Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts. – Oliver Wendell Holmes
I am home now in New Hampshire. I realize I have missed my favorite season here, when the air gets crisp and cold, and trees put on their fiery display. The view off my deck is of October gone, and winter coming on.
Once we made the decision to make it to St. Augustine, we felt better about the whole trip. We would end up where we wanted to be, and there was no stopping us. We arrived in Brunswick, GA after two nights at anchor and checked into Hidden Harbor Marina, managed by friends of Phil’s. The next morning, we were off at 8am to start two marathon days that would bring us to Florida by Halloween night.
We stopped for fuel at Jekyll Island. As we were filling up, Phil cracked a joke and the dock attendant promptly dropped his iPhone into the water. “Dang it,” he said. “That’s the third one I’ve dropped here.” The dock hand told us we had just traversed the dangerously low passage into Jekyll Island at the most risky time, low and falling tide. We had gone slowly, picking our way through the shallow channel but never touching bottom. Others would have waited for higher water, but our 4.5-foot draft hasn’t slowed us down at all (well, except for the one night on the mud flats of Rock Creek).
Phil took my picture, in my usual docking position on the bow, handling the bow line.
We crossed St. Andrew Sound and into the Cumberland River. We crossed the state line into Florida before noon, and motored past the last of the deserted creeks into more populous areas. On Wednesday night, we anchored at the Amelia River and were attacked without mercy by swarms of little gnats – “No see-ems” that left us itchy and drove us inside. Phil put a mesh screen on the forward hatch. We left early the next day, knowing it would be a 10-hour day that would bring us to St. Augustine. It would be the last cruising day of our trip.
I took the helm on the Guana River, which was narrow but not terribly shallow. The homes were getting larger and more beautiful by the mile. Soon we were passing mansions served by private, two-story docks with spiral staircases.
After the St. Johns River, I began to recognize the names of bridges. I lived in Mayport when my ex-husband was in the Navy years ago. We passed under Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue. As I was driving, I was watching the chart plotter when we entered a narrow channel. I noticed that the chart showed our position on dry land. Then I was really confused. “Phil, this shows the water ends up here!”
“What? Oh, no! I think we sailed off the end of the chart,” he said. “Did we pass Jacksonville?”
“Yes, back on the St. Johns River.” Our chart chip had run out. Luckily, Phil had the next chip and quickly installed it. Back on the water, we continued into the hot afternoon. Just past the St. Augustine airport, Catmandu’s engine started slowing down and revving up. It nearly quit several times, but always recovered. We started making plans for what we would do if it stopped. Just a few more miles to go! Phil knows this Atomic 4 intimately. “Dirty fuel filters or water in the gasoline,” he guessed. “Or, sticky valves. I’ll give it some Marvel’s Mystery Oil.”
The mystery oil made the engine run a little better, and we kept on. We had to slow down to keep the engine happy, and I let Phil drive so he could monitor the ailing motor. I kept thinking, don’t quit now! We are so close!
We spotted St. Augustine light after crossing under the Vilano Beach Bridge and crossed the St. Augustine inlet. I called the Bridge of Lions, so afraid I would slip up and call it by our nickname, the Bridge of Loins. It opened and we motored into our new home in slip 67 of the Municipal Marina. On the dock, there was a Cruisers’ Happy Hour. After tying up, we walked over to the party with our box of wine. We were welcomed like old friends, and met some new friends. One of the cruisers said, “St. Aug gives you a big hug when you arrive here.” We felt as if we had arrived at our home.
St. Augustine is a wonderful town, the oldest in the country. It is steeped in history. On our dock is a pirate ship, the Black Raven, and pirates walk by us on the pier, sporting tri-corner hats and long curved swords. It’s not because it’s Halloween. They dress like this all the time.
We played the part of tourists for the next two days, visiting the St. Augustine light and taking the Red Train tour around town. We climbed to the top of the light, all 219 steps. Here is Phil at the top.
I had rented a car to drive to Savannah on Sunday, so I could catch a plane to another plane to a bus to home. It would be an ordeal, but I travel well and don’t mind. We had one last night at Maria’s on the waterfront, where we fed the catfish and watched a giant Great Blue Heron on the nearby marker. I didn’t want to think about leaving the next day. I wanted to stay.
The next day, Phil got up with me at 5:30 and walked me to the rental car. We kissed goodbye and I drove away. I’ll be back one day, but I don’t know when. I’ve been there, in my thoughts, ever since. This is not the last blog, just the last one for a while. I blinked back a few tears on my way to Savannah, but Phil didn’t see them.
Now, I am home, sitting at my dining room table. In spite of two purring cats by my feet, it is lonely here. For five weeks, I lived on a 27-foot sailboat with a wonderful man. We traveled 900 miles in 33 days. Catmandu was my home, for a brief, special time.
Home is where the heart is. I left mine in St. Augustine.
”What mystery is the sea, whose stirrings speak of a hidden soul beneath.”
– Herman Melville
Our days in Georgia are spent motoring through winding creeks, watching the depth. Phil is singing Country Western songs: “Shoaling, shoaling, shoaling (Rawhide)” and “Back in the Channel Again.” The weather has finally turned warmer and we have sun every day. Our first stop after our night aground is Skull Creek Marina, where we share the dock with big awkward pelicans and one Great Blue Heron who wasn’t afraid to perch about six feet away in the dusk.
Queen Bess Creek is our anchorage for the following evening, and presents us with an incredible sunset. We sit in the cockpit watching the sun go down.
We have less than a week left of our time together, and only two days until we get to our agreed-upon stopping place, Brunswick, GA.
“I feel so badly that we didn’t get you to Florida,” I say quietly. “I still think we could have made it.”
I can see he is thinking. “How many miles is it from Brunswick to St. Augustine?”
