Summer of Low Carbon Travel Part Two: Sailing to the Southeast

Sunset over the Outer Banks on a calm day

In addition to my transcontinental bike trip early this summer, we made a vacation trip to Charleston,  South Carolina in mid-August. Actually, it was part sailing trip and part DIY yacht delivery, since we wanted to have the boat staged down south for some Caribbean island hopping next Spring.  As a vacation, sailing offshore is the ultimate escape for me – the one place you can completely unplug and enjoy this beautiful planet without any intrusions, just dolphins and whales, clouds, weather, and the occasional fresh fish dinner.. It’s nice to see Greta Thunberg popularizing ocean sailing as a low carbon  long distance travel solution!

We started our trip with a quick overnight from NY to beautiful Block Island, Rhode Island, which (despite its accessibility) still has some of the best ocean beaches I have seen anywhere. The nice thing about arriving by boat is that you are guaranteed a waterfront room without even making  reservation

After three days of biking and beachcombing,, we set a more or less direct offshore course for Charleston, about 700 sea miles away. I say more or less direct, because you have to get around Cape Hatteras (about 400 miles away) before you can lay a direct course from New England to Charleston. Hatteras is legendary for its monstrous seas, shifting shoals, and shipwrecks, and can be a formidable obstacle. Diamond Shoal extends out nearly ten miles from the beach at Hatteras, while the continental shelf and the Gulf Stream are just another five miles beyond. The proximity of the Gulf Stream means squally weather and an adverse current for southbound boats pretty much all the time. If the wind blows strong from the north (a fair wind for sailing south), the wind-against current seas will be too dangerous to round the Cape; if the wind blows from the south, it will be impossible to tack against the wind and current to make it through the narrow passage between Diamond Shoal and the impassable Gulf Stream currents.

Our forecast did not look great as we approached Hatteras – there was a low pressure system lurking off Hatteras that had the potential to develop into a northern fringe tropical storm, and the forecast for the offshore waters was for a near gale of 20-30 knots from the South. As Robin put it, the Hatteras door might be open for us . . .  and it might be closed. We approach the northern outer banks, with the backup plan of running to Norfolk in the Chesapeake if a rounding looked too uncomfortable.

After a night of fairly spectacular lightning in convection clouds, I now know what the inside of a proto-tropical storm looks like. But by the time we were off Nag’s Head, the wind had died, and we ran the motor for several hours to catch the favorable westerly winds forecast for Hatteras before they turned to the southwest and blocked our passage. We cleared the Diamond Shoals buoy and Cape Hatteras under sail at three am the next morning – my third rounding of Hatterass, and every one of them in the dark! To add to the challenge, the Diamond Shoal light tower is still out there – but it no longer has a light on it (just a dim red flasher).

Entering Charleston Harbor

Three days of mostly pleasant sailing later (and about two hours a day of motoring), we tied up at the Charleston Maritime Center and toured that beautiful city on our folding bikes, had a great southern dinner at Jestine’s Kitchen, and a restful sleep in a quiet harbor. Then we took our boat up the Wando River to have it hauled at the Safe Harbor City Boatyard in Wando, which (as it turns out) is a great hurricane hole. We rented a hybrid (Ford fusion) to drive back to New York, since we had our dog with us, and two people in a hybrid beats the carbon impacts of Amtrak.

So what did the round trip cost us in carbon emissions? We ran our motor more than usual, since I had a deadline to secure the boat and get back to New York for the start of classes at Pace Law School. I am not sure we could have done the trip this year without an engine  – the door at Hatteras is not open for sailing south for very long or very often, so you would probably need an engine to time your rounding just right, or to motor through against the wind and current if you timed it wrong. If we had no motor (and more time) we might have waited for a better window to cross the Gulf Stream out away from Hatteras, then cross back on the other side.

We burned 20 gallons of diesel on the trip south.  That works out to about 200 pounds of carbon emissions for each of us. The return road trip in a hybrid actually had a lower footprint than sailing there — about 15 gallons of gas for the 750 mile return trip, or 150 pounds of CO2 for each of us. So the round trip cost about 300 pounds of CO2 apiece.

Most sailors taking their boat south to Charleston take the intracoastal waterway  to avoid the challenges of Cape Hatteras and other ocean capes. That means several extra days of traveling and many many more hours of motoring, since the canals and the shallow sounds of the Intracoastal don’t allow for much sailing. Taking the ICW down south in a sailboat, I am sorry to say, would likely have the carbon footprint of driving there in a Winnebago. (Under power, our sailboat gets about 8 mpg). Far better (for the planet) to pack your family in a car and just drive there on the highway. But for crossing oceans, like Greta Thunberg’s trip from England to New York, you can’t beat the zero carbon emissions of sail power.


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