Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Straight, No Storm Chaser

sv Ruth Ann @ Washington

A good sailor thinks several steps ahead and plans for the unexpected. It gets weird when you have to think about what you would do if your anchor let go in a tropical storm. First, I put my wallet and passport in a dry bag and clipped it near the companionway; my exit. If the anchor let go, Ruth Ann would have been pushed toward the shore and likely would have run aground long before reaching the woods along the creek bank. I figured even fighting the wind and waves I might be able to crawl and swim toward the houses nearby. But what then? 

A few minutes later, I dug out a bigger dry bag and packed a couple changes of clothes in case the Coast Guard or the Sheriff had to drop me off at a motel somewhere. 

But that is getting way ahead of my story. 

After a glorious offshore sail from Fernandina Beach to Savannah, the weather had been fickle and I was stuck motoring up the ICW. I made it through Beaufort (Byew-fert), South Carolina, Charleston, Georgetown, and Myrtle Beach. Then on to the Cape Fear River, through Wilmington, North Carolina, and motored up to Navassa to the boatyard where I had done all the work on Ruth Ann. It was nice to see the folks at the yard and to catch up with a couple old friends there. 

Back down the river and headed north again, at Wrightsville Beach, I shared an anchorage with another friend who also owns a Bayfield 29; a mini Bayfield Rendezvous! Then I continued up to Beaufort (Bo-fert), NC to hang out with a couple friends up there. Two years before I had helped Victor get his boat from the same old boatyard up to Beaufort. This time, he had arranged with his marina that I could use their facilities even from the anchorage; laundry and a real, unlimited water shower! Hurray!

Oriental Sunrise

Then we decided to buddy-boat up to the Neuse River to do some exploring. His mother, who had fed us very well on the previous trip, came along too. It was uneventful until Cheryl tried to throw a ziploc bag of watermelon chunks to me. The bag landed in the water just short of Ruth Ann’s deck, but I circled around and managed to retrieve it with my boat hook. I love watermelon! We reached the broad waters of the Neuse and found a brisk west wind with a clear fetch all the way from New Bern. The wave action got a little uncomfortable, so we opted to head into Oriental. We squeezed under the bridge and spent a peaceful night in Greens Creek. I made tortillas aboard Victor’s Willard trawler, Bubba, while Cheryl cooked up fixings for Fish Tacos. It was all delicious. 

The next morning, the beautiful Willard left to return to Beaufort as Victor and Cheryl each had to work on Monday.  

I had intended to stay up in Oriental where I had yet another acquaintance to meet up with. Carl is a member of an online sailing forum where I have hung out online for fifteen years or so. In fact, it was through a post on that forum that I found Ruth Ann! It was good fun to meet Carl (and his wife Joan) in real life. The dock behind their house was only a few minutes of rowing from where I had randomly anchored. They took me to dinner one night with a stop at the grocery store and the next day I got to sail in a regatta on Carl’s boat! Afterward, there was a grand social and potluck for the Sailing Club of Oriental.

And then the weather turned against me. Hurricane Idalia had crossed the Florida peninsula and was headed up the East Coast. Luckily, she had lost some strength and was only a tropical storm as she approached the Carolinas. I was watching the forecasts and had started to think that Greens Creek wasn’t as good a spot to ride out a storm as I had hoped. An east wind from the storm could come all the way up the Neuse River, under that bridge, right into the creek, and over Ruth Ann. I had a full day to get further away before the storm arrived. 

I motored down the Neuse and followed the ICW to the Pamlico River where I continued up toward Washington, NC. Washington is a bit bigger than Oriental and I had decided that it would be a better spot to try and drum up some web design business. That day, I was aiming for Bath, a couple hours closer than Washington, but as I approached a long line of thunder squalls, unrelated to Idalia, was headed right over Bath Creek. Up the river, I could see blinding rain and could only guess there were strong breezes as well. I didn’t want to have to anchor in an unfamiliar creek in strong winds and low visibility. So I turned around to backtrack a bit and took a marked shortcut across a shoal to get into South Creek.

South Creek

The rain was holding north of my track and I motored up the creek past large stands of hardwoods along the shore and very few houses. Unfortunately, there was a boat already in the anchorage I had picked on the chart, so I kept going upstream. At a sharp bend where another creek came in from the south, flanked by a small group of houses, I anchored in a place called Duck Blind Pass. I would have preferred to have anchored near the northern shore. However, there was an abandoned wharf and a bunch of decrepit pilings marking the old channel there and I didn’t want to anchor in their midst. I could see on the chart that behind the wharf and the trees were great man-made ponds with straight edges and hard corners. I learned later it was a huge Nutrien fertilizer plant of some nature; a major employer in the area and probably a major polluter too.  

I dropped the hook in a wide spot along the south shore, near the smaller creek. The forecast indicated that the strongest winds were going to come out of the east and then the northeast during the storm. Ruth Ann and I were well protected from those directions. I prepped for the storm; pulled the bagged jib and the anchor float off the bowsprit and opened the dodger to let the wind blow through it rather than against it. I thought we were ready for just about anything. 

And then the forecast changed a bit. 

I made some supper after my prep work and managed to sleep a little. As the storm got closer, the path of the eye actually veered a bit offshore. Nevertheless, Idalia was a huge storm and her impacts were wide. About 2:00 AM, the outer edge of the storm reached South Creek. As the storm turned offshore, the wind direction had changed; blowing straight out of the north. We had much less protection than I had counted on. South Creek was just wide enough to let some chop develop as the wind crossed to us. Ruth Ann was “hobby-horsing” in the short, choppy waves; her bow rose and fell in a regular rhythm. I didn’t sleep much after it all started. I don’t have a wind gauge but the forecast then called for steady winds in the low 30s with gusts just over 40 knots. 

I hadn’t really planned on the hobby-horsing and it made me slightly concerned about my anchor line. Yet it was already too late to do anything about it. I checked the anchor alarm app on my tablet often and could tell that we were not dragging … yet. I laid back down but did not actually sleep. It was just more comfortable to shake with Ruth Ann in a prone position than to lurch around while standing or sitting down. I finished a book I had been reading about our government’s finances in the founding era.

It was then that I started to think that I should probably at least prepare for the worst. What would happen if the anchor line let go? I didn’t expect any storm surge so far from the ocean, but in the steady stiff breezes, the danger was chafe on the anchor line or the anchor itself dragging. When the sun came up, I crawled forward in the wind to check the anchor line. Everything looked fine, but the line was as tight as a guitar string and any further adjustment would have been dangerous. It was up to Davy Jones at that point. 

Then I put my wallet and passport in a small dry bag and clipped it next to the companionway where I could grab it on my way out. A few minutes later, I was pondering what it would actually be like if all hell broke loose and I had to abandon ship. The houses along the shore were probably close enough that I could swim and crawl toward them. I could bang on someone’s door and beg for shelter or help. Worst case scenario, the wind might blow us into the forest along the edge of the creek directly downwind. Then again, as long as Ruth Ann was at least some measure more vertical than horizontal, I could probably survive aboard until the storm had passed.   

I was starving and made some pancakes while rocking in the galley.

I read some more; a new book about Secular Buddhism.

The earlier forecast had indicated strong winds until Friday evening, but, about midday, the wind began to fade. I did all my checks again; anchor position, anchor line, water depth, distance to shore, etc. And all was good. 

I slept all afternoon and into the evening. 

I had plenty of food and water, although the morning after the storm I emptied the water jugs stored on deck into Ruth Ann’s tank. I’d have five or six days before I needed to find some more water. It was then that I realized that it was Labor Day Weekend. My plan had been to head on into Washington and use the city’s free dock to fill up on water and run some errands. I could have used some fresh veggies by then and I had to find a FedEx outlet in order to return a part I had ordered incorrectly. I was low on diesel for my engine as well. But there was no sense in heading into town to fight the holiday crowds and traffic. 

I stayed in the creek until Tuesday morning.  

