The peaceful beauty of meandering streams and quiet waters
29 May 2013 | South Mills Lock, Dismal Swamp
We were up at 0700, had some coffee on the aft deck and enjoyed the rising sun, the lapping of the water against the boat and the rustling sea grasses that were close by. Our sailboat friends had already left.
After about 45 minutes, we decided to raise the anchor. We had some problems ...again with a shackle catching on the roller...but after about 15 minutes everything was in place.
By 0800 we were ready to roll. Mary Sue took the helm and I went below to finish off my Bonus Years column that I started last night. I finished it about 0900 and then took the helm so Mary Sue, an excellent editor and a tough critic, could read it. She always reads and comments on everything I write...and had some comments this time, too. No surprise there. So, I went back to the drawing board and finally finished it off and filed it at 1100, 30 minutes ahead of my deadline.
This has been the most amazing day of our trip so far. The approach to the Dismal Swamp is spectacular - both the natural order and the cultural.
First, the cultural. After about an hour, we stopped at a funky little downscale marina called Lamb's. It is off to the east of the ICW. First, you head into a clump of trees through a very narrow channel (may 30 feet wide) and then it opens suddenly and unexpectedly to a really nice, protected lagoon-like area with slips for 25 or so boats, many of which appear to be live-a-boards. Lamb's has no pump-out services but it does have fuel and repair services - though the diesel fuel is stored in a truck, which they have to bring over to the boat. The only fixed fuel pump they have is for gasoline.
Most importantly, Lambs also has a grocery store. Turns out, a really good grocery store, compared to other marinas. That's why we stopped...we were running out of everything: Diet Coke, milk, bread, salad stuff, fresh fruit, smoked turkey, cheese. It was a fantastic place, a taste of Americana. We got all the groceries we needed, including fresh bananas and one can of very, very cold Bud Light that I pulled out of a pail of ice. It hit the spot!
In a room beside the grocery store...about the size of a two-car garage..."the guys" had a 60-inch flat screen rigged up with some old but soft and comfortable easy chairs scattered about where everyone gathered to drink beer, shoot the bull and watch TV - sort of backwoods version of "Cheers." I asked one of the guys, "What are your TV favs: The answers came in: The Outdoor Channel and fishing shows; NASCAR and ESPN and, everyone agreed, Fox News. It was a neighborhood sort of place, a gathering place. It is the kind of place Alexis de Tocqueville might have stopped 180 years ago as he was trying to understand the pulse of this new nation called America.
The natural order is something else. For the next hour after leaving Lamb's we did not see another boat. We were alone on the rivers, streams and finally the Taylor Cut leading to our destination, the South Mills Lock and the next leg of the Dismal Swamp. The foliage was stunning and created mirror reflections on the water of ranks of lush trees and foliage on either side, with blue sky and puffy clouds down the middle. The ICW at this point is full of twists and turns. You almost feel like you are on a ride of some kind at Disneyland. The sounds of wildlife are everywhere...and easy to hear despite the decibels coming from SOB's 370 hp Yanmar diesel. Though "awesome" is today a much over-used word, the experience of the run-up to South Mills Lock was truly awesome. Seeing and hearing God's creation in the raw is truly awe-inspiring.
We arrived at the South Mills Lock at 1900. After scouting the situation, we backtracked a half mile and found a perfect anchorage, just off the ICW. It is actually an old, unused bulkhead with a couple of bollards. We will tie up here for tonight and then get up and out of here in time to hit the South Mills lock for their 0830 opening. If you miss that one, you have to wait till 1130, and we want the 0830 so we can make it to Norfolk in the early afternoon on Thursday.
Mary Sue took a long walk into the surrounding wooded area. With visions of the film "Deliverance" dancing in my head, I stayed back on SOB to hold the fort and prepare our defenses in case any marauders come through with their dueling banjos.
Actually, the film most on my mind today is a wonderful, award-winning Aussie film called, "Oyster Farmer," filmed on the Hawkesbury River, a tide-dominated, drowned valley estuary located in New South Wales, northwest of Sydney. I have experienced the peaceful beauty of the quiet waters of the Hawkesbury; I experienced the same peaceful beauty today. This run alone makes the whole trip worthwhile.
