John and Joan offered us amazing hospitality over the last week and we have really enjoyed spending the week in Rowayton. We borrowed Joan’s car to do a couple of provisioning runs including topping off our propane tanks for the stove and BBQ. Driving a car after 3 months was weird! Since we were moored on the bow and stern buoys, we had a short dingy ride every day to get into town up the Five Mile River past quintessential east coast architecture houses. The weather this week was fabulous (finally!!) and I even spent the better part of Friday afternoon working from the back deck and waving at the boaters passing by.
Open-air outdoor dining had just been allowed in Connecticut, so we took the opportunity to eat at a restaurant just down the street from John and Joan – our first dining out experience in several months! This restaurant had a cute patio where half the tables had been roped off to account for social distancing, and we wore masks whenever the servers came to our table and removed them only for eating.
Since some packages that we were expecting were delayed and we knew we would be extending our stay into the following week, we decided to go for a weekend overnight to Oyster Bay, just across the Long Island Sound and invited John aboard to see if we could convince him to come to the dark side (power boating) :). We had a fantastic short trip and the weather continued to hold, so David even brought out the inflatable toys and drank a margarita off the back of the boat.
Our final package arrived and we determined that Monday would be our last night in Rowayton. We have spent the last two nights with David’s family watching the developing news of the protests sweeping across the country. David and I are very aware of the privileges of our lives, and not just that we are in a position to be on this adventure this year (regardless of how it has been affected by the global pandemic). We are horrified by what has happened and is happening in our country and we stand in solidarity with those who believe in equal rights and justice for all.
Our 5 day stay in Delaware City waiting out tropical storm Arthur was uneventful, which is all one can hope of a week with a predicted storm. We pulled out Gloomhaven (board game) again, and otherwise spent the time working, relaxing and doing laundry. David also decided to install the fixed monitor stand on the desk so that in rough water we would not need to stow his monitor as we had been doing. This was the longest time we had stayed in one place since arriving on the boat back in February.
We also needed to do a lot of planning as our next legs of the trip would take us into our first open water on the east coast, and our first passage on the ocean in Highwind. The ideal plan for us would be to head from Delaware City down the Delaware River and around to Cape May for the night. This trip needed to be timed with the tides to ride favorable currents. Ideally the next leg of the trip would be 120 nautical miles from Cape May all the way up to Sandy Hook. This would have us ‘skip’ the entire New Jersey shore and avoid any passage up the New Jersey Intercoastal Waterway, which is controlled only to 4ft from Cape May to Atlantic City and then only 6ft to Sandy Hook. Even though this is protected water, we draw 4ft, so that first stint is a non-starter for us, and after our trip up the Dismal Swamp, we aren’t eager to spend much time in 6ft either. Since both of these legs were going to be over 4 hour cruises we knew that we needed to wait for a weekend. Since they are both in open water, we knew we did not want to be doing them in any kind of appreciable wind.
While Arthur was drawing to a close, we were keeping a close eye on the weather reports from Delaware City, looking for our chance. We started noticing a bit of a gap in the weather up the southern NJ coast centered around early Saturday, but then increasing winds for the rest of the 10 day forecast making the coast trip a nonstarter. As it got closer, the weather forecast firmed up with Saturday morning having nearly zero wind, not awful ocean swells from the SE, and Friday was at least passable to get down to Cape May. David had Friday off work, which helped, so we locked in the tentative plan, with lots of escape hatches if we ran into surprising conditions. Whatever ended up happening, if we didn’t make it all the way to Sandy Hook by Saturday afternoon, we’d be stuck in place for another 7+ days.
Friday morning, we cast off from Delaware City near the middle of the day (timed according to the tides) and began the journey to Cape May. The weather wasn’t great (with some intermittent rain), but the good news was that the wind was minimal. However, we spent pretty much the entire trip (5ish hours) going into head-on rapid chop, some of the worst waters we’ve been on to-date, the waves regularly splashing all the way up to our flybridge windows. At one point the nose dipped so violently that our anchor chain break popped free, so I had to don a lifejacket and head out onto the bow to fix it, while being sprayed in the face with salt water repeatedly. Once we got into the Cape May canal, the water was calm and we pulled in to our marina with no problems.
That evening we checked the weather reports again, and everything was still pointing to the next day being our only viable option for the journey north, with winds predicted 0-5kts and predicted 1-1.3m waves from the SE for most of the day. We planned to wake up at dawn, 5:30 in the morning (oh-dark-thirty, as my parents say), and immediately head out into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time since we started on this trip.
At 5:30, it was pouring with rain, but there was little wind, so we cast off and headed out of Cape May. The water was as predicted – large rollers evenly spaced coming at us from the beam. So while the day before had been a lot of up and down from the head-on waves, this trip was a lot of side-to-side rolling. For the first couple of hours of the day, it absolutely poured with rain and there was thunder and lightening in the distance. We were nervous enough about things that we grabbed the dingy key, portable radio, and the flares to keep nearby in case we got rolled over and somehow got the dinghy loose!
In order to make it all the way in one trip, we knew that we would need to plane for some of the trip, but for the morning, we needed to stay at displacement speeds, as planing with the beam waves was dangerously rocky. Our bug-out plan in case we did not feel we should go further was to duck in at Atlantic City. We could then take the rest of the trip up the NJICW (going on a rising tide for the deepest possible water) up to Manasquan, and then figure out a time to do the last 25 miles in open water later in the week (hopefully). However, eventually the rain stopped, and the conditions, while real crappy, were not dangerously bad. After 5 hours of that, we passed by Atlantic City and turned to port by about 10 degrees, so the seas were not straight on the beam, and the conditions greatly improved. We shortly thereafter were able to keep the boat safely up on plane without having to manually steer, and our ETA dramatically dropped.