The houses along the creek were not palatial, but probably a fishing version of the gentleman farmers I was familiar with in Michigan. They must have been wondering about me and how long I planned to stay so near to their fine trimmed lawns and expensive fishing boats hanging on dock lifts. Saturday morning, after the storm, we had been buzzed by a private helicopter. The pilot just kind of stared at me as he hovered over Ruth Ann. He didn’t even wave, so I didn’t either; just another rude rich guy. Nevertheless, I didn’t stay too long, and Tuesday morning I sorted myself and Ruth Ann, checked the engine, and hauled the anchor. 

The Pamlico River is also quite broad and it was a pleasant day heading up into Washington. The wind was right on our nose, so I motored – again. We passed clusters of houses and docks, passed a huge Nutrien Employee Center on the water, and had lots of room and lots of water to make our way north and mostly east. Nearer to Washington, the river starts to get a little shallow and the last few miles are a narrow, marked channel. 

At Washington, there is a railroad bridge with a unique schedule. Many railroad bridges are “usually open” and only close when a train approaches. The Coastal Carolina Railroad bridge here closes each morning at 7:30 for a northbound train and stays closed until the same train returns around 10:00. If the train is more than fifteen minutes away, you can request the bridge to open for you, but otherwise the bridge stays open after the train has made its southbound return. I would bet the train and its schedule are related to the Nutrien plant somehow.  

Washington Waterfront

Washington, North Carolina is called the “Original Washington.” The settlement was established in the 1770s by James Bonner and was first called Forks of the Tar. After Bonner had returned from the Revolutionary War, having served as a colonel in the Beaufort Regiment, he changed the town’s name to honor General Washington long before the District of Columbia or any of the other Washington locales. During the war, while Savannah, Charleston, and other nearby ports were under siege by the British, Forks of the Tar had been an important supply port for the rebels.   

Today, Washington is a very pleasant medium sized town with a very nice waterfront. The City runs the Washington Waterfront Docks where slips are available as well as free transient dockage. The transient docks are free for forty eight hours and include access to showers, laundry, and even a couple bikes with baskets. There are many, many restaurants within walking distance of the docks. I’ll be here for a few weeks. Then the first weekend of October, I am scheduled to be back in Oriental where I will volunteer at the Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival. 

There is another, even bigger storm, passing by the Carolinas later this week, but Lee will not get very close to the coast. Life is good. 

Hope all is well with all y’all.


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Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Welp ... That Was Stupid

Rabbit Island Anchorage

I made a terrifically stupid mistake last Wednesday when I had not prepared well enough for all possible contingencies. When I read “The Black Swan” by Nicolas Nassim Talib a few years ago, it was very influential on my thinking. The book is a thick read, packed with analysis and wisdom. Talib consistently applies his ideas to economics in the book but makes it clear that those ideas have wide applicability. The gist of the book is that we don’t evaluate risk from a broad enough perspective. For instance, while some individual component in a system might only have a two percent chance of failure, if that failure would be catastrophic for the system as a whole, then that individual risk is actually not small at all as it relates to the system.

Several of my choices with regard to fitting out Ruth Ann were analyzed from Talib’s perspective. Last week, however, when I decided to continue to tow the dinghy, I had let my guard down and wasn’t looking comprehensively at all the risks. I was frustrated with the weather and wanted to keep moving, but I should have paused. I should have stowed the dinghy on deck, but now I’m getting ahead of my story. 

I don’t usually raise a sail when I’m motoring in tight spaces like on the ICW (Intra Coastal Waterway), but I found myself on a long stretch in the same direction with the wind just off my starboard quarter and I couldn’t resist. Motorsailing in the bright sunshine of one of the hottest days of the year was sweaty but simply rapturous. I would have rather been sailing offshore, but the fluky weather had kept me on the inside, on the ICW. I had to jibe a couple times to keep the sail filled and follow the channel, but I was having fun.

Something had changed with the dinghy. While rowing the week before, my butt got wet a couple times from water splashing up from inside the centerboard well. That had not happened before. Worse yet, as I was now motoring, and motorsailing along, I noticed that a fair amount of water was splashing into the forward half of the dinghy from the well. I was keeping an eye on it .. that is until I discovered that I was in the wrong channel. 

I was having so much fun helping the motor by flying the jib that I wasn’t paying enough attention to my track. I had started following the wrong set of markers. As I looked around just then, I was getting into more open water; which wasn’t right. After checking and rechecking my chartplotter, I realized that I had gotten into the St. Helena Inlet and was headed out toward the Atlantic. My destination had been the Raccoon Island Anchorage which was marked on my chart. Wondering if I would still have time to get there, I had the chartplotter recalculate the route. We had already turned around, but the new route showed that we could go up the Ashepoo River rather than backtracking all the way to my missed turn.


Oars on the thwarts

It was then that I noticed that the dinghy was really quite full of water. The larger swell in the inlet had made the splashing much worse. The dinghy wallowed way below her lines with the waves nearly reaching high enough to fill her from the top. When the dinghy came down a wave, the water in it would slosh to one side which caused it to lean sickeningly close to turning over each time. The oars were loose, as usual, riding on the thwarts which would have been fine for gurgling along on the ICW, but was not great since we’d gotten so close to the ocean. I slowed Ruth Ann to mitigate the dinghy’s motion. We had been steering around a shoal that extended from the southern point of a large island. The Ashepoo River lay just beyond the shoal where I had hoped there might be some protected water where I could slow the boat or anchor to bail out the dinghy.  

Then I heard the clunk. 

Anyone who has ever paddled a canoe or rowed a boat would recognize the ringing tone of the hardwood oars as they banged against the dinghy which was suddenly completely swamped. I watched the oars float away free in the ragged ocean swell as we bobbed in the wide inlet. The dinghy had become like a sea anchor with hundreds of pounds of water in it, creating tons of resistance, and straining against the painter -- its only connection to the boat. 

The dinghy is my car. Without it I could not get to shore from Ruth Ann at anchor. Losing the oars would be like losing the engine of a car. We were not in a good spot. The swell was coming in straight off the Atlantic and rocked us mercilessly. Nevertheless, it was critical that I collect the oars and with the swamped dinghy dragging behind, it was not going to be easy. 

I had been cutting across the shoal in water just deep enough for Ruth Ann and now the fugitive oars were being pushed by the swell into ever more shallow water. My initial pass at the nearest oar failed. I hadn’t gotten quite close enough to reach it with my boat hook. As I turned around to try again, the depth sounder briefly displayed three dashes, not some number of feet below us; meaning nada, zero. My stomach dropped as I realized that I was already brushing the keel along the bottom. 

I turned toward where I thought deeper water would be but had to circle back for the oar. As I got closer and closer, dashes flashed again. I hadn’t felt the bottom, but I knew that we were on the verge of running aground. If we had run aground, amidst the swell coming in from the ocean, there’s no telling how much damage Ruth Ann would have sustained before we could be rescued. The waves would have picked her up and dropped her, again and again; banging her incessantly on the bottom. 

But I had to try. 

The first oar came alongside again and, that time, I grabbed it. Amazingly, I was able to lift one end high enough to grab it with my other hand. I grinned grimly and turned the boat again; guessing where deeper water might be. The second oar was twenty or thirty feet away and this time I knew just how close I had to get. I jumped from the cockpit to the rail and leaned out over the water, hanging by a shroud, stretching the boat hook as far as I could. The hook dipped into the water just short of the oar on the first lunge, but I lunged again and was just able to grab it. A wave must have bumped us just enough for me to reach the oar. I stashed that oar on the side deck next to the first and climbed back to the helm. I spun Ruth Ann around and hoped that Neptune would let us make it out of the shallows.    

