Sailing Salome

21 May 2024 | Deltaville, VA
15 May 2024 | Great Dismal Swamp Visitor Center
31 March 2024 | Camden, NC
18 March 2024 | Elizabeth City, NC
11 March 2024 | Washington, N.C.
06 March 2024 | Oriental, NC
04 March 2024
27 February 2024 | Beaufort, N.C.
24 February 2024
17 February 2024 | Topsail Beach, N.C.
16 February 2024 | Topsail Beach
14 February 2024 | Swansboro, NC
12 February 2024 | Beaufort, N.C.
09 February 2024 | Beaufort, N.C.
31 December 2023 | Springfield, VA
16 December 2023 | Swansboro, NC
12 December 2023 | Sugarloaf Island, Morehead City, NC
11 December 2023 | Oriental, NC
09 December 2023 | Oriental, NC

Back on the Bay

21 May 2024 | Deltaville, VA
The past week has been a pleasant blur as we’ve slid through familiar landscapes. A rainy start in the Dismal Swamp turned into a sunny prelude of summer (surprisingly free of bugs). We motored north through the Elizabeth River into Portsmouth, managing each of the bridge openings with no delays (even the infamous RR bridge No. 7, know for its temperamental mechanical glitches).

We pulled into the free dock at Portsmouth for a night. Peter executed a perfect Captain Ron parallel park; the big *ss fenders gently kissed the bulkhead letting us hop gracefully to the dock (Note: this does not always happen, especially with an audience). When the weather turned cold and rainy, we realized we were there for more than one night (the posted dock limit). So we moved across the harbor and splurged on a marina. We toured the Wisconsin battleship, went to the Chrysler Art Museum, did some provisioning, and generally enjoyed Norfolk.

We left bright and early Monday morning, winding north through the maze of tugboats, container vessels, dredges, Navy warships, and small pleasure craft. It is a busy harbor, with Baltimore still closed to most commercial traffic. Wind and water conditions were slowly improving, so we picked out a couple of bail-out spots and a reach destination and finally turned north into the Chesapeake.

At each bail-out spot we reconsidered the weather. The wind slowly swung from north (in our face) to SSE; waves dropped from 2-3 feet to 1 foot of less. We were able to put out full sail and coast at 5 knots in an 8 knot wind. At sunset we decided to go for our reach spot in Deltaville. The thinking was, we were at high tide, wind and seas were in our favor, and there was a full moon for visibility after dark. I’ll be honest, following channel markers to a new anchorage after dark was a bit more nerve-wracking than anticipated. We went super slow, Peter kept eyes on the chart while I scanned for markers and crab pots. We dropped anchor about 10:30 pm, having logged 60 miles – a daily record for us!

Sailing Salome north

15 May 2024 | Great Dismal Swamp Visitor Center
We are back on board Salome after our long spring hiatus. What did we do while we were gone? Lots of trivial things: annual doctor checkups, gardening, house upkeep, cat petting. But also one pretty spectacular thing - traveling to Ireland for our daughter's wedding. It was a whirlwind trip with lots of family and friends in a picture-perfect town oozing with medieval charm and charged with modern energy. A week ago we had stayed in three different Irish cities and were spending one last evening in the Temple Bar district in Dublin. And today we are...halfway through the Great Dismal Swamp at ICW MM 28, just south of the Virginia state line. A study in contrasts.

We arrived back at the marina to find Salome just as we had left her - snugged up next to liveaboard boaters in a slip off the small channel that leads to the Pasquotank River. We have much less gear to stow this time; we are headed north through the swamp to Norfolk, then up the Chesapeake to our former slip in Flag Harbor. At another time it might have been fun to stick around for the upcoming big event in Elizabeth City: the Northeast North Carolina Potato Festival. But having just come from Ireland, well, we've had potatoes. So we packed up, said goodbye to the marina folks and headed out.

We've only traveled this stretch in the winter, and it's a nice surprise to enjoy balmy temperatures and calm winds. We can't really sail until reaching the Bay; we motored slowly through the upper Pasquotank headed toward the swamp. Recent winds from the south had blown plenty of water upstream, and there were good depths all the way up to the South Mills lock. The forests are very different from what we saw last November. The verdant lime green foliage is studded with flowering plants. The canal is as opaque as ever, the tannins tinting our wake in little espresso-colored crests as we motor through. We annoyed a number of osprey on our transit, some with fledglings already in nests. A bald eagle watched us from his perch on a bald cypress.

