Cruising with Grace

25 April 2018 | Onancock Creek
10 April 2018 | Barefoot Landing Marina, which is free while they are closed
02 April 2018 | Turtle Island, just inside the border with South Carolina
26 March 2018 | St Augustine Municipal Marina, right next to the Bridge of Lions
22 March 2018 | ICW Mile 946
17 March 2018 | Old Bahama Marina, West End, Bahamas
11 March 2018 | Conch Marina, Marsh Harbor
04 March 2018 | Anchored off Russell Island next to Spanish Wells
24 February 2018 | Off Monument Beach, Stocking Island
18 February 2018 | Anchored off Stocking Island, across the harbor from Georgetown
11 February 2018 | Georgetown
04 February 2018 | Nassau Harbor Club Marina
28 January 2018 | In a slip at the Nassau Harbor Club Marina
19 January 2018 | Anchorage between Whale and Bird Cay
15 January 2018 | South of Frazier Hog Island
11 January 2018 | Browns Marina, Bimini, Bahamas
07 January 2018 | No Name Harbor, Key Biscayne
04 January 2018 | No Name Harbor, Key Biscayne
31 December 2017 | Anchored off Key Biscayne
12 December 2017 | Needham MA

The Dismal Swamp Canal

25 April 2018 | Onancock Creek
Cloudy, 50s
I haven't posted a blog update in two weeks, as I've been focused on moving north. I've covered over 400 miles since then, in 40-50 mile increments up the ICW, with one 3-day stay in Beaufort NC for provisions and a weather-caused lay day. Along the way, I went up the Waccamaw River, and the Cape Fear and Neuse Rivers, and transited the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. I passed Mile 0 on the ICW this past Saturday, and am now making my way north up the Chesapeake Bay.

The high point of my last 354 miles on the ICW was the Dismal Swamp Canal. It is the oldest part of the ICW, started when George Washington was president. It was dug by slaves rented out by their owners, and freed blacks - although after reading about how horrendous the conditions were, I can''t imagine anyone voluntarily working on it. The Dismal Swamp, which surrounds it, was part of the Underground Railroad as it was a place fugitive slaves could hide. These same swamps were also used by moonshiners making bootleg liquor. Although the only 40 miles long, it is a large part of the image and allure for people who want to do the ICW. It was closed when I came south in the fall, and so the Rally group took the commercial Virginia Cut route.

Last Friday I left Elizabeth City (mile 50) and went up the Pasquotank River to the start of the Dismal Swamp Canal. The Pasquotank River is narrow and windy, with cypress trees along both sides - a good introduction to the canal. The canal itself is straight and narrow - perhaps 50 ft wide, and the trees along the banks overhang the canal such that I needed to watch that my mast didn't tangle in them. Despite care, Grace's deck got covered with leaves and small twigs. The first milestone was the South Mills Lock. Although I got to the lock past its scheduled time - and the lock gates were closed, the lock keeper opened them up for me, and I rafted up to a motorboat which was doing the Great Loop Cruise (north to New York, west thru the Erie Canal and Great Lakes, south down the Missisippi River, east along the Gulf Coast, around Florida, and then back to the East Coast).

The lock raises you up 8 ft. As the water boiled into the lock, it stirred up large clumps of algae, and I thought 'oh no - this will clog the engine cooling water intake...' Sure enough, as I left the lock, smoke started coming out of the exhaust and my high water temperature alarm went off. No choice but to shut off the engine and let it cool down. The same motorboat I rafted to in the lock offered to tow my along the canal until I could clear out the clog and restart the engine. Five miles later, we arrived at the the North Carolina Welcome Center, tied up to their dock for the night, and I used the afternoon to go to the museum and walk through the surrounding swamp and forest.

The next morning, as mist swirled over the canal, I continued along the rest of the Dismal Swamp Canal, through the Deep Creek Lock (shutting off the engine while in the lock so I wouldn't have overheating problems a second time), then to the end of the ICW - and the end of my ICW adventure, then over to Hampton VA for the night.

