Friday, January 27, 2023

Finally Getting South


To arrive at Saint Augustine and write my last post about living the life, I had to trek down the East Coast and make it from my dismally embarrassing first week aboard to the intrinsically satisfying stay in America’s so-called oldest city. It wasn’t easy, occasionally tough, but it was a soul satisfying trek through the Carolinas, Georgia, and into Florida. Here is the first part of that story:  

After nearly sinking on Monday, fixing a hole in my keel Tuesday, relaunching Wednesday, and wrapping a line on my prop Thursday, things began to look up on Friday; everything is up from the bottom. A professional diver just happened to show up at the dock Friday afternoon, saving Ruth Ann and I from having to wait our turn on the travelift. He untangled my propellor and retrieved my anchor that afternoon. It finally seemed like Ruth Ann and I might actually be able to leave the boatyard. Nevertheless, the tide was turning and the sun hung low in the sky, so it really didn’t make sense to leave until Saturday morning.  

Saturday was a big day with a certain amount of pressure because I hadn’t been able to leave yet. When the tidal current finally began to ebb, I prepared to leave. My boatyard neighbor, Grace, came down to see me off and take a couple pictures; including the main picture here. Everything went without a hitch and I was gurgling down the river preparing to call the CSX Navassa Railroad Bridge.  

The railroad bridge was about a mile downstream and needed to open for me to continue down the river. I had had some trouble contacting the bridge on my way upriver three years ago. The bridgetender had never actually answered my radio calls. I circled below the bridge, calling again, until, without a word, the bridge finally started to open. This time, however, I got an answer right away and as soon as he could see me, the tender began to open the bridge. 

Ruth Ann and I had started our journey in the slack water just prior to the mid morning high tide. That meant that we didn’t get started until almost 11:00 AM. However, that set us up to ride the ebbing tide all the way down the river. At times, Ruth Ann was gaining more than a knot and a half of speed over the ground as the current pushed us. In no time, we got to downtown Wilmington and turned south. Below the city is the Port of Wilmington which wasn’t so busy on a Saturday. Beyond the port was vast stretches of spoil islands and wilderness. At a certain point, the river is so wide that it was hard to even notice the few houses along the shore. The hours on the river were wild and wonderfully solitary. 

It’s about thirty five miles from the boatyard all the way down to Southport, NC where the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) turns in behind the islands of the coast. I had been debating whether I was going to jump offshore or not. I was itching to sail Ruth Ann, and itching to get offshore again, but I am a conservative sailor with a mind to the importance of seamanship and there were a few projects on the boat that were not yet finished. 

I had to get moving south as winter was closing in on North Carolina. That meant that Ruth Ann was mostly seaworthy and safe, but also lacking in a few areas. Her rig is Dyneema, a material that is affected by temperature in the opposite way of most other materials. It shrinks in warmer temperatures and sags in the cold.  The cooler weather had made my rig loose. It could be tightened, of course, but I would have had to loosen it again when I reached warmer weather. Further, I didn’t have my lifelines installed yet. There were (and still are at this writing) a couple of stanchion bases that need to be replaced before I restring the lines along the outside of Ruth Ann’s deck.  Not to mention that my engine installation was less than a month old. The engine, the stern gland, and all the components from the fuel tank to the propellor had not been running together for long. If I had gone offshore and had trouble with the rig or the sails, I would have had to rely on the untested propulsion system to get back to shore. So after my trip down the river, even though I could smell the ocean and longed to traverse her expanses, I turned down the ICW. 

Ruth Ann and I had made excellent time down the river, but it was getting near to sunset by the time I was passing the quaint little town of Southport. I like Southport a lot and I’ve been there a few times by land just to wander her streets. The old seaside houses and the small streets are a pleasure to enjoy by foot. The tide was also changing, but when we left the Cape Fear River we no longer had the current with us. The current that had been pushing us toward the ocean had diminished, but turning away from the ocean meant turning into the current. 

As I passed Southport, I peeked into the basin there and watched as I passed the marina where I had stopped on the way up to the boatyard. Just west of town was a creek with an anchorage that I had been aiming for. As the sun got low on the horizon, I hoped that I could make it before I lost the daylight. 

I turned up Dutchman’s Creek and made my way about a quarter mile to a small lagoon by a county park. I was following the navigation instructions from Active Captain online, but had not ever anchored Ruth Ann other than in a panic the week before. Approaching the anchorage, I saw that there was another boat in the deeper southern end. After making a circle to check the depth around me, I politely dropped my anchor a good distance from that other boat. It had been quite a day; finally some success. All the fresh air and concentration had made me quite tired. After a simple supper, I checked my anchor chain and went to bed. 

