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Friday, January 20, 2012

Reconnaissance

 After being invited to a Christmas lunch at my cousin Jane’s, Eric had the brilliant idea to keep going from her house in Goldsboro and make a reconnaissance mission to the coast to see the marina where we hope to keep Willadine next.  He found the place online while “googling about” for marinas near the Pamlico River.  It’s called Potter’s and is a very small place with dock space for eight or ten boats, a boat ramp and dry storage where we can keep the boat with the mast up.  This was a priority because raising and lowering the mast is a time-consuming task (maybe an hour or two with our inexperience) and it would be nice to just arrive and go sailing rather than having to spend time grappling with the mast and rigging.

Attaching the head stay containing the roller furling had turned out to be a real struggle, with Eric rigging up a rope with a loop to put his weight on while trying to attach the shackle to the bow.  The head stay is necessarily tight because it holds the mast up, but we haven’t yet figured out how to get it attached without fighting it.  Plus, Mr. Potter said he had a big truck and would launch the boat for us, which enables us to drive there in our fuel-efficient car, rather than Eric’s truck, which we would need to launch the boat.  Mr. Potter said we could keep the boat there for just $50 a month and launch and retrieve would only be $30.  Such a deal!  He also said we could sleep on the boat on the hard or at the dock if he had space available.  Hello floating condo at the beach!

Hopefully Jane and the rest of my family understood about us darting off as soon as possible after the meal.  We were so excited to be off.  The drive on Christmas day was uneventful, hardly any traffic, only a minor disappointment to find the McDonald’s in Farmville closed when we’d hoped to pick up a coffee.  (Yes, there really is a Farmville!)

Our first stop was in Washington, known to locals as Little Washington to distinguish it from our nation’s capital.  In dire need of a potty break after finding McD’s closed, we headed for the NC Estuarium on Water Street.  Of course, it was closed, but we strolled around a bit and read some of the informative signs on the waterfront until our bladders couldn’t take it anymore.  We drove west a few blocks and found the town docks (boats!) and marina, but the restrooms there were closed too.  Fortunately, behind them was a secluded spot that sufficed.

Around the side of the small restroom building, we noticed a couple in matching bright blue windbreakers poking about in a little pile of debris.  Curious, we approached and they were happy to tell us that they were digging for fossilized shark teeth in a pile of dredged material the city dumps there for this purpose.  The man had gotten a sifter for Christmas and they were happily trying it out.  The woman held up a ziplock bag containing dozens of shiny black shark teeth.

Anxious to reach our destination, we headed out, admiring the quirky crab sculptures on every corner.  One had a cook’s hat and coat and another jeans and a yellow hard hat.  Washington also has a nicely restored train depot that we puzzled over since there didn’t appear to be any train tracks nearby.  Later on, we learned that there was a train bridge across the river and it was historically a major trade route from New England to the South.

About twelve miles away we cruised over the bridge into Bath, the oldest town in North Carolina, incorporated in 1705.  Notably, it housed the first library in the colony, established in 1701.  The town was temporarily home to Blackbeard and provided the inspiration for the novel on which the Broadway musical Show Boat was based.

Just over the bridge into the tiny little town is the marina and we were thrilled to see all the masts.  There were only two powerboats housed there, all the rest were sailboats.  We went up the steps to the front door of the house and went on in, thinking it was the office for the marina and motel, which it was, but it was obviously someone’s home as well.  Inside the door was a small Christmas tree scattered underneath with various shoes, including a pair of ruby slippers that would just fit a five-year-old.  We were kicking ours off when around the corner came a lunatic with a large stuffed red M&M guy, waving it manically and making strange noises.  When he saw us he pulled up short and apologized, saying he had mistaken us for his daughter and we all had a laugh over it.

We told Paul we were looking for a room and he dashed into the office and checked us in.  When he finished running Eric’s credit card, I asked about the possibility of a meal in town and he said no, nothing was open, but he could grab us a couple of Hot Pockets, which we’d never heard of.  He disappeared around the corner and we heard him puttering around while we admired the view.  The house faced out the creek to the river beyond and the view was wonderful.

Finally he came back with an armload of food, enough for a crowd, mozzarella sticks, two oranges and an apple (for dessert, he said), the promised Hot Pockets (ham and cheese, yum!) and a microwavable bag of edamame.  A feast!

Our room was upstairs in the next-door guesthouse and boasted a small, but full kitchen and a large deck with the same view as the house and also overlooking the marina.  It was getting dark so we went straight out to the docks to admire the boats.  There were a surprising number of Catalinas (25s and 30s), a schooner rigged boat that was at least 45 feet and a couple of huge sailing yachts, upwards of fifty feet.  One boat was a Lindenberg 26, a make we’d never heard of.  It seemed to have a ton of extra winches.  Turns out, it’s a racing boat, one of only fifty-one ever made.  How fun!

In the morning we walked into town, admired the still-closed restaurant/pizza joint, library and Swindell’s store (yeah, that’s where I want to shop).  One building has been nicely renovated with retail space below and loft condos above, overlooking the harbor. There is also a nice B&B for sale downtown for a cool half a million.  But we don’t need any of that because we have our own floating condo!

