25 || Thundering to Norfolk
Tuesday 26th May 2020 - Charleston, South Carolina to Norfolk, Virginia
The night before departure, as always, meals were discussed for the journey. I confirmed, the never ending evening meals are still going strong, stacked in order and labeled in the freezer. The snacks are individually wrapped and labeled, leaving only lunchtime sandwiches to be put together by Iain on the move.
Iain suggested I make some plain sandwiches, “nothing which will go soggy”, the night before and stack them in the front of the fridge to save a job. It was at this point I knew we would be on an angle of 45°. If Iain wasn’t keen to make the lunch, things were going to be angular and fast.
It was an overcast morning as we motored out of the Ashley River at 06:00am to head for Virginia. We had checked the weather for the 36 hour journey and could see there was some strong winds and rain arriving a little later but predicted we were ahead of the system and the wind angel was favourable for us to have a fast reach all the way to Norfolk.
It started to rain. The wind was strong, but we were fine. I noticed, boats were passing us on their way into the river, nothing was travelling in our direction. A small alarm bell sounded in my head, but I pushed it away as Iain continued to push our steed forward. Then, he uttered the infamous line, I laughed out loud. I knew what this meant. We had been here once before, many many sunrises ago.
“We’ll go to the entrance and take a look”
It was the summer of 2003. In March of that year, we took delivery of our first Fatjax, the X332. By July, we sailed her across the North Sea in the time honoured Kirkpatrick tradition. At the end of our momentous holiday we were leaving
Immo Marina, Blakenberge, Belgium, in the dark to enable us to arrive back in Levington Marina in daylight. It was very foggy. It was cold. All manner of boats were coming into the harbour. We were the only vessel leaving. I was slightly nervous. It was a brand new boat. We didn’t know her well. Our small children were asleep in their cabins. My mind was racing, but the decision had been made. Iain’s racing endeavours had not really begun and so I was still able to speak.
“Do you think this is wise?” I asked.
The immortal line was uttered.
“We’ll go to the entrance and take a look”
I agreed. I felt sure we would take a peek out of the harbour entrance, confirm the fog was too dense and turn back into the safety of the marina.
Tentatively, we edged out of our berth, towards the exist lights. I was straining to see, the fog was incredibly thick, but Iain assured me by sun rise it would clear and we’d have a gentle sail home.
We reached the entrance and edged out just four boat lengths. The fog was indeed too dense for us to see past the bow of our ship. We agreed we would go back. We turned around, but could not see the leading lights for the entrance, or the harbour wall. We could not even see the bow of our ship. We were not going to risk hitting the wall or anything coming out of the harbour. There was no choice but to sail on across the English Channel, home.
It is a known fact, the North Sea is the busiest shipping channel in the world, so why wouldn’t we cross it with so many factors against us? I knew then, our lives were always going to be lived on the edge, and so some 25 years later, I found myself edging towards the entrance.
Out we went into the gusting wind and rain. The wind was not quite as forecast which meant we would be sailing to windward for most of the trip.
I was trying really hard to stay calm. It was difficult to keep our balance as our beauty carved her way through the waves, steady as a rock but at quite an extreme angle. We were going to be on this point of sail for most of the day. I suddenly understood the importance of the plain sandwiches in the front of the fridge.
Iain tried to discuss the tactics for the day, however, my face and lack of movement, confirmed he would have to talk me through each step of each manoeuvre.
After a very short time, Iain realised it was going to be difficult for me to live at such an angle in high winds for the whole day. He did the unthinkable. He turned around without a word, without consultation, we tacked the boat and headed back. We would leave another day.
I knew he was having a marvellous sail. His main girl was performing with such grace and elegance. Even though I was rigid, I could tell our chariot was built to perform in just such conditions. We were safe, in my heart I knew she would look after us and this is what Iain was born to do, but I could not calm down. Iain missed an incredible sail for me. “Perhaps next time” he said with a smile. His face was gentle filling me with a familiar warm glow once again.
We decided to spend the rest of the day closer to the entrance and anchored in the shelter of James Island, in view of Fort Sumter. It continued to rain, but we didn’t mind.
Thursday morning was a very different day. Again we motored out of the river at 5:00am. We were soon able to unfurl the jib, sailing straight out almost due East, on a reach in search of the Gulf Stream.
