Monday, January 11, 2010

Sapphire, cerulean, azure, cobalt, indigo ...

I ran out of names for all the different shades of blue we saw crossing the Gulf Stream. We left Florida at dawn and when we were just 5 miles out, quite abruptly the depth dropped from tens of feet to hundreds and the water temperature jumped, and we were in the Stream. At the start it was quite rough, but after about 2 or 3 hours of really bad rolling, things mellowed to just a pleasant motor-sail across incredible liquid blue. By late afternoon the island of Bimini was in sight, but we continued onto the Bahamas banks (fifteen feet deep, clean sand, and now, calm and flat). I added names to my catalog of blues - ink, midnight, navy. Stars so dense I could barely find familiar constellations against the crowded background. Navigating by both GPS and paper charts across the emptiness. We saw the lights of a few fishing boats, one other cruiser, and one large cargo ship going our way. The moon came up about midnight and dimmed the stars; we took turns cat-napping in the cockpit while the other stood watch (with our faithful autopilot, nicknamed Baron Otto von Pilott, doing much of the work). By morning we were just a few hours from our destination of Morgan's Bluff, Andros Island, and the seas were kicking up again. We adjusted our course to take the waves at a more comfortable angle even though it would make for a slightly longer trip. Soon we were turning toward the harbor looking in vain for the channel markers shown on the chart as the water abruptly shoaled from hundreds of feet to about 30. Then, as we were getting quite close, we learned that Bahamian channel markers looked more like floating oversize beach balls than the triangles or squares on a stick that we became familiar with on the ICW - and we were in.

We anchored in 10 feet of water so clear we could simply look down and see the bottom, the boat floating above its own shadow. We followed the traditional nautical protocol and hoisted a square yellow flag, the "quarantine" flag. "Town" seemed to consist of just a few concrete buildings, the largest and closest of which was a bar. Dan and James went in to ask where they could find the Customs and Immigration officer, and the bartender handed them a cellphone. The officers (one for Customs and one for Immigration) came to us, and we filled out paperwork sitting at the picnic tables at the bar. Customs officer was a woman whose island accent was so lovely, I could have listened to her read all the fine print on all the forms out loud and not get bored. Heck, I could have listened to her read the phone book! I wonder if I can learn that lilt, while we're here?

The quarantine flag today simply indicates that we haven't cleared in with Customs and Immigration, but the original meaning truly was a quarantine to ensure diseases weren't brought in, and some of the questions on the paperwork harked back to those days: "Did any person aboard die (other than by accident) during the passage from your last port?" was an ominous reminder of how tough life at sea was. There was also a question about the rats on the ship (signs of plague? yikes!) Anyway, when the forms were complete and the passports stamped we returned to the boat and took down the quarantine flag and hoisted a Bahamian courtesy flag. Tempting as it was to explore, most of all after the all-night passage, we needed a nap!
Cinderella at anchor at Morgan's Bluff, Bahamian courtesy flag in the rigging

(originally published 17 December)

There were many high-fives, and

a fair amount of rum was poured. We played Jimmy Buffett's "Christmas in the Caribbean." We made it through the last of the timed bridges and out the south end of this part of the ICW. We're anchored at Key Biscayne with the Miami skyline in the background. Tomorrow we will cross to the Bahamas, a 24-hour passage and the first night sailing of our trip.
Our internet connections will be rare from here out, we'll be relying on internet cafes. I don't know how often I'll get to posting, but I promise I'll be saving up the good stories for when I can post. 'Till then, stay warm and have a great holiday season!

(originally posted 6 December 2009)

St Augustine to Ft Lauderdale, FL

St Augustine was a great example of what we’d hoped to see along the way, this trip. It’s quite out of the way for us, we wouldn’t have come here otherwise, but it was on our boat route. We learned it’s the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the US. The founder, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, arrived here September 8, 1565 with 200 colonists from Spain. We had a fascinating time strolling the cobblestone streets – although I have to admit it’s a toss-up which I enjoyed more – the amazing architecture, or the excellent local beer at the brew pub across from the marina. Some of the buildings reminded me of Santa Fe, NM, and I was struck again by how extensive the Spanish influence is in the southern half of the US.
Flagler College, St Augustine

Our next stop was Vero Beach, where we spent Thanksgiving. We ended up staying 6 days, the longest we’d been in any one spot since we left Annapolis in mid-October. For the first time, my climate complaints were that it was too warm, rather than too cold. Ahhh! The town has a reputation as very welcoming to cruising boats and we certainly felt that. Moorings were secure and inexpensive and there was a free bus from the marina to town – great for picking up groceries, boat parts, going out to dinner. For the first time in our lives, we had our mail forwarded to “general delivery” at the post office (no expected bills, yay us!). Nice also was a potluck dinner for all 75-100 boats in the harbor on Thanksgiving day; we made a few new friends who we’re likely to meet up with again in some or another anchorage along the way. Even if events make it impossible for us to go farther, we’re far enough south to have achieved Goal #1: “The only ice I want to see this winter is in my drink glass.”

