We have now lived aboard Strider for exactly one month. Since we left Bristol on Friday, 5 December, we have done three ocean trips and a voyage down part of the ICW, in total around 700 Nm. In a way, the past month has been a shake-down cruise for us. We have gotten to know Strider and her quirks, and we now need some time to do some repairs and prepare for our journey further south to Florida and the Bahamas. Among the things that need attention are our anchor windlass and our dinghy outboard. We are also considering replacing our feathering prop with a fixed one, since we have discovered that our near accident in Norfolk (when we thought that Strider was refusing to engage in reverse gear) was the result of the prop failing to "unfeather" to the reverse position while the boat is going forward too fast. Since the Norfolk incident, this has happened a few times while docking the 15 ton vessel with Ferdi discovering at the critical moment: Yikes!!!, no brakes!!
For our next leg down the ICW, from Coinjock to the Alligator River on Monday, 29 December, we had to don our foulies (foul-weather gear) early on since we were greeted by showers of rain. Strider and her Swiss and English companions pointed south at first light and straight away were confronted by a huge barge pushed by a tugboat going north. However, since the tugboats apparently do much of the channel dredging on the ICW and since we were obviously no size match we graciously gave way to the edge of the channel.
Down the North River and into the 14-mile Albemarle Sound, Strider's crew sat in her open cockpit getting a bit drenched, but nonetheless enjoying the scenery around us. In the river, we had north winds of 15 to 20 kts to help us along, and for a short while could raise the genoa, but when we hit the sound, the wind subsided and we had calm waters. We were fairly grateful, since the sound is renowned for having "confused seas", even in light winds.
Soon we reached the mouth of the Alligator River, and after some initial confusion about the intentions of a fourth yacht travelling behind us, the bridge tender opened the river swing bridge and we glided through in single file. After a further 22 miles, we anchored just off the channel close to Deep Point in the Alligator River. Patricia and Thierry (whose boat draws the least) surveyed the water depth and radioed the results to the other two. Here we had the opportunity to test our new Delta anchor, and after an initial hitch with the footswitch Strider's hook was dropped and we could relax and enjoy our surroundings. We had done about 50 statute miles for the day and were all pretty exhausted!
However, once we were all settled, the deep red sunset and early evening turned out to be one of the highlights of our ICW trip so far. We were in the middle of nowhere, and the silence was indescribable. Ferdi said our surroundings reminded him of Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. Later on after supper, we stood quietly on deck and gazed at the crescent moon and the myriad of stars above us, the silence broken only by an owl or small night animal (OK, and a couple of F-18 Hornet fighter jets tearing through the stars on some night manoeuvre).
The next day (Tuesday) at dawn, we weighed anchor, left Deep Point astern and were soon on course again down the canal between the Alligator and Pungo rivers. We were looking out for the black bears reportedly inhabiting the area, but only saw some deer by the canalside, at the same time keeping a sharp lookout for stumps and snags and other hazardous (to a sailboat) objects.
After about 21 miles down the canal, we entered the Pungo River, and after negotiating a lower-than-regulation fixed bridge (64 ft) and breathing a sigh of relief as our VHF antenna remained intact, we arrived at our next anchorage, in Pentango Creek just outside the small town of Belhaven. After settling, we lowered the dinghy from its davits on the transom to go ashore, but couldn't get our yet untested 15 hp Yamaha outboard to work properly (the captain surmised this was because water had found its way into the petrol), so Ferdi and Wimpie rowed to the local marina to obtain the necessary juice.
For the next three days, strong winds and cold weather prevented us from proceeding further. On Wednesday (the 31st) we didn't leave the boat at all. A north-west gale of between 20 and 25 mph, gusting up to 43 kts, caused Strider to hobby-horse from time to time, and we had to keep an eye on our position on the GPS constantly. At around 11am, we discovered we were dragging our anchor and were headed for the channel, and had to reset rapidly. As the day went on, the wind increased and the wave crests in the creek started to break. We eventually had a 70m anchor chain out to increase our scope! We didn't drag again, however. Plans to have a New Year's meal on Strider with our friends from Shiver and New Life were scuppered since understandably, no-one wanted to leave their boats unattended under these conditions.
