To Florida via the saltwater route

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Wed 2 Dec 2009 22:25
30:40.15N, 81:28.02W
We took a huge leap of faith in the weather forecast and decided to sail, well motor mainly, straight to Florida, by-passing the remainder of South Carolina and the state of Georgia in it's entirety. The strategy was based on the pending arrival of a cold front which would bring good sailing conditions later on in the voyage. Jam later as they say.
It wasn't that far, about 120 odd nautical miles which was a full day and a night, with a forecast that the 10-15 knot south-west winds we were experiencing 10-15 would gradually back into the west and then northwest before pretty much dying out from the north before going breezy from the north-east. This meant we would be motoring into the south-westerly before life became easier with the wind more on the beam and then on the aft quarter later after the front had moved through. The other attraction of taking the outside route is that it takes a whopping 40 miles off the distance to travel where the ICW meanders up and down various rivers and cuts of SC and Georgia.
Motoring down the Beaufort River with various other yachts and unbelievably one tatty old Russian made passenger hydrofoil flying a Canadian flag with 2 persons onboard we continued onwards into Port Royal Sound with the fast ebbing tide in our favour,  whereas the other 'transients' turned northwards and took the meandering ICW trail.
The problem with using the inlets up and down the Eastern USA is that the entrance channels extend far out to sea for miles before they reach deep enough water to head off in the desired direction. When there's any wind blowing or things go wrong they can be nasty places to flounder around in especially in a strong wind over tide situation. Knowing this coast a little better now we can appreciate just why millions was spent on creating the Intracoastal Waterway.
There were no other boats heading out to sea with us, and none in the distance that had already left - we were on our own, our demeanour not much helped by passing the last buoy in the entrance channel which bade us a forlorn farewell with its wave activated horn. We almost turned back at one point. With the south-westerly wind meeting the out-going tide the waves in the exit channel were often near vertical and Ajaya doesn't like dealing with this type of sea state. Crash, bang, crash, bang. The rigging was being shaken and the boat took a battering, which is the point where you start to question the wisdom of what you are doing. It's that juncture in the voyage when it seems feasible - even sensible to call it a day, turn the boat round and head back inland to join the other ICW' ers dodging the shallows.
We kept going though as we have had that thought many times in the past. It always creeps into the mind early in the voyage when its a) getting dark, b) nobody else around or c) at the point when its not too late to call it a day. You start to question your better judgement of the situation. However, as the tide slackened off and we found the 15-18 knots of wind over the deck to be more bearable - off we went down the coast of Georgia. The VHF announced the plight of one boat aground in the ICW - so maybe we were better off out at sea. We watched the sun set and hoped the forecast prophecy would be correct as 120 miles of breeze on the nose would be a real nuisance - any stronger and the boat would take unreasonable punishment from the increased sea state meaning a change of plan.
It seemed to take all night for the cold front to arrive and in the early hours the wind shifted to the west and quickly into the northwest where we had 20+ knots on the aft quarter - just like trade wind sailing only colder. We kept a course just offshore about 6-10 miles in just 30-40 foot of water. We now needed to avoid the shrimping boats dragging their nets over the seabed and our radar came in very useful to make out what direction they were trawling in as it was virtually impossible to see any navigation lights due to their powerful deck illumination - one clue was the thousands of seagulls and pelicans which were always around the stern rather than the bow of such boats.
We arrived off St Mary's Inlet at Fernandina Beach Florida just as dawn was breaking, catching the tide just right for a change. The entrance in the now north-easterly wind blowing 20+ knots was boisterous but safe. Once in, it was time to find somewhere to sit out a nasty low pressure system that was rearing its ugly head in the Gulf of Mexico, with threats from the NOAA forecasters of thunderstorms, line squalls and even the possibility of twisters thrown in for good measure. So, just missing the odd bit of fire and brimstone then - bless them.