SURFING THE GULF STREAM
By Thomas Takao
Walking back up the side road after having surfed Upper Trestles, I was thinking about the trip I was about to take to the East Coast. It was an afternoon flight to Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) in Maryland for a delivery of a catamaran to St. Petersburg, Florida. The anticipation of this trip had grown since first being asked to go. The catamaran we would be delivering had won a few awards from Cruising World for Boat of the Year, overall Cruising Boat of the Year, and another award for a cruising Multi-hull. There were four of us on this trip, Annette who was in charge, Tom, Pam, and Myself.
Three of us would rendezvous at Dana Point Harbor to go in one car that Tom's friend would be driving, Pam would take an earlier flight out of San Diego and meet us in Maryland. It had been a month and 8 days since the 9-11 tragedy in New York and security was still tight as we entered the terminal at John Wayne Airport in Costa Mesa, California. The boarding process was long due to the high state of alert. We checked in our baggage for the flight to BWI with a layover in Houston. Before boarding the flight, we went through three screening processes. As I pulled out my boarding pass for the final screening, three-quarters fell out of my pocket and onto the carpet.
While looking down, it seemed odd, even though they were all heads. As if it were some sort of sign. The line that I was in started to move forward, so I picked up the quarters and proceeded with the boarding process. Once onboard and sitting in my assigned seat the thought of the three quarter floated back up to the surface. I still wasn't quite sure what the quarters meant. We took off over the ocean, climbed to our cruising altitude, then descended back down to earth. We landed in Houston and got off for a layover. While sitting at the boarding terminal, a lady came up to me and asked if I was from Hawaii. She explained that she use to live in Maui and that I reminded her of someone that she knew. To the west lies Hawaii, to the east lies Maryland, and here we were in Texas balancing out the moment.
We boarded the flight for Maryland and I didn't see her again until we were picking up our baggage. Annette, Tom, and I had just met up with Pam when she stopped by to say good luck and have a safe trip. I waved goodbye, as she disappeared into the crowd. Annette was looking around for Dave, who was in charge of picking us up. Tom was asking Pam how her flight over was, while most of the other passengers were picking up their baggage. I noticed someone approaching us, so I figured it was Dave. It was just past 2:15 a.m. when we left the parking lot at the Airport. The ride out to Warehouse Creek took about 30 minutes. Once off the main road, we meandered along the driveway to the docks. The Creek is part of the South River and is located west-southwest of Annapolis. We unloaded our bags, and then followed Dave to the catamaran.
Dave gave a brief introduction of the catamaran and would go into detail later that morning. There were four staterooms and all had a double berth, a head and a shower. Captain Annette had the forward port side berth, Pam had the stern port, Tom had the stern starboard and I had the forward starboard. It was close to 4:30 a.m. by the time I fell asleep. Dave was back by 7 a.m. to take us to the market in Riva to get our supplies for the journey. With our shopping carts and the list of items to locate, we were off to the four corners of the store and the isles in between. Tom was mentioning that his left leg was starting to bother him while in the store.
He had injured it the week before while getting off a dingy and stepping onto the docks at Newport Beach. He didn't think much of it and assumed that it would heal itself. Tom was retired and enjoyed sailing on his 28 ft. sloop whenever he had the chance. The opportunity of crewing with Annette came along and he had the time to make this delivery. Once back from the market, we unloaded the supplies and I took a stroll around the docks and the shoreline. The morning dew sparkled on the autumn-colored leaves. The wooden boat sheds along the shore, the white masts and shrouds stood reflected as Warehouse Creek greeted the day with its inventory. Back on the docks, a black lab named Max came up to me with a happy face, he was with Darma, Dave's wife. She was there to give additional information to Annette before the departure.
We were just about to depart when Ian the owner of the company that built the catamaran shows up. He goes over a few other things with Annette, while members of his staff looked on. Just around 1020 hours on October 20th I untied the bowline from the piling and got on board, Annette presses the throttle slowly forward, and we were off. We waved so long to Ian, Dave, Richard, Darma, and Max. Leaving Warehouse Creek, the current of the South River greeted the hulls of the catamaran as she made the turn around the marker buoy. A sunny day with no clouds in the sky, the air temperature was in the high 50's as the winds increased to 10 knots from the northeast. We passed by lobster traps with their marker buoys in 10 to 15 ft. of water. Leaving South River we entered the Chesapeake Bay at 1130 hours, we came across a tug and her barge loaded with her bulk cargo heading northwest to Baltimore.