We will hang out here as a rainy spell passes. There is very little boat traffic at the moment and it's a free dock. Today is a walk in the state park, on the watch for local fauna - it is baby bear season!

Thanks to Joshua aboard S/V Irish Rose for the drone shot of Salome headed toward the South Mills lock!

From the marina that time forgot

31 March 2024 | Camden, NC
We've been playing chicken with the weather for two weeks. Arriving in Elizabeth City, we first tied up at the town docks, which offer free 48 hours for transient boaters. It was a little unsettling being the only boat there. It is still early for the northward migration, and with the Dismal Swamp closed, there is no direct access to the ICW. It was hard to let go of our original plan of following the Albemarle Loop, a series of small towns around edges of the sound that had been recommended to us by fellow boaters in Beaufort. But the prevailing winds left us no choice, and conditions were predicted to be pretty spicy for the next week at least. We killed time going to the museums (well, museum), galleries (well, gallery), and restaurants that the town has to offer. But Elizabeth City seems in a hiatus mode, with lots of local businesses changing locations, out-of-date signage, and a general run-down condition we had not seen in the other small cities we've visited.

Two days at the town dock were enough; the pilings were wobbly, the fingerdocks short and unstable, the boater bathrooms and showers rendered unusable from recent flooding and lack of maintenance. An east wind that swept up the Pasquotank River toward us made for really uncomfortable conditions, and high winds with gusts in the 40s were coming. So we moved slightly upriver, crossing through the bascule bridge to the docks at the Mid Atlantic Christian University. This offered not only better wind shelter, but clean bathrooms and showers as well. We still had no shore power, but the solar panels had recharged Salome's battery bank, and we could cook with butane and heat with the wood stove (nights were in the 30s).

We burned through a three-day free stay at MACU, and still had no weather window to move out. The dockmaster fully understood the dilemma, and had no intention of hurrying us along. At this point we needed at least a two-day period to travel back down the Pasquotank River, skirt along the edge of the Albemarle Sound, and head up the North River to the Virginia Cut and the main ICW route. After our Alligator River experience, we were more careful about forecasts on the Albemarle; we do not want to venture to the edge and be driven back by waves against wind. We decided to move further upstream to a marina where we had waited out similar conditions in November.

The high winds came as forecast, but we honestly didn't feel them. It is such a protected spot, an offshoot of the upper river that is too narrow for any waves, and surrounded by vegetation tall enough to block the wind. All we can feel in high winds is the mast shaking, and a corresponding wiggle underwater from the keel. Rates are reasonable, the bathrooms and laundry are clean, there is shore power. There is a small liveaboard community here as well. People who have been here long enough to have herb gardens in their cockpits, and a mini pack of half-feral cats that pad across cabin tops at night. The conditions of the sails suggest some boats have been here for more than a few seasons.

We were not the only ICW cruisers at the marina. The morning after we arrived, a small tug pulled in. The captain, who is on a Great Loop passage, had gone all the way up to the entry to the Dismal Swamp only to be turned back. Lockwork was still underway, and the canal had become further obstructed by treefall from the winter storms. It soon became clear that the canal was not going to open on its projected date of April 1.

The tug left a few days later, after the high winds passed; under full power, she needed only a day to reach the sheltered canals into Norfolk. We, however, need at least twice as long, and need wind in the right direction to make the same passage. Instead, this week’s storm dropped three inches of rain on us. A few sunny days on the Easter weekend, then it will be back to a string of low pressure systems that bash the coast and inland waterways with high winds. So we’ve decided to leave. Salome can stay here where it's safe and protected. But we have a hard stop in April for more fun things planned (hello, wedding in Ireland!). A rental car is reserved, small chores are underway, packing is going on. We will be able to drive in about 4 hours the distance we may need two weeks to motor-sail. We will do that later in May, when winter storm season is (hopefully) finally over.

Three nights on the Alligator River

18 March 2024 | Elizabeth City, NC
Three nights in the Alligator River. That's how long we needed to anchor out in a desolate, barren segment of the ICW before we could get back across the Albemarle Sound on our northward journey. It was a particularly stressful and frustrating experience because we had so carefully researched the weather in advance. But more on that in a minute. Lest my family and friends get the impression that this trip has been nothing but dodging one bad weather event after another (which is, after all, one definition of sailing), I'll first report on some nice days we've had. If you don't want to read yet another rant about the Alligator and Albemarle, feel free to stop there.

