Saturday, April 2, 2011

What was THAT??!!!

Posted: May 17, 3:29 pm 

Photo credit: NOAA (image from here)

We left on a raw, grey day, more like November than May, mashing and pounding into the Neuse River. It was really quite uncomfortable, so much so that we decided to stop early, after only 25 miles, rather than continue to beat into strong wind and waves across the Pamlico Rover and up the Pungo River. Tomorrow the wind would soften and shift to behind us and it would be a more pleasant run. We anchored in a wide marshy area behind a stand of trees. I remembered this area from the trip down, mostly pretty undeveloped land and wildlife refuge. We saw few houses, and would have no cellphone / internet coverage for several days. We did haircuts and hot showers and read novels while the gulls squawked. I started to feel like we’d chickened out too soon; it didn’t seem that windy. Um, right. We picked this spot for its wind shelter, of course it wouldn’t feel that windy, that was the point. But the wind was out there.

The next day was more like summer – warm and sunny and humid – and we went on our pleasant way through marshes and trees, some wide rivers and some narrow cuts. We shared an anchorage that night with dolphins. They came close enough that we could hear them make a strange “woofing” kind of noise when they surfaced and blew air. I had recently learned that dolphins are a kind of small whale, and watched them with new appreciation. We woke to birdsong, and during the day as we traveled saw egrets and deer and once Dan pointed out a shaggy bear on the river bank. At the end of the day we anchored at the head of the Alligator River, a spot I remembered from last autumn in shades of dark brown and misty grey, now brilliant under blue sky and the golden-green shades of spring. Tomorrow we’d be back in cellphone range and I could feed my internet addiction and get more detailed weather reports than those over the VHF.

We put out some sail in the morning and motorsailed down the Alligator River in stronger west winds than predicted. If this continued, we’d have to stop short again and wait for better weather before crossing the Albemarle Sound, 15 miles of open water that could get as nasty and choppy as the Chesapeake in the wrong conditions. But we got a rare gift – just as we approached the mouth of the river where it emptied into the Sound, the wind softened and we were able to cross in comfort. As we approached the other side, suddenly without warning a gust came up from the northeast, plastering the headsail against the stays and swinging the bow off course. We rolled up the headsail and continued with a reduced mainsail, grateful for the shelter of the approaching land, then continued up the North River to anchor a little way off the main ICW (IntraCoastal Waterway) channel a few miles south of Coinjock, NC tucked behind some trees for shelter from the east wind. A very long day tomorrow, or more likely, 2 comfortable-length days, would get us to Norfolk, VA. Or so we thought. Later that evening I posted my Facebook status: “The winds have quieted, off the cockpit I see a sunset in brushstrokes of gray and rose and blue and orange, and the most delicate wisp of a new moon. Dinner of mushroom and tomato omelet, a glass of wine, and looking forward to a peaceful night at anchor.”

About 5 AM I saw flashes of white light and assumed it was the lights of a tug and barge coming up the channel. I listened for the sound of his engine but heard nothing; still too far away. I settled back down, half-awake and musing on the travel plans for the day. The lights, though, didn’t grow gradually brighter as the tug came closer the way I would expect. I looked out again and yes, there was a tug and barge proceeding up the channel, but there was also lightning – a lot of it. No rain, wind, or thunder, though, and I began to hope the storm would pass us. The barge made the turn and went on past , and then suddenly – WHAM! More wind than we’d ever felt before on this boat, except for maybe during Hurricane Isabel in 2003, and I’m not even sure about that. And this wind was from the west – 180 degrees from where it had been forecast, from where it had been a few moments before. The lightning was continuous and the noise was amazing as the canvas bimini snapped and thrashed about. The boat heeled and things thumped and shifted in the cabinets; last night’s empty wine bottle fell over and a locker door swung open and the nautical chart slid off the table. I wedged in the galley to stay upright and Dan was across from me hanging on to the table. Our eyes were glued to the GPS that showed our position as our anchor finally gave up the unequal struggle and we were pushed to the east, away from the channel, into and through a field of crab pots, toward shallower and shallower water and the marsh grass at the shore. Our anchor – our Rocna, bought new for this trip. Our anchor that is rated to hold us in winds up to 50 knots – and had proven itself holding both us and another boat during a storm in January in the Bahamas -- but couldn't hold us in this.

In five very looooong minutes it was over, and the wind had decreased to ordinary levels and come back around to the east. The anchor reset itself and held us in our new position. Across the channel, a few hundred yards away, the barge was aground, and the tug was working to free it. Since we were in no immediate danger we decided to wait for a bit more daylight to assess our situation. There was marsh grass almost touching the starboard side of the boat. Perhaps we were partially aground or perhaps one of the crab pots we had been pushed into was now wrapped around our propeller, meaning we couldn’t start the engine without fear of damage.

It seemed North Carolina just didn’t want to let us go. First the problems with the engine and depth sounder that delayed us for 3-1/2 weeks, and now this. But in the end we were lucky. A check revealed that there was nothing on the propeller. The wind, now returned to its normal direction, pushed us back toward the channel; we were now in 6 feet of water. So we carefully raised the anchor and Dan stood at the bow, giving me hand signals as I worked the helm, threading our way back through the crab pots and into the channel and turning north.

Later we learned that between 5:00 and 5:30 that morning, the Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for the area. Although no tornadoes were seen to touch down, a tornado was spotted near the towns of Grandy and Jarvisburg – less than 5 miles from our anchorage! And in reviewing the incident for this blog post I finally realized something I had seen but not processed. We’d been pushed out of the channel toward the grasses to the east. The barge was also pushed out of the channel – toward the northwest. Only a few hundred yards apart, yet we went in opposite directions. I’m glad we did, or the barge could have been pushed down onto us or us onto it. Maybe the tugboat captain just overcompensated for that first big gust, barges are unwieldy. And yet, and yet ... what kind of wind phenomenon passed between us???

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