Thursday, November 8, 2007

Round Cape Hatteras

Cape Lookout, North Carolina
34 37.52'N 076 32.87'W

We made it! For five months whenever talking with other cruisers and conversation turned to plans for winter, our new found friends would say - Bahamas/Caribbean wonderful, and then take a concerned look at our mast and ask the question "will you have to go outside round Cape Hatteras?"

For most sailors in the USA the first leg of the long trip south from Chesapeake Bay to the Tropics is taken on the Intra Coastal Waterway a system of canals and rivers, and they pass the cold November nights securely anchored in a little town, maybe eating at a fireplace warmed restaurant, before snuggling down to a nights sleep under the doona 50 odd miles inland of the wind swept Cape Hatteras.

For the few sailing lepers like us with masts over the magic 65' we must spend 2 nights at sea in temperatures nearing freezing and sail round the charmingly known "Graveyard Of The Atlantic" or Cape Hatteras. The reputation of Hatteras comes from hundreds of years of ship wrecks on the sand shoals that extend 30 miles out to sea from it, the area is swept by major weather systems and has the added bonus of being the point of closest approach to the mainland of the Gulf Stream, a fast northerly flowing river of warm water (four knots in the middle) that heads from the Caribbean up the east coast before crossing the Atlantic to Europe - you may remember from school geography that's why Britain doesn't have the same climate as northern Canada.

The first problem is to find the right weather. Hurricanes run up this coast throughout summer and fall, we had one pass by last weekend, so you can't really head south until at least November, this is of course when those lovely North American winter storms start, snowfall begins and serious bone chilling cold gets going. So you can't leave until regular strong northern storms are here, and what sort of conditions don't you want to be sailing south round an exposed cape with a fast north setting current - why yes a northerly storm!

The second problem is psychological, in your head it will be like something out of the Perfect Storm so any excuse to delay it 24 hours for a better forecast is gleefully accepted. We had planned on motoring round in a calm, but that was never likely to happen so finally after sitting around for a week watching the temperature plummet and hearing news of the first snow falls, we bit the bullet and left in a 15 knot norther, which promptly became 20-25 knots and stayed there for the whole trip.

Now for the good news, thanks to the marvels of GPS and modern charts you can stay a lot nearer the Cape than you used to be able to which keeps you out of the worst of the current and so as long as the wind doesn't go NE you aren't battling big seas. Obviously you don't want anything to break while threading the needle or to lose concentration for 5 minutes. During our trip a 48' power boat cut it too fine and ran aground on the shoals where it filled with water and was destroyed - nice to hear on the VHF as you attempt the same passage.

Our trip was safe, but of course the wind being what it is just as we got to the 1 mile wide gap between the abandoned, semi destroyed, outer light house (got blown away allegedly) and the buoy marking the end of the sand banks we had to gybe the boat and you do all this at 4am on a moonless night during the one period when we had sustained 30 knot winds, so we have to put two reefs in as well! But never mind at 0430 on the 8th of November we were through and now had only 72 miles to the next Cape to worry about a NE shift before finally being clear of the Gulf Stream and back to normal sailing.

Because of the wind speed and the excellent speed that Matsu can make, we managed to make the whole 220 mile trip to the anchorage at Cape Lookout, with only one night at sea, averaging just under 7 knots for the passage. Only having one night at sea was a real bonus, as can see from the photo for this entry, sleeping bags were deemed clothing for the trip - I wore thermals, fleece trousers, track suit bottoms, 2 pairs of socks, ugg boots, long sleeve T, thin jumper, thick jumper, hat, gloves and full foul weather gear for all but the glorious 5 hours I got to spend under the doona during two off watch periods!

We arrived at sunset yesterday dropped the anchor in a fabulous spot surrounded by sand dunes (well worth a look on Google Earth) and after hot showers and a few beers got some well earned sleep, knowing one more relatively simple passage to Charleston and then we should have warm weather again! 550 miles to the Bahamas!
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