Not the most pleasant of voyages! But we're in Charleston
The chance to escape River Dunes after one month with a weather window to get south, possibly to Charleston, was too tempting. On our very last day the package we had been waiting for arrived from the UK containing some more chart software so there was no reason to stay any longer. We entered the post office not expecting good news but Charlie the postmaster (or whatever the USA equivalent is) told us that it had arrived and that he had done a double flip backward summersault when he saw the package. We have that effect on people!
Besides, it was getting cold in the Carolinas with temperatures 11 degrees below normal. We filled up with water and diesel, paid the months bill which was ridiculously inexpensive (taking account of the loan cars and daily steam showers) and rose early on the 2nd December to get going at first light. As always the last chore was to dump the rubbish, and this is where the day could have got off to a disastrous start, as the 'Admiral' started skidding around the marina dock which was covered in a film of ice. To ensure that the skipper's ice-skating abilities were also tested she had removed the deck hose from it's temporary & slovenly storage in the dinghy aft to the foredeck locker, dribbling water along the way. This immediately froze on the foredeck which doesn't get any heat from below so with immediate effect we took on the walking gait of two Emperor Penguins.
She didn't really want to go to sea! our home-made skating rink
To explain some events from the last few days at River Dunes - our frustrating delay with the mail was tempered by local acts of sheer kindness but our patience was sorely tried by yet more Stink Bug discoveries. But first the kindness of the cruising fraternity which knows no limits here on the east coast USA. We check in daily with an SSB (Single Side Band radio) net where cruisers hook up with each other the length of the USA and into the Caribbean. Announcing we were in River Dunes brought an invitation from a couple of resident cruisers Don & D who are currently refitting their own boat on a dock at the bottom of their garden. They had learned from other cruisers down in Florida that we were stuck waiting for important mail from a company in the UK. The day before Thanksgiving a hand written note arrived via the marina office inviting us to join them for that special annual dinner and that they would pick us up. Of course we accepted graciously, meaning we would spend most of a day with people we'd never met before. Imagine inviting complete strangers to Christmas dinner? We had a great day and enjoyed more of their company a few days later when we met up with one of the SSB Net controllers who lives in Dover NC and drove the 60 miles down to Oriental to see us and other friends. So we had a few good days of social networking amongst the cruising community during our month.
We enjoyed the very best of company in Oriental - both at Thanksgiving and a 'meet-up' at M&M's restaurant.
Now the frustrating part - despite having cleared some 400+ bugs from the boat since October we believed we were still playing host to some considerable numbers that had to be residing under the headlinings in our forward sleeping cabin. So out with the screwdrivers and down with the boards. Horror of horrors there they were. Another 150 bugs slumbering in communities of 40 or more in various parts of the linings. Once they were exposed they realised that danger was close by (thereby emitting much smell in the process) and started running for the hills - well, anywhere they could escape.
Some more smelly 'residents' hiding in the headlinings! Ajaya in the company of very nice craft - this was a real 'Gem'
Luckily we had the small bug 'swimming pool' filled with nice warm soapy water - the only sure way to deal with them. Like a roulette croupier Phil scooped them in numbers down the board and into their soapy bath where yet again they displayed an appalling inability to survive long in water. After removing 4 boards we were mentally bugged out and could not raise any enthusiasm to deal with any more. However, any that were left probably wished they had jumped ship as they had a very rough passage to Charleston! Come to that - so did we!!!
The weather window was for about 3 days after which a strong cold front would sweep through the east coast with gale force winds offshore - nice! This would be more than enough time to get to Charleston SC and who knows maybe even further if the front stalled. A promised 10-15 knots from the northwest was indeed a tempting forecast and with Frying Pan Shoals in the way between Beaufort and Charleston we wouldn't want it much stronger for our heavily loaded cat.
We lost time at the Beaufort inlet as bang in the entrance was a large dredger its attendant tugs and half a mile of surface pipes blocking the way. This obstruction was eventually overcome with an inquiring call to the US Coastguard on CH16 who gave us the VHF channel to call the dredger on. Establishing contact - or so we thought, he suggested 'one whistle' but then realising he had been addressing an outgoing boat not an incoming one he changed it to 'two whistles'. Now we've struggled to get this whistle lark over here preferring to be told to pass to either port or starboard. We crept past, with the 'Admiral' fearing that an underwater dredging wire cable just below the surface could catastrophically bring our voyage south to a premature end. It didn't.
After three months Ajaya ventured out to sea again with no sign of the northwest 10-15 breeze at all. In fact at first it was from the wrong direction at about five knots but once further out things began to shape up and the breeze off the mainland started to build. There were a number of boats exiting Beaufort around the same time so we were not to be alone. We set a course for Frying Pan Shoals an area of shallows that extends some 30 miles out from the coast at Cape Fear. A name guaranteed to lend a feeling of impending doom to any voyage. A glance at the chart highlights that many such voyages got no further. The 'Graveyard of the Atlantic' was well named.
