We’d had enough of hanging in the waterway waiting for bridges to open, huddling in our survival blanket through cold nights, and barely dodging shallow mudbanks. One guy we met in Deltaville told us he’d been aground seven times on the Georgia section of the ICW. There seemed to be only one solution – skip Georgia and the rest of South Carolina, and take to the high seas! So we waited one more day for better weather and headed out, bound for Florida and that elusive warm sunshine. Fernandina Beach at the northernmost coast of Florida seemed like a reasonable target – about 36 hours of continuous sailing. Conditions looked good, with 10 – 15 knot winds from the north and north-west, following seas and a strong tidal current to carry us out of Charleston to the sea.
About nine other sailboats at the Charleston City Marina had plans to leave on the Thursday morning, but only one – a nice Island Packet that soon passed us – headed out at dawn. Before too long the sails were up and Common Sense was scudding happily along with waves, wind and tide all pushing us along. With the land almost invisible, we were still in quite shallow water about 30 ft deep – quite different from our home coast in Western Australia, where it drops off to deep – and then to very very deep - quite quickly. Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins joined us from time to time, we saw some kind of a whale hanging in the water – I think it was a killer from the dorsal fin, but I’m not sure if they live here – and Terry had a seal pop up to check him out.
It was a long day, even though the course was fairly straightforward. The difference was that we would not be looking for an anchorage or a marina at the end of the day, but travelling through the night. I was a bit anxious at the prospect of being on watch and responsible for the boat while Terry slept, but the conditions were reasonable and the moon was nearly full. It would be OK. We’d be motoring on auto-pilot. It would be OK. The sun set and the moonlight was beautiful on the water. On my first watch, a pod of dolphins sped alongside, their fins dragging lines of phosphorescence through the water. It got colder and the wind and waves picked up. We were both frozen within our eight or so layers of clothing and I don’t think either of us really slept during our down time.
On my early am watch, the seas were big enough for some fairly serious rolling. Just enough for that edge of nausea to set in – combined with the cold, the anxiety and the sleeplessness it was reminiscent of a chemotherapy session. Not exactly what I’d signed up for. I kept my spirits up by composing doggerel verses in my head (I highly recommend this – you can make yourself laugh at the worst of times). This one went something like:
I don’t want to drown in the cold grey Atlantic/I’d rather be somewhere warmer and calmer
The Mediterranean, blue and romantic/ or drinking cold beer on Grand Bahama…
And so on. The poem got worse, and so did the conditions.
And then, as we all know, the darkest hour is just before dawn. At 5am, on Terry’s watch, the alarm for the fuel filter came on. We switched to the second filter but there was gunk in that too and its alarm went off about twenty minutes later. Terry changed the fuel filters with the boat pitching and rolling, with me trying to steer the least rocky path down the waves (which I could barely see). We managed to putter along until the sun rose. Then it was up with the sails again, engine off and we did a steady 5 to 6 knots, tacking a few times, all the way to the mouth of the St Mary’s River. Boat US were on standby, but Terry used our spare fuel and all our spare filters to motor gently into Fernandina Beach. We checked into the marina, which was expensive, but we needed to be on the dock to get our fuel tank cleaned out, and the conditions were getting colder and windier by the minute. We had a hot shower, Terry cooked a great chicken stew in the pressure cooker and then we slept like a pair of corpses for about ten hours. Blissful.