We left Charleston, South Carolina at about 7:30 AM on Saturday morning, planning to go offshore and run all night to Mayport inlet at Jacksonville, Florida, arriving at first light on Sunday morning.
The overnight was fairly uneventful. We ran for the first few hours at around 10 knots, and our calculations showed that at that rate, we would arrive at Mayport at around three in the morning, and we didn’t want to attempt to go in during darkness, and didn’t want to hang around outside the inlet for three hours, so we throttled back to about 7 knots.
The coolant leak that we were most worried about seemed to be under control, for reasons we still haven’t figured out. I have a couple theories, but it will take some sleuthing at the dock to figure out where the coolant is going. Some of the theories involve simple fixes, some not so simple. We’ll see.
We arrived off the coast at Jacksonville a little early, during Steve’s last night watch, and while I dozed below, he was doing back-and-forth laps several miles offshore waiting for daylight, and staying away from the considerable commercial traffic closer to shore.
I came up to take over from him, and we talked about our options. I suggested we stay offshore and go on down to St. Augustine inlet, and Steve reminded me that I’d said earlier, that St. Augustine had a bad reputation.
That’s a true statement, because the mouth of the inlet is subject to constantly changing shoals, but fatigue overtook common sense and I convinced him that we’d be there with plenty of daylight, we could see the markers well, and it should be no problem to avoid the marked shoals.
Again true, but not an all-inclusive analysis of the potential hazards.
What I failed to take into account was the northeast swell that had been behind us all night long. On some legs of the route, it was pretty much dead-astern, and we rode it pretty easily. On other legs, it was more on our quarter, and if we hadn’t had the autopilot, it would have been a real chore to saw the wheel trying to keep a straight track.
Well, that same northeast swell was present in St. Augustine, and as it hit the shallower water near shore, it started to build slightly. As we neared the inlet, I could see white water through the binoculars, and I got just a twinge of anxiety, but as we got even closer, it seemed that the white water was from waves breaking on the shoals on either side of the main inlet channel, but there was no white water in the channel itself.
Still true, but here’s the missing part of my mental puzzle: I forgot that the swells were still rolling through the inlet. They weren’t breaking waves, (a bad thing), but they were rollers that had built slightly in size, and looked from the outside, to be fairly manageable (an almost-as bad-thing-if-not-worse).
I told Steve that I’d drive the boat through the inlet, and we lined up on the first set of offshore buoys, turned off the autopilot and started our approach.
Seemed like the boat was handling pretty well, even though I was having to saw back and forth on the wheel as rollers would pass under us and push the stern to one side then the other.
And that’s the definition of the nearly-disastrous mistake I was making. I was letting the rollers go past me. I should have tried to match the boat’s speed to the speed of the incoming waves, and not let one overtake me from the stern.
We were about three-quarters of the way in, and the yawing was getting progresively harder to control, when all of a sudden, the stern swung hard to port, and I was turning the wheel to counteract it for all I was worth, and nothing was happening.
The wave was about to turn us broadside.
I jammed the starboard throttle ahead to try to twist the boat straight again, but it was too little, too late.
At the same moment though, Steve reached up and pulled the port transmission to neutral, effectively giving the starboard engine more “twisting power”, and the boat came around. I slammed the port transmission back in gear, gave both engines more throttle, and got the hell out of the roller zone into the calmer water just yards away.
Within a hundred yards, we were in water as still as a mill pond. My heart rate was higher than the Dow, but the one good thing about it is I now have a much better appreciation for the speed with which things can go from routine to deadly on a boat.
I had thought earlier, that we might need to stop in St. Augustine and get some sleep before we went on to Daytona, but after that little adventure, we were both WIDE awake, and decided to press on another five hours and get the boat to Daytona and tied up at Halifax Harbor.
I’m going to write some more later about some of the interesting things we did and saw during the trip, but I wanted to post this so anyone interested would know that we made it, the boat is in its slip, Steve is headed back home, and I’m making lists of things to do to the boat. Long lists.