The other good thing that happened for us at Vero was that we think we’ve finally fixed the problems with the outboard engine for our dinghy that have been plaguing us since the summer. Seems that ethanol in the gasoline is the culprit; causing problems in the marine environment that aren’t an issue in cars. We’d had to have the carburetor rebuilt in Annapolis, then again in Beaufort, then AGAIN in Vero Beach. I declared it wasw to be either “three strikes you’re out” and we’d sell the outboard and go back to rowing; or “three times is the charm” and we’d finally get to the root of the problems. The latter prevailed; Vinny of Complete Marine Services picked up the engine, returned it fixed the next day, and taught us what he could to avoid future problems -- some of which will probably recur when we go back north, but here in the south, marine fuel without ethanol is available.

The guidebook we’re using, Skipper Bob’s, describes the next section as “The Canyon” and notes that it is lined with concrete walls that makes boat wakes reverberate back and forth, making this stretch uncomfortable when the waterway is busy. It also has a large number of timed drawbridges. Unfortunately for us, the timing was not quite a perfect match for our cruising speed, always a bit too fast or too slow, so we spent most of the day either rushing to catch the next opening, or trying to hold the boat in place while the current pushed us toward a closed bridge as we waited for the next opening. I was reminded of a Piet Hein grook about waiting on the subway platform and not getting “…excited and vexed. You’re always too late for the previous train, and always on time for the next.” What the guidebook did not tell us was that in addition to concrete walls, this stretch was lined with some of the most incredible private homes we’d ever seen. All custom and all different, mostly styled in a Mediterranean theme but some strikingly modern, what they had in common was size (humongous) and obvious expense. As the first came into view around a corner, Dan pointed it out to me and said, oh, that must be a bed-and-breakfast, look at the size. But then we saw the one next to it (same size) and the next one after that (larger). I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore and I don’t think there’s a whole row of B&Bs here.
Some random photos of mansions along this stretch. The size, and the juxtaposition of modern and traditional styles, blew my mind:

Thanksgiving Day

We’re at “Velcro Beach” (a.k.a Vero Beach, so nicknamed by cruisers because it’s so hospitable, people tend to stick around for longer than they’d planned) for Thanksgiving. There’s a cruisers’ potluck dinner; we’re bringing West Indies style pumpkin soup. I’m thankful for the incredible life I’m living, thankful for: blue skies/sunshine/fair currents/wind in our sails/arcing dolphins swimming alongside us/pelicans divebombing the water for fish/good nautical charts/cortisone ointment for bug bites/waving at other boaters as we pass/Spanish moss hanging from tree branches/cormorants sitting on daymarks, drying their wings in the sun (sorry, but it looks to me for all the world like they’re airing their armpits; always makes me smile)/my Tilley hat and polarized sunglasses/no longer starting my weekdays saying goodbye to Dan and getting in the car to drive to work on the Beltway/good friends willing to share their expertise/a reliable anchor/the absolutely amazing group of people who are our friends and family/solar panels/wavelets rocking us to sleep/waiting patiently for the end of our journey, a familiar dock in Annapolis to tie up to and call home.

One Thousand Miles

We’ve come a thousand miles! We’re now in Daytona Beach, FL. We totally missed Beaufort, SC while waiting out the passing of the remnants of Hurricane Ida – that morphed into a nor’easter (I didn’t know hurricanes could do that – I think of hurricanes as a summer or early autumn phenomenon and nor’easters as winter phenomena) and battered our friends in Annapolis. The storm “only had wind gusts of 35 knots (roughly 40 mph) where we were anchored in Factory Creek near Beaufort, although with the 4 days of drizzly rain and chill that was unpleasant enough. The strong winds might cause the anchor to drag so we weren’t comfortable leaving the boat for a very long period to go explore the town, nor was the weather conducive to spending a lot of time outdoors. Neither could we continue south in those conditions, so we stayed in the anchorage until the weather settled, along with about 20 other boats. The manager of the nearby Lady’s Island marina was wonderfully understanding of everyone’s circumstances and assisted with local knowledge and fun sea stories – he cruised with “Skipper Bob” the author of the guide we’re using down the ICW. We did laundry and bought groceries and shared an evening with fellow Maryland cruisers Larry and Suzi who were also idled waiting out the storm. “Buying groceries” is quite different than it was when we lived on land. We both suited up in full foul weather gear, took the dinghy to shore, then walked about a mile to the grocery store. We shopped buying only what would fit in a hand basket to make sure we didn’t get too much to carry home. Then it was a mile walk home, then bail the rain that had accumulated in the dinghy before going back to the boat. Just buying yogurt, bananas, bread, and a few fresh veggies took most of the afternoon. Sometimes I miss my car!

