Oriental and Belhaven: Small Town America?

Oriental, NC’s downtown area. We’re at the marina at bottom center.

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.

Amidst the wind and rain, Hannah did find some time to play with making shapes on the bow

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.

Getting in a game of Gloomhaven on the boat

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.

Sunset over Belhaven, NC, facing south. The town dock (with our boat) is in the bottom right, with the Belhaven marina at center. The ICW is out to the top left of the frame.

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.

I really need to shave more often

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.

Just spinning around in the breeze all afternoon

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.

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Weathering a Storm

Drone view over Surf City. Highwind is the boat in the bottom left-ish corner of the shot

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…

The dockmaster brought them to our boat in a cart!

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.

Delicious tacos

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 :).

Late in the stay, we had a nice evening where I got the drone up at sunset

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.”

Full anchorage in Mile Hammock Bay

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.

Temporary bridle situation – held up well!

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!

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On the Hook

Sunset selfie at Butler Island. David didn’t want to get up from his computer to join me 🙂

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.

Anchoring at Awendaw Creek — very pretty spot, running two different anchor alarms because the margin for error is so small

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 🙂

Probably the most boring timelapse ever.

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.

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Living our Best Lives (Savannah to Charleston)

Alternate titles for this post could have included: “the week of mediocre sunset pictures” or “now we really don’t do much in towns”.

Cruising in South Carolina

Savannah marked our last stop in Georgia and next week we will be cruising into North Carolina. After leaving Savannah, we spent a night on the anchor at Last End Point. This was a great wide open spot that we shared with only one sail boat. We missed the sunset via drone, but I snapped this while cooking our dinner on the BBQ.

It was a pretty uneventful night, but would be our last night on the hook with this particular anchor, which has served us well for 3 years primarily in the Pac NW, but as I mentioned in an earlier post had been giving us some trouble in the sandy ground in Florida and Georgia. After doing some research and chatting with my Dad, we decided to upgrade to a Rocna anchor, which has a big roll hoop that helps it to remain the correct way up when it moves around on the sea floor, and we also got a heavier one since our original anchor turned out to be generally below the recommended size for our boat.

We had the anchor delivered to Beaufort, SC. As we were pulling in to the marina, I found a bakery just down the street and decided to order some curbside pickup for lunch, planning to grab some pastries and other goodies when I arrived. After we tied up and I put on a load of laundry, I headed through the deserted downtown street towards the bakery…only to discover that apparently it had recently moved locations!! After placing a call to the bakery to say that I was standing outside their old and empty location, I would not be able to pick up our order due to being on foot! The person on the phone said that they did delivery (yay!) and offered to drive our order to the marina. I added some cookies, pastries and a loaf of bread to the order and headed back to the boat. As it turns out, the guy who had picked up the phone was the owner of the bakery and he personally delivered our order and refused to accept a delivery fee or a tip. Loving the Southern hospitality! If you ever happen to be in Beaufort, SC, I highly recommend the Beaufort Bakery! The food was yummy, but I don’t have any pictures of that, but I did bake a carrot cake that afternoon :).

The new anchor had arrived safely to Beaufort, so we got that swapped out.

After leaving Beaufort, we immidiately tested out the new anchor at a spot called White Point Landing, which was basically a nice deep area right off the ICW, a half-way point between Beaufort and Charleston. We spent the day working on the boat, and I did some reading in the evening. Once again we missed the sunset by drone, but I took a quick snap with my phone.

Our next stop was Charleston, a town I had really been looking forward to pre-coronavirus. As the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, and we are more nervous about getting off the boat when in towns, we are finding that it is really not worth it to us to be paying for marina stays when we do not do a whole lot. Therefore, we have now decided to spend as much time as possible on anchor for the next couple of weeks, stopping at a marina every now and then to top up with water and pick up supplies etc. So as I plan our weeks now, I am looking for interesting and highly rated anchorages over towns to visit. We mostly only have close personal contact with the dozens of gulls that constantly follow in our air wake everywhere we go.