To pick up from an earlier post, Little Washington was a gem of a stay. The town is busy and vibrant, with lots of local businesses and restaurants. The free town dock is well maintained, with services worthy of upper scale paid marinas. The dockmasters know about sailing the local waters and are super helpful (e.g. bringing a key to the laundry room to our boat when it became available). We could have stayed longer. But the gale force winds subsided on schedule so we moved on. It was a warm sunny day when we pulled into the town dock in Bath, NC. It's a little town on the Pamlico River with a lot of big claims: first town in North Carolina, first state capitol, first public library, first postal stop, etc. You get the idea, it was an important spot for a few hundred people in the early 1700s (including Blackbeard, of course). However, it never grew beyond that first stage and was soon eclipsed by other colonial settlements. Today it is still an important spot for a few hundred people, and has a free dock big enough for one boat. For a day, Salome was that boat. We spent time in the town history museum, saw all the landmarks, found a boutique food market, had a quiet night at the dock, then sailed off the next morning to Belhaven on the Pungo River.

Belhaven was as lovely as it had been when we were there in December. This time, though, more of the businesses were open and the there was a definite sense of spring. We went to the ICW microbrewery and the local pizza place (which boasts a trophy wall worthy of a medieval hunting lodge). Peter went out early in the morning and brought back lattes from the Bad Moms coffeeshop as we looked at the upcoming winds and weather. We saw a three-day period with conditions that seemed to allow us to get through the Alligator River/Albemarle Sound gauntlet. From the lower Alligator, we planned to head west to visit some towns on a local circuit called the Albemarle Loop. This loop would let us see some new places while we waited for the Great Dismal Swamp to reopen after a long closure. It was a good plan.

We made decent time from Belhaven up the Pungo River to the canal that leads to the Alligator River. It was warm and sunny with a gentle breeze that allowed a small jib flap to push us along. Knowing we would be in a reception-free zone for awhile, I texted close family so that nobody would worry if we didn't repond to any messages. We reached the head of the Alligator and found an anchorage that set us up for a quick departure the next morning. The anchor set well, the weather was still warm, and the winds were only a little stronger than predicted. That was night one on the Alligator.

Winds were rising when we got up at dawn to take off. Without cell reception we could not check any updated forecasts and we were already committed to going downriver. So we motored back to the navigation channel and into the river. A north wind had been predicted, but it was faster than expected (15 to 20 knots rather than 7 to 10) and waves quickly built. Still, this all worked to push us downstream. In fact, we were moving so quickly that it was possible to reach the Alligator River Bridge well before noon. Knowing that this particular bridge is old and can close in high winds, we decided to call in advance to confirm an opening. We were back in cell range, so I called the bridge operator by phone. As soon as he answered, I could hear from his voice that something was wrong. The bridge was broken, stuck in the open position - open for car traffic, that is, and closed for boats. When I asked him what he recommended we do, he suggested calling him back on the radio in a bit. Now, there are no marinas or marked anchorages in the upper Alligator, other than the one we had just left. Turning back was not possible because of the prevailing winds and building waves. If we couldn't get through the bridge, we were (in the words of Eleanor Shelstrop) royally forked.

Peter headed us off toward the lee shore, hunting for some wind shelter while I tried to contact the bridge operator on the VHF radio. I called twice with no response. The final time I added that we would continue to monitor channel 13 to hear updates about the bridge closure. These calls were all on the VHF channel 13, designated for bridge traffic and open to anyone listening on their radio (as opposed to our first conversation, a one-to-one phone call). We were soon anchored near a slight bend in the shore and could eat some lunch while we tried to think of a next step.

There was soon more boat traffic calling the bridge. Two other vessels were also trapped on the north side of the bridge. One was another recreational vessel, the other was a tugboat out of Morehead City pushing a barge to its next port. Both of them asked about the bridge condition in their radio calls to the operator - they had heard my call about standing by for bridge status. The operator responded to both of them, but gave more airtime and information to the tug. Seems a repair team was onsite and the bridge "might" be able to open by the time the tug got there. It also seems that a commercial vessel with a payload gets more information than recreational vessels. I get that, I really do. I consider us lucky that we had a more important customer on our side of the bridge that day.

