Getting a 48′ Gunboat catamaran to Cape Hatteras in mid-December might seem like a good idea to some folks, but it could leave a great deal of risk to the imagination (published February 2016)
Anjella, a Gunboat 48 I helped to move north from Cape Town, South Africa ten years ago, needed to be moved from St. Tropez to Gunboat’s home in Wanchese, NC last month. It sounded simple enough, but a November passage through the Mediterranean and Straits of Gibraltar and across the North Atlantic would provide ample risk. Getting her through the shallow water of Pamlico Sound, just west of Cape Hatteras in mid-December would lead to a very uncertain outcome. Risk was not lacking.
To minimize risk and maximize the probability of a positive outcome, a highly qualified crew would become critical. It would not only make things easier, it would provide a hedge against the possibility of problems along the way. Lia Ditton, with whom I’ve had several earlier adventures including doublehanded passages and a trip past pirates in the Indian Ocean on our way from Cape Town to Dubai a few years ago was available. Not only had she done several singlehanded transatlantic passages on sailboats, she also has rowed across the Atlantic. Although we certainly would not be seeking problems, she’s not unfamiliar with adversity and dealing with unforeseen events. Chris McGinley, currently the skipper on Gadget, Walter Cronkite’s old boat, has grown up on boats and lived aboard for extended periods of time. Together, we would add our respective abilities, and dig into the 6,000 mile passage.
Certainly, the trip through the Med and Straits of Gibraltar in late November can be ugly. The seas can be rough and pounding and dead on the nose. Fortune smiled on us, however, at least in the early stages of the trip. Light winds from behind left us a relatively easy exit from the South of France. Somewhere off the southeastern coast of Spain, however, things started to go a bit sour: the cast housing on the catamaran’s port transmission sheared, leaving us with only one engine with which to power and maneuver the boat. It might not be a critical factor throughout most of the trip, but it would definitely provide something to think about whenever we docked at low speeds and rudders are often relatively useless. At docking speeds, the starboard engine would torque the boat to the left, and with little water running across the rudders, they would provide little countermeasure to the leftward twist. We would have to deal with those events when they came up. In the meantime, I was reminded that on at least five transatlantic passages, I was running boats that didn’t even have engines, and on at least 20 other transatlantics I was on racing boats, aboard which we weren’t allowed to use engines. Having one would be a “luxury”.
The real crux of the trip would be the final approach to North Carolina. We would need to clear through Customs in Beaufort, NC, sail to the Ocracoke Inlet, negotiate the narrow and shallow channels of the Pamlico Sound and finally get to Wanchese, NC, just west of Cape Hatteras—in mid-December. We kept moving, stopping in the Canaries for fuel and re-provisioning to top off our supplies prior to the actual transatlantic segment of the trip. Eventually, we made it through the Bahamas and into the Gulf Stream to catch a bit of a ride with the current.
For almost a month and a half we continued through our three watch system, three hours on and six hours off. Those “off hours” were often interrupted with sail changes, reefing or other tasks, while sleep is light at best and one identifies every sound, even during a fitful sleep.
As luck would have it, the approach to Beaufort, NC was at night. The unfamiliar approach has currents and narrow channels leading to Beaufort Docks, and it was not assisted by the Navionics chart chip that proclaimed “All of North America” but failed to cover Beaufort and the southern approaches to the Ocracoke Inlet and narrow channels beyond the Inlet. It was an omission that didn’t exactly receive high praise. Fortunately, prior to departure, I had purchased one of Delorme’s InReach messaging and tracking devices. Included in the package was their Earthmate mapping program, and I had downloaded the relevant North Carolina NOAA charts. We had accurate electronic GPS tracking, despite the Navionics failure to cover that area. Jeb, the dock master at Beaufort Docks and his colleague, Weymouth, were both helpful prior to and during our very brief stay while waiting for Customs. Weymouth had suggested which way we should approach the “T” dock, allowing us to sail into the tidal current. With the starboard engine twisting us to the left and rudders working in the current even at low speeds, we were able to make a seamless approach around 10 p.m.