MSB: I agree with Phil: We have seen many wonderful displays of God's beauty on this trip, but the Dismal Swamp tops them all. There is an alternate course, the Virginia Cut, that is slightly shorter and less complicated. We are so glad we chose this course. If you are considering the ICW run, don't miss this.
Big John, strong winds and the spirit of the ICW
28 May 2013 | Peletier Creek
We woke up this morning with every intention of departing by 0700. But that was not to be. We spent the evening in a old-fashioned marina…called Taylor Boat Works on Peletier Creek. It was pretty primitive… no fuel, no pump out, questionable bathroom facilities, a rail instead of a boat lift, etc. But it did have 30 amp electricity and a pizza parlor close by.
And John, the owner…for 30 years... was a gem of a guy. We made arrangements with him last night over the radio, but he was long gone by the time we arrived. However, he came down to SOB first thing this morning – about 0700 – to collect the dock fee and, it turned out, shoot the breeze. When he found out we are transvesselites, he asked a lot of questions, and as we answered, we would also tell him what we liked and didn't like, how things were working, things we were not sure about, things that might need attention.
First thing you know, John, no spring chicken himself, hops on our boat. After some more conversation where he reveals encyclopedic knowledge of anything having to do with boats , he is opening up hatches, down on his knees and later flat on his belly then down into the engine room showing us how this or that worked or how if you jiggered that gizmo a little everything would be OK…so we jiggered it, and sure enough it was.
About 0800, an hour after we planned to depart, I made the mistake of telling John the auto-pilot was not working properly. He went up to the bridge deck and flicked some switches; then down to the lower helm station and gave a hard look at the instruments; and then, after about three minutes, literally, he had it figured out. He was down on his belly again, working around the rudder (by touch; he couldn’t see what he was doing) and then came up with a little "ball joint" about half the size of a marble. He said it controlled the feedback mechanism on the auto pilot and showed me how it had corroded. He had found the culprit.
John said he might have a spare…or if he didn't, he would run up to West Marine and see if they had one. Well, long story short: He didn't have a spare and his trip to West Marine was derailed by other customers coming in. So, we told John we appreciated his attention, but we had to shove off. When I asked for a bill, he waved me off. When I tried to give him a $20 tip, he refused to take it. Finally, he relented, took the cash and then helped us untie and head for Belhaven, 82 miles up the road. Time: 0930, two and half hours late. But, truth to tell, the time with John was worth it. I would go back to Taylor Boat Works in a New York minute.
Once we were underway, the passage was daunting. It included a long ride down a choppy Neuse River. The combination of the wind blowing at 15-20 knots and the current running in the opposite direction generated a lot of wave action that resulted in some rolling of SOB, also requiring constant attention to the heading.
Then we passed into Pamlico Sound, that huge body of water formed by the outer banks, with Cape Hatteras located down on the southeastern end. After a few miles, it was like being at sea. You were out of sight of land in front and to the sides and land was only faintly visible to the rear. We then went through another cut, thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers, and ended up in the Pungo River, heading for our destination, Belhaven, NC.
Approaching Belhaven, we headed for the Dowry Creek marina to get fuel and pump out. Our intention was to stay in the marina and have a leisurely dinner in another new town. However, the wind was so severe and this particular marina so exposed to the weather that we were not comfortable having the boat bouncing around in a slip. So, we paid our bill and headed out to the ICW, continuing north for another half hour or so when we found a protected cove that had already been discovered by two sailboats. So we pulled in for the night.
After anchoring, we flipped on the generator, took showers, had a nice tuna salad plus Trader Joe's tomato soup and settled down for the evening. Mary Sue returned some phone calls and answered emails. I started to work on my Bonus Years column, due on Wednesday morning (tomorrow) for the Sunday Annapolis Capital. I decided to write about some of the very interesting people we have met on the ICW and the rich variety of lifestyles and work habits that describe their bonus years.
She's on Board? Where did that come from?
28 May 2013 | Morehead City, NC
Several readers have sent emails asking about origin of the name of our boat. Here's the answer:
The boat was named by its previous owner. His wife, at first, was reluctant to buy the boat but then embraced the idea. Hence the name.
