Sunday, September 1, 2019

True Confessions of the Ill Prepared

This is Part Three of a series.
See the others: 

Friday night wasn’t a bad night; a little sticky but no bugs. I woke Saturday morning and had a can of brewed coffee, a Larabar, and an apple. As I continued prepping the boat, a neighbor came by in his boat after some early morning fishing and paused to chat for a moment. He figured I must have bought the boat since he’d noticed that I spent the night. He was happy the boat would have some new life and told me that Don had always seemed to take good care of her.

I had been up with the sun and was considering keeping the boat at a dock there in Little River rather than sail for the Cape Fear Inlet. In poking around her the day before, I had found a couple things that I didn’t like about the rigging. Nothing terribly serious, obviously not dealbreakers, but enough to give me second thoughts about sailing offshore as the first trip on a new-to-me boat. I’ll be writing a more specific post about the boat; why, how and where to from here.

At 8:00 the marinas were open and I started calling around. First call was to a place that had space for me when I called a week ago. They could not rent me a dock for a few months now because they were full up for Labor Day weekend. And every other place nearby was either full or wanted an annual contract.

In addition to a complete lack of available docks, the main problem with staying in Little River was hurricanes. Don had lived there a while and thought that they were in an OK spot for a small hurricane,
Picture from the ad
but I wasn’t so sure. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to sleep in Michigan if a hurricane was threatening my boat in the Carolinas. Full marinas confirmed my original plan that I should get her up the river and out of the water. If I didn’t want to sail offshore to the Cape Fear Inlet, my other choice was to motor up the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway). Prepping for that option was about the same as what I had already started that morning.

I had lost a day not getting on that original standby flight and needed to be back in Michigan and back at work Tuesday night. Don was excited to be able to use his dock and I was starting to feel the time pressure. Nevertheless, I should have got in the water while the boat was at the dock to check the hull and the propeller. There wasn’t much growth along the waterline and I got lazy. I would pay for that later.

“You’ll remember all your sins at sea.”
      Captain James Corbett

Little River Swing Bridge
For better or worse, I was ready to depart later Saturday morning. The motor started right up and purred along as Don and I untied the dock lines. He gave the boat a push and I was off. The boat was new to me, with wheel steering rather than a tiller, I was getting used to how she felt and how she responded. I waddled down the channel and out into the ICW. The first business was to call the Little River Swing Bridge to get an opening. I struggled to figure out the VHF radio; I couldn’t quite figure out the buttons. The radio was a strange wedge shaped thing; like a prop from a 1960s French Art Film. It was also down below, so as I struggled to watch the traffic and steer, I had to jump down the companionway, hail the bridge, listen, and run back up to steer clear of docks, other boats, etc. The radio didn’t seem to stay on channel 9 either. Each time I tried to contact the bridge tender, I was talking on the wrong channel.

I was not yet completely aware of my problems. In desperation, I called Don from my phone. I was hardly more than five minutes from his dock when I asked him if he could call the bridge. He called back in a minute to say that she was keeping the bridge open for me. It was excruciating how long it took me to get under that bridge.

My plan was to motor up the ICW until evening and anchor for the night somewhere along the way. As I began to play with the throttle and got used to how the boat handled, I realized that the hull must have been a lot dirtier than I suspected. It was obvious there were barnacles all over the propeller and the hull.  Without smooth surfaces on each, my speed would be greatly diminished. This was going to be an ordeal.

I motored out of the town of Little River, past the marinas and tourist restaurants hanging over the water, and into a stretch of wilderness. I was re-exploring the boat in my memory, but I was quite certain there was nothing like a scraper on board. I wasn’t going to be able to stop and clean the hull. My travel plans included a tentative flight out of Wilmington, NC on Tuesday afternoon. That gave me about three days to gurgle my way to the haulout I had arranged at Cape Fear Boat Works. It was worth a try.

And then I reached the Little River. The Little River is a river north of the town of Little River. Up ahead was an intersection where the river crossed the ICW. My original plan was to sail offshore from the Little River Inlet to the Cape Fear River, but I decided not to go offshore on a boat I’d never sailed, with a rig that wasn’t quite as safe as I wanted. The schedule was the same but I was staying “inside” on the ICW. I left the dock on about the same schedule as the offshore option, that meant the tide was going out when I got to the Little River. The tide had been pushing me along as I approached the river, but as soon as I crossed “the intersection,” the same tide was running against me; headed out the inlet from the other direction.

Fishing boats were coming in from the ocean. Powerboats of all kinds were buzzing around enjoying a Saturday afternoon in late July. I looked to my right and saw a tree along the shore. Then I went back to dodging traffic and driving hard against the current. I looked again and that same damn tree was still right there. My real trouble was apparent. I couldn’t go more than about three knots. I wasn’t sure I could get up the Cape Fear River if I couldn’t beat the tide at the Little River.

I turned the boat around. We picked up some momentum going with the tidal current and crossed the intersection going the wrong way. The tide that had been with me now bogged me down. I turned again, stalled again -- and turned and stalled and turned. I was going in circles in the intersection. I tried going up the river; same tide, same story. Then I tried the inlet; maybe I’d just go offshore after all. Unfortunately, the wind had piped up and was blowing hard off the Atlantic funneled by the trees -- right up the inlet. I was trapped. In three directions the tide was holding me back; in the fourth, going upwind wasn’t going to work either. I was stuck right there in the intersection with traffic buzzing all around me.

