Following an unsuccessful attempt In January 2022 to move my 50-foot schooner Britannia to the New Bern, Pamlico Sound area in North Carolina, I was now ready for another crack at the 430-mile passage. It was then late April 2022
Pamlico Sound is a very large inland sea, protected from the Atlantic rollers by the outer banks, with quaint seaside villages like Ocracoke and Cape Hatteras. Pamlico sound nc - Bing The sailing waters are about 60 miles long (E to W) and 20 or so miles wide (N to S), with many tributary rivers and old colonial towns like Bath and Washington, (not DC) to explore. The Sound is also steeped in pirate history, where the Englishman, known as Blackbeard roamed and finally met his end.
We had bought a house in Fairfield Harbour, halfway up the Neuse River towards New Bern. Fairfield’s man-made harbor has a large central lagoon with finger canals and many houses have their own docks, some with very expensive looking boats at the bottom of the garden. At this point, the Neuse is a mile wide and feeds the western end of Pamlico Sound.
TIME TO LEAVE.
Britannia was moored at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and needed to be sailed up the Eastern seaboard to the Beaufort-Morehead City inlet, then up a river to the Pamlico and a marina slip I had leased inside the lagoon. It was not practical to bring her up the intracoastal waterway because of her 6’ 6” draft. It was not a long passage compared to some of the ocean voyages we have made, and it could also be an easy trip if we timed it right. We were looking for southerly winds to fill the fore-course square-sail, (Britannia is a brigantine schooner), and also hitch a ride on the famous Gulf Stream current that flows up the Eastern Seaboard of the USA.
The Gulf Stream originates in the Gulf of Mexico, where warm Caribbean water flows north and starts to circulate in what is called a loop current. It then squeezes between Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas and expands to an amazing 60 miles wide and some 4000 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean. It is the largest of the world's currents and transports nearly four billion cubic feet of water per second! more than all the worlds rivers combined. It is also warmer than the Atlantic waters through which it passes by some 6oF. (Source: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
Seafarers have known about it for a long time. In 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon noted there was a strong current running north, and Spanish treasure ships used the stream to speed their passage across the Atlantic. History was made in these waters.
Unfortunately, from January until April the winds had been predominantly from the north, with strong fronts swinging across Florida, bringing torrential rain and 20 to 30 knot northerly winds. This created wind-over-current in the Gulf Stream, with horrendous breaking waves. I can't say I blame Britannia for not wanting to brave that lot, and happy enough to wait in her snug marina dock. But at $675 a month I needed her out of it, and I frequently became red-eyed, looking at weather projections on the web.
I had subscribed to Chris Parker’s marine weather forecasting service, and he sent regular weather updates with possible windows for the trip north. Chris will be known to ocean sailors for his worldwide meteorological forecasting, www.Chrisparker.com, and I cannot speak highly enough of his service.
As sailors of small boats know, (sometimes to their cost), waiting for the right weather is the prudent thing to do, and a calendar is the worst thing you can have on a yacht. That's all very well, but I needed a crew of at least two for night watches and sail handling, but that's not so easy to arrange when they have jobs and other commitments, and I couldn't be sure when we would be leaving. So we waited and waited and waited, sometimes missing a possible window for one thing or another.
For three months the weather remained cruelly changeable, during which my wife Kati and I made three 730 mile trips (each way), from New Bern, to check on Britannia. Finally, at the end of April, a four-day window looked like we could expect easterly, then southeasterly winds out of the Atlantic, and my crew was also available. We had to go, now!
My first mate was Bob Snell, a very experienced yachtsman who made the attempt with me to break free of Florida a few months earlier. This ended miserably in a passage of no more than 30 miles, when a diesel fuel pipe rupture forced us to abort the trip and even have a tow to Titusville marina. Bob's girlfriend Lisa Averill had little experience of ocean sailing or night passages, and came as the cook.
Another very experienced yachtsman was Kevin Derr, who worked for Tow-boat USA and came to our rescue at 3 am that dark blustery night. I was very pleased to have Kevin as a member of the team. Kevin's girlfriend Kim Wielgus came along to gain experience for her captain's license application. She had sailed on a few sailboats, but not one as complicated as Britannia’s rig. I asked Kim if she would act as the official photographer for the images I would need to submit this story to the boating magazines I write for. The shots are all Kim’s, with the exception of those credited to others.
My wife had provisioned Britannia with over $400 worth of vittles and drinks, from a list provided by Lisa, including 14 frozen dinners, to be easily prepared in the convection microwave oven.
The night before departure we had a get-together in Britannia's saloon, where I asked each person to describe their sailing history, so others would have an idea of their experience. I also explained the intended plan.
Bob and I decided we would do the same as last time. Motor-sail north on the Intracoastal Waterway to New Smyrna Beach. This was a distance of only 50 miles and would be a good test of the repairs I had made since the last jaunt. It would also allow the crew to become familiar with each other, the boat, and her rig. Then, all being well we would enter the Atlantic Ocean at that inlet.
