After two years of cruising, “home” becomes a different concept. We spent about 8 months on the boat during 2018 and have plans to spend more time than that in 2019 - yes, we are going to continue for at least one more year. When I left you last, VAMOS was tucked away in Portsmouth, VA, very close to Norfolk. We departed the boat on October 22 and returned on November 29. That was by far the longest we were away from our “home away from home” since we bought the boat. We made some arrangements to have the outside cleaned twice and the in-water hull cleaned once just prior to us arriving back to the boat. We also installed a small security camera in the pilot house which was pointed at the breaker panel. The live stream was available to Julia and I so we could make sure the boat had power while we were away. In the back of my head I was slightly concerned that Portsmouth could experience below freezing temperatures and that I should have winterized certain systems to protect them from freezing. Historically, it was unnecessary, but it gave me something to worry about while we were gone (thanks Mom for passing that lovely trait along to me!)
Julia and I rendezvous’d in Miami following a family wedding, a little (paid) work, and a guy’s fishing trip to Panama (no pun intended, but yes, Mr. Harvey was there). We spent the night at an airport hotel and then we took the flight back to Norfolk. I was reviewing all the things I needed to check on VAMOS before we started south. I was convinced that the gremlins would have moved in while we were gone and that there would be several days of work before we could get moving again. We arrived back on the boat before noon. In about one hour I was convinced we were ready to move the next day - all we needed was a shopping trip for food. We took care of that and we left the next morning headed to Coinjock, NC. Needless to say, I was pleased that the gremlins skipped their stay on VAMOS.
The plan, as it were, was to stop in Coinjock and then find some nice anchorages along the way, drop the dinghy to take Tortilla for a run, and then get going in the morning for the next anchorage. We did not anticipate overnight temps in the mid 30’s. Riding in the dinghy in 50 degrees is one thing, but running in the dinghy in 35 degrees is stupid. So we threw out the plan and found places to tie up so that Tortilla could stretch her legs and “empty the bilge”.
Coinjock has two redeeming qualities, and as far as I can tell, only two. The first is cheap fuel. This is not a factor for long haul boats like ours, but most boats traveling in the intra-coastal waterway stop daily for fuel. The second is the prime rib served at the restaurant located at the marina. You call a day or two before your arrival and make reservations for the slip and reservations for dinner and to reserve prime rib. Of course, we go big at Coinjock, so we pre-order the 32 ounce prime rib. We arrived at Coinjock marina at about 4:00 p.m. after an uneventful run from Portsmouth. We ran inside all day because the outside temperature was in the low 40’s. We also ran the generator all day so we had heat in the boat. We declined fuel (Ha!) but bought the obligatory “Where in the hell is Coinjock?” tee shirt. The prime rib was as good as last year and we brought our own wine to dinner. We departed the next morning at 6:30 a.m. headed down the ICW to Belhaven, NC.
Belhaven was reportedly 76 nm from Coinjock (according to our friends on Trixie who had done this leg a week or so earlier). Trixie was also kind enough to point out a couple of hazards that they observed along the way. Their tips came in handy when we passed the Fairfield Bridge, in the Alligator River-Pungo River Canal. They reported a submerged log right in the middle of the channel. Julia and I both said “that was a week ago, it can’t still be there”. Ha, not so. It was right where they said it would be and only about 12-18 inches were showing and the rest was underwater. Thanks Trixie! We reported the hazard to the boats that we knew were traveling behind us so they would have the benefit of Trixie’s help as well.
76 nm is not a long run for us, but in the intra-coastal during late fall there is only about 10 hrs of daylight. Since we travel at roughly 7.5 - 8 kts, our range in the daylight is roughly 75-80 nm. So we planned to shove off the dock at 6:30 a.m. and arrive at Belhaven at 4:30 p.m. with about thirty minutes to spare before dark. As we were going through the departure checklist, I noticed that as I turned off the shore power, we had no AC power on the boat. This is not right! The inverter should be providing 120V power to the boat to run the frig, lights, microwave, etc. while underway. Ugh! Why does this always happen right when we are ready to leave the dock? I ran around looking for culprits when I realized once again that we were dealing with, you guessed it, user error. I had engaged the bypass switch on the inverter before we left the boat so that if we lost shore power while we were gone, the inverter would not kick in and eventually drain the battery bank. All I needed to do was flip the switch and we were underway. Why didn’t we discover this the day before you ask? We were running the generator all day and we had power throughout the boat from the generator so the inverter was never on. Always learning!