Several years ago, I had interviewed a salty Salem Massachusetts sea captain for a magazine article I was writing. One of the pearlescent gems of wisdom that he dropped on me that day was: “You’ll remember all your sins at sea.” By that he meant that all the compromises you’d made, and the corners you had cut would come back to haunt you once you left the dock. I had one already. I had not replaced my depth sounder though I knew that I should have. It was likely the original one installed in 1984 when the boat was built. The display was a little frosted from the sun, but I had told myself that once it was lit up and operating, I’d be able to see it just fine. Not only could I barely read the display, the numbers were jumping around. The depth would read several dozen feet, then it read hundreds of feet before settling on a reasonable number for a short time, and then jumped around again. I had decided that it usually paused on the correct number but I had no way to tell. It was a ridiculous idea to head down the ICW without a functioning depth sounder. All along the coast there were areas where sandbars shifted with the tidal currents or from recent storms. I had to figure something out. I wanted to figure something out that didn’t require me to haul Ruth Ann out of the water yet again.  

In the morning, the other boat was already gone when I hauled the anchor and made my way back to the ICW. This stretch was vaguely familiar, though three years before I had done a fair bit of it in the dark (almost as stupid as having a bad depth sounder). I made my way down to Calabash Creek, did some poking around, and anchored just upriver from the ICW. Once I was anchored and battened down for the evening, I made supper and started doing some research. The diver who had saved me and my anchor was nearby but I did not have his phone number. I was looking for some dock space to run to West Marine in Myrtle Beach, but I didn’t want to pay a marina. Finally, my googling led me to a day dock at Barefoot Landing, a large shopping and dining complex right  on the ICW in Myrtle Beach. Docking was only allowed during the day, but it would allow me to stop. 

The biggest challenge of that third day was the Rockpile; a long section of the ICW from Little River, SC down through Myrtle Beach where the channel had been blasted out of solid rock. Along that stretch, outside the channel is shallow and the bottom there is solid rock. If you happened to drift out of the channel, the ledge of rock could eat your boat.  … and I was headed through it without knowing how deep the water was under my keel. 


It went fine anyway and I made it down to Barefoot Landing without incident. The dock was on the left side of the channel, so I circled around, slowed the boat, and approached the dock. It was a beautifully executed, nearly effortless, perfect docking maneuver. I tied up right in front of the Greg Norman Australian Grille thinking that I had triumphed. As I tied up, I could hear the cacophony of the lunch crowd; people shouting over the din, people laughing at dumb office jokes, and generally enjoying their three-martini, end-of-the-week, Friday lunches. It seemed that not one of them could have cared to notice my pro level docking. Ah, well. I had a mission. I grabbed an Uber and headed to West Marine. 

I had done my research and, according to their website, the West Marine in Myrtle Beach had two HawkEye depth sounders that can read the depth through a fiberglass hull. It was critical that I found a depth sounder capable of exactly that so I could perform the ‘field repair’ that I was planning. The clerk made me a little nervous when we couldn’t find them at first, but they finally appeared. I bought the HawkEye, some emergency epoxy, and stepped outside. There was a Panera Bread across the parking lot where I got a sandwich and a drink, and then Ubered back to the dock. 

Where Ruth Ann and I sat, we had made it two thirds of the way through the Rockpile, that crunchy section of rock-lined channel. I didn’t have enough daylight left to make it to the next anchorage and barely enough to make it back to Calabash Creek, where I had spent the previous night. The last thing I really wanted to do was go back through the Rockpile, only to have to return the next day. I made some calls and found a marina a couple miles further south. I didn’t want to spend the money, but it was a strategic move out of necessity. 

Once I got to the marina, I was regretting that I left my little space heater in my trailer at the boatyard. I wasn’t going to use marinas very often, so I didn’t bother to bring it. Also, if I was cold at anchor, an electric heater wasn’t going to do me any good anyway. It was already colder than I had hoped with the forecast looking grim for the following week. I needed to keep moving but I needed to stay warm too.  I fired up the Uber app again.  

Another Uber came and took me to a nearby Lowes hardware. I bought a little Buddy propane heater, supposedly safe indoors, and several green cans of propane. After Ubering back to the marina, I set about to install the depth sounder I had bought earlier. 

