On Friday morning, May 8th, a conversation with marine weatherman extraordinaire, Chris Parker, reassures us that Tropical Storm Ana will exit Charleston prior to our arrival on Wednesday. Except for a few residual squalls, the weather is now calm in the Bahamas. However, traveling north of the Bahamas is out of the question for the next few days as Ana spins her way, ever so slowly, towards the Carolina coast.
Under sunny skies, Cutter Loose is underway at 11 AM on a rising tide, exiting through the shallow channel to Black Sound. After a full week of waiting out Tropical Storm Ana at Leeward Yacht Club, it feels good to be underway again. The wind today is from the southwest at 15 knots, which makes for a delightful beam reach towards Powell Cay. By mid-afternoon, near Crab Cay, our course shifts to the west, directly into the wind.
Lightning, thunderstorms and an ominous-looking funnel cloud appear on the horizon…no doubt the outer-squall bands of Tropical Storm Ana. Rather than continuing on into the wind and waves, an overnight anchorage in the lee of Little Abaco Island near Angelfish Point is a logical resting place.
New friends Sharon and Greg aboard s/v Dream Catcher are anchored about a mile from Cutter Loose. Our common objective is to reach Charleston in the coming week. Friends Hayden and Radeen Cochran are also anchored nearby. Their goal is to sail to Fort Pierce, FL when weather permits. A dramatic late afternoon squall, complete with a funnel-shaped waterspout passes a few miles to the north of our anchorage. This serves as a not-so-subtle reminder that Tropical Storm Ana is still nearby.
Our strategy for the next few days is to make incremental progress to the west in the relative protection of the Sea of Abaco, being careful to avoid too much northerly travel that will expose us to the residual, adverse-weather impacts of Ana. On Saturday, May 9th, the anchor is up at 8 AM for the 49-mile run to Grand Cay, a remote, fishing village on a barrier island. Our overnight anchorage here permits us to make one final check of the weather forecast before proceeding further west on the Little Bahama Bank.
On Sunday, May 10th, the weather remains calm on the Bank and the forecast is a “go” for travel to the east coast of the U.S. Our objective today is to move another 50 miles west to Matanilla Shoal, a shallow sand bar on the extreme northwest corner of the Little Bahama Bank.
When we arrive at Matanilla Shoal, the wind speed has risen to 12 knots, which is sufficient to produce a nasty 2 to 3 feet of chop in the shallow, open waters of the Bank. This is not the wind and sea conditions we anticipated. The anchor is down at 5:30 PM. Cutter Loose is pitching wildly. Despite the bouncy conditions, we manage to enjoy a meal, a warm shower and several hours of rest before departing for Charleston. At 0100 on Monday, April 11th, Cutter Loose and Dream Catcher are underway. Our ETA in Charleston is Wednesday morning at 10 AM.
The course to Charleston is due north, along 79 degrees West Latitude, motor sailing parallel to the coast of Florida with 15 knots of wind on the starboard quarter. Ten miles into our journey, our speed over ground increases slowly at first, then more dramatically upon entering the north-flowing river within the Atlantic Ocean known as the Gulf Stream.
Our tactic at this juncture is to reduce engine speed to conserve fuel and go with the flow, aiming for the center line of the Stream where the current is strongest. Soon, Cutter Loose is speeding along towards Charleston at 9.3 knots of speed over ground…a 3.5 knot favorable current. The Gulf Stream can be a formidable foe when opposed by wind. But today, it is our ally. Seas are running 2 to 3 feet with long-interval waves, making for a comfortable sail on a broad reach.
Other than Cutter Loose and Dream Catcher, there is little traffic in the Gulf Stream today. Southbound vessels do not transit these waters given the adverse current of the Stream. Faster-moving, northbound vessels are required to alter course in order to avoid collision when overtaking slower sailboats. With settled weather, it is a stress-free day on the Ocean. The remote threat of collision today is from eastbound and westbound fishing vessels, cargo ships and passenger vessels headed to and from the coast of Florida. At 5 PM on Monday, our position is roughly 50 miles east of Daytona Beach.
Each morning, we check in with our weather forecaster via SSB high-frequency radio. It now appears that a weak cold front will exit the coast near Charleston at 3 AM on Wednesday. This front will usher in adverse winds from the north. These winds will create a bumpy ride which is sure to impede our progress.