A week ago, I actually wrote a blog post called "Route Planning", which described the process by which I would decide my destination each day as I traversed the ICW. It also listed every stop I made as I counted down the miles. I didn't post it, of course. Now that I'm in the Chesapeake, route planning is very different, as there is a multitude of creeks and coves on the west side and the east side where I can go while I head in a generally northward direction. I am going to try - try, to go a bit slower and enjoy this special area more than I did last fall.

In about 3 weeks, Grace and I will be back in Hingham, her home port.

Bird-watching

10 April 2018 | Barefoot Landing Marina, which is free while they are closed
Grey, cool, but better than yesterday!
I've been watching birds a lot as I motor along. I am not a bird-watcher, and can identify very few birds. My friend Gene is a bird-watcher, and sometimes I email him a description (very infrequently a picture, as I'm too busy steering), with the email subject "What bird is this?". My descriptions aren't very descriptive, with adjectives like 'very small', 'not so small', 'a bit bigger'. But he very often replies with some good guesses and pictures of the possible options.

I find it very interesting to watch how they behave. Terns (I don't know what type of terns)have been very common . They swoop, and then hover. You can see them looking down in the water. Then they dive down, and almost immediately swoop back up - sometimes with a small fish in their beaks. Pelicans also dive for fish, but it is very different. They crash into the water, and then bob there for a minute. No idea if they've caught anything. I've also seen a lot of gulls that I believe are Bonaparte Gulls (Gene said that was one type of gull that matched my description). They seem to skim across the water, and then fly up.

Pelicans are everywhere. They follow crab fishermen as they tend their traps - gliding along a foot above the water, and then landing all around the crabber's boat, waiting patiently with that knowing look pelicans have. When the crabber is done with one pot, and races off to the next, they take off and glide along just behind the boat.

I've also seen: a Bald Eagle carrying a stick to her nest; ospreys in their nests, flying around, and in one case, one chasing another which had a large fish in its talon; a small bird neither a tern nor a gull that sits on crab trap floats or bobs in large groups in the water; and swallows flitting around chasing insects. A lot of cormorants, and something that looks like a cormorant, but with slightly grayer coloring and 'a bit larger'. Just to round out the fauna, I've seen one alligator on the side of a very shallow stretch of waterway, and a very large turtle - could be a loggerhead, that came up right next to the boat, saw me, and dived.

It's been a while since I've updated you on my route and progress. Since the last post, I've anchored in the Beaufort River, just off Beaufort SC (mile 537), South Edisto River (mile 509), Stono River (mile 472), and spent two nights at the Carolina Yacht Club. My son Andrew flew down for the weekend, and despite a drenching Saturday afternoon and evening, we had a great time - drinking craft ales, having lunch with my wife's uncle at the yacht club, taking a horse drawn carriage tour, eating a great dinner. He saw me off Sunday morning - helping me get Grace out of the slip, and then going to the airport. This weekend was a very welcome chance to visit and a change from the continual moving north.

But now I've picked up the pace. One night at Avendaw Creek in the middle of the salt march (mile 435), then a night anchored in Thoroughfare Creek (mile 388) in the middle of cypress trees. Now I am tied up at a free dock in North Myrtle Beach (mile 354). At this pace, I will be at Mile 0 of the ICW in about 11 days. I see very few other boats heading north - clearly a sign that I am returning too soon. The weather suggests that - mornings in the mid-40s, days in the 60s. Oh for the warm Bahama days!

I expect blog updates to become a bit less frequent - and possibly less interesting with fewer photos, as I focus on getting back to New England.

Mornings

02 April 2018 | Turtle Island, just inside the border with South Carolina
Hot, somewhat windy - and the start of being buggy!
Mornings have always been one of my favorite times. While the ICW is boring (less so in Georgia), mornings along the way can be pretty special.

For much of the past week, I've been making my way north through Georgia, and except for one night at Jekyll Island, I've been anchoring out in tidal creeks. Some mornings are absolutely still, with the water like glass. When I'm underway, Grace's wake is the only thing that disturbs this stillness. The shoreline is reflected in mirror image. I can see the reflections of pelicans as they skim the water.