It was a gentle start to our sail. We were maintaining an average speed of 7 - 8 knots, but I could not settle into the rhythm of the sea which was a little lumpy. I kept trying to pursued Iain to sleep during daylight hours as I was not confident of staying alert throughout the trip. He could not, we were heading in the wrong direction in search of the illusive Gulf Stream which just was not there.
By the evening, I was feeling unwell. I went for a sleep hoping it would pass in time for my watch. Nightfall soon came as we continued about 30° off course heading for the Stream. By 21:00 there were multiple thunder storms forming on the radar.
When I woke for my watch, it was raining and the winds were gusting at 30 knots giving us a very respectable speed of 14 knots over the ground. Iain was exhilerated.
The elusive Stream was finally found around 02:00. A huge advantage, however, the extra speed came with a confused lumpy sea. The game was changing rapidly.
Friday 27th May 2020 05:00am - 198 miles completed
The first glimpses of light were soon extinguished by threatening storm clouds. We had been through many thunder systems on this trip, and so we decided to continue sailing with a full main and jib. No reefing today. “We can do this Jacqueline. It will be fine”.
By 6:00am the cluster of storms with wind speeds of 30 - 35 knots were upon us. The wind veered and backed through 80°. Our course followed these changes on a very precise apparent wind angle.
Fatjax can carry full sail into the wind speeds in the high 30s, but only between an apparent angle between 130° to 160°. Any higher would generate excessive heal and an almost certain broach; any lower and a wave could spin us into a gybe. The difference with this storm was it lasted over three hours. Over three hours on the edge and Iain concentrating with every fibre of his being. I suspect next time we will reef.
As with all things, the storm eventually passed and we returned to sailing rather than surviving.
A few neat gybes later we were heading out of the stream and its turmoil, past Cape Astraeus and into calmer waters for our final leg to Norfolk.
Just before nightfall another storm system approached. However this was quite modest compared with the earlier ones and we were sheltered by the land. Again, Iain decided to keep to our normal sail plan.
This storm had a silver lining for Iain. About three miles ahead of us was a catamaran, sailing. It was play time. The auto pilot was turned off, his jaw set, the look of determination was etched on his brow and the mission was engaged.
His main girl rose to the occasion. Iain suddenly looked relaxed and in control of the elements. This is definitely his happy place. I could see his mind was calculating and fine tuning every movement of the boat. In less than an hour we were surfing past the unsuspecting catamaran, leaving her to continue her journey on her own.
Once the thrill of the chase was won, Iain spent a couple of hours between fitful sleep while I was on watch. The wind continued to shift and change strength. I was still feeling unwell, but tried to fight it as much as possible as I knew he needed rest before bringing us into the anchorage the next morning. The down side of our speed was beginning to look like we would arrive before sunrise.
Saturday 28th May 2020 05:00am - 216 miles completed
Iain took over the watch and by morning we were approaching the mouth of the James River. What a spectacular sight. We were in the biggest Naval base I could ever imagine. The War Ships lined the shore in their own marina. They were colossal and went on for miles. We sailed down the river in time to hear the bugler sound reveille. What an exceptional moment for us. The notes of the loan bugler echoed for miles setting the atmospheric scene, while surrounded by such history. Battleships new and old, all having a story to tell in the shaping of this country. We were so distracted, our watch leader forgot to fill in the log for two hours.
That is saying something on our ship. I didn’t make a fuss, but I’m sure there is a military ruling on such an offence. I’ll have to look it up!
It was a difficult sail for me. I was disappointed I had been ill and found it very hard to snap out of my panic. On a positive note, I have discovered, for me, my sea sickness would appear to be connected with fear. Many of the movements the boat made were due to the sea, wind and current conditions I had not experienced before and I could not anticipate the boats movements. I am hoping the next time we are in a similar sea state, I will recognise the movements and stay calm.
As we meandered up the river, we decided to take the main sail down. We are becoming quite practised at this. Less voices are raised, less vocabulary is hurled and actually, less time is taken to get it zipped and tethered into the boom. A very successful moment bringing our passage to a close. By mid day we had arrived in Norfolk, Virginia. Home, but not, for another week.