(By the way, there’s a city named Beaufort in North Carolina and another with the same name in South Carolina. The one in the north is pronounced “Bo-fort” and the one in the south is “Bu-fort.” Locals can be quite fussy about the pronunciation; we once heard a sailboat trying to hail the “Bo-fort” marina and when the marina came on line they rather emphatically identified themselves as “This is the *Bu-fort* marina…” Although I don’t know the history of the distinct pronunciations I made up a little mnemonic to keep from offending anyone: the word “south” has a u in it so you pronounce the town in South Carolina with a u “Bu-fort.” And the word “north” only has an o in it so you pronounce the town in North Carolina with an o “Bo-fort.” Corny but it works.)

As soon as the weather settled we were on our way. Georgia was a bit of a navigational chess game. Tides here range 8 or 9 feet and the Army Corps of Engineers, who maintain the waterway, don’t dredge here, they tell you to just time your passage through shoaly areas to coincide with high tide. (No fooling! Some of those places have only a few feet of water at low tide and we need almost 5 feet to safely pass.) So that’s what we did, leaving at first light one morning and a leisurely late start on another, to time it right. One evening we came in late, in one of the most dramatic orange and magenta sunsets we’d seen, to anchor in New Teakettle Creek to the most amazing chorus of hoots and squawks that sounded more like monkeys than birds. They were loud and everywhere, and they stopped all at once at dusk.

After several nights in the marshes, we came out toward Jekyll Island – the only part of the trip where we hadn’t been able to time a stretch of river for high tide. Instead, we reached this stretch at the absolute worst time – dead low tide. We picked our way slowly, carefully through the thin stream of water edged by exposed mud flats. The good news, James informed us, was that if we got stuck (grounded) we only had a short wait until the tide started rising again and we’d float back off. Fortunately that wasn’t necessary and we passed through into deeper water and anchored a short distance downstream. We went out to dinner and came back by dinghy well after dark. The dinghy’s propeller stirred up phosphorescence in the water – it looked like the dinghy had a glowing green comet tail.

And speaking of outer space, next day we saw the smoke trail from the space shuttle launch, although we were too far away to hear the rumble. Or maybe not, with the engine running who can tell? We crossed the border into Florida. We’re now at 29 degrees 11 minutes latitude (our slip in Annapolis is at 38 degrees 57 minutes). For the first time we’re wearing shorts and tee shirts and sunburn is more than an abstract concept. We went into the municipal marina in St Augustine and took a layover day to explore the historic city. (Tell you about it in the next post.)

(originally published 20 November 2009)

Look Who Dropped By!

Anchored in the Herb River near Savannah, GA. Check out our newest crew member, standing watch!

Ever since Dan's medical crisis 3-1/2 years ago, seeing a heron has been something of a good omen for us, so starting the day with this sight was especially wonderful.

Charleston, SC

(photo: the ultra-modern Ravenal Bridge)

Even before the steering concern, I’d been looking forward to Charleston, to spending a few days going to sleep in the same location as I woke up instead of being under way every day, to being a tourist in a new city. The weather was pleasant and the scenery interesting as we motored along. James has been keeping a file of photos of over-the-top houses and I’m sure he was able to add to the collection as we passed Isle of Palms; some we HUGE and (*ahem* how do I say this gracefully?) architecturally distinct. Soon we were hailing the City Marina, where a chance to stretch our legs beckoned. Note to self: no matter how eager you are for a break, do not try to dock during maximum flood current ever again. Wait for slack tide – you can make it look so much more controlled and elegant if the water isn’t pushing you sideways. You use less adrenaline that way, too.

Some suggestions from Dave Coker at the marina, and some quality time with a couple of wrenches, a tube of lube grease, and the Edson manual got our steering issues resolved. We attended to laundry and fresh groceries and then we were off to see the sights and stimulate the local economy.

We did lots of walking through the historic section of town, admiring the buildings. We saw lovely examples of Charleston’s unique home style, very narrow street fronts that went a long way back with a patio/balcony along the side. These old houses were oriented, we learned, not to minimize taxable street frontage, but to take advantage of relatively cool north and west breezes in the centuries before air conditioning. We were enchanted by the complex ironwork gates and railings that we learned were another city trademark.
(photo: iron work on a historic house on Society Street)

Rather than plantations and gardens, we took an African-American history tour of the city and surrounding sea islands. It’s easy to tell the history of the wealthy and powerful, their works are visible and lasting. We were interested in the stories of the weak and ordinary, some of the slaves who literally did not have names or know for sure who their parents were. We saw beautiful monuments and historic buildings, but this was also the first tour I’d ever been on that took us to some of the slummy sections of town. At the end of our 3 days in Charleston, I still don’t know to what extent and how the city has reconciled its history. But the statue of (pro-slavery) John Calhoun at the square downtown is placed on a very high pedestal. There are those who say it is placed high as a mark of honor, and those who say if the statue was placed lower, within reach, it would have been vandalized by those who disagreed with those pro-slavery views.