After a couple hours of planing, we knew that, even if the waves turned worse and we had to stop planing, we would be able to make it to Sandy Hook with an hour or two of sunlight to spare. We actually ended up managed to stay planing all the way up. As we got further north and slowly turned further and further to port, the waves kept going more and more aft, making it safer and comfier as the day went on. We ended up getting into Sandy Hook early enough in the evening to fill up on diesel before settling in for the night on anchor.
The next morning, we would be heading north from Sandy Hook, up the East River past Manhatten and into the Long Island Sound where we would tie up in Rowayton, Connecticut to spend some time with David’s aunt and uncle. Our original Loop plan had us spending several days in New York City, but obviously now is not the time to be a tourist in NYC, so we are cruising on by and hoping that on the way south things might be open enough that it makes sense to stop.
It was a surreal and amazing experience to be driving our boat past such a recognizable skyline. We had no trouble navigating the New York City harbour, which in more normal times must have 5x the number of boats that we saw. We pulled in close to the Statue of Liberty and took a couple of selfies from the bow. Since the skies were pretty grey and it was quite windy, we decided not to drop the dingy to get the “money shot” of Highwind with the Statue in the background (we’ll give it another shot on the way south). We then headed under the Brooklyn Bridge and through Hell’s Gate (a section of water near the entrance to Long Island Sound that is best navigated at slack tide).
About half way up our passage on the Long Island Sound, the clouds finally burned off and we were greeted in Connecticut by amazing blue skies and a warm welcome from John, Joan and Brian (David’s cousin). John had secured a mooring spot for us at the mouth of the river where they live and luckily John and Brian had come out in their dingy to help us get moored since this was a “bow and stern buoy” type mooring. This is where you have to hook up both your bow and stern to two mooring buoys that are connected by a line. What I didn’t realize is that you do not use your own lines (like we do for traditional mooring buoys), but instead there is a “pennant” line that is already connected to the buoy that you are supposed to pick up and tie to your boat; all while making sure that you do not drive over the line connecting the buoys, so that it doesn’t get caught in your propellers. Unfortunately, there was a decently strong current pushing us right into/over the line! After a bit of a struggle, we finally got tied up and were able to drop the dingy and head further up the river where John had secured us a spot to tie our dingy for the night, just across the street from their house.
We had socially distant “streettails” with some of their neighbors and a delicious home cooked (that I didn’t have to cook!!) meal. Also, I didn’t have to do the dishes!! For Memorial Day, we had streettails again, this time with David’s other uncle and aunt and cousin – Paul, Nancy and Mike, plus a phone cameo with David’s cousin Jen.
We are planning to stay here probably for the next week and properly re-provision the boat for heading north up to Maine. Also to come up with a plan, since John and Joan are coastal experts up here, and we know essentially nothing about these waters, since they’re not part of the Great Loop.
Late last week, my laptop had broken and decided to stop charging, so I’d been stuck using my desktop (a bit power-hungry when on anchor…) Being on a moving boat, with repair shops all closed due to Coronavirus, there’s essentially no way to get a laptop repaired and back in my hands in a reasonable amount of time. After much hemming and hawing, I decided to just pick up a new Macbook, and whenever I can manage to finish a swap with Apple to get the old one repaired, we can sell it. This forced us to make some awkward timing decisions, which were already awkward due to the upcoming tropical storm Arthur.
The next major segment of our journey involves two big hops: from the C+D Canal, you get dumped out onto the Delaware River/Bay, which is a pretty big “river” with a large tidal swing. From the exit to the canal, it’s about 65 miles out to Cape May, which is the southern tip of New Jersey, where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean. So, you have to time that to go with the tide or you have a long day ahead of you.
Once you get to Cape May, you have two choices to get north: the New Jersey ICW, or going up the “outside” and running the open Ocean the whole way up. The ICW has been incredibly poorly-maintained, so even with a 4 foot draft like we have, it sounds like a questionable journey at this point, worse so than the Dismal Swamp. However, the outside run is a solid 125 miles up to Sandy Hook. So, that’s a long day. You can theoretically break it up by stopping in Atlantic City, but even that involves a bit of ICW.
So, having day jobs, you can imagine that we’re trying to plan these two hops for a weekend — one day to get out to Cape May, and then a day (or two) to bomb all the way up NJ to Sandy Hook, and then it’s smooth short-hop sailing through NYC to CT. We knew were going to miss the window of the 16-17th weekend for this, since we didn’t want to hurry our way through the Chesapeake. However, tropical storm Arthur is spinning up and is planning to make the middle of this week rather lively, which isn’t leaving us with a lot of options.
When push came to shove, we decided to receive the new laptop in Delaware City, which is just north of the east end of the C+D canal, on the Delaware River, on Monday morning (the soonest it could get shipped). So, after a nice day and night hanging out in the Chesapeake City anchorage, we headed the rest of the way through the canal (which was very boring), and put in at the Delaware City Marina, where we filled up with diesel for the upcoming big legs, emptied the holding tank, and had a lovely 6-foot-away brunch with some friends of ours who live in Philly and drove down to see us.