Now, why have we kept the name? First, there is a tradition in boating to name a boat once and only once. It is often violated, but many follow the tradition. After all, one of the joys of boating is the long and honored traditions of the activity, which involves sport, commerce and war.
Second, we sort of like the name. Our preferred name would be "Bonus Years" (the name of my newspaper column on "successful aging") or "Encore" (the name of the sailboat we just sold).
But there is a third reason. The new owner (that would be the me half of us) encountered the same reluctance with his wife (that would be Mary Sue). In fact, she overheard me one day talking to one of my friends about the boat. He asked me, "What is the name of the boat?" I replied, "She's on board." About that time Mary Sue walked into the room and said, "I am NOT on board. Who are you talking to?"
Fortunately, that turned out to be only a temporary setback. Soon, Mary Sue also embraced the idea of a Mainship 390 (she had been holding out for a smaller, Down East sort of boat). So, the name fits our situation, too.
Who knows...we may change the name...or not.
Bridges, cuts and Cape Fear, but no DeNiro
27 May 2013 | Morehead City
We cast off from the Southport Marina on the Cape Fear River at 0830 and headed on to Morehead City, NC, 98 miles away. And we made it! Arriving at 1930. A new distance record for SOB on the ICW.
We had a little problem at the beginning: I was following a couple of other boats out of the marina and thinking about other things when I realized, after about 5 minutes, that we were all heading Southeast when I needed to be going Northeast. So I did a quick U-turn to get to the correct course. The compass is an amazing instrument, especially when you pay attention to the big letters: N, S, E, W.
We have a long day ahead of us, and this is Memorial Day. We've been warned the ICW will be packed with small to mid-sized power boats, filled with young kids, and scads of PWC (personal water craft, like a Ski Doo) with older kids, so we will need to be extra alert. It was yesterday (Sunday) but not so much today (Monday). In fact, most of today's passage was quite smooth and relatively uncrowded, despite its being a holiday.
In fact, today was quite smooth in another sense. ICW bridges in NC open on the hour or half hour...and today we had the good fortune to hit every bridge within five minutes of a scheduled opening. I shouldn't say "hit" every bridge. We actually only hit one bridge...and that was only a glancing blow prompted by an aggressive current...and no damage was incurred this time. :(
In North Carolina (unlike South Carolina) most of the low bridges on the ICW do not open on request. Instead, they open on the hour and half-hour. So you need to plan ahead so you are not sitting in the water waiting, which with the winds and currents is often challenging. Boats are much easier to manage when they are moving.
We arrived at our first low bridge just south of Wrightsville, what looks to be a prosperous and interesting community on the ICW. The charts said the Wrightsville bridge gave 21' clearance. Since we require 19'1", it looked like we could make it. But, we hit at high tide and the marker said 15' indicating the clearance given the level of the water, so we waited for about 10 minutes for the bridge to open. It did and we passed through without incident. Luckily, the currents were mild and it was relatively easy to wait, but we still had to do a lot of maneuvering owing to the congestion caused by some boats waiting (too tall) and others able to pass through anyway.
We arrived at the next low bridge about 1135, which meant we would have to wait till noon to pass through. The charts indicated a clearance of 19' feet, but that was too close for comfort; however, once we arrived at the bridge the marker indicated that the water level would give a clearance of 21', so we made a plan on what we would do in the unlikely event that our radar dome would hit the bridge and then headed to pass under the bridge, before it opened. We made it...with at least 18" to spare, showing once again the need to combine local knowledge (in this case, the actual analogue readings of water level at the bridge with institutional knowledge - i.e., the charts).
At about 1200 Mary Sue was at the helm and ran with a WOT (wide open throttle) for about five minutes. We are persuaded by those who say that it's good to go to a WOT every 4-5 hours to keep your diesel engine happy. So we do it. Today, we reached 16.1 knots at WOT! That's good. We had a bit of a following current, so that helped some, but it also helps that we have less weight - no dinghy, no dinghy motor and two fewer crew - and the weight we have is better distributed.
