Sunday, December 8, 2013

Typical Day on the Waterway

Nightcap II at Campbell Creek

Nov.16: It was foggy this a.m. so we are not moving, but it turned into a beautiful day. I got some great fog photos. I'm really liking my 70-300 mm L series. I can hand hold it on the boat even though the boat is always in motion. The stabilizer helps me to make images that are in focus, most of the time.

Today we finally got to shed our long underwear, watch caps, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 layers of clothes, winter jacket, heavy socks, and scarf. So much for balmy, tropical weather. This is an unusual cold fall on the East Coast. We traveled at the same time 28 years ago and according to our log the weather was great.

We share the waterway with some interesting boats!

While we are laying over Jim is baking bread. We have the luxury of having an oven. I made a blueberry crumble cake earlier. Jim made the most delicious omelet with potatoes, onions, white cheddar cheese, and roasted red peppers. When we're in an anchorage or at a dock, we can bake and cook because we have the time. When we're moving, our time is spent reading charts, plotting courses, and being alert and aware of boats, tides, floating objects, and following the coastal markers so that we don't go aground. Navigating is a full time job. Then when we're sailing, that's another story. I get to take photos when I get tired of being at the helm.

The Red Marker tells us to take the channel to the right
Nov.18: We made it to Beaufort (North Carolina). Left early this am and encountered fog in the Bay River and the Neuse River. It was pretty nerve wracking. We had 1/2 mile visibility and used our chart plotter to navigate, but I still follow the paper charts and keep track of where we are. It takes two of us to navigate and watch out for barges which are really huge. We did have visibility for 1/2 mile or so unlike yesterday when boats were out there with no visibility. When we left our anchorage in Campbell Creek, there was no fog. There were very few boats out today on the water compared to yesterday when visibility was practically zero. Go figure. We had a hard time following the markers because we couldn't see them.  We relied on our chart plotter and it was accurate. Of course, I was following the paper charts, but if you can't find the markers. . .  Coming into the harbor was really tricky. You are surrounded by shallow water, somewhat nerve racking and Jim crossed one point where we sounded 5.9 feet. We made it though.

High Tide and the Osprey nest almost hid this marker!
Nov. 24: I was thrilled when I saw my first dolphin. I love those animals. It has been and is an amazing journey. Fortunately, I have Jim to share it with. It's my dream and he is helping me live it! It is challenging, and not everyone could live this life style. It's been quite the adventure.

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We will probably be traveling on Thanksgiving Day. Hope to celebrate it at St. James Marina near Southport NC where we are going next to wait out some more bad weather. It should be interesting tomorrow when we start out and the temp is 31. The winds have died down, so we have to take the opportunity to travel. There are small craft warnings up and down the East Coast, but it's going to be OK where we are going.

Nov. 25

We are at St. James Plantation Marina, a multimillion dollar development of houses, condos, golf courses etc. We are only stopping here because of the weather really sucks. It was 31 this morning when we started out at 7:30. I had long underwear and several layers and still was freezing my butt off, and Jim had to be extra careful in bringing up the anchor because the deck was icy. Now we are plugged into shore power and have heat.

While here we played a game of chess to pass the time. I'd rather play Scrabble, but I beat Jim at chess once in a while when he makes mistakes. We really haven't had time to play scrabble or chess because we go to bed early so that we can get up at 5:00 to get ready to travel down the ICW. The weather is 15-25 degrees below normal for this time of the year. When we traveled this same route 28 years ago, a couple of weeks earlier in November, it was beautiful.

When we anchored here last night, only the mast of this boat was visible!
Dec. 2: We are anchored before Charleston in a 7 ft tide which is really high for this area. We are now waiting for the tide to go down so that we can get under the Isle of Palm Bridge, just before Charleston. Dolphins were swimming around the boat this am. The good thing about the high tide is that I didn't have to get up at 5:00 am this morning.

Jim: Just after Charleston we had to pass through Elliott Cut. It is narrow, broken rock on both sides, and the current runs up to five knots through it. The wood boat was waiting for slack tide. I misjudged and we entered the cut with the current against us. It took us almost a half hour to go a half mile. At times we seemed not to be moving at all, and all I could think of was what a terrible time it would be to have an engine failure!

