Vigilance is required in the waters off Cape Hatteras.
Mountain climbers talk summits, professional athletes count championship rings, and sailors muse about headlands. The brooding Cape Horn, perched at the tip of South America, and the Cape of Good Hope, standing sentinel at the bottom of the African continent, are the two most infamous headlands. Rounding either one of these windswept promontories is a significant accomplishment, a rite of passage, and reason enough to boast at any seaside hangout. Yet, rounding other less-prominent headlands, also provides opportunities for chest pumping, or at least long sighs of relief. With all due respect to Cape Flattery, Cape Mendocino, and Point Conception, the continental American headland that stirs sailors to make sure their life rafts are certified and insurance policies are up to date is Cape Hatteras.
Physically, there is nothing dramatic about Cape Hatteras. In fact you would not even know it was a headland without looking at a chart. A sandy spit at the bend of skinny, elbow-shaped Hatteras Island, the Cape is part of North Carolina's capricious barrier islands called the Outer Banks. On a sunny August day, when the wide sands of Hatteras National Seashore are overflowing with families from all over the East Coast, it is hard to picture this headland as anything but a pleasant beach resort. What gives? What is it about Cape Hatteras that makes even seasoned sailors go to great lengths to avoid the place?
It really has nothing to do with the Cape. Instead, it's a combination of shifting offshore sandbars called Diamond Shoals, the proximity of two strong currents, and a geographic position that attracts low-pressure systems like a magnet. Add to this slurry the fact that most sailors contend with the Cape on their migrations north in the spring, or south in the fall, when the weather is unsettled at best, and you have a recipe for intrigue. Then there is the psychological factor. There is something about those 600 shipwrecks that litter the Outer Banks like a necklace that causes even steely-eyed voyagers to become punchy when approaching the Cape and contemplating inland waterway passages.
A beacon to all mariners, the 208-foot Cape Hatteras lighthouse stands proud.
In the shadow of the Cape, Diamond Shoals, a finger of constantly shifting sands and ridges, stretches east-southeast for nearly 10 miles. Snide little comments on the NOAA #12200 coastal chart are not what you'd call confidence boosters. Note C—"Navigation in the area of Diamond Shoals is extremely hazardous to all types of craft due to changeable conditions." Under the special note, Local Magnetic Variation, the crew at NOAA advises us that "differences of 3 to 6 degrees in the normal variation have been observed 6 to 12 miles from Cape Hatteras," just the kind of information you like to mix with shifting sandbars. Then there is the weather. The assault of hurricanes that have raked the Carolina coast in the last 10 years is just the latest chapter in a stormy history.
The hapless record of trying to mark Diamond Shoals epitomizes the fury which so frequently visits the area. In 1824 the Government got serious about safety for its burgeoning merchant fleet, and anchored a 320-ton lightship at the east end of the shoals in six fathoms. Three years later the lightship was driven ashore by hurricane force winds. For the next 70 years, both local and federal government authorities tried to mark the shoals with floating buoys, but they never lasted long. Finally in 1890 Congress authorized the building of Diamond Shoals Light Station. Just before the structure was completed, a severe gale caused it to collapse. Another structure was commissioned in 1897, but it was destroyed in a hurricane two years later. Just after the turn of the century, the government went back to the lightship idea, but the replacement ship was sunk a few years later by a German U-boat. The current Light Structure, which from a distance looks like a huge water bug, was built in the 1960s and, well, let's just keep our fingers crossed.
There is something about those 600 shipwrecks that litter the Outer Banks that causes even steely-eyed voyagers to become punchy when approaching the Cape.
The warm, blue, and nearly always lumpy waters of the Gulf Stream sweep close by Diamond Shoals. Just inside the Stream, remnants of the cold Labrador Current meandering down the East Coast turn seaward again at Cape Hatteras. This confluence of currents complicates the meteorological equation, creating ideal conditions for unsettled weather. High and low-pressure systems often meet and exit the continental coast near Hatteras, creating strong offshore winds. Hurricanes aside, it's the nor'easter that wreaks the most havoc near Hatteras. These occasionally vicious gales collide with the Gulf Stream to create wild, angry seas and dangerous conditions for sailors.
Enough history and weather, let's get personal. What has been my experience with Cape Hatteras? What horror stories do I have to tell?
Sitting at my desk this morning, I have been recalling some of the boats that I have delivered around Cape Hatteras during the last 18 years—it's an eclectic list. Let's see, there was a Contessa 32, a Vancouver 36, a Pacific Seacraft 37, a Jeanneau 37, a Krogen 38, an Endeavour 40, a Tayana 42, a Fountaine Pajot Venezia 42' Cat, a Mason 43, a Pearson Countess 44, a Hylas 47, a Vagabond 47, a Hylas 49 (at least six times), a Jomar 55, an Ocean 60 and maybe one or two more I've forgotten. I've passed the Diamond Shoals Light approximately 20 times, almost always in the spring and fall, and—nearly without fail—I've had light to moderate conditions. In fact, I've had some of my fastest passages around the Cape with the Gulf Stream acting like Aladdin's magic carpet. With the audacity reserved for the young, I used to joke that Cape Hatteras was like the merits of broccoli—highly overrated. Then, a few years back, I found religion on an old Swan 411.