New Year's Day brought much better weather. After listening to the weather reports, we conferred early with our fellow travellers via VHF, and everyone agreed that although the wind had turned northerly and had died down considerably, it was too cold to set off and we should wait till Saturday. So we went to shore in the dinghy for a shower at the marina (again rowing, since our outboard is still being stubborn). I think I have mentioned before on this blog how small things can give such pleasure when one lives aboard a boat - our New Year hot shower was certainly one of them! Afterwards, we rented a golfcart (!) from the marina and set off to the nearest grocery store. It took us about half an hour to cover the four miles to get there. We must have looked a bit odd crawling down the main road in our little cart among all the oversized American SUVs!
In the evening we had our postponed New Year's supper with our friends. It was the first time we had had guests on Strider, and also the first time we had used the oven, which produced a fabulous leg of lamb thanks to the efforts of the captain, and also warmed up Strider's interior. Freddie and Marvin amused themselves in our cabin, and we all sat around our saloon table and aided by champagne and red wine covered very important (to yachties) topics such as the best way of maintaining the holding tank in the heads (boatspeak for the loo), "thornless" sailing routes to desired destinations, and other general boating issues and sailor's stories. The evening was over far too soon and at around 10pm our friends gathered up their (by then) sleeping little boys, braced the cold and sped off back to their own boats in their dinghies.
On Friday we had a long and lazy, relaxing day, again not leaving the boat. Ferdi made a thick, hearty soup, and we lay about, read and chatted. I'm presently reading Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World - I don't think I will ever complain about anything on our boat after reading about his adventures alone on his sloop in the late 19th century!
Saturday greeted us with hardly any wind and the promise of a sunny day (on the ICW wind, unless directly astern, can be a bit challenging for a deep draught such as ours). We lifted anchor at daybreak and set off on our next leg, a 46 mile run to the village of Oriental. We went down the Pungo River, crossed the Pamlico River, travelled down Goose Creek and then Bay River and finally turned into Neuse River before we anchored at Oriental at around 3pm.
There is not much to report of the day's events except that we had discovered a problem with the windlass while weighing anchor at Belhaven that morning. Despite Ferdi and Wimpie's best attempts at repairing it en route (while I steered) the solution eluded us and we at first thought we were not going to be able to anchor in Oriental. However, we knew we had to make a plan after learning that none of the marina approaches in that town would cater for our draught. So the captain thought of Plan B - we would temporarily use our Danforth anchor on a rode instead of dropping the Delta. All went well until we followed New Life and Shiver into the planned anchorage at Oriental - and got stuck. The depth in the basin confluence of Smith and Greens creeks is extremely misleading, and what we thought (according to our charts) was a "safe" area turned out to be too shallow. Fortunately a friendly local couple in a passing powerboat towed us out and we put Plan B to work.
Once settled, Ferdi didn't want to leave Strider unattended, so I got a lift to shore with Patricia and Thierry in their dinghy (we have not yet had opportunity to fix our own outboard). The night was restless, since we worried constantly that variable winds would swing us into the shallower parts of the basin. Ferdi especially was up all night ensuring that we did not come unstuck again.
Sunrise on Sunday saw us off on our last leg of the ICW, to Beaufort, and not a day too soon! Although the ICW has been enjoyable and something different, the necessity of constant awareness of our depth has tired us somewhat and we can't wait to get back into the open ocean!
Approaching Beaufort (known locally as the "Gateway to the Caribbean") we had our first intoxicating whiff of sea air again - that and the sunshine glittering on the tranquil waters around us was an instant mood-lifter. As were some dolphins prancing about to starboard and the abundant birdlife (including large pelicans) in the Newport River.
We tied up at Beaufort Docks in Taylor Creek, and after a brief exploration of the town, hot showers and a quick meal, crashed into bed. After 11 days and 205 statute miles going down the ICW, also known here as The Ditch, we were exhausted! (To indicate how much we are now in need of the ocean again - when I got into bed, Ferdi, who had been asleep for an hour or so, told me: "Not here, love, it's too shallow....")
(See pics in Photo Gallery.)
After almost a week in Portsmouth/Norfolk we slipped our mooring at the marina and started our cruise down the ICW on Wednesday, 24 December at around 11am. Wimpie almost remained behind since Strider left the dock more rapidly than he had anticipated and he had some trouble scrambling on at the last minute! He was dragged aboard with feet dangling in the water. His brief was to push the boat away from the dock, because the wind was pushing Strider onto the dock and then, after fending off, leap aboard. Well, it's always easier in theory. Once the boat starts its backward motion, there's no stopping, hence Wimpie's rather ungainly landing on deck.
