At 5 PM, Cutter Loose is underway from her mooring in Fernandina Beach. Within 20 minutes, we are outbound in St. Mary’s Inlet, headed to sea. This is considered a Class A inlet to the Atlantic because it is deep, well-marked with lighted aids to navigation and protected by a long jetty on the south side of the inlet. Naval Submarine Base St. Mary’s utilizes this inlet extensively, and as such, it is very well maintained. To the best of our knowledge, there are no submarines in the channel this afternoon. But 15 knot southeast winds are kicking up a nasty chop against the outflowing tide, adding yet another layer of salt to Cutter Loose.
After an hour of powering through the confused waters of the inlet, Cutter Loose exits the channel and locks on to a waypoint near the outermost sea buoy at Port Royal Sound, some 90 nautical miles to the northeast. The wind is now on our starboard quarter. Cutter Loose is loping along at 6 knots on a comfortable broad reach as the sun sets over Cumberland Island. For the next 19 hours, we will sail parallel to the coast of Georgia and into the coastal waters of South Carolina en route to the town of Beaufort, SC. This outside passage will bypass the twisty and shallow Georgia section of the ICW.
Once Cutter Loose is locked on to a GPS waypoint at the Port Royal Sound sea buoy, the autopilot does the lion’s share of the work while we settle into the routines that will keep us awake and alive. Our primary responsibility while on watch, however, is collision avoidance and making sure that the systems aboard Cutter Loose are operating effectively. We will stand two hour watches throughout the night…one of us will run the boat while the other rests. The person on watch monitors the radar screen for traffic and invents routines to remain awake and alert (primarily snacking, sipping tea and chatting on the VHF radio with buddy boat, Island Spirit). Radar and GPS capability enable us to track the bearing, course and speed of other vessels. If Cutter Loose is on or near a collision course with another vessel, the instruments continually describe the degree of separation and the time period to collision…an unpleasant but necessary thought process.
It can be difficult to interpret the lighting pattern and movements of ships at sea in darkness. Shrimpers and other fishing vessels change course and speed frequently. But they are working the waters closer to shore and are not of major concern to us tonight. At 10 PM, the town of Brunswick, GA appears on the western horizon. Our course takes us directly across the approach to the shipping lanes of St. Simon’s Inlet where, as luck would have it, one freighter is inbound and another is outbound as we are transiting this area. It is clear that the outbound vessel has altered course and will pass to our stern. The GPS tells quite a different story about the inbound vessel. Cutter Loose will cross paths within a mile of this vessel…too close for comfort. From her light pattern, we can now make out the rough outline of the vessel. We contact the freighter via VHF radio and jointly agree that Cutter Loose will alter course to starboard and pass to his stern. What we didn’t garner from our conversation with the limited English-speaking person on the bridge of this vessel is that the big ship in the night is reducing speed and heading up into the southeast wind in order to anchor. What at first seemed like a 30 degree course adjustment has become a wide, sweeping arc of a turn to starboard to avoid this monster. After what seems like a prolonged period of time to clear the stern of the freighter, Cutter Loose is back on course to her waypoint. All of the excitement helps to keep us awake.
At midnight, we are motorsailing in 11 knots of wind. Our lunar companion in the western sky delivers a sheen of reflected light on the surface of the ocean. Moonset at 2 AM, however, imposes complete darkness, causing the night sky to come alive with stars and constellations. The early morning air is laden with moisture, reducing visibility. Condensation covers the windshield. In these black-out conditions, the green glow of the nav instruments creates an eerie but cozy atmosphere in the cockpit.
On our bow further north, there is shipping activity in the vicinity of Tybee Inlet, the busy port of entry to the City of Savannah. The radar screen shows an inbound freighter converging with a smaller outbound vessel. Then both vessels continue into port. The smaller of the two is presumably a pilot boat, returning to its point of origin after having delivered its payload to the freighter.
By 4 AM, the diesel engine is doing all of the work as wind speed diminishes further to 6 knots. The sea state is ultra-calm. Only a slight swell is noticeable on the surface of the ocean at first light. Daylight is a cause for celebration. It is a bright sunny morning; we can see for miles, and consuming food that one can actually see tastes much better.
At 9 AM, Cutter Loose arrives at the sea buoy marking the entrance channel into Port Royal Sound. There is no jetty, but the entrance is wide and well-marked with buoys. The timing of our arrival is perfect. We ride the flood tide into the Beaufort River, past Paris Island and under the Beaufort River Bridge. Twenty hours and 104 miles after leaving Fernandina Beach, Cutter Loose is anchored in the harbor at Beaufort, SC. The icing on the cake is being reunited with sailing companions and good friends aboard s/v Catspaw with whom we last shared an anchorage in Little Harbor, Abaco.