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.


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Homeward Epilogue

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