Pat Schoenberger, 38, and Jim Southward, 40, both professional sea captains, were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter about 25 miles east of Cape Lookout, N.C., during the March 6 winter storm. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)

The first night at sea, Tuesday into Wednesday, was surprisingly rough. As they passed Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, N.C., to starboard, a steady drizzle fell.

The 300-pound Southward was resting below deck after midnight when a wave jarred the hull, knocking him from his bunk. Another broke the glass inside a microwave.

Schoenberger decided they'd seek safe harbor until the weather passed.

He'd have to pilot Andante through Oregon, Hatteras or Ocracoke inlet — among the few small, sandy gaps in the long barrier islands— to reach the calm of Pamlico Sound.

At 6 a.m. Wednesday, winds had reached a steady 25 knots and waves a height of 10 feet when Schoenberger radioed the Coast Guard for help navigating through Ocracoke.

"Ocracoke Inlet is shut down for dredging," a voice crackled back.

Decision points

Every sea voyage is a network of choices, each narrowing the options to come.

If Schoenberger could have parked Andante II like an 18-wheeler, he would have. As it was, he had just three options.

He could make for Hatteras Inlet 20 miles away, though reports said waters there were tricky. He could seek Oregon Inlet, where water was calmer, but 10 hours back north. Or he could bolt for Morehead City, 70 miles farther south but through lethal shoals.

Checking his iPhone, he saw that the storm was not expected to fully rile up for 12 hours, time enough to reach Hatteras. Authorities told him a motorized Coast Guard lifeboat would meet them near Hatteras Inlet in three hours and guide them in.

By 10 a.m. they'd pulled within a mile and a half — they could see the beach houses of Hatteras village.

"In our minds, this is almost over," Schoenberger said. "In an hour, we'll be standing on the deck with a cold drink."

At 10:30, the Coast Guard called.

"We recommend against" coming through, a voice said. There was no safe channel through the churning waters.

Schoenberger, a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, has no quarrel with that recommendation. But he believes that if the Coast Guard had known what awaited Andante at sea, they'd have gotten the green light.

"The storm went off-script," he said.

The choices were now two: eight hours north with a following sea to Oregon Inlet, or 12 hours into gale-force winds to Morehead City.

They headed north, the waves 14 feet high and breaking at the crests. An hour later came another call: "Andante, we have to tell you that Oregon Inlet has been closed to navigation."

"That hit me like a punch in the throat," Southward said.