We go below and check the chart book. “It’s a hundred and ten,” I say. “Two long days.”
The wheels start to turn. Then the wheels come off of Plan C, and suddenly Plan B is a possibility. We will be in Brunswick on Tuesday. We can be in St. Augustine by Thursday night. Phil’s face lights up.
“We can do it!” He is so excited, I can’t bear to remind him that I just bought a non-refundable ticket home from Savannah. I’ll worry about that later. We are happy.
The next day, a dolphin breaches right off our port bow and lingers alongside us. It’s a good omen. We pull into our anchorage at Queens Island, in view of the red and white striped Sapelo Island Lighthouse. Dolphins are swimming around the mouth of the creek, and Phil catches a fin in a photo. Finally, some evidence. And another sunset to remember.
The night is warm and clear. Since there’s no moon, the stars are brilliant and the Milky Way is visible above us. Phil lies on his back in the cockpit looking for shooting stars, but my attention is drawn to the water. I hear soft rippling sounds, as if someone is dangling her feet in the water. I peer into the dark ripples, but can’t see anything. Then, from just a few feet away, I hear a loud huff. It scares me; it is strangely human, as if someone is letting out an exasperated sigh.
“What is that?” I whisper. We are quiet for a while, listening. Another huff, farther off, breaks the silence.
“Dolphins breathing!” Phil whispers, and we hear another one. They are all around us in the dark water, and as I scan the surface, I see a reflection of our cockpit lantern in a round circle. An eye. They are watching us, too. Like so many moments of this adventure I’m on, this is an experience I will never forget. We sit for a long time under the stars, listening to the breathing of dolphins.
“There are two types of cruisers on the Intracoastal Waterway – Those who have run aground, and those who will.” – Attributed to Mark Doyle, author, On the Water Chartguides
Leaving Charleston, we find fewer and fewer grand homes along the waterfront, and a gradual return to wild places. I am becoming more confident in steering and can help spell Phil for a few hours at a time. I have the GPS chart plottter, the charts, and a quick yell (such as, “It’s getting shallow here!”) will bring him to my side.
We plan to anchor at Rock Creek, 47 miles south of Charleston. Thankfully, I am not the one driving as we turn off the ICW and enter the creek. Our cruising guide cautions us to watch for shoaling and a shallow place near the trees, so we plan to drop the anchor in 18 feet of water just short of the trees. Like a dog who circles before lying down in the grass, we need to circle our anchor spot to be sure we have sufficient depth when the current swings us around. “She swings like a monkey,” Phil says.
We are just making the first turn when the depth sounder switches from 18 feet to 5 feet. Phil reacts quickly, slowing the boat, but before we can reverse, the depth sounder registers a 3, and the boat comes to a full and sudden stop. Oops.
Catmandu needs 4.5 feet to float, so we were hard aground. Phil puts the engine in reverse and tries to wiggle us out, but she won’t budge. The next plan is to “kedge,” a new word for me. He explains that he can put the heavy anchor in the dinghy, row out to deeper water and drop it in. Then, with a line running back to the boat, he can “kedge” us off the mud by pulling the boat toward the anchor.
I am getting a little worried, but Phil is not at all, and goes about readying the anchor, climbing into the dinghy and rowing away. He drops the big anchor and then rows the dinghy back to the boat, carrying the line. Wrapping it around the winch, he starts to pull. As the line tightens, he pulls harder. I wish I could help, but all I can manage is to look more and more worried. The boat doesn’t budge.
If you’re going to run aground, it’s best to do so in a rising tide. Eventually, the water will come back and float your boat. It’s 5 o’clock, and the tide is falling. The water is rushing out of the creek all around us and the boat is starting to make strange creaking noises. I must have looked panicked, because Phil says suddenly, “It’s going to be all right.”
In my mind, the boat was about to settle into the mud on its side, and nothing would keep the water from rushing in. Having seen “The Guardian” the night before, I am imagining a red Coast Guard rescue copter lowering a basket for us, and the rest of our trip cancelled as Catmandu becomes salvage. Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but I’ve never been on a boat that was slowly settling on the bottom, and I begin to notice that we are not quite upright.
“What’s going to happen?” I ask.
“We will probably heel (lean) to starboard as the tide goes out,” Phil explains, “but when it starts to come back in after 7pm, we’ll gradually be upright again.”
I do have faith in his experience and ability, and he knows the boat well from 13 years of ownership. But I am looking around for help, and spot a small shrimping boat a few hundred yards away. “Can they help us?” I ask.
“There’s nothing they can do. We are stuck.” he says. “We might as well have a drink.”
I have to laugh at that. He has a way of making everything okay. The boat is heeling badly, but Phil seems able to walk around the tilted deck, take pictures of the sunset, and descend the crooked ladder to make gin and tonics. We sit on the deck (on the high side) and look down into the dinghy. “Maybe we should sleep in the dinghy tonight.” At least the dinghy will be level.
As we are drinking and trying to balance on the high side of the cockpit, Phil tells me he once tried to anchor in Cocktail Cove on the coast of Maine and couldn’t get the anchor to hold after three tries. On the fourth try, he hooked the anchor in 11 feet of water. From fatigue after a long day of fighting the coastal Maine waters, he considered it a good anchorage and went to bed. The tide in that area was nine feet. By the time morning came, the boat was on its side, the fresh water tank was emptying out of the galley faucet, and they were walking on the bulkheads to get around. Using the head was out of the question. They waited for the incoming tide, and the boat floated free and upright.
“Let’s have dinner, and watch a movie,” Phil suggests. I think he’s enjoying this. I need to have a little faith, relax, and go along. So I get out the iPhone and take a few pictures. When we carefully pick our way down the tilted stairs, I settle into the settee and lean back. It’s like being in the dentist’s chair.