Elliotts Cut

We are going to find a place to stop for awhile and just have an R & R. We can stop anywhere we want to along the coast. We are both getting tired of this bad weather and not being able to travel more often. We both like the traveling part and we do meet a lot of interesting people along the way.

An advantage of getting up as early as we do is that we get light like this!

The weather has been too bad to even think about going outside on the ocean. We also have to watch the tide tables because we have a really tall mast and need 64 ft clearance under bridges. Some bridges only have a clearance of 64 feet and that's a real problem for us, as we can't go under those bridges at high tide without risking major damage to lights, antennas and/or our mast. That would be very serious and stop our travels.

I think that the cormorants were waiting to see if we'd make it.

I'm usually on my back looking up as we go under the bridges. This one is supposed to have a clearance of 65 feet, but you can see by the waterline that it's below 64. We decided to give it a go. I wasn't looking because Jim had left the helm to Captain Braveheart. Just as we went under, I heard this loud thunk. I thought that we had hit until Jim told me that it was just a car going over the bridge.

Made it!

December 3, 2013:  Fenwick Island Anchorage, South Carolina

We are in an anchorage right now waiting for the right time to navigate another problem area in the ICW. It seems there are many. Yesterday we went under our first bridge that had a 64 ft clearance and we didn't touch!

Dec. 4: We are in South Carolina, a short day's run from Beaufort. We plan to hang out there for a little while to rest up. This traveling every day is rough, but we've been having some beautiful days---finally! Every day we spot dolphins, sometimes quite close. We try to get photos, but they appear and disappear so quickly that it is almost impossible. We don't remember seeing so many 28 years ago until we got farther south, but then there is a lot we don't remember about passing through this area 28 years ago. (There's a lot we just don't remember about 28 years ago!) We are heading for Beaufort, SC, this morning and will spend Christmas there. We will be there for a month and then head on South again. It will be good to stop and regroup.

We began seeing sights like this when we hit South Carolina
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We made it through the Ashepoo-Coosaw Cut (don't you love the name?), the latest ICW trouble spot. We waited at Fenwick Island for high tide, and as we were waiting, a huge double barge with a tug at both ends came through. We figured that they had timed it for the high tide, too, and if they could make it we could. Well, our lowest depth reading was 9 feet. Take away 7 feet for the tide, and at low tide there would have been just two feet of water in the cut!

Double barge passing 100 yards from our anchorage, heading for the Ashepoo-Coosaw Cut

Dec. 5, 2013, Beaufort, SC

As soon as we docked the boat, we started meeting other boaters and having great conversations. The locals are very friendly to boaters. We both felt that we made the right decision to stop here for a month and recoup from all that nasty, cold weather we had to endure. The sun felt so good.

We are in Beaufort SC for 1 month, and loving it.  We finally hit some warm weather and I shed my long underwear as soon as we docked the boat.  Beaufort is a wonderful small town with lots of culture. There are several performances that we will be attending in Dec. and a big Gullah performance/celebration this Fri that we want to attend. There will be artists, food, and stage performances. It should be fun. The Gullah were slaves and they have their own language and culture in SC. It should be an interesting and entertaining evening.  This weekend there will be a boat parade and the boats will be decorated for X-mas. We'll be able to watch them on the dock.

Pat Conroy, the author of Prince of Tides, is from Beaufort and taught school on St. Helena Island where many of the Gullah live. The kids were terrified of the water and he tried to teach them how to swim but was unsuccessful. Many of the Gullah had had bad experiences with power boats coming through here from the North. Hence, the Gullah children were terrified of the "Snowbirds" and wouldn't go in the water.