I tried to head directly toward the Ashepoo River and the route out of there, but I was still on the bottom; all dashes again. I turned out toward the ocean, “downhill” on the shoal, and watched as the depth sounder finally began flashing 1.2, then 2.7, and finally steady at 3.5 for a good stretch. Near most of the inlets along the Southeast United States, the Coast Guard marks the channels with buoys which can be moved as the sandbars shift in the tidal currents or from a storm. Thankfully, if we were on the bottom, that bottom was just sand; sifted not packed hard. However, I had never felt us ‘bottom out,’ so it was likely that we had stirred up the sand and the depth sounder had interpreted the excessively cloudy water as solid ground. Either way, we were very close to grave danger. My heart did not slow until I started to see double digit depths below us. And then I was finally able to turn toward the river.

It was one of those oppressively hot days with the moist air so thick that it felt as if I was breathing through a wool scarf. And I needed to drink some water. The oars were aboard but my work was not done. The dinghy still lurched around behind us, completely swamped and if I didn’t bail it soon, it could be lost. 

Once we were in about fifteen feet of water, even though we were still in the swell of the inlet, I dropped the anchor and let out just enough chain to hold us temporarily. I had first tried to get in the dinghy after bringing it alongside, but, full of water, it was extremely unstable. When I started to step aboard, the water sloshed toward my foot and the dinghy wanted to go right over. I decided that the only way to bail effectively was to get in the water next to it.

I pulled the dinghy across Ruth Ann’s stern and tied it from each end. After crawling down the swim ladder, waist deep in the water, I hung on to the ladder and the dinghy with one arm and bailed with the other. I had gotten really tired in the heat, yet I had no choice but to carry on. Once most of the water was out, I managed to climb into the dinghy and bailed the last of the water more quickly. Finally, the dinghy was nearly dry and safe to tow again. It would not have been possible to ship the dinghy in those rolly conditions. I finally got some water to drink and paused for a couple precious minutes to catch my breath. 

After double checking with the recalculated route, I went forward to haul the anchor. I don’t have a windlass, so after all that work retrieving the oars and bailing the dinghy, now I had to pull in the anchor by hand while the ocean swell pushed the boat against the chain. I hauled and hauled; stubborn, slow, and steady to get the anchor raised. 

With the anchor up, Ruth Ann bobbed joyously in the swell and gently turned toward the river with the help of the wind and waves. I secured the anchor chain and walked back to the helm. The engine had been idling and I pushed the lever into forward gear. We were finally free and moving toward our destination again. According to the chartplotter, I could probably get the anchor down before the sun set. 

Firehose Installed


It was not a great idea to travel towing the dinghy but it was especially bad in open water. Leaving the oars loose was just lazy, but I had been getting away with it up to then. The oars would have been fine if I hadn’t left the calm waters of the ICW. When planning to go offshore, I always tie the dinghy down on deck. The next day, I stowed the oars properly and installed the centerboard in order to close off the top of the well. While the dinghy stayed dry, it swayed harshly from right to left as the board caught the flow from one side and then the other, yanking the painter at each turn. After a couple hours, afraid that the painter would chafe through from the repetitive shocks, I pulled into a creek to anchor and try something else. I had some expired office building firehose (really) onboard to use as chafe guard material. I cut a couple pieces the length of the well and stuffed them into the top. It worked great and has been working fine in protected waters. 

As long as I don’t get lost again, I’ll be OK. 

As per usual, I’d rather be lucky than good, but that was pushing it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

An Offshore Sail ... finally

The vane of the windvane

Previously, I had made my way to Fernandina Beach from Green Cove Springs, finally moving north, but caught by a heavy squall just as I entered the anchorage. This story picks up the next day; a day of preparations. 

Despite the gusty winds on Monday, I had re-secured the dinghy, tightened up my rig, and worked on prepping Ruth Ann to go offshore. I was still contemplating my actual strategy. The winds were forecast to be quite light for most of the morning on Tuesday. I was concerned that I might get out on the ocean and get stuck out there without any wind. The choice was to either jump offshore or to continue motoring up the ICW. Ultimately, I decided that if I took the ICW I would have to motor for sure, but if I went offshore, I could motor all day long and not be any worse off ... but ... if the wind picked up, I would be sailing. Worst case, if the wind never showed up, I could pull in at St. Simons Sound, and head up through Brunswick to get back on the ICW. 

Sometimes, I can get bogged down overthinking and procrastinating, but I pushed through it and Tuesday morning, Ruth Ann and I left the Fernandina Beach Anchorage, turned toward the ocean on the St. Marys River, and we were on our way. The mainsail was already raised, with the flying jib and the staysail hanked on at the bow and ready to be hoisted. After only a couple hours, the wind had filled in and I raised the head sails. A short while later, I pulled the engine stop, and peace returned to my world. It is always such a magical moment when the engine is turned off. For a short while, the missing rumble of the engine makes the silence even more magnificent.

I began sailing right toward my destination, Port Royal Sound just into South Carolina, north of Hilton Head Island. It was so good to be sailing again, and ocean sailing to boot! We were on a broad reach, the fastest, yet most comfortable point of sail. The wind was blowing across Ruth Ann, perpendicular to our heading. On a broad reach, a boat is flatter in the water, not healing over, and the sails are at their most efficient. It was glorious! 

I had ordered a windvane from South Atlantic in Argentina. It had been hanging on Ruth Ann’s transom since 2022 and I finally had a chance to fiddle with it. It is a servo-pendulum windvane which means that the windvane does not steer the boat, but its rudder actuates a pair of control lines which steer the helm using the boat’s own rudder. It is a bit like when you stuck your arm out the window of a car when you were a kid, raising and lowering your arm using your hand like an airfoil. The same force that moved your arm, pulls a control line and turns the wheel. 

I had made a couple beautiful control lines out of dyneema, because I have a lot of it around. However, dyneema is a very slippery material and my fancy control lines kept sliding out of the clamps on my ship’s wheel. Ruth Ann’s long keel allows her to carry on without me for a couple minutes anyway, so I went below and grabbed some standard line. Sailors always have extra rope around. 

With the less slippery control lines, I got the windvane working for the very first time and had it steering Ruth Ann for a few hours. My newfound freedom allowed me to wander around the boat and enjoy the ride. I also checked my running rigging and other gear for chafe or wear. It was completely soul-enriching to be out on the ocean, on my own boat, while she steered herself. We were all simply joyous.  

I also got to catch some cat naps. After passing Brunswick, there wouldn’t be any big ship traffic until Savannah. As the windvane steered us toward South Carolina, I took twenty minute naps down below. What a feeling, being confident enough in my boat, her systems, my work, and the universe that I actually slept as we sailed toward our destination. 

After lying down for twenty minutes, once my alarm sounded, I would get up to have a look around outside. Twenty minutes is a good round number, but it is also about the length of time it would take a freighter to come over the horizon and get close to us. After a half dozen cat naps, I stayed in the cockpit for a while enjoying the night. The sunset had been wonderful, but the stars were amazing once it got dark.  

Sunrise at Sea

We were sailing about ten miles offshore, far enough from any other light source that the sky filled up with stars. Landlubbers would hardly imagine how thick the stars actually are. Words like ‘million’ and ‘billion’ are just a little easier to comprehend when all the stars are allowed to shine uninhibited by local light sources. The Milky Way was a huge, bright river of stars running all the way across the sky. It was magical.

And then it started to get weird. 

Sailing in the dark, I could hear the waves around me, but I couldn’t see them. While listening to the waves, I tried to guess what they looked like and what they were telling me. A strange slap on the waves caused a glow of bioluminescence. I assumed that we were running through a cross current or something that had changed the texture of the waves. Then a strange line lit up a couple feet below the surface for nearly the length of Ruth Ann. Suddenly, there were little spots lighting up; randomly at first and then in short rows.

And then a huge crashing splash on the other side of the boat. I had been looking the other direction, but when I turned toward the sound, a whole patch of ocean was lit up. Soon there were splashes all around me. One splash, just to starboard, caused a bright enough glow that I could see the dolphin thrashing around under the surface. There were several dolphins and they must have been feeding on something. 

And then the dumbest, most movie-cliche thing that has ever happened to me … happened.  