Time and tide wait for no girl, and at exactly 6:45 AM, both slack tide and sunrise, we slipped away from the dock and continued downriver. Several other boats had the same idea, and James (who was in the lead) took this photo of the line of boats in the morning mist.
(photo: leaving Charleston, by James Forsyth)
(originally published 12 November 2009)

Wilmington, NC to Charleston, SC

We spent a great couple of days in Wilmington, visiting the land home of friends Tom and Debbie, who keep their sailboat at our marina in Annapolis. Because getting mail is a challenge when you don’t stay in any one place for more than a few days, we had had our mail, and the new boarding ladder we’d ordered at the Annapolis Boat Show, sent ahead to them. Reconnecting with our mail was a treat – no bills and no bad news! We had a great homemade dinner with them and tour of the town, where Debbie offered such odd pieces of information as the fact that there’s a large film industry in Wilmington, as well as a surfer culture from the local college, and that kids who had gone to school here were often liked it so much that they were willing to take seemingly underemployed jobs like waitressing to be able to stay in the area after graduation. Also a great short visit from Dan’s sister Karen and her husband. Karen had heard about, but never seen, our boat. The dinghy trip out to where we were at anchor in the harbor was an adventure by itself. Karen was intrigued with the storage aboard the boat, which she said reminded her of their camper, every square inch put to use.
(photos: our anchorage the first night, Cow House Creek; and the second, Awendaw Creek)

After leaving Wilmington we took a short day, motoring just a few hours to spend the night at Carolina Beach (surrounded by beach houses ranging from ostentatious to funky), then two long days down the Waccamaw River and the marshes. For a while I amused myself trying to photograph silhouettes of Spanish moss hanging from the trees. By the second day, though, we were out of the trees and surrounded by wide swaths of marsh grass with a few tree islands. My friend Cindy calls it the “river of grass” and said its one of her favorite places. For me, especially with the bronzy tones of autumn, the low grasses and wide horizons recalled the Kansas wheat farm where Dan grew up. But the phrase “featureless marsh” came to mind as well, and I realized how easy it would be to get lost here without our trusty GPS chartplotter. It looked the same everywhere we turned. We anchored in a wildlife refuge surrounded by unfamiliar bird calls and lots of stars.
(photo: Spanish moss along the river)

UGH! What’s that noise?

Also during this period our steering developed a groaning sound during right turns, a sound that wasn’t immediately urgent but certainly needed attending to. But when we stopped that night and tried to diagnose it, nothing! The steering worked perfectly. We took the compass off and sprayed lubricating oil on the chain at the helm; but next morning as soon as we got underway the sound was back, even louder. We start trying some serious diagnosis: Does it happen with the autopilot? (no) Does it vary with engine speed? (not noticeably) Does it happen with the engine running when tied at the dock? (no, again) Is the cable tension adjusted properly? (yes) We’re anxious to get to Charleston, tie up in a marina, explore the city, and find a mechanic.
(photo: there's nothing particularly special about this bridge except that it's located almost exactly midway between Annapolis and Miami. Halfway there!)
(originally published 10 November 2009)

On the Move - Southbound

My FaceBook status posts over the last week or so tell the story of traveling southward every day. The changes have been gradual, but gradually the vegetation has become unfamiliar as southern species that can’t handle Maryland winters predominate. We’re seeing pelicans dive-bombing the water and porpoises arcing, with regularity now. Some days are sunny and many are misty and drizzly. James and Ellen tell us that the relatively warm weather we’ve been having is a gift, but we feel like we’re hurrying only a few steps ahead of Old Man Winter.
*First the Great Dismal Swamp, then the Alligator River - these Southerners have a way with names! Anchoring tonight near Oriental, NC.
*[no posts for 3 days as we were anchored in a different place every night, all pretty in their way, surrounded by undeveloped marsh or trees, no sign of anything built by humans]
*Snuggled down last night for a big wind, today sunny & pleasant; Morehead City or Beaufort NC tonight.
*Tied up at the city marina in Morehead City, NC. Feels strange to be in civilization after being anchored out in very pristine areas for the past several days.
*Having pizza delivered = one of the underappreciated luxuries of being back in civilization.
*At anchor in Mile Hammock Bay - inside Camp Lejeune - while the Marines practice helicopter maneuvers overhead at what seems like barely above mast height. They were very loud, and so close that we felt the rotor wash like a strong gust of wind. [even the two amazing photos below, taken by James Forsyth, don't begin to do the experience justice]

*Wrightsville Beach, NC, after a drizzly, misty day. Lots of practice speeding up for timed drawbridges, or slowing down or stationkeeping waiting for timed drawbridges (we passed 3 today). Dinner tonight at the land home of Tom & Debbie [friends whose sailboat, Sunshine, is at our home Port Annapolis marina. The visit was lovely, both their hospitality and the city tour they gave us. Also a quick visit from Dan's sister Karen - who was delighted to finally come aboard and see the boat. The dinghy trip alone was an experience.]
*The only ice I want to see this winter is in my drink glass!
*Tomorrow, down the Cape Fear River, timing our departure to catch a ride on fair currents from a falling tide. But tonight, at anchor at Carolina Beach, sourdough bread rising in a blue bowl.

