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When we last left our hero, he was hard aground on the breakwater in front of Southport Marina, Southport, NC. What a night. What a dumb situation to be in. I had been on the water about thirteen hours, had done 3 hours or so on the ICW in the dark, and was confused not only by the lights but by the lack of lights at the marina entrance. If you remember there was a party going on aboard a large luxury yacht right out front of the marina. I couldn’t tell if they even noticed I was stuck there. Two guys stood at the yacht’s rail chatting but didn’t seem to be concerned about anything or anyone else.
There was nothing left to do but call Towboat/US. I don’t remember if they said 45 minutes or 2 hours, all I could do was wait. I stayed in the cockpit listening to the yacht's blaring music. The wind had picked up and I had to be ready to put out an anchor if the boat began to move. Luckily, I was being pushed by the wind and current against the sandy bottom right where I was.
Towboat/US showed up, assessed the situation, yanked me off the bank, and started to say “Good night and good luck,” but I asked him to help me get into the marina. There were a bunch of really expensive boats and one small spot on the end of the fuel dock. He sighed, but didn’t complain; side tied my boat and scooted me right into place. Thank you.
I tied the boat up, made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, set an alarm to be up when the fuel dock guys showed up and went to bed.
The fuel dock guys at Southport Marina were awesome. There was almost no reason for them to be nice to a ragged, sleep-deprived vagabond sailor, but they greeted me with a smile. My first order of business was to get the barnacles cleaned off the boat. With all the trouble I’d had the day before I knew the propeller and the hull were well coated. I had thoughts of walking to a store to get a putty knife, or a trowel, and scraping the hull myself. I’m not sure that I would have had the stamina to dive on the boat long enough to clean it all up. In the end, with a bit of current right there, the marina was concerned I might get pushed under the dock and get into trouble. They did not want a non-professional in the water, but they had a business card and with that I called a diver. An emergency, unscheduled diver on a Sunday morning - not the cheapest option.
The diver was super nice; young and in shape for that kind of thing. He had a hooka-type air compressor, mask, fins, a couple scrapers and some ear plugs. Little tiny shrimps or crabs often live amongst the barnacles. They can give you the willies crawling all over you and getting in your wetsuit, but they are no fun in your ears. The diver came back up after his first dive and indicated the growth was about a half inch thick. He wasn’t sure how much he could get off, but recommended a pressure wash when the boat was hauled.
“I’ll do the best I can,” he declared and disappeared again.
He was under water, under the boat, for more than an hour. When he came back up, he explained the scraping had been easier than he thought. The barnacles had come off like “scraping popcorn texture off a ceiling.”
I couldn’t wait to sail the boat again and feel the difference, but I needed to wait for the tide to turn. By the time the diver had arrived and done his work, the tide was about to ebb and would be running out the Cape Fear River into the Atlantic. The current would be against me until about five o’clock that afternoon. I took a cab to Walmart to supplement my provisions and buy a sheet as I was living without any kind of bedding. When I returned I bought some diesel fuel too.
Back from Walmart and with a few hours to kill, I did some writing on the veranda and chatted with a couple guys on a Lord Nelson Tug; one of my dad’s favorites. While I took a nap, another luxury yacht parked across the fuel dock from me. They were nice people though, with a friendly dog. It was Sunday afternoon and the yachts were packing in.
The tide was going to turn just before five o’clock and the fuel dock guys had offered to help with my lines, so I mustered the dock help about 4:30 and started the engine. We discussed the best way off the dock and out of the marina. The boat was facing east, the wrong direction. The wind and current were still out of the west; flowing east. I had prepared a couple options with the docklines.
There wasn’t enough space for me to leave the dock and turn completely around; too many expensive boats and too little room to maneuver. We decided to let go the stern and allow the boat to turn around at the dock while one of my helpers hung on to the bow line. It worked fairly well and had me pointed the right way -- west -- out toward the ICW. As my high dollar neighbors looked on nervously, I powered by them and out past the sign and the buoys that I had missed the night before. We cut through the water and powered right into the channel headed to the river. It was like having a new boat! We zoomed off toward the Cape Fear River. There is a zig and a zag as the river empties into the Atlantic. Southport is right on the northern end of the zigzag. I entered the Cape Fear River, technically still in the ICW, but the markers flipped; red, right, returning.
The waves coming in off the ocean had us surfing. A wave would lift the boat’s stern and she shimmied her hips as the wave rolled under her length and gave us an extra rush of speed. Then the bow raised, she lolled her head, and then we’d settle back into the water. Then another wave would sneak up behind us; stern up; shimmy & zoom; bow up, and settle. And again, one after another. It felt wonderfully free and exhilarating.
