Sunday, October 15, 2023

I Pledge to Sail!

Sometimes it is hard to motivate myself. Wednesday morning was a case in point. I had been anchored in Greens Creek, near Oriental, NC for almost two weeks. I’ve mentioned before that I was there in order to volunteer at and enjoy the Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival. I had hung around the historic fishing village that is now a mecca for sailors of all types and especially vagabonds like me. I met some interesting people, did some writing in a coffee shop (one of my favorite things), and got some boat projects done. After the festival, I had planned to begin my wandering way south for the winter. 

I have pledged that I will sail most of the way south to make up for motoring all the way down last year as I ran from the cold weather. My next stop was Beaufort, NC. The way there from Oriental is across the expansive Neuse River and down Adams Creek which is the IntraCoastal Waterway (ICW) route. The route cuts across the peninsula between the Neuse and the Atlantic coast at Cape Lookout. My destination lay just before the ICW meets the coast again in Town Creek on the backside of Beaufort. My thought was to do some sailing on the Neuse, but I wasn’t motivated. Probably, I’d gotten a little lazy hanging out in Oriental. 

The bridge at sunrise

As I prepared to leave Greens Creek, I was already concocting excuses. The trip down to Beaufort was going to take most of the day, but if I motored across the river to the creek I could probably save an hour. Plus, even though preparing to sail only takes a few minutes more than preparing to motor, that would be time saved, right? Did I feel like sailing? Was there enough wind? Too much? Should I wait until tomorrow? Etc. Etc. 

I’m really not such a slug. In fact, I spent 16 years of fairly hard work to get where I am. This is just an honest reflection of the thoughts that were brewing in my head. 

Also, killing the morning’s vibe, when I decided that I should first clear my sink by doing the dishes, I discovered that I had nearly run out of water. I didn’t have time to both get some water and get down to Beaufort in one day. I decided that there was enough water to slake my thirst along the way and I could fill up after arriving.

I got dressed and stepped into the cockpit to observe the actual conditions. 

Sometimes it just takes a challenge. Often, I end up supplying my own challenge. Whatever is holding you up, you too can supply your own challenge. 

As I looked around the anchorage, gauged the wind, assessed my boat and myself, it began to occur to me that the wind was blowing in just the right direction that I could probably sail out. What a fantastic challenge; haul the anchor under sail, sail down the creek, under the bridge, and out across the river to pick up the ICW. It was on! Now I had some motivation. 

I checked the fluids in my engine and my fuel level; my usual list. Then I went forward to unbag the jib and check that the halyard, the sheets, and the downhaul could all run freely. I then stepped to the mast and uncovered the main sail.

Just down the creek, west of the village of Oriental, Greens Creek joins Smith Creek to flow into the Neuse River. The bridge that crosses the creeks is 45 feet off of the water; fairly low by ICW adjacent standards. Ruth Ann was just able to sneak under the bridge and into the creek. However, the bridge is not perpendicular to either creek, so the way under is on a funny angle. For that reason, I decided that I would start the engine and leave it idling in neutral just in case I got into a jam as I approached or ducked under that bridge. 

The wind was steady but light as I raised the main and then headed forward to haul the anchor. I dipped the chain back in the water several times to agitate the mud to fall off. I was mostly successful but mud still managed to splatter the deck, my pants, and my bare feet. I always wear ‘work’ clothes to haul the anchor in the muddy rivers of the Carolinas.  

The anchor clanged into the bow roller and I knelt to hook the hawse cover on the chain and close it. Ruth Ann drifted backward and began a graceful spin as the wind pushed at her bow. I walked back to the helm and sheeted the main. The wind was blowing us toward the bridge and after Ruth Ann’s bow had swung downstream, I let out the sail to catch the wind. We weren’t moving fast, but we were sailing and it was glorious. 

The geography of the place was going to allow us to run before the wind down to the intersection of the creeks and then, turning toward the river, we would fall into a beam reach to head under the bridge. All I had to do was hold my course until we were on a good angle to head through the bridge. 

I had to grit my teeth and wait for the opportune moment to make that turn. Holding our course, I checked and rechecked our position against the wind vane at the masthead. Turning too soon, the wind angle might make it difficult to hit the bridge entrance. Too late, and our drift downwind could push us past the bridge. I finally chose the moment and swung the bow to the south. About 15 yards before the bridge, I was so confident that we were on the right heading that I went ahead and turned the engine off.

Silently and slowly, we ducked under the bridge and drifted as much as sailed into the river. The only sound was the rattle of the cars crossing over our heads.