Phil checks the tilt-o-meter: 34 degrees! He offers to cook dinner, but I don’t see how. The stove is tilted beyond its gimbel, and the dinner plan was tacos! I can just see tomatoes and lettuce shreds dropping everywhere from tilted bowls, and hot taco fillings spilling in our laps. “Okay, but not tacos!” He fries up a couple of veggie italians and we eat them in bread.
As we settle down into the settee, Phil rigs a bungie cord to hold the laptop on the table, and we lie back, literally on our backs. He looks over at me and smiles. “Living the dream!” he says. My laughter probably sounds a little hysterical.
As we are watching Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest, the boat is making creaking and groaning noises. The yacht lamp is lit, and leans at an angle over the computer. By the time he gets up to make Jiffy Pop, the boat is starting to right itself. We set the alarm for midnight so we can adjust the anchor when high tide comes.
“Hello! Are you okay in there?” Someone hails us from outside. Phil climbs out into the tilted cockpit to find the shrimp boat just off the stern. They understand that there is nothing they can do to help, but they offer us their leftover ice. They had been on a “shrimping date,” and saw our plight. “You’re on the edge of a mud flat,” the man says. “When you go out, be sure to back out.” Phil explains that he has a kedge anchor out, and the man says, “Oh, okay. You know what you’re doing.” (I’m glad to hear it.)
At midnight, we get up and hope the boat is floating free. Phil gets out on deck first. I hear him say, “Oh!” Right behind him, I climb into the cockpit and gasp. Over the stern rail, in the light of our little hanging lantern, I see grass. Grass? Yes, marsh grass. We have not only floated free, but we have floated into the marsh grass on the opposite shore. Luckily, the anchor is holding and we are afloat. All we have to do is get to the middle and adjust the anchor. I’m driving, and Phil pulls the anchor and drops it again in a better spot.
We go to bed. The next morning is cold but bright. We can’t wait to get out of there. On the way, I see what a brilliant, beautiful sunrise we have. Phil is looking at it, too. “Did you ever see the Poseidon Adventure?” he asks. Oh, yes.
There’s got to be a morning after.
“It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”– Mark Twain.
We are not going to make it to our destination. The miles flow by pleasantly and we finally have sunshine, clear skies and cool breezes. There are dolphins, eagles and vast acres of marshlands. On our way south to Charleston, we meander through marsh grasses as high as a person. There are no houses for miles and the waterway branches out into wandering creeks on either side. We pull in to Georgetown for gas and see a bald eagle on the marker. He is not as much of a tease as the dolphins, so here is his portrait.
Later, We drop our anchor in 12 feet of water in a small inlet just off the waterway. There are no lights around. Phil checks us in on Facebook “in the middle of nowhere.”
“It’s not really the middle of nowhere,” he comments. “But you can see the edge from here.” We are the only humans for miles. The stars are brilliant and close. Before the moon rises, the Big Dipper seems to reach down to us alone.
Our original plan was to take Catmandu from Annapolis to Ft. Lauderdale in 5 weeks. It was an ambitious plan that would have required long hours and perfect weather. Friends from Annapolis are wintering in St. Augustine, so that became Plan B. But as the days wind down, and we have yet to reach Georgia, Plan B looks unlikely, too. We are looking for a stopping place where Phil can work for a couple of weeks and I can get to an airport to fly home–maybe Savannah; maybe Jekyll Island.
We are seeing dolphins every day, even in unlikely places that seem too narrow and shallow. These dolphins are gray, not black as the ones farther north. They surface and then disappear, too elusive for pictures.
There have been some wonderful surprises on this trip. One surprise is the number of unspoiled wild places. Living in New England, I thought these were rare treasures in the world. But traveling by water through the Carolinas gives me hope that we still have some of the natural world left, unspoiled by traffic, industry, and strip malls. We travel through days of marshlands where birds and dolphins make their homes, unbothered by humans.
We reach Charleston Harbor early in the afternoon on Wednesday, October 23. The wind forecast was 5-10mph, so we were surprised by the white caps, heavy winds and wild water that greeted us in the harbor. Catmandu bobbed and splashed into the waves, occasionally soaking us with cold salty water. I can’t help but laugh; it seems so deliberate. Cut it out, Catmandu!
When we arrive at the marina, Bob and Lester greet us at the dock. He heard our radio call. Our friend and writer, Jaye Lunsford (Life Afloat) is right: Cruisers form fast friendships quickly. Bob is on a layover, waiting for boat parts and visiting family. We hope to see the Bonnie K down the line.
Charleston is a good place to settle down for a day. Phil puts in a work day while I take the courtesy van to a supermarket. I do laundry and talk to locals. At night we hear strange clicking noises around the boat. It sounds like the popping of small-scale bubble wrap. Phil posts a link on Facebook: “We have been hearing the sounds of snapping shrimp through the hull of Catmandu since arriving in Charleston. Sounds like Rice Krispies® and we are in the bowl of cereal.”
It’s dark morning in Charleston and I am awake. I look up through the forward hatch and see the bright half moon directly overhead. I hear the crackling of popping shrimp all around the boat. They will snap this way until daybreak and then we will be on our way, destination unknown.
Saturday, October 19: Birds and Bridges
Yesterday, we left Morehead City and motored through Bogue Sound. The waterway is really narrow there, even though the sound is wide. It is literally 1 foot deep on either side of the dredged channel.
We passed a motor yacht going the other direction, and watched it run aground just after we passed. A sailboat behind us stopped to help, but couldn’t drag them off the shoal. Poor captain had to sit and wait (maybe 5 or 6 hours) for high tide to float his boat. We heard him say on the radio that his depth gauge read 1.5 feet. He probably needed 5 feet to float.
