Bald Head Island to Brunswick

We are up at 5:00 AM. It is dark and chilly. There are no lights on in the homes surrounding the marina; only the yellow dock lights illuminate the night. The plan is to have the boat ready for departure near slack water at 5:45. We also want to wait for the 6:00 AM ferry to arrive, disgorge its passengers, and depart. We anticipate casting off dock lines at 6:10. As is often the case such precision is difficult to achieve. A couple of wrinkles include an 84-foot yacht behind us that is clearly planning on leaving at the same time and the fact that first light doesn’t occur till 6:50 and I’m a tad nervous turning the boat around in the narrow fairway in the dark. With our bright remote-controlled spotlights and our FLIR this should be a no-brainer but I’m concerned about the current and its effect. Another wrinkle is that maximum ebb (strongest current) is at 7:00. I had hoped to avoid departing at max ebb but all these factors conspire to delay our departure to 7:15, right at max ebb. Fortunately, the narrow channel entrance opens into the deep ship channel. My only concern is getting sideways in the entrance as we hit max ebb. The pilings flanking the entrance have rubber tires stacked up to cushion the blows they have undoubtedly received. The big yacht behind us backs up and exits, we throw off our lines, use the engine and bow thruster to rotate the boat in the fairway and throttle up to exit at speed to provide me greater control when hitting the current. Turns out to be a ho-hum affair. Tivoli barely acknowledges the 2-3 knots of rising tide as we enter the inlet. Another lesson learned is how this wonderful boat behaves. She definitely takes care of her occupants.

We activate the autopilot and start down the path direct to Brunswick; a complicated course of four waypoints. Once out to sea the conditions are less than ideal; 4-6 foot seas, 15-20 knots of wind. But the prediction is for calmer seas and winds the further south we get. Winds are out of the NNW so they slap us on the starboard stern quarter. The ride is still quite comfortable; the stabilizers do their job, and we are relieved to be offshore instead of on the ICW. As the day progresses the waves abate and the ride gets smoother. By 3 AM the Atlantic is silky smooth.

We are staying closer to the coast on this leg to enjoy calmer seas than those predicted further east. We are about 25 miles offshore; cell service is gone and we rely on the Iridium GO satphone and our DeLorme Inreach (totally redundant; either would be sufficient) for communications.

We are running at 1600 RPM, burning 4 gallons/hour and speeding along at 8 knots. At this rate we will be off Charleston SC by 11 PM and Brunswick by 1 PM tomorrow afternoon.

Deanna and I alternate 3-hour watches; I’m well into 9 to 12 PM shift as we are passing Charleston. There is no moon, it is dark except for the glow of Charleston’s lights to the west. Ships are everywhere, at anchor, coming and going all directions. I cancel autopilot navigation and alter our course to pass two ships at anchor. Their AIS data indicates they are not moving and as I watch them from 9 miles out they appear to be stopped. This is often the case as these vessels await a berth at their destination. AIS saves the day; don’t know how “old timers” did without it. AIS gives you a visual indication of a vessel on your chartplotter and radar, its direction of travel, speed, closest point of approach, time to CPA, etc. All well and good but still nerve wracking as commercial vessels aren’t required to monitor Class B AIS data typically found on pleasure craft, only their more expensive Class A AIS they are required to have. That means you don’t really know if they see you or not. And technology can always fail. The Maersk Chicago is coming out the Charleston ship channel but leaves the channel toward an area where other ships are anchored. The AIS data indicates it’s doing 12 knots and its course crosses ours, naturally. Suddenly their AIS signal disappears. I watch the ship through binoculars and watch as they turn off most of their lights. Are they preparing to anchor or continue on their course? I hail them on the VHF and they state they are maintaining their heading and speed. They also don’t know why their AIS signal disappeared and indicated they had no radar signal from us. We are perplexed. You would think our radar return would be decent (note to self: install radar reflector), surely they could see our navigation lights, and we know our AIS is working. I turn on our bright search lights and deck lights to make us more visible and, as the burdened vessel, slow down and putter along at 5 knots allowing them sufficient time to pass safely. This all takes about a hour to transpire given the distances and slow speeds. Patience is a virtue! In retrospect I should have also used MARPA to track this vessel’s course and speed. But we have Simrad electronics and the radar’s MARPA function is spotty. It works well in calm seas with slow moving vessels but, as has been reported by others, it provides inaccurate course and speed data; i.e. it provides data that doesn’t agree with the ship’s AIS data. I don’t trust it. This should be replaced but the unit is only 3 years old and relatively expensive. One can get by without MARPA when dealing with commercial vessels required to carry AIS but most vessels in the world don’t have it. In those circumstances MARPA can give you critical data about their movement, especially useful when the crew doesn’t speak English and radio communications is not helpful.