At least the gulls here are prettier than standard seagulls — a few contrasting white/black sections

In Charleston, we only got off the boat for a quick trip to Publix (Instacart failed us here by continuing to push out our order by a day for the whole weekend). Since I knew we will likely not be at a marina for a week, I decided to get a bit of pole practice in, building the pole on the dock right behind Highwind! We also forgot to drone video the sunset again!!! (Never fear, I have now set an alarm on my phone for sunset time!!!). We did have two great delivery meals, including another amazing Seafood feast with the best crab we’ve had on the trip so far! Thank goodness I didn’t throw away the crab crackers and crab-forky-things that came with the boat, thinking ‘we don’t fish/crab/shrimp, so we’ll never need those on the boat – any crab we eat will be at a restaurant’!

While doing engine checks in Charleston, David first noticed some dripping coolant on the white absorbent rags we keep under the motors. Some more investigation revealed the beginning of a leak from the water pump (coolant pump, not raw water pump.) This somewhat forced our hand on making sure to have a marina to get to, so we planned out the next week to get to a marina next Friday, and started ordering things. Hopefully the marina will still be open when we arrive… While ordering parts, David decided that it’s also time to change out some ancient relays in the cupboard-of-Meridian-factory-shame, so we have some projects for next weekend, it appears.

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Northern Georgia (Teakettle Creek to Savannah)

Sunset over Sunbury

After fueling up at Brunswick (we are basically taking every opportunity, when the price is right, to fill up), we headed out towards Teakettle Creek to anchor for the night. Another Looper boat pulled in after us and anchored a little further down the creek. Around happy hour time, we loaded up into the dingy with some wine in sippy cups and the drone and headed over to meet them. We had a lovely chat while yelling from our dingy as they stood on their back deck – respectably more than 6 ft apart :). They were a very nice couple from Finland who had shipped their boat to Jacksonville and headed south for a couple of months and were now heading northwards hoping to complete the rest of the loop. After saying goodbye we drove a little further up the creek and David launched the drone. It turned out to be windier than expected up above sea level and we had a very exciting and extremely well executed grab-from-the-air landing before heading back to Highwind for the night.

The next morning, we pulled anchor and headed to Sunbury Seafood Co., a small restaurant that had its own marina. This was 8nm off the ICW, but was a recommended spot in our guide book, and they had assured us they were now offering take out, so we decided to give it a go. It turned out to be a great plan as we had an amazing feast of grilled fish, fresh crab, and a load of Southern sides. Southern hospitality is definitely a thing, since we’ve met nothing but lovely folks in our limited interactions thus far in Georgia (mostly marina and restaurant staff).

A veritable feast

After Sunbury we headed toward Savannah. I had decided to make reservations at the Isle of Hope marina, which is about 8 miles south of downtown Savannah, since we knew that we wouldn’t really be able to do much in the town anyway, and the guidebook recommended the marina. As David described on Facebook, this was our first experience of a no-touch marina landing. Essentially, they caught our lines, then placed a welcome packet and sterilized key card on our boat, then instructed us to call the marina office where we could pay by card over the phone. I wonder how many more marinas will start implementing this, and/or keep this practice once things start to return to normal…

We stayed mostly to ourselves again that night; I’ve even stopped looking for other Great Loop flags on boats in marinas where we stay as we can’t really do that much socializing safely these days. We’d had some packages shipped to ourselves, which included a new water pump and new cell extender paddles for our cell antenna.

The water pump that David had previously installed unfortunately never worked correctly, and when on anchor we needed to turn off the pump every time we finished running the water since it wouldn’t stop on its own. It turns out that Jabsco revised the design a few years ago and it’s a known problem that they’re working on redoing. Luckily, despite it being a spare that we’d had sitting in our storage for a couple years, it was still within warranty and Jabsco provided some excellent customer service to help get us a new fixed-pressure pump and accumulator solution that works for our boat/situation.

David has been looking at upgrading our cell antenna paddles for a couple of months, and after continued connection issues, decided to go ahead and order. The folks at WireEng allowed us just to pay the difference for these paddles over our existing setup, so it was a pretty good deal.