As we passed the village and the entrance to Oriental Harbor, my next puzzle to solve was the dogleg in the channel to the Neuse. The wind was steady out of the west. The channel was going to take us across the wind, then into it, and finally on a run off the wind and out to the river. I checked the depths around me on the chartplotter. Luckily, because Oriental is still a working fishing harbor, the channel is marked for the bigger vessels that often pass. There was lots of water around the channel deep enough for Ruth Ann. 

As we left the village behind, I steered Ruth Ann a little closer into the wind to keep to the marked channeI. When the channel turned back to the east, I cut the corner to fall back on a beam reach. I thought that I might be able to sail just behind the last marker to get into the river, but the wind angle was going to take us into shallow waters. I didn’t want to get too far out of the channel nor into waters too shallow obviously. I have crewed a few times for a captain who likes to say “there are less surprises in the channel.” I fell off the wind and made a run for the ‘right’ side of the last marker. 

We were only making about a knot and a half through the water. Off to the west was Wiggins Point; a spit of land that was shadowing our wind. I decided that if we got past the line between that marker and the point without gaining any speed, then I would start the engine to motor across the river. Sailing is one thing, but making a two day trip out of a six hour run doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

Just before that imaginary line, I could feel Ruth Ann perk up. Suddenly, we were consistently making more than two knots. With the chartplotter zoomed out to see across the river, I turned us toward Adams Creek and we fell back into a beam reach; with the wind blowing straight across her beam. I had left a reef in the mainsail because I hadn’t completely shaken the laziness of the morning. Further, in wind as light as it was, I should have raised a larger jib, but we were well balanced and Ruth Ann could sail herself for several minutes while I attended to other things. 

Out in the Neuse River with the light wind holding, I decided to shake the reef out after all. The extra sail would gain us a bit more speed. After going forward to unhook the reef ring, I began to haul the main halyard to raise the sail, but the aft end of the boom was being lifted as well. I checked the reefing line and found that it had fallen off the sheave and gotten jammed. So, I let the halyard go, rehooked the reef at the ram’s horn, and settled back into our beam reach with mainsail reefed as it had been. 

Sailing along, back on course to Adams Creek, I pondered the jammed reefline and inspected the boom end above my head. There are two reefs in the main, each with a reefing line that runs through the boom, and exits on either side of the boom end fitting. When I had reefed the sail last month, coiling and tying the excess sail at the foot, I had let the coil fall to the port side of the boom. The jammed reef line exits the boom end on the starboard side. The weight of the coiled sail had apparently pulled the reef line off its sheave. Had I rolled the coil the other way, the line would likely not have jammed. I made a mental note and went back to enjoying the sail. 

Approaching the south shore of the Neuse River, Ruth Ann was pointed too far east to make the channel at Adams Creek. I tacked back the other way to gain some ground, thinking that I could tack again a little further upriver, and get a better heading on the channel’s marker. After we had tacked, however, we were nearly pointed straight back at Oriental. That just wouldn’t do. After sailing a while the wrong way, I tacked back for the channel. 

The wind direction was such that we would have had to tack back and forth for a couple hours to get high enough to sail into the channel. We were also limited by another shoal on that side of the river. I decided to sail up to the shoal and then just start the engine to motor across the edge of the shallows and down the creek. Again … sailing is one thing but practicality and seamanship demanded that I make better time toward our destination so that we could arrive before dark. 

As the river began to shallow and the wind softened, I turned the key to start the engine … and a friend called. I joked that she had saved me from ending my sail. For a few minutes, while we chatted, Ruth Ann took up the challenge and did her best to sail strongly in the falling breeze. Nevertheless, not long after I had hung up the phone, we were back to struggling along at about a knot, so I reached for the key. 

We motorsailed across the edge of the shoal and into the creek. The wind was much more fickle in the narrow geography. About half way down the creek to Beaufort, the jib had become more trouble than it was worth, so I doused it. Ruth Ann was holding her course fairly well, so I went forward with a sail bag and stowed the jib on the bowsprit as we headed south. After making it under the Core Creek Bridge, I also lowered the main and tied it up. A tug was pushing a large barge the other direction as Ruth Ann weaved around while I was distracted at the mast, but we straightened ourselves out long before we had to pass next to the barge. 

There are so many goofy tools that we can take advantage of in these digital times. Ruth Ann and I had made good time and as we approached Town Creek almost two hours of daylight remained. My one concern was whether there would be any room in the small anchorage. Most of the way down the creek, my phone had had no reception. But as we neared Beaufort, back in the “civilized” digital world, I Googled for “Town Creek Webcam” and found that the marina on the north shore had a camera pointed right at the spot where I had anchored last month; and it was clear. We were a half hour away and could head right in to drop the hook. 

from the marina webcam

As I write this, another boat has anchored near us. They chose a spot at a respectable distance, so we’ll be fine. There might be a little weather passing on Saturday, but my neighbors are likely just passing through on their way south and won’t stay long. Essentially, I am also passing through, but I’ll be here for several days or more. My friend, Victor, is in a marina here and besides offering me the use of their laundry and showers, Vic and I are going to work together on a couple projects on each of our boats. In addition, we may swap dinghies, but that’s a story for another day. 