There were a few lighthouses with their distinct look that were placed in particular spots in the Bay. The stories of the rivers, the creeks, the wildlife, the people, and the towns of Chesapeake Bay have filled pages after pages in books and magazines. We did not have the time to view all that and more, but I will say it's one beautiful place to see and a special place in one's memory to think about. Annette and Pam were going over the charts of Chesapeake Bay. Annette met Pam by way of these charts. Needing charts for the Eastern seaboard and the Chesapeake Bay, Annette contacted a bookstore in San Diego that specialized in nautical materials. Pam having cruised the area, a couple of years before, had decided to sell her charts by consignment since a trip back wasn't likely. Annette contacted Pam and to make a long story short, Pam is a retired teacher and a sailboat owner, decided to join the group.
The first nightfall of the trip was on the Chesapeake Bay. Traffic this Saturday night on the Bay was minimal, and dinner was served on the cockpit dining table. The seating for the table was built into the inner part of the port hull. The helm was on the other side next to the starboard hull. Between the dining table and the helm was a 4 ft. wide sliding glass door that was the entrance into the lounge. The cockpit was roomy with about 6 ft. of open area that separated the table from the helm. A canvas canopy was connected to the overhead spoiler, where the traveler was. The dodger configuration had a vinyl windshield for added spray protection along the cabin top. The cockpit area was covered from above, with the sides and rear open. The catamaran motored along on autopilot, as the running lights of other vessels passed us during the night from afar. Our watches were in pairs, Captain Annette and I, Pam and Tom, the watches were 4 hours on and 4 hours off.
Around 0500 hours we would go over the tunnel part of the Chesapeake Bridge and Tunnel, with the green light of the buoy a quarter of a mile away to our starboard. Watching the few headlights disappear into the tunnel and pop up on the bridge to the northeast some minutes later. By mid-morning, we were motoring along at 9 knots with both engines, and the mainsail up. No land in sight and it was a very pleasant Sunday, the sun shining, with a slight breeze. We had just passed Virginia, with Kitty Hawk, North Carolina somewhere to our west. Jackson Browne was singing Late for the Sky on the stereo system as I made a turkey sandwich. The afternoon was like the morning but with more glare and warmth. Around sunset, I was in the lounge working on my laptop when I heard an excited "oh wow" and then hearing "it's a long one" from one of the ladies in the cockpit area. Tom rushes into the lounge with an excited smile. They had just seen a green flash from the direction of Cape Hatteras. Oh well, so close, but yet so far in seeing a green flash. Back to the laptop and a project that I was working on. After a short, while nightfall had entered the picture and the routine of the watches continued.
Monday the 22nd was just like the day before, except we had the jib and main up for the first time. Looking at the chart we were passing Fry Pan Shoals, Latitude 33 degrees 29'.with the longitude around 40 miles from the coast. At 1600 hours while looking through the binoculars out in the distance, a unique object appears. The Horn as it is called out on the charts. With its four legs above the waterline by 129 feet, it is part of the South Atlantic Bight Synoptic Offshore Observational Network (SABSOON). There are seven other platforms, like the one we had just passed. They are operated by the Navy and provide a range of oceanographic and meteorological observations on a continuous real-time basis.
Having passed Cape Fear during the morning of the 23rd the winds were light turning to calm as the day progress. We were 12 miles from Charleston when we called the Harbor Master for directions in. We were informed that the harbor was fogged in and it was best to approach the entrance in the morning. So we stayed out of the shipping lanes and waited till morning. The morning of the 24th at 0630 hours, with visibility at 30 ft. Annette decided to motor out of the fog. We went east for 30 minutes then turned around after everyone noticed the fog had started to lift. We then headed towards the two breakwaters that serve as the entrance into Charleston Harbor. Motoring along at five knots, we pass a freighter by some 100 yards coming out of the fog. It was leaving while we were entering.
At 0900 hours something, none of us have ever seen before. It was a fogbow arching in front of us. The same shape as a rainbow but just fog instead of colors, and behind it was more fog. Our course took us towards the center of the arch. By the time we reached where the center was, the arch had evaporated and the shoreline could be seen. The breakwaters that were on the chart, was now only a couple of miles away. If you were to come in at a different angle, other than the one everyone uses, it could mean running aground on the submerged rocks that are part of the breakwater. It took 20 minutes from the end of the breakwater to passing Fort Sumter. And another 20 minutes before we were at the fuel dock. The retired aircraft carrier Yorktown was moored about a quarter-mile away from the fuel docks
Tom's daughter and her children were on the fuel dock waiting anxiously for his arrival. She lives in Charleston, and Tom had given her a call the day before, during our arrival outside of Charleston Harbor. The reunion was a happy one and the kids were curious about the boat. A quick tour describing the insides and out of a catamaran, a few pictures and we were off into town for some supplies. Pam stayed on the boat while the catamaran was being refueled and to catch up on a few chores. Annette and I went to the market, while Tom and his daughter and his grandchildren were going to lunch. We got into Tom's daughter van when Tom's grandson happened to bump his left leg. The slight bump produced a painful remark. His leg was getting worse instead of better. We were dropped off at the market as Tom, his daughter and her children went off to lunch to spend some quality time together.