Going down the ICW is so much more peaceful than being out on the open sea, although it brings its own challenges for a deep-draughted sailing vessel, as you'll see later! Ferdi was behind the wheel for most of the way while I navigated. One has to stick to the dredged channel quite closely, since the encroaching shoaling on the outside has resulted in depths of 5 ft or less, and Strider draws around 6'3''. We meandered down the southern branch of the Elizabeth River and later the first section of what is known as the Virginia Cut, passing by pine woodlands and small settlements and twice spotting bald eagles perched by the river. A welcome change from imposing grey naval vessels!
We had some hairy moments passing under one or two of the fixed bridges. They are supposed to have a 65 ft clearance and we had worked out that our mast and VHF antenna together measure around 61 ft above water level, but approaching at least one of them we were too afraid to look up, especially after reading that one or two yachts had been dismasted in this way in past years....we made it through without problems, however.
Since it's not a good idea to travel at night on the ICW (difficult to see the markers etc) we tied up to some piles next to the canal just south of the Great Bridge Lock at the end of the day, in front of two other yachts already there and respectively belonging to English and Swiss couples. The weather the next day (Christmas Day) was not conducive to continuing (it was raining and a southerly wind would have hampered our progress) so we hung about the village of Great Bridge and in the evening had a fabulous Christmas meal on New Life, the boat of our neigbours, Thierry and Patricia, as did the owners of the third yacht, Shiver, Redmond and Liz. T&P's son Marvin (6) and R&L's son Freddie (5) had given each other dinosaur gifts for Christmas and were eagerly ripping them open while the adults all shared boating stories around New Life's ample saloon table. It was great to hear everyone's experiences, especially for a wide-eyed novice like me!
The next day (Friday) the three yachts set off together for the next leg down the ICW to Coinjock, a village just the other side of the Currituck Sound. It was coldish in the early morning (Strider's captain was wearing shoes, always an indication of low temperature) but heated up slightly as the sun came out later. At Mile 43 (statute miles along the ICW, not nautical miles), we entered North Carolina. All went well until we got into the sound, where we got stuck twice! According to our ICW guidebook, one is supposed to stick to the centre of the dredged channel across the sound (the outer limits of which are indicated by day beacons) but this is not always so easy to determine! The first time we got stuck Ferdi managed to free us quite easily, but the second time we could not budge. After an attempt by Thierry and Patricia to free us, a passing-by small fishing vessel with a strong outboard managed after first attempting to pull our mast over (with Wimpie and I hanging over the side for extra weight) and then finally pulling us forward with all three of Strider's crew adding side weight.
The three yachts docked at around 4pm on Friday at the quiet hamlet of Coinjock at the Midway Marina, one of two in the village. We are now 50 statute miles from our ICW starting point at Portsmouth/Norfolk two days ago. Since today is fairly misty and it looks like we won't be able to continue till Monday, we have been spending the day chatting to our fellow boaters, doing laundry, catching up on emails etc, and Wimpie is still trying hard to catch his first fish.
(See some pics in the Photo Gallery.)
We spent two days in picturesque Cape May, waiting out the predicted southerly gale, before setting off again. During this time, some odd jobs were done on the boat, and we got our warm clothes washed and dried. Ferdi and I rented a car and went to nearby Atlantic City, the city on which the game of Monopoly was based by a jobless salesman in 1935. We visited one of the huge casino's for which the place is famous (both Donald Trump and Sol Kerzner have interests here), but after losing a couple of dollars and deciding we had had enough of glitz and bright lights we headed back to our marina.
On Wednesday, 17 December, Strider at around 1pm pointed south again. This time I made sure everything on board was safely secured, but the Cape May inlet was kind to us on our way out and we got through without much fuss. It was a relatively uneventful night, much warmer than the leg to Cape May (minimum around 3°C). This time we had the wind from behind but not enough to make much difference. We could raise the sails only for a short while. However, we still made fairly good SOG (speed over ground), around 6 to 8 knots. It was an overcast, foggy night, so no moon and stars, and it wasn't always easy to spot other vessels (not that there were many). On one of my watches (the weather allowed us two hours each this time), I was jolted out of reverie by a dark shape that suddenly appeared metres from Strider on our starboard side - we only just missed a completely unlit marker beacon about 6 Nm from the Delaware coast! We watched our radar screen more closely after that.
Late the previous afternoon we had put out a line trailing behind the boat - using an inner tube (purchased at a cycling shop in Bristol - our version of "haasrek"), line, leader and a rapala - but unfortunately the fish weren't biting.... so shortly after sunrise the captain concocted a fabulous risotto for breakfast. He had a hard time of putting it together however, since the early hours brought a quartering sea which produced a corkscrew effect on the boat, uncomfortable to say the least for anyone below deck.