Savior in Safety Orange
I needed a tow. One of the troubles going in circles in heavy traffic is trying to time jumping down into the cabin to use the radio while no one was steering the boat. After several attempts and a few near misses, I gave up on the calling for a tow over the VHF. I tried using the Towboat/US app on my phone, but between the bright sunlight and the limited data reception that idea wasn’t going to work either. I got my wallet out to find their 800# on my member card. Then I saw Don’s Adventure Craft houseboat coming around the curve. And then I spotted the bright red Towboat/US boat coming from the other direction.

Don was calling me on my phone, but I was desperate to flag down the Towboat/US guy. A wave of relief washed over me when they waved back and came alongside. I told them my troubles and asked if he could tow me to a marina. We bobbed together in the intersection while I called the two nearby marinas he recommended, but they were full up.  He ended up towing me a mile and a half or so past the intersection to where the current wasn’t so strong. He got an emergency call, probably more lucrative than towing some fool up the ICW, so he left me to go help a boat that was aground, but arranged to check in with me on the radio.

He dropped me about half way to Sunset Beach. I continued to gurgle along past all kinds of tourists and weekenders, powerboats of all sorts, a few sailboats, and the sheriff’s boat lurking under a bridge. A strange, narrow, old sailboat, with an outboard on the stern, buzzed by. I went by Jenks Creek, the Shallotte River, Ocean Isle Beach and Holden Beach. There was a strange, ramshackle building on the left with a sign that said “Free Overnight Docking” but there was very little room at their dock (duh). I was mostly past it anyway, before I could make a decision. With the trouble I was having maintaining speed, I wasn’t sure I could turn around and get back to the dock; let alone maneuver into a tight spot. Along the way, the TowboatUS captain did check in with me on the radio, but I was doing as well as expected.

At one point, as dusk was playing with distance and contrast, a tugboat was coming at me from the other side of a bridge. He wasn’t pushing any barges but I was concerned he had a tow. It was just the two of us on the ICW, so I just kept moseying along. He came under the bridge just before me; I only had to lean toward my side of the channel. I was living on lukewarm water, larabars and apples all day; all that I had within reach. Whenever I finally stopped all I could look forward to was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and more water, but it was going to be fantastic.

I pressed on as the sun went down and dusk turned to dark. Only a fool would be out on the ICW after dark. The channel is marked with day markers; basically reflective signs, most without lights. The surrounding water is shallow. Luckily, there was only one fool out there and the area from Shallotte to Southport is well developed. All along the way, there were docks on at least one side; often both. There were porch lights, lit-up houses, and lights at the end of docks. I just kept it there in the middle; between all the docks. I wanted to make Southport, NC where there was a good full service marina. I really needed to clean the propeller and the hull.

It was surreal as I pushed on through in the dark. At times flashing the next marker with a high powered flashlight. Mostly I was guessing where the channel was, my heart in my throat, knowing that at any moment, any mistake, and I’d be hard aground.

I went under another bridge and passed a well lit marina on the left; which I was pretty sure was the South Harbour Village Marina. Southport had to be close. I crept along through another stretch of wilderness - no docks, no lights, but I thought I could start to see the lights of Southport. Then finally, I could see the marina, but not as well as I thought.

The next morning
I had a mental picture of the marina in my head. I approached slowly, but was really getting tired. My seven hour trip to the Cape Fear River had taken almost 13 hours. Some luxury yacht right out front was all lit up having a party. It was about 1:00 in the morning. I spotted what I thought was the entrance and turned in.

In the last few feet, I could see the breakwater - LAND! Hard to starboard!! But it was too late. I ran hard against the berm-like skinny stretch of sand. I knew it was there, but didn’t realize how far it went across the front of the marina. In the dark, distracted by the lights and the booming music, I got stuck. Really stuck. The wind and the current pinned me against the sand. I tried backing out, but I wasn’t going anywhere.

I evaluated my situation and I could suddenly see the unlit marina sign looming off to my right - 20 feet further down the ICW. Two bouys marking the entrance bobbed and struggled against the current with the moon splashing around them in the wavelets. I blew it, by less than 50’  -- but I had made it to Southport.

Time to call Towboat/US. That towing insurance I bought was the best money I’ve ever spent. Soon I could have that peanut butter and jelly.


This is Part Three of a series.
See the others: 


  1. "I wouldn’t be able to sleep in Michigan if a hurricane was threatening my boat in the Carolinas."

    It should be noted that at the time you posted, Dorian is threatening the Carolinas... You've been lucky so far; I hope you are sleeping just fine.


  2. Don and I have been patiently awaiting this blog. As I read it aloud to Don he was laughing so hard he could hardly catch his breath. He felt your pain and could so relate to your struggles since he brought the boat from North Carolina to South Carolina. We have spoken of you often and wondered if things had worked out for you. You are an excellent writer and the way you expressed your grueling adventure was hysterical! I can only hope that in part four of your series things got better! Patiently waiting...
    Happy sails to you...


Homeward Epilogue

sv Ruth Ann in Beaufort, SC, 12/23 Ruth Ann is the last in a series of boats on which I was attempting to escape. I found her when I found a...