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Monday, October 17, 2011

Sailing on Lake Gaston

After our little checkout cruise on Jordan Lake, I was all excited about taking our new baby to the coast.  After all, that’s what we bought her for was sailing the sound to the Outer Banks.  With a minimum draft of eighteen inches and the ability to “beach” the boat, she’s perfect for sailing the shallow protected waters of the inside waterways of the North Carolina coast that Eric and I longed to explore.

I got very busy looking for a marina where we might keep the boat (which is in dire need of a name, we’re working on it) with the mast up so she could be launched and ready to sail without the ordeal of raising the mast.  I sent email inquiries and talked to some folks in Oriental, the Sailing Capital of NC, but really didn’t find anyplace that worked.  One place had mast-up storage (for $150/mo) but wanted $70 each way to launch and haul out the boat, which is not economically feasible if we’re going every weekend.

I was pushing the idea of parking the boat on the trailer at Eric’s friend Ken’s land in Atlantic (not Atlantic Beach) on Core Sound near Cedar Island.  It’s an ideal place to sail from and there is a boat ramp less than a mile away.  We were driving in the car and I was extolling the many virtues of this plan and how we could leave on Friday and Eric quietly said, “We could get into a fight over this.”

I knew he was nervous about taking the boat to the coast.  And I knew I didn’t want to fight with him about anything, certainly not about the boat, which was our baby and was going to be just pure fun for us both.  So I just let go of it.  Eric produced his own plan, which involved towing the boat with his Jeep pickup to Lake Gaston, near the NC/Virginia border.  His friend, John, had offered to let us keep the boat at his dock and have the use of his house, as we needed it, a very generous offer.  My mom lives close by as well and would be able to offer her car and services, including dog-sitting.  It was a good arrangement and made sense.

Saturday we spent the day puttering around the boat.  The first thing we did was to hitch the boat up to the Jeep for a test drive.  I held my breath and monitored the cell phone while he drove out of the driveway with the baby in tow.  I had wanted to go along, but we decided it would be better if I stayed behind so I could come “rescue” him if need be.  There was no need, he went around the block and came back into the driveway satisfied that the Jeep could pull it.  Braking was not as easy as he’d hoped, the stopping distance was greatly increased, but it would stop, eventually.

Eric went to the store and got a new fuel filter and a fresh tank of gas for the motor.  He filled the porta-potty with water while I collected bedding and towels and foodstuffs for our adventure.  He checked in with me that I was ok doing the domestic chores and I told him that since I don’t know how to change the fuel filter, I was happy to do what I could to help get us ready.  He showed me how to remove and replace the fuel filter anyway, so I can do it next time.  I felt good about that.

It took a long time before we were satisfied with the boat’s condition.  By the time we had everything, including the dog, loaded up in the Jeep and the boat, it was five o’clock.  It would be dark by the time we got to Lake Gaston, ninety-five miles away.  We didn’t care.  We were so excited to get our baby on the road and into the water.  We agreed that we would sleep in the boat on the trailer in the boat ramp parking lot, if necessary, as long as we got to sleep on the boat. 

The weather was picture perfect, sunny and a comfortable seventy degrees, which was nice since the truck has no air conditioning.  Everything was going along fine.  We made our way slowly down the two-lane country roads the four miles to the interstate.  One car passed us, but everyone else was patient.  I was holding my breath on the on-ramp, the curve seemed so extreme, but everything rode fine.  Eric was up to about fifty miles an hour when a tractor-trailer passed us on a downhill and the boat began an alarming sway.  Eric kept his cool, slowed down and pulled over to the wide shoulder and the sway stopped.  He explained in his quiet way that a sway like that can build up and eventually overturn both boat and vehicle.

