward of the beam and rolling back over the cabintop to fill the cockpit. I’ve always wanted an aquarium, but this was going too far. I had been huddling below, but after the third breaker rocked my boat, I suited up and started hand-steering. Although these waves were slightly smaller than the ones in the Gulf Stream, they were closer together, breaking, and right on my beam. I found that if I pinched and sailed with a slight luff, it put the waves just forward enough of the beam so that they weren’t breaking over my boat. It was tedious going, and five hours of hand-steering had me exhausted and freezing cold. My foulie pants leaked so badly there was no sense in wearing them, and all my warm clothes were soaked through. I decided to see if the wind vane could handle pinching, and taking a deep breath, hooked it up and waited for the worst. As the vane tried to figure out what it was doing, I caught a few breakers, but eventually everything settled out and I was pinching again. Turns out, the Monitor windvane is shit at sailing downwind, but damn can it pinch like a pro. After making sure life was holding steady up top, I tumbled below and stripped off all my wet clothes. One problem with a small boat is that when it’s wet outside, everything inside is clammy and wet too. I huddled in my sleeping bag with a thermos of peppermint tea and tried to get warm and dry. “Only good thoughts”, I kept telling myself. I closed my eyes and thought of all the happy, dry, land-based memories I could. I soon settled into a series of naps that lasted until about one in the morning.

Snuggly night reading between squalls

I shot out of bed, sensing something had changed. The wind had completely died, although the seas were still up. I poked my head outside. It was drizzling rain, and little licks of lightning were flicking overhead. Gecko was slowly sailing in a giant circle. The only light was from the red of the compass and the occasional tongue of lightning. The sky seemed to be holding its breath, gathering strength for the next bout of wind. I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew the wind was going to pick up again, but I hated going in the wrong direction. The temporary lull, combined with the lightning made me feel like I was in one of Dante’s more remote circles of hell. I decided to shake out the third reef so that I could pick up the small puffs of wind and at least point south. I couldn’t help but feel that it was a big trap set to make me increase sail, and then get slammed by a gust. I reminded myself that I, the human, was giving a back-story to nature. It was going to be ok. The wind came back, shyly at first, and then filled in at a demure 20-25. Once the conditions seemed to be holding steady, I went back below and snuggled into my sleeping bag.

Contemplating storm clouds

The next day, the second storm blew itself out, and the last four days of my trip were glorious. The first day after the storm was squally, but the squalls were far apart, and the majority of the day was blue and beautiful. I watched a rainbow grow from the horizon up inside of a squall just a few miles upwind of me. At first, I caught a mysterious green glow on the horizon in the center of an upwind squall. As I stared at it, it started to get red tips. “That’s it, I’m finally going crazy”, I thought to myself. The more I stared, the more the light seemed to grow. I tried looking away, and then glancing back to see if it was some trick of my eyes, but the glow was still there. The light slowly spread up and to the left, and started adding more colors into its tower. Suddenly I realized what was happening. “It’s a rainbow!” I yelled. The rainbow finally uncurled and stretched itself lazily across the length of the squall in a low arch. It stayed there until I’d sailed far away.

Journaling about important things probably

That evening, puffy clouds towered over my head, illuminated yellow and orange by the setting sun. They dwarfed everything around them, and made me feel like a little speck sailing a toy boat. Gecko sailed into the stars, and I laid on my back picking out the constellations. The waves rocked me gently, and Gecko plowed on through the night as though eagerly sensing that we were finally cruising towards land and a different, more familiar insanity.

Sewing my quarantine flag in the afternoon sun

My “routine” solidified through the next few days. I did all my sleeping at night; during the day, I read, watched the flying fish soaring over the waves, and daydreamed. I found that I could get decent sleep, even though I woke up every half hour. After the first hour, I’d only partially wake up each time- just enough to check sails, course, and for ships. Then I’d melt right back into sleep, repeating the cycle until the sun rose. I kept thinking of how dolphins can sleep with only half their brain at a time. Unfortunately it meant I was only awake with half my brain at a time too, but who was there to know or care! I hand- stitched my Puerto Rico flag and yellow quarantine flag. I wrote in my journal. I sat on the bow and felt the wind in my salty hair.

Becalmed breakfast

On my last day, I was lying below to get out of the sun when I felt Gecko rounding up into the wind. A second later, she came back on course, but then rounded up again. I got up and checked the wind vane. A snarl of seaweed on the line hanging off the vane had become so heavy that the auxiliary rudder had popped up. No biggie. I shook off the seaweed and got the vane balanced back where it needed to be. I took a glance around my boat and- heart attack- saw a very close something in the water about 100 yards downwind. My brain quickly flipped through the mental ID book; not a ship (thank god)… not another boat (weird). What was it? I was looking at a giant oceanographic mooring with a weather station on top. A huge black bird was dive-bombing the water around the mooring as though to ward me off. I can’t say for sure, but if my windvane rudder hadn’t popped up when it did, and if my boat hadn’t rounded up, I think it’s fair to say I would have run smack into the thing at 5.5 knots. Thank you, seaweed, and whatever god is responsible for dolphin-brained sailors.

Land ho!

The next night, I poked my head out of the hatch at 2am to see St. Thomas glittering off to port. A breeze delivered the scent of hydrocarbons and simmering garbage. Civilization! Puerto Rico waited to starboard, but I didn’t want to approach at night, so I hove to and waited for the sun to rise. I watched as the land turned from a smudge to a series of hills and scrub. The wind was whispering down, but I didn’t put up a bigger headsail. I wanted to prolong the slow growth of the land in front of me. I wasn’t ready to be ashore yet. A strange and masochistic part of my brain was trying to tell me to turn around and go back to the big blue, but I was no fool. I know all about Stockholm Syndrome. I sailed through a well-marked channel fringed by reef, and stared at the houses and pleasure boats. I expected something profound to pop into my head, but all I could think about was how much I wanted a fruit smoothie. As I neared the anchorage, I detached the windvane and dropped the jib. It was blowing about 15, so I drifted sedately into the bay and dropped the hook under sail. After not using the motor for twelve days, it seemed totally natural.

I made it! Sunrise over St Thomas with Puerto Rico on the horizon

My boat was a mess; the whole vberth and everything in it was soaked in saltwater. All my headsails were hastily folded and crammed into the quarterberth, and I had dead flying fish all over my boat (and some surprise ones I’d find a few days later). But I had made it! Fourteen days without human contact, two storms, and 1200 nautical miles. Everything else was small beans in comparison.

12 Replies to “Beaufort to Culebra: 14 days alone at sea”

  1. You brought back memories of our own Route 66 passage, our first longish one. Seeing St. Thomas on the horizon is still one of my favorite landfalls, even after 30,000 miles. Don’t miss Zaco’s Tacos on Culebra. I dream of them.

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  2. Loved the blog. We are the couple from Waldoboro that are friends with Trent and Chris in Oriental. We recently visited with them two weeks ago there. We just sold our boat while on board this winter in Florida and and looking for a new boat. We will take Trent and Chris over to Round Pond this summer when they come up. Safe travels, we’ll look forward to reading of your voyage.
    Jim and Lynn
    Back Cove Road
    Waldoboro

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  3. Holly, your journey is so incredibly cool! I once sailed around Hatteras and experienced some storms for sure, but I sure wasn’t alone at sea for 14 days. Reading your adventures is truly inspirational! I’m so happy for you!

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