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

Friday, October 13, 2023

Front Porch Music, Part Two

The Bean

When we last left our hero, OK just me, I had allowed myself to get talked into a meeting at nine o'clock in the morning on a Saturday. A meeting to discuss another writer and his writing, supposedly. If you haven't seen Part One, you should read it first. 

The Bean is an Oriental institution; a coffee shop right across the street from the Town Dock. They have all the ubiquitous espresso coffee options, plus brewed coffee, smoothies, iced tea, bagels, brownies, muffins, and other treats. During the weekend of the festival, I suspected they might be busy, but I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived just before nine. I hadn’t eaten, so I got an Americano and a bagel. By the time my coffee was ready, a table had opened up.  

Being that I was slightly skeptical, and that I had planned to spend the whole day ashore at the music fest, I had come prepared. After eating my bagel, I got out a notebook (a writer always has a notebook) and started writing. I didn’t really have a plan, but one of the pieces of writing advice I had already given my curious friend – was to just start writing. Write about something, even if it is writing about the frustration of having nothing to write about.  

I’m a glutton for punishment and just to prove it -- I have three blogs. This blog about my sailing and misadventures around boats, a blog with my non-boat writing, and a blog about my journey into Buddhism. I wrote several pages for the oft-ignored Buddhist blog and then began writing this very piece. As a famous local institution, The Bean was busy on a Saturday morning; ever more so on the festival weekend. Most of the morning there were always a few customers in line. Luckily, nearly all of them were grabbing a coffee and heading out for their day. The tables were never all occupied, but there were a few of us there enjoying the space and working or conversing. 

My less than intrepid writer friend never showed. And the rest of my whole day in town, I never saw my ‘friend’ who was so desperate to get some writing advice; regardless whether I was actually an appropriate source for that.

After a couple hours of good writing, I was ready for a break. Inspired suddenly, I packed up and walked across the street to the Inland Waterway Provision Company; another local institution. The IWPC is a unique store that reminds me of some others that I have found in remote locales, like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They have a wide variety of things because of their unique position far between bigger towns along the IntraCoastal Waterway. The store has souvenirs and knickknacks, t shirts and hats, sailing gear, books and charts, craft beer, gourmet snacks, as well as a good selection of boat parts, resin and paint, fishing gear, safety gear, and maintenance items like oil and fuel filters. I knew that I could find a couple Oriental, NC postcards there as well. 

"Downtown" Oriental

Postcards in hand and lots of time before the music started, I walked over to the Post Office. On their counter, I wrote a note on each card and then bought a couple stamps. I was starting to know my way around Oriental, so I was able to cross Broad Street, the main drag, and cut through the neighborhood over to the festival stage. I was still a little early and had worked up an appetite writing and walking around. One of the food vendors was offering Cuban Black Beans and Rice which sounded delicious. After securing a bowl, I sat at a picnic table by the river and dug in.  

The first music of the day was Christie Lenee, who I had seen talk the day before. She is an extraordinary finger-style guitar player and a beautiful singer. Her set was a mix of instrumentals, singer/songwriter craft, and perceptive stories. It was a great way to start the day.

The Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival is a unique music fest. First, Oriental is a very small town and to organize a two day festival with a half dozen venue locations – and keep it free – is incredible. Second, is the variety of venues. There is the main stage, called the Riverfront Stage, that is set up in a village park on the river. Every two hours, a one hour performance occurs there. On the odd hours between main stage performances, sets are performed in other locations around town; at the church I mentioned, at a brew pub, at a bed and breakfast, and at several private houses with front porches big enough to hold a small band and their equipment. The music ranged from bluegrass and traditional Appalachian, to gospel, folk rock, Americana, a local ensemble of ukuleles, and even some jazz. I couldn’t have been happier just wandering around and listening to music. Twice I happened to walk by someone telling the story of the incredible piano performance from the church the day before. 

At some point, I got an odd feeling that I should check on my dinghy. It had been tied up at a small boat dock at the state boat ramp for most of the day. I’ve developed an eerie sense for the welfare of each of my boats; Ruth Ann, the mothership, and my dinghy.  I walked back across town to the dock and, sure enough, the wind had picked up and changed direction. The dinghy was now getting bonked against the dock, nothing too serious but the wind had started blowing harder than was forecast. I decided to row out to check on Ruth Ann as well. There was one more act that I had wanted to see. Damn Tall Buildings, from Brooklyn, NY, was the Saturday headliner to close out the festival, but I needed to check on my girl. 