The dawn chorus of birds starts at first light - about 45 minutes before the sun rises (at about 7:20 here). As I sit in the cockpit with my coffee, in the middle of a dark salt marsh, chirps, trills, whistles and occasional squawks are all around me. This is something we don't get in the suburbs where many of us live.

Evenings are special, too, as I sit in the cockpit drinking a beer. But mornings along the way have a unique quality to them.

I'm continuing to head north - motoring along twisting Georgia rivers, through broad salt marshes or around hummocks and islands. This is quite different from the mostly straight Florida run. While I'd like to skip some of this by going outside into the Atlantic and then coming in an inlet further north, I have not yet found the right sets of inlets, at the right time and the right conditions, and so continue motoring my way. (Being a single-hander, I look for legs I can make in 10 or so hours, so I can get to a good anchorage early in the evening.)

I stayed in St Augustine an extra day due to the weather, and used this extra day to visit the St Augustine Distillery, and give Grace a fresh water bath. On Tuesday, I anchored out at Sisters Creek (mile 738). Wednesday I moved north (leaving Florida) and spent two nights at Cumberland Island, anchored in the Bricknell Creek (mile 703). I used part of this lay day making my 3rd repair to the water-lift muffler, and then explored the island a bit.

Cumberland Island is a national park, has some historical sites, a fantastic mansion I toured, and a herd of feral horse (140 during this year's count). The mansion - Plum Orchard, was built by the Carnegies at the start of 'the modern conveniences era'. It has a water-powered elevator, DC electric power (including a DC outlet next to one bathtub!), and an early electric ice-maker the size of a small car. The mansion is laid out to keep the servants out of sight of the guests except when called - even the doorknobs are different based on whether they are on the servant side or the guest side. I heard, but did not see any feral horses, but did see two armadillos nosing through the leaves.

The next day was rainy, and I spent the night at the Jekyll Harbor Marina (mile 684) so I could make a provisioning run. Last fall the Sail To The Sun rally spent three nights here. There is a lot to see here, which I saw it last fall.

Since then, I've spent one night at New Teakettle Creek (mile 646) and the next night at Redbird Creek (mile 606), and tonight I'll be at Turtle Island (mile 572), just over the border into South Carolina. These anchorages are on tidal creeks in the middle of the marshes. They are a bit challenging to anchor in, as the currents can be strong (1 1/2 kts), reverse twice a day, and they can act strangely on Grace. Sometimes Grace will sit back with the anchor line pointing out front, sometimes the anchor line stretched back along the hull with the anchor behind me, and sometimes Grace will be sideways to the anchor - not just when the tide is changing but for hours at a time.

The Georgia section of the ICW is poorly maintained and has notorious shallow stretches, some of which can only be transited when the tide is up. On one of these very shallow stretches, I saw my first alligator 'in the wild' - but I was too busy feeling my way through to take a picture.

I'm going at a somewhat leisurely pace as I will be meeting my son Andrew in Charleston the end of this week and Charleston is only slightly more than 100 miles away.

Have I mentioned that traveling the ICW is boorring?

26 March 2018 | St Augustine Municipal Marina, right next to the Bridge of Lions
Grey, wet and windy
(I apologize if this sounds like a whine. My intention with this blog is to share the experience. That I've traveled 225 miles up the ICW since last Monday is a data point. The experience of these miles is that the ICW is boring - at least for the helmsman, which I am 100% of the time.)

The ICW in Florida is mostly straight. Straight through the wide, shallow stretches like the Indian River, straight through cuts like Fox Cut. But even though it is straight, you have to constantly pay attention to the course, and make steering adjustments. Even with the autopilot, I can only leave my station by the wheel (such as getting some food) for at most 1 minute - which I relearned the hard way this week (see below). It's so boring doing this that I've taken to hand-steering most of the way, finding that making all the little adjustments to keep in the channel is more engaging than telling the autopilot to make them.