A flying fish came soaring out of the water! And I had just caught the motion out of the corner of my eye when it hit me square in the chest and fell into the cockpit. It flopped around and then fell into the slot between the cockpit wall and the hatch that is the cockpit floor. She was much bigger than I would have expected; probably ten inches long and nearly as big around as my wrist. When I tried to grab her, she rattled around in the slot at the edge of the cockpit. I had heard that flying fish have a distinct smell and I will not forget her oily scent, like opening a can of sardines that had gone off. 

Photo by Mike Prince, Creative Commons

And then it was on. I was almost embarrassed at the rambunctious and reckless feast the dolphins were having. Flying fish began jumping all over; eight or ten of them landed on Ruth Ann’s deck. I tried to save them all and a couple were so startled by my big bright flashlight that they writhed around, jumped a little higher, and went over the side. It took me so long to find one of them that when I threw it back, I wasn’t sure it would survive. And I didn’t find one sad, small guy until the next morning. 

Dolphins and flying fish and bioluminescence all together was completely surreal. It was amazing how far the fish can leap/fly. And coated in the glowing seabound cousins of fireflies, they looked like LED encrusted drones flying around. I saw them dart through the water, kicking off little glowing trails and I saw the dolphins in hot pursuit painting the ocean in huge arcing brushstokes of a strange green light.

And almost as abruptly as it started, the glowing was gone and the crashes and slaps went silent. 

Soon after, when I was twelve miles or so off Savannah, the wind just died. I had made it into Wednesday, but the wind was gone. The sails hung loosely and flopped back and forth, slamming against the sheets and blocks – from the rolling waves, not from any wind. It was time to change the plan and I fired up the engine, deciding to head toward the coast and into the Wassaw Inlet, just south of Savannah. The inlet was far enough away from the port that I wouldn’t have to deal with any ship traffic. It was, however, going to be three or four hours before I got back to the coast. I switched the control lines of the windvane for the belt of the autopilot and went back to napping. It was about three thirty Wednesday morning and I had been on the water since nine o’clock Tuesday; up since about six that morning before. Every twenty or thirty minutes I got up and looked around but there was no one else. 

It was light out by the time I could see the coast. The Wassaw Inlet is a little tricky and shallow, I had to be on my toes to make it over the bar and safely into the Wilmington River. There was one anchorage on the chart not too far inland and not much else that looked inviting. Another option turned out to be just a wide spot next to the ICW, but I was keen to return to the Herb River. That was where I had been the week before Christmas when a winter storm was blanketing most of the Eastern half of the United States. Five nights in a row it got down into the twenties after I had found a dock nearby. It seemed poetic to arrive at the same spot while sweating. 

By the time I got to the Herb, I probably could have motored all the way to South Carolina. It was about three hours to get back to shore and then almost four hours to get all the way up the river to Thunderbolt, Georgia. I ended up staying there for two days to rest and recover, and to figure out my next move. I was so far from the inlet I had entered, it didn’t make any sense to go back out that way. It would be shorter to head to the Savannah River and go out that way, or just cross into South Carolina on the ICW; either way it was plenty hot and I needed to keep going north.


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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Catching the Squalls

Gunnison Crossing Sunset

I spent about seven weeks in Green Cove Springs, Florida to be near my mail service. There it was convenient to order parts and be able to pick them up rather than paying again for shipping. I did a bunch of small projects on Ruth Ann and attempted, yet failed, to see either a dentist or a doctor. Routine checks would have been nice at each, but they will have to wait until I return in the fall. I cleaned up and organized the cabin, actually got rid of some stuff that I don’t use, and got in the water, with a mask and fins, a couple times to scrape the barnacles off both Ruth Ann and the dinghy.  

Nevertheless, it was way past time for me to get out of Florida. Hurricane Season had started June First, but I had been distracted by the momentum I had established finishing the many projects on my list. So, I was late in leaving the Carolinas last December, and was now late to leave Florida this summer. My aspirational philosophy is: “If it’s too cold, move south. If it’s too warm, move north.” It’s been HOT the last few weeks! I will do better next year. 

My planned departure day from Green Cove Springs was last Saturday, so Friday night I moved over to the Public Pier. For twenty bucks, I spent the night at a dock where I plugged in to fully charge my batteries and filled up on water. Late that afternoon, despite a clear forecast, a big, strong storm moved through the area. I don’t like being at a dock generally, but I especially don’t like being at one in a storm. 

The Green Cove Springs Public Pier is a very nice facility. The floating docks at the end of the pier include five slips for medium-sized boats and a face dock that can accommodate much bigger ones. On most days, floating docks are very convenient as the boat and dock will rise and fall together. You don’t have to allow for the tide when tying up your boat. However, in the wave action of a strong storm, because they are different lengths and buoyancies, the dock and the boat can get out of sync. This sets up a nasty shock load each time the dock is falling as the boat is rising and vice versa. The dock lines yank at the cleats with brutal force at the apex of each cycle. 

Unfortunately, I also had the dinghy in the slip with Ruth Ann. The dinghy is a nesting dinghy which means that it comes apart into two halves that nest together to stow on deck in a small space. I had planned to take the dinghy apart just before leaving in the morning. More than once during the squall, I stepped off Ruth Ann to adjust her lines and the lines to the dinghy to prevent any damage to either. Keep in mind that this “stepping off” was happening while the boat and the dock were slamming around out of sync. 

When the storm had finally passed, it was still daylight and I needed a beer.

I hadn’t planned to go out that night but I went back to La Casita, a little Mexican place just up the hill from the pier and one of my favorites. A couple nights before I had had a wonderful dinner at Roger That Wings and Things. It was a little expensive, but the blackened mahi sandwich was exquisite, the fries were uniquely crunchy, and the coleslaw was divine (of all things), but the crowd was a little bougie for me and the staff was tolerably nice but somewhat aloof. At La Casita, the waitresses are all like everyone’s favorite aunt and the staff is cheerful and helpful. After you are seated, a runner brings out a basketful of fantastic house-made chips, with a bowl and a small carafe of salsa. They smile and pour some of the delicious salsa into the bowl while assuring you that someone will be right with you to take your order. The little carafe and the personal attention are such nice touches; typical of their attention to detail.  Every item I have tried there is wonderful and absolutely authentic. Friday, I had gone back for my regular: a couple shrimp tacos and a Negra Modelo draft or two. Once satiated, I returned to Ruth Ann and went back to work on my Departure To Do List.

In the morning, I was preparing to take the dinghy apart and load it on deck when my neighbor from when I was in Governor Creek showed up. He asked what was going on and I told him I was headed out. 

“Oh, darn,” he said, “I was going to ask you to crank me up my mast. My friend is coming to tail the winch, so he could lower me and you could leave as soon as I’m at the top.” 

That sounded more than a little sketchy, but Doug is a good man and a real sailor who struggles with a degenerative nerve condition. I agreed right away to stick around long enough to crank him up his mast. He left to go get his boat back at the creek and bring it down to the pier. 

I had disassembled the dinghy and set up the rack which I had built for it on top of Ruth Ann's cabin. I was cranking the halves up on deck and cleaning them off. I’ve only lifted them a couple times and almost dropped the aft half, scaring a couple who had wandered down the pier for some pictures. He offered to help, but I was fine -- just clumsy. A few minutes later, Doug’s friend showed up to tell me that Doug was stuck in the creek with an engine problem and didn’t want me to have to wait. I was free to go. 

My main concern that day had been to get to Jacksonville before another afternoon storm. The storm pattern had seemed to have established itself and I didn’t relish getting caught out on the water in the wind and rain of a Florida Summer Thunderstorm. I decided to put off tightening the rig because I could do that in Jacksonville before I headed offshore. Ruth Ann was mostly ready, so I checked her fluids, cranked the engine, untied the lines, and shoved off. 

The trip down the river was uneventful. In fact, the afternoon storm had not yet appeared. I was watching the sky and checking the radar on my phone. At Jacksonville, we passed under the I-295 bypass, then I-95 itself, a railroad bridge quickly followed by the Acosta Bypass bridge, and then I had to call and ask the Main Street Bridge to open for us. Amazingly, there was still no storm brewing. I decided to go past the free docks at the Municipal Marina and head to the next anchorage. 

