Sailtime Storys by Bill Amt #3

A Beginners Sailor’s Lessons Learned

Another dozen or so lessons learned

A passage from Charleston SC to St Augustine FL

On March 15, 1979 I prepared for my first trip in S/V Paramour.

Unexpectedly a new job required us to relocate from Charleston SC to Jacksonville FL and the S/V Paramour and I could not stand a hundred and sixty miles separation.  So the decision – off shore or ICW –  had to be made and a new St Augustine marina just under construction was selected to become Paramour’s new home.

And, the one hundred sixty miles to be traveled? I will admit it today. I did get a quote to truck the boat to Jacksonville.  But once my now ex-wife saw the quote; I quickly reconsidered that thought.  After all, as she put it to me, was I not prepared and confident enough to move the boat myself?  Obviously that answer had to be yes – although quite privately, I had never looked at any chart outside of the one I had for the Charleston Harbor.  And despite all of the weekend harbor sailing, I had never actually passed between the Charleston Harbor’s jetties, and I had no clue where the ICW entered or exited the Charleston Harbor.  But I did know a lot of stuff.  I mean, after all, it is red right returning – right? – But, does that mean right retuning to the sea or from the sea?  Day beacons, mile markers, bridges, currents and tides?  Well all can be learned just as I had learned about anchoring a few months ago.

Thankfully, my nervous marina neighbor next to me was a reasonable man and a good listener and offered a couple of suggestions, after hearing that I planned to single handedly sail off shore to St. Augustine.  His first, but diplomatically phrased, suggestion was that I needed at least one crew member to travel with me – and in light of my previous anchoring experience it was a reasonable assumption that my now ex-wife and children would not fill that position.  Luckily, the day before he had noticed a young man wondering around the marina who was seeking passage south.  My marina neighbor explained that the young man professed to have traveled from Norfolk on various boats, was a writer and artist, and was working his way to Key West.

His second suggestion took into light my limited experience sailing off shore and posed a trip down the ICW as a more appropriate path to St. Augustine.

So in one little brief conversation a multiplicity of problems was simultaneously solved and the decision to travel the ICW was made.  The young man had a way to get to Jacksonville for free – that was especially important when I realized later he had no money on his person whatsoever and “working his way” had a different meaning in his vocabulary than my interpretation of the word.  I had a crew with experience.  The marina diplomatically removed an unwelcomed vagabond from their docks.  My marina neighbor managed to move a boating hazard far, far away from his boat.  My now ex-wife would not have to renege on her promise never to step aboard that !@#$ boat again.  And Paramour and I would reunite once again in St. Augustine.  A win-win for all.  Wow!

As an owner and captain of Paramour, I believed there was an unwritten law of the sea that states the owner/captain must know everything – even if he does not know anything at all.  I truly believed that “fake it until you can make it” is a very important rule of seamanship.  Fortunately my new crew was very cognizant of this rule and had refined the unique skill and art of finessing a captain who stringently adhered to this rule.

For example, when my new crew realized we had no charts or waterway guide on board, he quietly suggested we visit a local chandlery to see if there were anything HE needed for our trip and then very carefully managed to nudge me toward the chart cabinet and engaged the local salesman in a conversation espousing the benefits of a waterway guide and the necessity of having charts of the various South Carolina and Georgia harbors and sounds at the boats navigation station.   He also subtly surveyed Paramour to make certain the “sail away” package did not need to be supplemented, made sure the previously unused VHF really worked, and all of the Coast Guard required safety gear was aboard.  He even studied the galley offering suggestions, that, while he had little need for nourishment, I may not share his low metabolic rate, and proper provisioning on board would be a great enhancement should we be delayed before we could reach the local McDonalds along the way.