If you had someone else on board, they might find the trek relaxing. They can watch the scenery or read or something else. And they can spell the helmsman so that he doesn't get bug-eyed after 9 hours of this. It's all a motor, and the constant 'thrumming' of the engine is wearing when you can't do anything else.

My run north is a little different from when I came down the ICW last November and
December. Then it was early winter, and now it is the height of spring here. The trees along the way have their spring colors. There's a lot more birds - terns, flocks of cormorants, ospreys, birds I can't identify, and I think I've seen bald eagles and their nests. And, if the days are warm, there are more people on the side of the waterway swimming and sunning, and more fishermen and kayakers on the water. I've seen the smoke of brush fires several times - thick, billowing, grey and mauve clouds, and I can smell the smoke when I'm down-wind of them.

I've seen very few boats heading north. I'm earlier than most snow-birds, which is probably a small hint that I should have stayed in the Bahamas longer!

Since my last update, I've spent a night anchored off Cocoa Beach, and another south of New Smyrna. The day I left New Smyrna was not a good day. I needed to get diesel, and went to find a fuel dock that my charts showed.. The fuel dock wasn't answering the radio when I asked for directions in, and I ran aground trying to get to the dock. Since I was going slow, I could back off. Then I called another marina, who didn't have a fuel dock and they suggested another marina about 1/2 mile along the channel. I called them on the radio, and they were out of diesel, and suggested another 'right close by'. That one didn't show on my charts and didn't answer the radio (and of course, nobody has signs indicating their fuel dock). So I called the other marina and asked if I could tie up to their dock while I transferred fuel from my spare canister into the tank. They said yes, and as I was motoring into where I thought it was, a man can running down the dock waving me off. I threw the boat into reverse, and as I backed out, the current forced Grace into the dock very hard. Another black mark on the side of the hull of poor Grace. Anyways, the 'other' diesel dock is right next to the dock that didn't have diesel - I thought it was all one marina, but it wasn't. After I got fuel, I had to wait until the close-by bridge had their scheduled opening. A late start to the day.

Later as I was motoring along, a pretty 40+ sailboat came by heading south. I waved at them, they waved back, and as I watched, their bow went down, their stern went up - and they were aground! I called them on the radio and they said they would just wait for the tide to float them off. 'There, but for the grace of God' I thought. Hubris.

That afternoon, I was motoring along a straight stretch, with the autopilot on, and ran below to mix up some iced tea and put it into the refrigerator. When I am below and next to the running motor, I can't hear my depth sounder's shallow water alarm - and when I came up and could hear it, it was too late. I was hard aground 25 ft off the channel. I tried unsuccessfully to motor out, then to use my spinnaker pole to push the bow around. I checked the tide - it was low, but with only a 1 ft range - so it wasn't going to float me out. Finally, I called TowBoat US. They could have a boat come and pull me off in 2 hours. At this point it was 3:00, and I still had 20 miles to go.

Well, I sat, and then decided to try kedging Grace off. 'Kedging' is using the anchor to pull the boat. I got the anchor into the dinghy, rowed it out to the side to the edge of the channel, got back to the boat, started the engine, ran forward to use the anchor windless to pull the boat around, got the anchor up, ran back to the wheel as the current was pushing me back to the shoal, threw the engine into gear, and Grace pushed her way out of the mud and back to the channel. Whew! A challenge of being a single-hander is you have to do everything - this whole procedure would have been easy with two on board.

I spent that night anchored off of Fort Matanzas (which is not a fort, as far as I could see from the channel). The next morning I watched as a tugboat came up the channel, ran aground, backed off, tried again, and finally was able to continue on. The ICW is very shoaled up in spots.

Yesterday I came into St Augustine, which I had visited with the Sail To The Sun Rally folks last fall. I'm now in the municipal marina. Not sure as to my plans today, as the weather is iffy.

I find myself constantly torn between putting on the miles to get back north - with all the wear on me that means, and taking it a bit more slowly.

