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The Laughing Gull Equinox
The latitudes are now getting bigger once again, instead of smaller.
So the Winter-Without-Freezing is officially over (I hope). It didn’t end up being as ambitious as I had planned (no Bahamas). But it was WAAY better than a winterized winter on the hard. Way warmer. And way more fun to be able to spend time ON a boat rather than simply checking IN ON a boat.
St. Augustine was exactly as nice as as I had expected it would be. The St. Augustine Municipal Marina was a sweet address in the heart of the historic city center, just a short walk away from all the coffee shops, restaurants and museums you could want. The weather was warm in the day and cool at night. Dolphins would regularly meander through the marina, following the fish. The boat neighbors were all friendly. Ilana came for a visit. Living aboard for a stretch was new and different.
I soloed back north to Brunswick in late February, stopping in for a night at Fernandina Beach and two nights at Cumberland Island. Exiting the inlet at St. Augustine was still a cautious exercise, even though I could follow my arrival track, as the tide was dead low and just starting to creep in. Once out in the Atlantic I had some good sailing, experimenting with one- and two-headsail reaching as the wind slowly died. The truth is, my staysail is too small to add much drive. But rolling it out feels like the right thing to do if it will draw even a little. And even that little does tick the speed log up a tenth or two.
There wasn’t much vessel traffic, and I had the coastal Atlantic to myself, apart from the seabirds. I did spot some dolphins, but they were busy and didn’t stop by. So I was left to sail the boat and contemplate the mysteries of the universe and the future. Which is not a bad way to spend a day. There are few situations in modern life where the only intrusions are wind and wave. No texts. No cable TV. No email. Humanity can keep hurtling toward the precipice without me (even though it is dragging me reluctantly with it). I cherish that calm. The mind slows. The breath slows. Time slows. Thoughts wander in any direction, with no restriction or agenda. It is meditation on the move. One of my favorite environmental philosophers, Wendell Berry, put it perfectly:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound, in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of the wild things.
Yes, when the sailing is easy and the ocean is empty I am deep in the peace of wild things. Not quite into the Moitessier nude meditation zone, but I could easily see how he got there after thousands of miles of sailing.
At sea, all reveries are eventually broken by the approach of land, and arrival at Fernandina Beach demanded attention. I decided to pick up a mooring so I wouldn’t have to worry about the the local currents swinging me around and potentially breaking my anchor loose. But a solo pickup, with a fast-ebbing tide pushing against a northerly wind, required some advance thought. I visualized vectors of the different forces working to move Laughing Gull one way or the other, and decided that if I could lay the bow alongside the mooring ball the wind and tide would mostly cancel each other out, leaving Laughing Gull paused in place and allowing me time to run forward and get a line onto the mooring. And that turned out to be a good calculation. Once secured, I drank a cold beer and felt pretty good about my state of affairs. Grabbing a mooring ball solo, with wind and tide at work, is not exactly the height of achievement (and if I had missed I would have just circled around to try again). But the smooth execution of any plan is always a moment for gratitude. There are plenty of ways to go wrong and experience regret.
From the water, Fernandina Beach is blighted by adjacent industrial zones. Ashore, it is a delightful town and you don’t see or notice the heavy industry on its borders. I walked around, and then chilled in a good coffee shop, wondering if I should stay another night and come ashore to a restaurant to eat dinner. There were many tempting eateries. But I was still a bit in the meditative zone of the previous day and found I craved solitude more than I craved crowds and good restaurant food. So at mid-day I dropped the mooring and meandered north for 5 miles to anchor near the Dungeness dock on the western shore of Cumberland Island.
I spent a wind and tide-tossed night on the hook, and the following afternoon, confident that the anchor was deep set and Laughing Gull wouldn’t wander onto the shoals all around, I dinghied ashore. Cumberland Island is wild and mostly empty, one of those places that you have never really heard of but shocks you with its rugged beauty. It took the wealth of the Carnegies, and a desire to keep it to themselves, to preserve it so well in its natural state. You can decry the excess, but you can’t deny the gift they left behind. I walked a 4 mile trail that first took me past the haunting, evocative ruin of Lucy Carnegie’s mansion. Wild ponies grazed its broad lawns, unimpressed by its former grandeur. The words of Ozymandias inevitably ran through my head:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
From there I followed the path onto a boardwalk across the salt marshes and then out to the ocean-side beach where the sands did indeed stretch far away. I wandered north along the tide line, watching Least Terns and Red Knots foraging in the sand. I was completely alone and they paid me no mind as they busily went about their business. I didn’t see another human until I had walked two miles to the path that cut back west across the island. From there, I wandered back toward Laughing Gull through a twisted forest of live oaks and palmettos, inebriated by the sweet salt air and Jurrasic beauty of the place. Just before the path deposited me back at the dock, an armadillo wandered by and forged its way back into the deep grasses and heavy scrub below the tree canopy.
When I got back to the boat I stripped off my clothes, dove into the water, and took a quick shower on the transom. Cleansed both internally and externally, I was finally ready to return to the crowds. The following morning I was up early and rode the tide back out into the Atlantic and made my way back to Brunswick Landing Marina. My winter season was over. It had been good.
Odds And Ends:
The Wired World: As you might guess by now, I have a lot of hesitation about bringing Starlink high speed internet aboard Laughing Gull. But the SV Raindancer crew was pretty happy that boats around them had it (which made for fast and easy comms and a quick rescue) when their sailboat sank in just 15 minutes after hitting a whale in the Pacific. Here’s the skipper’s blow-by-blow account of what happened. A sobering reminder that we should always make sure we are ready to abandon ship in very little time.
Instagram Fishing Fetishization: I love the fact that there are cruisers everywhere sharing their stories on social media, and often celebrating an ethos that cares for nature. I hate the fact that many of them frequently celebrate fishing in all its forms, and often post trophy pictures. Somehow the contradiction between loving and conserving the ocean, and removing and killing its beautiful denizens, doesn’t seem to register. Even when stark evidence of how much pressure fish populations are under is everywhere.
I have to admit that I haven’t been able to resist dropping some pushback into their comments. I doubt it does much good, but I would love for any IG and YouTube cruisers to distinguish themselves by encouraging a leave no trace attitude that protects fish and draws attention to the fact that we are fishing the oceans to death.
Ooops: C’mon, man! You have to SHARE the lineup…
That’s all for now. Soon, I’ll be headed back to Brunswick to start the trip North. More then…