During this short hop, the engine started to overheat and we had to slow to keep the temperature down. We anchored at New Smyrna for the night where we investigated the problem and found a leak in the header tank filler flange that would not allow the engine to pressurize properly. This was sealed with a new gasket, which we hoped would solve the problem.
Unfortunately, the new gasket did not cure the overheating, but we decided to proceed anyway. We then spent the whole passage nursing the engine, with maximum revolutions around only 1300 rpm, otherwise, the temperature would rise excessively and we would have to throttle back, or shut the motor down until it cooled. We estimated that this added almost a day to the passage. However, being propelled by the Gulf Stream and fair winds made up for some loss of engine power. Another thing the cranky engine made us do was, actually sail the boat!
The inlet through which we entered the Atlantic is called Ponce Inlet, and the lighthouse is Ponce De Leon Light. If we could ride the Stream all the way north it would give us a very nice push, and we could then hop off at Beaufort inlet. The current was reported to be running at between 2 and 3 knots. Not a bad hoist if we could catch it.
After a leisurely departure, we entered the Atlantic Ocean to meet a rolling sea from the east, and an easterly wind at about 15-20 knots, as Chris Parker had predicted. We bore away on 015 degrees and rolled out the jib, fore staysail, and mainsail.
All the sails on Britannia are roller furled, controlled from each side of the companionway on the rope decks. The sails steadied the boat somewhat, but we still rolled heavily in some of the easterly swells, which remained with us for the whole passage.
It was late afternoon before the wind began to veer and we were able to alter course to 045 degrees to meet our rendezvous with the Gulf Stream, about 30 miles to the east. Unfortunately, this meant we would not enter it until well after dark, and I was disappointed not to be able to see our moving staircase, which is usually quite visible due to the sea color change, from grey-green to a perfect blue. Still, we had a spectacular sunset, that only a sunset at sea can give.
What did become amazingly apparent as we entered the edge of the stream about midnight was the steady increase in our speed. Entering the Gulf Stream is a bit like driving down a slip-road onto an interstate as you slide into the inside lane, then accelerate to the center when Britannia increased speed markedly, from 6.5 knots to finally 9 and occasionally 10 over the ground, as though we had just hoisted a spinnaker or large Genoa. We were now plowing along, with a rushing bow wave and a long florescent wake. Britannia had a bone in her teeth.
A unique phenomenon of ocean passage-making is the night sky, unencumbered by land glare, and our first night was spectacular, including the full panoply of the Milky Way. Another thing landlubbers never see is moon rise, with its silver path from the horizon to the boat, as spectacular as any sun-set. There were lots of wows and camera clicking, but of course, no printable photos due to the rolling of the ship.
In the morning, as we sailed deeper into the wide current, we began to see many large multi-colored tropical fish, similar to Dolphin, (Mahi Mahi), swimming alongside. We could almost scoop them up. Where was the fishing tackle when we need it? The sea was a perfect blue and paint manufacturers should name a color for it ‘Gulfstream Blue.’
The wind remained steady from the southeast, so I unrolled the between mast staysail, for which a schooner is so suited. It is set between the masts, a bit like a mizzen staysail on a ketch. As the crew became accustomed to the motion, we all settled down to the routine of a small boat on a very large ocean. Our course, or rather the course dictated by the Gulf Stream, meant we were heading away from land, 120 miles at the widest point, on a direct course for Beaufort Inlet, and no way were we going to lose that fantastic escalator
Of course, as every experienced ocean voyager knows, it was just too good to last.
We had been running the motor slowly to charge the batteries, but suddenly it spluttered to a halt and Kevin and Bob set about finding out why. They soon discovered that the starboard fuel tank had run dry. We had been running off both tanks, or so I thought, but no fuel had been coming out of the port tank, because the discharge pipe was found to be completely blocked. Britannia had been rolling heavily, so it was not surprising that sediment had been disturbed in the fuel tanks and blocked the pipe.
I had confidence in my two mechanics to get the motor going again, so I decided to leave them to it. I had my own problems anyway, trying to keep the boat moving in a declining wind. At one point we appeared to be only moving forward at the speed of the current, and it was Bob who later coined the phrase, “Becalmed at three knots.”
They re-connected the port tank to the engine line with a separate hose, which allowed fuel to be drawn from that tank. All the filters were changed once more, because it was a fair bet that a lot of tank sludge would have been drawn into them in the dying moments of the engine. The new filters then had to be primed and the engine bled, and it took hours to get the motor to start again..