This morning, when the laptop arrived, we had to make a call on a plan, and the weather forecast had taken a bit of a turn for the worse. Tuesday through Saturday was now forecast to be windy and/or rainy, solid. We asked nicely and the marina owner gave us a discounted weekly rate to spend the week here, so we’re going to just wait out the storm. If all goes well, over the Memorial Day weekend, we’ll hopefully jump down to Cape May on either Saturday or Sunday (depending on weather), and then bomb all the way up New Jersey on Sunday and/or Monday. So, our next update will hopefully be an all clear report from the anchorage inside the nook at Sandy Hook next week. Or some adventure stories about why we’re not there. One way or the other…
The next day, our friend Peter joined us for the week. He had been out east on a work trip when everything locked down, and he ended up just staying with his mom outside of DC while things blew over. Two months later, he was still there, and desired rescue. They’d been really good about quarantining, and essentially hadn’t left the house the whole time, so we felt safe having him aboard. Ask us in a few days if that was a good decision or if we’re struggling to breathe. His mom dropped him off at the boat in the afternoon, bid him a sad goodbye, and he moved into the front bedroom (or, as we had been treating it, the quarantine-changing-room and pantry.)
The restaurant right at the marina was actually quite excellent, and it was raining on and off, so we were feeling pretty lazy. So, we had a great takeout meal, followed by a nice evening playing games and planning out a rough sketch of the week.
We’d planned out spending a couple nights on the Miles River, on the east side of the Chesapeake. There’s a bunch of various little rivers/inlets feeding it, all with various anchorages. As will be the theme of the week, though, we had some pretty stiff winds expected for the next couple nights, so we found a nice east-facing anchorage (we were expecting a westerly wind) at Long Haul Creek, and set up shop for the night.
It was a pretty little spot that we’d found on Navionics. The anchorage we were aiming at, however, was super shallow (it’s further up the inlet straight into the above picture), so we backed out to the center of the bay there and set up shop for the night. The wind turned out to not be so bad, and we had a pretty calm evening and overnight here. I set the anchor alarm up on a super tight circle (since we didn’t have much drifting room until hitting docks and shallows), so some overnight current changes made for some quick wake-up-and-assess moments, but they all turned out to be okay.
The next day, we went a little bit north into a more open bay by Drum Point, expecting to spend the night there. It turned out to not be that pretty, but the anchor set up well and we had tons of wide open room to circle around and/or drag in the expected wind that night, so we were excited about an uninterrupted evening of sleep. Unfortunately, after setting up anchor and getting to work, we quickly discovered that the cell reception there was useless. Phones had zero reception, and the giant antenna was able to get just enough to hold audio calls, but really not enough to do much else. We struggled for a couple hours until we had a break in meetings in the afternoon to head to another spot.
That turned out to be a giant mistake. The wind was expected to pick up overnight, but it came a little early. Re-entering the main channel, we immediately were in the worst seas of our boating lives. 4+ foot irregular waves with 6 foot randoms, directly from the beam (right into the side of the boat — the worst angle for a boat to take waves from), forcing us to go back and forth at alternating 45/135 degree angles to the waves (causes much less rocking and instability than taking them directly from the side). Waves were regularly bouncing off the hull and splashing over the roof of the bimini (~15 feet off the ground). Hannah and Peter tied down everything they could, but one big rogue wave swept us badly and tossed pretty much everything from the kitchen shelving onto the floor. Amazingly, nothing broke, and the wood floor just has a few battle dings. We had to eat that pineapple pretty soon after that, though…
We were originally headed for an anchorage just southwest of the Kent Narrows bridge, to avoid the wind, but after a couple hours of battling the terrible seas, we were pretty drained and didn’t want a crappy anchoring session followed by a long stressful night of shallow windy madness in the anchorage (there’s a pattern of everything being shallow and narrow on the Chesapeake). We decided to call a couple marinas right at the narrows, and one had an opening, Harris Point Marina, so we took them up on it.
The narrows township area blocked a bunch of the wind, and we got a lucky gap just as we went to anchor, but the marina was the tightest/shallowest/scariest we’ve ever entered as well. The depth alarm was constantly tagging less than 3 feet under the middle of the boat the whole way to our slip, and we had to back into the slip because it was less than one boat length between the slip entrance and a muddy shore, so you couldn’t turn around, and if you had the props facing the shore you’d run aground (since boats are deepest at the back side). The slip was only about one foot wider than the boat, so I basically backed the boat kinda into the slip and then Hannah and Peter helped bounce us the rest of the way back to the dock. We quickly got lines on everything, and then cheered and broke into the liquor. That was a hell of a day.
Peter actually grew up in the area, so he had bits of local knowledge. When he realized where we were going to spend the night, he got super excited, because there was a restaurant that he and his mom used to love going to once in a while, the Harris Crab House. So, of course, we got takeout, and Peter, with a bottomless stomach, decided to get pretty much everything on the menu, so we ate like kings for the evening.
The next day, the winds had died down and we were expecting a few days of calm weather to enjoy. After sleeping in, we headed not too far north to a nice-looking spot at Hart’s Point. It’s a little inlet with a marina inside, and a shallow spot with several anchorages marked on Navionics with good reviews. We set up at one of the anchorages with a bunch of reviews, and didn’t really think too hard about it, but as the sun went down realized that, on the north end of our anchor swing, we were pretty near the middle of the channel. Fortunately, only two boats came by all evening, but we felt a little bad about it. Lesson learned.
We’d found a nice looking spot on the Sassafras River for the next day, so we wandered up there in the morning. We had another fun incident of checking internet like a half mile from our anchorage spot, it looking good, setting up anchor, and realizing the internet is unworkably bad. We then moved north 3/4 of a mile and had great internet. At least that anchorage was also solid, with plenty of swing room, and still quite a pretty spot, so it worked out.