Operator Error!

Humans like their channels to be reliably in the same place every time, and mark their boundaries with red or green buoys. Mother Nature, though, doesn’t particularly like the dredged channel (“the ditch”) through the shifting sands between the barrier beaches and the shore here. Shoaling – sands piling up as the channel tries to fill back in - is a constant problem. The Army Corps of Engineers, who are responsible for keeping the channel passable for boats, publish maps like this one showing the path through the shoals. So we studied it carefully one night in preparation for passage the next day.

So, Dan was at the helm and I was armed with my trusty Garmin GPS, the nautical chart, and the Corps website and prepared to navigate through this tricky spot. It was a drizzly misty day and we could only see a few hundred feet ahead as I told him how to follow the directions I had worked out, with instructions like “go to red buoy #72B, then sight on #74 and turn 60 degrees left for 700 feet.” We went slowly and carefully, watching the depth meter – if it read less than 5 feet we would go aground.

It seemed longer, but it was only a tense 15 minutes or so before I pronounced us out of the shoals and into deeper safe water. Dan was ready to speed up when he noticed that James & Ellen, who had preceded us, were no longer straight ahead but motoring away at an angle off our port. Congratulations, self! I had done a superb job of navigating him across the shoals staying in safe water … and exited into the wrong channel! No harm, no foul – we quickly backtracked and corrected the error and were back on our way. (But dare I admit to getting a 96% on my Advanced Coastal Navigation final?)

(originally posted 1 November 2009)

At Anchor, Alligator River

Gotta love these names – first the Dismal Swamp, then this. This is a totally pristine spot. Low, scrubby trees, marsh, no sign of anything man-made for a full 360 degrees except the other boats in the anchorage with us, and the small marker showing the channel.

It has been two weeks since we started. Dan says he’s awed that we’re in all these new places and our home is with us. We’re used to moving - we count 23 moves between us since college – but that always involved dislocation and packing and unpacking and selecting a new place. Not this time! At the same time, what I hadn’t expected was the lack of down time. Hey, I’m retired! How did I get into this thing that involves getting under way at 8 AM and going until 5? Where is the relaxing in the sunshine, exploring new ports, time for writing, sketching, reflection? This is waaaay harder than I signed up for. The word “quit” has crossed my mind.

Thank goodness for our sailing mentors James and Ellen, who put it in perspective for us. “This is the work part. Think of it as a boat delivery. Our job is to get the boats to the Bahamas. When we get there, then we can play.

Okay, I’m back on track. Anchors up at 0730 tomorrow, destination Bonner Bay, about 60 miles south.

(Note, sorry, I’m introducing a bit of a time warp here. I couldn’t post this when it was written, Oct 25, as we were out of cellphone and hence internet range for several days.)

Elizabeth City, NC

Bills itself as the “Harbor of Hospitality” for the cruising community and we were happy to learn that it lived up to this reputation. There were the obvious amenities that we have learned to look for that govern our comfort in ways we took for granted when we lived on land – a laundromat within walking distance, and a good supermarket that picked us up at the marina and brought us back with our purchases. Delightfully unexpected was 48 hours free dockage in slips downtown (I can’t imagine that in Ego Alley in Annapolis!) and a wine-and-cheese party and orientation to the area lecture, put on by the city for the visiting boats. Speakers told us about the attractions of the town – where to listen to live music, visit the new museum, or walk the historic downtown – as well as some local history and boating tips. My favorite story involved the building of ships of local cypress trees in the 1700s and 1800s, which were sailed across to Europe and then broken up, because the wood was worth more than the vessel. As Dave, the speaker, rhetorically asked, “How would you like to set sail on a vessel that was built for a one-way voyage?”
The town was just full of friendly small-town charm. The Saturday morning farmers’ market had fresh broccoli and green beans (and okra, which we’ve never learned to like), and handicrafts. Xmas wreaths made of cotton plants were new to us, and proved we were in the South, as did a statue honoring the rebel soldiers in the Civil War that we discovered on our walk. Bringing a smile to this newly-retired Federal employee was this local artist, Jackie Muller, who made purses, quilts, and other items out of repurposed neckties. We visited the museum we’d been told about at the wine-and-cheese party, and a gift shop located in a historic drug store. Candles and mugs were in the apothecary drawers that still had labels for opium and laudanum. The live music was performed by the local chiropractor and high-school principal, who named their band “Pair-a-docs.”
In the end we stayed 3 days until a brisk north wind sent us sailing southward again. This was one spot we hope to visit again in the spring on our return trip.