As soon as we heard the tug was through, we radioed that we were on our way and gave an estimated ETA. We arrived there on the dot and breathed in relief as the bridge slowly creaked open and let us through. But the delay had cost us more than time. The winds had continued to blow, and waves continued to build in the afternoon. Again, the directions were as anticipated, but everything was at a higher intensity. We peeled off toward a marked anchorage on the east side of the Alligator River mouth, a spot that supposedly had protection from the prevailing winds. Unfortunately, it also had crab pots. Hundreds of crab pots. A local crab boat ("Miss Tasha") was weaving back and forth in the channel setting traps as we tried to thread our way through. Now, I love crab, and the blue crab from this region is some of the best (as I will argue with any of my Maine relatives). But man, is it annoying when a channel is seeded so thick with floats that you have to navigate from pot to pot. We eventually got to the anchorage, which looked even more desolate and open than our previous one. Nevertheless, we dropped anchor and plenty of chain and tried to sleep. It was a rough night, with gusts and sudden wind shifts that prompted a lot of anchor anxiety and checking in the wee hours. We were more than ready to get out at sunrise the next morning. That was night two in the Alligator River.

It was considerably calmer as we wove back out through the crab pots to the main channel. We headed out to the final markers toward the Albemarle Sound. Our planned destination (Columbia, NC) lay to the southwest, and we had hoped to ride the northeast winds out of the river and along the shore, avoiding any churn out in the Sound. We only got as far as the second pair of red and green markers when we stalled. To be clear, the motor did not stall. But it also did not have enough power to push us through the waves bashing on the bow. We had to turn back. This time we headed toward the western side of the river mouth, to a marked anchorage where we had spent the night in December. It was relatively sheltered and we felt more sure of the bottom conditions for anchoring (this river has lots of deadheads and submerged stumps). After checking the latest forecasts, we realized three things. First, we would have to stay another night. Second, we would only have a few hours of southerly winds the next morning to get out. Finally, we had to change where we were going; the only place we could reach in the predicted winds was Elizabeth City. We slept uneasily as the wind shifted 180 degrees overnight. That was night three in the Alligator River.

We were up before dawn, but waited for daylight to be able to spot any crab pots on our way out. We easily glided past the markers where we had stopped the day before. A low pressure disturbance was supposed to move through in the morning, bringing patchy fog and/or rain. We saw this system building over the sound as we moved out; it looked like a layer of whipped cream topped with peaks and valleys. We hauled out our foul weather gear (last used in this same setting), added life jackets and finally tethers as the wind went into the mid 20s and the waves to 2-4 feet. But we were moving fast, and in the right direction. No more nights in the Alligator River! Peter kept us heading toward Elizabeth City, following the navigation track we'd recorded on our previous fog-crossing. A couple of hours later we were out of the Albermarle and in the relative shelter of the Pasquotank River. By dinner time we reached Elizabeth City, and were able to set feet on the ground for the first time in three days.

Detour to Little Washington

11 March 2024 | Washington, N.C.
A short hop from Oriental brought us to Hobucken, and the dock at the R.E. Mayo seafood company. We had stopped there on the way south last fall, and appreciated both the solitude and the cheap dockage fee (40 cents per foot, with power). The marine store has a full assortment of boating and fishing gear, including a bunch of stuff I can't begin to identify. It also has freezers full of flash-frozen seafood from inshore and offshore waters at really super prices. We passed over larger packets of tuna steaks and scallops in favor of shrimp that looked a bit newer, and came in a package size we could handle (we have no freezer on Salome). Adding a bag of ice, scooped from an industrial-sized berg housed in a walk-in freezer, we were ready for the evening. We were the sole boat tied up to the dock, rocked only by two late night tugs transiting the adjacent canal.

We had a choice the next morning when we arrived at the Pamlico River: travel across to the Pungo River and head north to Belhaven, or take a side trip further up the Pamlico. We were in a spell of good winds before another weather change, so we opted for the Pamlico route toward the small cities of Bath and Washington, NC. Boaters in Beaufort had described these towns as great ports, both offering free town docks for two nights. As the day went on and the winds held in our favor, we passed the smaller town of Bath and continued to our reach destination of Washington.