We ended up spending two nights here, because it was way better than our original plan’s next spot looked like it would be. We had a great sunset dinghy ride way up the river to Fredericktown together, saw lots of wildlife, and by and large had a lovely couple of days there with mild weather.
All good things come to an end, and we headed up to Chesapeake City for our last night as a group. There’s a man-made canal that connects the Chesapeake Bay with the Delaware River, the C+D Canal. About 1/3 of the way down the canal is this little “city”, which is one of those moment-in-time places. Cute little 2 by 2 block “downtown” area, big grassy park with open mic gazebo by the water, ice cream shop, the works. There’s a free first-come-first-serve dock for a few boats, with a 24-hour limit, so we spent one night there, and got a delicious take-out meal at the Inn on the water, which was definitely the happening place to be on a Friday night. Boats coming in and out all night, chock full of people partying. It was a bit different from the people working the Inn, who all had masks, and had the most pristine organization we’d yet seen for distancing, one way people-movement, and order pickup.
In the evening, after dinner, I did my usual engine checks, and noticed some coolant leaking under the starboard motor. Some quick checks later, and I found that it was actually the exact same failure as we’d had on the port motor several weeks prior, a leaking coolant water pump. Fortunately, I’d gotten two new ones when the last one failed (since things tend to fail in pairs), so I had one ready to go. Peter was a champ and helped me out with the change for several hours. It all went fairly uneventfully.
In the morning, Peter took an Uber to the airport and headed home, and we moved to the center of the inlet to the anchorage to spend one more night there.
We had planned an itinerary of a couple of places up the Patuxent (“Pax”) River for the next few days, so after a night at the mouth, we pulled anchor and headed north towards Battle Creek, a spot recommended to us by David’s uncle John and aunt Joan, who have done extensive boating on the east coast. This was a lovely spot and felt actually a bit like we had set up anchor in Meydenbauer Bay, where we used to live in Bellevue, since we were surrounded by houses and people’s back yards. We were wondering what people thought of us basically dropping anchor in their back yard.
We had only planned to stay there one night, and to move a little south the next night to St Leonard’s Creek, but we drove by the spot on our way to Battle Creek, and it seemed pretty similar to this one, so we were skeptical it was worth the hassle of moving. After working from Battle Creek, we put the dinghy down to head over to go scope out St Leonard’s creek, a ~20 minute dinghy ride down the Pax, and see if it was worth going after all (and to put some time on the dinghy, since the battery had been getting low and I’d done an oil change recently).
We pulled out of Battle Creek into the main Pax, but the weather switched quickly from overcast-but-fine to windy-and-fairly-heavy-rain over the course of a few minutes, so we aborted the run, turned around, and headed back to the boat. When we got back, we changed clothes and settled in for the night. With the weather being not-great both nights, we ended up not actually taking any pictures while here. Oops.
Our plan after this was to head back to the head of the Pax to a marina on Solomon’s Island to spend the night. David’s aunt Jan and uncle Jim live not too far away, so we planned to meet them at the marina for lunch. Unfortunately, I had a string of back to back meetings that afternoon and was not able to join them…and David didn’t take any photos!! I did a late load of laundry since it would be our last shot for a while, but we also neglected to take any pictures here, with the sub-mediocre weather. We’re terrible bloggers.
The next day, there were pretty heavy winds forecast for the evening/overnight, so we headed north to Herrington Harbour South Marina, where we’d planned to hide out from the wind storm. We filled up on diesel, pumped out, and set up on an awkward side dock for the night.
The next morning, about 30 mins after I woke up, I heard a horn outside of the boat and went out to investigate. A Norfolk Fire Department boat was coming over to see if everything was alright. Perhaps not too many people anchor in that spot? It was also pretty windy – so maybe they thought we were in trouble? Despite the wind, we seemed to have a good hold and our new batteries were not expected at our next marina for another day, so we decided to hang out for an extra day in this spot.
Next up, we cruised to Yorktown and tied up at Dare Marina. This was the only marina that was open to transients in Yorktown, and was more of a boating service marina than a standard marina (i.e. no laundry facilities!). We received the shipment of our 8 new batteries, and David spent the next two days installing them.
We knew there was an incoming wind storm on Thursday, but it was supposed to die down by the afternoon, so our plan was to head out to our next destination (a marina with laundry!) after work. The afternoon was so windy and it was still raining around 3pm, so we decided to extend our stay for one more night. As it turns out, everything did die down, and by about 4:30 it was extremely calm!
The next morning, we headed up to Deltaville, a stop that we basically made for the sole purpose of doing laundry, which we hadn’t had access to in several weeks at this point. We had an uneventful stay in the marina — so uneventful we apparently took no pictures of anything. Freshly laundered, we headed out again the next morning.
Next up, we decided to head to the east side of the Chesapeake for the weekend. Our crossing was a little choppy and required dodging literally thousands of crab pots. We knew that more wind was coming over night, so we chose a spot just south of Tangier Island, which we hoped would afford some protection. As it turns out, there are not that many anchorage spots around this cluster of islands, without going several miles up side rivers (which delays our ultimate progress north), so we picked the theoretical best of the available options. After much hemming and hawing about the situation, we decided to call it good here for the night and investigated our activity options.
Tangier Island is a bit of a sad story. In the 1770s it started as a farming community, and later shifted to oyster/crab fishing as the primary resource. It started out not much above sea level, and global warming has already reduced the available land mass by 67%. In another 50 years, it will essentially be entirely under water and will need to be abandoned. Ironically, the isolated community is heavily bible-thumping and climate-denying, but still laden with interesting history.