There was a North Carolina Marina Patrol boat getting pulled at the boat ramp. A teenager in a kayak near the ramp’s dock appeared to have been talking to the officer. I wondered if he had been towed back in or rescued somehow during the strengthening winds. It seems likely that that was true, because as I rowed away from the dock, the officer walked over to watch me from the high side of the parking lot. He didn’t gesture or seem to want to stop me, but his body language revealed that he had some concerns. Two creeks come together right near the ramp and it was hard rowing to get across the first creek as the wind blew straight down it, but once I got into Greens Creek, where Ruth Ann tugged at her anchor, the wind was mitigated by the trees and homes along the shore and I was fine.  

Once I was back onboard, I wasn’t sure that I would bother to get back to the festival. The safety of Ruth Ann and the dinghy is actually more important than music. Nevertheless, after an hour or so, the winds seemed to have fallen off. We were a half mile up the creek from the boat ramp and going back meant twenty minutes of rowing – each way. Yet the music tugged at my heart. 

I had been napping a bit, but with the wind softening I got up and stood in the cockpit to judge my situation. It wasn’t still but nearly so. Back down in the cabin, I called up Damn Tall Buildings on YouTube and twenty seconds into the first song, I was committed. I was going back into town. 

Damn Tall  Buildings

The Boston Globe described Damn Tall Buildings as "Old Crow Medicine Show meets Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros meets Flatt & Scruggs meets Nickel Creek, with a dash of Avett Brothers and a sprinkle of Johnny Cash. What they might have missed was the Patsy Cline and Janis Joplin erupting from their powerfully singing bass player. 

I changed my clothes into something slightly warmer and rowed back. It was exactly what I needed. Damn Tall Buildings are tremendous musicians and so much fun. They are a couple, Sasha and Max, plus Avery on the fiddle. Sasha plays the bass and has an incredibly powerful and versatile voice. Max is a bit of a kook, another great singer, and a really good guitar player; especially bluegrass and bluesy stylings. Avery is a helluva fiddle player and versatile harmony singer who has quite a shimmy under his fiddle and beard. They had driven all the from Sisters, Oregon, from a similar sounding festival, to close out their seven week tour at the fest in Oriental, NC. They were headed home to Brooklyn after their set and I was so glad that I had caught them.

Afterward, we all helped put away the folding chairs that the fest had rented for the main stage area. Then I walked back through town as it got darker and darker. When I got back to the dinghy dock, there was just a sliver of sunset in the clouds. Luckily, I had brought a lamp to be somewhat legal after dark. After taking the requisite sunset picture, I lit the lamp, put it in the bow, and rowed back out to Ruth Ann. 

What a weekend!


The dock after dark

All the images are mine except The Bean photo which I stole off of Flickr.


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.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Front Porch Music, Part One

Riverfront Stage

My time in Oriental, NC has been much less dramatic than my voyage down here from Washington. I had come in order to volunteer at the Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival. A volunteer orientation meeting was on Saturday, the day after I had arrived. The rest of the week I worked on some computer stuff and did some boat chores. I had anchored Ruth Ann past the bridge and into Greens Creek, a peaceful spot near enough but also far enough away from the quiet bustle of the tiny town of Oriental; which is still a working fishing village. 

There is a public dock a half mile from Ruth Ann. After rowing over, it is just three or four blocks into “downtown” and just six blocks to the park where the main festival stage was set up. Friday afternoon I enjoyed some music and that evening did my shift as a golf cart shuttle driver.  

As a part of their festival appearance, some of the artists give small seminars. I was lucky enough to have caught one by Christie Lenee, Guitar World’s “2020 Best Acoustic Guitarist in the World Right Now.” She spoke about creativity in general and her approach to creating music. From her I learned about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book called Big Magic and of earlier times when creativity was considered a gem to be discovered inside someone rather than the modern idea that some people are talented while others are not. We all can be creative geniuses if we are open and receptive to that possibility. It was absolutely sublime to sit in a small church sanctuary with just thirty people and witness such an amazing musician and open-hearted human. 

Ms. Lenee had been stuck in traffic and arrived a little late to the church. While we waited, the Emcee had told us about the grand piano. The former organist at the church was the sister of the current mayor of Oriental. When the organist sister passed away, she had donated the piano to the church. It was a wonderful, small town story, but I could just see the top of the piano behind the front row of pews. I have no idea what kind of piano it was, but it must have been special for it had attracted the eye of our musician as soon as she arrived. After her talk and having played her guitar, as the Emcee called time and solicited one last question, Christie asked if she could play the piano. She gushed that she could not resist the beautiful instrument. The Emcee shrugged and casually deferred to someone in the audience who must have been connected with the church. No one said “no,” so Christie snuck over to sit at the piano, lifted the cover, and began tinkling at the keys. 