(photos: "Dave" telling stories at the wine-and-cheese party; Jackie showing off a new life for old business clothes; the gift shop in the historic drug store; wreaths made of cotton balls)
(originally published 31 October 2009)

Dismal Swamp Canal

I had read about tea-colored water, but never seen it. Acidified by natural tannins in the surrounding cypress and juniper trees, it doesn’t support algae like the water of the Chesapeake, but the esthetics take some getting used to. Reportedly the water was prized for sailing ships in the old days because it could be kept sterile for a long time. They say it’s safe to drink ,though we didn’t try it. We tied up at the Welcome Center at the North Carolina state line along with many of the boats we’d locked through with. We’d been told that this is often the case, you’re all traveling the same direction and stopping in roughly the same places, so you’ll see the same boats again and again. The welcome center folks provided lots of info, and the dockmaster from Elizabeth City, the next logical stop for tomorrow and famed among cruisers for its hospitality, even came by to assure us he had lots of space for us all, and we were invited to a wine and cheese party. So the next morning early we were up, headed for the next lock and bridge. This lock was down: when we pulled in the depth sounder read 22 feet, by the time we exited the lock there were only 14 feet of water under us, and we came out onto the Pasquotank River. Narrow and winding at first, it gradually widened as we continued south. It looked more like what I thought of as “swamp,” too. We arrived at Elizabeth City in early afternoon and it was every bit as hospitable as it's reputation - more about that tomorrow.

(photo 1: Dawn on the Dismal Swamp Canal; photo 2: the canal water's color; photo 3: the Dismal Swamp)
(originally published 24 October 2009)

Ft Monroe, VA to Dismal Swamp

The next day, the seas were still rough after the storm but the day was crisp and clear, and with fair winds we decided to continue south. It was going to be another long day, 40-ish miles, so we started around 8. Or tried to; the docklines had tightened during the storm and by the time we got everything off, it was more like 8:30. We passed Fort Monroe at just exactly 5 PM close enough to hear the bugle, then anchored between the fort and a bridge causeway. I’m new enough at this retirement thing to feel a strange emotional sensation when I’m sitting in the cockpit watching cars stuck in rush hour traffic – I think it’s called “gloating.”
The next day was short, only about 3 hours. But it was interesting navigating Hampton Roads, passing and passed by laden container ships the size of a city block, numerous tugs and barges, and a warship headed out to sea. I’ve never ridden a bicycle on the Beltway at rush hour, but in terms of scale and power, it might feel something like this. We anchored at Hospital Point in Norfolk, at Mile 0 of the intracoastal waterway (ICW). After the adrenaline wore off and we knew the anchor was well-set, we took the dinghy ashore to explore. This is a process that takes about ½ hour since dinghy and motor each weigh a bit more than 100 pounds. It involves lifting the dinghy off the foredeck and lowering it into the water using our windlass, then rowing it to the stern of the boat where its motor is stored. Dan stays in the dinghy to guide the motor; I stay on the boat to lower the motor using a pulley system. We’d been traveling in company with another boat who have done this trip before, James and Ellen are mentoring us on this journey. Since our dinghy was already in the water there was no need to launch theirs; we shared the ride to shore where they sought fresh groceries and we toured the WWII battleship Wisconsin . The scale was even more overwhelming than when we’d passed the active ships on the way in, and I remember odd statistics like 4 acres of teak decks and a complement of 2,600 sailors during one tour. At day’s end, I was equally happy to sit in the cockpit and watch the traffic on the river.

(photos: the formidable bow of the Wisconsin; tug and barge at Norfolk)
Next morning we started the “real” ICW – lots of traffic, more naval vessels, and railroad bridges. After an hour or so we were out of the commercial areas and turned toward the Dismal Swamp Canal (which didn’t look so dismal in the sunshine). Here we went through our first lock. About a dozen boats of various types and sizes motored in to a high-walled shadowy box and tied to the walls and each other under the direction of the lockmaster. No wind or current made it easier, but it was still a bit stressful nestling our home in between a group of other boats and a wall. Then the gates closed. Water was pumped in and we rose to the level of the canal like a boat elevator, and we were at ground level and back in the sunshine. “I’ll tell you when to leave,” said the lockmaster. “I didn’t scratch any of you coming in, and I won’t scratch any going out.” We certainly appreciated the pride he took in his work! We motored out and down the canal single file. Not much work for a navigator to do here.
(before locking through - note the high walls)

(after: back up at ground level. Photo by James Forsyth)
(motoring the Dismal Swamp Canal in single file)
(originally published 23 October 2009)

Brief Update

We are anchored in yet ANOTHER Mill Creek, this one at Hampton Roads, VA. We have exited the Chesapeake. Humbling to think that we worked hard for a week to get here, could have done it in 4 hours from Annapolis by car!