Well east of Jacksonville and down the St Johns River, I went under the Napoleon Bonapart Broward Bridge at Dames Point, got past the Port of Jacksonville, and still no storm. [BTW - N.P. Broward was a river pilot turned Florida governor in the early 20th Century] The anchorage I had picked was just past the port in an oxbow around Blount Island. The weather was still clear when I arrived, so I just kept going. I was making more headway than I had imagined that I could. 

About halfway between the Port and the Atlantic Ocean is Sisters Creek on the northern shore. The ICW crosses the St Johns there and a nice anchorage is just off the river. My original plan, that I thought I was still on, was to go straight down the river, out into the ocean, and head for Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, just north of Hilton Head Island.   

I got to Sisters Creek and realized it was Saturday evening. There are two parks and three large boat ramps on the creek right off the river. I had planned to use the anchorage across from the ramps, but the ramps are always busy on the weekends. Further it looked like a fishing tournament was going on and the cops had some boat detained on the face dock. I decided to keep moving. There was a beautiful and quiet anchorage, where I had been in January, an hour and a half or so up the creek. I didn’t even slow down. 

I wrote before about the difference, but south of the river, as the ICW cuts through Jacksonville, it is very urban. However, north of the river and past the boat ramps is wilderness; a huge marsh with seagrass and little sandy islands almost as far as you can see. Some of those islands nearly disappear at high tide, others are well higher than the tide line, and some even support small hammocks of trees. There are seabirds of all kinds as well as osprey and eagles. Ruth Ann and I gurgled back past the river intersection where I last saw the Summer Wind. As we came around a long curve, the last half mile before my destination, I could see a fishing boat sitting right where I wanted to put Ruth Ann. The little anchorage at Broward Creek only has room for a boat or two and I wasn’t about to nudge in there to drop my anchor while they were fishing. Now it was getting critical. There was another anchorage ahead but I was running out of daylight – and what if I found another fishing boat?

As we made our way along the creek, I was checking behind me to see if the fisherman ever left Broward Creek. As the daylight faded, my only choice was to keep rolling along. Just before Sawpit Creek and my anchorage, a woman in a fishing boat went screaming by and in a long arc – went into the creek. Oh, hell.  

When I arrived, however, she was down at the end of the creek where there was another boat ramp but at this end my destination was clear. It was a beautiful spot called Gunnison Crossing on the chart, but I couldn’t find any information about the name or its history. I’m always poking around online for local history. I followed along the south shore of the creek as recommended on Active Captain and found a broad space with room for a half dozen boats. I got the hook down and went below to start supper.  

That evening, I sat in the cockpit and enjoyed the birds. A lone egret stood stoically in the shallows waiting for her supper to swim by. A beautiful sunset lit the sky and made the clouds to blush. It was a nice respite. I was also looking into the weather and the tides. Not only had I made more miles than I expected that day, but because I had kept moving after the Sisters Creek boat ramps, now I was a third of the way to Fernandina Beach off the St. Marys Inlet. That inlet would have a gentler tidal current than the St. Johns River. Further, the anchorage at Fernandina would be a good place to tighten my rig and ‘ocean proof’ the cabin down below. I decided to head to Fernandina the following morning and then head out the inlet the day after.

Fernandina was only about four hours away, so I had a good casual breakfast and got moving by mid morning. I didn’t plan on going ashore for anything, so I would have lots of time to finish my boat chores on arrival. The forecast seemed benign that day, but I was concerned about the strength of the wind on Monday when I meant to be offshore. There was the potential for it to get a little sporty. 

Sunday early afternoon, as I neared Fernandina, my radio beeped with a NOAA Marine Weather Warning. Off to the west, the sky had darkened and the National Weather Service was warning of a powerful thunderstorm moving east at thirty five miles an hour. It was already chasing me, but I was hoping against hope that I could get into the Fernandina Anchorage before it hit. There wasn’t anywhere else to stop anyway, so I kept moving. 

The Looming Storm

As I got near Fernandina, I was on the Amelia River which makes a hard turn to starboard and then curves to port in front of the downtown. I was very close, but the storm was already looming over me more than just chasing me. Just before the townm, I passed a small anchorage and considered steering quickly out of the channel to drop the hook there. Nevertheless, the spot was completely open to coming wind and a couple of suspect-looking boats were already there. These boats did not looked occupied, or even well taken care of. Who could know the quality of their anchor or the chain. I did not want to have to keep track of other boats besides my own in a storm. Through the marina mooring field just ahead was the main anchorage where I wanted to drop my anchor in the larger area there. 

But I was too late. 

Mill @ Fernandina

Just as I passed the big sawmill and the commercial fishing docks, the wind arrived. It was a blast of cool air with a few drops of rain like rubber bullets, but the worst was right behind it. By the time I got to the main anchorage, the storm was raging. It would have been exceedingly dangerous to attempt to anchor by then. My normal procedure would have been to find a spot, put the boat in neutral, walk to the bow, and drop the anchor. However, with the boat in neutral, and the wind pushing and shoving at Ruth Ann, I could not control the drift or even guess at where we would be headed. I don’t have a windlass either, so whenever I drop the anchor I am using my hands on the chain and rope. Further, there would be a tremendous yank when the anchor finally bit. Dropping the anchor right then would have endangered Ruth Ann, her anchor, the chain, my hands and fingers, and all the nearby boats.  

Thankfully, I had looked at the radar and knew that the storm was a line of showers. Terrifically strong, but a line that would pass quickly and all would soon be over. I just had to circle around in the anchorage until the howling wind and rain finally stopped. Luckily, there weren’t many other boats there. I had to hide behind Ruth Ann’s dodger, peeking out occasionally to keep from hitting anything. The wind was screaming, the rain was horizontal, and it was impossible to keep my eyes open for long outside the protection of the dodger. I kept Ruth Ann’s bow into the wind as much as possible but I had to turn around several times to stay in the anchorage area. She rolled wildly when we were beam to the wind, and we went careening ahead when the wind got behind us. 

And then it was over. The wind had suddenly faded. I was soaking wet from head to toe, but I could finally see where I was going. The sun started to peek under the clouds in the west and I circled to find a spot to anchor. Anyone who was watching must have thought that I was drunk. There was an obstruction on the chart, likely a sunken boat, and another boat at anchor near where I wanted to be. It took several passes to get into a spot in between the anchored boat and the sunken one to drop the anchor, but I finally did. With a sigh of relief, I went below to find some dry clothes and start cleaning up.  

Remember that ‘ocean proofing’ the cabin on my To Do List? Before I go offshore, I stow some things away and move others into lower, safer positions in the cabin to keep things from flying around when the ocean swell rocks Ruth Ann. How was I to know that I needed to ‘ocean proof’ the boat before heading down the creek and into Fernandina?!? Stuff was everywhere. 

It turned out that another storm was forecast for the next day, Monday. Some of the strongest wind was going to be in a squall between Fernandina and South Carolina; right where I would have to sail. I decided to put off my departure until Tuesday. The schedule change also gave me time enough to clean the boat up that night and then prep her for ocean sailing the next day. 

The wind was gusting strongly on Monday as I worked on tightening the rig and setting up the windvane. Now the forecast was looking a little light for Tuesday! Would I get caught offshore with no wind? Should I try sailing or just motor up the ICW? Which would be more fun? Which would be safer? 

Find out next time. 


If you enjoy this blog, please consider supporting my project. There is a link to become a Patron at the top of this page and just below that is a Paypal link for one-time donations. Patrons get early access to the blog, and depending on the tier: sunset images, BtP swag. excerpts of my coming book, Live Q&As and more. Even a couple bucks can help a lot. Thanks for your support.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

My Little Cove

Spring Park, Green Cove Springs
Spring Park, from Florida Times-Union

There is a little cove across the river from Green Cove Springs, Florida. I have crossed from town and back twice in the last week. I find it hard to imagine why so many boats stay in the anchorage by the City Pier no matter the weather. 