We had plotted a course closer to shore on this run to seek calmer waters; in hindsight this placed us closer to all the traffic coming and going from the major ports along the way. On our trip north we were much further offshore and didn’t encounter any close traffic. Choose your poison!

We are soon back on course and up to speed. The sea is now glassy smooth, stars are reflected in the surface, wind is 2-4 knots. Once past busy Charleston we have the ocean to ourselves, no other boats visible or on radar set at its maximum range. It’s a bit disconcerting; you look at the radar screen frequently as its your only clue as to what’s out there. When you don’t see anything you wonder – is this thing working? I look to port and see a very bright light. Is it the running light of a sailboat I don’t see on radar or something else? I open the door to take a closer look and chuckle as I realize the light is Venus, rising above the eastern horizon and casting a moon-like silver reflection on the water. We hum along.

Deanna takes her turn at the helm for the 12 PM to 3 AM watch. No ships crossed our track on her watch!

I’m back in the helm seat for the 3 – 6 AM watch. I see a blip and AIS icon on the radar. The ship Zim Piraeus is leaving Tybee Roads Inlet at Savannah heading east and crossing our course. We are still 10 miles away so we watch the AIS data, radar return, and keep an eye on it with our binoculars. It is doing 17 knots or a nautical mile in 3.5 minutes. The CPA is 2 miles; I’m comfortable with that. Then it goes to 1.8, 1.7, etc. I slow Tivoli down to increase the CPA; doesn’t help. She is turning toward us, CPA is 1 mile, then 0.8., 0.5. Dangerously close. I slow Tivoli down. Finally she settles on a course and the CPA remains at less than a mile. Once again, I slow Tivoli down and we creep along at 5 knots allowing time for this vessel to cross our path. For the longest time she remains at the same bearing from us indicating we are on a collision course. Then, ever so slowly she moves from right to left, the CPA remains constant, and she finally crosses our path about 0.8 nm away. I power up to continue on our way only to hit the ship’s wake shaking Tivoli violently and sending spray over the bow. Soon it’s calm and we are back to 8 knots and on track. Not 10 minutes pass before yet another vessel leaving Tybee Roads, the Maria Elena, appears on our radar. Deja vu! Same scenario except this vessel is doing only 13 knots and I have time to slow down sooner and allow a greater distance between us. We pass at a comfortable 2 miles; and no wake. Live and learn.

My watch is over and Deanna is back at the helm for the 3-6 AM watch. No ships crossed our track on her watch! Go figure.

As we approach Brunswick GA the seas are flat calm, calmest we’ve ever seen. Schools of fish swarm at the surface, literally hundreds of dolphins can be seen breaking the surface, the occasional flying fish scoots along, pelicans and seagulls abound. A beautiful morning. In spite of the delays we experienced with ship encounters we reach St. Simon Inlet at the predicted time of 1 PM and turn west into the channel. We hail Brunswick Landing Marina and are told the best spot for us would be stern in on a slip at pier 12. I hate backing Tivoli into a slip. Single engine, no stern thruster, limited visibility. I’m assured it will not be a problem, Sherri and Cindy will be on the dock, it will be easy. Reluctantly, I agree to give it a try. Damn if they weren’t right. I turn into the fairway between pier 11 and 12, rotate the boat to starboard with what seems like inches to spare at either end. Deanna tosses dock lines to the waiting help and they deftly handle the lines and provide instructions to get the boat into the narrow slip and we ease the boat back until we are in. Dockside help with such skills are rare. No cursing, no insurance claims, no blood spilled. A great end to a great run.


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