The next day we pulled the bikes off the boat and went for a bike ride to Savannah. It was a lovely ride, though extremely hot, but when we reached the central park in the city, it was full of people, which made us a little nervous, so we headed back to the boat, via a liquor store to top up on some essentials. There were lots of cute places that we passed along the way, so someday we’ll have to come back to Savannah and visit for real! It is interesting how quickly the present situation has made us leery of being anywhere in proximity to people.

Savannah will be our last stop in Georgia as tomorrow we cross the border into South Carolina. I’ll sign off this post with a *wave* from afar to Atlanta where some of my former colleagues live since we decided to cancel our plans to meet up while we were passing through.

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We Made it to Georgia! (Jekyll Island and Brunswick)

Our Great Loop guidebook gave us three options for our first stop in Georgia, all pretty close to one another – 2 summer-beach-resort islands and an inland town. After getting some advice from a former colleague of mine who hails from Georgia and currently lives in Atlanta, we decided to spend one night on Jekyll Island and possibly have the opportunity to visit the beach and the next night in Brunswick, the inland town, where we’d be able to do another round of provisioning.

Unfortunately, the day before we arrived on Jekyll Island, the county governor had mandated that all the beaches be closed – so we decided to do a bike ride up the island along the coast, but we were not actually able to set foot on the beach. So sad!

Visiting the beach coronavirus style, by not actually going onto the beach

One of the island restaurants had converted their menu to 100% take-out so we stopped there to pick up some food on the way home. The empty box on the back of David’s bike in the photo above was for carrying our takeout! Despite still being very warm out, the skies darkened and we even worried about being rained on as we returned to the boat, which we were completely unprepared for. However, we were lucky and it remained dry.

The next day, we headed out toward Brunswick. This was a pretty short ride. At the north tip of Jekyll Island, we had been prepared for an unusual sight…a container ship wreck. It has apparently been there for several months while they try to figure out how to remove it. They are working on building a containment net to then cut it into pieces and cart it out, bit by bit.

Capsized container ship wreck at the northern tip of Jekyll Island

The Brunswick marina was really nice (free unlimited laundry and PBR on tab in a clubhouse, of which we did not partake) and the town seemed really cute. Unfortunately, basically everything other than the grocery and liquor stores are closed, and we are pretty much trying to stay to ourselves at this point, so we contented ourselves with evening strolls, some pole practice in the afternoon, I enjoyed a very bug-filled freestyle dance at sunset, and a couple of quiet evenings to ourselves on the boat with video games, guitar, Netflix, and wine.

The lovely weather and complete lack of anything of any altitude keeps giving us great opportunities for lovely sunsets, though.

A second lovely sunset at Brunswick Marina

People keep asking us if we should abandon the trip in the wake of the pandemic. While it’s disappointing that we can only walk around most of the spots we’re seeing instead of partaking in any of the culture, we still feel that it’s better than the alternative of staying cooped up in our condo in Kirkland. So, until we start getting locked out of places to stay, we’ll keep progressing north and hope that, someday, things are safe to open again.

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Black Creek to Fernandina

Amazing sunset view captured from the drone

We knew that we wanted to spend the weekend on the St John’s river, but this particular side trip isn’t detailed in the Great Loop book that we have generally been following, so we had to wing it. I did a bit of online research and found a blog post detailing an anchorage about one mile up Black Creek which is just off the west side of the river and not too far south.

With that plan in mind, we’d been rationing our diesel for several days, knowing we had to fill up fairly soon. All of the diesel up the ICW had been $3-$3.50 a gallon, and with us getting nearly 300 gallons to fill up, that was gonna be pricey. I’d seen a “Mandarin Holiday Marina” just down the St Johns River that had cheap diesel (listed at $2.10 online), and decided that we’d be able to make it there, as long as we kept planing (going 14-16kts) to a minimum. We called them the night before showing up, to make sure they were still open, and to ask about any depth issues (“no problem as long as you draw less than 6 feet!”) It all sounded good, so in the morning, we headed straight there.