Belhaven was a nice surprise. When we arrived it was pissing rain. Mr. Henry and his dock hand met us at the dock anyway and helped us get tied up. We took Tortilla for a wet walk and then went back to the boat. Along the way we noticed that the puddles were unusually large for the amount of rain we thought they had that day. Come to find out, the ground was still very saturated from flooding during Hurricane Florence in September and Tropical Storm Michael in October. As we walked into town the hurricane damage was evident almost everywhere. Many businesses were still closed including the best restaurant in town. Fortunately, the ACE hardware was open so we could purchase XMAS lights for VAMOS. We planned to stay for two nights so we could enjoy Sunday Funday. Sunday Funday is always more fun with others, so we befriended a lonely sailboat guy to come to join us. Gary, from Boca Raton, is basically our neighbor in Florida. We met him in the laundry room at the Marina. He was single handedly delivering a 30 foot sail boat from Massachusetts to Florida. He didn’t start out alone. His wife was with him but after two days of rough weather she ditched him. He had been alone a couple of weeks and we found out that he spent nine days at Coinjock Marina waiting for parts. That is enough to drive anyone crazy. Long story short, Gary was starving for social interaction. He brought a nice cheese plate and a six pack of beer. He drank all of the beer and ate most of the cheese and he talked for three hours. It was entertaining and made Sunday Funday more fun.
The next day we departed in a crazy, thin layer of fog. The temperature had increased enough that we rode up on the fly bridge. Of course the higher temperature and the cool water is what caused the fog. We were high enough to be above the fog but the rest of the boat would have been all but invisible to other boats. We could see sailboat masts ahead and wakes from other boats on the water, but rarely another boat. This lasted an hour or two and then it burned off. We had a fairly short day compared to the previous run. We only needed to cover 34 nm. We picked our next stop at River Dunes Marina near Oriental, NC because our friends Bob and Dori live in Oriental and keep their boat, Liberdade, at River Dunes. River Dunes is a high-end housing development with a marina and lots of amenities like a spa! We were so looking forward to a massage, however, in the off season many services are closed or only open on weekends. Ugh! Despite this, our stay at River Dunes was good. Lots of open space for Tortilla to explore and a loner car for us to go into town and have a look around and find dinner. This was also a two night stay so we could see our friends Bob and Dori and catch up. Bob was planning his run south and we compared notes about stops and weather. Bob and Dori have been east coast cruising much longer than Julia and I so we learn a lot when we are around these guys. Thanks Bob and Dori! I also took advantage of the relatively warm daytime weather and dropped the dinghy over board to test that it was running properly before we headed offshore for our run from Morehead City, NC to Hilton Head, SC in couple of days (approximately 260 nm).
Wednesday we made the 29 nm run from River Dunes to Morehead City. This place is familiar to us since we stopped here going north and south last year. Great, short run to Morehead City. The weather was fine but cold! It was 35 degrees overnight. Our heater was getting a real workout. We were in bed early after watching The Voice so we would be prepared for our planned 5:30 a.m. departure time the next morning. The total run from Morehead City to Hilton Head is 260 nm. Part of the way there we need to pass through a channel at Frying Pan Shoals (Cape Fear, NC) off Bald Head Island, to cut some distance off the run. We wanted to arrive at the channel and exit in the daylight. This consideration dictated the 5:30 a.m. departure time. The total run was expected to take just under one and a half days. The weather was predicted to be fairly good when we departed and improve along the way. Our destination, Harbour Town Yacht Basin in Hilton Head, SC, was known to us and we were really looking forward to spending four or five nights there. We also planned to replace the missed spa appointment in River Dunes. Everything was going very well so I left Julia to navigate for a few hours while I went for a nap. I slept about three hours and when I woke up I could hear Julia was on the phone. This meant we were getting close to land because she had a signal. I washed up and came up to the pilot house to make sure everything was fine. They sun was shining, the seas were calm and we were a bit ahead of schedule. We were approximately 15 miles (less than two hours) from our waypoint which marked the entrance to the Tybee River which would lead us to Harbour Town. I looked at Julia and said, “What’s Up?” expecting to hear an update from her Mom or sister. Instead, she says, “We are skipping Hilton Head! I’ve been on the phone with Romy getting weather updates and the forecast for next week between Hilton Head and Jacksonville is not good. If we go to Hilton Head, we might be there for two weeks.” Ugh! We looked at the charts together, picked an inlet in north Florida and set a new waypoint. We had already covered 245 nms and the new point was 175 nms away for a total of 420 nms. The furthest Julia and I had covered by ourselves was approximately 363 nms from Stuart, FL to Charleston, SC - oddly, our first run of last year - 39 1/2 hours. On that run, we had the benefit of the northerly flowing Gulf Stream so we average slightly over nine knots. Heading south we average just under eight knots so the total run took us 55 hours. At least 26 hours were in near total darkness. Man, could we see the stars and the bioluminescence coming from the water breaking off the bow. The nights were long and uneventful but very cool! The ability to make this decision on the fly also demonstrates the flexibility of a long range cruising vessel like VAMOS. We never had to consider fuel. Most boats would have had to stop to take on extra fuel to make the extra distance. We also had planned more than enough food so that was not an issue either.
