For Tim and my first open water sail, we decided to go big. When Captain Nick Christie asked us to sail his classic yacht Cruinneag III to Antigua in February, we said yes. That decision was made on a sunny, warm Fall day while we all drank beer together. “How could we say no? What an opportunity!” we said.
February 16th came very very fast. And that Monday dawned very very cold. That warm Fall decision was a distant memory. Icicles hung off the fenders and Jackson Creek wore a shell of ice. But when you sail, you need to watch the weather, and though we knew we’d have a cold start, we only had 24 hours to sail around Cape Hatteras’s “Graveyard of the Atlantic” before another winter Stormaggadon raced up the East Coast – there was no time for delay.
We cracked through the ice with the hull while waving goodbye to the gathered Deltaville Boatyard guys. Even at high tide, we struck bottom on the way out of the channel, but accelerating through it, we were officially underway.
Cruinneag III proved to be a worthy vessel. Nick had refit her in Deltaville for two years, including 10 coats of varnish on her 63 foot teak hull. She is a classic wooden ketch, built in 1936 by A.M Dickie and Son, of Tarbert Argyll, Scotland. This was to be her maiden, “shakedown” sail after 2 years out of the water. A 2000 mile sail through the wintery Atlantic was a challenge that she was up for. We were joined on the sail by Pauline, a seasoned veteran of the sea. Pauline has spent her last 37 years crewing on boats and took all weather in stride.
Once on our way, we reached the Bay Bridge-Tunnel in about 5 hours. We were running fast ahead of schedule knowing that we needed to wait for a storm moving up the coast of North Carolina to pass on Tuesday morning. We spent 5 hours circling the bay at Lynnhaven Roads to avoid arriving too early. While we motored between the giant anchored tankers, snow started to fall. It didn’t take long for 4 inches to accumulate on the decks. If you haven’t been on teak decks with 4 inches of snow, it’s very very SLIPPERY!
We immediately started our watch schedule for the trip. Watches consisted of 3 hours in the pilot house, watching the seas, the chart plotter, other ships on AIS, the autopilot and monitoring the engine and sails. Tim and I served watch together and then had 6 hours off to cook, eat and sleep. Watch happens day and night and there are times when all hands on deck is required. It surprised me how quickly we fell into the pattern.
During Monday night watch, we passed the lighthouses down the VA/NC coast. Tim was on his own initially and it was the first time he had seen them from the sea. The weather steadily got worse and watching these beacons in the thickening snow and wind, he had his first (and only) doubts about whether we made the right choice to come on this trip. We knew we were arriving to Hatteras earlier than we should have and knew we would hit a big blow. Everyone was tense because with strong Northerly winds, we couldn’t easily go back.
We ended up arriving early and faced 10-20 foot seas, but the winds and waves pushed us south and it felt surprisingly smooth. Just north of Hatteras, the winds began to propel us East across the Gulf Stream. At 2pm on Tuesday, it was time to cross.
The Gulf Stream is the advanced class of sailing. The Continental Shelf drops off and creates a deep trough. Here the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico race from the south. Combined with cold winds from the north, the Gulf Stream develops its own storm systems and confused seas.
As we entered the Stream, things got exciting. The cold northwest winds blew across the warm, clear blue water of the Gulf Stream. An eerie steam developed. The steam blew low in the troughs of the waves and we would rise above it as we crested each wave. We were greeted by dolphins and even a sailfish or marlin as we ran down the following 15 foot seas.
After a rolling night’s watch, sunshine and strong winds prevailed on Wednesday as we left the Gulf Stream behind and moved into the open Atlantic. NW winds meant we could hoist the sails for the first time and continue to run with the weather at about 7 kts using the staysail and mizzen.
On Thursday, the heaviest storm of the trip began to build around midnight and by 2am, it was blowing close to 50 kts. When Tim reported to watch at 2am, he came up in time to see a cargo ship to port and 3 others on the AIS. Nick was at the wheel and Pauline on with him as he had to manually steer because the wind and waves were too strong for the auto-pilot. These squalls and winds continued through sunrise for over 5 hours and by the end, Nick was exhausted.
The skies slowly cleared by mid-morning but the wind and waves continued all day. We saw some waves nearly 20 feet high, most in the 15 foot range. I was glad for all 63 feet of Cruinneag’s sturdy build.
By Friday, we were all ready for a calmer day. Winds dropped to about 20-25 kts and moved around from NW to NE. The exciting event was a jibe required to adjust to the more easterly winds. It was a day when we all caught up on some much needed sleep.
The next day, we started to first feel the warmth of the lower latitudes as we moved below the border of South Carolina. As the weather warmed, we had our first official Happy Hour and brought out Admiral Skully, our trusted mascot of 429-apalooza. We would later recognize we were too relaxed and heading more south than east, for which we would later pay dearly trying to move east in the Trade Winds. We only have Skully to blame…
Sunday brought even lighter winds from the east but heavy and confused seas from storms to the north. Nick and Tim had an exhilarating morning raising the working jib. To raise that sail, Nick has to go out on the bowsprit, hanging 10 feet over the front of the boat. The seas were big and the bow was going under water with each wave. Tim watched Nick get completely submerged as he held on and hanked on the sail. It took us about 2 hours to get everything straightened out and the sail up, during which Tim and Nick received several good dunkings. Seas were calmer as the sun got warmer. I was able to cobble together our first proper dinner at sea of lamb and mashed potatoes.
The next day the weather continued to change. We still have many stories to tell and will end our first chapter here with this video. If you wondered what sailing the Northern Atlantic in February really looks like, this is it!