Phone photo of the chartplotter with our sketchy shallow course into the Mandarin Holiday Marina

It was a lie. Or, as we found out, they might not even know because no one that works at the marina actually boats in the area. We looked every way possible at the chart and couldn’t actually find a way in that wasn’t dangerously shallow. But we knew that boats got in there, so we just did the Florida thing and went in anyway. 10 minutes of nonstop shallow water alarms from the depthfinder later (I don’t like seeing numbers like “2.5”), we did make it safely into the fuel dock, and were rewarded with 260 gallons of $1.90/gallon diesel! We paid, crept out of the area, and got back to our regularly-scheduled safe 10-15 ft depths.

Driving up Black Creek

We continued down the St John’s River, turned up Black Creek, found the spot and dropped the anchor. We’ve now anchored a few times on this trip, something we are very comfortable with, having done so many times while boating in the NW. What we are finding here is that rather than rocks and mud, most of the time, the bottom is sand and our anchor is apparently not finding good holds in sand. After a couple of tries, we decided we’d found a good enough spot and we’d sit tight and monitor the situation with two anchor alarms. The anchorage was beautiful and we were the only boat there!

Pretending to be the only boat on the creek

Despite being the only boat actually anchored here, we were not actually the only boat on the creek – not by a long shot. It’s actually very impressive that David managed to get both the day time and the sunset drone photos boat-free, since day boaters and jet skis were driving by us from both sides of the tiny island at full speed (huge wakes and all) until sundown.

So many boats. It was like this every 15 minutes. All day.

Since it was so pretty, and we were feeling pretty lazy on Saturday, and we could deal with the rocking from the wakes, we decided to stay here for the weekend instead of finding another spot on the St John’s River.

On Sunday, we pulled anchor and decided to go all the way north to Fernandina without stopping again in downtown Jacksonville. When we have a weekend day without dealing with work, it’s a good opportunity to get long transit stages out of the way. With everything now closing due to COVID-19, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to stay in places more than a day or two, since we can’t explore towns/museums/parks, so we’re pretty restricted to either public road bike rides or what we can see from the boat. So we’re going to just keep pushing north, seeing what we can along the way, and ideally get up to Maine for some quality social distancing.

We pulled into Fernandina just before dinner time, and found that while the marina was very swank (new docks), the location most certainly wasn’t. The marina was flanked on both sides by large processing plants and the area didn’t smell too pleasant. Also, we tried to plug into power and blew the breaker on two towers on the dock. I tried to bike to a couple grocery stores in town to buy some more food, and they were all completely out of anything useful, so I came back basically empty-handed. Since the marina office was closed for the evening, we decided to ditch the dock and spend the night on one of the marina’s mooring buoys, saving $80 in the process. However, by the time we had made this decision, it was decidedly past sundown, so we did all this with our radio headsets on and me on the bow of the boat with a headlamp and the mooring line; and to cap it all off, right as we cast off from the dock, a good wind picked up making the buoy approach quite difficult! Nonetheless we got tied up for the night just fine.

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Getting Better at Social Distancing (Palm Coast to Jacksonville)

Coming into Jacksonville after a long day at 8 kts on the ICW

At some point in the last couple of days, we surpassed our previous record for longest continuous time spent on the boat (on our Canadian summer trip two summers ago). Despite that, and even the current need to practice social distancing, we are still happy and in love and not suffering from cabin fever. We’ve been on the move quite a bit since our last post. We intended to stay in New Smyrna for a couple of days, including spending some time on the beach. Unfortunately we arrived a bit too late in the day for the 40 min walk due to delaying in the morning for the (aborted) rocket launch. Since the next day was a Monday and we saw most everything in town via an evening stroll, we decided to pull anchor and head to our next stop early.

The next stop was Palm Coast, which was really just a half-way point for us to Jacksonville. I had a really nice run along the ICW, where the few people I ran into did not seem to have heard about the 6ft distance thing… The following morning we again headed north to St Augustine, where we had planned to stay for 2 nights. This is the oldest town in the US and has some really great architecture. And, of course, we took no photos of it, since we were either on a bike or I was going for a run. Sadly, due to trying to practice social distancing, and the fact that we were here for two weekdays working during the day and things were starting to close, this all meant that we really didn’t get to explore the town.

Amazingly we found room to keep this suit on the boat for the ONE day of the year that it would be wear-able.

