It’s all about the weather. We love it inside, traveling the twisting turning ICW that occasionally blows out into huge bays and sounds. The traffic – every conceivable kind of boat, coming and going. Being close to the scenery and smelling the marsh, the riverside cedars. A friendly wave hello from front yards and docks along the way. It’s quaint and we never feel hurried. We don’t worry about the weather. Strong gales can whip the bimini and rattle the eisenglass, but the water never gets rough. 2 – 3 foot seas in the sounds. It’s easy sailing.
Outside it’s different. At the dock when we’re near an inlet the discussion sooner or later comes around to “going outside?” “What kind of seas are expected?” We listen intently to the stories, and there are many, where the forecast was for calm seas and it didn’t quite work out that way. At best the predictions we’ve followed rarely get much above 30-40% accuracy for more than 24 hours out. “Which App do you use?” is a common thread over docktails. And there are many to choose from. We’ve become weather watchers unlike any other time in our lives. And it’s always, always about the wind.
How much and from what direction? What are the wave heights and pers, a measurement of how far apart they are. 3 foot waves on a six second pers are not bad. Six seconds between peaks. But 3 foot will be the average. It will include a five now and then. Then there’s the wind direction. A following sea with a wind astern isn’t bad, until the wave heights get to the point they’re pushing us sideways as they break near the stern. It’s not so uncomfortable as it is annoying. We slip and slide with each wave that happens to time itself right on the transom. A wind and wave abeam, broadside, is hell. Shangri-La is a sturdy vessel, but she’s not fond of a beam sea. Most boats aren’t.
2-3’s are good. Because it takes so long for the waves to build out on the ocean, it can take hours for them to get to 5 feet. Unlike the Great Lakes where flat to five can happen in 90 minutes with a good blow. We like 2-3’s. What about rain? When we’re enjoying these discussions, we often don’t even bring up rain. Rain is wet. Wind is the enemy. So many stories we’ve heard of forecasts gone wrong. People spending hellish nights crossing in huge seas trying to get back from the Bahamas. Or stuck at the Dry Tortugas for days and days.
Along the Southeast coast, there are a number of inlets. Most a good 50-60 miles apart. If you’re in Brunswick, GA looking to make Hilton Head on the outside – it’s 90 miles into the Calibogue Sound, safely off the Atlantic. It’s not a game. In May two commercial fishing trawlers, one over 70′ went down in a storm off of Tybee Island with loss of life. Outside can be mean and it demands respect. Planning in order to make the inlets is everything.
But when we do go. . . after hours of planning and days of sitting it out, we can’t wait. Today the time is right and we really want to go outside north to Hilton Head. This will be our longest run outside. We’ve done a few 50-60 milers but this will be a good test of us and Shangri-La. Scattered thunderstorms are predicted, but the wind and waves are inside our comfort zone. Early in the morning we slip the lines and motor out of the marina. High fives as we head for St. Simons sound, our exit to the sea. And like so many other inlets in the Southeast, due to shoals and wrecks, we must motor several miles offshore before we can make the turn north. It’s quiet. Seas are barely rolling and we’re pumped for the trip. We line up on the channel markers, double-check the gauges and make sure we’re buttoned up.
Outside is different. As we watch the shoreline fade off to the west the adrenaline starts its slow march through our veins. Making the turn north, we’re 8 miles off shore. At one point the coastline will disappear over the horizon and we’ll be some 15 miles out. Inside we rarely use the radar. Today we fire it up. Our radar can see much farther than the nekked eye. Jan takes the helm as I head down from the bridge to the deck.
I stand in the cockpit, that open deck space at the very back of the boat. Jan is at the bridge helm, keeping an eye on the gauges, the radar our autopilot and watching over the sea. I sit here for a few minutes. Sara and Pam, our Starboard and Port diesel engines cough out their exhaust through the transom right at the water line. The rumble is music. I love the sound of the burbling exhaust captured in a throaty, bass tumble that says “Relax, we got this.”
I’ve videod the wake, hoping to catch that sound. But all I get is the wash of both props piling water one wave over the other, then back. The ride is smooth back here. Even if we’re rolling or crossing waves, the cockpit is the calmest ride. I could sleep right here on the deck. Walking around forward on the weather deck, the engine rumble fades as the bow wave takes over its part of the symphony, cascading alongside the boat. As I near the bow, I see the tall splash of Shangri-La slicing another wave. It’s subtle. We plow through the swells rather than ride on top. The weather is holding. We’re making good time in a gently following sea. Up at the bow pulpit, you can’t hear the girls. Just the constant swoosh of water parting against the hull. Right here, right now – it sounds like sailing.
I spell Jan for a bit while she makes up some sandwiches and refreshes our ice cold drinks. Nothing hot when we’re under way. Too many times we’ve thought we had a good break to get out some food and poor Jan had to deal with boat wakes or that lone five footer. It’s no fun being wives with knives in a tossing galley.
The horizon is azure blue top and bottom. Sea birds chase along just overhead, poking the water here and there gathering a snack along the way. Frequently dolphins will follow along. Often several, jumping and diving. Swerving back and forth in the wake or on the bow wave.
I think Jan has over seven thousand hours of dolphin video. Rafts of jellyfish sometimes slide by.
Huge masses of them hanging weightless, riding the currents. “Oh MY GOD!” Jan declared, nearly falling over the bridge rail. She is speechless pointing into the water on the port side. A shark. A massive shark, lying alongside just biding his time is swimming along with us. In relation to the length of the boat, it is indeed a very large fish. A red tint to the fins. A coat of coal-black and grey.
When we’re near the ocean, in the ICW we can smell the sea. I think we’re numb to it most of the time. But out here we feel it. The steady rock ‘n roll. Usually a breeze and that tinge of salt. Lick your lips and it’s there. There’s something strong in the way the big water pulls us out, farther from shore. Over the horizon where the nearest vessel is but a white speck where the sky meets the sea. We motor on. The VHF radio is quiet here. Just some broadcasts from the Coast Guard updating mariner warnings, like wrecks in the channel or bridges that are stuck closed. We watch and listen. Only two other boats, large motor yachts, pass a mile or so off to the west of us -their huge bow waves thrashing the sea.
And then we see it. Our radar is state of the art. Capable of tracking birds working a pod of bait fish miles away. But this isn’t birds. Exactly like watching the weather channel or your local news – we see it coming. Two of them. Thunderstorms we cannot yet hear or see clearly looking out to the west. But they’re there. Sneaking out from behind the dunes on shore, converging on that center point in the radar screen that is us. The wind is calm. In fact were it not for our 8 knot speed we’d have no breeze at all. But we’re going to get wet for sure. We’re a little over 8 hours into our trip now. Three more hours to go.
Fascinated we watch the red blobs converge on Shangri-La. As they near us, a misty spray begins. At some points we were in some serious rain, pouring down on the bimini top. Which alway reminds me of tent camping. We motor on. 8 knots an hour. The wind never picks up. The second cell approaches from the northwest and again, more rain. But what’s that? On the radar a string of targets several miles ahead. Right on schedule, the channel markers to make the turn into Hilton Head slowly march closer.
Looking back, over the stern we see the clouds breaking apart. The girls are happy, humming along. The rain has let up. Not another boat in sight. Another hour and a half and we’ll be making the turn into the Calibogue Sound. And then an hour to our slip in Shelter Cove. As we pass the green can and make the turn west, we high five each other, again. Right here, right now this is how we Eat Life.