The southbound passage is more challenging, and I usually try to cross the Gulf Stream well north of Cape Hatteras and stay east of the current until I near the latitude required for the approach to the coast. This tactic isn't always viable. Sometimes your destination dictates that you pass close to Diamond Shoals and sometimes it's simply Neptune's idea. Either way, it is always a bit eerie to thread the narrow corridor between the light station and the western wall of the Gulf Stream, especially in the dark with the shoals posing as a lee shore. I remember one passage south when we passed inside Diamond Shoals light, because it was the only way to stay out of the three-knot foul current.
Three of us picked up the 1978 Sparkman & Stephens-designed Swan 411 in New York Harbor and told the owner to expect us in Ft. Lauderdale about a week later. We had a boisterous run south, soaring before a cold November norther. Two days later we rounded Cape Hatteras, yet another easy passage around the overrated sand spit, and made our way to the city docks at Morehead City, NC. After a night of good food and drink at the Sanitation Works, we bid adieu to my friend and crewmate Bob Truett, cleared the inlet, and looked for the forecast northwest breeze.
Instead, we found a fresh southwesterly and began punching into it. Within hours the wind had backed more to the south and piped up to 25 to 30 knots. We were pinching, on the port tack, and working our way into a box in Onslow Bay. I knew we had to tack offshore soon and considered heading back into Morehead City to wait for more favorable conditions. Then I reconsidered. Like all S & S boats, the 411 was quite weatherly and although there was a lot of water on deck, we were tracking nicely. Secondly, my mate, Dave McGowan was a great sailor and clearly up to a long night of windward work. I had met Dave in Sri Lanka a few years before and although he was young, he already had a circumnavigation on his resume.
The weather service continued to call for northwest winds but we were encountering a building gale from the south. It took an afternoon of tacking to clear the Cape Lookout Shoals and gain a bit of sea room. By nightfall the winds were gusting above 40 knots and had backed to the southeast. Grudgingly, the weather service admitted that the northwest winds were still a day or two away, and, in the meantime, there was this persistent low stalled off the coast creating locally strong easterlies. That night was one for the archives. We later learned that the winds topped 80 knots at Ocracoke Island, took out two bridges on the outer banks, and sank a dredge.
The Worrell 1000—a 1,000-mile, 13-leg sprint staged aboard two-person beach cats—has some of its most excitment moments while rounding Hatteras.
After clearing the Cape Lookout Shoals, we quickly encountered the Gulf Stream. By the time we managed to beat free of the current we were nearly abeam of Cape Hatteras! We were sailing as hard as possible and losing ground. Around midnight the wind backed further to the northeast, and the full force of the blow overtook us. At least we were able to run before the wind, but the driving rain, lightning and deafening thunder kept our interest. Naturally, the autopilot stopped working as Dave and I stood two-hour watches. The seas were terribly confused and steering required complete concentration. Several waves broke over the boat, soaking us, as we stood securely harnessed at the helm.
The light of day revealed a wild, storm-tossed ocean, but the wind was already moderating. At midday, the seas were manageable. By the time the crimson sun dipped below the horizon we were reaching south before a cool northwest breeze. That night on watch I realized that I had grown a little older and a lot more respectful, courtesy of Cape Hatteras.
Thoughts on Rounding Cape Hatteras1. Use different routes for the north and south bound passages. When headed north, if the weather is decent, especially if the prevailing southwest wind is blowing, take advantage of the Gulf Stream. I am willing to put up with lumpy conditions for a 'free' two to four knots. When headed south, unless you plan to make landfall along the banks, or at the Beaufort Inlet, stay offshore. Cross the Gulf Stream at right angles well north of Hatteras and sail south offshore. Many cruisers heading south from the Chesapeake Bay, elect to use the Intracoastal Waterway until they're south of Cape Hatteras.
2. Obtain the best local and offshore forecast for the passage, and make the trip at the right time of year. Although the conditions can change in a hurry, Cape Hatteras rarely poses much of a problem, with a solid forecast. Unless a tropical storm is lurking, the summer winds around Hatteras are mild. Avoid rounding the Cape during the equinoctial periods when the weather is unsettled and the frequency of gales increased. Also don't plan your passage too late (past November 15) or too early (before March 15) in the season.
3. If the weather does turn suddenly, resist the temptation to run into Ocracoke and Hatteras Inlets. These inlets are negotiable in settled weather but should be avoided like the plague during a gale. Head offshore. Remember, a nor'easter in the Gulf Stream can be very dangerous.
4. Have up-to-date charts for the area. This is simply good seamanship and common sense; however, it is even more important around Diamond Shoals because the area is constantly changing.
5. While maintaining a healthy dose of respect for the Cape, don't lose sleep worrying about rounding America's headland. Nine out of 10 passages are uneventful, especially with a little prudence.