Julia is not the most decisive person I know. I’ve witnessed her take 5 mins to decide which brand of paper plates to put into the shopping cart. But when I woke from an early morning nap I witnessed an informed decision maker making a great decision to take advantage of the nice weather offshore and keep us heading south. This will sound condescending to some, but I was very proud! In retrospect it turned out to be a good decision as well. As I am writing this, we are “home” in Stuart, FL (Dec 15) and the next available weather window to head south from Hilton Head is now just coming up tomorrow. We would have been in Hilton Head 10 days by now! Hilton Head is nice but it is 4 nights nice, maybe five. Not 10 or more, especially in the winter!
The next 24 hours passed uneventfully with a small adjustment to the steering system being the only highlight. Our new course took us about 35 miles offshore of Georgia and northern Florida but still inside of the northerly flowing Gulf Stream current. We selected Ponce de Leon Inlet because it leads to New Smyrna Beach which we have heard is a nice stop and because the inlet appeared to have deep water. When we were close enough to land for a cell signal, we called the local Sea Tow captain and asked for any local knowledge entering the inlet. All was straightforward. We arrived at New Smyrna Beach City marina at 10:30 a.m. on December 8th, 2 days and five hours after departing Morehead City. That is nothing compared to just under five days going to Bermuda, but we had help going to Bermuda (Thanks Matt and Alex). 53 hours is a new personal best for Julia and me alone. We were both glad it occurred without planning it because planning two long nights in the late fall is not something you necessarily look forward to.
From New Smyrna, we decided to stay on the inside and navigate the ICW back to Stuart. We hadn’t navigated this section of the ICW and we have heard good things about the stops along the way. By staying inside we also had the luxury of not worrying about weather. We would be able to move when we wanted to instead of when the situation allowed. Although navigating the channel markers gets tiring compared to open ocean running, our experience doing this stretch of the ICW was quite positive. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. In addition to stopping in New Smyrna Beach, we stopped in Cocoa Village and Vero Beach, and eventually back to Stuart. Our friends Keith and Romy had done this same route a month earlier so we just followed their stops which made planning very easy. The runs in the intra-coastal are very manageable in terms of distance and they allow for reasonable departure times and fairly early arrival times. We also had the good fortune of seeing a good deal of wild life including birds and sea life. We especially enjoyed the manatees and the dolphins.
The dolphins swimming with VAMOS.
In Cocoa Village we visited with Julia’s nephew, Pete, and his wife, Stephanie, and their two kids Amelia and Viktor. Viktor is seven years old, smart as a whip and inquisitive. He crawled through every space on the boat making me very jealous with his ability to get into spaces that I can never reach! Also in Cocoa we went into Travis’ hardware. A true institution. Travis’ has been in business 130 years and has a selection that is second to none. It is paradise for DIYers. I bought some wrenches I’ve been searching for and we bought more Xmas lights for VAMOS. In Vero we visited with Keith and Romy and had a nice dinner at their new favorite spot - Fire & Wine. We also talked about our cruising plans for next year. I also had the pleasant experience of food poisoning from sushi which I am still dealing with several days later (not from Fire & Wine!).
We arrived back in Stuart at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, December 14. Since this is our third winter in Stuart there we many familiar faces to greet us and some faces of new boat owners wanting to hear stories from our travels and sharing their thoughts on cruising plans. After two years and more than 8,000 nms, we have experience. We are no longer the newbies. We learned a lot this year and we reinforced many lesson learned from the first year. I also have a much shorter list of winter projects and a shorter planned window to complete them. I’ve told Julia several times that if we spend five months in project mode this winter I’m selling the boat. It is too expensive and the balance between enjoyment and work is going the wrong direction. If all goes well, we will be on underway again by the end of February. We plan to head across to the west coast of Florida to Longboat Key for March and half of April, then head to the Dry Tortugas, The Florida Keys and then to the Bahamas. We’ll see how the ‘plan’ shapes up, but one thing is for sure - warm, blue water is the theme of our next cruising expedition!
But for now, we are “home”. Merry Christmas!