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Solo To St. Augustine
“Men and ships rot in port,” it was said (allegedly Admiral Nelson, but hard to be sure). If so, after two months at Brunswick Landing Marina following the escape south, Laughing Gull was probably a bit ripe. I won’t comment on the skipper and the inescapable human reality of creeping senescence, but if going to sea could revivify either then it was time to cast off the lines. Since first formulating a plan to avoid a winterized, frozen winter in the north, St. Augustine has been in my mind as a favored destination. I am not sure why, apart from the fact that it always seems to get good reviews and is less frantic than better known ports such as Ft. Lauderdale. Sometimes you have to go with your gut.
Since St. Aug is only about 75 miles south of Brunswick it is a single overnight hop. That made it the perfect opportunity to go solo and start learning how to sail Laughing Gull on my lonesome. After a week in Brunswick, working through a typically eclectic boatwork list, the perfect weather window arrived. Light northerlies, and clear skies, if a bit chilly (temps down into the 40s overnight). Time to go.
To my surprise, despite the perfect setup I felt a little anxious. I had sailed Moondust on my own many times on the Bay, and never stressed about it much (apart from getting in and out of the slip in wind). Some of my anxiety was related to getting off the dock in a much bigger, heavier boat with less familiar backing tendencies (Moondust was like a race car and could turn on a dime). Some was related to getting across the always shifting sand bars which threaten the inlet into St. Aug, especially if there is much wind or swell (“seek local knowledge” the piloting instructions say). And some of it, I realized, was simply due to the fact that I would be alone offshore on LG for the very first time (not very far offshore, but still a brief voyage into the unknown).
I was annoyed with myself for having any stress at all over such an easy passage. But as I tossed and turned in my bunk the night before departure, conjuring visions of banging into the boats around me as I backed out of my slip, or the St. Aug inlet getting hammered by breaking surf, I reminded myself that this was entirely the point: I sought out a bluewater boat because I explicitly wanted more uncertainty, discomfort, and challenge in a life that had started to feel way too predictable and soft. Not sure what that says about my mental stability, but it is what it is.
As it happened, getting out of the slip with the afternoon ebb starting to run, went smoothly. Three of my boat neighbors cheerfully came over to handle lines and help keep LG under control as I reversed away, reminding me once again that one of the great characteristics of the boating community is that it is like a small town in which everyone looks out for everyone else. Safely into the channel and on my way, I started to relax, as I always do once land starts to recede. It’s about 10 miles from Brunswick Landing Marina to the Atlantic, and even with three knots of current flushing me toward the sea I had plenty of time to consider what sort of sail setup I wanted to carry through the night. My aim was to time my arrival at the St. Aug inlet around mid-morning the following day, so I could enter on a rising tide. That gave me a target speed of 3.5-4 knots, which guaranteed a comfortable, relaxed cruise. The wind was forecast to start in the NW, and veer slowly overnight into the NE, blowing 10-15 knots, with a few lighter spots. I decided on a double-reefed mainsail, which left me the easy option of adding the staysail if I ever needed more speed.
Once the main was up and drawing, with the preventer and boom brake set to remove any danger of a swinging boom, I fully relaxed. LG, if anything, seemed to resent being held in check, and slid along a little faster than I intended or expected, despite the deep reef in the main. But I decided it would be cruel to reduce sail even further. It is in LG’s nature (and design) to want to go fast, and I could always lay to off the inlet if I arrived before the flood. Instead, I played some Coleman Hawkins through the cockpit speakers, and enjoyed the swoop and lift of the small following seas carrying me to a new destination. The sun burnt the sky orange as it set, delivering yet another gorgeous southeastern Georgia sunset. When it was gone the light of the waxing moon was more than enough to cast a glow over the sea around me. I popped up and down, made myself some dinner, and kept an eye out for any other vessels. I couldn’t have been happier.
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The overnight was uneventful. No major shipping, and a handful of other sailboats taking advantage of the opportunity to glide south on fair winds. One tug, towing a couple of barges toward Norfolk, called me on the VHF to confirm a port to port pass. Off the St. Mary’s River the shrimping fleet was out, but easy to weave around as needed (they were too busy to take VHF calls). I settled into a routine of taking 30 minute naps, getting up to scan the horizon (and AIS) for any hazards, and going back to sleep for another 30 minutes. I have not yet reached the point where I am comfortable simply heading below to nap in a warm bunk, so I brought a sleeping bag up into the cockpit and made a tolerable cocoon under the hard dodger. When the sun finally came up as I passed the St. John’s River leading into Jacksonville, I was sluggish but not exhausted. For longer passages I will have to refine my sleep technique to get better rest. But for this one night hop, intermittent napping worked fine.
I arrived off the St. Augustine inlet around 8:30 am, an hour into the flood. I wanted to wait until at least half tide, so I decided to heave-to. That would allow me an hour or two of solid sleep, and also give me the chance to see how LG feels about coming to a near-stop under main and backed staysail. I set up on port tack, so we were headed SE and out to sea from the inlet sea buoy, and LG settled down comfortably. I locked the wheel and saw that we were making about a knot of leeway to the southeast. A bit more than I expected, but perhaps tidal current was part of the equation. The motion, in winds that had built to 15 knots along with a more aggressive swell, was tolerable enough. So I slept.
Around 10:30 am it was time to finish the voyage. The inlet entering St. Aug is not charted because the shoals re-arrange themselves so frequently in storms. So you can’t rely on a chartplotter. Instead, the Coast Guard marks the channel, moving buoys as needed to keep up with the shifting sands. As I approached the sea buoy I scanned the entrance with binoculars to try and locate every buoy I would have to honor to pass safely. I also had the benefit of a screenshot sent to me from a fellow Able Apogee 50 owner who had just been in and out of St. Aug. It showed his track, and I could use it to confirm I was following the right line. I dropped the main and proceeded slowly under engine power.
The growing wind and swell behind me, along with the flooding tide, made for a very rolly, fast, progression. There was no way to slow LG below 6 knots, and I fervently hoped the Coast Guard had been diligent in its work. I stayed centered in the marked channel and saw no depth less than 20 feet. No worries, as it turned out, but it’s always the uncertainty that leads to anxiety (I still wouldn’t want to go through at night). I found the anchorage just north of the Bridge Of Lions and decided, with the wind now howling, to wait until the following morning before proceeding into a slip at the St. Augustine Municipal Marina. I dropped the hook, secured LG, and relaxed into the sublime satisfaction that comes with reaching safe harbor. I drank a very cold beer, ate a good dinner, and slept for 10 hours. The following morning, in dead calm conditions, I eased into the marina. First solo passage in the books. The next will be just that little bit less anxious. I’m already looking forward to it.
Odds And Ends:
1. Sounds good to me…
I am awed by orcas, but leopard seals are pretty amazing as well.