I felt sick with fear.  We would be killed.  It was foolishness, this whole boat thing.  Who did we think we were?  We had perfectly good lives on land, why did we want to risk our necks dragging a silly boat around?  I thought maybe we should turn around, go back and borrow Ken’s big heavy truck, which had not caused any sway in the boat at all the previous weekend.  Eric slowed down a little, commenting grimly that he would have to maintain the minimum of forty-five miles an hour and that the sway was exacerbated on a downhill because the trailer was trying to get ahead of the truck.  I practiced my yoga breathing.  Eric watched the rearview.  “Here comes a Uhaul,” he said, gripping the steering wheel.  I cringed.  The boat swayed a bit in the side mirror and then stopped.  I breathed some more.

After a couple more trucks passed and we were still upright, Eric said, “Well, I guess it’s not an adventure without a little sphincter tightening,” and we laughed.  Then I went back to breathing.  There were just a few more miles on I-40 and then we’d get on Hwy 64 for forty miles.  I was very nervous about getting on I-95 after that, because it’s often heavy with truck traffic going eighty-plus, but it was fine.  We both breathed easier when we got off onto the short cut, but I was still nervous.

We stopped at my mom’s house to drop off the dog, which almost went without a hitch except that we had to stop only slightly pulled off the road and the emergency flashers quit working.  Luckily no one hit the boat on the way by and we got back in the truck to find none of the turn signals working.  Apparently, the flashers on the trailer caused the fuse to blow, one more thing to fix.  Mom told us that her friend, Earl, from joint replacement (her knee, his hip), had said he didn’t think we could leave the truck at the boat ramp overnight, but we figured we’d check it out when we got there.

It was nearly dark, but we were so pumped up with excitement at almost being at the water, we could hardly stand it.  We found the boat ramp almost completely deserted and decided to go ahead and launch the boat.  We could motor to John’s with the mast down and put it up in the morning.  I checked the signs for any warning about no overnight parking and found none.  There were some fishermen with a truck and a big motor boat in the parking lot so I asked them and they said it was no problem and they would even keep an eye out for her since they were staying all night themselves.

So we turned our attention to getting the boat in the water.  We’d had trouble with Eric driving and my giving poor directions, so we talked a little about it, but we still neglected details like rolling down the passenger side window.  But it went fine, Eric backed the truck down the ramp and got the tail pipe wet.  He had told me to call out when the boat started to float, but it didn’t.  So he pulled forward a bit and then remembered that the chock to hold the tires was in the back of the truck.  No problem.  I stripped off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants.

And then I was on my back in two feet of water.  That ramp was as slick as snot.  I mean you hear people say that and this was it.  I didn’t even know I was falling until I was down.  Which was lucky because I didn’t have time to put out a hand to break the fall.  I was totally unharmed.  I like to imagine the fishermen hearing the splash and then my hysterical laughter.  Eric inquired as to my safety and I assured him I was ok.  No sense in him getting wet too, I was already soaked.  Luckily, the water was warm and so was the night air.

I got the chock set under the truck tire and then Eric got out and let the boat slide back.  I took the bow line and our little sweetie slid right off that trailer…and stopped.  I pulled.

“She’s stuck.”  I called out to Eric.  He looked down the bow.

“She’s not stuck on the trailer,” he said, “I’m going to pull the trailer up.”

“No!” I was terrified the boat was hooked on the trailer. We stood there scratching our heads and pulling on the dock line.  Right away my brilliant sweetie figured out what was wrong.  “It’s the keel.  It’s stuck on the keel.”  So he jumped on board and pulled up that keel (really must do something about that ineffective jam cleat) and she floated free. I tied her off, Eric jumped in the truck and I went to remove the chock.  He pulled out of the water with a tremendous splash and wave of water that picked up my shoes, my favorite eighty-dollar shoes, and floated them away.  I grabbed one, doing my best not to kill myself slipping on the slime, but the other one disappeared under the dock.  I grabbed the flashlight, ran to the other side, but the damn shoe was gone.  I could easily have set the shoes on the dock, but no, I left them on the ramp.