Rejoining my tracks

22 March 2018 | ICW Mile 946
Clear, sunny, windy and chilly
My chartplotter displays dashed 'tracks' to show the route Grace is taking. These are very handy when, for example, I am making my way back along a tricky route which I'd previously tranversed. In the Bahamas, I would use these to find a safe passage through the cuts. I'm now back in the U.S., heading north along the ICW, and rejoining the tracks I made over 3 months when I was heading south.

(Full disclosure - this is a metaphor, not exactly correct. My chartplotter erases tracks over 10 days old, so I actually don't have the tracks I made over 3 months ago. But it is a nice metaphor.)

I crossed back from the Bahamas to Ft Worth Inlet, Florida on Sunday - leaving 7 am. The actual weather and seas was not exactly what was forcasted - winds stronger at the start, with larger waves on the nose, then winds dying down later in the day, and the waves replaced by swells from the side. It took me 11 1/2 hours to cross, enter the inlet, and get to my planned anchorage. The US Coast Guard patrols the Florida Straits, and a Coast Guard cutter intercepted me and asked questions on where I came from and where I was going.

Monday morning, I rowed ashore from where I was anchored at Riviera Beach, cleared Customs, went to the grocery store, and weighed anchor to start heading north. There are 7 bridges between Riviera Beach and Peck Lake, my target anchorage. At the first one, I called on the radio "This is northbound sailing vessel Grace, waiting for your next opening." The bridge tender acknowledged me and told me the next opening time. Five minutes later, I heard on the radio "This is northbound sailing vessel Grace, waiting for your next opening." The bridge tender said "Didn't I just talk to you?" There was another boat right behind me called Grace - a black-hulled Nauticat ketch! I had a nice chat with them, and we both proceeded up the ICW, confusing the tenders at every bridge we came to. The 'other Grace' comes from South Falmouth ME, and is heading home on a very similar schedule to mine, so, although we have split up for now, I know our paths will frequently cross.

Two days ago, I motored to Ft Pierce City Marina. A front with high winds and rain was forcasted to pass through, and since I needed to get diesel and change my engine oil, it made sense to spend the night in a slip. I left early afternoon, after having an excellent Ruben sandwich at a local deli. Last evening, I anchored just off the side of the ICW, amidst some small islands, at Mile 846. Today, I'll more 50 miles more up the ICW.

One of the great treats being back in the states is hoppy ale... Bahamian beer is Budweiser quality, and you get tired of drinking rum! When I opened a can of Dale's Pale Ale and took a sip, it was sooo good. Glad to be back home.

Reflections on my Bahamas sojourn.

Some cruisers go far into the southern Bahamas, visiting out-of-the-way places like Cat Island and the Acklins. Others go to one area and basically stay put - Georgetown and the Abacos are two most popular areas for those staying put. I did something in the middle - trying to see a lot within the constraints of time and distance, and so I hit all the 'major' areas - starting in Bimini, then to the Berry Islands, Nassau, the Exumas down to Georgetown, Eleuthera and Spanish Wells, and then the Abacos.

If you do what I did, it's a challenging cruising area (compared to my previous experience). There are long passages - some over the banks, and some in open ocean. There are cuts to be navigated - sometimes in large seas. You have to watch the weather sea forecast every day. Just crossing the Grand Bahama Bank, we had a very nice day, followed by a day of 20+ kt winds and rough 4 ft seas. In the Exumas, we went out through a cut, and then turned around because the seas were so rough.

Bahama's islands are all pretty similar - low, covered with low brush. The differences are subtle. The Berry Islands felt less traveled. The communities on the Abaco cays and Eleuthera felt more prosperous than those in the Exumas and Bimini. The Exumas seem to have the clearest water - it may have been when I was there, but in the Abacos, the water had visibility 8-10 ft, and in the Exumas over 20 ft. The Exumas had beaches on their bank sides - easy to get to, whereas Eleuthera and the Abacos beaches were on the ocean side.

The best beaches I saw were in the Berry Islands and at Stocking Island, down by Georgetown. The best snorkeling was at Warderick Wells in the Exuma Cays Land And Sea Park. The best beach bar? No opinion, sorry.