The island’s facebook page has asked visitors to stay away from the town due to lack of medical care available for Coronavirus, so we decided to not even pick up takeout from one of the local restaurants. Instead, we just put the dingy down to head over to the isolated white sandy beach south of town – our first real beach of the trip!!
When taking the dingy to land, we use a bungee anchor system, where you boat close to shore, and toss an anchor off the back of the boat. This anchor is on a stretchy cord, so it allows you to continue to motor your way all the way into shore to hop off the bow of the boat (or at lease use inertia). We then have another long line tied to the bow. Once off the boat, you let the bungee cord retract so that the dingy is afloat (saves the bottom of the boat because you are not constantly beaching it in the waves for hours) and tie the bow line to something on shore so you can retrieve it. When you want to return to the dingy, you pull in on the bow line, stretching the bungee chain, hop on the boat, let the bungee retract again, pull anchor and you are off.
Now, I am explaining this because we knew we wouldn’t be on the beach for too long (Tangier Island was discouraging visitors to the town, though nothing was officially closed), the beach wasn’t huge, and the tide range is small, so rather than tying off the bow line to something solid, we dug an oar into the sand and wrapped the bow line around it a couple of times. We then went for a walk along the beach.
It was a nice day, so we decided to walk the entire beach, which took a while longer than anticipated. On the far south end of the beach, we looked back up and noticed a small white dinghy no longer on the beach, so we started working our way back. As the tide continued to rise, the dinghy had un-beached itself, and the oar had come free and taken the bowline with it, so now our dingy was happily anchored 50 feet off the shore in 3 feet of water. I had to swim out to the dingy to grab the line and bring the boat back to shore! Ooops. I guess we won’t be so lazy next time!
We returned to the boat and hunkered down for the evening, prepping for the overnight wind storm. It turned out to be a doozy – 25kt winds and constant rocking all night. It was probably the worst night of waves we’ve had on the boat before. Neither of us slept well in the irregular and heavy rocking, though the anchor held strong.
Our plan the next day was to head a ways north to the Honga River, and anchor in one more spot on the east side of the Chesapeake before heading back to the west side. As we approached the new anchorage, I did a quick check for the winds overnight and the following morning for the crossing. PredictWind (a wind app we use) was predicting headwinds up to 10mph in the morning, which is likely to add up to a bunch of chop crossing a body of water as wide as the Chesapeake. Right then, there was zero wind and we still had a few more hours of daylight, so we made a game-time decision to turn around and head across the Chesapeake. The crossing was glassy and the setting sun through the clouds made the best of a 1.5hr extension of what had already been a decent length cruise that day.
We are now safely anchored near the mouth of the Patuxent River sitting in about 10mph winds that picked up after nightfall, so I guess we made the right decision! We are pretty well protected, so we are not being tossed around too much.
We departed Belhaven with a plan to spend the next few nights on anchor. With my new job, we knew we wanted to do only short hops and our only schedule constraint was to arrive in Norfolk on Sunday to receive a shipment of new house batteries for installation. The route would take us up the Alligator River to Elizabeth City and then through the Great Dismal Swamp. After the windy night talked about in the last post calmed down, the rest of the evening was uneventful. We knew that we were in for a couple of days of sporadic high winds, so we decided to head north after one night to the northern part of the river and found a moderately sheltered anchorage near the mouth of the Little Alligator River.
With being in no rush to get to Elizabeth City, and not many options for further shelter from the wind, we decided to stay for several nights in this spot. Since at both anchorages we were the only boat in sight, we run the generator periodically throughout the day to top off the batteries (most of the power draw going to David’s laptops/desktop and enormous monitor :)). On Friday night, the generator suddenly cut out after being on for only 15 minutes. An attempt to re-start indicated a low water flow error. David started his investigation with the sea-strainers, which filter out weeds and other detritus from the seawater pulled in to cool the system. This is something we should probably check regularly, but actually hadn’t. After cleaning out the muck and trying to start it again, but with no luck, David pulled open the generator and discovered the impeller (a regular wear item) was completely worn down. You can see in the pics below, it’s a round “cog” that is supposed to have lots of arms – ours had only 1.5! We got that replaced with the spare and everything worked again!
Our travails that night were still not over! Later that evening, while sitting around the salon, suddenly both anchor alarms went off at the same time. After holding fast in one point for the previous 2 days, an hour prior to this, the wind had picked up and pushed us 180 degrees around our anchor (pretty standard), and we’d stopped moving for an hour or so. That was fine, but then all of a sudden the anchor must have gotten pulled up and we rapidly moved another 120 feet or so toward the shallows (we only started in 7 ft of water, so …) We only had another 200 ft or so to go before we were in bad shape, so we were just about to turn the boat back on to take manual control of our direction when we stopped in place again — the anchor found a new hold. We decided that we’d rather have more room for error through another night of heavy wind and decided we needed to pull up and re-set.
Armed with microphone and headlamp, I went out the the front of the boat and started pulling up the anchor. We were being tossed about from side to side, so it took quite a while to keep re-adjusting the boat’s nose so that the anchor pulled from straight ahead instead of raking out to the side of the bow sprit. Once we finally lifted the anchor, the boat promptly shot off towards the shallows. With some strong revving of the engines and some excellent boat maneuvering, we repositioned and dropped the anchor again close to our original spot. We reset the bridle and hunkered down for another rolling night – at this point our 3rd in a row, and stayed fast in that spot for the rest of the night.
