The gust front hit at 68.9 knots.
The weather had been beautiful after Beryl and its lingering moisture were swept out by a cold front. But because we couldn’t turn the rental car in until Monday*, we had to settle for a forecast with “isolated thunderstorms, some possibly severe” tacked on at the end. Laying the text out day by day, it looked as if getting north of Savannah late in the night would reduce our probabilities.
Looks can be deceiving.
We left the marina in Brunswick less smoothly than usual. A current running down the SE River wasn’t particularly visible at the surface, but the keel and rudder felt it, and getting out of the 60 foot space between docks with a 45 foot boat in the grip of an unexpected current reminded me of the first time I rode a horse. [The horse won.]
Having left on time, if not gracefully, we rode the developing ebb down the Brunswick River and out the ship channel to hit our turning point 34 minutes early. Minutes like these go in the bank to be given back along the way.
We were delighted to have sailing conditions as we turned NE and shut the diesel down. Equally delightful was the long-shore current that put more time in the bank. We settled back to enjoy the cooler offshore temps, the clear sky and to dodge shrimpers for a while.
Around 1330, we both decided the sky to the west wasn’t looking quite as delightful. I put our radar in weather mode, and we looked out that direction to see heavy and increasingly organized [not good] rain showers coming together into a diagonal wall that was headed across our course at 30 knots from about 40 miles away. What NOAA had to say, confirmed what we saw. Pfui!
We decided to turn south and let them slide past us and proceed north once they had crossed. They did not cooperate. The southwest end of the wall kept propogating farther south than we could escape. So we furled the sails and made ready [not quite] to meet them head on in the thinnest part of the wall we could discern.
It was thin, but, man it was wiry… The gust front hit us at 68.9 knots [That’s 78.5 mph folks]. It ripped water off the surface and shot-blasted us with it. In less than five minutes the winds were down to only 56 knots, and the waves began to build. They had seven miles from the coast to gather steam before they reached us and were 6-8 feet high and only about 40-60 feet apart and the color of milky malachite. Their tops were a continuous wall of breaking white combers with long downwind manes of spray that hurt when it hit you.
We had the engine at full throttle and were able to keep bow to the waves except when the wind suddenly gusted from an odd direction, and then we would be shoved abeam and rolled. Then we would begin the slow turn back up into the waves. Every two or three minutes the boat would crest a wave and nose-dive into the oncoming wave. Then it would pop back up like a bath tub duck. Our ground speed during all of this was about a knot to windward.
And then the rain came. And then the mushy pea hail. Fortunately, the thin part of the line was thin on lightning. After distant cloud-to water-stuff before the gust front arrived, the infrequent remainder was cloud-to-cloud.
When the winds became a manageable 30-40 knots we were able to fall off to starboard and resume our course with those same waves lifting and lowering us like a giant game of blanket toss. All told, it lasted an hour. We will not forget Altamaha Sound.
As squalls like these usually do, this one had knocked the sailing winds senseless, and we motored back along our course having withdrawn 1:37 from the time bank. [The reason these times were important was our desire to reach Charleston with a favorable flood tide.]
Before sunset arrived we had wind again and were able to shut down and sail, but that lasted only a while, and again, we had to motorsail to maintain the seven knots we now needed. The moon rose full and red behind the remnants of squall clouds that now were reaching farther south than Brunswick and lighting the sky with flash pops.
We reached Savannah nearing midnight in the garden of large ships moving fast. First the King Douglas cleared out toward the sea-buoy, then the pilot boat Georgia made its way down to the Skodsborg which had hauled anchor and was building steam toward the ship channel. Then the American President’s Lines Chile came down channel at 17 knots and crossed behind us about two miles distant. Without the AIS all we would have known was big stuff was moving, and we would have had to rely on plotting solutions only to determine our actions. By being able to add the AIS information and the plotting solutions, we were able to safely transit with a lot less concern.
And then moon or not, it got really dark. From Savannah northward, there were a few lights and the anchored shrimpers’ work-lights might or might not have been shore lights. We started combat napping in the cockpit and spelling one another on about 90 minute intervals. From Savannah to sunrise was only six and a half hours.
Off Port Royal Sound, the wind returned and with authority. We had 18-23 knots of wind on a beam reach. We shut the engine down and proceeded to race through the blackness. From time to time we would surf a wave as the swells changed direction, depending on the tide flooding or ebbing in a nearby inlet. At nautical twilight—the sky just pinking in the east—we were only 12 minutes behind our time line, and that’s essentially zero given the precision of tidal current forecasting.
Off Folly Island we went back to motorsailing as the sun warming the air lifted the breeze above us. By the time we had reached the Charleston Inlet jetties, the wind had come back down to the surface and was back in the 18-23 range – on the nose. We furled and motored in on a flood tide and had the anchor down in the Ashley River not far from the Coast Guard docks at 1020.
We were napping about 20 minutes after that. We napped until 1600 and went to bed early. The next day we slept in until 1000 as nearly two inches of heavy rain washed the salt from the boat and kept us lulled. We still checked on the anchor and our position relative to other boats and obstructions on a regular basis, but we weren’t 100% till around noon.
Was it worth it? You bet. We traded 25 hours (20 actually offshore) for three days of droning tedium and badly maintained waterway. We would have gotten beaten up by the squall either way—and would have had fewer options for dealing with it in the waterway. Yes, we could have anchored if we could find a place where 60+ knot winds wouldn’t put us ashore.
The important thing to remember is that with sea room, a well-found boat with a competent crew is much safer (if occasionally less comfortable) offshore. The prevailing and squall winds were blowing from land to sea–we had 3000+ miles of ocean downwind, not mud, sand and gravel a 100 feet away and an unknown bottom beneath.
Did it go perfectly well? No. The Droid is dead, long live the Droid. I had it outside testing the limits of its coverage and forgot to stow it. It now performs like HAL after its singing “Daisy” was done. The electric flyswatter is also toast so it no longer toasts flies. [A bad, bad thing between Charleston and Gerogetown.]
But there is nothing quite like eating fresh sour-sweet cherries and tossing the pits in your moonlit wake while crashing along on a beam reach at 7.5 knots at 0200 with nothing on the radar but buoys.
*I had a vertigo attack the day we planned to start moving our car northward. So we ended up a day behind.