Eric came back from parking the truck and trailer and found me belly down on the dock.  I told him my shoe was gone and he took the flashlight and looked under the dock some more, but it was gone.  Shining the light around, I saw something floating in the moonlight about twenty feet out, but I thought there was no way it could have gone that far.  We squinted at it while we loaded our few things aboard the boat and it drifted closer.  It did look like it might be my shoe.

I went below and grabbed the two paddles and the boat hook.  It would never have occurred to me to paddle a boat that big, but Eric’s been paddling for years and it comes naturally to him.

I untied and Eric paddled over and lo and behold it was my shoe, floating high in the pitch-dark water.  He pulled it over with the boat hook (later we had a conversation about what the boat hook is for:  exactly this.) and by some miracle it was still hanging onto my sock.  Really must write Merrill a note about this marvelous shoe of theirs.

There was just a wisp of a wind as Eric cranked up the motor.  It started, by yet another miracle and we were on our way.  It was very dark, but the moon was waxing gibbous so we could see the shore and Eric had consulted the map back at home so he knew roughly where we were going.  Well, at least he thought he knew.

We passed under the power lines and I was glad the mast was down.  Later we heard the tale of the unfortunate sailors who hit them and were electrocuted.  Never did find out what the clearance is, but we will before we pull the boat out!  As we came out of the narrow cove where the boat ramp was located, I started shivering.  I was wet to the neck and the wind of our motion was chilling me badly.  Eric took the tiller and suggested I go below and change. 

Inside it was warmer and Eric had fixed the interior lights so we had light, which made finding things much easier.  I slipped out of my wet things and into some warm dry clothes.  My phone had a voicemail, which turned out to be my mom calling to say the dog had escaped his pen.  I tried to call her back, but the service on the lake was terrible.  There was nothing we could do, but luckily she has a fenced yard, so he didn’t completely escape.   Yay, Grandma! 

I put the phone away, turned off the lights and headed up the two steps to the cockpit.  Off the stern the moon was shining on our wake, sparkling and twinkling like stars.  I caught my breath.  We were finally in our very own boat on this beautiful warm water in the moonlight.  We sat there motoring along in silence for a while, the stars were dim in the moonlight but I saw one zip along the sky and go out.  I made my wish and told Eric it was a sign that we were exactly where we were meant to be.  He agreed.  He was having the time of his life.

While I was dreaming and staring at the sky, Eric was watching the shore.  He had an idea where John’s place was, but we weren’t in a hurry to find it, luckily.  It was so pleasant being on the water in the moonlight.  We loved every minute of it.  After a
while Eric thought he recognized a cove as John’s and we headed in with some reluctance.  We motored in and back out again.  Maybe it’s the next one.  Well, it was dark and it was getting late and I was getting tired.  Eric was too wound up to be tired, but I was fading.  After several more fruitless coves, we decided to anchor in the lee of a long length of dark treed shore.  Since I had anchored in Jordan Lake, I suggested Eric throw out the anchor this time.  He was more than happy to give it a try and put out thirty feet of rope for the twelve-foot water.

We sat in the cockpit for a long time, watching the swing to check for drag (there was none, we were set) and just enjoying the still air and the smell of the water.  I couldn’t help thinking how much nicer the sea would smell, but I agreed with Eric that this was pretty nice.  We finally crawled up in the V-berth thinking we were too excited to sleep and fell straight to sleep.

A wake rocked the boat after midnight and woke me and Eric went out in the cockpit to pee and check our position.  We had not moved.  I woke again at four and checked, but all was well.  At daylight we crawled out, (I’m still not comfortable sleeping with my head aft after so many years with my head in the bow of Skybird) and found a heavy mist on the lake.  The water was glassy calm except for a roiling of fish to the north and the occasional jumper.  Overhead a perfect V of geese flew by, honking.  It was a comfortable sixty-five degrees.

