March 3, 2013
Lessons Of An Evening Landfall
From Blue Water Sailing • February 2013
by Ben Eriksen
For weeks we slowly trudged our way south through the muddy and dismal swamps of the ICW. The engine hours topped the 1000 mark and the associated fuel costs toppled the budget. The thought of open ocean and a short offshore run made Elizabeth, my 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter, and I very excited.
The proposed run:
Beaufort, NC to Wrightsville Beach, NC offered us a chance to spread our tanbark wings and sail a single, unobstructed course from Mo(A) to Mo(A). Typically, it’s the first outside run for many sailboats making the southbound trip each fall. It is roughly 70 miles, anchor to anchor.
Haul back at 0500 from Beaufort, drop the hook at 1900 in Wrightsville Beach. It sounded dreamy—a long day of sailing along at 5 knots. Well, that’s rather ambitious I must admit. I’m no stranger to the fact that sailing plans are the ultimate antithesis to Swiss watches—never precise, always failing. November days are short and darkness dominates this time of year. Translation: a pre-dawn departure and post-dusk arrival.
Beaufort Inlet is a well marked channel, but a strong contrary current slowed progress considerably. Being swiftly pushed towards Shackleford Point, a course correction of nearly 40º to the west was required to counteract the eastward set. As Elizabeth cleared G “7”, the sun pierced the foggy dawn and the winds filled in—a smokey 10 knot breeze from the Northeast, putting it smartly on our starboard quarter. Before long, Elizabeth and I were enjoying the gentle lift of the ocean swells. With the Monitor windvane steering, I was able to get a few whipping projects done and enjoy the first leisurely sail in weeks. The day wore pleasantly on and the winds increased almost imperceptibly. By late afternoon it was blowing a steady 18-20 knots, and the seas had built to 4 or 5 feet.
Around 1930, just after dusk, we approached the entrance to Wrighstville Beach, known as Masonboro Inlet. The seas had become rather ‘pushy’, and the Monitor windvane struggled to steer a straight course. Despite having doused the mains’l a few miles back and running the engine in reverse to try and slow down, I ended up leading our 3 boat convoy. Daphne, (Nor’sea 27) and Sabbatical (Pearson 365), were a few miles behind me; I had won the prize of going in first. Damn this fast boat!
The Mo(A) light was dim compared to the lights of civilization in the background, but clearly recognizable by its distinct pattern (- —). Sailing under jib alone at 6 knots, with the tiller between my legs, spotlight in one hand, binoculars in the other, VHF radio clenched under my arm, and a chart between my teeth I sped on towards the inlet beneath a black sky. The chart reads: Masonboro Inlet (see note B). With one eyeball watching for the submerged breakwater, the other eyeball wandered around the chart looking frantically for this elusive “note B thingy”. Aha!
“Well, I sure hope these buoys are on station” I muttered to myself, “because that’s all I’ve got to go with here”. “Hope I don’t miss any buoys, or skip a dog-leg (an unexpected turn in the channel)!” There were lit red buoys exhibiting distinct light patterns, but without a chart to reference their position it was nearly impossible to know which buoy to head for first. I threw up my hands, chose the brightest red flash I could see and just went for it, hoping it was the next one. The submerged breakwater didn’t diffuse the waves, so even inside the inlet I was rolling nearly gunwale to gunwale; too rough to use binoculars. An unlit green buoy whispered “boo” startling me like a ghost close on my port side—too close actually. I clutched my radio and announced sternly, “Watch Out For Unlit Greens!” over our convoy’s working channel while swinging the tiller hard over.
Once past the first red buoy, the channel became more recognizable and the path to safety was in sight. But that last red buoy… so far to port, so close to the southern breakwater… is that really on station? I repeated the navigators mantra out loud, “Red Right Returning”, just to be sure I wasn’t about to make a silly mistake. Can I trust it? Will it put me aground when my keel drops down between these swells? Will I fit between this red and the breakwater? With the spotlight on the breakwater and my course as close to the red as possible, I sped on at 6 knots. “Oh golly, is this really worth it?” I wondered.
Braced for impact and holding my breath, I sailed past the last red. Still afloat and in one piece, I carried on towards the ICW’s familiar ‘green on a stick’, where the swells quickly went flat. I lowered the jib in the calm waters and waited for the rest of my convoy to play the game. The experience was just like a roller coaster ride where you scream the entire ride in horror, only to get off and say, “That was fun, let’s do it again!”
Will I ever do it again? Hopefully not. There’s an old proverb that goes, Wise men learn by other men’s mistakes; fools by their own. I’ve read plenty of books and heard my fair share of advice from far wiser and experienced sailors than I will ever be, explaining the difficulties and dangers of making an unknown landfall at night, yet I found myself in that exact situation. This nighttime entry shed a vivid light on those difficulties, and I might be the fortunate fool who did not come to grief on the shores of Wrightsville Beach that night.
A little retrospection revealed some lessons about making an unfamiliar landfall at night. I don’t recommend making a nighttime landfall, but if you find yourself in that situation,
take these steps to help ensure a safe entrance:
- Study the entrance on all appropriate charts thoroughly, including all buoy characteristics, notes and warnings. Determine it’s Class Rating.
- Use all available resources to gain local knowledge such as charts, coast pilots, cruising guides, and the internet.
- Plan your route through the inlet channel buoys and mentally simulate the approach in adverse conditions such as limited visibility, large swells, or equipment failure.
- Consider the effects of weather, tide, currents, moon phase, cloud cover, lights ashore, and other vessel traffic.
- Develop a plan which may include heaving-to, making an offing, slowing down, or anchoring to wait for daylight.