Offshore Charleston, SC to New Bern, NC part 1

Leaving Charleston SC

After docking in Charleston, SC for about a week at the Cooper River Marina, and eager to start our second offshore sailing adventure.  We hired a delivery captain that would help us get to New Bern, NC safely.  Although I had a lot of offshore sea time in the Navy, I was never the one driving the boat.  And there are a lot of things that can go wrong.  Needless to say, neither Shannon nor I had the experience to take Banjo outside into the great big ocean by ourselves and we like to recognize our own limitations.

The captain listed many deliveries in his resume and was available on short notice.  We made the travel arrangements and, less than a week later, he arrived to start our weekend offshore sailing journey to New Bern.  We calculated the trip from Charleston to New Bern was a little more than 420 miles .  Since we were planning to sail continuously, the offshore sailing passage would take a little longer than 2 overnights offshore.

Boat rules

As expected, during the first couple hours, the captain asked a lot of questions about Banjo and, having only purchased her a couple weeks before, we answered to the best of our ability.  We went through each system to aid in familiarization of the captain, but also for ourselves.  We had a small safety briefing where I explained Banjos “boat rules.”

  1.  Stay ON the f**king boat!
  2. When we are offshore, no one leaves the cockpit without being tethered to the boat via a harness and jack-line.
  3. No one leaves the cockpit at night offshore, unless they have a Personal Floation Device on, are tethered to the boat with a jack-line, and at least one other person is awake, in the cockpit and says “ok.  You can go out on deck.”

We had received these 3 rules from our friend Cliff, who had helped bring Banjo from Brunswick, Ga to Charleston, SC and who had over 5000 Nautical Miles on Banjo, they seemed like good rules, so we kept them.

Planning our offshore sailing passage

As we planned our departure and route for later that afternoon once I got off of work, we were continually checking the weather and checking & double checking our boat systems.  Although we didn’t have much offshore experience, Shannon and I knew that there were a TON of things that could go wrong and we wanted to limit those risks as much as possible.

As the time neared for us to cast off, another boater in the marina came by and informed us that he received a weather report via Single Side Band (SSB) from a fishing boat off the Charleston Trench claiming 1.5-2 meter swells with a period of 6 seconds, and blowing 25 knots gusting to 35 knots.  The skies behind Banjo were full of dark threatening clouds, but no signs yet of rainfall or lightening and the skies ahead were only partly cloudy.

Upon hearing this weather report, we all realized that it wasn’t the wind or the swell height that was the problem, but rather the period.  Six seconds is some pretty active swell.  Count to yourself, one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand, five-one-thousand, six-one-thousand… 6 foot wave.  One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand… etc.  A 6-foot, or 2 meter wave every six seconds is a handful and could make for an extremely uncomfortable transit.  We decided to push back our “go-time” by an hour and see if we could find out more information.

Foreboding weather Charelston SC

Coast Guard Checkin

I called the US Coast Guard Station in Charleston and asked them what information they had for the Charleston Channel and shared with them the report we had received.  The Petty Officer was super professional and extremely helpful but informed us that they had not had any reports of weather that heavy in or around the Charleston Channel.  Side note: We absolutely LOVE the Coast Guard.

Anyway, we continued to check other weather services and no one was reporting conditions similar to what the other boater had described, so we decided to head up the harbor and see for ourselves.  If the conditions were truly that bad, we could easily turn back and wait for better weather.  The conditions at the marina did show that there was a fair amount of wind earlier that afternoon, but there were no other signs that indicated foul weather.  We readied Banjo for another offshore sailing trip.

Getting Underway

We made a note to inform the marina we were leaving and we thanked them for a great stay.  The weather had cleared somewhat while we were waiting so we untied the dock lines, pointed the bow down river, and left the marina.  As we were clearing the marina, we could see a large container ship a couple miles behind us in the distance.  It was really far back to the point where it was hardly noticeable.  Meanwhile, I went back to the task of pulling in fenders and coiling lines for stowage.

Leaving Coopers River Marina

The container ship scare

As the captain steered us up the channel, I became aware a couple minutes later that the container ship had closed the distance between us really quickly.  I informed the delivery captain and he acknowledged.  The container ship moved closer and began to blast their horn signalling an intent to pass to our starboard.  About a mile separation now.  I became alarmed and pointed out this fact to the captain who had us dead center of the channel and questioned whether we should “do something” to get out of that ships way.  The container ship sounded its horn again.  And again.  Our captain did not seem to notice as if we had “plenty of time and room.”  I was uneasy, but figured the captain knew what he was doing.

Calling SV Banjo

I also became aware that neither of us could hear the VHF over the engine noise so I turned it up louder.  The container ship blasted its horn again.  About a quarter mile now.  The captain of the container ship was already hailing us on the radio and, now that I could hear it, I answered in a shaking little voice.  “Son, didnt you hear me calling you and blowing my horn?” the container ship captain asked.  “Yes sir,” I replied, “but we couldn’t hear the radio till just now.”  “This ship wont stop and you have GOT to get out of our way,” the captain expressed.  “Yes sir, we are turning now,” was my reply.

I stepped back into the cockpit and told the delivery captain, “you have GOT to get out of his way.”  The delivery captain questioned, “where should I go?”  I grabbed the wheel and pushed it hard over to port.  “Just go to port and get out of his way,” I exclaimed.  Banjo responded immediately and  began crossing straight across the channel to port.  Much less than a quarter mile now.

Container Ship Passing in Charleston Harbor

Getting out of the way

We made our way to the opposite side of the channel just about in time for the container ship to have caught up with us.  This thing was gigantic on a scale I hadn’t seen since the Navy and was a mere 200 meters off of our starboard side.  We powered Banjo down since we were clear of any danger at this point, opting instead to watch this Goliath pass.  Pass us she did, making about 12 knots, her bow to stern took less than a minute and a half to completely overtake Banjo.  Had we not gotten out of the way, she would have, most certainly, won that battle.