For the next leg of the Great Loop, there are two options – an inland waterway through the Great Dismal Swamp, or around the outside through Coinjock and then the Chesapeake Canal. Both routes join together on the south end of Norfolk, VA. The swamp canal is maintained to 6 ft depth by the Army Corps of Engineers and according to our pre-reading was a very pretty route. After calling to confirm it was open and being told that it was sitting just above 6ft for depths at the moment, we decided on taking this route.
On Saturday we pulled up anchor again and headed to a spot north of Elizabeth City, basically as close to the entrance to the Great Dismal Swamp Canal as we could get. The locks at each end only open at 8:30AM, 11AM, 1:30PM, and 3:30PM, so you have to time how you wanna do things. It’s 19nm from lock to lock, with a speed limit of 6kts, so your best case scenario is a hair over 3 hours. With the whole thing being 6ft-ish deep, there was a pretty significant risk of at least minor propeller damage, so we decided to give ourselves lots of room for possible disaster and just make the 8:30AM south opening. That plan gives us plenty of buffer to get to the 1:30PM exit and make our way out through Norfolk.
We woke up early (6:30) the next day as we had to pull anchor and move the 10 miles to the entrance lock. We made it with plenty of time to spare, and found a fishing trawler had anchored the night there, with his anchor limply hanging from the front near the middle of the channel, and his butt firmly resting in the weeds to port. As we arrived, they figured it was time to wake up and started pulling anchor. For 30 minutes or so, we sat in was what was fortunately completely still and wind-less 6ft deep water waiting for the lock to open, with paint-mixing sticks poking out of the water not very many feet to the left and right of us, spray painted faded green and red, letting us know the extent of the “channel”. At the appointed hour, the lock opened and we entered the canal without incident.
As we were in the lock, the operator told us that they had been getting reports of boats hitting submerged obstacles along the first few miles of the canal. Great…but we’re committed now! The route was speed controlled, straight, pretty but boring, and hovered around 6.2 ft deep the entire way. We lightly touched something on the bottom about every mile or so (*thunk*), immediately threw the shifters into neutral to make the props stop spinning before the solid object made it to the back of the boat, waited several seconds for inertia to take us past whatever it was we hit, and then put things back in forward and continued. Despite all the clunks, we somehow managed to not pick up any vibration indicating propeller damage.
The north lock waiting wall happened to be right next to a decent shopping center, so we made tied up and ran off for a big grocery run while we waited for the 1:30PM opening, restocking the pantry for more time on anchor. The highlight of the day was the north lock operator, who shared historical details about the canal, and treated us with a conch-shell concert while the water level slowly dropped.
We finally exited the swamp and proceeded through Norfolk, which was a surprisingly endless collection of enormous dockyards and drydocks working on building/refurbishing gigantic ships, container ships being loaded and unloaded, and endless navy ships, for miles and miles. After 11 hours of cruising, we finally exited the Norfolk channel, popped across the bay, and put down our anchor on a huge area of 10ft deep flats just outside of Hampton. We opened some drinks and vegged out, pretty exhausted. We were super excited about starting a week of work after this weekend.
Ultimately, we decided that we’d do the outside route, if we were going to do this again. The Dismal Swamp was pretty, and neat, and locks are fun, but spending 3 hours with no music playing so you can listen for thunks, and endlessly worrying if you’re about to destroy your running gear, isn’t quite worth it. If they’d put another foot or two of water in there, it’d be a lot more exciting of a proposition to redo.
In between high school and college, I took a year off (read: I was told to take a year off to get my shit together) and spent the summer portion of that gap year in the tiny town of Bettles, AK. 100-something miles northwest of Fairbanks, north of the Artic circle, the town carried a full time population of ~75 people, most of whom were native alaskans, with most of the non-natives running away to warmer climates in the winter. Everybody knew everyone else, and even those of us one-summer seasonal folk, by the end of the summer, knew everyone and they all knew us. It was pretty rough leaving that community that fall.
Our journey up to Oriental was uneventful, and we put in at the Oriental Inn and Marina. The dockmaster was a super nice jolly guy and very proud of his supplies of hand sanitizer for customers to use. Oriental felt like a bit of a remnant of that Bettles feeling. It was an order of magnitude larger, population-wise, but the “main drag” was a single-digit number of commercial buildings, people were sitting on park benches watching the cars go by, families walked together to the two restaurants in town, both of which were serving take-out dinners, everyone waved to each other and stopped to chat (many not 6 feet away), etc.
We had a weather hole of 2 days of rain that planned for Oriental. When we arrived, we picked up our new anchor bridle, grabbed some more spares and supplies while we had a good marine store around, got some fresh groceries, and mostly hung out and worked. The next day brought us some pretty absurd rain (still not as bad as Surf City was), and we just holed ourselves up inside. After the rain stopped, we ordered some takeout dinner that was tasty, and had a nice 45 minute walk around the town together while our dinner was made. We got in a couple rounds of Gloomhaven and went to bed.
Another day of rain passed with us doing projects and research. Our bow thruster has been nearly useless the entire trip, and I’d done enough testing over the past couple weeks to determine that the thruster and wiring were fine, actually our batteries were just dying. They’re over 4 years old, were a low end brand to begin with (bought by the previous owners of the boat), and had been abused by dying alternators and some broken charging relays over the past few years. I’d been trying to decide for a week or so whether to go crazy and buy a whole new smart 4-stage externally-regulated alternator setup, a nice Lithium house bank, and dc-dc chargers to charge the start banks.