Washington, NC is apparently the first recorded place to be named after General George; chamber of commerce signs still call it "the original Washington" but most people in the state refer to it as "little Washington." This bit of colonial history was new to me - a DC native - hence my confusion when I first heard references to these various place-names. Whatever it's called, Washington, NC is one of the boater friendliest places we have visited. The town dock offers two free nights, there are boater bathrooms and showers (clean and private), and access to laundry for a modest fee. The dockmasters are friendly and knowledgeable; they are all sailers and can tell you about the local conditions. They also patrol the dock, checking lines and generally keeping things tidy.

The town itself has lots to offer. Numerous signs and markers detail its history, from the Tuscarora War through European colonial settlement, Civil War battles, and 19th/20th century reconstruction. Multiple episodes of burning have destroyed many of the older buildings, but Victorian style houses remain in spots, and there are whole streets of early 20th century architecture (a veritable suburban sprawl from about 1910). Remaining industrial and city row houses have been filled with restaurants, pubs, and small shops in a walkable downtown district. And all of this is just steps away from the town dock.

It was nice to have so many nearby attractions because the weather, well, sucked. Luckily, we had read the forecasts and chosen to be where we were (rather than anchored out or in a smaller port). In a cycle typical for this season, the high pressure zone we were in was pushed out by a low, which is now being edged out by another high. Warm rains pelted down for about 24 hours, followed by a 20 degree temperature drop and clear skies with gale force winds. Despite being out of a tidal zone, water levels rose to the top of the fixed docks, then dropped two feet as the winds drove the brackish water up and down the river channel. We've been sheltered by a large house-type boat, and snug up against the dock. Plenty of fenders helped keep us off the pilings as the water rose and fell.

As predicted, the winds have dropped off and we are looking at another travel window - this time with even later daylight hours. We've got a full refrigerator and all clean laundry! Looking forward to seeing Bath, the oldest town in North Carolina. In the meantime, this evening's serenade includes migratory geese and a pair of barn owls on a nearby island.

A Community Labyrinth

06 March 2024 | Oriental, NC
It was a slow motor sail from Beaufort to Oriental until the last stretch. After finally escaping the pull of an ebb tide at Core Creek, the channel opened up and eventually dumped us into the Neuse River. From there, a fresh wind picked up and we were able to open both mainsail and jib to glide into Oriental at close to 7 knots. We were headed for the town docks, which offer free but limited space for two days. There's a webcam that lets you view the dock in advance to see what's free, and we had seen a couple of masts there around noon. We weren't sure there'd still be room and did not want to spring for a slip at the adjacent marina. We wove through the channel, and had the dock in sight when another, bigger boat overtook us. Dude waved and called to us as he motored past "Yo - I like your canvas color." We smiled and waved back, already disgruntled and assuming he was aimed for the last remaining spot on the dock. Surprisingly, he continued past and appeared headed toward a marina slip. We tucked into the last free space as he turned around. He asked "You going to the town dock or the fuel pump?" "Town dock" we called back, then added "Sorry we scooped you - thought you were headed to a slip!" We were already tied up. He took it gracefully, but did call out "I take back what I said about your canvas!" We saw his boat later on our sunset walk, anchored out beyond the marina.

It rained buckets that night, then the wind picked up in the morning. We were snug between Walrus (48 ft ketch) and Lady Deborah (60 ft steel shrimp trawler), well protected from any wind or waves. Looking out early in the morning, here comes Dude aiming his boat back into the marina. It was still raining as he tied up, then trudged to the office, barefoot and still in his jammies. The mom in me felt bad for him, she really did. The other part of me felt: he's 40 years younger than me, he just got a little wet overnight plus he has a bigger boat - tough it out, Dude!

The rain came and went for the rest of the day. But I spent enough time in the desert Southwest to have learned to appreciate rain - especially seasonally appropriate warm downpours. It's a very different town than the one we saw in December - all green and blossomy, with occasional salty scents from the local fishing fleet. The gray clouds just made all the other colors more vivid. There are coffee shops and restaurants open that were closed in the winter. The longer daylight hours let us see local attractions we missed in our last visit. Like the community labyrinth, a paved walkway with contrasting stone blocks outlining a maze. At first underwhelming, it is actually calming to follow the twisting path from the outer edges to the the inner circle. The labyrinth is in an open park space adjacent to the Neuse River; there was something magical about the setting this evening as the sun set and the clouds blew out, taking little arcs of rainbows with them.
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 [...]