(originally published 19 October 2009)

The First Week - Annapolis, MD to Deltaville, VA

Next day was sunny and breezy - HERE was the perfect sailing day I was dreaming of! We pulled off the dock without mishap and glided along in the sunshine, to set anchor at Mill Creek off the Patuxent River near Solomon's just at 5:00. I'm not much of a lighthouse collector but just love the leaning one at Sharp's Island, which we passed around lunchtime. Just as we were coming in to anchor, the cellphone rang. It was a business call that Dan had to take. What a piece of inconvenient timing! A half-hour earlier, we would have been in open water and I could have handled the boat alone while he talked. A half hour later, and we would have been stationary, securely anchored. But here we were in a situation that required both of us to navigate. I couldn't go ahead alone, so instead, I held the boat on station, essentially marching in place, slowly turning circles while Dan answered questions. He explained to his caller why he was so distracted and said, "Bet you haven't had THAT excuse yet today!"
Turned out that day was the only nice weather we were to have all week. The next day brought a cold front. It was a trade-off. The wind was from the north, which was a good direction to blow us south. At the same time, winds from the north in autumn tend to be chilly and drizzly, and this one was no exception. And it was to be a long day; our destination was 43 miles south. Ironically, it has been said that there are so many nooks and crannies - "gunkholes" - in the Chesapeake that you can anchor in a different spot every night of your life and still not see all of them. However, none of these great gunkholes were along our way! The very thing that makes them great is their out-of-the-way-ness, and we were just looking for the opposite, close and convenient. There were no good stopping places at all in this stretch of the Bay, which is why we planned a long day. We bundled up in layers of fleece, jackets and hats and gloves and bright yellow foul-weather gear, and off we went. Bad weather always looks worse through a pane of glass, and we ended the day feeling chilly, tired, and accomplished, in another Mill Creek, this time off the Great Wicomico River near Reedville, VA. This was the third Mill Creek we'd anchored in during the past month - the first was the one off Whitehall Bay near Annapolis.
The next day, Thursday, was cold and drenching rain. The wind was howling outside but the anchorage was lovely and quiet and we decided to stay put. We'd use the down time to more properly stow the provisions we'd brought aboard in Annapolis. Of course, we'd be buying food along the way. Still, there were certain favorite things we'd stocked up on before leaving Annapolis, a buying binge at Trader Joes and Whole Foods, and a case of good Spanish wine that was a farewell gift from friends Juan and Maria. We had been storing those things in the V-berth by day so we had room to sit down in our living space and moving them out into the salon at night when it was time to sleep. That little dance was getting old fast!
The other thing that was getting old was dampness. Of course, being in a boat is humid to start with, and in the cold days there was condensation everywhere. It was the kind of weather that just begged a pot of soup, but if we added any more humidity to the boat, water would have started dripping from the ceiling.
Friday we sailed again, in rougher colder weather than we'd seen so far, a foretaste of the winter weather we're sailing south to avoid. Our destination was directly downwind and we couldn't sail there in a straight line because the following seas, 4 or 5-foot waves, would make the boat impossible to handle. So we steered a zigzag course in the mist, which made it longer - it took 7 hours to go 25 nautical miles. In some cases we were surfing down the face of the waves, exhilarating but barely in control, a day that was tough on the people as well as the gear. But all's well that ends well, and now we're tied up snugly at the Deltaville Marina. Lovely place, by the way, we were able to borrow a car to get fresh vegetables, do laundry, and top up our water and diesel, and are ready to go next week. Loveliest of all, to us, was a secure place to be plugged in, warm and dry while we heard the chill wind whistling a gale outside. We broke a temperature record at Norfolk VA yesterday - the coldest Oct 17 on record.
PS - got an email from my sister-in-law Karen. She commented that when she read my previous post that she could just see her brother standing on the dock saying 'No, wait for me, I want to go south to the islands. I did not mean for you to drop me off on the forsaken dock and take off to the islands without me!'
Photos: Dan stowing provisions in the locker below our bed; the leaning lighthouse at Sharp's Island; a very chilly day to sail 43 miles

(originally posted 18 October 2009)

We're On Our Way!

We topped up the diesel and water tanks, and this time when we left the slip we brought the docklines with us. Usually when we go out for a day or a week they stay on the pilings to make it easy to come back into our slip when we return; they even have marks to show us where the cleats go. But we won't be back for six months, and we'll need them when we tie up the boat at new places.
It didn't feel any different, motoring down Back Creek and out into the Bay on a gray, chilly afternoon. I had hoped to sail a bit, symbolic of the beginning of our grand adventure, but the light winds meant it would be a motor trip. Four uneventful hours later I was at the helm nudging the boat against the floating dock at Knapps Narrows. I knew we'd have a challenge to turn around in the morning, but for the evening everything was going to be perfect. But as the bow came close, the current took the stern and swung us around - cool! Now we were facing the right way, and all I had to do was a bit of helm to bring the stern closer to the dock.
For an instant, all was well and Dan stepped off, line in hand, to tie us up. But the current continued to move us, and now all the lines he'd carefully prepared thinking we were going to be tied up facing east were on the wrong side. Before we could move them to the other side the current pulled us out - only now Dan was on the dock, with the boat held by one line, and I was at the helm alone. Not to go into too much detail, but there were some fairly comical moments with verrrry long docklines and the boat halfway out into the channel. There was no one on the dock to help, although at the same time that meant there were no witnesses to our debacle...and then, we were tied up snugly, with a heron standing on a nearby piling silently watching us.