Around lunchtime on Thursday, we pointed Strider eastward and entered Chesapeake Bay. Once inside the bay, it took us around three hours to reach our destination, Tidewater Yacht Marina in Portsmouth on the Elizabeth River. The Hampton Roads inside the Chesapeake is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, so Ferdi steered us most of the way in order to stay out of the way of barges, naval vessels, freighters and several small fishing vessels. We motored just outside the designated channel, which took us though the Chesapeake Bay bridge-tunnel, which heads under the surface through the bay, leaving an opening for boaters. At one point I was steering but handed over to the captain since this inexperienced crew member felt decidedly uncomfortable with the massive US Navy ship flanked by two accompanying smaller vessels seemingly bearing down on us from behind. We geared down to let it pass and eventually followed it down the Elizabeth River at a safe distance until it turned into a mooring at the naval base to our port side (the 4 300 acre Naval Station Norfolk is the biggest in the world).
We arrived at our marina in the late afternoon. Upon approaching our mooring, our beloved Strider was as wilfull as her namesake back in Wilderness - she flatly refused to engage in reverse gear, which led to an almost close encounter with a moored neighbour. Fortunately, thanks to Wimpie's quick action with the roving fender and bar a negligable scrape, there was no damage all round and we docked without further incident. The next day we had to look into the cause of the gear malfunction however - always something on a boat!
The Tidewater Yacht Marina is near the location of "Mile Marker Zero" which is considered to be the gateway to the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). Since we are planning to continue our voyage along the ICW for some part of the way (at least to Cape Hatteras), this is the perfect spot for us to regroup and make use of local knowledge of the route ahead.
The Elizabeth River separates Portsmouth from Norfolk, and Friday we took the ferry across from our marina to Norfolk, where Ferdi and I visited the battleship USS Wisconsin, the biggest and last battleship ever built by the US Navy - it once carried a crew of 2 700 sailors! It was commissioned in 1944 but is now in the Navy's inactive fleet. This 887 ft, 57 000 ton vessel was last used in 1991 in Operation Desert Storm but has also seen active duty in WW11 as well as the Korean War. Seeing those teak decks (6 acres in total) put quite a few things in perspective for Strider's crew!
The best part of Portsmouth/Norfolk, however, is the weather - we're now wearing half the layers of clothing we did three days ago and everyone's mood is noticeably lighter. The temperature is comparable to that of Cape Town in winter.
After a week of miscellaneous boat repairs and restocking, we left Sandy Hook on Saturday, 13 December at around 1.30pm. Exiting our wooden pile slip at low tide and with gusty winds tending to push Strider towards the dock was a bit tricky and we had to sacrifice a mooring line in the process. However, after negotiating the channel out to sea we were finally on our way again.
This time, we had no alternator troubles and were able to use the autopilot all the way. We were grateful, since the wind was 15-20 knots for most of the journey. We were heading for Norfolk, Virginia and had about 48 hours to go. Late afternoon, we hoisted the genoa and sailed on a beam reach, but disappointingly only for a few hours, since the wind turned southerly. So again we motored for most of the way, on a route about 5 Nm from the coast, passing Atlantic City with its bright lights and casinos, Egg Harbor and Wildwood with its giant amusement park and ferris wheels clearly visible.
Our night watches were pretty exhausting, especially for Ferdi (who had to keep navigating even when it wasn't his watch), since the sea was fairly choppy and temperatures way below zero (-6°C without wind chill). It was a moonlit night (a day after full moon) and on one of my watches I saw at least eight shooting stars! We had one hairy experience in that a large fishing trawler came straight for us without any apparent intention of missing us. Bit nerve wracking to see both green and red navigation lights bearing down on you at considerable speed! Ferdi had to do some nifty steering to get around the vessel, which sped along afterwards seemingly unperturbed.
In the morning, after another spectacular sunrise, we listened to one of the marine weather reports on the VHF radio and decided (prudent mariners that we are) to cut our planned voyage short and stop over at Cape May, NJ instead of Norfolk. A gale was predicted for Sunday night, but instead of helping us along from behind, we would be heading straight into it. The waves were already 5-6ft. So we phoned up some marinas in Cape May, and the South Jersey Marina at the south end of the Cape May Harbor was able to accommodate our relatively deep draft.
