Going Outside -
October 22, 2003
In last week's entry ("In The Ditch"), we mentioned that frost-bitten east coast cruisers have two ways of getting south in the fall: travelling down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) or "going outside". The ICW offers protected waters for most of the way, but demands a lot of time. The diminishing autumn sun limits how long you can be underway each day; we wouldn't recommend travelling after dark because of the occasional log or deadhead in the channel. Unless you have a boat considerably faster than ours (we usually average about six knots under power), you're probably not going to achieve much more than 60 miles a day (taking into account delays for bridge openings and the fact that anchorages and marinas are not always conveniently located where you want them to be at the end of the day). This means that the run from mile zero at Norfolk to mile 1090 in Miami will take you 18 days if you go non-stop. But one of the main reasons to cruise the ICW is to see the sights along the way. You wouldn't want to miss all the historic towns, local restaurants, and friendly bars en route, would you? Better figure on spending at least a month in the ditch.
Going outside means leaving the relative shelter of the ICW and either heading down the open coast or going directly offshore. The offshore option is for sailors whose ultimate destination is the Bahamas or the Caribbean and who don't want to spend most of the winter getting there. The coastal alternative is for cruisers who are heading first to Florida and: (1) are in a hurry; or (2) would rather sail than motor; or (3) have boats that can't fit in the waterway (i.e., their masts are taller than 65 feet, the standard minimum clearance of most of the fixed bridges). For both offshore and coastal sailors, the cost of expediency is less certain weather and sailing conditions. A bad day in the waterway is getting chilled by a downpour as you motor along. A bad day on the outside is being thrown around in mountainous seas as you struggle to raise the storm sails.
Southbound cruisers going outside on the east coast have two big considerations complicating their plans. One is the Gulf Stream, which, unfortunately, wants to carry them to Newfoundland rather than Florida. The other is the steady progression of cold fronts or "northers" that come off the North American coast with increasing frequency as winter approaches. The combination of a norther and the warm, northeast setting current can generate very uncomfortable, even dangerous, conditions in the Gulf Stream. You don't want to be there. Consequently, sailors going offshore aim to cross the Stream at right angles as quickly as possible, and at a time when the wind direction is not opposing the current. Coastal sailors want to hug the shoreline on the inside of the Stream where, if they're lucky, they might even catch a bit of countercurrent going in their direction.
To make life more difficult for the coastal cruiser, however, there are some pieces of land and shoal water sticking out from the mainland that are directly in the way: Cape Hatteras and Diamond Shoal; Cape Lookout and Lookout Shoals; and Cape Fear and Frying Pan Shoals. Of these obstacles, Cape Hatteras is the nastiest. It's called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" for a reason. Our friend Bruce Van Sant, whose book "Passages South" is the bible for cruisers heading to the Caribbean, recently told us, "The only way to pass Cape Hatteras is either a hundred miles to the east of it or twenty miles to the west of it - in the ICW."
We take Bruce's advice whenever we're heading down the coast from Chesapeake Bay. We travel the first two hundred miles to Beaufort, North Carolina, in the ditch, thus avoiding both Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout. We're not the only ones who do this. Beaufort is one of the main fall staging areas for passagemakers going south.
We arrived in Beaufort on Monday. We have to be in central Florida in two weeks time so Eileen can perform at Sail Expo in St. Petersburg. That scheduling effectively rules out taking the ICW the rest of the way. Going outside means we can avoid all the twists and turns of the waterway, reducing our overall distance to Florida by about one-third. Sailing around the clock, we can get there in four or five days, if we're lucky. That's a big "if".
Weather is the main factor affecting our plans now. Yesterday, it was blowing twenty-five knots from the southwest, right on the nose. A good day to do a little last minute provisioning and catch up on e-mail. A front passed through last night. As we write this, it's blowing twenty-five knots from the northwest. A little brisk, but at least it's in the right direction. We're thinking of heading out later today or maybe tomorrow.
A few years ago we were anchored in Beaufort around this time of the year waiting to go offshore directly to the eastern Caribbean. We wanted as long a weather window as possible, knowing there would be no refuge once we got out beyond the Gulf Stream. The weather didn't co-operate at all. Days of waiting turned into weeks. Fortunately, Beaufort has some nice diversions for stormbound sailors. The low islands directly in front of the town docks are a nature reserve and haven for wild ponies. And then there's the Back Street Pub with it's cosy bar and cheerful fireplace. By the time we finally got out of town, we knew all the horses on a first name basis and the pub had become our second home.
This time we're following the coastline and the wait shouldn't be as long. All we really need at the outset is the promise of at least a couple of days of good weather. There are a number of all-weather inlets that we can scoot into if conditions turn bad later on; over the years, we've tried most of them: Winyah Bay, Charleston, and Port Royal Sound in South Carolina; St. Simons Sound in Georgia; and St. Marys River and Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Last night after we returned to the boat from the pub we could hear the horses whinnying in the darkness on shore. Maybe they were wishing us a safe passage south.