The weather had been kind to us thus far, but now a new obstacle appeared ahead on the horizon, in the unmistakable sign of a large thunderhead squall. These are prevalent in the warm waters and many are small and not serious hazards, but this one was gigantic, what looked like miles across and to be avoided at all costs, but we were not at all sure which way it was moving. The consensus was that it would be traveling eastward, so we altered our course to the northwest. As we got closer, water spouts could be seen within the colossus, and these tornado-like formations have been known to sink ships. Everyone became less anxious as we slowly passed to the west of the storm, and were then able to return to our proper course.
I privately wondered what would have happened if it had not been spotted during the night, and we had run straight into it? But this was why I insisted that one of our experienced members be on watch at all times throughout the night.
The following morning the wind veered more to the south, on our stern, and the sails were constantly shaking with the swell. It was time to unfurl the fore-course squaresail I had invented, which hung from Britannia’s foremast and was designed for exactly this kind of wind. It is a 350-square-foot sail that rolls up and down inside its hollow yard, like an in-mast sail, but horizontal. However, as I looked up at the yard, I immediately knew something was wrong because it was swaying slightly from side to side. This was impossible, since it was attached to the mast at its gooseneck, except that it now appeared it was just hanging loosely by its hoist. With the boat rolling so much I was not about to go up the mast to investigate, or allow anyone else to do so. This left only two options, (1), lower the yard and lash it securely to the mast, or (2) unfurl the sail and let it fly, using the hoist, lifts, and braces to hold it steady. We did the latter and the sail quickly unfurled, pushing us along handsomely.
Our third night at sea passed with little incident, except that the 6.5 Kw Kabuto generator suddenly decided not to run for more than ten minutes before stopping, when we had to wait for it to cool down. This was only just time to cook a frozen dinner - if you were quick. Luckily there were other food options, and nobody starved.
We were still rolling from the easterly swell, and as if knowing this would be our last night, one hefty wave rolled me completely out of my saloon settee pilot berth, and I found myself on the cabin sole, pillow and all. I knew I couldn't fall any further, so that's where I stayed. I really must remember to add lee clothes to my list(s).
As we began to close the land, cell phone coverage resumed at 15 miles and mobile phones appeared from nowhere. I had a hard time finding a willing hand to help run the boat and could have fallen overboard and nobody would have noticed. It seemed like half of America was wondering where we were, but we were now heading home and families and friends needed reassurance that we were okay.
There was still one more trial in store as we approached the wide Beaufort inlet. On trying to wind the in-mast mainsail into its slot, a spare halyard found its way into the fold and jammed the sail. We had to round-up into the heavy following swell, unwind the sail and pull the halyard out, then wind the sail back in. This was achieved with skill and careful precision, and we motored slowly into a calm spot on the Moorhead City side of the inlet, and thankfully to everyone, dropped the hook
The sun was below the yard, so it didn't take long for a few of the crew to consume half a bottle of Irish whiskey, (I won't say who, but one of their names begins with R), to celebrate our safe landfall.
In the morning we weighed, (slowly, due to a few hangovers), and set off up Adam's Creek, which connects Beaufort inlet to Pamlico Sound. This is some creek! and more like a wide river for most of the way, with many stylish houses and boat docks on both banks.
It was an emotional moment for me to finally emerge into the Neuse River-Pamlico Sound and feel a welcoming wind from the east to greet me. We even set a jib and ˜tweenmast staysail to carry us the last 15 miles to the entrance to Fairfield Harbour and Britannia’s resting place within the inner lagoon.
Needless to say, I have some work to do before the first exploration of our new sailing grounds. The engine cooling water pipes proved to be almost entirely clogged, to the point that I was amazed it worked at all. These have all been dismantled and cleaned out, including the heat exchanger, exhaust and both water pumps, both seawater and freshwater. (engine story here) I can't believe all the silt came from the grounding in the Intracoastal, on our first attempt to make the passage. It probably built up over years of occasional groundings
A split pin on the yard gooseneck had sheared and the connection parted, probably due to the heavy rolling. I only had to replace a spring latch to be able to re-hoist the yard. The trouble is it had to come from France.
I repaired the fuel problem and re-bled the system and it is now working fine. (Fuel system overhall). I am going to clean both tanks and polish the remaining fuel.
Finally, I would like to thank all the crew for their help in bringing Britannia to her new home. Particularly the sterling work Bob and Kevin did with the engine failure. There were some frustrating times when we were unable to coordinate a crew with a weather window, when Kati and I considered bringing her up on our own, but I'm pleased we didn't. Oh! and thanks also to the Gulf Stream, without it we would probably still be out there.
Following is an except from a new book about climate change, pertaining to the Gulf Stream: Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitants Guide by Bill McGuire is published by Icon Books, £9.99.
Losing the Gulf Stream as the ice caps melt, the resulting cold water pouring from the Arctic threatens to block or divert the gulf stream that carries a prodigious amount of heat from the tropics to the seas around Europe. Signs now suggest the Gulf Stream is already weakening and could shut down completely before the end of the century, triggering powerful winter storms over Europe.