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graveyard of the atlantic

graveyard of the atlantic

Mike “Rail Meat” Hennessy did well on the offshore leg of the first Atlantic Cup with his Owen Clarke Class 40 “Dragon”, and he shares his thoughts on the Charleston-New York leg of the second one, which starts Friday from this busy dock at Charleston City Marina.  Check out this YouTube playlist for all the pre-race interviews with the sailors, and check out the thread for the latest from the sailors.

The course is 640 miles, starting inside of the Charleston Harbor. There is only one mark of the course, inside of Charleston Harbor and then the finish line is off of the North Cove Marina in New York Harbor. Prevailing winds are south westerly across the course.

A clear feature on this course is the presence of the Gulf Stream. Running parallel to the coast from well south of Charleston and up past Cape Hattaras before it bends to the east towards Bermuda. The west wall is anywhere between 30 and 50 miles offshore for the first 260 miles of the course, and the current can run as much as 3 knots northwards inside of the Stream. A critical question will be if it is worth investing miles to the east to catch the Stream. Another factor is that in between the west wall and the shore, particularly as you get up towards Hattaras, there can be an entrainment current running south that you need to consider.

Cape Hattaras and the Outer Banks serve as a key navigational mark for the course, bulging out into the Atlantic and forcing the fleet to the east of the straight line between Charleston and New York. The shoals and shallow water at the Cape, combined with the proximity of the Gulf Stream can lead to weather systems that are unique to the area. There are absolutely no safe havens to run into if the weather goes pear shaped on you, and the inhospitable lee shore makes it easy to understand why it is referred to as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

This race will essentially break down into 4 segments:

  • From the start out the harbor to the end of the jetty
  • From the end of the jetty up to Cape Hattaras
  • From Cape Hattaras to the entrance to New York Harbor
  • From the Harbor entrance to North Cove.

Charleston Harbor is very tricky with the tides. We are starting on the east side of the peninsula and have a turning mark down on the southern end of the Harbor that will basically force us down the City water front and then out the southern channel without giving us the option of the northern channel. There will be some gains to be had depending on where you put yourself in the Harbor, and then a potential gybing duel as 15 boats squeeze down a narrow channel between the jettys once you get past Fort Sumtner.

Once past the end of the jetties, the question is if you should shoot the rhumb line for Cape Hattaras, or try to intersect the Stream further south by investing miles into the east with the hopes of a pay off in the form of more current. Wind conditions will dictate the choice for Dragon, and that choice is not clear yet.

Once past Hattaras, the decision hinges on when you leave the Stream, and how you want to play the New Jersey shore. The lure of steady sea breezes make a beach run the smart choice more times than not, but at this point in the Spring those sea breezes are less well established. A high pressure system on shore could suck all the air out of the beach option, and needs to be carefully considered. But going further off shore can also put you on the wrong side of cold water eddies coming off the Gulf Stream, throwing a knot or more of current in your face as you push north. Knowing where the eddies are, and having some idea of what is happening with the sea breezes is hugely helpful.

In the final segment, the fishing fleets and commercial shipping all play a significant role as you approach New York Harbor. An even bigger factor is that the harbor has fairly limited navigable water. You can try to cut the corner at Sandy Hook, but it is awfully shallow and you are going to feel pretty stupid to have sailed 615 miles and then find yourself praying for a high tide when you are stuck off a New Jersey beach. You also need to block out the cool distraction of sailing towards NYC’s iconic skyline, and passing by the skirts of the Statue of Liberty. If past Class 40 races are any example, we could have a very large number of boats trading tacks or gybes all the way down to the finish line, so any lapse of concentration will cost dearly.

At the moment, the current forecast shows a frontal system moving from west to east across the length of the eastern seaboard on Thursday into Friday. Behind the front is a high pressure system and depending on the timing when that front moves through the winds could be a bit messy. They should reorganize into northerlies in the high middle digits to low teens on Friday afternoon and continue to be northerlies for at least 3/4s of the course.

The next feature to be concerned about is another front, again moving east to west and covering the length of the eastern seaboard. This one looks to cross the course in the Monday time frame, and its timing will determine the end game. Most of the fleet should be in the last 100 miles of the course by Monday morning, and gunning for the finish line.

As a result of the tricky front timing, the models are not in agreement with one another and the outlook is a bit murky. I suspect there will be more clarity as we get into Thursday morning, but in the meantime I am running routing a couple of times a day and poking at the results. Not to give away any secrets, but this could be a strategically interesting leg.

A nice article on RM in Bloomberg this morning. – ed