When we arrived at Surf City, I called the bridge myself. I believe it’s not safe to be on a boat and not be able to use the radio. Calling the bridge is a good way to get over my radio shyness.
“Surf City Bridge, Surf City Bridge, southbound sailing vessel Catmandu.”
“Go ahay-ed cap’n.” Captain? Oh, me!
“Requesting southbound passage at your 11 o’clock opening. Over. ”
“Okay cap’n. See you at 11.”
It’s polite to acknowledge the bridge tender’s service. “Thank you for the opening. Catmandu out.”
“Safe trip, cap’n.”
We made it to Wrightsville Beach Bridge just as it was closing. It’s an hour wait, so we were disappointed to have to circle around waiting for 3 o’clock to come. But we did see this cute little palm tree, a lone palm on a little sandy island:
We made a long day of it, and anchored for the night at Camp Lejeune. An osprey flew by several times, doing “touch and go” landings. You thought I was talking about birds again? This was an osprey helicopter-airplane, which can land like a helicopter and fly like a plane.
There, at Mile Hammock Bay, as we were anchoring, I saw two dolphins wander into the anchorage while two more waited outside in the channel. They were pretty far away, but I attempted a photo again. Now I think I will give up.
For those who thought I’d return to work all tanned and blond, there is little chance of that. Today we have our “foulies” on and motor through hours of rain and drizzle. We are really close to the Atlantic Ocean now, and can smell the beach. We are just inside the Outer Banks, and the landscape is marsh grass, sand and dunes.
We are seeing lots of Great Egrets in the tall marsh grasses at the water’s edge. These lanky white birds must be the top of the food chain. They are easily spotted and slow to take off — good prey if they had predators. We see Great Blue Herons too, sometimes perched in trees.
The gulls are everywhere. Laughing gulls are my favorite but they can get really loud. One of our neighbors at Belhaven scared us half to death when he stepped out of his boat with a rifle and shot at them. It did shut them up for a time. Phil likes to yell back at them, “Stop laughing at me! I’m sensitive!”
We notice that gulls sit on pilings one bird to a perch, and only one. It’s the same with navigation aids and mile markers. “Mile marker 270,” I announce. “With a cormorant on top!”
Sunday, October 20: No Fear
Last night, we came through a narrow, very deep passage called “Snow’s Cut.” A huge motor yacht came toward us going very fast and sending up huge waves in its wake. It did not slow down to pass us, and six-foot waves towered over our cockpit as it went by. To the delight of passengers having drinks on the top deck, Phil made the sign of the cross as Catmandu bobbed and tipped into the waves. That was scarier than the Cape Fear River, which we were taught to fear.
We left the Carolina Beach State Park Marina and headed down the Cape Fear River. The river is fast, deep and busy. We timed our departure to be with the tide, but not too close to the maximum current. It was a wild ride, but not because of the river. The boat traffic was daunting. We were waked several times by giant motor yachts, but made it safely into the ICW and went calmly on our way.
At the marina last night, we met Bob, on the Bonnie Kay. He is single-handing a trip to the Bahamas and has a very cute barking dog named Lester. He apologized for all the noise. We would hear him on the radio calling tow boat, but he was at the Calabash River anchorage, along with Lester, when we arrived tonight. I think whenever we hear a barking dog on this trip, we will be saying, “Shut up, Lester.”
The way is shallow and very near the beach. At one spot, a Sea Tow boat is directing boats around a shallow shoal. We see 4-foot depths and steer around them to find the deepest passage. Later on, I am napping in the cockpit when Phil wakes me up. “What are those?” he asks.
Lying on the beach are four large animals. At first, I thought, “Camels?” They are shaggy and have long curved horns that point backwards. “Llamas?” Here is a picture:
I think maybe they are goats, so I look up “wild goats of North Carolina” and there are herds of feral goats here. The website explains how people want to protect the goats, and the state wants to relocate them.
Our anchorage on the Calabash River is small, wild and incredibly beautiful. The boat faces the sunset, and Phil points out a sun dog. It’s a tiny segment of rainbow at the same altitude as the sun, made by reflection off of ice crystals. I love that he knows these things. We watch the sunset, drinking the last of our rum. It is movie night tonight and we look forward to Matt Damon and Jiffy Pop. We are south of the border, in South Carolina. Check off another state.
With Catmandu running perfectly, we leave Belhaven and the good people at Dowry Creek Marina. Last night, we celebrated Catmandu’s repair with our friend, Jean-Luc, and a bottle of Plantation Rum. We finished the rum, had dinner and wine with Jean-Luc, and came back to Catmandu very, very happy. So happy, we decided to do this “selfie” photo. Okay, it may not have been our wisest decision.
We cast off our lines early in the morning and head out into the Pungo River and then into the Pamlico River. Here the water opens up and there is enough wind to sail. The sun hasn’t been out for days, but the wind is good and it’s not raining. I am amazed by the huge expanses of water in the State of North Carolina. We are seeing a different view of this state, and it is not the I-95 view. It is natural, wild, and undeveloped.
Our friends on Cinderella had left Belhaven ahead of us to make a boat repair appointment in Oriental. They texted one word along the way: “Dolphins!” Motor-sailing through the Pamlico River, my eyes are on the water, looking for those dorsal fins and puffs of water vapor that herald these marine mammals with the cheerful smiles. As we make our way into Goose Creek, the boat traffic picks up and we pass tugboats, barges, and fishing vessels. The Hobucken Coast Guard station, midway down the creek, is a tiny station with one small boat, surrounded by huge commercial vessels.
We had heard calls on the radio last night from Hobucken Coast Guard for a lost vessel called Blue Moon II. The sailing vessel had reported being lost, and the Coast Guard was asking for help in finding her. I can’t imagine how anyone could get lost with all of the markers in the waterways, canals and rivers. Still, I feel sad for these navigators who have lost their way.