You can find a lot more history about the Gullah here:

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The people here in Beaufort are extremely friendly and go out of their way to make you feel at home. We hang out at a bar called "Luther's", a hangout for the locals, and are already known by the bartender and wait staff. Originally a pharmacy founded in 1906, their motto is "Good for what Ales you." We are not sure when we will leave.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Captain Braveheart

Angie has been promoted from First Mate to Co-Captain. Not only that, but she has been awarded the appellation "Captain Braveheart" for stellar performance beyond the call of duty. How did this come about? There are several stretches along the ICW that the guide books list as "ICW trouble spots." To understand this, you have to know that the ICW is a hodgepodge of waterways made up of canals connecting rivers, bays, and sounds. So you can be motoring (almost always motoring unless you are extremely lucky to catch the right combination of room, wind direction, and current) along a narrow ditch at one time, then crossing a large sound that looks like it has plenty of water but only a narrow band of it is deep enough to accommodate anything but a canoe, then heading down (or up) a river being pushed along or bucked by a swift current. Along the way there are fixed bridges that, in our case, have to be timed for clearance, bascule and swing bridges with set opening times that have to be planned for.

This whole system has a "project depth" of 12 feet, which means that at low tide (or what is officially called mean lower low water) there should be at least 6 feet of water under our keel, and the bridges are supposed to have a minimum of 65 foot clearance at high water, which means that we should have at least a foot of air between any part of the bridge and the instruments on top of our mast. But then there is the reality, and hence the "ICW trouble spots." For example a couple of days ago we passed through a section of the waterway affectionately called The Rock Pile by boaters. This is how it is described on the official NOAA charts: "Numerous rock ledges have been reported abutting the deep portion of the Intracoastal Waterway channel from Nixon Crossroads to Latitude 33.42.51 N. Mariners should use extreme caution in this area." The narrowest and rockiest stretch is "The Rock Pile." Narrow means that if we happened to meet a tug in this area, one of us might have to go into the rocks to avoid a collision.

In the past when we came to difficult areas Angie has passed the wheel off to me, but she was steering when we came to the Rock Pile, and showed no interest in relinquishing command. In fact, she had a look on her face that said, "What's so hard about this?" It must have been her experience avoiding the rocks while whitewater canoeing that gave her such confidence. Anyway there was nothing left for the Nervous Nelly of a captain to do but go up on the foredeck and pretend to be helping us to avoid obstacles.

Then there was was the Lafayette Bridge. In North Carolina, where there are several bridges with clearances reportedly less than 65 feet, most of the bridges have gauges which show the water level. But in South Carolina they have dispensed with that nicety. Also, in South Carolina, the tides are greater and the currents swifter. So as we approached the Lafayette Bridge, we were racing along at about 9 and a half miles an hour. That may not sound like racing to you, but it is 50 percent above our normal cruising speed, and faster than the boat is theoretically capable of going according to some complicated calculation that only naval architects understand. And the fact that the current was sweeping us toward the bridge was not a good thing in case at the last moment we decided we would not clear. So as we approached, we watched the water level on all of the markers and pilings we passed, trying to see how much the tide had fallen from high tide. It appeared that the water was down about a foot. Of course, there was no gauge on the bridge to verify this, but Angie lined Bel Canto up and charged through the narrow space between the bridge stanchions like she was running a chute between rocks on a whitewater rapids.

There are the trouble spots where "frequent shoaling has been reported in this area." These are usually places where the waterway crosses inlets from the ocean, or where you are transversing a river delta. Then the usual reading of 10 or 12 or above on our depth sounder can quickly drop to 7 or 6 or even 5. I guess this is why they call it mean low water. So again, we try to cross these at mid or high tide, but that isn't always enough. Angie was guiding Bel Canto through one of these spots when the depth began to drop. It was above "lower low water," so I said, "Keep your courage up, Angie." She did a great job of getting us through, although the alarm on our depth meter kept going off. Ever since then, when we hit a low spot, she says, "I'm keeping my courage up!" and she does.

Almost caught this one!

So what makes the stress, and getting up at 5 a.m. on frigid mornings to make use of the limited daylight, worth it? For the last three or four days we have passed through some beautiful scenery. Cyprus swamps and savannahs and low sand dunes and spent our nights in delightful anchorages. Yesterday we saw two bald eagles resting atop a dead tree as we left our anchorage, and today, several times we spotted dolphins fishing along the edge of the channel. Every day there is something new to experience. One thing sure, we are never bored.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Running in Muck

Wrightsville Beach, NC Sunday, 4 a.m. 

