Thursday, February 2, 2023

Down the Coast

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series detailing my voyage down the East Coast in search of warmer weather for the Winter. 

The day after the storm, other than a glimpse at McClellanville, we were still in the wilds of South Carolina. Osprey soared overhead and egrets stared intently in the shallows waiting for lunch to swim by. There were clumps of scrub pine, cedars, and oaks draped with Spanish moss among acres and acres of salt marsh. My little Yanmar hummed below my feet and the miles gurgled by. Then suddenly we were in Mt. Pleasant. I have been to Mt. Pleasant many times, but only sneaking across Charleston in a semi to get to the port across the river. I didn’t recognize this coastal side of town. Just before the ICW spills into Charleston Harbor, Inlet Creek meanders off to the north. Supposedly there is a wreck up the creek that can tangle an anchor, so I anchored just off the ICW in the creek’s mouth. A catamaran slowed as it went by, deciding something, but they continued on.

I was getting desperate for laundry and I was low on fresh veggies. My plan was to stop at St. John’s Yacht Harbor just past Charleston. The trip would involve getting through Wappoo Creek, yet another spot with notorious tidal currents. I checked the weather and the tide schedule, and decided I could sleep in the next morning. While cooking supper, I snapped a couple sunset pictures and suddenly realized a rocket launch was streaking across the sky. I checked the schedule at Kennedy Space Center and learned that it had been the latest SpaceX launch. The camera couldn't pick it up, but I could see one of the lower stages dropping away as it zoomed by.

After a leisurely morning with a heaping breakfast, I left Inlet Creek, motored under the Ben Sawyer Bridge after it opened, and entered Charleston Harbor. I’d been here a couple times by water. Charleston is another favorite of mine. As I made my way across the bay, despite my calculations, I was going to be early. Ruth Ann and I turned around and made a big oval in the harbor; backtracking and catching a better glimpse of Fort Sumpter. Our timing was better when we got back into the Ashley River on the west side of Charleston’s peninsula.

The Charleston City Marina was on the bank opposite the entrance to the creek. I had spent a couple days in the marina in 2015 when I crewed on a Westsail 42. On my own  boat, especially since I would be the one paying, we didn’t stop there. Along the creek was a bridge that needed to open. The creek, the bridge, and the current all went easy on us and in no time we were entering the Stono River on the other side. I had made a reservation at St. John’s Yacht Harbor where I had stayed while crewing on another boat. I knew they had nice facilities including laundry and showers. I had already located a grocery nearby, and the marina’s website said they even had a loaner car. 

Even after sleeping in a little, circling around Charleston Harbor to time the tides, and making it all the way to Johns Island, I had arrived fairly early to the marina. I hit the dock running and borrowed the loaner car. Food Lion did not have propane cans, so after grabbing some groceries I got some propane at an Ace Hardware just down road. Stocked up with food and gas, I dumped that payload and grabbed my laundry. While my clothes were drying, I took a shower. Then I splurged and ordered Chinese delivered. Back at Ruth Ann with my Veggie Lo Mein, I put away my clothes and my groceries. The marina had put me on the end of a T dock, not near any other boats, so I snuck and ran my little propane heater that night.

I still had a good amount of diesel, so the next morning I shoved off and continued on. I spent a night in the Raccoon Island Anchorage, north of Beaufort. I had recently noticed that way back during the anchor drama in Navassa, we had damaged the 3-strand rope part of my anchor rode. There was a long stretch of heavily abraded line just after the 120 foot tag and in one place one of strands was actually severed. Previously, I had been anchoring in such shallow water that I never had to rely on that section of line. However, I was sure to anchor in deeper water soon enough, so it needed to be fixed. I spent a good part of that peaceful evening by Racoon Island cutting and splicing the line.   

The next town of any size was Beaufort, SC, which is Byew-fert as opposed to Beaufort, NC which is Bow-fert. The straight line distance is not far, but the ICW winds around through several rivers to get there. It was almost frustrating, but the scenery continued to allure. On the curving route into Beaufort, the tide pushed against us. When I finally arrived, I needed to stop for fuel. There was a Safe Harbor Marina right downtown on the main river. When I pulled up to their fuel dock, the current was deceptive and I didn’t make it on the first try. The patient dockmaster let me know that I wasn’t the first to have had a little trouble. No harm, no foul.  I got some fuel and headed south out of town. With plenty daylight left, I picked a different anchorage, a little further south.  

When I pulled into Cowen Creek, it was idyllic. There were some fancy shoreside homes on the southern bank just at the entrance, but as I steamed up the river, the homes were more modest. The edge of the little anchorage was littered with crab trap buoys, but after weaving through, I carefully dropped the anchor behind them. I didn’t want to get tangled in the traps but also didn’t want to cause any trouble or damage for a waterman/woman.  I was in about 12 feet of water, the wind was steady but would slow overnight and I was already using the repaired section of anchor line. 

I had Ruth Ann moving again in the first light of the next morning. The weather I had been watching was getting ominous and the more I did the math, the more obvious it was that I was going to get caught. It was already cool and overcast. After a chilly ride across the windy Port Royal Sound, we ducked into the protection of Skull Creek, a deliciously piratical name. There was still plenty of wilderness as we neared Hilton Head Island. Rustic fish camp resorts gradually gave way to more touristy developments. And then it began to rain.  