After Goose Creek, we entered Bay River, the exact area where Jaye on Cinderella had seen dolphins. I spend the afternoon scanning the gray water for dorsal fins, but they aren’t there. It’s a little disappointing, but it is a nice day and we are putting miles behind us. Late in the afternoon, the sun almost comes out.
Bay River flows into the Neuse River, but don’t picture narrow winding channels. Both of these waterways are huge, with distant shores and plenty of deep water. So, we are surprised when we spot a sailboat coming across our path. Phil says, “They will pass behind us,” but they keep on coming. To be safe, Phil changes course slightly. The vessel makes a sudden sharp turn to starboard, again on a collision course with us. It suddenly turns again and passes closely behind us. Then we notice the name: It’s Blue Moon II. I think it must be captained by ghosts. Or zombies.
We pull into Oriental, NC for the night. There is a restaurant at the marina, a tiki bar and a pool. Paradise! Our friends Dan and Jaye join us at the tiki bar after dinner, and the first thing they ask is, “Did you see dolphins?” In spite of the fact that we looked all day, no, there were no dolphins. We get a better description of what she saw: a pair of jumping, spinning healthy-looking mammals, putting on a Sea World show. I’m a little jealous.
The sun has been very rare on this trip so far. Jaye tells us that the cloudy skies and drizzle have caused the locals to call this the NENE, Never Ending Nor-Easter. But the morning sun is bright and we are anxious to leave on this beautiful morning. We are headed to Morehead City, just 20 miles away. It will be a good chance to rest, provision, and maybe have some pizza.
We head out of Oriental and soon enter the Adams Creek canal. As we come out of the canal and into the Newport River, Phil spots fins. “Dolphins! Look!” he says, and I can’t see them at first. Then, they are all around the boat, first four, then six, moving through the water. It is so unexpected, I don’t have the camera ready. I watch them go past, and one turns its head to me, right next to the boat. Phil has cut the engine so I could get pictures, but this is all I can get:
Phil marked the spot with the GPS, and used charting software to make this map. Here is where we saw our first dolphins:
I am sorry I have no photos to show. The camera, and the photographer, are not good enough to catch them as they rise in the waves and dive down again. Dolphins are quick, and they are the same color as the water. Their sleek backs curve up and down, synchronized with their mates. They seem to travel in pairs or pods, hardly ever alone. They are smaller than I imagined. One even coughed nearby and sent up a little plume of vapor. I saw the face of one, and the backs of many more.
It’s funny that they appear in an unlikely place, in fairly shallow water, at a time when my eyes are not scanning the waves for a glimpse of them.
Now, I think maybe dolphins are like love: You can only find them when you aren’t looking.
We sailed across Albemarle Sound on Friday, jenny up and full of wind. The water was turbulent,waves choppy and relentless. It rained off and on, and we had solid gray skies all the way. We haven’t seen the sun since…. can’t remember! We motored up to the Alligator River Bridge and called the bridge tender. He ignored us. Half a mile later, he finally answered: “Stand by five or ten minutes, cap’n, til we finish greasin’ it.” Apparently, the swing bridge has to be greased before it can open.
I love the North Carolinian accent. Every native speaker sounds as though he is making a joke of it, doing imitations of Ron White – “ya cain’t fix stupid.” I had trouble understanding the bridge tender, but I imagine that goes both ways. Cinderella and Seneca finally caught up to us at the bridge and we crossed together.
Our anchorage Friday night was a little too rough to allow us to raft up, so we dropped the anchor on our own. Phil got out the grill and the last of the charcoal, and we grilled Italian veggie sausages. It was a dark night, no moon, with fully overcast skies. The anchorage was near the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, so I listened for wolves. Zoo-born red wolves were re-introduced there, after a period of total extinction in the continental U.S. There are now estimated to be 60 wolves, but they were quiet that night.
Saturday: Skies are gray again on Saturday as we make early coffee and prepare to get underway. My optimistic outlook on weather – “I think it’s starting to get brighter!” – has become a running joke. It looks more like dusk than morning as Phil gets ready to pull the anchor and start the engine. Cinderella and Seneca pull theirs and head toward the Alligator River-Pungo River Canal, the 22-mile ditch we will take to Belhaven.
Have you ever had a car that wouldn’t start after it rained? It cranks up and never catches, just whirrs without a spark. Phil turns the key to start the engine, and Catmandu refuses to start up. To be precise, it’s not Catmandu who refuses to start, but the Atomic-4 gasoline engine that powers her. Our friends radio back and we send them on, sure it will fire up in just a minute.
An hour later, despite all of Phil’s tricks (and he has a lot of them), we are dead in the water. It’s time to call TowBoatUS. Meanwhile, Seneca is trying to raise us on the radio. He can’t hear our replies. Cell phone service is almost non-existent on the Alligator River. I have one bar on my cell service, and Phil has none at all. We send instant messages to Cinderella and Seneca, but they have no cell service either, and won’t get the messages until twelve hours later.
Throughout the long day of sailing here, and all the way down the Alligator River, I am struck by the lack of homes along the water. In New Hampshire, these long waterfront stretches would be dotted with summer cottages. Here, there is nothing but wilderness. There are no electric wires, no telephone wires and no cell phone towers. As far as we can see, it is Earth as she was created.
Phil has an app on his phone to call TowBoatUS, and it transmits our exact position. With the spotty cell service, he has to stand on the highest point of the boat to get a weak signal, but finally manages to talk to TowBoatUS long enough to get our call in. The connection doesn’t last, though, so we aren’t sure if they are coming. It is 9:30am. We are completely alone in the anchorage.