After looking at prices and complexity of trying to land this project in the midst of Coronavirus, I finally decided to pass and just go with a new high-end AGM bank. I started setting up plans to pick up four new Lifeline 3100T start batteries for our engine and thruster banks and four 6CT house batteries, which will increase our house capacity from 380 Ah to 600, a nice bump, and they’ll fit in all of the current (somewhat hodgepodge) battery cases and boxes, since getting new battery boxes shipped right now is a nonstarter. I can clean it all up later in the trip once I can get some shipments lined up. So now we’re trying to line up a spot to meet those eight batteries at in the next couple weeks, then we get to figure out how to recycle 8 used batteries while looping as well… A problem for another day.
On Sunday morning, we departed for a 4 hour trip up to Belhaven, NC. Hannah had been talking this town up for weeks, under the impression people had been talking about it constantly on the Great Loop Facebook group. Later, I realized that there had just been the owner of the Belhaven Marina posting different pictures once a week, like a good social media coordinator, and the trick had totally worked on her. The town was essentially totally shut down, and we stayed on the cheaper town dock (sorry Belhaven Marina), despite a sketchy 5 foot depth entrance. But we had another day of nasty weather to avoid, so we hung out for two nights.
Our main highlight of Belhaven was that the dockmaster suggested one place to order a nice takeout meal, Spoon River, so we did. When normally open, it looked like it would be a quite swanky restaurant, but as it was, when we showed up to pick up our meal, the owner seemed thrilled to have some customers, and generously gave us a bottle of wine with our dinner and a bundle of peonies (her husband is a florist.) We took the meal back to the boat, and it was delicious. It’s unclear if anything else is worth going back for in Belhaven, but that dinner was. It turned out to be 2 full dinners (for two) and a lunch (6-ish meal portions). I hope they make it through the recession and we can come back there again someday.
Hannah started a new job this week, so we’re going to try to be a little more conservative with our transit stages for a few days while she gets her feet wet at the new gig. Hannah spent Monday inside while it rained for her first day at work, then was inspired to bake a pie, which we happily consumed alongside our rapidly-booming peonies.
We headed out early this morning, with me driving most of the time while Hannah resumed her usual nonstop meeting schedule, to the next possible stop, an anchorage at the southern tip of the Alligator River. The weather report in Belhaven said it’d be somewhat windy today, but it apparently changes drastically when you go 30 miles east, and we came out of the channel into a 20-25 kt southerly wind. So, our first usage of the new Mantus anchor bridle was under duress, and it worked great. We anchored in 7 ft of water, put out almost 100 ft of chain (we didn’t wanna move and we had plenty of room to swing), and went in to work for the day.
As it turns out, we are a long way from anything here. It looks like Belhaven is actually the closest anything-resembling-civilization, and that’s back nearly 40 miles west of us. The whole day, my cell phone was showing either no signal or a bar or two of 1x. But it proved that our cell antenna was working well, because we were both able to be on conference calls all day, often with video chat.
We spent the afternoon getting regaled by nearly nonstop fighter jet passes, presumably from the Norfolk base to the northwest. The wind eventually died down after sunset, and we’re enjoying a pretty calm evening, though the fighters keep passing overhead.
Our plan for the next week involves making our way up to Elizabeth City by Saturday night, and going through the Dismal Swamp Canal on Sunday. It’s a supposedly very pretty alternate ICW route, but it’s maintained at only 6 feet of depth the whole way and is pretty notorious for bumping your boat with sunken logs and such. We’ll see if the risk is worth it or not, if we end up needing to get our props pulled off in Norfolk.
We left Tina’s pocket and continued northward towards Wrightsville, which was to be our last anchorage before heading to Topsail Island, Surf City for re-provisioning. This turned out to be a pretty busy anchorage. We were warned by ActiveCaptain that “the locals don’t understand “no wake” zones”, which turned out to be true, so in addition to a pretty windy night, we had a relatively tippy evening until sunset.
Possibly due to a combination of both, our anchor bridle snapped after the sun had gone down before we were heading to bed. This is a device/rig that clips onto the anchor chain and has two lines that we tie to the two front cleats on the boat. This takes the burden of the load on the anchor and spreads it to the cleats, rather than the chain pulling directly on our anchor winch. When the rope snapped, the device sank to the bottom of the bay. With no other backup device, we ended up threading the remaining section of the line through a link in the chain and calling it good for the night. The next day, I called ahead to our next couple planned marina stops and found one where with a marine store that is actually open and will deliver a shiny new bridle system right to the marina for us. Unfortunately, we won’t be getting there until Friday (4/17), so we’ll have to make do until then.
Our next planned stop was Topsail Island Marina in Surf City. We had planned this in advance for a couple weeks and had several packages sent there for various boat projects. You know, just a few packages…
Since we knew that a windstorm was coming, we decided to lengthen our stay so that we’d be tied up in a marina when it hit. Surf City was actually a pretty cool town, which would have been fun to visit had anything been open. We did manage to get some awesome tacos, just before even that closed due to it being Easter weekend also.
We spent the weekend working on various projects, including fixing a coolant leak on the Port engine, changing the oil (4 gallons per engine!) and both oil and fuel filters for both engines (an all-day activity), and updating some of the relays for connecting our various battery banks to 21st-century technology.
The storm hit on Sunday and it was crazy. A couple of hours of heavy rain in the morning and high winds throughout the rest of the day. With the winds that high combined with that much water, our complex-shaped bimini canvas has a large number of leak points, so we had a full contingent of buckets, pots and pans to catch the drips, but still ended up with a very wet carpet.