We returned to the fuel dock after about an hour and a half with our supplies and prepared to leave. We said our goodbyes and motored into the channel. We were off again, making a right-hand turn at the breakwater entrance. It was 1700 hours and we were beam reaching down the coast of South Carolina at 9 knots. Just before nightfall we change directions and headed east 50 miles, before resuming the cruise down the coast. Thursday, October 25th 0800 hours two jet fighters circle the catamaran once and flew back from where they came; my guess was Georgia. The clouds were changing and the winds were picking up. We sailed all day on a close reach with choppy seas. We were making good time, still traveling around nine knots with the main and jib. In the afternoon a tug about half a mile away was traveling parallel to us, pulling a barge of lumber. After an hour it veered away and we continued on our way, as sunset became nightfall.
During the 2000 to 2400 watch, Annette was at the helm from 2000 to 2200 with full sails up, as the catamaran was still traveling at 9 knots, at 2200 hours I took over the helm with the catamaran doing the same. Just before we were to switch watches with Tom and Pam, the catamaran was suddenly picking up speed from 9 knots to 14 then 17 knots. I called to Annette, who was in the galley, and telling her the wind has increased and we were picking up speed. Pam and Tom were ready to take the next watch when Annette quickly decided to take the jib and main down. As conditions changed from normal to stormy confusion in a matter of 10 minutes it seemed. October 26th 0000 to about 0030 the jib was furled. Now the difficult part, the mainsail. With the wind swirling around from different directions with a gust of over 35 knots, and the seas rising and falling without rhyme or reason.
With all that going for her, Captain Annette was directing us to our stations as loud as possible, since the winds made it hard to hear. The traveler sheet had gotten stuck within the spoiler when the tossing and turning began and had to be unstuck. I wrestled with the traveler sheets for about a half-hour. After getting the sheet loose the next thing was to center the boom. A sudden gust out of nowhere and the boom follows. The sheet takes off and the friction burns through my left-hand glove, letting go before it cuts my hand. Regaining control of the line after the surge, the boom was centered. We were ready to let the main down into the lazy jacks. I went forward and transferred my lifeline from the deck line to the base of the mast as I awaited the mainsail to drop. It was a matter of timing, letting go of the halyard at the wrong time meant major damage to the sail and battens. Tom was at the halyard cleat block while Annette steered the boat into position. Pam was helping Annette with an extra pair of hands on the steering and handle the lines that needed to be adjusted.
After a couple of failed attempts to drop the mainsail into place, due to the sudden wind shift and the boat rocking. It was very difficult to position the catamaran, when she would drop into a trough at the same time 3 to 5 waves pushed the hulls around (During those attempts, two upper battens had been broken and would be replaced in Fort Lauderdale). The mainsail was lifted and dropped for the third attempt, which proved to be successful. It was around 0330 hours when our level of anxiety came down with the lowering of the mainsail. A check around to make sure things were secure and in their place, as we returned to the lounge. During this time Pam was in contact with the Coast Guard and giving updates on our position and condition. The seas were rough, but the winds weren't as bad. Around 0530 hours another boat was in our vicinity, it looked like a fisherman out early. Still, in contact with the Coast Guard, we proceeded to Port Canaveral following their direction.
Coffee and breakfast were next on the agenda. It was about 0800 hours when Annette went to her bunk exhausted, after deciding the configuration of the sails. Pam was in charge of our position to the Coast Guard, while Tom was resting his left leg in the lounge. He had fallen backward during the mainsail lowering and landed on his left leg. I was at the helm maintaining the course to Port Canaveral. From where we were at to where we were going, took us through the Gulf Stream. The swell from the storm was 5 to 8 feet going in one direction, as the Gulf Stream moving along at 5 to 7 knots in the opposite direction. The two forces met and created swells of 12 to18 feet with an occasional larger swell. We were motoring at 2000 RPMs, with the mainsail down and the jib set at 50%.
