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Hurrying South

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Elizabeth City, NC reflected in the morning light. Photo by Maria Karlsson
Elizabeth City, NC reflected in the morning light. Photo by Maria Karlsson

Arcturus made it to Florida. Barely.

I’m hoping that our boat hasn’t sank yet at the dock. During the first three days of the trip down the ICW, we noticed a small leak in the bilge. I knew that the packing gland needed re-packing, but the bilge was starting to fill faster than it had in the past – so fast as to require 100 strokes of the manual bilge pump every hour while motoring. It turned out to be a pinhole exhaust leak in one of the hoses. I cursed it, though didn’t bother fixing it.

This trip was about getting south south south – we had a job commitment upcoming, and only a short window to move the boat – any delays were out of the question. I could cope with 100 strokes per hour, as long as it didn’t get worse. We’d deal with it later, over the winter.

On day one, the engine decided to quit. Rather inconveniently it was in the first 50 yards of the Dismal Swamp Canal, which is rather narrow, to say the least. Thankfully there was one boat behind us, a Canadian single-hander, and he offered us a tow while I changed the filters.

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We enjoyed a lovely stay in Oriental, where we took an accepted delay, laying over for the day in the rain. We met Roy of Aeleolus, a sistership to Arcturus. Roy was a reminder of how very interesting and welcoming it is to be a Seabreeze owner. His boat was gorgeous, docked just behind his equally beautiful house on a small creek near Oriental.

I got fed up with the engine when we left Roy’s the next morning. It sputtered to a stop again only 30 minutes out of Oriental, before the sunrise. I changed the filters yet again, and we rumbled on, finally making Wilmington a few days later.

That was it. Between the engine shutting off and the 100 pumps of the bilge every hour, I’d had enough of inland ‘sailing.’ We decided to go offshore at Wrightsville Beach. I know little of diesel engines, but I know lots about sailing, so that’s what we decided to do.

We set sail outside the inlet and headed south towards Fernandina Beach, 300 miles away. We’d save nearly 500 ICW miles and let Arcturus stretch her legs, for she loves to sail. By sunset, the northerly wind had built enough that we were reduced to jib and mizzen, surfing down wave crests and having a hell of a ride. It was just Mia and I, and with no autopilot, we hand-steered for three hours on / three off for the entirety of the trip. We became prisoners of the helm. It became a arduous routine of sail, eat and sleep for the next three days.

Incredibly, with only a 24-foot waterline, we reeled off 160 nautical miles in the first 24 hours, averaging a speed faster than our boat is theoretically supposed to go. The good sailing wouldn’t last though, and we were soon in the middle of our first storm at sea in Arcturus.

The wind and seas built and built, until finally we were making 8 knots under a scrap of jib, with lightning all around and rain coming down in sheets. Mia had just woken me up to hand the mizzen and reef the jib, and it was just in time. The storm only lasted a few hours, but managed to shake up the sea fairly quickly. Strangely, when it passed, it took all the wind with it, and we sat becalmed for the next 12 hours in a wretched sea, coming from all directions.

The next morning dawned clear and the NW breeze finally arrived with the sunshine. We took showers in the ocean, hung out our foulies to dry, and set full sail, close-hauled in a gentle wind that quickly flattened the sea from the storm. We made Fernandina after another 24 hours, taking just under three days to get there, our good average destroyed by the 12-hour calm. We did manage to sail all the way in the inlet for fear that the engine wouldn’t take us in safely. We anchored for the day, now two full days ahead of our most optimistic schedule, ate an enormous breakfast and slept.

(Eds. Note: this story was written in December 2009. Arcturus is now hauled out in Bangor, Northern Ireland after crossing the Atlantic in summer 2011).

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Andy Schell
Andy Schellhttp://59-north.com
Andy Schell is a professional sailor, writer and the event manager of the ARC Caribbean 1500. You can find him online at 59-north.com.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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