Last reflection - you really need to see these areas with other people. As a single-hander, I always had a tendency to do chores, stay on the boat and move on. You need friends to slow you down, get you off the boat and explore.

The end of my Bahamas interlude

17 March 2018 | Old Bahama Marina, West End, Bahamas
Sunny, light winds, hot.
The Abacos are the Bahama's most popular cruising area. The cays are relatively close together - 2-4 hour passages rather than 8 hour ones in the Exumas, and there are the charming destinations of Great Iguana Cay, Hope Town and Green Turtle Cay. Despite these qualities, I have made my time here brief, moving onward each day to the northwest, and then the west. Why?

Because this is the start of heading home - 1800+ miles away.

My friend Tom, on Faith Afloat, expressed it well during one of his morning visits over coffee: 'It's like a two week vacation. At the end of it, you want to get back to work.' For me, this means being home in familiar surroundings and starting the next phase of my life. The Bahamas has been an interlude within the larger interlude of this 7 1/2 month adventure.

Faith Afloat's and Grace's paths have now separated. Tom has a friend visiting the last week of March and so he and Luke are staying in the Abacos until after this visit. Two and a half months ago, we met for the first time at No Name Harbor in Florida. We've been 'buddy boats' since then. We've explored cays, passed through hair-raising cuts, had morning coffee, evening drinks, and rummy games together. My sons Peter and Andrew went spear fishing with Luke. When my outboard died, Tom offered his dinghy. We've made many passages short and long together. During the most arduous of passages, I was always glad I could look around and see Faith Afloat nearby. Faith Afloat has been a wonderful buddy boat, and Tom and Luke excellent companions and friends. I will miss them. Fair winds to you both!

To update you on my route:

I stayed an extra day in Marsh Harbour due to a front, with high winds and driving rain, that passed through on Monday. Monday night wasn't very pleasant on Grace, with waves slamming into the stern, and rain driven through the companion way hatch boards and top.

Tuesday I sailed/motorsailed to Manjack Cay (bypassing Green Turtle Cay). BTW, some charts have this called Nunjack Cay. Anchored in a large bay with about five other boats.

Wednesday, the winds were strong, but from the northwest - the direction I was heading. Those who follow my Spot track will see how I tacked back and forth. Wednesday night, I stayed in a harbor off Allens Pensacola Cays. (although I didn't visit it, Allens Pensacola Cay is the location of a US missile tracking station. Before satellites took over, when there was a missile launched at Cape Canaveral, this was one of the stations that tracked its trajectory. You can explore what remains.)

Thursday I headed to, and spent the night at Great Sale Cay. A mix of sailing and motor sailing. Great Sale Cay has a good anchorage, but nothing else to recommend it - not even a beach. The whole island is at most 10 ft above sea level. I rowed my dinghy to shore the morning I left, and walked around for 20 mins - the first I've been off Grace since Marsh Harbour.

Friday, I sailed/motorsailed to Mangrove Cay. This is another isolated, featureless cay. Pleasant day, with me reading in the cockpit as the autopilot did the rest of the work. That evening, the wind died to almost nothing, and the seas flattened out. The only sounds I could hear as I watched the sunset were the occasional slap of the spinnaker halyard against the mast, the intermittent hum of the refrigerator, and the ticking of my watch. A pod of dolphins came by as the sun set.

Today, I motorsailed to West End, and the Old Bahama Marina. This is the fist time I've had cell phone and WiFi connectivity since Manjack/Nunjack Cay.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, I cross the gulf stream back to Florida -and from there, head north back home. The forecast is for light winds - some models say over 10 kts, but don't agree on the direction, and calm seas.

My next blog post will include a retrospective on my Bahamian experience.
Vessel Name: Grace
Vessel Make/Model: Catalina 320
Hailing Port: Needham MA
Crew: Alex Cullen
Extra: This trip will be my 'transition to retirement'
Grace's Photos - Main
16 Photos
Created 22 March 2018
From Dec 29th thru until March
100 Photos
Created 31 December 2017
September to December
93 Photos
Created 29 September 2017