The course that the catamaran was on had the swell to our stern. By 0830 hours the catamaran started surfing. Tom came out to view the waves. After a few minutes of looking at the ominous waves behind us, he felt safer inside. I wasn't in a talking mood since my main concern at the time was pitch poling. I was getting the hang of surfing on the catamaran. After the first few waves, the jib on a port tack didn't seem to be in the way. I would take off and slide down the face and angle slightly right each time since the shoulder was to the right. On the larger waves, I made more of an adjustment since the freeboard on the bow area was about a foot at times due to the added lift from the wave. By steering more to the right, away from the bottom of the trough, the weight of the port side lifted the starboard bow. After the starboard bow lifted, I steered back down slightly as the port bow glided down the face of the wave.
Occasionally the slide down the larger wave would produce a very loud pounding sound under the wing area below the galley. Pam happened to come out once during the surfing, to see what was making all that noise. The waves were the biggest during this time, and when she saw those swells behind us, I think she was surprised at the size and returned to the lounge. After a ride of about 20 seconds, I would steer back on course until the next swell caught up to us again. Each ride was about the same, watching the bows and freeboard. My main concern was pitch poling and turning turtle. Using my surfing experience for each moment proved to be very helpful. Looking out at the stormy seas with its white caps dancing on top of the swells. The catamaran surfed on while a grayish-black overcast sky loomed overhead. A painting by Winslow Homer came to mind during the surfing, the title of the painting was "The Gulf Stream"; an appropriate setting to have such a thought. With my life vest on over my jacket, I continued surfing the course.
It was near 1000 hours when we were out of the wave zone and into calmer waters. Tom took over the helm and I was kicking back in the lounge. Annette had awoken from her nap and we were in between Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral. Heading towards Port Canaveral Marina. A Shrimp trawler with its net out kept a safe distance from us as it traveled by going in the opposite direction. Off in the distance, the gantries of Cape Canaveral Space Center stood like monuments pointing towards space as we approached the Port. Entering the channel, a Cruise ship leaves on her voyage of leisure, so it seems. It was 1700 hours and when we tied up to the docks at the Marina. We would be leaving in the morning so it was a good time to catch up on the laundry. So I was off to the laundry room next to the docks. The cost to operate the washer was three quarters, and another three quarters to get the dryer spinning.
Walking back to the boat with the clean clothes, the three-quarters scenario popped back up in my mind. Back on board we had dinner and relaxed for a couple of hours before calling it a day. After a night like the one we just went through, a peaceful night's sleep in the harbor is a very comfortable state of mind. Saturday the 27th the sun was shining with cirrus clouds overhead. The winds were 20 to 24 knots out at sea, so the decision to go by the way of Inter-Coastal Waterway (ICW) was chosen. Before leaving the marina, a check of the mainsail for damages that might have occurred the day before. After the checkout, the first and second top battens had been broken and needed to be replaced. A sailmaker near Fort Lauderdale would have the battens for us, once we were in the area.
Leaving Port Canaveral by way of ICW, we passed our first bascule bridge on our way to the lock that separated Banana River from the Port. The catamaran would pass through many bascule bridges before the next morning. With the winds gusting around us, we slowly entered the lock. To our right in the middle of the lock were 3 pilings to secure too while the lock's doors closed behind us and the water raised to the level of Banana River. The process took about 20 minutes before the locked door opened and the water from the river mixed with the water of the lock. Crossing Banana River we headed towards the barge canal that connected the Banana with the Indian River. Once on the Indian River, we came upon our first fixed bridge. The bridge height indicator marked the water level to the bottom of the bridge. With the current tide placed just above the 63 feet marker our sights focused on our mast of 62 feet plus the antenna.
Annette was hesitant of going under, trying to figure out a safe way without committing the mast to any damages. About fifteen minutes later a monohull of around forty feet came by, it was going under the bridge. We told them of our situation and asked what their mast height was. Their mast was 61 feet and we suggested if they could go slowly under while we viewed their mast to the bottom of the steel beam as they made their way to the other side. We all watched and they had a couple of feet clearance. So, with our fingers crossed, we slowly made our way to the other side. Tom on the port bow looking up, Pam at the starboard mid-ship looking up, while I kept an eye out for the bridge footing (the beam on the Cat was over 25 feet) as we proceeded forward. The antenna started to scrape the bottom of the first part of the bridge. That lasted for a few seconds and as we were passed the steel beams of the first part. The middle was empty and we came to the second part of the bridge. Again the antenna started to scrape the bottom of the bridge for a few seconds.