It was St. Patrick’s day, so while we wanted to avoid the club scene, we wanted to do something. Also, David had brought his ridiculous suit along, so he had to wear it. The governor of Florida announced that bars and nightclubs would need to be closed, and restaurants could remain open at 50% capacity with tables spread out. We decided to go out for a meal, since it was likely going to be our last opportunity for a while, and restaurants sounded pretty dead when we asked about reservations over the phone. At 5pm, the mayor of St Augustine mandated that no alcohol be served in the city, so we had a dry dinner before heading straight back to the boat.

An interesting side effect of Coronavirus has been the social normalization of group video chats for adults. Kids have been doing this forever now, but adults have largely shied away from “hey wanna video chat for a while to catch up?” While we were forcing the issue with some friends before isolation practices kicked into high gear, social distancing has made our attempted chatting advances much more normal, so we’ve been doing lots of “hanging out” the past week.

After St. Augustine, we traveled the long leg to Jacksonville for one night in the free marina. Apparently everyone else finally got the memo about staying at home since we were the ONLY boat in the entire marina. Or possibly the marina is used only when there is a football game at the nearby stadium. We’ll never know.

A very empty 80 slip marina, and we are the only boat. Also, it was free, aside from 8$ for power.

Also we’re almost out of diesel, since we’ve been rationing to try to make it to the 2$/gallon diesel just south of Jacksonville. When you’re filling up with hundreds of gallons of diesel, these things add up. But tomorrow is fill-up day, hopefully…

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Titusville and New Smyrna: Poor Social Distancing and Rockets

Starting our day at the Kennedy Space Center

Friday, we did our now-usual routine of waking up early and heading northward up the ICW, this time heading to to Titusville. This had been a planned stop for a couple weeks, aiming for a weekend day to see the Kennedy Space Center, so we got a spot in the city marina for a few days.

Manatees were all over the Marina, and we even started seeing them in the ICW near Titusville

We had an uneventful glassy morning cruise up, and upon arriving in the marina, were greeted by several manatees swimming around, and our first in-person fellow great loopers, Larry and Mary Bailey (the link is to their travel blog). They were super friendly, and we ended up spending a bunch of our stay in town hanging out with them and a couple of their friends that came down to visit as well.

After working Friday, in the evening we had some drinks with the Baileys and then we had a late appointment at an escape room a few miles down the road, so we unloaded the bikes and headed inland to find some dinner. Titusville has a cute little downtown area, but as soon as you get outside of that, it feels like you’ve been teleported back in time. Aging half-abandoned strip malls (and indoor malls), sketchy diners, the works. We ended up picking a pizza place in the mall where the escape room was and had a great cheap meal before heading to the room.

The escape rooms were interesting. It sounded like the owner basically bought plans for them off someone in Vegas that sells escape room plans, and then just built them. One of the rooms was “The Hangover”-themed, and required a nontrivial amount of trivia from the movie to get through, which we required hints for. We got through that one and since the night was still young we did another Harry Potter-themed room that was pretty good, with some neat new tricks, aside from one super-tenuous connection in the last area of the room that even the owner couldn’t really describe how anyone was supposed to understand. Oops.

Saturday was the main event for us — the Kennedy Space Center. I’d been once, ~25 years ago with my family, and Hannah had never been, so we were pretty excited. I’ve been a space dork my whole life, so the color that this added to all the stories that I’d grown up reading about was just beyond awesome. As a pretty incredibly unpatriotic person in the current environment, it was still an awe-inspiring tour de force of the era back when America was actually great. This juxtaposed with the sadness of having them sell off daily tickets to astronaut lunches at the museum, because there’s so little else for astronauts to do these days. In any event, before I get stuck on a rant, the museum was incredible. I teared up more in one day than I have in the last decade combined. If you are even slightly intrigued by space, engineering, or US history, you’ll have a great time.

We got back to the boat, and were invited back onto the Bailey’s boat again for cocktails and snacks, and ended up heading in with them all for a night on the town. We ate a pile of seafood, hit up a wine bar, drank at a great brewery, and finished off at a dive bar. Look at us being all social.

