Cool Memories of Sailing South

The annual cruising pilgrimage that snowbirds make from the Northeast to Florida, and often beyond, is a tradition worth embracing.
Colorful winter sunset. White yacht sailing, a view from the deck.
Heading south? Timing is everything. Those early autumn cold fronts can give you a nice downwind push, but they can also make for some pretty uncomfortable morning watches. aastels/

“Well, troops, I think we may have a problem up here,” my dad said, cinching his foulies a bit tighter around his wrists and neck. 

It was just after dawn when he peered down the hatch to my mom and me, deep in the warmth of the cozy salon. We were halfway down the Eastern Seaboard, heading to warm Florida waters.

Dad had hoped to cast off lines early for the next leg of adventure on our Hunter 31, Ragtime. Things obviously weren’t going according to plan. Twenty-one-year-old me sprang into action, joining him topside. 

Late the night before, we had puttered to the sleepy sea town of Coinjock, North Carolina, which had already shut down for the night. There wasn’t a soul about. And with no response to our calls to the marina, we decided to tie up to the public dock across the channel, fire up the gas stove to heat up a can of beef stew, and call it a night. 

As we lay nestled in our bunks, lulled by the gentle rocking of the waves, a chill settled upon Ragtime. By morning, temperatures had dropped to freezing, encasing our world in a frosty embrace. Winter had caught up with us, a fact that was finger-numbingly clear to my father as he assessed the situation. 

“It’s all frozen,” he said with a hint of a smile that he would flash my way anytime things were going sideways. If my dad has one talent when it comes to running a boat, it’s his ability to find humor in any stressful situation. 

“The dock lines, the hose—they’re frozen solid,” he said. “Here, see if you can make a dent in it. I’ll go down and put on a kettle. We’re going to need a warm cup of tea.” 

If you’ve never tried coiling a frozen dock line, I highly recommend giving it a whirl, if for no other reason than because an occasional dose of humility is good for the soul. We carefully tended to the frozen elements, coaxing life back into them, and finally managing to pry our lines and hose free from the dock. 

As we sailed farther south, the frost melted away, replaced by the gentle touch of a kinder climate. The sensation of thawing in the atmosphere and within ourselves reminded us of the transformative power of nature, where winter gives way to spring and hardships give way to growth.

Decades later, I don’t remember all the events of that expedition, but I’ll always recall our “Coinjock surprise” when it comes time to prepare for the annual migration south. This transit is a rite of passage for many boaters with home ports in the Northeast. If you’re among them, I imagine you have filed away several memorable moments of your own. If you’re considering undertaking the adventure in the future, author and photographer David Lyman’s “Three Ways South,” in which three veteran cruisers weigh in on three popular fall routes from the US East Coast to the islands, should be recommended reading.

As you prepare to leave familiar shores behind and set sail toward the southern horizon, remember to approach the journey with a blend of excitement, caution, and respect for the sea. Most of all, enjoy the ride. While reaching your destination is undoubtedly important, it’s also key to relish the journey itself. Take time to savor each moment, whether it’s the thrill of catching a favorable wind, witnessing a stunning sunset or forging lasting memories with your crew.

And by all means, embrace the unexpected. Unplanned moments often create the most enduring memories, especially the ones served with a side of frost.