In 1979, loran and radio direction finders were the primary navigation tools of the coastal sailor and the sextant and dead reckoning were the tools of choice for the off shore sailor,  The only towing service was the US Coast Guard – no Towboat US and there were no clear plastic sleeves to protect paper charts.  But the Waterway Guide was published and definitely contained all the information one needed “to stay between the banks of the ICW” until your destination was reached.  I did not own a Loran or RDF at the time.  But thankfully the Sail-Away Package did include a depth finder.

So at 4:00 AM the crew and I awoke, allowed the diesel glow plug to do its thing, and by sun-up we were setting southbound in the ICW in a channel known as the Wappoo Cut.  At ebb tide and with no wind, the water was glassy and still.  I could hear on the VHF a barge coming from the south calling the Wappoo Bridge tender and I knew the barge was ready to enter the cut. How perfect!  All we had to do was wait for the barge to pass and we could go through the bridge without waiting for it to close and re-open – except Paramour’s Yanmar diesel engine suddenly sputtered and died – flat dead in the middle of a narrow cut known for rushing currents and a high tidal range and with a commercial tug heading our way.

Thankfully, the Charleston Coast Guard station is located about four hundred yards from the cut, Paramour’s VHF radio was working, and the Captain of the commercial barge was able to slow his speed.  With my sense of humility and chagrin fully engaged, the Coast Guard towed us back to the marina, where later a local mechanic shared the simple technique of bleeding air out of diesel fuel line and how to never allow air to get there in the first place.  High among lessons to be learned is an understanding of the mechanical and electrical knowledge of one’s boat and how to diagnose problems to avoid future lessons in humility and general chagrin avoidance.

The next morning, and with less bravado, my crew and I set the same course, but with no barges this time, a complete set of tools on board, and with a happy engine we passed the Wappoo Bridge and headed for what was to be the most beautiful and serine trip that would be replayed again and again in my mind for so many years to come.  The saltwater marshes, the Georgia and South Carolina sounds, the long uninhabited stretches of coastal wetlands, cut indelible lines in my mind.  The sound of the rush of millions of shrimp passing the boats hull, porpoise meandering beside us, birds and more birds and the sometimes onerous but distinctive smells of the tidal flats all remain in my mind as distinctively and rich as they did on those days of March 1979 when if first experience them.

With stops in Beaufort, Savannah, Fernandina Beach and Jacksonville, St Augustine proved to be a short leg which I easily single handed. But the memories of those five days seem to have spanned a lifetime.

And my crew?  He set the stage for me to get a grip on the seriousness but accompanying simplicity of ICW travel.  How to track progress on a chart, how to look for day beacons, where to expect cross currents and how to use the tide to an advantage – or at least how not become frustrated when the tide was not to an advantage.  How to time your passages and how to resist the urge to travel a night just to meet a schedule are fundamental to ICW travel.  I learned the rules of the road first hand, the need to line up with range markers.  And patience?  I remember the first day, after passing the Wappoo Cut Bridge, we had traveled almost four hours when suddenly I realized we were passing the road on which I had owned a house (Summerville SC).  A short commute by car but a four ride down the Intracoastal Waterway.  I thought of the Chinese proverb of a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step at a time and that it is going to take four days to travel the same distance that I traveled in my car in four hours.  We will never get to St. Augustine at this rate I thought.

As to my crew, I have long forgotten his name.  I often wondered if he were able to hitch the rest of the ride to Key West.  He maintained a diary and a sketch book – he seemed to be a great artist and truly appreciated the trip.   I hope he was successful and, if by some fluke of chance he were to read this blog, he would come to understand how much I appreciated and continue to treasure the gift he gave me at the time.  I hope he was successful in his endeavors and have a hunch that he was.

As for the S/V Paramour, she remains in the St Augustine Comanche Cove Marina to this day.  Ultimately my wife and I divorced and a part of the settlement was the sale of Paramour to a local in St Augustine.   I did have some chances to sail Paramour off shore – Bermuda and the Bahamas.  But my next experience on the ICW would have to wait nearly twenty years.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply