Sailing Salome

02 December 2023 | Alligator River, NC
01 December 2023 | Lower Pasquotank River, NC
28 November 2023 | Camden, NC
24 November 2023 | Dismal Swamp State Park, NC
23 November 2023 | Dismal Swamp Canal, VA
22 November 2023 | Deep Creek Lock Park, Chesapeake, VA
21 November 2023 | Norfolk
20 November 2023 | Norfolk
18 November 2023 | Yorktown (WTUD town)
16 November 2023 | Deltaville, VA
13 November 2023 | Solomons Island, MD
12 November 2023 | Flag Harbor, MD
10 November 2023

Across the Albemarle

02 December 2023 | Alligator River, NC
What a PITA it was to cross this sound! We waited for weather, we waited for winds, we positioned Salome for the shortest possible run to the Alligator River. Anticipating light SW winds, we planned to motorsail across. The temperature had risen overnight to a balmy 65 degrees, and light showers were in the forecast. What was NOT in the forecast was dense fog. Fog so thick we could only see a few feet to either side of the boat. The morning had started out OK, with a light sea smoke you might expect at a winter sunrise (it IS December). We clearly saw the nearby Weeksville dirigible hangar, a facility built to support blimp warfare in WW2. We were no more than 30 minutes along when the fog closed in. The next hour or so was spent in denial, as we told ourselves it would lift any minute, and it wasn't so bad because it was a warm fog.

We began to reconsider the situation after passing two channel markers at the mouth of the Pasquotank. Peter was navigating purely on compass readings by then; I was peering out into the fog on the lookout for crab pots, which were appearing with increased frequency. According to the chart, we should have passed within 50 feet of each marker. We saw neither one. We were starting to question the wisdom of crossing in these conditions, and pulled into one of the last marked anchorages to think about it.

We weighed our options. Option one: stay in this anchorage for the night and resume the trip tomorrow. Against this choice were predictions for the next day's winds - straight from the south at 12-15 knots, with gusts in the low 20s. We also didn't like the idea of spending a day and night in a rather exposed spot, unable to see, or be seen by, other boats. Option two: continue crossing as planned. We listened awhile to the radio, hearing boats in the adjacent channel navigate the fog. We checked the location of any other vessels showing up in the AIS - there was very little traffic, and none of the tugs and barges expected on the commercial route. We checked the wind and rain forecasts for the rest of the day. Then I made some sandwiches, and we pulled up the anchor and left.

It is only about 11 nm from the mouth of the Pasquotank to the mouth of the Alligator River; honestly, I feel like we could have walked it faster. We motored at an average speed of 3 knots, keeping ears and eyes open. Three times we had evidence of unseen vessels. One showed upon the AIS. When we clicked on the info button to learn about it, it was described as Walrus, a motor vessel .2 nm in size. So glad we could stay out of their way (and that we were mutually "visible" on AIS). Another time we heard a motor, but saw no AIS target on the chart. I was just beginning to think I'd imagined it when the "thump thump thump" of a bow hitting the water went past our hearing space. Didn't see him. One final "sighting" involved nothing but birds. We became aware of a flock of gulls flying nearby, screaming and calling in a frenzy that most often happens when they are following a fishing vessel (like a crab boat hauling traps). The flock (and presumably the fishing boat) slowly drifted off behind us.

Toward the end of the passage, the rain came. The fog just seemed to condense into droplets and fall into the sound, and we were able to see the channel markers designating the entry to the Alligator River, as well as the clusters of small fishing vessels hovering in the shallows. Good thing too, because it is a narrow, twisty entry with lots of shoaling. With this better visibility and two hours of daylight remaining, we steered over to the lee shore and dropped anchor in about 10 feet of water just off the Alligator River game land.

We are glad to be across what should not have been such a mental and physical barrier! There are two more items now on a wish list for our next upgrade of Salome: autopilot and radar.

Back on Track

01 December 2023 | Lower Pasquotank River, NC
"Ahoy! Sailboat! Are you OK?" As far as we were concerned, we were fine. "Yes! We are OK!" we shouted back and waved to the distant figure on the porch of a waterside home. He was not convinced. "Wave your hands if you are in distress!" he shouted back anxiously. We both quickly dropped our arms to our sides. "WE ARE OK!" we confirmed, standing straight up with arms held tight to the sides. Finally the tiny man crept back inside his house, where Christmas lights were just starting to show in the dusk. We quickly freed our arms again to finish anchoring.

We just finished a short day moving down the Pasquotank River to position ourselves to cross the Albermarle the next day. We've left a marina where we stayed unexpectedly long, avoiding an early deep freeze and a bout of high winds from a passing weather system. We stocked up on food, took advantage of the cheapest laundry we will see for awhile, patted the marina cat one last time. We were anxious to move along.

Moving on was exciting - we got to stop traffic in Elizabeth City with our own personal request to raise the bridge. We crossed back into salt water (well, brackish) from a fresh water canal/river system. We got to raise both sails for the first time in too long. Salome got to sail again.

Today was a short day because we know we have a long stretch of anchoring ahead of us, and aren't sure what the winds will be like to cross the Sound. We've checked the whole alphabet soup of wind models for the next few days (ECMWF, HRRR, PWG, etc) and they seem to be converging on a wind speed and direction that is good for us tomorrow. We want to start close to the mouth of the river, with as much battery storage as possible. Hence the overnight at an anchorage that feels like a front yard for a riverside homeowner. We did appreciate the check-in, though!

Waiting..waiting on the wind to change

28 November 2023 | Camden, NC
This post is not about sailing. It is about waiting for sailing. If you are reading this because you are family or friend and want to know how we are - I'll tell you what's up! If you are reading this because you want to hear about some sailing - skip us today and maybe read one of the more exciting sailing blogs (I do that a lot!).

We arrived at this snug little marina on Saturday. We are just upriver from Elizabeth City, NC, which is the jumping off point for the segment across Albemarle Sound and up the Alligator River. It rained most of the day on Sunday, both indoors and out. So we have some more deck joint tightening to do before we go. It also looks like some weather is coming, and winds are not forecast to be good for crossing the Sound. The inland bodies of water in this region are heavily wind-driven, less so tidal. If it blows for a couple of days in one direction, that's where all the water goes. Then it sloshes back in place, or gets blown in another direction entirely, making for very lumpy conditions. We already know what wind over shallow water feels like from the Chesapeake; we also know that we can't sail across the Albemarle in a head wind, even with our motor. On the opposite shore, anchorages in the Alligator River are few and far between. With shorter daylight hours, we want to be able to cross the sound and reach a sheltered spot before dark.

So we wait while the weather and winds sort themselves out. In the meantime, we've gone around the edges of the deck, tightening each individual screw that goes through the toe plate and underlying fiberglass, and emerges into the interior cabinets. This is a tedious process, with one of us contorted into small tight spaces inside tightening nuts and the other inching along the top of the deck in the wind holding a screwdriver in place. We break up the monotony by frequently shouting back and forth: "Next!", "What?" or, my favorite, "Which one are you on?". Chore one - check!

But it hasn't been all work. We called a local driver (referred by the marina) to go to Elizabeth City yesterday. We walked around the downtown, checked out the free docks and slips (will use them at some point), had a nice lunch (cooked by someone else!), picked up a few more groceries and some extra warm clothing items for each of us. Museums were closed (Monday) but there are historical panels along the Mariners Park that give snapshots of the city's role in past times. As the daughter of a career Coast Guard father, I learned some stuff I did not know. For example, that the lifesaving mission of the CG derived from the U.S. Lifesaving Services of the Outer Banks when it merged in 1915 with the Revenue Marine Service (Washington and Hamilton were more into gathering taxes). Lots of current Coast Guard folks and retirees in this town.

Looks like we are better off here while temperatures stay below freezing the next couple of nights. We are not the only ones in this situation, however. There are at least two other sailboats hanging out waiting to go south. We are super envious of our Maryland marina neighbors who are already further south!

Sailing through cypress (not Cyprus, unfortunately)

25 November 2023 | Camden, NC
We left the Dismal Swamp Visitor Center at dawn on Saturday and made it to the South Mills bridge and lock in time for the first opening at 8:30 am. The lock tender cautioned us that we were in for more of a water level change than usual. North winds overnight had blown the water from the Pasquotank River out of the channel below the lock.

We wound carefully through the narrow, shallow river feeder below the lock. We were leaving the controlled channel maintained by the Army Corp of Engineers. Apparently we were leaving behind consistent depth information and chart service as well (at least for awhile). Once out of the USACE domain, depth indicators on the digital charts we have been using became much sketchier, and GPS signals seemed intermittent at best. We do have two depth instruments on Salome that give direct readings, but charts (digital or paper) give the broader picture useful for navigation. Looking out at the shore and surrounding trees, we could see that the water level had recently gone down by as much as 2 feet.

Bit by bit, the river gradually opened up, becoming both wider and deeper. Soon we were gliding through dense stands of bald cypress (Taxodium distichum, for my botanically inclined friends), their knees and gnarly roots partially exposed by the lower waters. While this landscape evokes a primeval, Jurassic Park-like reaction for lots of people, the individual trees look straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Eventually the river was wide enough to actually sail. It was nice to shut off the motor and unfurl the jib to help us wind down the lower Pasquotank. We pulled into a small marina for the night, wanting to fully charge up after a few days of very modest power use supported by short bursts of the portable generator. Tonight there's showers, all the electricity we need to cook and heat - even laundry if we want (but who ever wants to do laundry, really?). We are watching the weather to plan the next hop across Albemarle Sound.

A Walk in the Swamp

24 November 2023 | Dismal Swamp State Park, NC
Today was our slowest boat day with the least distance covered - on water, that is. We decided to take advantage of the off season and hang out for a bit at the Dismal Swamp visitor center and nearby state park. The visitor center does double duty as a rest stop for SR highway 17 (we are in North Carolina now) and a short-term free dock for ICW transients. It is clean, quiet, and well maintained. Right next door is the Dismal Swamp State Park, a gem of a small museum all about the natural and cultural history of the area. Walking the park trails in the afternoon, we managed to cover almost as much distance as we had "sailed" this morning.

As I mentioned yesterday, boating on the canal involves a lot of paying attention to the vegetation - both the fallen limbs that poke up at you from the water, as well as the hanging branches that reach out to grab you from the top and sides. I spent much of my time standing on the bow looking for obstructions while Peter steered and kept his eyes on the depth information coming from the navigation software (viewed on iPads and phones in the cockpit).

It is absolutely mesmerizing to stare into the reflective surface of the canal as you slowly motor along. When the wind is still and with the sun at its low autumnal azimuth, the forest reflected in the water is almost indistinguishable from the real trees that reach toward the sky. The longer you stare into the water, the more you are drawn downward through the looking glass to an upside down version of the world. From this angle, I realized I did not recognize many of the trees and shrubs.

The park museum had good information on the local fauna and flora. Walking on the park trails, I saw that the forest here is very different from the woods we live in only a couple of hundred miles north. There are stands of pond pine, cypress, and cedar as well as the red maple, black walnut, and black gum trees that I am used to. The understory is a rich mixture of native shrubs and small trees, with paw paw leaves burnt a rich gold and beautyberry bushes heavy with purple clusters of fruits. I saw no English ivy (my personal plant nemesis) or porcelain berry - both of which choke whole tracts of trees in northern Virginia. Privet pops up now and then, and the inevitable multiflora thorns snag you if you wander off the trail. Off-trail wandering here did not seem like a good idea, though. The Dismal Swamp houses one of the largest concentrations of black bears in the region. We have seen lots of fresh bear scat on trails, roads, and parking lots in the past two days. That's enough to send me back to the water for the next leg of our trip.

The (not so) Dismal Swamp

23 November 2023 | Dismal Swamp Canal, VA
"Great Dismal Swamp" conjures up images of a fairy-tale landscape, with a Princess Bride-like array of perils (e.g. random flame spurts, lightning sand, rodents of unusual size, etc.). In real life, it is a national wildlife refuge on the coastal plain spanning southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The swamp has a rich biological and cultural history, better described by real authors you can easily find with a Google search. For us, the Swamp is one of the two routes for traveling the ICW from Norfolk, VA to Elizabeth City, NC. We chose to go this route because of the "road less traveled" vibe it conveyed; it also attracts fewer and slower travelers than the more popular Virginia Cut route. Traveling the swamp means entering through a lock on one end, navigating a narrow, shallow canal for 22 miles, then exiting through another lock on the other end. "Sailing" in this channel is impossible, and amenities (shorepower, restaurants/shops, bathrooms with hot water) are hard (or impossible) to access.

Perils of the Dismal Swamp canal mostly derive from its shallow depth and narrow width. The Army Corps of Engineers controls the channel depth at a six feet; the width is about 50 feet. These controlled dimensions often feel more aspirational than real, however. The canal is lined by mature forests that include cyprus, maple, pine, gum, and poplars. Trees and large branchs often fall into the canal, where they lie submerged waiting to bump keels and jam propellers. The remaining trees majestically line the canal edges, with limbs and branches that creep across the airspace reaching to ensnare masts and rigging. Traveling through requires constant vigilance, watching charts, water obstructions, and overhead branches all at once.

Our passage has been made easy by the rains that fell in the past few days. We encountered real depths 8 to 12 inches deeper than those recorded on charts. With a 5 foot 6 inch keel, Salome is pushing the depth limits of the canal. Another factor in our favor is our timing. We entered the canal the day before Thanksgiving, and there has been little traffic to stir up the water or drive us to the shallow edges with passing maneuvers. A gaggle of power boats passed us this morning, intent on a communal Thanksgiving feast at the park visitor center near the North Carolina border. Forewarned with that information, we stopped at a tie-up near the Drummond feeder ditch, a few miles away. We enjoyed a quiet meal watching the mirror images of fall foliage on the canal surface - a fitting Thanksgiving.
Vessel Name: Salome
Vessel Make/Model: C & C 35 MKII
Hailing Port: Owls Head, ME
Crew: Peter McCartney and Margaret Glass
About: Peter: captain and fixer of all things. Margaret: first mate and cleaner of all fixed things. Between the two of us, we're a full crew.
Salome is named after a cove on Lake Roosevelt in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. We spent many weekends sailing this lake in our first two boats, with two kids and a dog. Pronounced "Sallie Mae" by Arizona locals, the name of this cove (and our boat) is not to be confused with the numerous [...]