We didn’t really do much exploring in town. The beaches were completely closed to the public (even the carparks, so you couldn’t even walk up to the edge). In fact, our first and only view of the beach was actually by drone at Sunset on Monday night :).
With the weather looking like it was getting better, we set sail on Monday, planning for another couple of days on the hook before our next spot. The next anchorage, Mile Hammock Bay, was described as a favorite spot for Loopers, so we were eager to check it out. When we arrived, we were the only boat there, but it turned out to be neither pretty nor remarkable in any way. It was next to an army base and we did see some folks doing donuts in the parking lot/pier on shore… Also, when we read the Navionics entry about it, it mentioned, “4 stars: don’t be surprised if you drag anchor in here.”
As the afternoon wore on, a bunch more boats arrived — there were 8 of us by the evening! The wind also picked up and we were being jerked from side to side. This proved too much for our temporary rope-through-the-chain bridle solution, which snapped a couple of hours after we’d set the anchor. David managed to use his climbing rope skills to create an equalized across 4 chain links bridle through which we threaded our dock lines to the cleats. The side to side from the inconsistent wind had also been making us slowly drag across the bay, but everyone else seemed to be dragging at about the same rate, so it all evened out, and no one hit each other, despite several anchor alarms going off throughout the night making us get up and check where everyone was.
When we woke up in the morning, the bridle was still holding. We had originally planned several anchor spots this week on the way to Oriental, hoping that the temporary bridle solution would hold up for a couple of days. Alas! We decided we would change plans, skip an interim anchoring stop, and head straight to Morehead City the next day, where there was an open marine store with some spare parts we could buy.
As we left the bay, our plan was to anchor outside of Morehead City, re-rig the temporary rope and line bridle and hop in the dingy to the marine store. However, about 10 mins into the morning cruise, the wind picked up to well beyond what the original forecast had been for the day and the sky opened up and rained like crazy again, so we decided to call a marina.
We had a pretty nerve racking journey, which included a failed attempt to rescue a large fishing vessel whose engines had cut out and was drifting into the shallows. In the course of this, our bow also ran softly aground, and the wind was pushing us both quickly into a shoaling area. The depth meter was reading 4 ft or less during most of this attempted rescue. Due to the wind and the fact that their boat was much larger and heavier than ours, we weren’t really able to budge it in the wind at the awkward angle we had to be at to not run hard aground, and we unfortunately determined that we would be unable to help them. We were about to cause significant damage to our own boat in the process of the rescue, so we wished them good luck, quickly loosed the lines and cast off, frantically reversing our way back to the channel, a mere 50 feet away.
When we arrived at Morehead City, just as we were making the 180 to dock in our spot, a huge gust of wind threw us right alongside their gas dock. This was conveniently located directly behind our intended mooring spot, so we were able to walk the boat into the right place and tie off. But the wind that then picked up had us firmly on the dock, unable to make any maneuver to leave without rigging up some awkward lines. Yikes! All’s well that ends well.
We stopped by the marine shop, picked up a few makeshift anchor bridle parts for emergencies, fired up the heater (it was down to 45 degrees today), and worked the rest of our day from our warm boat cabin. So, we’re safely tied up here, and keeping an eye on the weather to continue northwards to our next planned stop, where the new anchor bridle awaits!
We’ve been working our way up South Carolina and are now in North Carolina, so that is state number 4 of the trip! Since we left Charleston, we decided to primarily anchor out, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last few days.
After leaving Charleston, we spent a couple of days cruising up the Waccamaw River – a beautiful river where we cruised through endless trees and didn’t see much in the way of civilization outside of a couple of marinas. We stayed in two different anchorages on the river – Awendaw Creek and Butler Island. Both of these anchorages we were completely alone. Sadly on our last night on the Waccamaw, we spoke with David’s aunt and uncle who have spent many years cruising the ICW and recommended a couple of side-creeks to visit that we had already passed! Ah well – we can always loop again 🙂
The next section of the ICW was a very narrow channel with almost no anchorages for about 60 miles. We ended up doing this in one day, which was a long and very nerve racking day. Turns out that we were cruising primarily at a -2 low tide, where the water is dredged in most places only to 10ft. This means that we spent the day in about 8ft of depth in a channel wide enough basically for 2 boats. There was one particularly scary section that I had to navigate where we were literally 10ft away from a 40ft long sandbar off the starboard side, with the channel marker about 10ft off the port side, and the depth alarm sounding at 4 ft depth. Oh my the adrenaline!!! I was too stressed out, and driving alone while David was downstairs conducting an interview, to take any pictures. Later on, we passed one of the channel markers literally sitting dried up on the sand, with the other marker barely two boat-lengths away from it! I did get a snap of that below, but you might need to zoom in to see the red marker on the sand and the green marker not that far away from it! We passed by plenty of houses in this stretch, many of which had loooooong piers down to the water with small floating docks – most of which were not even floating, just lying on the sand!! I tried to get a shot of these, but we were in 8ft of water at the time, so I was mostly focused on not running aground. It’s going to take me a while to recover from that day.
We arrived safely to our destination, which was an anchorage called Tina’s Pocket. This was described as a good protected anchorage – HA. It ended up being an extremely open area (with no other boats, so that’s good) and we had to drop the hook in a 3kt current. Thank goodness for our Rocna, which has not failed yet to get a good hold. We had a pretty late arrival and therefore a rather unceremonious entrance into North Carolina.