“Phil, if we take away everything man-made in this place, what would be different?” I ask, looking around at water, trees, birds, and the steel-gray sky.
“Catmandu would be gone,” he says. But that’s all.
An hour or so later, we get a radio call from the Coast Guard. “Sailing vessel Catmandu with a Phil Decker on board. This is the US Coast Guard.”
Phil answers, and they ask if we are in any distress. “No, we are safely at anchor.”
TowBoatUS had called the Coast Guard, to check on us. The call had gotten through and help was on the way. At around 11:30, we get a text message from TowBoatUS, but it didn’t make it through the cell phone hole. An hour later, Phil is on the computer balancing his checkbook and I look out the window to see a bright red boat approaching. “They’re here!” We are rescued.
Not so fast. After they put a bridle on Catmandu and drag her off the anchor, we notice their engine is cutting out. We are towed a total of no more than 200 yards and their engine quits altogether. “Fuel pump,” says J.W., a local man with that Ron White accent. His co-captain, Rich, drops an anchor and J.W. starts to take the outboard cover off. “I’m gonna need some tools,” he says.
“What kind of tools?” asks Rich, looking in the tow boat’s tool box. “We have screwdrivers, screwdrivers and screwdrivers.”
“I have tools,” says Phil.
“Do ya’ll have a 11mm socket wrench?”
Not only do we have the tools, we also have a spare fuel pump. After checking the old fuel pump, and determining that it can’t be repaired, J.W. takes a look at our spare pump. It won’t work. Both men are now on their cell phones, with the limited service, they call for friends to bring a fuel pump. No one seems to be around, or just are not answering.
“Let’s just call the police,” Rich says. “People usually answer the door for them.”
This is an advantage of living in a small town. They know many people with boats who can bring the part they need, and they know the police, who can knock on doors and raise someone to help us. It works. J.W. gets a call back and gives instructions for finding an outboard fuel pump, next to the trailer, in that old outboard with the hole in it.
Now that help is on the way, we four look at each other, all floating on two broken boats, hanging on to one small anchor.
“So,” J.W. says to me, “Whut’s fer supper?”
It was a joke, but it is five o’clock by the time a spare fuel pump arrives, and with Catmandu’s tools, J.W. installs it in the huge outboard. The older man who came on the second rescue boat says something unintelligible to us. He pulls out a fishing pole and casts a line into the water. I’m guessing he said, as long as I’m here, and my wife is in Greenville (I got that much), I might as well fish.
Anchor up, we make our way toward the entrance of the Alligator River-Pungo River canal at dusk. The towboat engine is running, but it sounds a little rough to me. It is dusk when we enter the narrow canal. We have a few anxious moments when a large tug and barge seem to be playing chicken with the towboat. It passes safely.
We see a great blue heron in a tree, and a few minutes later, a tree full of hawks or vultures in the dark. The moon comes out as we make our way down the dark waterway behind the towboat. We can only go about 6.5 knots, so it will take four hours to get to Belhaven. As phone service comes back to my phone, we try to find a boat mechanic at a marina that will take us. No luck.
Dowry Creek Marina – Paradise on the Pungo – can take us, but have no repair services. Phil decides he will try to fix the engine himself, so we arrive around 10pm as the towboat engine starts to hesitate and cut out. Our friends are there at the dock, along with Nick, the marina owner. Docking with no engine is nerve-wracking, and I’m shaking as I crawl up to the bow in the dark. It’s my job to release the towboat bridle and cast the bow line to Nick at the end of the dock. Thirty feet from the dock, the towboat engine quits.
There is enough momentum to make it, so I release the bridle and we float silently toward the dock. As soon as we are close enough, I toss the line and we are secured to the dock. The poor towboat manages to float in behind us, and they tie to the dock as well.
I have cash tips for these men who have been with us all day, suffering the same problems we are. “How are you going to get home?” I ask.
“Oh, I’m home now,” J.W. says. “I can call any number of old boys to come and get us here.” He hands back our 11mm socket wrench and wishes us luck. The towboat engine is running again, and we watch them pull away. J.W. is in back, pumping fuel by hand with a plastic bulb. I think they are the ones who need some luck.
We are still at Dowry Creek Marina, and boat repairs continue. We have had advice from Nick, from forums online, and on the phone from Moyer Marine, the gurus of the Atomic-4. The weather has been miserable. Rain, high winds, and more rain. Cinderella took advantage of one good day and headed south to Oriental. Their one message caused some excitement on Catmandu: “Dolphins!”
We talk endlessly about the engine. It cranks, it sounds healthy, but will not “catch.” We discuss the spark. It’s what we lack, and Catmandu needs it. We do test after test, following the spark. I update our many friends on Facebook: “Catmandu has lost her spark.”
Today, leaving the autoparts store on the third day of engine repairs, we are optimistic. The tests have revealed that perhaps, the points are not sparking as they should. We go to one auto parts store and they can order, but have no parts for us. A second store has the part we need. As we are leaving the parking lot, Phil looks up at the gray, drizzly sky.
“Looks like it’s getting brighter!” he says, and I laugh out loud.
Back at the boat, new points installed: Catmandu fires up. I am so happy to hear this engine, I text our friend Jean-Luc: “Do you hear that beautiful noise? It’s Catmandu!”
Phil is elated, understandably proud, and pours a little rum. Even the boat seems happy. Tomorrow, we will continue our journey. It is definitely looking brighter.
The front we’ve been watching for three days finally arrives on Monday afternoon. As I sit in the cockpit, I see the first light sprinkles of rain making their spreading circles on the water. Then I hear an unfamiliar sound, a kind of whirring noise that seems to originate in the top of the 50-foot yacht across the creek. Then the eerie singing starts all around me and I realize what it is: Wind in the shrouds. All the boats in the marina have these taut metal lines that hold up the masts, and they are all being strummed at once by the wind.