The mast had cleared the bridge without anything being broken. With a sigh of relief, we waved goodbye and said our thanks to the Orient Express as she motored on her way. With our thought back to normal, we motored south, down the Indian River. The afternoon was spent cruising down the Indian River, which wasn't very deep. Taking care to read the charts and viewing all the shallow areas that lurk beyond the channel markers. The winds were about the same as the morning with the palm trees swaying as the fronds flapped away. It was a casual Saturday afternoon with not much activity on the water. Occasionally you would see a boater speeding along at 15 knots as they pass the sign that read: Manatees area, proceed at 5 knots. There were small islands along the way, some even had homes on them. The afternoon turned into evening, the evening turned to night and another situation developed.
There weren't any channel lights to go by, just the reflective channel markers. At first, we were using the GPS and the compass. That proved to be cumbersome. So another alternative was needed. There was a handheld lamp onboard and someone suggested using it. It proved to be the ticket, by knowing where the marker was on the charts, the light with its range of about a quarter of a mile was shinned in the direction of the marker. Everyone took turns holding the lamp while someone would be at the helm. This was done in two hours shifts, occasionally someone would stay on a little longer. While the two members were on watch, the other two would take a nap or have some coffee. Sunday the 28th, town after town, passing bascule bridge after bascule bridge, leaving behind pink tick marks on the charts as morning's light finds us in Palm Beach. After passing the Royal Palm bascule bridge we came up to the fixed bridge before Peanut Island. The water level was 62 feet and the tide rising. It was time to anchor, have breakfast and wait for the tide.
1230 hours we weighed anchor, and off to the bridge we went. It seemed another close call as we motored past the bridge towards Peanut Island. Once around the island, we passed the bascule bridges of West Palm Beach, South Palm Beach, Boynton Beach, Delray Beach, and Boca Raton. We tied up to the docks at the Cove, a small marina with a restaurant next to a bascule bridge, south of Deerfield Island Park. That evening at the restaurant, while a calypso band played, we had dinner. It was an enjoyable evening, with conversation and laughter. The next morning, the 29th we were preparing to depart, having returned from the store with more film for the final leg of the trip. Tom comes up to me and says Annette is leaving and going out to sea.
I knew why he was telling me this, his left leg was getting worse and he was having a hard time walking on it. He didn't say his leg was hurting, so I left it at that. I figured it was time for me to depart from the boat and I told Annette I was getting off in Fort Lauderdale. Tom had decided to get off as well. An International Boat Show was going on as we entered the Fort Lauderdale marina area. With boats in the price range exceeding millions of dollars, all we could do is say wow. While at the docks at Fort Lauderdale Annette found another person to take our position. John the new crewmember had just finished working the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and was able to help Annette and Pam in taking the catamaran to St. Petersburg. After saying our goodbyes, they slowly motored away past the last bascule of the trip on 17th Ave. They rounded the Keys and reached the St. Petersburg Boat Show three days later and the catamaran received the awards on time.
I had only gone three-quarters of the way in delivering the boat, and the trip to the Boat Show came to an end at the docks of Fort Lauderdale. After leaving the docks Tom and I traveled in a rental car to Tampa. The plane tickets to return on were only good at Tampa International Airport. We proceeded down the Everglades Parkway to Tampa, a very blank sort of place to drive on during the night. By the time we got to Tampa from Fort Lauderdale, it was 2:30 in the morning. Not knowing the area and thinking safe instead of something else happening, we stayed in a nationally known hotel for the rest of the night. After having breakfast, it took 10 minutes to get to the Airport. I knew Tom was glad to be getting on a flight to go back home 3 days sooner. His intentions were good, his humor funny, but the docks of misfortune were against him on this trip. As he gingerly took each step through the parking lot, then to the departure terminal and the long flight back.
At the boarding terminal for the flight to Detroit Michigan then to Orange County California a lady came up to us and asked if this was the flight to so and so. Somehow she had mistaken her flight departure and missed the previous flight. She was a little shaken about the mishap but got her ticket changed to our flight and would continue from Detroit. After talking to her for a short while we went over to the snack bar and order some drinks. Eleanor was from Canada and that she had finished some work on her vacation house in Tampa. Tom and I told her about the trip from Chesapeake Bay to Fort Lauderdale on a 45-foot catamaran. Going into detail about certain things and locations, after a short time we finished our drinks and left tips. I left a dollar, and Tom followed with the same, Eleanor was conservative, she dropped 3 quarters onto the table. I looked down and to my surprise, three eagles were looking back at me. Walking to the boarding area I concluded about the quarters. In a roundabout way the trip was a coin toss; Heads I go, Tails I leave.