Friday, May 9, 2014

Back up the Ditch

Sunrise, Minim Creek Anchorage

We had our plans all worked out for the next leg of our journey, from Beaufort, SC, up to Georgetown. This is a problematic stretch of the waterway, with several patches of low water and a couple of bridges we had to be careful going under. This meant getting just the right timing of high and low tides to have clearance on both ends. So we delayed our  departure from Beaufort for a week to get it just right. (No problem—we love Beaufort!) Well, you know what Robert Burns said about the best laid plans of mice and men.
Roof Party

Monday, the Cinco de Mayo, was a beautiful day to set out. We slipped our mooring just in time to make the nine o’clock opening of the Lady’s Island bridge and passed under our first bridge with a good foot and half to spare over the tip of our mast. As usual, a few dolphins showed themselves as we were setting out, and in spite of a fair amount of traffic ranging from paddle boarders to jet skiers, we looked for a pleasant day on the water. The goal was to reach the notorious Ashepoo-Coosaw cut, a five mile stretch where we had calculated 3 feet of water at low tide, on a rising tide, then anchor for the night on the other side.

All went well until we reached the Marine Air Force refueling station about an hour out of Beaufort. We were passing the Marine base dock when Angie noticed this guy in a life jacket frantically waving and yelling at us. We wheeled around to see what the nutcase wanted and were informed that we couldn’t go through because the marines were conducting firing practice up ahead. No guard boat, no sign, just a guy on the dock waving his arms. He told us the firing would go on until noon, and that we would have to anchor some place and wait to go through. While we were doing that, several more boats came along and would have passed on through if we hadn’t radioed them to tell them what was going on. One power boater was very skeptical of our “rumors” and kept spouting off on the radio about how this didn’t make sense. Well, just before noon a marine launch did show up from the firing area and tell us that the firing would be over at one thirty. A little after one a power boat came through from the other direction, evidently missing whatever warnings the marines had placed on that end, and that ended their playing war. This put us three and a half hours behind schedule and would get us to the Ashepoo-Coosaw cut on a falling tide.
The Marine who was supposed to stop traffic
We started thinking of alternatives and decided that we could go down the Coosaw River and toward the ocean on St. Helena Sound, and then up the Ashepoo River. That would take us about an hour and a half more, but it was deep water all the way. We were a little nervous about it, since it was off the waterway and an unfamiliar route to us. As we passed the cut and headed down the sound, we radioed the crew on Night Watch, a smaller (and shallower draft) boat than Bel Canto, and asked then to tell us the depth of the bar when they entered the cut.

Night Watch reported nothing less than seven feet, so we turned back toward the cut. I must have misjudged the entry, because as we went between the entrance marks, our depth gauge went to five feet and and Bel Canto started slowing down. We must have plowed a furrow through the silt, because she kept going and soon we were back in 7 to 10 feet of water. The next day was a “normal” day on the waterway, and we set anchor in the Stono River, just South of Charleston, in order to take Elliott’s Cut at slack tide in the morning. You might remember us writing about going through Elliott’s cut on the way South. The current was four or five knots against us, and it took us 40 minutes to go a half mile. This time we breezed through on the end of the ebb tide, crossed Charleston Harbor, and in an hour or so we were back on the waterway.  Our timing was perfect, rising tide for the problem areas, but not so high that we couldn’t make it under the troublesome Isle of Palms bridge.

The day was hot, but it would have been a pleasant day, with dolphins surfacing next to the boat a couple of times. Would have been except for the plague of small black beetles that descended on us. Fortunately they didn’t bite, but they did drive us crazy landing on us and on everything around us. They usually died when we brushed them away, leaving an ugly yellow stain where they had been. At the end of the day, Angie must have cleaned up a thousand corpses. Fortunately a breeze came up and blew most of the beetles away. With a straight stretch of the waterway ahead, we were even able to sail for our usual 20 minutes. A little after three thirty, we decided to pull into the Awendow Creek anchorage where we are now, about half way between Charleston and our destination of Georgetown.

That probably wasn’t the best decision we could have made. (I should say that I made.) Angie suggested that we could go on to the next anchorage, about fifteen miles up the ditch. It was high tide and there was a problematic stretch of water ahead of us. But that would have meant another two and a half hours on the waterway. I declined, thinking that the low tide the next day (today) was at nine-thirty and that if we left by eleven we could still make Georgetown before the marina where we had a reservation closed. Miscalculation.  Low tide was at eleven. We checked our log and found that on the way down we recorded six feet in this stretch at just past half tide (on a falling tide). So today we should be able to make it through a little after one. That means we won’t make it to Georgetown today, but what the hey. Georgetown will still be there tomorrow. That’s what it’s like, the good and the bad, on the waterway.

Sunset, Awendaw Creek Anchorage

The Next Day

That was supposed to be the end of this blog entry. But I lost the layout and didn't have time to do it over before it was time to take off on the rising tide. As I said, we had a five mile problem stretch of water ahead of us, sometimes called the McClellanville stretch. From our anchorage in Awendaw Creek I could see a couple of trawlers heading up the waterway, so I radioed them to get a report on the water levels. The report was positive, and at a little after one, we hauled anchor and started up the waterway again. We tiptoed our way along for most of the five miles. I was steering and trying to judge from the inlets where the shoaling would be. Well I misjudged (I should have followed the advice of my co-captain and just aimed for the next green marker). Suddenly the boat stopped, and the depth sounder showed three and a half feet of water under us. We were stuck. We were still on a rising tide,  but a fairly stiff wind was blowing us toward shore, so I doubted if we would float off this time as we had before. We asked the crew of a passing power boat to go by us at full speed, hoping their wake would bounce us off, but they demurred, saying it wasn't their boat. After a few attempts to motor us off, I reluctantly called TowBoatUS in Georgetown for assistance. (We have insurance that covers this). We were told that their estimated arrival time was in 50 minutes, so in the meantime we set to work to do what we could to get ourselves off.

The procedure for getting yourself out of a situation like this is called kedging. You load an anchor into your dinghy and drop it as far out from your boat toward deeper water as you can. Then you haul on the anchor and try to pull your bow around and work yourself off the bottom. This doesn't sound too difficult, but we had a stiff wind and a strong current to contend with. And first we had to get the motor on the dinghy using the hoist on the stern of the boat. And remember, Bel Canto weighs sixteen tons! We were winching on the anchor rode with little success when another power boater came along and offered to create a wake for us. He did a great job spinning his boat on our shore side and creating about a two foot wake. After two passes we were able to pull ourselves off, just as TowBoatUS showed up. They helped us retrieve our anchor, which was stuck firmly in the hard mud of the bottom, and we were on our way again.
Dolphin Playing

I was totally exhausted after that ordeal, and captain Angie took us to our next anchorage, where we are now. On the way the dolphins rejoined us and seemed to be having great fun playing in our wake. Just before we reached the anchorage, Angie asked me to take the wheel. "Do you trust me?" I asked.
"No," she replied, "but I have to go pee."

Sunset, Minim Creek


  1. Oh my, the ebbs and flows that come and go for those lucky folks aboard Bel Canto, and Angie perfectly summed up why she'd be willing to turn the boat back over to the Captain! The photos are fabulous--thanks for sharing.


  2. What a wonderful, fantastic adventure trip you are having! Love the stories you send.
    Mary Ann