Just as when she had started a tune on her guitar, Ms. Lenee first seemed to just explore the keys, searching for what song might be hiding inside the instrument just then. Soon she seemed to catch the wisp of something and began an ethereal rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” I don’t think anyone in the sanctuary drew a breath until she had finished. It had been an amazing hour and my heart had swelled as I left the church. Auspiciously, right outside the front door was the festival’s transportation hub where my volunteer shift was about to start.

Sunset on the river behind the stage

During my afternoon at the festival, I had run also into a local guy. The Carolinas are full of military bases and therefore lots of retired military as well. I had been standing near the river and the main stage; passing time, listening to the music, and observing. My hands were behind my lower back and my feet comfortably below each shoulder. I often stand that way; basically standing at ease as we were taught in marching band. The local guy approached and, with a slight reverence, asked if I was ex-military. I answered that no, my father and brother had been, but that I had not.

He said that he had noticed the way I had been standing and thought that I was maintaining some kind of militaristic situational awareness. Besides dodging any further discussion of the military or my lack of it, I said that I was a writer and that people-watching was an occupational hazard.  

“A writer!,” he exclaimed, “so am I. I am working on a novel.”  

He proceeded to tell me that he had a project that had been approved by Random House and that it was going to be the best novel ever. His story was a love story that takes place in part along the IntraCoastal Waterway and in the various local cultures. The novel was apparently not getting onto the page easily. He asked me about my writing and expressed that he was kind of blocked. Perhaps I could talk to him about writing and about his novel. He wanted to know how good I thought it was or was going to be. Of course, he wanted me to sign a non-disclosure agreement before discussing it in detail. I feel I can tell you all that because I did not sign, nor ever saw, any kind of agreement.

Another guy had been hanging nearby, a friend of the local guy apparently. I think this friend was mostly motivated by the twelve pack of cheap beer strapped to the rack on my new friend’s electric bike. “Stay right there,” the local guy told his friend. 

And then he proceeded to tell me all about the plot of the novel that I was going to have to sign an NDA to hear about. It sounded interesting; definitely fertile ground for a novel in the right hands. At one point, he even said that he wasn’t looking for a ghostwriter, but that he really needed some help. I told him that I was going to be around for a few more days, that I would be happy to talk to him about writing, and I gave him my card.  

“What are you doing tomorrow morning, nine o’clock at The Bean,” he said all in one breath. 

I consented to meeting at The Bean at nine. 

By this time, I had doubts. I couldn’t really discern if my ‘friend’ was actually a writer, a run-of-the-mill crazy person, or perhaps just the town drunk with a good story about a story. 

My plan all along had been to spend Saturday at the festival. The music didn’t start until noon, so I would have had lots time in the morning, but now I had agreed to be at a coffee shop by nine. 

To be continued ...


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.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

A Little Dinghy ...

This is not a curated blog with rainbows, sunshine, and umbrella drinks at the beach. This is real life, honestly portrayed. I really thought that I might never post this story but perhaps someone, somewhere can learn from the mistakes I made. It wasn’t one bad decision but a stretch of inattention and assumptions that got me into a jam. I survived and feel sheepish, but here it is anyway: 

[ and, sorry, it’s a little long ]

Thursday started like one of those days I had dreamed about. I needed to head down to Oriental from Washington, NC where I had spent a few weeks. Washington is a great little town with an awesomely cruiser-friendly Waterfront, but I had volunteered for the Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival happening in Oriental the first weekend of October. There was a volunteer orientation meeting this Saturday. I had spent my last couple nights at the free dock on the Waterfront and Thursday morning I motored out of the ‘lagoon’ just after sunrise to beat the closing of the railroad bridge.  

After motoring through the narrow stretch at the top of the river, I let Ruth Ann drift in the open water as I raised the sails. This was a big step actually. I had set up the sails to be available but I had been making excuses all morning. I didn’t feel well. The rig was a little slack in the cool air. I had left a day later than planned; maybe I was in a hurry. Etc. and Etc.

I laughed at myself knowing how much I would regret it if I continued to motor. So I turned into the wind, and with the engine in forward at idle speed, I raised the main. Then turning away, I raised the jib in the main sail’s shadow and turned off the engine. I knew right away I had finally done the right thing. Ruth Ann leaned into the waves and lifted her skirt to skip along. It was glorious. My lungs felt clearer than they had been in over a week and my stuffy head was gone. We were sailing nearly as fast as I had been motoring anyway. 

