Take the Long Way Home

It's 0600 on Wednesday morning. April 2nd. Sojourner is in position 33 28 N, 77 53 W, motor sailing ENE and headed straight for Cape Hatteras, which lays about 100 miles over the horizon ahead. Venus, now the morning star, is about ten degrees above the horizon off the starboard now, to our east. A glimmer of sunlight, the new day dawning, is visible just below. But to me, in the dark cockpit, it's still night, and I'll savor it's last death throes while all remains quiet on board. While my dad and Tom sleep, this is my time. The time at sea I treasure the most.

We departed Charleston yesterday around 1100 after seeing Billy off for his long drive back to Chestertown, MD. His work schedule, combined with our longer-than-expected journey home forced him to bail. But he wasn't leaving us in the lurch by any means - three people offshore is really my ideal number anyway, and Tom has proven himself a more than capable ocean sailor and, more importantly, fantastic, friendly company. He first sailed with us up from St. Croix to Marsh Harbor in February, and we quickly invited him back for the leg home. He and his wife Darlene plan on accompanying me on the return delivery aboard Sleijride after the Newport-Bermuda Race.

My plan when I set the calendar back in January didn't include a stopover in Charleston or a twelve-hour day motoring up the ICW. Dad wanted help bringing Sojourner home from St. Lucia, his farthest landfall since leaving the Bay with the Caribbean 1500 in the fall. For the last seven years or so we'd always planned to do that trip together - hell, it's part of the reason he bought the boat he bought, a Wauquiez Hood 38 and an eminently capable ocean sailing yacht. But life interfered, in the worst way. My mom, his lifelong partner and first mate - they'd been married for 37 years - died after a protracted experience with brain cancer in the spring of 2012. Our family has never returned to normal since then, and it never will. But we make the best of it in mom's honor and live on.

But Dad persevered, and with a dogged determinism and renewed vigor, set about to do the trip anyway, which my mom undoubtedly would have encouraged him to do. As I was now running the event, we wouldn't be able to sail together. In a fitting twist of fate, his cousins, both experienced sailors, and a friend agreed to join him and they had a hell of a run south in one of the rougher Caribbean 1500's in recent memory. Early on, I committed to helping him bring the boat north, planned around my busy travel schedule, and here we are, 1800 miles from St. Lucia with still about 350 to go.

I did not plan to take this long way home from Marsh Harbor. Up until the last week, we'd been able to make a beeline from St. Lucia. Besides the brief stop in St. Croix to change crew (which I need to mention included my dads new girlfriend Marcia, whose new to sailing but is remarkably keen. It's still strange seeing my dad with a different woman, but he's happy and I'm supportive. I think it'll always be strange - it has to be - but that doesn't mean it can't also be good. Life goes on and we do our best to enjoy the time we have. My mom would no doubt approve, and therefore, so do I). ANYWAY, the nine sailing days it took to go 1200 miles from St. Lucia to Marsh Harbor were arguably the best nine consecutive days I've ever had offshore. We broad reached ahead of 20 knot winds, clear, dry skies and a long regular swell. We should have known better that I couldn't last.

It's decidedly early in the season to be sailing north, particularly with this crazy winter we're having, what with the par vortex and all. Billy and I flew south from Dulles only a week ago, and as the plane took off the snow was still coming down. Such an early-season passage requires conservative planning. Instead of going direct to Hatteras offshore, like I would have preferred, we aimed instead for Jacksonville, 300 miles NW but really in the wrong direction. But we had to, for another low was brewing and we were only offered a 48 hour window.

Those first two days were good sailing, but tough on the crew, who all, except for dad, were seasick, myself included. I wore a scopolamine patch for the first time, and though I never puked, I wasn't real comfortable. As we approached Jacksonville, the SW wind was holding steady. A couple thunderstorms passed north and south of us ahead of the cold front, with strong lightning all around and heavy rain - but no wind. It quickly cleared and a gentle breeze filled in behind it, so we decided to press on and try to make Savannah, another 12 hours distant.

All was well as we sailed in a port tack with a nice westerly breeze. Until about 0100, when the front, a strong one, finally overtook us. I was in the vee berth an was woken to crashing and banging and bouncing about an hour before my watch was set to start. I laid there for a little but knew we were really overpowered and that I'd have to go up and help Billy shorten sail. I geared up - by now it was into he low 50s at night - and emerged on deck to a howling northwesterly. The skies were crystal clear as a cold winters day, and the stars were out in force. The loom of the mainland USA was visible to the west. And Sojourner was taking a beating. Billy and I struggled to furl the genoa, which rolled so tight in the string wind that we ran out of furling line, leaving a tiny scrap of headsail exposed. With two reefs in the main and now beating, thanks to the wind shift, we motor-sailed the last eight hours towards Savannah, crashing into steep waves that continually found there way into the cockpit. The water temperature read 57 degrees and felt colder.

Dad was on watch as we entered the inlet, now aiming directly upwind. I furled the mainsail, and with the nine screaming, we pushed on at barely 3 knots through the northwesterly gale, the waves finally abating as we found shelter in the ICW. Had the wind been from th east there is no way we'd have been able to make that inlet, as the seaway it would have created would have been dangerous. The NW wind, though howling, was coming off the land, and the water was more or less protected inshore. Not wanting to backtrack up the river to Savannah, we called customs and arranged for the to meet us the next day in Charleston. We spent that first night on the ICW cooped up at anchor with the Q flag flying, and it wasn't until 7pm the next day that we could finally get off the boat after dealing with the authorities.

So now we are nearly on the home stretch, though its taken longer than I'd hoped. I miss my wife Mia and am anxious to get home, but I want to see this trip through to the end with my dad. It's kind of fitting that after we drop Tom off in Deltaville it will just be the two of us for the last bit up the Bay. I'm pretty happy with how our plan played out. You're always at the mercy of the weather offshore, but particularly in the margins of e seasons, you've got to play it safe. Hatteras remains a daunting obstacle, but it's just over the horizon now.