It began last Wednesday when I had been in Green Cove Springs for a few days already. Not only was my mail service in this charming little town, but I had good access to a hardware store, groceries, and a little storefront Mexican Restaurant. La Casita has really good shrimp tacos and a little bodega section near the front door. Besides lunch one day, I picked up some guajillo peppers which I stock in my pantry and a couple bags of Cacahaute Japones (Japanese Peanuts are some of my favorite Mexican treats). 

I first anchored at Governors Creek on the north side of town. There is a county boat ramp there and right across the road is Hagan’s Ace Hardware. St. Brendan’s Mail Service is a bit further north of town and pretty handy as well. However, the docks are fixed which makes them inconvenient at low tide when they tower above the water. Further, with even a gentle wind out of the east, my new dinghy was tempted to bang against the dock pylons. After running some errands ashore, I hauled the anchor and moved Ruth Ann down to the City Pier Anchorage. Green Cove Springs’ City Pier is quite a nice facility with a small pavilion and some benches about halfway out and eight boat slips at the end. An overnight slip is just twenty dollars and includes power and water. Quite a deal, but limited to 72 hours. The floating docks are always at water level and there is ample room to tie up a dinghy as well; which is free. 

City Pier
City Pier, from the City's Website

I anchored Ruth Ann near the pier and went ashore for some more errands. My driver’s license was expiring, so I legally declared my domicile at the mail service, got a Florida license, and registered Ruth Ann in the Sunshine State. I found a bike at a pawn shop. It was $45 and barely worth that, but the three plus miles from the City Pier to St. Brendan’s or the store will be quicker and easier. The lock and cable, which I’ve had for some time, are way more valuable to me than the junky, but adequate bike. 

The Saint Johns River is the longest river in the State of Florida. It actually begins in a marshy area near Vero Beach and wanders up to Lake Monroe on the east side of Orlando. Continuing north, the lazy, slow-flowing river goes through Lake George in the Ocala National Forest, passes Palatka and Green Cove Springs, then flows through downtown Jacksonville, and on into the Atlantic. Green Cove Springs is on the western shore where the river is about two miles wide. An east wind across all that fetch can kick up a pretty good chop. After an annoying evening bouncing lightly as I made supper, I vowed to move across the river for protection from the wind. There was an anchorage on the other side marked on the chart.

A windy forecast was in the offing for late in the week and through Labor Day Weekend, so I got up early on Tuesday, hauled the anchor, and motored across to Hallowe’s Cove. Anchorages marked on charts can be hit or miss. It can be crowded because it’s marked and everyone goes there. Or the anchorage might have worked for someone else, but in the end will not meet my criteria for safe or comfortable. There are a great many different boat designs with different depths and different behavior “on the hook,” so not every anchorage will work for every boat – obviously.

The long dock NW of Hallowes Cove
NW of Hallowes Cove

I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at Hallowe’s Cove and we were the only boat. There are no services of any kind and no place to land a dinghy, but that wasn’t why we were there. The shore is an uninterrupted stretch of oaks, pine, and cypress shielding Ruth Ann and I from three directions; most importantly from the coming east wind. At night, the forest literally comes to life; buzzing insects, croaking frogs, and a whole choir of other wildlife. During the day, fish jump and osprey soar. Somehow I had found a small nook along the riverbank where no houses were visible. There was long dock off the point to the northwest and after the sun goes down only a few lights show through the woods to the east. The next dock is more than a half mile to the south. It was so peaceful and just what I needed; on several levels. 

We settled in for the holiday weekend. A couple other boats eventually joined Ruth Ann and I at polite distances. It was hard to imagine why more of the boats in the City Pier Anchorage didn’t come over for the storm. Many of them probably aren’t set up to move much anyway. Just forty five minutes of motoring and what a difference! There were no persistent little waves causing us to “hobby-horse" and even at the peak of the storm, I could hear the wind more than I felt it. 

Hallowes Cove Sunset
Hallowes Cove Sunset

By Sunday after the squall, I was running low on fresh food and knew that I would soon need some more water for Ruth Ann’s tank. After calling to confirm the holiday hours at Winn Dixie, I headed back across the river to Governor’s Creek on Labor Day morning. I hiked up to the store and back, rowed out to stow my groceries, and then returned to hit the hardware store. Back in the plumbing aisles at the Hagan Ace, I was doing some “redneck engineering” and picking through various parts to design and redesign a system for Ruth Ann. 

Tuesday morning I hiked back up toward Winn Dixie where I grabbed a couple grocery items that I had forgotten the day before, but I was there because my mail service, which wasn’t open on the holiday, is in the office park right behind the store. I’ve used St Brendan’s Mail Service for many years now. When I was truckdriving, if I was headed south through Jacksonville in the afternoon and knew some mail was waiting for me, I’d jump over to US-17 on the bypass and sneak down to Green Cove Springs. The first couple times, I pulled into the Winn Dixie, snuck around the store, and staged my truck to pull right back out on the road. However, the alley behind the store is pretty skinny, and I soon realized that I could get caught back there; blocked by the Hostess guy or a beer truck that happened to park in a tight spot. I started to simply pull over on the shoulder of US-17, just past the Circle K, and walk up to get my mail with the truck’s four-way flashers going. Not likely completely legal, but I never got caught. So this is almost like “home” to me. 

That was a lot of walking in two days for a crusty old sailor and I got lazy. My original plan had been to haul the anchor and head back down to the City Pier Anchorage yet on Tuesday afternoon. There is no water available at Governors Creek and I knew I was getting low. I don’t have a gauge on the tank, so I couldn’t know how low. Labor Day Monday and Tuesday had been peaceful with the town blocking the west wind, but the forecast called for the wind to clock around into the east by mid-morning on Wednesday. I decided that I could get water at the pier in the morning and head back across the river before the wind arrived.

Unfortunately, it was just 6:00 pm Tuesday when I already felt the wind shift. Now, my little anchorage at Governors Creek turned uncomfortable with a strong wind over a long fetch. We were hobby-horsing again. Ruth Ann’s bow was bobbing up and down and it was hard to work on the computer while my whole world dipped to the left, then to the right, back to the left, and on and on. I hadn’t even started making any supper yet. Further, with the wind clocking around unexpectedly, I couldn’t be sure about the safety of where I had anchored. If anything went wrong, the wind would blow Ruth Ann toward the seawall of the county park. I checked my watch, checked the times for sunset and the tide, to learn that if I hauled the anchor right then, I’d have just enough daylight left to get back across the river. So I stowed my laptop and checked that the cabin was mostly set for getting underway. Usually when I start Ruth Ann’s diesel, I always check the belts and fluids, but this time, since it had just run the day before, I jumped for the start button in the cockpit. The little Yanmar growled to life, the exhaust had good water flow, and I went forward for the anchor. In five or six minutes, we were motoring into the chop and headed back across the river as storm clouds brewed to the east.

I got the anchor down in the fading light and set about to make supper. In the galley, after only a couple pulls on the hand-pump faucet, I got the airy, gurgling sound of a nearly empty tank. It was no emergency, just annoying, as I could head back in the morning to get some water. The forecast, however, was calling for several days of east wind which meant that back across the river was back to the ‘wrong side.’ 

The weather had changed quickly because a squall had come in off the Atlantic. Before I had even cleaned up from making supper, the storm had passed, the wind had abated, and everything was peaceful again. It was then that I noticed that my batteries had not recovered well. During one of my long days ashore, I had left my fridge on and there hadn’t been enough sun in the days since to top my batteries back up. The coming weather was going to limit the available sunshine for several days. I am completely reliant on my solar panels for power and was in a pinch. Such a situation can make me doubt my solar set up, but subsequent data collection reaffirmed that my array is normally enough to cover my needs. One habit that I haven’t established well is to only run the fridge two or three times a day when the weather has been overcast for more than three or four days.  