After the night of heavy drinking, waking up early the next morning was rough, but it was supposed to be worth it. As it turns out, SpaceX had a rocket launch scheduled for 9:22AM, and so we couldn’t not go see it. Saturday, I posted on the looper Facebook group and asked what the best place to see the launch would be. Most people suggested just watching from the marina, but Ferrell & Tamara Shaffer (link to their Facebook blog) responded that they were at anchor just southeast of us at the closest spot boaters could get to the launch, and invited us to come join them. So, we gathered the troops and trundled out of the marina at sunup and went over to join them.

We rafted up on them with about 45 minutes to go until launch, chatted for a while, ate breakfast, and then gathered on the bow for the countdown. SpaceX did its usual great livestream leading up to launch — “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, Liftoff! Wait, abort! We have an abort.” Apparently some sensor measuring the force of the rockets as they build up to launch thrust detected an anomaly and auto-scrubbed the launch right at T-0. So, that was disappointing, but what can you do? It was a pretty morning anyway, and we got to meet a second group of loopers. We dropped everyone off at the marina, said goodbyes, and continued our journey north.

This segment of the ICW was a little wacky. It was a very-dredged section, so any deviation from the channel got real shallow, real fast. There are regularly-spaced “spoil areas”, where they dumped the sand from the dredging back in the early 1900s, which had turned into tiny tropical islands in the intervening decades. There were lots of boaters out there today, fishing from the little islands and hanging out under tents in portable chairs. We had to take one long cut (the top picture) that was packed solid on both sides of the channel with people fishing from either the shore or tiny fishing boats in the shallows.

Dolphins playing in our wake — they’re everywhere

We’re also seeing dolphins and porpoises all over the place. It’s pretty crazy compared to the northwest, where if you see a little pod in a weekend you’re lucky. Everywhere we go, as long as we’re doing ~6-7kts, they swim over and play in either the bow or side wake to catch a free ride for a bit.

We ended up anchoring for the night in New Smyrna, a cute little town where the only things open on Sunday are the brewery (even the smallest towns have a microbrewery these days — what a time to be alive) and a little knick knack shop, so we didn’t do much other than walk around and get a beer before heading back to the boat for dinner. We’re anchored in a tight little spot between 2 boats on one axis and a sandbar and a crab pot on the other axis, but amazingly it seems to be holding quite well in what otherwise appears to be loose sand. We’ll see if we get woken up in the middle of the night by the anchor alarm that I have set on a super tight circle…

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Picking Up The Pace, COVID-19 Adjustments, and More Repairs

The ICW has lots of large power line stays just a few dozen feet off the channel. It’s a bit otherworldly going through the gaps when the water’s super calm.

After being holed up at a windy Nettles Island for three days, and finally free of set-in-stone scheduled destinations, we were ready to get moving. Our next two plans were:

  1. Get up to Titusville by the weekend to hit up the Kennedy Space Center.
  2. Get up to Jacksonville the following weekend to then rent a car and drive down to Disney/Universal with Hannah’s brother and a friend of ours.

Early this week is also when COVID-19 officially transitioned from “Seattle’s kinda screwed” to “the country/world is on the exponential infection curve now.” We’d been assuming for a few weeks that many of our desired activities would need curtailing, but it took a while for businesses to finish playing virus chicken with each other and actually start closing. I put the kibosh on the Disney plan 48 hrs before Disney actually closed themselves, but I had some hope that, at a museum at least, we could more or less determine our own desired level of infection risk by how many things we touched/how many people we got near, so for the moment, we held onto the Kennedy plan and proceeded toward Titusville.

Our Vero Beach anchorage — sketchy shallow, mere feet off the ICW, but a pretty area

Our first stop after leaving Nettles Island was Vero Beach. We didn’t really have plans to do anything there, but on working days, it’s hard for us to make too much forward progress. Wake up early, try to get somewhere by 10:30am or so, then fire up the computer and work for the day. On the southern ICW, where you spend much of your time going 6kts, that doesn’t allow for a lot of daily distance. So, we found a nice looking anchorage on Navionics and headed up that way. The anchorage turned out to already have 2 boats in the best spots, spaced just perfectly to not really fit a third in between, so we set anchor ~100 feet east of the ICW channel and monitored to see how bad of an idea it would be.

