Amazing and humbling. That is how I would describe our recent crossing from Charleston, SC to the Abacos, Bahamas. This was my first time experiencing offshore sailing, as well as a multi-day trip on a sailboat, and what an experience it was!
We started with a week of prep on tasks such as replacing the compass (who knew those things could spring a leak?!), swapping out the old lights with LEDs (and dealing with the inevitable wiring issues), updating the navigation software, replacing navigation lights (how were those things held on with just electrical tape?!), installing man-overboard floats & lines, loading the spare anchor and chain (wow, chain is heavy!), organizing the spare parts, and provisioning (grocery shopping). By the end of the week and after only one meltdown, I was pretty proud of what we had accomplished.
Finally, departure day arrived and we filled the water tanks one last time, then moved the boat to the fuel dock…and waited…and waited…and waited. Our departure window came and went, then finally the attendant arrived and we filled the diesel tanks. Suddenly, it was time to leave! I had spent the entire week anticipating this moment, trying not to be nervous about the upcoming trip, and finally it was here! Captain Will Miller of the Charleston Sailing School kissed his wife goodbye and hopped on board, then promptly called me to the helm – I would be taking her off the dock!
No problem, I just had to avoid hitting Athena, a 90m (yes, you read that right, 90 meters!) multi-million-dollar super yacht docked off our stern. Thankfully, our dual throttles made casting off a relatively easy operation and we rode the outgoing tide out of the harbor. Just before passing the breakwater we raised the mainsail, and I managed to stay out of the path of a huge transport ship as well. Whew!
Waypoints set into the chart plotter, we headed southeast and gradually left the coast behind. Our plan was to make a beeline from Charleston directly to the Bahamas, about 400 nautical miles, then check in at Marsh Harbor. Winds looked favorable and we would be arriving at Marsh Harbor two and a half days later. Our first challenge would be crossing the Gulf Current, that infamous river of water which heads north up the eastern seaboard. Fortunately, winds were blowing with the current, leading to the easiest crossing Captain Will has ever done!
I thought I would be nervous about standing watch, but as night fell and the moon rose, I realized it wasn’t so scary after all. That first night about 1:30 am, I heard a splash off our starboard side and stood up to investigate. Much to my surprise and amazement, I saw a fin cutting through the water. Here, out in the middle of nowhere and with no land in sight, we were suddenly visited by a pod of dolphins! They stayed with us for the next 30 minutes, playing in the wake and jumping in the moonlight. It was truly a magical experience!
Time seemed to pass very quickly during the crossing, punctuated by naps and quick daytime snacks. The sea was mesmerizing and I found myself spending time just watching the waves. The first day I was pretty wobbly and only went below to grab a quick nap or visit the head, but eventually I found my sea legs. It was a lot harder to work in the galley than I thought! Many thanks to Captain Will, for making sure we had a hot dinner each night.
Before I knew it, I was standing watch the last night before landfall. This was also the busiest night of boat traffic. Fortunately, our AIS showed speed and direction of any ships that might cross our path, and I had fun looking up the details of each vessel. Soon I saw a red light off to starboard, but after checking the chartplotter, I realized it was land! What a strange feeling, seeing signs of land after several days of nothing but water from horizon to horizon. As we approached our last waypoint to Marsh Harbor, I woke up the rest of the crew then headed below for a nap.
I woke the next morning with mixed feelings about the end of my first crossing, both relieved and sad that the trip was over. I had started the trip as a sailing newbie with just a Basic Keelboat class under my belt, but ended it feeling confident and excited for more. We spent that morning getting checked into the Bahamas, then we were free to explore a new country. What an amazing thing, to travel by boat!
Meg Carlson – SSI and PADI Assistant Instructor, DAN Instructor Trainer, Business Owner