The mid-December weather window was good but brief. We needed to clear Customs as quickly as possible to get into and through the Pamlico Sound. Unfortunately, they worked only during “normal” business hours, so we were delayed until daybreak to complete those formalities. The following day, Jeb made a few calls to find some qualified local knowledge about transiting the Ocracoke Inlet. Winds were expected to increase, and we might be able to make it to the inlet prior to dark, we thought. While underway, I was able to call Stevie Wilson and Ernie Dozier, a couple of charter boat captains working out of Ocracoke, NC. They were unavailable to pilot us through the passage, but they took time to explain where the tight spots were located and how best to navigate those sections. Stevie told me that if we ran into any problems, he had some friends with boats still in the water, and he’d get help out to us. It reminded me, yet again, how important that brotherhood of mariners really is. If someone needs help, there is someone close at hand with the good sense and generosity of spirit to lean into the problem and help solve it. It’s a sacred responsibility we all share.
As the day wore on, it became obvious that we would not get to the inlet before dark. We would have to anchor out and await daylight. Stevie had also made some suggestions about where we might anchor. We both knew that it would entail anchoring off a lee shore, but with good holding ground, three quarter of a mile to the beach and an upward slopping bottom, I decided to anchor until daybreak. Of course it was a fitful sleep, but when the anchor bridle snapped at 2:00 a.m., Lia was immediately running to the bow to solve the newest problem, and Chris and I were close behind her. The building winds and seas had proven to be too much for the UV degraded bridle. As the holding ground and anchor held, and plotter and radar reflected that fact, new lines were fixed to the anchor chain, and all was put back in order. The next morning we began the transit through the Ocracoke Inlet and channels to the north.
Those words of wisdom coming from the local charter boat captains were invaluable. They deal with the real world on a regular basis, and that kind of experience can’t be overestimated. Prior to leaving for France, Peter Johnstone had suggested that I download the Army Corps of Engineers’ relevant hydrographic surveys, which I did. I downloaded the surveys in PDF format so I could blow them up on the ship’s computer, and I printed them out so I would have a hard copy. As we prepared to go through the channels, Lia pasted the hard copies together so we could follow our progress on my Delorme Earthmate mapping software as well as on the Army Corps of Engineers’ surveys, keeping Stevie’s suggestions and insights in mind. With breakers on both sides of the Inlet, we completed the narrow and shallow channels without touching bottom once. It was flawless, thanks to help from a number of sources.
Dark was rapidly approaching on December 18th as we approached Wanchese, NC and the Gunboat yard. Winds were again starting to build as the cold front continued to develop over Cape Hatteras. Again, we would need to dock using one engine, but this time currents were uncertain as we approached. I contacted Gunboat and requested a launch to come alongside and “hip up” to us on our port quarter to help provide a counterbalancing power to our starboard engine. Trapper, the man driving the launch, understood the winds and currents in the harbor and provided the necessary assistance for a successful docking. People from Gunboat were ready to help on the dock and take our lines. It was a successful end to a long passage and an otherwise uncertain December outcome to the trip. But it was made successful by inputs and efforts from many people from a wide variety of places.
Army Corps of Engineers depth reports:
The Army Corp depth sounds the inlets and channels every two months or so. The latest charts complete with GPS coordinates are at: http://www.saw.usace.army.mil/Missions/Navigation/HydrographicSurveys/SideChannelsSmallHarbors.aspx
You will need to download and enter waypoints for the following Army Corp charts from the above site (use a real chart and double check the order of the charts below!) I suggest you print these out and tape together as one chart:
Bigfoot Slough (Silver Lake to Pamlico Sound) http://saw-nav.usace.army.mil/FERRY_SIDE_SMALL_HARBORS/SILVER_LAKE_HARBOR/Bigfoot_Slough.pdf