Three ladies boarded a 27′ Hunter sailing vessel to go cruising for a relaxing week at the North Carolina Coast. Destination, River Dunes Resort and Marina in Oriental. Prior to departure, the questions they got asked time and time again, “You’re not taking a man with you? Aren’t you scared?” In this day and age, it was shocking to hear this.
As the Skipper/Navigator, I had been sailing for less than two years but grew up on the water in a powerboat capacity. Next, crew member number two had been dinghy sailing since childhood and cruising in larger monohulls just this past year. Finally, our third crew member was about to experience her first time on a keel boat. She knew she would be needed as an extra set of hands. She just didn’t know how much this would entail.
After provisioning the boat Sunday night, we departed Monday morning up the Neuse River. As soon as we cleared both bridges, the diesel engine was shut off and sails raised. The pure sound of quiet around us had a calming effect. With the impending thunderstorms moving in early Tuesday, a long day was ahead of us. Winds were light as we tacked back and forth across the Neuse. Approaching the Marine Base at Cherry Point, winds picked up and we sailed on a beam reach at about 5 kts. Once we turned the corner and headed north to Oriental, we were running up to 7.1 kts (on a vessel that desperately needed a bottom job) with winds pushing us out of the SSW nearing 30 kts as the day progressed.
As we approached the channel for Broad Creek, we were faced with two plausible options. We could attempt to tack and go head to wind to take down the sails or do the dreaded jibe in those conditions. After further discussion, we decided to jibe and had one heck of a time keeping the vessel head to wind. After several attempts, it took both ladies pulling together and lots of tenacity to tame that jib that’s more than 200% bigger than the main. Being difficult to furl on a light wind day, it was no easy feat to bring it in under these extreme conditions. We all breathed a sigh a relief when that part was done. Motoring up the narrow, shallow channel was going to be a piece of cake or so we thought. After just five minutes, the engine overheat light came on and we started smelling something burning. In order to be proactive, I sent one of the ladies up to the bow to prepare for an anchor drop in the event the engine died or had to be immediately shut down. Our less experienced crew member was on stand-by ready to jump in if needed. Although, the engine was in gear at only 600 rpm’s, I wasn’t sure if she was going to make it much longer. After our 10 hour day, 37 NM, we docked for the evening. Adrenaline rush over. Fatigue washed over us.
Tuesday was a day of thunderstorms, high winds, lightning. After spending the day resting and in the Clubhouse, we hung out on the wet porch most of the evening. The highlight was our GUCCI hors-d’oeuvres and a chance encounter in the closet with Lady Liberty.
Wednesday was spent pool side from 8:30am until about 11pm that night. This was the entire purpose of our trip, R&R as an escape from our busy lives. We grilled, ate, drank, swam, rode bikes, read and just basically enjoyed being dry and on land.
Thursday morning something happened, an explosion and not the good kind. Everyone has experienced gastrointestinal upsets so I’ll spare you the details. It hit all of us. The nausea washed over me like a wave as sweat started beading up on my forehead. It had to have been something we ate. Suck it up, I told myself. We had jobs to do. As we were about to depart later that morning, the engine wouldn’t crank. The battery was dead even though we were plugged into shore power. After further review, the battery charger has gotten unplugged. No idea how this happened. This left us with two options: charge the battery for 24 hours or charge it for a few hours and take our chances with a low battery charge and the overheating engine issue. We opted for the latter choice and were only making .6 knot motoring up the channel as the overheating engine light came on. As soon as we rounded the corner to Broad Creek, sails up and engine off. Winds were picking up again in the 20+ range. With the wind on our nose and not using the motor, lots of tacking with small increments of headway. As sunset was approaching, we either had to anchor for the night or try to make it to Oriental marina. Concerned about a dead battery if we anchored, we opted for the marina.
Oriental Marina has a very narrow, shallow channel and only a few marks are lighted. I was confident that I could get us there safely for the night. Sailing at dark, my eyes scanned the area around us while at the helm and navigating with my iPhone. After the ladies battled the monstrous beast of a jib in the dark and stowed the sails, the diesel just wasn’t cutting it. We weren’t making any headway up the channel. Once again, the red engine light came on. Not only did we smell something burning as the winds whistled around us, an ugly sound from the diesel screamed, “Please shut me down NOW!” In order to avoid possibly running aground navigating the narrow channel without much of an engine, we aborted our attempt to get into the marina. With the engine failing us, we had to get out of the channel and anchored as quickly as possible. In the dark, exactly 342 feet from the channel with 100 feet of anchor rode out, we were done for the night. It was almost midnight, sailing for eight hours and 20NM due to the wind conditions and having to tack. “No worries. We’re fine.” I said. After that adrenaline rush dealing with chaos, exhaustion ensued.
It was a beautiful night as we bobbed up and down at anchor. Although we could’ve went to sleep, we took turn on watches mainly for commercial boat traffic that flies through the area. By 4am, the sky was lit up with stars and a crescent moon. I cherished that quiet time taking in my surroundings with all my senses. By 5am, the sky was starting to get lighter as sunrise was soon approaching. I wanted to give the crew some more time to sleep because a long day of sailing was ahead of us. At 5:40am, I fired the engine. Success, it started. Let’s move ladies. Get those sails up!