The next morning, I had just enough water left in my filter pitcher to make coffee, so I had a luxurious breakfast before I hauled the anchor and headed across to the pier. On the way, I decided that if there was room, I would just tie up to the face dock at the pier, grab some water, and head back out. I rarely use a dock, preferring to anchor or moor, but when I remembered that the City docks were supposed to be inexpensive, my plan started to evolve. 

Another sailboat was, in fact, on the face dock when I arrived. While I had hoped to do a touch-and-go stop on that dock, my new plan was to stay the night in order to fill up on water and use the electricity to charge up my battery bank. With the wind behind me, I coaxed Ruth Ann into one of the shore facing slips on the pier and tied up. I got rid of some garbage, plugged in, and began filling up with water. My list of chores had been revised to take advantage of a night in a slip. Up the hill from Spring Park was a Shell Station, so I loaded up my empty diesel jug and carted it up the hill. On the walk, I spotted La Casita a couple blocks away. It was too much a temptation, so after tying down the now full jug, I walked back up the hill for a late lunch; shrimp tacos and a couple Dos Equis. 

I also spotted my bike still locked to the bike rack where I had left it a few days before. So that was good, so far. 

Back at the boat, I cleaned up, did some digital nomad work, and then the wind picked up again. If I had planned more thoroughly, I would have swung Ruth Ann around the City docks and used a slip that would face the wind. Instead, the stronger wind was now slapping waves up against the overhang of Ruth Ann’s transom and the dinghy banged against the boat as it was tied behind. I moved the dinghy inside the slip next to Ruth Ann, and adjusted the dock lines to make room. I cut my hair, took a shower, and made some supper. The wind kept blowing and I was increasingly less comfortable with the dinghy beside the boat. The waves continued to slap up against Ruth Ann’s transom and now the dinghy pitched wildly with a line grunting against the cleat each time it yanked to the top of a wave. I went out again to adjust the lines and eventually moved some fenders forward to tie the dinghy against Ruth Ann’s bow in the forward space of the slip.  

I was up several times to check my lines; cursing myself that I had stayed there. Nevertheless, I was plugged in and it was critical to get my battery bank fully charged for the stormy, overcast days ahead. All through the night, the waves slapped, the dock lines groaned, and the lines to the dinghy yanked and grunted against the cleats. I didn’t sleep much.

In the morning, I had a full water tank, ten more gallons in jerry jugs on deck, and a fully charged battery bank. I was up with the sun to get back across the river to my peaceful little cove. I had managed just a couple hours of sleep. Mornings are usually calm, but the wind had barely eased overnight. The slaps weren’t as angry but the waves still came in off the river, bumping Ruth Ann, and bucking the dinghy. Aft and to port of Ruth Ann was a seawall as a breakwater and I was going to have to maneuver backward, into the wind and waves, to head between the breakwater and a clutch of pylons off the end of the pier to starboard. Moreover, the bowsprit was hanging over the dock very near to the dock pedestal with the power and water connections. The last thing I wanted to do was tear that off the city dock with my bowsprit.  I also had to mind the dinghy. If it was close behind us again, it would be in the way. If I let the dinghy painter out too far, the line could get wrapped on the prop. If the dinghy got between the boat and the dock, or the pylons, or the breakwater, I could easily crush it. 

I walked around the slip, plotting and planning all my moves. I let out some bow line to be able to pull back on the spring line. The anchor was then behind the pedestal and as we backed out it would be pulled away from trouble rather than toward it. I left the dinghy tied to the bow, started the engine and let go all the dock lines save the spring, which I had looped against a single horn of the dock cleat. The spring line went from a midship cleat aft to the dock cleat and then to a cleat in the cockpit, forming a long skinny triangle. When I backed out of the slip, the spring simply fell off the cleat’s horn and I pulled it aboard quickly keeping it away from the prop.

Ruth Ann has one propellor and “single screw” boats have “prop walk” in reverse at low speeds. The propellor spins so slowly that the blades of the propellor “dog paddle” the stern of the boat to one side as much as driving it backward. I knew that Ruth Ann’s prop walk was to starboard and used that to my advantage. We started out of the slip slowly, I grabbed the spring line as above, and then gave more throttle in reverse holding the helm with the rudder centered. As Ruth Ann gracefully backed away, the prop walk danced her in a shallow arc toward the seawall swinging her bow to port. When the bow was pulled past the clutch of pylons, I eased the throttle and put the gearbox in forward to steer into the anchorage and open water. In steering to port, the dinghy, still tied to the bow, had drifted to the starboard side. It had spent the night on the port side where I had deployed a couple fenders to protect Ruth Ann. So when I was clear of the dangers near the pier, I slowed the boat, put her in reverse briefly, and then steered around to starboard to get the dinghy to the other side of the bow and against the fenders. Out in the river proper, I set the autopilot and went forward to untie the dinghy and put it behind us where it belonged.

Back in my peaceful little cove, I anchored Ruth Ann and made some breakfast. It was so good to be back in my little slice of paradise. After so many errands, all the provisioning and bureaucratic chores, I set about to start working on my list of boat projects. I have a new piece of equipment that I have wanted for some time and will write about that later, but the unit is now mounted in the head and I have most of the pieces and parts I need to hook it up. The dinghy had been in the water for a couple weeks, so I undid the hull sections and hauled them aboard for a good scrub. Also, the dinghy won’t collect any of the coming rain if it is upside down on deck. I sealed a couple leaks and cleaned up around the boat; inside and out. In the next few days, I’ll do an oil change and service on my engine, work on some dinghy modifications, polish the stainless, oil Ruth Ann’s teak, and more.  

That first night I was back was the night before a full moon. Out on deck after dark, I was dumbfounded by the beauty and just plain grateful to be alive and to be right there, just then. The river was completely still but for a gentle rippling as if a canoe had just passed. The moon was not yet smoothly round and hung in the blackness, misshapen like an ancient coin. The reflections on the water danced like hundreds of diamonds being scattered over black velvet. The Shands Bridge to the south seemed to only exist when taillights made the lazy trip across the open space in the dark. Even the wildlife seemed to be awed by the spectacle. I don’t remember a sound as we all stared with thankful wonder at the world before us.

Much to my chagrin, there was not enough light in the sky to capture that moment on a camera. I tried with my real camera as well as my phone camera to no avail. Then again, it is somewhat delicious to have such a moment captured only by eye and just for me. 

The next day a couple boats had joined us in the cove. That night the full moon splashed silver shards onto the river where two neighboring boats floated in the mess as if they had landed on and shattered a mirror. I knew there were other sailors probably sleeping aboard those boats, but it seemed like I was the only soul to witness the grandeur. Sights like that shrink the boundaries and I feel less and less separate from everything; and especially from the beauty of the universe. 

May all beings be peaceful.

If you enjoy this blog, please consider supporting my project. There is a link to become a Patron at the top of this page and just below is a Paypal link for one-time donations. Patrons get early access to the blog, and depending on the tier: sunset images, BtP swag. excerpts of my coming book, Live Q&As and more. Even a couple bucks can help a lot. Thanks for your support


Notes from Todd’s World:

1) Hagan Ace Hardware is a small local chain in Florida. Six or seven years ago, when I was hauling sod, I used to deliver to several of the Hagan stores.

2) Where the St. Johns River flows through Lake George in the Ocala National Forest, I got one of the largest bass I’ve ever caught when my first wife and I stayed at a cabin on the river.

3) Literally, a couple dozen times I have stopped on the side of the road with a full semi to walk up and get my mail. Hilariously, the ladies at the counter at St. Brendan’s would have had no more idea that there was a semi down the hill than they might realize recently that I had walked a few miles with a little dock cart to get my mail; sometimes forty or fifty pounds of boat parts.  

Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Summer Wind Was Blowin' In ...

Sunset at Broward Creek

Somewhere back in the day when karaoke had exploded onto the American scene, I found myself in a bar during a karaoke session. There were places then, especially in Japan where it all started, that existed as dedicated karaoke bars. In my experience, however, in the States, typically a DJ would show up at a regular bar with a karaoke machine; often on a regular night during the week. I vaguely remember being dressed up for some occasion, but it was a long time ago. I think my friends and I were there for some other reason, but karaoke was also happening in a large bar. 