Speaking of currents, we had a dramatic example today of the power of the tidal flows. About 1100 we were proceeding up the ICW with an incoming tide. The tide was coming through what is called the Carolina Beach Inlet. For several miles as we approached the inlet, we were doing about 8.2 knots, with the tide coming into the ICW against us. As soon as we passed the inlet on our right, the tidal currents were now behind us and our SOG (speed over ground) increased almost immediately to 10.4 knots - all at 2200 RPMs.
We had another example at another low bridge. We approached the bridge but were told by the tender that it would be opening 5 minutes late. So as we lingered, the current carried us into a shoal and we (Phil at the helm) scraped along a sandy bottom. It was a worrisome experience, but once we were through, we ran at various speeds and there didn't seem to be any problems with the prop or the alignment of the shaft. Dodged the bullet...again. The groundings score: Phil = 1; Mary Sue = 1 plus a bump.
We are still seeing Pelicans. I guess I didn't think they were found this far north. But early in the morning they are everywhere, like dive bombers...all of a sudden falling from the sky into the drink where they disappear for a few seconds and then surface carrying a fish in their scoop.
We are also beginning to see a lot of Osprey...with their nests atop the navigation markers, including some with chicks inside. They are almost as ubiquitous as in the Chesapeake Bay. As with others in the eagles family, the Osprey mate for life and return each year to their same nest. If that's wrong, I'm sure someone will correct me.
Tonight we tied up in a pretty basic marina on Peletier Creek in Morehead City. It is an old, dilapidated enterprise with railroad tracks instead of a lift to get boats out of the water for repairs. Still it is a quiet, cheap, and wake-free place to tie up and get electricity...plus a pizza for dinner. We will be heading out early in the morning, still trying to make Norfolk, Virginia by Thursday afternoon...209 miles and at least 10 more low bridges, by our calculation. Should be doable, but stay tuned.
It's like cruising through a bathtub
26 May 2013 | 33 92.14'N:078 02.06'W
After a peaceful evening on the hook in Bull Creek…including a spectacular sunset…we awakened to a bright and beautiful sunrise in a cloudless sky. The morning weather was nippy, so our dress included a light jacket. We took some coffee on the aft deck, close to the water, and enjoyed the coming of a new day.
After about 15 minutes, we could hear the muffled sounds of a boat moving slowly through the water…and then it came into view: It was a father, or perhaps a grandfather, taking his son out to go fishing on Memorial Day weekend. With that, I fired up my iPad and worked through my daily routine with the news on Drudge Report, New York Times, USA Today, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal.
After getting the boat ship shape and reviewing our plans for the day on the ICW chart book, we raised the anchor, but not without some challenges. First, the anchor had dug in deep in the bottom of the creek, so I moved SOB over the anchor, gunned the engine, and dislodged the anchor. Some of the skills from sailing also apply to the world of power boating.
Then we had another problem. The windlass raised up the 150 feet of anchor line and chain without a problem, but when the anchor reached the bow sprit where it would ride until the next use, a shackle at the top of the anchor prevented its coming over the top of the roller. Mary Sue, who was managing the anchor raising on the deck, finally stuck a broom stick (used for washing the deck) under the anchor chain and, voilà, it worked.
Even with the delay, we were off by 0935, passing red navigation aid #48, headed for Southport, 74 miles away.
The first one-third of the trip was more spectacular scenery, dominated by Cypress trees and cypress swamplands.
At 1030 we stopped at Osprey Marina, a small operation well-known for cheap fuel, a welcoming and helpful staff and good ships store. It is actually a part of Myrtle Beach, but on the ICW side instead of the Atlantic side. We fueled up, pumped out, took on some fresh water, had several conversations with the dock boys and other boaters and then pushed off at 1120 to continue our trip.
The next two-thirds of the day were not very pleasant. Just north of the Osprey Marina, you move into areas with lots of homes – mostly large and imposing McMansions, many absolutely garish, built by people with too much money and too little good taste. Most have large boats on lifts on the ICW side of the home.
The real problem with the last two-thirds of the trip was the confluence of a holiday weekend, many people out with their children in power boats, racing up and down the ICW, and Ski Doos galore. They were everywhere, darting in and out, chasing waves made by the larger boats like moths chasing light bulbs in a dark room. It was like a bunch of kids playing in a bath tub, with waves everywhere and toys popping up where you would least expect them.
