Beaufort, NC to Hilton Head, SC 3/29/23 – 3/31/23
We ended up spending more time in Beaufort than we originally anticipated. We did several big boat projects and encounter a couple of unexpected delays that had nothing to do with Ocean Song’s readiness to sail. More importantly, we are not trying to stick to any kind of schedule so any delay should really be called “just another day on the boat”. Our time in Beaufort was great, but on March 29th we had a nice 48-hour weather window to sail to Hilton Head, S.C. A couple we met in Beaufort two years ago from Annapolis and who also own a Lagoon 42, S/V Salt Aire, sang the praises of Palmetto Bay Marina in Hilton Head to us. Scott and Nancy Davis had visited there before and had left Beaufort in February with intentions of spending a couple of months berthed at Palmetto Bay. Based on their recommendation, we made Hilton Head our next planned stop.
This time of year, low pressure systems (bad weather) form and pass by quickly every 2 – 4 days along the coast. After the low passes there are usually a couple of days of much better weather as a high-pressure system (good weather) fills in. Our window of opportunity looked good for at least 48 hours, but another low was rushing by right on the heels of the nice weather. Our plan was to get into Hilton Head no later than 6:00pm on Friday, the 31st. All the weather models and our weather routing software agreed that conditions would be benign (very little wind, or waves) from noon on the 29th until early evening on the 31st. Sometime during the early evening of the 31st the winds and waves were forecast to build significantly as another low came steaming by. We decided to leave the Beaufort City Docks around 3:00 pm on the 29th. My sister Lynn came to Beaufort and had a pizza lunch onboard Ocean Song. At 3:00pm a slip neighbor, Kevin Scott, of S/V Sur le Vent, tossed us our lines as Lynn took photos and video of our departure.
Based on the various weather models we thought we’d have 20+ knots of wind and following seas after leaving Beaufort Inlet. However, once past Fort Macon there was virtually no wind, maybe 6 knots and very smooth seas. We set a course of approximately 188 degrees true to the tip of Frying Pan Shoals, SE of Southport, NC, about 100 NM away. Between the time leaving the inlet at about 3:20 pm and getting to the tip Frying Pan at about 6:15 am, we never had winds higher than 10 knots, and always from our stern. We motor-sailed with jib only, alternating engines every 2 hours until we made our turn off Frying Pan. Linda was on watch (our watch schedule underway is Day – Relaxed / At Night – 2 hours On, 2 hours Off) and she knew immediately that things would be very lumpy upon our course change to 255 degrees true which is pointing more or less toward Charleston, S.C. Linda had to go to both engines because in large following seas it’s easy to overwork the crew and Otto (our autopilot). On two engines Otto works much less and can hold a much better course, even in tough conditions. The conditions weren’t bad, just uncomfortable. Luckily, about 3 hours after rounding Frying Pan we were back to relatively benign conditions.
Day 2 of our passage consisted of motor-sailing and alternating engines until eventually deciding to go with both engines to keep our speed up and stay safely inside our weather window. Just before 9:00 am we decided to test our new fishing gear and wet the hooks for the first time. After a little more than 45 minutes we hooked a beautiful piece of seaweed. Then, perhaps 30 minutes later, we thought we had another catch of potential seaweed salad. When Linda slowed the boat down and I grabbed the rod my initial thought was, “this is something heavy”.
In a few minutes I saw a fish pop up about 100 feet behind the boat. Not long after we landed our first mahi! Linda netted the mahi, we used a “kill bottle” (alcohol squirted into the gills with a condiment bottle) to make quick work of the fighting mahi. We took a couple of photos. Lynn brought me a pack of candy “cigarettes” compliments of my cousin, Scarlett, with instructions to “celebrate” our first catch. The back story is that as little kids, when smoking was the “cool” thing most grownups did, we “smoked” and ate lots of candy cigarettes thinking it made us cool and grownup. It was my first “cigarette” in about 50 year. Then I filleted the fish. We ended up with 4 large bags of mahi steaks. As soon as we had the fish on the line and Linda had slowed the boat, she took our other trolling line out of the water. We fish to supplement our food supply and once we have a fish, we’re done until our fish supply starts running low. For dinner we had seared mahi and broccoli, and it was very good.
Throughout the day on the 30th we were visited 6 – 7 times by pods (or maybe a single pod) of Spotted Atlantic Dolphin. They’re a lot smaller than bottlenose dolphins and tend to cross under the boat as much as riding the bow wakes. Bottlenose dolphins tend to ride the bow wakes more than swim under the boat. We weren’t sure if it was the same pod visiting over and over again or different pods, but they swam with us virtually the entire day. We only spotted a couple of bottlenose dolphins that day, never a large pod.
As we approached Charleston, the AIS and radar lit up with ships, large and small. One of the biggest dangers on any sailboat is the possibility of being run down by a huge cargo ship at night. We started encountering a big increase in traffic about 8:oo pm and it continued until around 2:00 am, after we were well past the Charleston shipping lanes. We kept a sharp lookout, and our closest point of approach was about 3 miles. Three miles may seem like a comfortable distance, but a ship closing at 18 knots and us closing at 7 knots means we have very little time to make decisions. Three NM is our minimum zone of safety at night. Because there was so much traffic approaching and leaving Charleston, we knew we’d have situations that were uncomfortable but all-in-all we had a smooth, safe passage down the coast.
The final day of our passage had us approaching Hilton Head by 11:30 am. During most of our passage we had current in our favor. Approaching the inlet, we tried to stay out of the main channel for as long as we could. There was an outgoing tide and once we made our way into the main channel we had to motor against a strong outflow. The southern entrance between Tybee Island, Ga. and Hilton Head Island is well marked but slightly tricky. We had studied the charts carefully and Scott from S/V Salt Aire had given me a primer. We had to sail well south of Hilton Head and enter make our approach from the Tybee side, again several miles south of the Hilton Head channel. The tricky part is exiting the main shipping channel running to Tybee Island, crossing some shallow water, and entering the channel that circles around Hilton Head. We followed the recommended route and although it was circuitous, we had plenty of water. It was also very pretty, with dolphins, this time bottlenose, showing us the way in from the sea.
We tied up on the face dock at Palmetto Bay by 2:00 pm. Tony and Sean helped us get settled in, then we had a couple of celebratory beers instead of candy cigarettes. After some basic tiding up, we took naps. After any passage with a crew of only 2 people there is some sleep deprivation. After our naps and showers, we met Nancy and Scott for dinner.
It was an uneventful passage from a sailing and safety standpoint, and that’s always our goal. Other than the fun of looking out across the ocean under moonlight, seeing sunrises and sunsets, traveling with dolphins, and catching an occasional fish, a calm, settled passage is what we want! By the way, around 9:00 pm the wind was howling, the waves were breaking, our dock lines were groaning, and we were sound asleep in our berth.
Total Passage Time: 47 hours
Total Distance: 303 NM
Average Speed: 6.4 knots
Highest Speed: 22.1 knots (undoubtedly the GPS recorded us surfing down a wave for 1/2 a second!)
Fish Caught: One, 25 lbs. mahi
Seaweed Caught: One 8 oz. stem
Dolphins Encountered: Several Dozen or At Least One Very Loyal Pod