We sailed on a beam reach nearly all the way down the Pamlico River. I started the engine again near where the ICW heads down the Goose Creek channel through Hobucken and into the Bay River. It would have been nearly impossible to sail in the narrow channel anyway, so I doused the jib. However, I had a mind to keep sailing once we were through, so I left the main up. The wind was straight behind us and pretty light in the twists and turns of the channel. After a while, I sheeted the main in tight so it could just flop from one side to the other as the wind angle changed behind us.

I had my eye on a couple anchorages where Goose Creek emptied into the Bay River, but once I got there I didn’t like the looks of them. Also, it was still fairly early and I never like to stop with plenty of daylight left. The wind had picked up a bit and I didn’t want to stress my slightly slack rig, so I dropped the main sail and kept motoring. At first, I was just going to cross the river and anchor in a creek on the other side. But once I saw how close that creek was, I decided to continue on into the Neuse River and see if I could get all the way to Oriental. By and by, the route calculator on my chartplotter told me I would arrive just after sunset. I had been to Oriental before but I didn’t want to get all the way under the bridge and into Greens Creek in the dark. It was also very overcast and the moon wouldn’t have been any help either, so I picked a nearer creek as my destination. 

The wind had picked up even more and the seas had grown confused, but I was still feeling confident. I knew where I was headed and I had sailed these waters before. Nevertheless, at that moment, I had briefly thought that maybe I should just turn around and head back to that original creek. Alas … but I didn’t. 

I had imagined that I was just doing some river sailing that day. Down the Pamlico, through Goose Creek, into the Bay River, and then on into the Neuse. I hadn’t really looked at the whole area on a small scale chart but the confluence of the rivers and the Pamlico Sound is actually a huge expanse of open water. Further, my weather app later confirmed that I had dropped into the Sound right at the peak of the wind gusts that afternoon. After dealing with wind 8 to 10 knots with a few gusts to 18 all morning, I had suddenly found myself in winds that were steady at 20 and gusting regularly to 29. 

Now, I must tell you that I was towing my dinghy – again. A day or so of casual river sailing was what I had pictured, but now I was motoring in gusty conditions and fairly large seas. The winds out of the north and northeast were blowing unmolested across 50 miles of open water and, after stirring up the waves, they were blasting me from behind. I thought about turning around again, but turning around by then would have meant bashing into the wind and waves instead of running before them. I was stuck with the choices I had so casually made that morning. 

Look closely at your intended route and all possible weather conditions; it has been said.

It wasn’t uncomfortable as much as it was chaotic. Ruth Ann had taken care of me before and I was quite sure she could handle more than I. Rather than holding a steady, straight-line course, I was angling back and forth to keep the waves rolling more comfortably underneath us. Rolling side to side in heavy seas is a prescription for seasickness at least, and possibly some worse disaster. It was then that I noticed that the dinghy was yanking at the painter (the line towing it). The painter squeaked with each pull and made me a little concerned for the chock that the painter ran through at Ruth Ann’s stern. However, it seemed solid as I laid my hand on it. 

It is notoriously hard to judge the size of waves you are sailing in. Those sweeping under us were probably just three to five feet with bigger rogues coming occasionally. Ruth Ann would rise at the stern, shimmy a little at the top, and then wallow back down as her bow rose and the wave passed under her. Then the dinghy painter would squeak as it was pulled taught. The real struggle was the short wave period; how close the waves were together. I had about 45 minutes to the pylon marking the shoal off Piney Point where I could turn in toward the northern shore to get to Broad Creek, my new anchorage for the evening. 

Somewhere just before the marker, I heard a curious noise from the dinghy painter. I knew that sound right away and when I turned to look, Ruth Ann was dragging a stainless steel eyebolt through the water as the dinghy drifted free behind us with a ragged new hole in the bow. Now I was in trouble. 

I have spoken before about the dinghy that I bought. It is a Spindrift 11, a nesting dinghy that rows and sails. I had been looking at building a Spindrift myself when I found this one on Craigslist for about 2/3 what I might have spent on materials alone. Nevertheless, I probably would have built the 9 foot version instead. The 11 is a little big for Ruth Ann but it breaks into two halves that stack together nicely to stow on deck. We are dealing with it. I have also expressed that I would have done a few things differently. The builder was a retired shop teacher and he immediately garnered much of the respect that I have had for shop and industrial arts teachers in my past. That might have been premature. 