We tied up at the Southport Marina, just south of Wrightsville Beach, arriving about 1930, giving us a day with 74 miles.
The dock boy helped us tie up and then gave us some tips on the best restaurants in the seaside community. After he left, the owner of the vessel tied up next to us came over and said, "I heard him tell you about the waterfront restaurants, but let me tell you, one the best Italian restaurants on the East Coast is a place called Joseph's, up the road about five miles." We shot the bull for a while and then I said, "Are you on the payroll of Joseph's …or does your name end in a vowel?" He smiled and said, "My name is Palmisano, and I know good Italian food when I eat it."
Despite Palmisano's endorsement, we ended up walking 4-5 blocks to Fishy Fishy, the most popular restaurant on the waterfront. The food was terrific. Though we had to wait nearly 90 minutes for a table, we spent it at one of their bars where they were showing a NASCAR race on TV. Everyone around us was a NASCAR fan, so we had an immersion education experience on everything from the strategy to the maintenance details of NASCAR racing.
Once, many years ago, I was in Phoenix and had an extra day, so I took a one-day crash course (no pun intended) in how to drive a NASCAR racer. It involved about 4 hours of instruction and two hours behind the wheel, actually driving a NASCAR racer on a Phoenix raceway. We did a couple of timed laps, alone. Then we did a couple of timed slalom-like courses, again, driving alone. Then, as a finale, we raced in groups of three in cars that were "fixed" so they couldn't go over 80 mph. When I told this story to the guys at the NASCAR bar, we were immediately accepted to the club, and everyone eagerly answered all our questions about the tire changing, why they wipe off the front of the car at every stop, how they see what's behind them, etc., etc., etc.
We were so enjoying ourselves with our new friends that we ended up eating at the bar. A great evening at Fishy Fishy's.
When we finished, we left the restaurant only to find that the tide had come in. It was an unusually high tide. The area around the restaurant was entirely flooded so the owners had constructed raised walkways so people could get back to their cars or taxis or, to get back to the marina, for those living/staying at the marina, which included us. In order to by-pass all the flooded streets, we walked a couple of extra blocks to get back. But it was a great night on the ICW…altogether worth it.
Hasta luego, auf wiedersehen…and thanks for coming along.
25 May 2013 | Bull Creek, South Carolina
We departed Charleston at 0930, but not before saying "see you later" to Denny and Dorothy, our shipmates from Annapolis who joined us at the beginning in Stuart, Florida.
Our dear friends jumped ship this morning in Charleston in order to get back to Annapolis to get back to "work." I say "work" in quotes because, since retiring as a professor of oceanography at the Naval Academy, Denny, like Dorothy, always the teacher, has a bonus years career as a lecturer on cruise ships, so Denny and Dorothy have been, literally, traveling the world on all the major cruise ship lines where he gives lectures on everything from "sea creatures" to "what makes waves, including tsunamis." His next lecture series begins on June 2 on a trip through the Caribbean, so they will spend one more day touring Charleston, an historic American city that has preserved its commercial and residential buildings from ante-bellum days when it was a center of power and wealth in our new nation. After that, they will rent a one-way car and head back to Annapolis.
Having Denny and Dorothy share the first half of the trip back to Annapolis was both a pure delight and a Godsend. Both are great traveling companions and Denny, himself a graduate of the Naval Academy and a former Navy pilot, is especially clever with navigation, navigation aids and anything electronic. Because Mary Sue is also very good with "these matters" - I call them "these matters" because I like using them and pushing the buttons I really don't understand them - the path we take is Denny teaches Mary Sue how to use all this new-fangled stuff and now that Denny is gone, Mary Sue will teach me. It worked on another boat we had some years ago when Denny and Dorothy accompanied us from Toronto to Annapolis via Erie Canal and the Hudson River...and it worked today.