Watching this massive beast pass

The container ship was so large and so powerful, that she created her own current from the wake of her prop-wash as she passed and the previously choppy water looked like a swollen, undulating cauldron whose top was almost glassy in appearance to the surrounding water.  We could feel the power through Banjo’s Hull and it caused us to rock back and forth.  Banjo’s near 20-ton displacement was no match for something powering a vessel that weighed hundreds of thousands of tons (probably?).

Container Ship leaving Charleston SC

Finally, the container ship made its way past us, I’m sure with a few choice words from the bridge crew, and off into the distance.  Lesson learned: Mass has the right-of-way.  Get the HELL out of the way… sooner rather than later.

Arthur Ravenel Bridge

We made our way under the US17 Arthur Ravenel Bridge and headed further into the harbor.  We did some quick calculations and questioned whether we needed to get fuel.  At the time, we had no idea of what Banjo;s fuel consumption was, and since we hand topped off since arriving from Brunswick, we didn’t really know for sure how much fuel was still onboard.  The captain assured us that with 300 gallons, and we had filled up before leaving Brunswick, that he felt confident we had more than enough fuel for the journey.  Lesson learned: know how much fuel you have and how much you burn BEFORE you go offshore.  Although Banjo is still a sailing vessel and worst-case scenario would have us going for fuel under sail or sailing close enough for a tow, it just makes for much less stress when you know those things before setting out.

Charleston Harbor

The winds were only blowing around 15 knots in the Charleston Harbor with a little bit of chop.  There were quite a few boats both heading out and returning that Friday afternoon, so we felt a little better about the weather forecast report we heard about on the dock.  We were still “iffy” at this point because we were not actually in unprotected waters yet, so we continued forward.  Still no signs of anything like a 6-second wave period at 2 meter heights.

Patriot’s Point, Sails Up

We made our way around Patriot’s Point, and decided to hoist the sails.  I went forward and prepared the main and, once the captain brought us into the wind, I hoisted the sails.  Oh what a glorious sight when our canvas fills with the wind.  I took a moment to admire this beautiful sight before heading back to the cockpit.  The captain brought us onto a port tack, where the wind is coming from the port side.

Crab Bank and Folley Island Channel

We continued to make progress past the Crab Bank, through Rebellion Range until reaching the merge of the Folley Island channel and the South Channel at marker 25.  From there we turned slightly south onto the Mount Pleasant Range and Sullivan’s Island up to markers 21/22 which was the start of the Ft Sumter Range and the Charleston Jetty.  We had heard some awful stories of sailors and other boaters who had perished on the jetty so we were really careful to maintain a safe distance.  The winds were holding and the sea conditions had not gotten any worse, so after a discussion, we decided to move further forward and see what the conditions were out of the channel, and, with that we made our way through the 17/18 markers and officially out of “protected waters.”

Leaving Charleston SC Harbor

Open water

Once outside the jetty, the sea state did pick up considerably and there were .5-1.5 meter swells.  There was no sign of a 6 second wave period.  In fact, it was more like every couple minutes between the big swells.  Banjo was extremely comfortable.  The majority of the clouds we had seen earlier had cleared leaving mostly blue skies above us.  Our next offshore sailing adventure was underway.  Shannon called out the #14 Green to starboard and the #15 Red marker to port.  Then the 13 Green to starboard and the 14 Red to port.  Sweet!  We were really going to do this.

Offshore sailing Leaving Charleston SC

Around the halfway point between the 13 Green Marker and the 11 Green Marker, our captain posed a question.  Were we were far enough out to leave the channel so we could save some time and begin our northwest leg.  I could see no reason as to why this was unreasonable.  Shannon agreed.  I took a look at the Garmin Chart Plotter and saw no apparent obstacles.  We turned Banjo northwest and left the channel.

A minefield about face

After about thirty minutes had passed.  The passage of time becomes fuzzy at sea.  I was still looking at the chart plotter and noticed something “odd.”  “What’s a minefield, “I asked quizzically.  The captain stared at me and shrugged.  “Why? ” he asked.  “Hmm, ” I wondered the chart plotter just has a big red box with the words “Danger Minefield” in it.  “Seriously? ” he asked.  “Yep, ” I replied.  He shrugged again.  I looked over.  Shannon was staring at me.  I began to fiddle with the chart plotter trying to get more information.  We were still well within sight of land.  Finally, I found an information menu that stated “Area could contain unexploded military ordinance.”

“Turn around RIGHT now, ” I demanded.  “What? ” replied the captain.  “This chart plotter says that we could be heading into an ACTUAL minefield with unexploded ordinance.  And it also says there are a bunch of shipwrecks just to the north.” I stated.  “I dont want to get anywhere near a minefield and shipwrecks, especially in only 10 meters of water. Nope, nope nope!”  Sure enough, the shipwrecks were coming into view on the chart plotter screen, less than a mile to the north.  Big Red Line indicating the minefield less than half of that.  “Seriously, ” I was resolute, “turn us back and let’s take the channel out.”

Conclusion of Part 1

The captain smiled, perhaps thinking I was just being overly cautious and that there was probably little real danger.  He turned Banjo back on a course taking us due east towards the channel.  We had a bit of a beating sea.  Banjo cut right through the waves.  Although the winds were significantly stronger and the seas had strengthened to 1-1.5 meters.  Neither Shannon nor I seemed to mind.  Knowing that we were headed away from that damned minefield was a relief!  Who would have even thought mines were a danger when offshore sailing.



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