Did you ever have one of those dreams where you are running in deep muck, struggling to move your legs, not getting anywhere? It sometimes feels that way to us trying to get down the intracoastal waterway. I am sitting here at my typewriter (computer I meant to say--shows my age) listening to the gale force winds howl and trying to figure out when we can make our next move. We stayed three nights in a beautiful little anchorage called Campbell Creek, one day by choice, and the second because the fog was so thick that we couldn't see fifty yards ahead. This did give Angie a chance to get out her "real" camera and take some fog, pictures, something that we always enjoy. We spent four days in Beaufort, the first three waiting for the strong winds of another cold front to ease up. We probably could have traveled on the third day, but we were waiting for a package from my nephew Larry, who is handling business for us, and a replacement for the chimney of our trawler lantern, which broke because I let it heat up too fast. Finally last Thursday we pushed off the dock in Town Creek in time to catch the opening of the bridge we had to go through at the beginning of our day's run. It was a beautiful day, clear skies, warm compared to the weather we'd been having--a perfect day for moving down the waterway. We were feeling great. We even saw some dolphins swimming in the inlet where the ocean meets the Intracoastal Waterway at Moorehead City and that made us feel even better, as we consider them good omens. Then we approached the the first bridge we had to go UNDER.
Duck Hunters, Campbell Creek

If you've been following the blog, you might remember us saying that Bel Canto has a mast so tall that we have to duck to go under bridges. That was a joke, but the official height of our mast, or vertical draft as we sailors like to say, is 64 feet. All bridges along the ICW are supposed to have a clearance of 65 feet. That's 65 feet above the water level at the average high tide, which is something you have to think about when you are sailing in coastal regions. Well, in North Carolina they like to do things differently, and there are several bridges that only clear 64 feet. And a super high tide can bring that down to 63. There is a usually gauge on the bridge where you pass through that tells you what the actual water level is. If you get it wrong, you can rip all of the instruments off the top of your mast, or worse, bring the mast down. We worried about this, so while we were in Annapolis we had Todd, one of Ted's employees, go up the mast in a bosun's chair with a long tape measure. I could have done this myself, and 28 years ago on Escapade I enjoyed doing it. But somehow this far along in the eighth decade of my life, I am not so eager to view the world from that perspective.
Anyway, after taking careful measurements we calculated that our mast, including the instruments and radio antenna reached 63 feet and six inches above the water. Giving a six inch margin of error, that makes 64 feet, and we'd like to have another foot or so on top of that not to feel too nervous about it. Our first challenge was the notorious Wilkerson Bridge. Wilkerson Bridge is at the end of the 25 mile Alligator-Pungo Canal. There is no tide in the canal, but the water level does fluctuate when the wind drives water from the Pungo River up to into the canal. As we approached we kept looking at the water level on the cypress stumps and markers along the sides of the canal, trying to see if it was high or low. It was a calm day and the level seemed low, but that didn't keep us from being nervous as we approached the bridge.  We knew that if we couldn't make it under, we had a four hour trip back to where we could anchor. When we got to the bridge we saw that the gauge read 65. It's best for your heart if you don't look up when you go under, but Angie did anyway. It always seems that you are going to hit, even if the bridge is 165 feet high. When we made it through we high fived each other, and I gave a big holler to release the adrenalin I'd been building up.
Hauling Anchor, Campbell Creek

Well we weren't so lucky this time. As we approached the Atlantic Beach Bridge outside of Beaufort, Angie read the gauge and it read 63 feet. I wheeled the boat around, and while Angie steered I went below to check the tide tables. We were on a rising tide, a full moon rising tide at that, and by the time the water level would drop enough for us to go through it would be too late for us to reach our next anchorage. So back we went to Beaufort for another day. Now Beaufort is an interesting little town, but we didn't need to spend another day there. Especially not a beautiful day for enjoying the sights along the waterway.