I had some white plastic panels that I had purchased for covering access holes in Ruth Ann’s ceiling and interior liner. The original depth display was nearly 4 inches in diameter, the new one about two. I removed the old display, cut a square cover from the white plastic, cut a hole for the HawkEye, and installed it. To my dismay the instructions specifically stated that only a slow cure epoxy should be used to glue the transducer inside the hull; no 5 minute epoxy and no emergency epoxy. I had the wrong stuff. However, the transducer seemed to work fine just sitting on the bottom of my bilge. I dropped a weighted line between Ruth Ann and the dock to confirm the measurement on the new display and it was working perfectly. As I write this, three weeks later, the transducer is working fine and is still not glued down. 

The next morning, I was going to need to keep watch for somewhere to buy fuel. The swanky marina where I had spent the night had fuel but it was not handy to get to their fuel dock from where Ruth Ann was tied up. We had miles to make anyway. The weather was changing and we needed to get south! After motoring all morning, we were nearing Bucksport Marina out in the wilderness of South Carolina west of Myrtle Beach, at the edge of the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. As I pulled up to the fuel dock, the old man asked if Ruth Ann was a Bayfield. 

“She sure is a Bayfield,” came a call from down the dock. A woman approached as I tied off near the diesel pump. She and her husband sail a Bayfield 36 and she asked if I had anchored in Dutchman’s Creek a couple nights before. It turns out that they were that other boat I had seen. She had recognized Ruth Ann as I pulled into the marina. So my very first night at anchor, after finally getting my Bayfield 29 into the water, we stopped right next to another Bayfield. That feels pretty auspicious to me.  

The Waccamaw River is a wild section of the ICW in South Carolina. Lots of wilderness, teeming with wildlife, and many little creeks to pull into. I made it down to Sandhole Creeek deep in the wildlife refuge. There was another boat a little further up the creek, but I found a spot just inside to drop anchor. 

The next day, all I could see was wilderness as I wound my way through more of the wildlife refuge, but I knew that I was passing Pawleys Island, an exclusive golf resort area. The riffraff and the tourists visit Myrtle Beach and think they are in golf country but the well-healed and the well-off know that the palatial golf resorts are south of Myrtle on Pawleys Island. Just beyond the island is Georgetown, SC, one of my favorite little coastal towns. Sadly, it was pretty early yet when I passed and I didn’t feel I should stop. There was also some weather coming and I didn’t want to stop early and then get stuck there.

I was trying to do about 40 miles a day. Georgetown was only twelve miles or so from where I had anchored in Sandhole Creek. South of that little stretch of civilization, I turned out of Winyah Bay and was back in the wilderness. This time the Yawkey-South Island Reserve. Just down the ICW from the bay is a barge fashioned into a ferry/bridge to get from the mainland to the reserve. I don’t know if the catch was crab or crayfish or what exactly, but there seemed to be a lot of independent watermen working the waterway through here.

I felt like I was in the wilderness, but I was never far enough “out there” to lose my connection to the cellular data network. While I checked the weather and the tides in various places, I was also looking for my next anchorage and the conditions near it. I found that I was approaching the North and South Branches of the Santee River and that the river was going to get above its flood stage as a coming storm went by. The town that the flood warnings mentioned was a fair distance upstream from where I was going to cross but downstream from flooding didn’t sound like a good thing. Even without nearing flood stage, the Santee River is known for having pretty strong currents where the ICW crosses each branch. I looked for an anchorage somewhere before the Santee.  

It was hard to distinguish Duck Creek from the North Santee River on the chart, but it had good reviews on Active Captain, an interactive map online with community input. I dropped my anchor just before sunset and settled in for some weather. The forecast was for winds gusting over 30 knots that night and through much of the next day. We were anchored south of an oddly triangular island in a stretch of creek tha arced lazily to the northeast. Ruth Ann was kind of protected from the wind out of the west but I was concerned that we might be exposed to some strong breezes sneaking along the creek from the southwest. I figuratively and literally battened down the hatches. After cooking supper and catching up on a good book I was reading, I went to bed as the winds began to muster with the coming storm. 

It was a good test for the anchor, the boat, and me. We had gusts that must have been approaching 35 knots (about 40 mph). I never felt like we were near any trouble. The anchor held, Ruth Ann pulled at it strongly but she didn’t buck around, and I slept through the night. The storm carried on into the next day. It was late afternoon when the weather finally settled, so it didn’t make sense to haul the anchor and try to get anywhere. The weather reports had simply stopped talking about the flood stage danger upstream. I presumed that it either hadn’t gotten as bad as they feared or that the danger had passed. The next morning, I hauled the anchor and we set off again. 

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