With boards across the companionway, we are tucked away inside Catmandu while rain pounds the deck and the cockpit. Catnip is just outside, filling up with rain water. Phil has torn apart the electrical panel to replace a switch. I am continually amazed by his ability to fix anything. He has an engineering brain and enough knowledge and confidence to tackle any malfunction. “Or,” he says over a spaghetti pile of red wire, “I’ll just jerry-rig it.”
Tuesday, October 9: We think it’s time to leave Greatbridge, not because the weather has improved vastly, but because we simply want to get going. It has been five days, waiting for Tropical Storm Karen and then a cold front to allow us passage to the next anchorage. We check local weather and think we can make it, with cloudy skies and 17mph north winds.
Land showers done (I will never take a hot shower for granted again), we set out alone. Cinderella has to stay behind for delivery of an important package, and Seneca decides to wait with them. We are alone going through the first bridge, and I hear the bridge tender call ahead to the second bridge: “Sending you one sail.”
Maybe it should have seemed strange to us, having the river to ourselves. The wind is picking up, but the protected waterway seems calm as we make our way south. There are no buildings on either side, just grasslands and pines as far as we can see. My very favorite places on earth are wild and natural, so I love this landscape and let Phil do the driving. It’s too narrow and shallow to use Otto.
Phil spots the ospreys first, wheeling and crying far above us. What did the chart guide say? Excited ospreys are a sign that…
“Eagle!” he says, and I see the first bald eagle of the day, perched on top of a dead tree next to the river. It is not bothered at all by the ospreys. It is still, implacable, regal. And I can’t find the camera.
A half mile later, we spot twins: two huge, healthy male bald eagles sitting in the same pine tree on the starboard side of the river. Their huge white heads are unmistakable, and their eyes are the only parts moving as they scan the water for fish. It would be an impressive photo, but now that I’ve located the camera, I can’t coax it to turn on.
I guess this isn’t going to be a photo-journal. But here is an idea of the landscape we are traveling through, taken a few miles south of the eagles – where the savannahs remind me of photos of African grasslands and I imagine giraffes in the distance.
We have been traveling south on the North Landing River, and the wind is building as we turn slightly right and enter a wider section of the water. As we leave the protected waterway, two motor boats come up behind us and request a slow pass. This is a courtesy given to sailboats. In exchange for us slowing down and keeping to starboard, they will slow down and pass without leaving us to rock and roll in their wake. They are soon far ahead of us. One more sailboat, First Light, passes a short time later, and we are alone again.
Crossing the widest part of the river is, as Phil puts it, like motoring through a washing machine. The water is whipped up by heavy gusts, and white caps dot the surface. The tops of the waves are blown off by howling winds. I look like the Gorton’s Fisherman in my yellow foulie jacket, and Phil is bundled up in his red one. The sky is dark gray and lumpy. I notice that our flag, attached to the stern, has been flying out straight all day.
“Is this 17mph winds?” I ask Phil, who is now reminded of sailing in the rough waters off the coast of Maine.
“No,” he laughs. “More like 25 or 30, gusting to 35.” My eyes widen, but I’m not scared. It is a bumpy ride across a great expanse of churned up waves. Far to the east, I can see a narrow string of land. According to the chart, I’m looking at the western side of the Outer Banks at their northern tip. I’m thankful we are on this side of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
It’s too rough to go below to make lunch, with the boat lurching and pitching, so we hold off until we can make our way to calmer waters. Around three miles north of Coinjock, NC, we enter a calm, narrow passageway and the wind and waves calm down. Since we are on our way to an anchorage south of Coinjock, there is a decision to be made as we eat our peanut butter sandwiches. Do we really want to be on the anchor in 25 knot winds?
Coinjock Marina is our answer. With our northern winds pushing us along, we’ve made over 37 statute miles in 7 hours, impressive speed for Catmandu, considering that we had to wait for two bridges. The marina is nearly full, but there is room at the dock for us to squeeze in between giant motor yachts, and we tie up for the night. It was a great decision. As I write this, the winds are howling to gale force and the rain is falling sideways. Our companions wisely stayed at Greatbridge and message us that gale warnings for Coinjock will keep them there one more day.
Weather delays are part of the fun, right? Our progress has been stalled by a tropical storm, a violent cold front, and now the remnants of the same tropical storm. In the last six days, we’ve put just 37 miles behind us. But curled up in the salon with Phil, eating hot pea soup, sipping wine and watching a movie on the laptop, it is somehow comforting to hear rain beating down on the decks and to have winds howling through the shrouds.
Writing from Great Bridge, Virginia
When we arrived here on Thursday afternoon, and I stepped off the boat onto the dock, I realized it was the first time I had touched solid ground since Sunday. The previous three nights, we had been rafted up with our friend-ship Cinderella, hanging on to her larger, heavier anchor in the quiet coves and creeks along the western shore of the Chesapeake. We stopped at Solomon’s Island, then Deltaville, and then Fort Munroe – across the Elizabeth River from the Norfolk Navy Yard, home of aircraft carriers and war ships of all descriptions.
Deltaville to Fort Munroe: Wednesday, Oct. 2nd, is to be our longest day of the journey. We anticipate ten hours on the water, motoring at 5.5 knots almost due south. It is hot and sunny, with very calm seas. Textured and green, the surface of the water is broken only by occasional crab pots and seabirds. We see more pelicans. As we look back for our companions, they seem to be in a bank of yellow-gray mist, their hulls barely visible.