Friday we were up at 5 a.m., getting the boat ready to leave as soon as it was light enough to see. This time we made it under the bridge at mid tide with a foot to spare. It was an interesting day traveling through bays and sounds where it looked like there was plenty of water, but most of it was only two or three feet deep. The waterway cuts a narrow path through this where you have to watch the marks very carefully to be sure you are not drifting out of the channel. By two o'clock we were anchored in Mile Hammock Bay, on the Marine reservation Camp LeJeune. This was after transiting the Camp LeJeune firing range which is closed every other hour for firing practice. When we came through here 28 years ago, we were caught by surprise, stopped by a guard boat full of marines and told we had to anchor there and wait until the waterway opened up again. The current was fierce, and when we anchored, we snagged something on the bottom. When it was time to go a couple of marines in a launch helped us retrieve the anchor, and we rewarded them with a couple of beers.

 There were about a dozen boats anchored in Mile Hammock Bay and we all got to be entertained by the planes and helicopters flying overhead. We all left about the same time yesterday morning timed around the first bridge we would reach which only opened once every hour. The rest of our day was spent trying to time several more bridges that either opened once every half hour or once an hour. If you reach the bridge too late you have to mark time in place until the next opening, which is not exactly easy to do when the current is trying to move you along at a couple of miles an hour. Fortunately we fell in with some boats whose GPS timed their arrival to the minute (if ours does that, I haven't figured out how) and we could adjust our pace to arrive at the bridge when it was just about to open.

So here we are at Wrightsville Beach. Gale force winds are predicted for the rest of the day all up and down the coast. It's a protected anchorage and our anchor is dug in well, so we are secure for the time being, even though Bel Canto is rocking and rolling in the waves and current. Tomorrow might be OK for traveling, even though ii is going to be 31 degrees when we wake up at 5 a.m. to get ready to go, and then we are expecting another couple of days of bad weather. We were hoping to reach Charleston by Thanksgiving, but at this rate we may be lucky to be there by Christmas. Are we having fun yet? The truth is that with all these stresses and worries, we appreciate every sunrise and sunset, every heron, pelican and dolphin sighted, every beautiful landscape we pass through, all our friends and family (that includes you, too, Ted), and especially each other, more than we can say.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Campbell Creek Anchorage

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Norfolk: Fair and Foul

Norfolk, from our anchorage

Tuesday, November 5

Because the wind had calmed down, I thought that going the short distance from Fort Monroe to Norfolk would be peaceful and quiet. Wrong! I was steering the boat as Jim washed down and secured the anchor when I saw this big tugboat heading toward me. I changed course to avoid him, and he pulled into a dock near the entrance to the harbor. Minutes later I looked back and there were TWO tugs on my tail. The first was lashed to the second. Then as I look ahead for the next marker, this gigantic cruise ship crosses the entrance to the harbor. I had a flashback to being in the East River in New York City with all of the  cargo ships, ferries and tugs and boats of all kinds.

As we got out into Hampton Roads we were in rolling waves. The tugs veered off and stopped following me and we made our way to Norfolk, passing the piers where the Navy aircraft carriers are docked. Twenty eight years ago, as we passed into Norfolk, one of these ships was leaving its dock and hailed us with their hailer: "Sailboat, get out of the way. This is the Navy." This time they stayed put, but we noticed something new. Every time we passed anything belonging to the Navy, a patrol boat would be running parallel to our course, between the Navy ship and us. I wanted to tell them that we were the good guys, not terrorists.

As we made our way into Norfolk, I decided that I had been at the helm long enough--I wanted to get out my "real" camera with the 70-300 mm lens that I had purchased for the trip. It's a heavy lens, but I was able to hand-hold it and take photos in between waves. This was the most fun I had had in three days.

The entrance to Norfolk is lined with Navy destroyers and aircraft carriers, cargo ships, ferries, all types of cranes, industrial tugs, cruise ships both power and sail, as well as pleasure boats. This is a real working harbor, as well as the one of the biggest naval bases in the world, so you have to watch out for all of this traffic. As we made our way in, the captain of a huge cargo carrier leaving its berth radioed us and asked us to cross to the green side of the channel. "Then there will be room for both of us," he said. This, of course, put us on the "wrong" side as far as the Navy was concerned and brought out the patrol boats.

Gigantic cranes for loading the cargo ships make colorful patterns against the sky.

Helicopters and bizarre aircraft fly overhead.