From Bath we headed east, stopping at the edge of town at the Old Town Country Kitchen for eggs, grits and some really fine coffee.  The weather was a little cool, but delightfully sunny.  We drove along the highway and pulled off to explore the little “town” of Bayview before heading over to our main destination, Potter’s Marina.  After all that build-up, it was a bit of an anticlimax when we finally found it, except that on our way in we saw a really dramatic “shipwreck” in the backyard of the house next door.  It was obvious from the entrance, a quarter mile off, that there was something terribly wrong about the angle of the deck of this hundred-foot boat.  It turned my stomach like no wave ever has, to see this huge boat tilted at an awful angle in the backyard of a two-story house!  We’d heard about how bad Hurricane Irene had been on this area, but here was undisputable proof.  Hard to imagine these poor homeowners returning after the storm to find a hundred-foot yacht in the backyard!  And now that it’s high and dry will they ever get rid of it?

Although it was still very sunny and warm in the car, the wind was really blowing and things were quite uncomfortably cold as we explored Potter’s tidy little restroom with shower, the dry storage where three sailboats, including a smaller Hunter, were on their trailers, the boat ramp (with gentle slope) and the docks, which contained several nice sailboats with no one aboard and no one about.  The place looked fine to me and I hurried to get back in the car to warm up.  Eric went back to look for a power outlet at the dry storage area (where Willadine will live) and then we headed back out.

On the highway we saw a sign for yet another unexplored marina and wound our way into the Pungo Creek Marina where we met the local Sea Tow captain, who regaled us with tales of the dire results of Irene, including the destruction of the front wall of their little seafood shack and some of their docks, which had since been nicely rebuilt.  Apparently the wind just blew all this water from the river up into the creeks, causing the worst flooding in living memory. 

Somehow the place lacked the charm of Potter’s, which isn’t saying much since Potter’s is pretty bare bones, but we both felt Mr. Potter was more welcoming, offering to launch and retrieve the boat for us, for a very reasonable fee.  And we liked that Potter’s is more off the beaten path.

We stopped in Belhaven, the next town over, to explore facilities for a visit by water, including the newly rebuilt city docks where two beautiful cruising sailboats were tied up.  We admired the little bakery and the hardware store, both walking distance from the docks and drove by the big mansion-turned-B & B before continuing out Hwy 264 past Swanquarter towards Engelhard.  Eric had found a possible lodging for us there at the Hotel Engelhard, but when I had called, the venerable Ursula had told me they had no vacancy for the day after Christmas.

By this time our stomachs were grumbling and so drove through the teeny town (blink and you miss it!) looking for a place to get a bite to eat.  Eric spotted a marina sign (Big Trout Marina Café) and we veered off the main road only to find the place closed.  They had several picnic tables on the water and the wind was down, so we went back to town to see about some take-out.  We stopped at the hotel to see about a possible pizza.  The nice gentleman there offered to make us a pizza, but their little restaurant was officially closed.  Not wanting to be stuck eating indoors, we demurred and took his advice to head back down the road to Beck’s to get a couple burgers to go.  The place looks like a small convenience store, which it is, but they have a little grill in the back and produced a couple of burgers for us in a jiffy.

We went back to the Big Trout and enjoyed our meal with the pelicans and seagulls.  There was a big sailboat at the dock from Adak, AK, which interested me because I’ve been to Atka Island, not far from there, but no one was around to talk to about Alaskan adventures.

From there we headed up to Manteo, as I had taken a fancy to see the Elizabethan Gardens there, which my grandfather had a hand in building.  We zoomed into the visitor’s center and missed the gardens, which had closed ten minutes before we arrived.  We caught the sunset at the city dock with the boats, of course, and headed into Poor Richard’s for a nip and to defrost.  Had a nice chat with the barkeep before deciding we were still hungry for adventure and a taste of the sea, so we zipped across the bridge and headed north to Nag’s Head.

We drove all the way to Duck, looking for a funky beach motel near enough to walk to a restaurant and ended up at a big box hotel across from one of the few open restaurants along the waterfront.  We enjoyed a hot supper at the Jolly Roger with great beer on tap in a very funky restaurant with a ceiling covered with tinfoil and Christmas ornaments.  Very festive!!

In the morning we greeted the sun on the beach, mostly through the clouds, but with the dolphin to keep us entertained.  It was not as cold, which was nice too.  After breakfast we made a quick visit to the Elizabethan Gardens, having come this far, and enjoyed reading the sign that includes my grandfather’s name as the source of the statuary, which he rescued from an estate and the builder of the extensive brickwork.  On the way out, I picked up a couple of plants including one about which the lady at the counter remarked, “You bought a stick!”  I have wanted an American Beautyberry for my yard for a long time and I’m delighted to have one propagated at the Elizabethan Gardens.  If it lives, it will be my a memorial to my grandfather.

On the way back, we stopped back in at the Big Trout Marina Café and were delighted to find it open.  By this time it was driving cold rain and we found the tiny place jammed with fishermen and families, including a venerable old gal the lady behind the counter referred to as "Grandma." We squeezed in at the counter and watched the proprietor bread and fry fish and hushpuppies and serve up green beans and fried okra while bantering good-naturedly with his wife who was sweating over the register and trying to keep up with orders. The iced tea came in a pitcher and they even had unsweetened ready-made for us Yankees. When the crowd began to thin out, I shared my hushpuppies with the proprietress and got a couple of extras in return.  We love this place and can’t wait to come back in the boat.  Wonder if we’ll find the owner of the Alaskan boat?

As a grand finale to our recon mission, we had a nice long visit with Dave at his farm in Sladesville in the middle of nowhere, but close to Potter’s.  He was still cleaning up after Irene left six inches of mud inside his house, and the place was freezing, but it was dry inside and the company was good.  On the way out, we were rewarded with a fantastic view of the sunset across a vast field.  The light was perfect and the view serene, a nice last look at Willadine’s future neighborhood.  Can’t wait to get back here.

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