“You should do it! Get up there and sing!” someone said. 

After the third or fourth “Come on, man!” I said “No way, the only way that I would get up there and sing a song is if they had “Summer Wind” by Frank Sinatra and I’m sure they don’t.” 

Au contraire, mon frere ...

Of course, one of my so-called friends snuck over to the DJ’s table to paw through the pile of 3-ring binders. There were racks and racks of karaoke music CDs. The friend found the binder full of songs beginning with the letter “S” and, sure enough, that bastard DJ had “Summer Wind.” My friend came bouncing back to our table, and with a wicked smile, informed me that “my song” was, in fact, available.  

In my memory, I just wasn’t drunk enough to get up on stage and try to sing like Sinatra. I am pretty sure that I continued to refuse. 

“Summer Wind” is still one of my favorite Sinatra songs. I had seven or eight Sinatra albums on vinyl in my collection, mixed in with jazz fusion, new wave, punk, straight up jazz, and a whole pile of other music; weird and wonderful. 

There was, in fact, one time that I did get up on stage and sing karaoke. I thought sure that I had told this story before but I can’t find it in any of my blogs. It may be in the unfinished book that I’ve not worked on in a while. 

The boarding house, courtesy of Google Maps

I was living in a boarding house in Bay City, Mi where I had found my first “escape” boat. There were a whole cast of characters in the house and one of them, as near an Irish Traveler as I’ve ever met, convinced me to go out one night. We ended up in a neighborhood bar on the north side of the river; the White Goose Inn, I think. My friend was desperately trying to impress a woman; I think he had arranged to meet her. But that very woman spent most of the night explaining to me why she had to cut herself to feel alive and showing off the little scars on her upper arm; like weird sergeant stripes or scratches from some B movie monster. The Traveler had been relegated to talking with the cutter’s reticent and humorless friend. He and I each had reluctant conversations over the din of karaoke. We both probably drank more than necessary to dilute the strangeness of the night. I barely remember getting up on stage to sing a Brooks and Dunn duet with my housemate. At some point, we each concluded that we should just head home and leave the cutter and her grumpy friend where they sat at the bar. 

In the morning when I stumbled down to the kitchen, somewhat hungover, there was an important looking summit going on. One of the guys in the house lived in a room just off the kitchen. He was a strange bird, but seemed to work very hard; cleaning and waxing the floors at the local Kroger five or six nights a week. When he had returned home that morning, one of his guitars and a pile of cash, meant to pay his next rent, were missing – and the Traveler was long gone. The other guys in the kitchen wanted to know everything that I knew about the missing housemate. I didn’t actually know much and wasn’t even sure why I had agreed to go out drinking with him. The floor guy related sadly that he had just shown off his guitars to the Traveler and might have absentmindedly revealed his rent stash by adding a twenty dollar bill to the pile as he spoke to our missing friend. He held no malice toward me, but I was the last guy to have been seen with the Traveler and thus had been slightly stained by association in some of my housemates’ opinion.


The salt marshes northeast of Jax

Summer Wind returned to my life last week in the form of a boat. As I entered the St. John’s River from the ICW, headed north, a boat called from behind to let me know he was going to overtake me and pass on my port side. The captain and his wife waved enthusiastically from deep under their bimini as they went by. That boat was the Summer Wind, from Clinton Township, outside Detroit, back ‘home’ in Michigan. The boat was a low-slung powerboat of a decent size with an inflatable stowed sideways up against the transom. It was getting toward the end of the day and I was aiming to reach a particular anchorage. When the Summer Wind and another sailboat turned to continue up the river toward Jacksonville, I was took some comfort. I was crossing the river to reenter the ICW at Sister’s Creek. As those other boats headed west, that meant that there were two less boats competing for whatever space was left in the anchorages ahead.

Inside Sister’s Creek there were a couple boat ramps and a free dock. It was Saturday evening and lots of boats were racing back to the ramps to haul out and go home. In contrast to the urban ICW south of the river, I was back in the wilderness. There were scattered clumps of trees on little hammocks and seagrass in every direction. Once I was far enough away from the traffic near the ramps, I began to enjoy the peace of wilderness again. 

And then my radio crackled to life. It was Summer Wind. 

“We got lost, so I’m passing you again.”  

“No worries,” I replied. 

Very soon after passing me, the Summer Wind turned up the Fort George River. I just had the inkling that he would have wanted to continue on toward Fernandina Beach where I was headed. However, I checked my chart and there was a marina, and a couple anchorages down that way. I wondered what his wife was thinking as I again continued past another turn they had just made. He wasn’t my responsibility anyway, so I carried on. In the fading daylight, I was pushing to the farthest anchorage I thought I could reach. 

A half mile later, I passed the two ends of an oxbow created when the channel was cut through. The next wide spot was where Broward Creek flowed into the channel and that was my anchorage. The radio crackled again. Summer Wind was calling a Pan Pan (one step down from Mayday), they were aground somewhere down the Fort George River. The Coast Guard quickly answered and asked if they were alright. With no one in danger, the Coastie asked if Summer Wind had commercial tow coverage.  

“Yeah, but I’d rather not use it,” came the bizarrely naive reply. 

I was beginning to understand that Summer Wind’s captain was not an experienced boater. As I approached my anchorage and circled around before dropping my hook, the Coast Guard and Summer Wind were having a strange, and even strained, conversation. I was trying to ignore them until I got anchored.

As I started prepping my supper, the Coast Guard was calling after Summer Wind who was not answering. I was a bit shocked that they would just ignore the Coasties, but I think it confirms their lack of experience; lack of seamanship for sure. A while later – honestly, I don’t remember if it was that evening as it grew dark or the next morning – a boat slowly made its way past Ruth Ann and me with an engine that sounded half defeated. There was a dinghy hanging strangely off the transom and I think it was Summer Wind, but I couldn’t see the boat name and they didn’t call again. Regret and frustration hung in the air like a fog. I have a feeling that the captain had roared back and forth until he got his boat free, and may have done some damage to his drivetrain; let alone to the poor flora and fauna underneath wherever he had grounded his boat. I never saw nor heard from the Summer Wind again. 

Fernandina Mooring

The next morning, with a bald eagle supervising me majestically, I hauled the anchor and finished the last few hours of motoring to Fernandina Beach. There I spent a couple nights on a mooring ball for the convenience of getting back and forth to shore. It was from the Fernandina Harbour mooring field that I picked up my new dinghy and gave away the deflatable. My new life rowing a hard dinghy rather than messing with an inflatable and an outboard has been liberating. I love my new little boat. 

My Eagle Friend

Besides picking up my dinghy, I did some laundry, had a hot shower, and got some provisions there. On the third day, I headed back down toward Jacksonville and Green Cove Springs. I have some bureaucratic chores and a few boat projects to do. GCS is the home of my mail service, my permanent mailing address for many years, and soon to be my official domicile. I’m getting a Florida Drivers License and registering the boat here. 

Retracing my route back toward Jacksonville, I couldn’t help but think about the Summer Wind and her poor captain. I’ve made up a whole story about him, his wife, and his boat. My story is a generalization of course, but I’ve met plenty of men like my vision of him. A man like that might never recover from embarrassing himself in front of his wife. There’s a better than even chance that they will sell the boat in a few months and head back to Michigan never to speak of boats or rivers again. 

Or they might have gotten good and drunk in Fernandina, and blown off enough steam to have called a mechanic in order to carry on; perhaps a bit wiser or more humble. 

As I passed the stretch of water where I had last seen the poor captain’s boat, I couldn’t help myself. I searched up “Summer Wind” by ol’ Frank on Google Music, connected my good Bluetooth speaker, cranked it up, and bellowed along as Ruth Ann and I covered the last few miles of Sister’s Creek. 

“The summer wind

was blowin’ in, 

from across the sea.”  

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