Cold and gradually more damp, Ruth Ann and I crossed the Calibogue Sound and we  braced against the wind coming in right off the ocean. The resorts were slightly more rustic again as I passed Daufuskie Island, but it seemed only a facade. As I got closer to the Georgia border and the Savannah metro area, there were more and more palatial homesteads along the waterway. Let alone their fancy boats, most of their docks probably cost many times what I paid for Ruth Ann. 

As we came around a tight bend near Turtle Island, we were surrounded by patches of cloudy water; a sure sign that manatees were feeding nearby. I quickly dropped my speed and ghosted warily around the curve. Manatees feed on bottom grasses and as they munch and paddle to stay in place, they stir up the muddy bottom. 

Around a couple more bends was the Savannah River, the biggest obstacle of the day. Still connected to the interwebs, I checked the Marine Traffic website to see if the river was busy. Marine Traffic displays the AIS data from ships. All large commercial vessels are required to have AIS transponders which broadcast their vessel details, speed, and heading. Savannah has a busy port and lots of ship traffic. It was a Tuesday, but the Tuesday right before Christmas, so I didn’t know what to expect. A couple AIS signals would require my attention. The most confusing was a very large barge just upriver from where I would cross. Its AIS signal showed that it was not moving, but I wondered if that was accurate.

With more rain and a bit more wind, I slowed Ruth Ann as we approached the river. The air was cooling and as I got closer, a pall of fog diffused the horizon and the details of anything more than a quarter mile away. I checked the barge again but it appeared to be stationary. The ICW crosses the river near a bend, so Ruth Ann and I would have to go upriver a bit to find the other side. I checked the tides on my phone and they seemed to be with us, rather than against.  

As we crossed, the fog obscured the river in both directions. I sped up and kept looking each way, but didn’t see another soul. Then, just as quietly as it had started, we were across the Savannah River. I had made it to Georgia! I would have celebrated but I was cold, damp, and miserable. There was plenty of daylight left and the anchorages through coastal Savannah were scattered, each with their own peculiarities, so I hadn’t yet chosen a place to stop. I passed a group of marinas at Thunderbolt, GA, a mainland suburb to starboard, with White Marsh Island to port. Thunderbolt Marina is a large complex on the mainland as that stretch of marine facilities gives way to salt marsh again. 

The first anchorage I had determined as viable was just around the bend. I could have gone eight or ten more miles, but I was damp and cold, so I turned up the Herb River. We motored past a few houses, and dropped anchor just around a bend in an area without much development. On the way in, I had spotted a Heavenly Twins Catamaran careened on the edge of the marsh, right next to someone’s dock. The Heavenly Twins is a unique catamaran design that I’d been attracted to for sometime. There didn’t appear to be much damage, but it was going to take some work, and some heavy equipment, to pull her back into the water. It was sad to see her languishing there. This was the first of many boats that I would encounter that had been swept to their peril by the recent storms; Ian in late September probably did the most damage along my route.  

I had arrived on the Tuesday before Christmas and there had been a gale forecast to arrive that night. The winds were quite strong out of the Northwest into the following afternoon. Those winds preceded an exceptionally strong winter storm that was set to arrive toward end of the week. Most of the country was going to get hit by the gigantic storm. This is the weather that I had known for a couple days that I wasn’t going to be able to escape. I had hoped to push Ruth Ann and  myself to get close to Jacksonville, FL. Recent forecasts, however, were showing that it was going to be just as cold deep into Florida, farther than I could hope to get before the storm closed in on me. It was already getting cold in Savannah. 

I spent Thursday at anchor as it got colder and colder. People who had been following my voyage were checking in on me. I posted the story of my Christmas miracles here. Suffice it to say that my family and friends, and two important people who I had never met, helped me tremendously. The start of that help was to get me thinking about how dangerously cold it was actually going to get. And finally, to convince me to move to a marina so that I could get an electric heater to survive. Further, many of those beautiful people helped me to afford that option. I had steeled myself to try to survive at anchor and was being stubborn about it in my own head. The truth of that matter was that even with a stash of several propane cans, I would not have been able to get through the five day storm without rationing my fuel supply. It would have been uncomfortable for hours at a time, and potentially dangerous. Ruth Ann is a warm weather boat. She is comfortable and cozy much of the time, but the berths are right next to the fiberglass hull and the cold seeps through quite efficiently. I moved Ruth Ann to the Savannah Bend Marina back in Thunderbolt. The people there were very nice; even as they were all getting ready to have the holiday weekend off.  

I got yet another Uber ride into town to get a shore power cord and a little space heater. I stayed hunkered down in Ruth Ann for most of my time there. I did get some laundry done just before they shut off the water to protect the pipes from freezing. I also had two visits from a friend of a friend of a friend with care packages of fruit and food; including some excellent home-grilled barbecue!

When the weather had passed -- most importantly when the nights that dropped into the twenties were over -- I untied the dock lines and pushed off. Just twelve miles or so down the ICW was another obstacle called Hell Gate, a small pass between rivers with very strong currents. I couldn’t time the tide very well starting from Thunderbolt, so I decided to just head there and check it out. There were a couple anchorages nearby, so that if the current looked too hairy, I could turn around and wait for slack water. Between the tidal schedule and the hours of available daylight, if the current was too strong for Ruth Ann, we’d probably lose most of that first day waiting for the slack.

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Homeward Epilogue

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