My first inkling that things were not as robust or done with the care that I had assumed was, ironically, the eyebolt at the bow. I had bought the dinghy in Fernandina Beach, FL and towed it down to Green Cove Springs; about two days on the water. When I arrived, I discovered that the bow eye had been held with only one nut. As I towed the dinghy and the painter naturally spun during the trip, that one nut had loosened itself about three quarters the way off the bolt. Another day of travel and I would have left the dinghy floating behind me; curious foreshadowing. There are a few other areas that I am keen to reinforce or bring up to my own personal standards. I am just waiting to have the money to do the fixes I have envisioned. One of my main complaints is that I don’t know how closely the builder followed the directions, because I have not seen the assembly instructions. To my eye, there was less fiberglass cloth used than I would have expected. [Note: see below (*)]Nevertheless, I bought the dinghy sight unseen without any guarantees, so it is partially my own fault.  

What I had learned in the waves off Piney Point on Thursday was that there was also no reinforcement behind the eyebolt. It was hard to see when I was adding a locking nut to that bolt under a small deck, but I had assumed that I was looking at a backing block behind the fender washer. I was not. The ragged hole on the bow as the dinghy drifted behind me, showed that there was nothing there except an epoxy fillet where the two ¼” plywood panels met at the bow. I shouldn’t have been towing the dinghy in heavy seas. However, the dinghy was empty and dry, there was no extra weight beyond the ‘stitch-and-glue’ plywood hull itself. I have towed the dinghy for months by that eyebolt, so the hull might have been weakening over time. If the entire hull had been encased in a layer of fiberglass cloth (as I might have expected), I suspect the hull would have been considerably stronger.  

(*) CORRECTION: As of 10/18/2023, I have sanded the paint off the hull as a part of a deal to swap dinghies with a fellow boater. There is, in fact, a layer of glass on the  entire outside of the hull. Some wooden trim and the contours of an extra layer of fiberglass tape on the seams gave another impression. The wave action and 5hevpower of Mother Nature were apparently enough to tear the eyebolt out of the bow. 

None of these design and build complaints mattered while I was staring at my dinghy floating free in the confused waves behind me. I had a fair amount of money invested in it – and – the dinghy is my sole method of getting ashore when Ruth Ann is at anchor. I had to retrieve the damn thing!  

I turned the boat around and headed into the waves back toward the dinghy. After grabbing my boat hook, I rounded up toward the smaller boat. Luckily, I had kept another painter tied to the dinghy’s stern. While the waves knocked the two boats together, I was able to hook the line, but now what? The dinghy was not made to travel backward, but the attachment point at the bow was gone.

The dinghy rides fairly high in the water and it didn’t look bad at first. So I tried slowing the boat and dragging the dinghy backward. Unfortunately, the stern is just flat; straight up and down. It soon became obvious that as the dinghy drifted toward the bottom of a wave behind us, water was splashing up over the stern and into the boat. Not a lot of water, but enough that over time it was going to fill up and be swamped.

I circled around to get next to the dinghy again and dropped into neutral. It was a bit like the chasing a puppy or something because I was trying to get next to the dinghy while also dragging it by a line. So I could get close but then it would get pulled behind me again. All the while, we were still in the mix of wind and waves. As I pulled the dinghy in toward me, it was banging on Ruth Ann and colliding with my windvane; a rugged but precision instrument I didn’t want to damage. 

I leaned out over the water and grabbed at the dinghy. If I could get to the bow, there was a hole for a mast in the small foredeck. My plan was to get a line through that mast hole to be able to tow the dinghy forward again. In the waves, the boats danced out of sync. The dinghy started below me at arms length, then flew up in my face, and then fell down and out of my reach, then back to arms length; over and over, up and down. I had to keep the boats from damaging each other while watching that I didn’t get my fingers smashed between them. I pulled at the small boat trying to reach the bow. Then a wave would yank it out of my grasp and send it off in another direction. I couldn’t get to the bow before reaching the end of the painter on its stern, so I let out more of that line. Twice I stood too high on the cockpit bench and nearly got thrown into the water next to the dinghy. I had to stop. Also, Ruth Ann had settled into the waves, beam on, and we were getting rolled violently from side to side. Even properly stowed items down below were getting thrown about. I put the boat back in forward and towed the wallowing dinghy; still backward. 

After a few minutes I was ready to try again. It was all the same struggle and at one point I untied the dinghy and held on to the stern painter with one hand while I hung over the side and tried, one-handed, to shimmy the dinghy close enough for me to thread a line through that hole. First, I had too much slack in the line; then not enough. Another time, I nearly had it but behind me I was kneeling on the line and couldn’t get enough through hole. Then one last time, so close, the line hung free in the hole, but I struggled to grab it. In one final lunge, I let go of the stern line, missed the grab at the new line, and a wave pushed the dinghy free. Now I was back to square one – standing in the cockpit watching my dinghy drift behind me in the waves. I took a deep breath and doubled back.  