After some discussion, we decided to raise the mast at anchor.  A breeze was coming up and we were here to sail!  This time it was easier, but the forestay is an issue with the roller furling.  It’s just too tight to attach and its position is awkward to reach on the bow.  Eric struggled with it for a while and eventually rigged up a strap to pull it down so he could attach it.  I have no idea how he managed it with his foot in the strap pushing down and two hands on the stay, fastening a little clip underneath the furler housing.  He’s so handy.  My hero!

After all that work, we decided to motor down into the cove because it was just too narrow to sail.  After several more coves and almost getting stuck down one because the motor quit, we abandoned the search for John’s and headed out into the lake to sail.  It was a perfect day, 5-10 mph wind, sunny and seventy-five.  The boat sailed like a champ.  My mom called on her way to a party on the lake and said she could see us from the bridge.  I wish she’d taken a picture, but we got one later.  She said the dog was fine, getting along with her five dogs and just hanging out in the yard.  What a good boy.  Well, except for the damage to the pen.  Sigh.

We talked to the party host and got directions to their place on the lake.  We were so cool.  We would sail into the party.  It was past 2pm by the time we sailed up to the dam on the eastern end of the lake and went up a cove to try to find the party.  We were getting a little desperate because we’d run out of drinking water and were on the last beer.  We had planned to go to the Piggly Wiggly to get water and groceries, but hadn’t made it because it was so late and we were so anxious to get out on the water.  But I was getting pretty thirsty.

We looked around the cove, but no party.  We called.  No one answered.  We tried the next cove.  Nothing.  It was pushing three o’clock when mom called.  Eric had called her a dozen times trying to get more information about the location of the party.  But he’d been calling her home number.  Golly.  I think he’d even asked me if it was the right number.  Argh.

I talked to Bob, the birthday boy and host of the party, and he said it was the first cove from the dam, just keep going, you’ll find it, except we were on the third cove now and no sign of any party.  He did say something about a park, which turned out to be helpful.  We were coming out of the third cove when we saw an offshoot with what looked like a park on a point in it.  We pulled in there and just as I said, “We’ll never find it,” we saw someone on a dock waving their arms.  The motor died about twenty feet from the dock (does it have some sort of sensing device?) and we drifted easily in.  Eric went straight for the drinks and poured us big red cups of Diet Coke (for him) and Diet Cheerwine (for me), which we guzzled and refilled.  Ellen had made her famous crustless quiche and we polished off about half of that, picked on a chicken Betsy had brought and waved off offers of birthday cake.

On the way out, we posed for some pictures and with our water jugs happily refilled in the neighbor’s laundry sink, headed off to try to find John’s house.  Luckily, Eric was able to reach him by phone as we sailed downwind, wing-on-wing back across the lake.  It was a great way to sail, hanging out in the sun, with no apparent wind and the boat just skating effortlessly over the water with the sails bright against the blue sky.  We were so happy.  We’d found the party!  We would find John’s house.  All was well.

After one wrong cove, we found John’s place, an adorable A-frame house with a nice big dock.  There was even a hot tub on the back deck.  Naturally, the motor died about ten feet (oh, so close!) from the dock and we drifted over toward the neighbor’s dock.  Luckily no one was around.  Eric struggled with the motor, threatening to get the paddles while I watched the depth and our proximity to the neighbor’s dock from the bow with the bow line held hopefully in hand.  I remembered the keel and Eric pulled it up.  I thought it looked plenty shallow, so I slid down in the water just as Eric got the motor going, so, of course, he couldn’t hear me yelling.  Luckily, it died again and I walked the boat around and he looked up, shocked to see me in the water.  I apologized for not communicating my “plan” to get in the water and promised to keep him informed next time.  It was a simple matter to pull the boat around, even though we had to first move John’s pontoon boat out of the way.