We use the auto-tiller to keep us on course, which Phil affectionately calls “Otto.” It is a sort of auto-pilot that attaches to the tiller and holds a certain bearing, which we get from our chart plotter. It allows us to relax a little in the cockpit. The Chesapeake is so wide at the southern end that we can barely see a ribbon of land to the west, and nothing but water to the east. It is a curious magic trick that makes the distant water blue-gray, while the water around the boat is a translucent moss-green.
Toward the end of the day, I note on the chart that we are passing the Plum Tree Island Bombing Range, followed by the Plum Tree Island National Wildlife Refuge. I want to tell all the animals there to duck, but hope the bombs are directed toward the shallow water off to the north. Still, it’s a strange juxtaposition of aggression and compassion. As we point the bow farther west, we pass a beautiful stretch of beach with a string of large, luxury beachfront homes. No tiny summer cottages here.
Just as we are turning into the Elizabeth River, Seneca and Cinderella catch up to us and cut to our starboard. We have been helped by an impressive southbound current out of Mobjack Bay, and had reached speeds of 7 knots to keep ahead of them. We slowed down to let them pass, and felt proud that Catmandu had been able to stay ahead all day.
Our anchorage Wednesday night is not the quiet, rural setting of the night before. A busy interstate bridge on one side, and the military buildings of Fort Munroe on the other remind us that civilization exists beyond these boats, beyond the water that has held my attention these past few days. If I needed any other reminder of the outside world, I certainly get it the next morning as we cross the very busy channel at the mouth of the Elizabeth River and head upstream past the Norfolk Naval Station.
Fort Munroe to Red Nun #36
Our first encounter with a large vessel is this Coast Guard cutter. It looks huge on the horizon and towers over us just to our stern. We are four boats crossing the channel, having picked up a catamaran named Sea Quest. Jaye hails the Coast Guard ship to let them know we would be staying just outside the channel and out of the way. They replied, unlike several container ships we’ve hailed. They would cross our stern and pass on the starboard side. Since my father was a career Coast Guard officer, I felt a surge of pride in this gleaming white ship as it passed.
Navy warships dominate our view for the next hour. Some of the largest military vessels in the world are docked here, and we pass aircraft carriers and destroyers and unidentifiable ships with pyramids on top. We are passed by a large container ship that doesn’t answer us, just steams past these tiny inconsequential pleasure boats. It is our job to get out of the way. It is likely that those merchant mariners, perched high on the ship’s bridge, can’t even see us anyway.
Phil is at the helm, steering by hand today. Otto is blind and can’t react to giant obstacles quickly enough to be safe in the busy river. Gigantic cranes and commercial buildings pass by on either side. The size and scope of these enterprises are impressive, but I would prefer some lush greenery and some birds. I still haven’t seen a dolphin.
It is Thursday morning, Oct. 3, and to this New Hampshire native, it feels like mid-August. The sky is brilliant, and the warm breeze doesn’t cool us enough as we push southward through a strong current. I know there is a marina with a hot shower waiting for us this afternoon, but in my mind, the water is cold and refreshing.
We are keeping an eye out for Mile Zero. Somewhere in this part of the river, we will officially enter the Intracoastal Waterway. We know it is marked by red buoy number 36 and keep watching the numbers count down on the starboard side. Then, unexpectedly on our port bow, we spot the buoy. It seems out of line and we pass it on the wrong side with camera and cell phone raised.
We may be outside of the channel, but we are definitely in the waterway.
A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his bellican
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I’m damned if I know how the helican.
– Ogden Nash
Oct 1, 2013 – Solomon’s Island to Deltaville, MD
We started out early on the first of October, heading east into a brilliant sun. As we turned south we found something unexpected: wind. Enough wind to sail. We hoisted both jib and mainsail and turned off the engine. It’s a wonderful silence at first, and then you realize it’s not silence at all, but the sounds of wind filling the sails overhead and the water splashing the bow as we cut through the calm waters. We are doing a very respectable 5 knots when we first spot our two companion ships sailing behind and to the east of us. They are pale twins in the distance, side by side like graceful dance partners.
Waking up this morning next to Phil in the V-berth, I remembered the first-of-the-month ritual. I whispered “rabbit, rabbit” to ensure a month of good luck. I don’t know where I picked up this weird custom, but it has to be the first thing out of your mouth on day one of a new month. I forget most of the time. But as we sail south on this perfect day, I am overwhelmed by my good luck. I couldn’t dream up a better partner, better friends sailing the boats behind us, or a better time. I don’t need rabbits this month.
When Phil sailed south from Maine, he said the pelicans started showing up around Cape May, New Jersey. To him, they were a symbol of the south, or at least of the migration south. So I am on the lookout for pelicans throughout the morning. I have never seen a dolphin in the wild, and constantly scan the blue-gray water for dorsal fins. Our friends tell us they have seen dolphins in this part of the Chesapeake, but we can’t seem to find them. On the radio, we hear a captain hailing the Coast Guard. They want to report a dead dolphin floating in the bay, and give their position. I am hoping my first sighting of a dolphin in these waters is one of a smiling, jumping, Flipper in very good health. I have read that dolphins are suffering from a flu-like virus.
Our friends, in their faster boats, motor-sail by us. They are headed for Deltaville, and want to get there first to help us navigate the very strange entrance to the anchorage. We watch them sail by, and shortly after, the wind dies down and we have to start the engine. With the engine on, we can make six knots. My attention is on the water. The sun is so brilliant, it is painful to remove my sunglasses. I take them off anyway to avoid the raccoon look in my developing tan.
Then Phil spots one sitting on the water just off the port bow. It is unmistakable. A little farther on, we see groups of them in the air. First one, then two soar past us majestically, slowly like pterodactyls with their prehistoric beaks. Pelicans, our symbols of migration. We imagine palm trees in the distance, and still scan the water for dolphins. But here, there be pelicans.