It turned out to be a pretty great spot. A few boats waked us pretty good, but that was pretty expected. In the late afternoon, Hannah finished up her work for the day and wanted to try out the dinghy. Everywhere we’d been so far, we had backed into Marina slips, so we hadn’t actually had an opportunity to try it out since transporting from the west coast yet. So we put the boat in the water, the motor turned right on (a great sign, since the battery hadn’t been charged in ~3 months), and Hannah went out for a quick spin. She started idling away from the boat toward the channel, and then … frantic arm motions, then a cell phone call. It won’t throttle up at all, it’s stuck in idle. Damn. She tootled back to the mothership, and I started diagnosing.

Dismantling the shift lever down to its core compounds showed how much salt had made its way into the mechanism

Somehow, on the 3 week voyage across the country, salt had managed to find its way everywhere on our boat. We had most things cleaned as soon as it got to the dock in Ft. Lauderdale, but some things, like the dinghy, apparently escaped that cleaning. The shift lever had gotten tons of salt outside and in, blocking the shift mechanism and rusting some of the pivots. Fully dismantling everything, scraping off a lot of salt and corroded metal, and reassembling it fortunately completely cured the issue, and late in the evening we declared success. We were originally going to go ashore and try out an escape room, but the dinghy issues had removed our motivation, so we sat back to enjoy the evening.

The sunset looked promising, so I got out the drone, charged the batteries, got everything set up, went to take off and … red warning, can’t take off. Turns out, there’s an airport inland and our anchorage is right in the approach path to one of the runways. Damn #2 for the day. I called it, put everything away, and decided it was beer:45. So I grabbed a beer and settled in. Hannah went to take a shower, and immediately returned with the bad news that the water pump wasn’t working. Damn #3. Don’t they always come in 3s?

Our water pump setup, a Jabsco “smart” auto-flow-regulating pump

Our water pump had been not behaving super well even while we were still in Anacortes, and had gotten worse since starting the Loop, so we knew this day was coming. I was just hoping that it wouldn’t be, you know, today. So, I spent a few minutes tinkering, and decided to just give up, grab all the tools, and swap the damn thing out. An hour later, we had water again! But this pump wasn’t turning off some of the time when water pressure ramped up. I’m hoping it’s just learning, since it’s an “intelligent” pump, but in the meantime, sometimes we have to power cycle it to get it to stop running…

The next morning, we moved again. Next stop was Melbourne, which the book generously described as, “there’s not much to do here, but it has a great anchorage.” Hannah found an escape room here too, so that was our next intended activity. We got up to the anchorage, which was a roughly half-mile-square of 8 foot deep water to the east of the ICW channel with no other boats, and dropped anchor… and dragged it all over creation. We tried a few different directions, and couldn’t get it to set up strong anywhere. Fortunately, we were over a thousand feet from any even vaguely worrying water, but we really needed to get to work, so we set up an anchor alarm and started working.

For the next 5 hours, once an hour I would hear the anchor alarm go off, move it over another 100 ft, and go back to work. In the late afternoon, I got tired of this, and we found another better-sounding anchorage in Cocoa, another 15nm north. We pulled up the anchor and discovered several cubic feet of seaweed taking up permanent residence on the anchor and chain, explaining the earlier difficulties, but we decided to move anyway.

I am unlucky with airports. Also not smart enough to check the map first.

This section of the ICW fortunately has several 25mph speed zones for us to take advantage of, so we got up to Cocoa in an hour and set a great anchor in some sticky mud just SE of town, next to ~30 other anchored boats, west of the channel, just outside of the under-construction marina. The sunset looked exciting again, so I, not learning my lesson from last time, got the drone ready to go, went to take off, and … no takeoff allowed. Another airport. As my dad always says, he with weak mind has strong legs, so I put everything back away.

Later on, we took the now-working-great dinghy ashore after dark, tying up at a boat launch and hoping no one stole it (and immediately buying a 15ft locking chain on Amazon), and hit up a local escape room. The escape room was a serial-killer basement themed mission with some mostly-non-tech-based puzzles, which was fun. We knocked it out with 22:51 left, which is pretty great for us. We dingied back to the boat in the pitch dark and called it a night.

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