Betsy drove over the few miles from her house to take us back to the boat ramp to retrieve the truck and trailer.  She said the dog was fine and we arranged to pick him up the following day.  We dropped the trailer off at John’s and headed for The Pig to buy groceries.  By this time it was nearly dark and we were stupid with fatigue.  We picked up some beer and tried to think about what else to get.  But we couldn’t think of anything.  We looked at the meat, walked down the canned food aisle, and finally went back with beer and not much else.

John came home and admired the boat and we sat on board with beers chatting and enjoying the lovely evening.  He wanted to show us the house, so we went inside and sat in the spacious living room on the comfy chairs while he regaled us with tales of the house parties he’d had.  But the chair was too comfy and I started having trouble keeping my eyes open.  I suggested we try out the hot tub, thinking John might join us, but we didn’t have bathing suits and he left us to it.  I hope he didn’t think it rude of us to cut out, but we were exhausted.  The hot tub was hot and relaxing and we didn’t stay long.  We climbed up into the V-berth and slept like the dead.

We decided it wasn’t quite as good as being at anchor, not enough rocking or moonlight at the dock.  But having the house nearby was nice.  We used the bathroom and I hung my wet clothes (from the boat ramp debacle) on the deck rails.  Then we set off.  The motor was particularly persnickety, it took Eric at least thirty minutes to get it started.  We debated whether we could sail out, but the wind was from the northeast, exactly the way we needed to go to get out and the cove was too narrow to tack in.  But, at last, he got it going, deciding it needed half-throttle to start.

Out in the lake we decided to go downwind to the bridge to try to find Outdoor World where we hoped to find a restaurant for lunch, since we’d foolishly neglected to buy food the night before.  We had peanuts and a few carrots and the remains of the chicken from the party, which luckily was enough since we never did find Outdoor World.  I had thought Bob had said it was to the right of the bridge, but there was nothing over there.  We did have a quick sail-lowering/motor-starting drill in one little cove as we went in to see if it was there.  It went well and Eric said he thought he might finally have figured out the motor.

We gave up looking for a place to eat, although we saw a place just at the northern end of the bridge, but there was no place for us to stop and we had no dingy to row in if we anchored.  We picked at the chicken, drank the last two beers and ate the last of the celery and peanut butter.  We had a marvelous sail back, the wind came up strong and we ended up reefing the jib (something we hadn’t tried, which worked very well:  score one point for roller furling!) and then furling the jib and sailing with just the main.  We find she sails really well in all the conditions we’ve experienced.  We’re thrilled with the performance.

She sailed so well we got back to John’s on the early side, but we wanted to take our time buttoning her up, so that’s what we did.  Eric got her right up to the dock this time and I stepped off and we spun her around to face out.  It didn’t take long to get all our stuff packed out.  Most of it was staying on the boat anyway.  We got the cabin all locked up and were standing on the dock admiring our baby when I remembered the porta-potty, thank goodness.  We went back in so I could see how it comes apart (Eric had filled it at the farm before departure) and he carried it up to the house to empty it into the toilet.  I watched.  Eric dumped.  Ew.  It was a good thing I watched because it had splashed some and the bathroom stank.  Eric took it outside to hose it out and I wiped off the toilet and the wall and the floor, flushing several times.  It still stank.  I grabbed a can of air freshener and sprayed generously.  I went outside and asked Eric to come in and assess the scent.  He sniffed cautiously and shook his head.  Still stinky.  I grabbed the small trashcan next to the toilet and emptied it.  A pale brown drip shone down the side.  We hosed it down and I hope that did it.  We’ll be more careful next time.  Eric is coming around to the benefit of a flush toilet on a boat.  Next boat.  Meanwhile, this will do.  More chemicals next time, too.

We stood on the dock arm-in-arm, gazing at our baby tied up on John’s dock.  We hated to leave her.  She looked so pretty sitting there, so hopeful, so sail-able and seaworthy. It was Monday.  We’d be back on Friday we reassured ourselves and turned to drive home.

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