The Cape Fear River channel is wide and surrounded by flat, wider, shallow water with little islands. We cruised on by and I was really enjoying myself. The boat was performing so much better with a clean bottom. We had 35 miles to go but only 4 or 5 hours of sunlight. I hadn’t planned to make it all the way to the boatyard. It was only Sunday; my haul out was Monday. Suddenly, all time pressure dissipated.
Looking ahead on the chart, I wanted to stretch the daylight to get to an anchorage by Keg Island; just north of the Red 46 marker. A younger version of me would have got a kick just out of the name, but I was in sailor mode. I only had 100 feet of anchor line and I wanted to be able to have as much scope as possible. The Keg Island anchorage had about 11 feet of water. I’d be able to have longer, lower angle pulling on my anchor. The other anchorage choices were deeper allowing for less scope; a steeper angle.
Sunday evening on the Cape Fear was peaceful. I saw just a handful of pleasure craft and only two ships as we cruised along. All was well, but I felt more heat than I should coming up from the engine compartment. A little hot air was coming through a closed hatch and blowing on my ankle. I’d have to check that later. There wasn’t any smoke and the temperature was warm, not scorching. Right then, I was easily getting more than five knots with about the same RPMs as yesterday when I was struggling to maintain 3 knots. I didn’t want to stop.
The ICW runs up the Cape Fear River until it veers off across the flats toward Snows Cut. I stayed with the river. The navigation is all the same. I watched the markers ahead and behind to visualize the channel and stay in it. Even many landlubbers have heard Red, Right, Returning. When you’re coming in from the sea, the red buoys and red markers are on your right. Curiously, on the Atlantic ICW, going south Virginia to Texas, is considered a return; red, right, south. All day the day before, I kept the green markers on my right because I was headed north. As soon as I turned left into the Cape Fear River, the red buoys were on the right.
Occasionally, the markers are laid out a red, then a green, then a red, etc. More often, however, there are a couple of one color, then a couple of another; never in a straight line. Just aiming at the next marker is not the answer; you’d be a nuisance crossing back and forth through traffic. It’s a bit of a puzzle. You have to imagine pieces of tape, not always the same width laid down with the reds on one side to match with the greens on the other. It’s all extrapolating and imagining that you can see how these pieces of “tape” intersect and line up with each other.
It was a pleasant trip up the river. Though I only had my lukewarm water, apples and Larabars. I kept myself slathered in sunscreen and managed to avoid a burn. After passing what I Iater learned was some kind of munitions port, the river was mostly natural; undeveloped. Large expanses of flat water dotted with islands, some bare sand and others supporting stands of trees. The sky was the bluest blue and held only a few puffy clouds.
As the sun began to drop toward the pines on the western shore, the trees congealed into a darker and darker green mass. The tide that had pushed me up the river set up a spectacular display. A school of fish had gathered, or had been pushed upriver. Just as the sun splashed copper colors behind the jagged black shapes of the pines, pelicans began to feed all around me. At least 50 of those large graceful birds were dive bombing incessantly. One after another left a graceful arc and slammed straight down into the water. They surfaced again, sat in the water gulping fish, and then rested a moment before jumping back into flight and into the frenzy.
I was pushing it again, but not like the night before. In the last light of the day, I found the R46 marker and made a circle in the anchorage beyond it; watching my depthsounder. It was a fairly open stretch of water; 11 feet deep. I had 100 feet of anchor line and a danforth anchor. Completely by myself, I dropped the anchor and let out nearly all the anchor line. I could just see the shapes of three houses on the shore a good distance away. They would have needed binoculars to see me. The whole universe was just me and my boat.
I had a pouch of barbecue flavored tuna fish, so I made a sandwich, had yet another apple and another Larabar. Under the stars with the tidal current rolling under me, it was a gourmet supper fit for a king. When I went forward to check the anchor line the sky was filled with millions and millions of stars. Back in the cockpit, I tried to record the moon reflecting each ripple as the current passed under us but there just wasn’t enough light. I get to save that holy vision for myself. What a night! All the struggles of the last 36 hours were made righteous. Fatty Goodlander talks about approaching cruising on a sailboat as a righteous cause. When the boundaries between me and the rest of the universe get so thin I no longer feel them, this is my religion. This is my righteous cause.
Next, I put the boat up for a while and struggle to get home.
This is Part Four of a series.
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