A schooner waits at anchor to enter the harbor, and later, the crew mans the tops'ls.

This photograph of a sailboat on the Elizabeth River at Norfolk reminded me of a Delacroix painting.

Tuesday, November 12

"The wind is blowin' harder now,  thirty knots or thereabouts.
White caps on the ocean, and I'm lookin' for waterspouts.
Squalls out on the Gulf Stream, big storms coming soon. . ."

                                       (by memory from) Jimmy Buffet

We are tied up to the pier at Coinjock (they sell tee shirts here that say "Where the hell is Coinjock?"), just fifty miles south of Norfolk. We had expected progress to be slow down the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway), but it has been SLOW. After holding up for two days at Old Point Comfort, Fort Monroe for the winds to slack off (see our last blog), we finally decided that they had calmed enough for us to go on to the anchorage off Portsmouth, across the river from Norfolk. But then another mean mother from the North came through.

We didn't mind spending a couple of days in Portsmouth. It has a picturesque old town section (quaintly called Olde Towne), very friendly to cruising sailors. When we stopped at the little marine hardware shop appropriately named Mile Marker 0, since this is where the ICW officially begins, and innocently asked the owner, Bob McBride, where we could buy some beer and wine, he offered to take us to the Food Lion, which, like all harbor town grocery stores is located over two miles from the harbor. (We had heard he would.) Not only did he take us but he offered to come and pick us up when we were done shopping and deliver us to our dinghy, all for a hug from Angie. Of course, we took advantage of this to carry back another fifteen bags or so of provisions.

Bob McBride, of Mile Marker 0
When we finally left Norfolk/Portsmouth we got a bit of bad news. When we radioed a bridge about seven miles from Mile Marker 0, the bridge tender asked us if we knew that The Great Bridge Lock, the one lock we have to pass through on the waterway, about 12 miles down, was closed. The lock had shut down because of a malfunctioning valve., and nobody knew how long it was going to take to evaluate the problem, form a repair plan, and carry it out. This was on a Tuesday.  On Wednesday we heard that it would "possibly" be open for a few hours each day, at low tide. The next low tide that would correspond with better weather and the opening of a bridge we had to go through on the way there was Saturday. A number of boats couldn't wait and left the anchorage to "go outside" around Cape Hatteras, a notorious graveyard for ships. Soon we began hearing the Maydays and calls to the Coast Guard. Five broke down, either dismasted or with broken rudders, and had to be rescued. We patted ourselves on the backs for our discretion. Saturday turned out to be a beautiful travel day, and soon after sunrise, we were on our way South.

But not soon enough. When we reached the bridge we found that it had just closed and that we would have to wait an hour for it to reopen. As a result we arrived at the Great Bridge Lock at about eleven o'clock, just in time to make the last opening until seven o'clock that night. As you can imagine, we were happy to make it through the lock, but we decided it was too late to go on to the next convenient stop, which was Coinjock. Not only were we beat, but we would be lucky to make it before dark. So, after passing through the Great Bridge Bridge (yes, that's the name) we tied up to the free dock at Great Bridge, a little way down the road. There we learned that Great Bridge is the site of the first Revolutionary War battle fought in Virginia and the first victory by the Colonial troops.

The weather was beautiful when we arrived in Coinjock on Sunday, sunny and about 60 degrees. And Monday looked to be as nice, but the forecast was ominous. On our next leg we have to cross Albemarle Sound, a fairly wide body of open water, and then anchor somewhere along the Alligator River. Pretty much all cyprus swamp wilderness with no marinas and no real harbors. And the weather forecast was for two days of gale force winds and temperatures dipping below freezing. We decided that discretion was the better side of valor. So here we are, tied up to the dock at the Midway Marina in Coinjock, sheltered from the howling wind and sleet (yes, sleet) outside and feeling Bel Canto straining against her mooring lines. The good news is that, since we are at a marina, we have shore power, which means we can have heat without using our diesel heater. And there is a friendly little restaurant here that, last night, opened up just for us. And after this front passes, the forecast is for four days of good weather, which should get us down to Oriental, North Carolina. Knock on wood!

Bel Canto on the public wall at Great Bridge