Friday was a long, hot, steamy day even with the breeze. After breakfast, the gastrointestinal issues hit me again along with the intense nausea. Laying down below in the hot salon, I actually felt better (if you can call it that) there than in the cockpit. Downing anti-nausea medicine and continuing to get food in my stomach, I pushed on. After all, we were in this together!
We needed the motor to get us back. At 1,000 rpm’s, the engine light would go on almost immediately. At 800 it would run for ten minutes and 600 gave us 15 minutes to motor sail. That was the magic number, 600 rpm’s. Run her, shut her down, a timed repeated process all day knowing that the time would come where she would not fire any more. When that time came, I was praying we would be close to home, near the marina in New Bern.
As we were getting farther up the river, we noticed about 40 San Juan 21’s sailing across the river. Great, I thought. This is not the time for us to have to waste precious time sailing from one side of the river to the other just to go around the regatta. I really would have liked to bust through and continue sailing our course. We knew our luck would soon run out and impending doom was forthcoming.
We went around the regatta and the next time I fired the engine, “Click”. Nothing! It was the end of the line for us. The plan was to sail as close to the first of two New Bern Bridges and then make a decision. As we got closer, a discussion took place about sailing under the first bridge and then dropping anchor. As we prepared to do this, I could feel a change in my body. I was perspiring, not from the heat but from being nervous about what we were attempting to do. Running through my mind like an infinite loop was the $10,000 fine if we hit the bridge. I truly have “No fear” but I had to listen to my gut. This wasn’t fear. It was stupidity! The winds were shifting and circling all around us. I could not trust the fact that if we sailed to perfection that the wind wouldn’t severely shift as we went under the bridge. We had absolutely nothing to gain by going any further. Abort!
Time to try to get anchored. Due to conditions from an approaching storm, we had no luck trying to hove to. The only other option was to get the sails down and anchored without an engine in swirling winds. Getting head to wind was near impossible, let alone facing that direction for more than just mere seconds. There were a few brief intermittent moments where the wind would blow us around. Seconds to react. We had to wait for that exact moment and get that monstrous jib in as quickly as possible. Be ready. No hesitation when that instant came. After what seemed like forever, the moment came, jib furled. Yeah it looked like a “Hot mess” but so what. It was pulled in. Next up, dropping the anchor and being prepared to pull down the main the second the boat came head to wind. Everyone had to be on their toes and execute this flawlessly. We needed each other to do our jobs. It was slow-moving, sailing around under just the main. Patience until the timing was right. Time to drop the anchor. “Pull, pull” I yelled to the other crew member to bring down the main as I tried to keep the boat straight. Mission accomplished! We were safely anchored just outside the channel with enough distance between us and the bridge. So close to home although our trip was far from over.
I called a marina friend to come tow us in. As we prepared towing lines and fenders, lightning started striking nearby. The radar had been clear all day until now as the sky became an ominous black. Two storm fronts coming from different directions were going to converge. Just as he arrived, we received a call that the bridge would be closed for one hour due to after work traffic. After we got tied up to the dinghy, our sailing vessel was our steerage while the dinghy provided our power. Just as we went under the first bridge, the bottom was about to fall out. A wall of rain was headed directly for us as lightning continued to strike. We called the bridge and asked for an exception to open since this was a dangerous situation, lightning strikes and being towed. The bridge operator wouldn’t budge. We circled around for 20 minutes as the pelting rain actually hurt when it touched your skin. Although we had a mast in the air serving as a lightning rod and I was clinging to a metal wheel steering us, I was not afraid. I jokingly said to my friends, “If lightning strikes me and I’m dead, at least they’ll be able to find me in the water since we have PFD’s on”. Seriously, if it was my time, I was ready. There was that possibility.
Out of nowhere, we got summoned on the VHF radio. The bridge operator must have felt bad watching us circle in rain and lightning and decided to open ten minutes early. Better late than never. My friend, who was towing us, got us near the dock and cut us loose. The bow was up against the dock as I’m yelling “Get off the boat, get off the boat now” to the crew at the bow. One climbed onto the dock as the other coached her with line handling. The wind shifted slightly. As the vessel swung around, I was able to grab the stern line and hop off the boat to help secure it.
Once everything was tied up, the rain stopped, storm fronts had moved through and the sun came out. I guess that was our reward after all we had accomplished together as a crew. No one quit. No one froze. We did what needed to be done.
After taking a shower and getting out of our saturated clothes, we walked across the bridge for dinner downtown. Synchronicity in its finest. We came across one of the male doubters earlier in the week. He said, “I see y’all made it back and didn’t get lost.” We just smiled and kept on walking. He had no idea what we accomplished together without a man on board.
By the way, we’re not dead. We’re stronger than we ever were before.
***For those wondering about the diesel engine, it needed new zincs and gaskets. Running like a champ now.