(originally posted 13 October 2009)

The Rest of the Cruise

Photo 1: sunrise at our anchorage at Plaindealing Creek near Oxford;

Photo 2: workboats at a marina at Knapps Narrows

The rest of our trip is a series of snapshot images in my mind. The anchorage at Plaindealing Creek, near Oxford. It’s a wide, calm anchorage mostly surrounded by undeveloped land with just a few houses. It’s a clear night and there are a zillion stars – I was reminded of how much light pollution we have in Annapolis. Waking up in the morning to a perfect view of autumn mist rising from the water. Taking the dinghy into town and learning why Oxford was an important port when Europeans first arrived in Maryland, because of its incredibly protected natural harbor on Town Creek. Another night at anchor, the wind came up so strongly and suddenly that I was positive our anchor was dragging; how comforting to look at the GPS which assured me that we were right where we were supposed to be. Picking our way carefully back through the Narrows on our own, with no lead this time (and feeling very accomplished as we went through the drawbridge).
Finally, we sailed northward up the Bay back toward Annapolis and the loooong list of chores that we needed to accomplish before we were ready to sail south for the winter. It was about 1 PM and I noticed that the sun was peeking under the bimini, even though it was as high in the sky as it could get this season. Just another indicator that like the birds, it’s time to turn our thoughts southward.
PS: Uh-oh. Ellen commented that she’d read my previous blog post and wondered what I was talking about – she didn’t remember any scary big wind early in the trip. Does this mean I’m a wimp?
PPS: The claim is that a cruiser’s dinghy is like your car. Apparently that also extends to talking on the cellphone while driving! We were motoring toward town in the dinghy when friend Cathy called to connect us up with some potential renters for our townhouse. So here I am, trying to strike a deal underway …

Sailors Have Many Different Words for Wind

Dan studying the sail trim, trying to eke out a bit more speed. Photo by James Forsyth.

We’ve always said that we don’t race our boat. Officially, Dan claims that he doesn’t like the wear and tear on boat and crew, and mostly the attitude toward unnecessary risk-taking, that racing seems to engender. On the other hand, any time two sailboats of roughly the same size are traveling in the same direction, there’s … not racing exactly, but …”benchmarking our sailing skill,” or “learning fine points of sail trim,” or some other euphemism.
Last Saturday, when the wind was predicted to start out strong from the northwest and gradually taper off through the day, our friends James and Ellen suggested it would be a good day for a downwind sail down the Bay. They wanted to show us the way through Knapps Narrows, as we’d never been there before. Oh, yeah, and we could “compare the sailing characteristics of our two boats.” (You guys are going to be hearing a lot about James and Ellen; we’re planning to sail more-or-less in company as we head to the Bahamas this winter.) Although our boats are similar length, ours 33 feet and theirs 32, the designs are very different. Ours is a cutter – one mast, and theirs is a ketch – two masts. We should be slightly faster in light to moderate winds; their two masts and greater assortment of sails should give them more flexibility in changing conditions. They are also the more experienced sailors.
We spent Friday night on adjacent moorings on Clements Creek, and started down the Severn at 9 Saturday morning. The wind – almost too much wind – was roaring behind us, pushing us along quickly, a bit of adrenaline, hard to hold the helm, in fact. Not break-the-boat scary, but not really fun, either. I remember muttering to Dan, “I really don’t like this, why are we doing this?” and he asked me if I wanted to bail and head for home. But he already knew the answer – “No! We’ve gotta learn.” Sure enough, in another hour the wind had moderated and the day turned out more like everything we expected – clear air, sparkling blue water, warm sunshine, enough wind to sail well but not too much. We chose slightly different courses down the Bay, they stayed closer to the western shore, we were more in the center, but we noted (with just a bit of glee) that we seemed to be pulling ahead.
It wasn’t enough to make good speed, though – we had to be going in the right direction. James and Ellen’s more efficient navigation meant that they got to the entrance to the Narrows first and ended up waiting for us so they could lead us through. All sails down, we (and several other boats) followed them closely through the narrow channel rather like ducklings following their mother. On the other side, the water was flat and the wind had abated and we hoisted our sails again. As expected the lighter air favored our boat’s design and we began to pull ahead. The gap very slowly widened as the afternoon progressed. Then, quite abruptly it seemed, James and Ellen seemed to find their groove and their boat started catching up with us. It made no sense. The wind was getting lighter and lighter, which should have favored us. I was at the helm and Dan bounced around the boat like a hyperactive child, endlessly fidgeting with sails and winches to try to squeak just a bit more out of the trim, trying to keep our lead – to no avail. No fair! James took the above photo of Dan looking at the sails to see what else he could possibly do to improve our speed. As they continued to close the gap, James hailed us on the radio, teasing that he’d found some good wind over there where they were sailing a little to the left of us. He let us scratch our heads for only a moment before adding “It’s DIESEL wind. We’ve turned our engine on and suggest you do, too, if we want to make our anchorage before dark!”