Getting into the harbour was pretty eventful. One of our guide books says the Cape May inlet is "one of the safest inlets along the New Jersey coast, but occasionally the wind and tide conspire to produce the 'inlet effect', a disturbing chop in the area around the breakwaters". Well, the conspiracy was against us that day. The captain had a helluva time steering us through a narrow inlet with treacherous rocks on either side, with raging, criss-crossing currents and waves causing Strider to heel at least 50° from side to side. In a confused sea, with waves coming from all directions, we literally surfed down the inlet. I was down below at the time, being thrown from one side of the boat to the other, while at the same time trying to keep the cabin and galley closets closed and preventing our stuff from crashing about (lesson - some of our closet fasteners need looking at) . Wimpie, who was doing his best to stay in the cockpit, said afterwards some local fishermen on the side banks actually put down their rods to watch the spectacle. I think they witnessed some outstanding seamanship!
Eventually we were safely in the harbour and slowly motored towards the marina down Schellenger Creek. The second leg of our voyage down the east coast of the US had taken around 24 hours (we are now about 350 Nm from Bristol, RI, our starting point). We are steadily making our way towards the warmer latitudes!
We finally got a weather gap on Friday, 5 December and set sail from Bristol Marine at around noon on a clear, calm but cold day. It was an incredible feeling to be on our maiden voyage with Strider at last! It took us a good few hours to sail out of Narraganset Bay, with Pell Bridge (connecting Aquidneck Island to Jamestown) receding further and further into the distance every hour.
We (Ferdi, Wimpie and I) were heading for Sandy Hook in New Jersey (part of the greater New York metropolitan area), since we had decided the weather was just too unpredictable to try and make it to Fort Lauderdale in one go.
We motored the whole way since we were heading directly into the wind. Towards evening on Friday, Strider gave us a challenge - the batteries were discharging far too rapidly for the captain's comfort. The alternator appeared not to be doing its job. So, to save battery power we had to disconnect the power-gobbling autopilot and steer manually the rest of the way - about 18 hours! (In retrospect, this was a very valuable lesson, since both Wimpie and I have now learnt how to steer a compass course, which we would not have done had we had the use of the autopilot.)
So it was quite a long night through a choppy sea with south-westerly winds of 10 to 15 knots. The three of us took it in turns to stand watch and steer, with Ferdi taking the brunt of it. We started with two-hour watches but this later turned to one-hour sessions due to the cold weather (well below freezing, with the wind-chill factor making it much worse!). For those trying to nod off below deck, it was not much warmer and we slept in our foul-weather gear. We cruised down the length of Long Island all night at an average of 6 knots. Fortunately there was not too much traffic to confuse the two novices on board, but the captain was called upon on occasion to interpret the light signals from other vessels.
About two hours before dawn the ocean calmed down considerably and gliding across an oily sea, we were able to witness the most incredible sunrise - the kind of experience that makes it all worthwhile! For a long while Ferdi and I stood in silence in the cockpit and just enjoyed the moment. It was still freezing, but the sun was peeking out behind the clouds from behind us. We could see the New York skyline in the distance to starboard, with the unmistakable Empire State building towering over the city.
After a while, Wimpie came out to steer and Ferdi and I went below and made us a fabulous sausage and egg breakfast. I should mention here that NONE of us had been even slightly seasick for the whole journey! Perhaps it was the Stugeron we took (or the pressure-point wristbands I was wearing), but we all found our sealegs very quickly.
Around 4pm on Saturday and about 28 hours after we set off from Bristol, Ferdi navigated us through a narrow channel into Sandy Hook, a town just to the south-west of New York, where we berthed at the Atlantic Highlands Municipal Harbor. Needless to say, we didn't mess about much, after a quick supper we collapsed in our cabins and slept like logs.
On Sunday, our first morning in Sandy Hook, we woke up to find it had snowed during the night. We immediately went off in search of a hot shower in the marina. What one takes for granted at home every morning has become a HUGE luxury over here! I think I must have spent at least half an hour under glorious hot water!! We spent the rest of the day doing odd jobs on the boat, catching an afternoon nap later on.
Towards evening, the wind picked up considerably and Strider was straining at her mooring lines. Later it was gusting 57 knots and Ferdi got up several times during the night to adjust the lines. According to a local radio weather report it was -6°C but with the wind chill factor this easily became around -18°C!
Monday I went off to the local laundromat while Ferdi saw to our alternator situation. The latter turned out to be a corroded connection. Thanks to Tom, a most helpful and friendly local marine electrician, the problem was quickly sorted out.
(See pics in gallery).