The favorable boost from the Gulf Stream has exceeded our expectations. On Tuesday morning at 8 AM, the remaining distance to Charleston is less than 100 miles. From this waypoint, the center of the Gulf Stream meanders to the northeast towards Cape Hatteras while our course continues due north to Charleston.
Gradually, the beneficial effect of the Stream will diminish as we approach our destination. With a little luck, it may be possible to reach Charleston on Tuesday evening, thereby avoiding the northerly winds associated with the forecasted, cold front. After conferring with Dream Catcher, the decision is reached to quicken the pace, in the interest of an early arrival in Charleston.
Fortunately, the western edge of the Stream continues to provide a beneficial boost throughout the afternoon hours. By late afternoon, thickening clouds appear on the western horizon. The southeast wind freshens to 17 knots, increasing boat speed. Our ETA in Charleston is now 7 PM, one full hour before sunset.
Breathing a premature sigh of relief, our arrival at the Charleston channel breakwater occurs just before 7 PM. To our dismay, the ebb has already begun. With three knots of adverse current on her bow and 5 miles to go, Cutter Loose struggles under full throttle to battle her way into the inner harbor under ominous skies and increasing wind. An overcast sunset rapidly gives way to complete darkness as Fort Sumpter passes to port.
Entering the inner harbor, the dazzling array of flashing lights overwhelms the senses. Motoring to our anchorage is akin to navigating one’s way through a maze of Christmas trees adorned with hundreds of red and green lights. It is difficult to locate the next pair of flashing channel markers amidst the brighter range lights whose intensity command attention. Tired and disoriented, these final few miles will prove to be the most demanding segment of our passage from the Bahamas.
Since the ebb is flowing, this is an opportune time of day for the floating behemoths (i.e., container ships, ROROs and bulk carriers) to head out to sea. First there is one outbound vessel, then another even larger than its predecessor. Soon there is a virtual parade of huge ships exiting the harbor. These giants rightfully own the Cooper River channel. We can barely make out their shapes in the darkness, but their oversize AIS imprint on the chart plotter is unmistakable. The VHF radio crackles with admonishment from the pilots, urging Cutter Loose to move outside of the red channel markers and into the shallower, peripheral water.
Still fighting the tidal current, we inch our way inland just outside the red side of the channel. Transiting one set of channel markers at a time, Hog Island Marina eventually passes to starboard. Beyond the marina is the brightly illuminated tourist attraction, the carrier USS Yorktown, resting quietly on her moorings. Finally at 9:30 PM, the anchor is down in a small opening, just north of the USS Yorktown.
In the past 45.5 hours, 300 miles have passed beneath the keel of Cutter Loose. It feels good to be back in the USA, safely at anchor, well ahead of the approaching cold front. Sleep comes exceptionally easy tonight.
On the morning of Wednesday, May 13th, the wind is piping into the harbor from north as predicted. Slack-low tide occurs at 10:30 AM. The anchor is up for the short trip across the Cooper River to the Charleston Maritime Center where Cutter Loose will remain docked at the marina while we unwind and indulge in the delights of this vibrant and charming city.
Over the next three days, we will attempt to make up for 160 days of absence from the commercial amenities and creature comforts that we enjoy here in the United States.
With so many fine restaurants within a ten-minute walk from the marina, it just doesn’t make sense to prepare a single meal aboard Cutter Loose. Our friends Greg and Sharon aboard Dream Catcher are full partners in this indulgence, exploring the wonderful little nooks and crannies of the historic district while re-familiarizing ourselves with the local food culture.
It is still May, but we are already behaving like ravenous Alaskan brown bears, gorging ourselves with sufficient calories to survive the long, cold winter ahead. The City of Charleston is a delight to the senses, made even more so by the convivial companionship of Greg and Sharon.
On Friday, May 15th, we welcome visitors aboard Cutter Loose. To our good fortune, niece Sandy and her friend Rosemary just happen to be spending a girls’ weekend in Charleston. We were treated to a delectable meal at FIG, which provided an opportunity to become acquainted with Rosemary while receiving an update on Sandy and her family. A fun evening was enjoyed by all.
It would be so easy to remain in Charleston for a month. However, the time has come to bid a temporary farewell to this special place. On Saturday morning, May 16th, Cutter Loose will depart on the ebb for Beaufort, NC.