Our log reading at 2200 reads - "Bouncy but good progress". Our log reading eight hours later reads "Hdg towards Charleston - Bloody horrible!" with the words just about legible as the writer struggled to hold the pen steady whilst the boat pounded off the short waves. It's amazing how a few extra knots of wind can make such a difference. Initially we were sailing at 5-6 knots. We now had up to 25 knots on a close reach sailing at 7-8 knots meaning that us, our floating home, treasured possessions, books, drawers, wine boxes, cereal packets, bears and bugs (or should that be bug bears?) were being tossed around as if on a demonic funfair ride with no off-switch. By this time we had thankfully cleared Frying Pan Shoals which was left behind in the early hours. One extra challenge was the cold with temperatures inland due to be in the late 20's early 30's F, 'Skip' & the Admiral had the following high fashion items adorning their respective bodies - two thermal vests, cotton shirt, two snugs, sailing jacket, two pairs of socks, long johns and a woolly hat all topped off with our brilliant new breathable foul weather gear. It could have been a scene from 'Michelin Lady meets Mr Blobby' .
Apart from the extremities we were at least warm although a trip to the heads needed careful planning with a lead time of at least 10 minutes to extricate ourselves from our layers. A further 5 minutes for the 'act' itself and another 10 minutes for re-dressing. Once inside the heads we ricocheted off the bulkheads whilst almost pulling the door of its hinges trying to maintain balance whilst disrobing, encountering one moment several G forces as the boat shot up a wave followed by virtual zero gravity as the boat started it's downward motion before hitting the next wave as if it were solid concrete. Agonized expletives muttered in the small room were lost in the general chaotic noise of the situation. But we were always pleased to be out of there!
As with many uncomfortable situations at sea the spirits can be magically lifted by the arrival of playful dolphins. Our entertainers on this occasion were about 50 Atlantic Spotted Dolphins that were in such high spirits and jinks that they could have just come from the local pub after closing time. This school were crazy, the young leaping fully clear of the water, then tail slapping sending the 'Admiral' into wild exaltations and running for the camera. This guaranteed at least 10 pics of sloshy looking water with the odd fin but no images of their playful dances alongside the boat - we'll catch that magic shot one day.
Sunset Dec 2nd One of those naughty dolphins! (Note you can actually see the curvature of the earth!!!)
Some say that dolphins are good omens when life on board isn't quite such good fun as we think it should be. This visit blew that particular myth as after they had abandoned us to play with something more exciting the wind promptly backed from the northwest into the west meaning it was now right on our nose - but fortunately only five knots or so. This was due to a small low pressure area coming off the coast which would later be surpassed by a much bigger and meaner system due through on Sunday. For now we had it's little sister blowing gently against us and with over 50 miles to Charleston it was a minor nuisance. At least we weren't being thrown all over the place with the north-westerly that had exceeded its expectations in wind strength, leaving us cursing the forecasters.
This little low then decided to breath a little more heavily and with Charleston still some 40 miles away we now had a combined wind strength of 20-25 on the nose. Of course once a sea state worthy of this additional breeze was created we were back to purgatory again as we lifted off one wave only to crash into the next following quickly on its heels. This has the effect of shaking not only the boat but the entire rig system which rattles noisily. These were 'cruel seas' causing our precious home to take more of a battering than it should expect and it was payback time for that month of leisure in River Dunes where barely a ripple touched the boat. Both engines were now running as hard as we dare without causing too much extra slamming but with so many miles to go and no real yearning to head back to Cape Fear inlet we settled down to a long second night offshore. At one stage the wind generator vane flopped over causing the blades to spin hard then stop, then start again making it dangerous to try and tie off. Next the barbecue on the pushpit turned turtle and deposited all the fake charcoal pieces and a whole summer of cooking debris into its cover and then partially over the aft deck. A real mess!
Our arrival at Charleston entrance was at 0330 having tediously slammed our way through the night. Had it been a barmy evening and had we been sitting in the cockpit in shorts and t-shirts we may have just loitered outside to wait for daylight. It's a large commercial inlet used by big ships so relatively safe provided everything is working in your favour. There is a side current that can dump you straight onto the training walls either side and only last summer a yacht and crew were lost in such circumstances. However, with brilliant piloting from the 'Admiral' at the plotter down below (having cast aside on-board gossip-mongering from our bear crew that she just wanted to stay warm) we motored through the 5 mile long entrance to Charleston inlet and finally anchored in the dark in the Ashley River anchorage at the second attempt. Our first attempt could have spelt disaster for the ketch parked close by as the swift flood tide swept us at 2 knots as we laid out the anchor. We had arrived in Charleston - at last, some 220 miles further south, but its just as cold, bbbrrrrrr!!!!!! (but no snow).