Adventure? No thanks.

Captain Michael Camarata and his wife/co-captain pose for a peaceful moment in their dinghy. Photo courtesy Michael Camarata

October/November 2022

By Michael Camarata

My wife/co-captain and I live on a mooring in Old Lyme, Conn., in the summer and another in Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, Fla., in the winter. Marathon is about midway down the Florida Keys, halfway to Key West.

The snowbird part of our lifestyle means we travel by boat (our home) with the seasons, mostly down and up the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). Mostly. Our family, and our dirt-based friends who live on land, believe we are enjoying great adventures. Well, we are enjoying the life, but, like Bilbo, we are not interested in adventures. No, thank you.

Unfortunately, we occasionally have unplanned experiences. We’ve gone aground due to poor navigation instructions and shallow, un-dredged channels – and we’ve had surprises because of plain-dumb moves by the helmsperson/skipper. Not mentioning any names here. This story is about an unanticipated adventure while northbound during the spring snowbird migration of 2022.

We mostly travel on the ICW but are forced to go off the coast of New Jersey. There is no inland route for tall masts or boats with a significant draft. This adventure did not occur there. Our passage north was quite pleasant in 2022.

By choice, we often go offshore off South Carolina and Georgia when southbound in the fall. Weather windows are usually stable, and one overnight passage saves a week or more of travel on the ICW. In the spring, the weather is not yet stable. Weather windows are not as long, and forecasts are not as reliable. But here we were, heading out of St. Augustine, Fla., into the ocean bound for Charleston, S.C., hoping not to have an “adventure.”

Hope is not a plan, but the forecast was for south breezes under 10 knots with seas under two feet, mostly on the stern, improving/diminishing as the day went on. This forecast had conditions possibly deteriorating in the afternoon of the second day, but we should be off the ocean by late morning. Let’s go!

Wait a minute. Why go? With my reasons for ICW-only travel in the spring, why were we going offshore, good forecast or not? A lot of bridges are on the ICW. Some are fixed bridges that are difficult to get our 64-foot mast under when there’s flooding or unusually high tides. Flood or tide issues? Not entirely. Quite a few bridges are open for boat traffic on the ICW: Lift bridges, swing bridges, bascule bridges and even one floating bridge. These are often old and have maintenance and breakdowns on occasion. That was going to be our problem.

The Causton Bluff Bridge – in Georgia, a little south of Savannah – is a bascule bridge that has been having issues for several years. They are building a high-fixed bridge to replace it, but that bridge has had completion delays. It seems that, before it was finished, it started sinking into the peat underlying the footings. Of course, it was unlikely to sink evenly; otherwise, they might just have continued building it, not caring about the required under-clearance needed by certain vessels, like ours.

So, this bridge had been inoperable for about a month, waiting for repair parts and the knowledge to enable builders to install them. ICW traffic had been backing up or attempting to go offshore to avoid the blockage. We were going to have to do one or the other.

Heading out St. Augustine Inlet, we had a light breeze on the starboard quarter, with following seas. Very comfortable. We had the genoa out to help us along. It wasn’t worth putting up the mainsail because the wind was light and not from a great direction for a catamaran. By late morning the genoa was furled for lack of a breeze, and the seas dropped to almost zero.

We headed for the St. Mary’s Inlet Sea buoy, passing it at 1505. Then, from there, we turned and headed for the Charleston, S.C., shipping channel some 140 miles away. We travel at about seven knots – plus or minus 0.2 knots, depending on conditions – and our GPS said we would arrive at about 10:30 a.m. the next morning.

We are used to overnight travel on the ocean and comfortable with the idea. Usually. The rhumb line can take you up to 50 miles offshore as the coastline curves away to the west as you travel north. My log noted mostly calm conditions throughout the day and, at midnight, noted “very sharp stars,” “nice,” and “pretty calm and clear.” But…

At 0200, my log noted “seas starting to get lumpy” and, at 0400, “rough.” The wind picked up to 10 to 15 and was just off the bow. The angle was too close for a catamaran to sail, but we were not pounding into the two-foot seas. No longer nice, but not bad. We’ve been in worse. At 0400, the winds were at least 20 knots and a little more easterly. The gusts were interesting, too.

We were now in six-foot seas, but they were not ocean swells with distance between them. They were steep with lots of spray. The helmsman was getting wet now. Great fun? No. When we got to six- to eight-foot seas, we were in the realm of our worst situation at sea. Not having fun, but not quite dangerous either. We were slowed down by having to go into the wind and waves, and our ETA at Charleston was getting later.

By the time the sun began rising (unseen through the clouds), the wind was at 25 to 30, with much higher gusts. We were pounding in the seas, and our speed over ground (SOG) was two to 2 ½ knots slower. And we still had more than 40 miles to go. Oh, did I mention the seas were now 10 feet? I often log or blog that we had it rough, but these were the worst conditions we had ever been in. This was new territory. Steep, short-period, 10-foot seas. Very nasty.

We had spray coming over our hard bimini. Spray was hitting the helmsman, but, much more seriously, we had solid water coming over the boat. Lines securing the dinghy were chafing. Things in our cabin that have never moved were being tossed around. A solid wall of water hit the canvas and plastic at the front of our bimini; a kind of dodger, went through it, and dumped a ton of water on my resting spouse – a very rude awakening.

We had to evaluate our situation. Our arrival at Charleston was now predicted to be 1630, a long time away. Very long, in these conditions. We changed course to head for the Edisto River entrance. It was half the distance, and the angle of the waves would improve slightly. The seas were still 10 feet, but we were no longer going underwater; we were getting heavy spray, but we could live with that. “Living” being the key word. The water temperature was around 70 degrees, so we were not freezing.

We still had 20 miles to go, and there was another possible problem. Out at sea, off the inlet, was a six-foot shoal. A buoy was there, but a six-foot depth in 10-foot seas with a four-foot draft could make for an exciting approach.

About three hours after our course change, we were getting close to the shoal. Because of the conditions and not knowing the inlet, we called the Coast Guard on the VHF radio. Not for a mayday situation, but to establish a communication schedule.

You can explain your situation to the USCG and arrange to call them periodically so that if you did not call them at the prearranged time, they would know sooner if something went wrong. We went for 10-minute check-ins, but 15 minutes, 30, or even 60 might have been more appropriate given the situation. We made several check-in calls before we felt we were in calm enough water to cancel the comm schedule. We thanked the USCG, and they said they were happy to do it for us. It made us feel more secure. Safer.

At the six-foot spot, we never saw less than 14-foot depths, so that wasn’t an issue, but we couldn’t have known that ahead of time. So, at 1042, we arrived in safer water and headed for the ICW, 20-something miles short of our planned destination. Arriving safely was more important than the arrival at our planned destination.

Important points: Stay flexible. Do not lock into a destination. Adapt. Have options if possible. Don’t panic. Use the Coast Guard; they are there to help and happy to set up monitoring communications. But don’t expect them to bail you out of trouble at a moment’s notice. Oh, and don’t look for adventures. As Bilbo said, “I can’t think what anybody sees in them.”

Michael Camarata and his wife and co-captain Carol Zipke are full-time liveaboard cruisers, mostly snowbirds, whose home is the 44-foot catamaran, Infinite Improbability. They have been boating for close to 40 years, and, Mike says, “No longer do we own any dirt-based property.” They are both Senior Navigators and Past Commanders of the Waterbury (Conn.) Power Squadron of the USPS. Mike is also one of Waterway Guide’s (Northern Edition) cruising editors.