Denny and Dorothy helped us out of our dockage at Charleston. It was a difficult situation...sort of like parallel parking. We had a big luxury yacht in front and one in back (owned by a guy named Ricky....more about him later) and a 15-20 knot breeze wanting to push us into the dock or, once we were out, into one of the other boats. To make things worse, we had to do a 180 degree turn in a narrow marina. But, guess what, we did it! We pulled away from the dock smoothly. We had to make two runs at turning the boat around. Luckily we were at "slack tide" (those few minutes when the tide is turning) so, thankfully, we didn't have to contend with a lot of current.
We made it out OK and passed our friends on the dock. Waved our good-byes, and headed out of Charleston Harbor in the direction of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired on April 12, 1861.
Now we are on our own, heading north, once again, on the ICW. After we had been underway for about three hours, I rang Dorothy on her mobile and said, with a sense of panic, "Ask Denny where the brakes are!" We all got a big laugh out of that, but truth to tell, we could not have made the trip without their help, advice and counsel, and companionship for the first several hundred miles. It is a pure blessing to have great friends.
Things were different today in other ways, too. First, the ICW. After we turned north out of Charleston Harbor, we went through several long cuts...artificial waterways that connect natural rivers and streams that together constitute the ICW. A couple of these were really long...like a long, straight canal. Many who write about the ICW call it "the ditch." That certainly doesn't describe most of it, but it describes a lot of what we saw today. But even the "ditch" parts are interesting - with beautiful homes, fishing camps, and the like. Whether a waterway is created by God or man, it is a magnet for people, and we certainly saw that today.
Also, today is the beginning of the long Memorial Day weekend...and everyone was out on the ditch in their boats - most were open boats in the 18-30 foot range. We saw dozens of boats packed with kids. One was named, "The captain and the kids" and this should have been the name of 40-50 boats that swept past us today... some going north and some south... and the younger the kids the more the more they wanted us to keep up our speed and the big wake so their boat could plow through, all with accompanying squeals of joy.
Speaking of wakes, I am really impressed with the level and consistency of boating etiquette. Power boats generally slow down when passing fishing boats. And when big boats pass each other head-on, both will slow down to prevent wake. When you approach a boat you want to pass, we learned the lingo and procedure. You radio the boat you want to pass and say, "This is She's on Board, approaching on your port stern. If you will slow down, we will give you a slow pass"...which is a nice way of asking the guy in front to slack off a bit so you can slow down and still pass him, thereby minimizing the wake you throw on him. (if it's a sailboat, he is already going slow, so you slow down when passing them as well). It is pretty cool. No laws. No regulations. No enforcers. Just a pinch of common sense and another of common courtesy, and it works pretty well to everyone's advantage. We didn't know all these practices when we started out, but quickly learned - especially when some guy ahead of us said, as he saw us approaching full steam ahead, "Captain in the approaching trawler, I will slow down so you can give me a slow pass." You don't even have to be a fast-learner to get the picture.
Another difference today: For the first time, we saw a debris in the water, mostly floating branches and sometimes large logs. That stuff is potentially dangerous to the hull of a fast-moving boat or to the engine. I have read about this, but didn't see it till today. It sure gives you second thoughts about traveling the ICW at night, if those thoughts had ever been there.
Another difference today: We saw at least a dozen derelict and abandoned boats washed up in the marshes, apparently victim of a past hurricane. These were all good-sized boats - 30 feet plus. Most looked like they had been the boats of professional watermen, but two were sailboats. Another example that you can't mess with Mother Nature.
Some things are the same: We still see dolphins regularly (but not as often...and no manatees, of course). Instead of mosquitoes, we now have big horse flies that actually bite you. Not sure what they are really called, but I have about 20 bites over my bod - though they don't seem to bother the others as they have me. And even as we left Charleston this morning, we saw an occasional set of palm trees, but those are no more. Now we are into solid tree cover in most segments...mostly deciduous trees and bushes with some conifers. There are still some marshlands, but not a lot...at least where we were today.
We had planned to stop in Georgetown, SC for the night, but we made such good time that we decided to push ahead. We decided to drop the anchor on Bull Creek, just off the traffic on the ICW...about 20 miles north of Georgetown. We are almost to Myrtle Beach.
To summarize, we departed Charleston at 0930 and arrived in Bull Creek at 1930, traveling 76 miles! That's a pretty good day for a trawler.