I felt like just letting it go. F**k it. I was sore and tired. Then it occurred to me that the Coast Guard or the sheriff would likely find an empty small boat on its own and a search and rescue operation would commence. As desperate as I was, I didn’t want any of that mess. 

After reaching the dinghy again, and grabbing the stern line - again – I looked around to make sure we weren’t drifting onto the shoal or into someone else’s way. There was no one else dumb enough to be out on the water that afternoon. Maybe I could actually just tow it backward after all. I was getting tired and the struggle was using up my daylight. It was already after 6:00 pm and it would take at least forty five minutes to reach the anchorage in Broad Creek. We slogged ahead for a few yards, but I could tell I’d end up losing the dinghy if it filled with water stumbling behind me. I dropped the boat into neutral again. 

I had been avoiding leaving the cockpit in the confused seas. My harness and tether were below but I hadn’t taken the time to fetch them or put them on. I decided that the only way to attach some line through the hole at the bow was to get the dinghy secured alongside Ruth Ann somehow. I untied the stern line again and walked it forward trying to swing the dinghy well away from my precious windvane. I stepped with one foot out of the cockpit, just far enough that I could run the stern line around a stanchion base. Back in the cockpit, I secured that line to a cleat. The waves were still juggling the two boats up and down. I had leaned out over the water so many times, leaning on my torso to keep both my arms free, that I could feel every notch in my rib cage where I would have a bruise in the morning. My arms and shoulders were aching, but I leaned out of the cockpit again, over the water and into the dinghy, and finally managed to string the line through the hole and grabbed the free end with my other hand. It was almost impossible to think that I had finally done it. 

I tied the new line tight and freed the stern line, coiling it haphazardly, and tossed it into the dinghy as it drifted by on its way behind us – bow first. As we started moving again, the dinghy followed comfortably through the waves as it was meant to, and we were finally doing slightly better than before.

The new line was not pretty. It looped through the mast hole and over the dinghy’s gunwale near the bow and attached to Ruth Ann in two spots like a bridle. I had to watch to make sure that it wasn’t chafing on the little boat’s edge. We managed to sally forth and got “behind” the shoal, but it didn’t make much difference to the waves. On a slightly different compass angle, I had to play the same game running back and forth on a course dictated by the sluicing through the waves rather than where I wanted to head. We were making slow progress, swinging 30 degrees too low and then 30 degrees too high to crab walk our way toward Broad Creek. 

Finally, we got a bit behind the land at Piney Point and I could steer straight at the creek’s entrance. We were rolling a bit but the diminished waves were tolerable. Two fishing boats floated at anchor right at the trailing edge of the shoal, bouncing raggedly up and down but pursuing some valuable catch. I saluted them. If they had been close enough to see, they would have wondered about the dinghy bouncing behind me on strange looking reins. 

We hugged the shore to the east of the creek and came in the lopsided channel. A green marker to port, then a red marker to starboard and then there was peace. We ghosted through flat water for the first time in about three hours. It was then that I checked the weather app and learned that I had slogged through the strongest winds of the day. The weather had moderated but the wind would continue to blow out of the north and northeast, so I tucked Ruth Ann into a small cove near the northern shore of the creek. There were some houses and plenty of woods there to shield us and I dropped the anchor. 

I checked that the dinghy was alright, backed down on the anchor to secure us, and then went below to clean up. All I really wanted was a strong drink, but I didn’t have any booze onboard just then and I needed to clean up. I picked the fallen things up off the floor and re-stowed them. After straightening up the galley, I started to make some supper. I knew I was going to sleep well that night. 

Late the next morning, I bagged the jib and covered the main. I was only two or three hours from Oriental and after getting beaten up the day before I had decided that I would just motor. There were a half dozen sailboats on the river with us that day (Friday) and only two had sails up. It wasn’t as gusty but the wind was up and the day was thickly overcast and gloomy. After reaching Oriental, I snuck past the crowded anchorage, under the bridge, and into Greens Creek where Ruth Ann and I are on our own in a wide and peaceful stretch of water. There is an occasional wake, but most everyone around here is respectful. Even just now as I type, I could hear a powerboat slow as it approached and then speed up again once it had passed us. 

Saturday morning, I attended the volunteer orientation meeting, met some really nice people. The Ol’ Front Porch Music Festival is well organized and completely free. It seems like quite an amazing feat for such a small town; literally population 896. The music is a fairly wide range from traditional Appalachian and Bluegrass to some more modern “Americana,” some gospel, and even some Jazz. I can’t wait to see a band from Brooklyn called “Damn Tall Buildings” that is closing the fest Saturday night. I’ll be here through the weekend before heading down to Beaufort again to start planning my trip south. 

I remain your humble correspondent, learning as I go, and becoming a better sailor one goofy day at a 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.

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.


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.

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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