Sunday, December 30, 2012

It's Christmas Time on the River

25 December 2012

Last year we stayed at the Bath Marina and Hotel on Christmas night while we were looking for a place to keep Willadine.  This year we decided to take her out, even though the weather is looking sketchy.  Eric changes the oil while I make the bed.  We found Hannah’s down comforter at the farm and brought it, so after I tuck the sheets into the V-berth, I throw on the wool blanket and the down.  Should be warm.

At Potter’s it’s comfortable, about 55 degrees, warm enough that I need to shed a layer while we’re launching her.  It’s blowing pretty good and we feel nervous about the predicted storm, but we head out into the river anyway.  We briefly consider reefing the main, but abandon the idea and it’s just as well because the wind slacks to just 5kts by the middle of the river.  A bird sails by skimming the water; it’s very big, goose-sized with remarkable wings, half black at the tip and the rest white.

I dive into the cabin for the bird book.  “Duck-like?” I ask Eric, referring to the classifications in our Audubon Society Field Guide.

“Gull-like,” he says firmly.

I think he’s wrong, but I look in the “gull-like” section first.  Sure enough, right away I spot it.  It’s a Gannet, a bird that lives in Nova Scotia and Quebec and winters in coastal waters south to Florida.  This lovely bird merits an entire page in Audubon about its elaborate breeding customs.  The only northern member of the Booby family, this strictly maritime species can often be seen plunging headlong into the sea from as high as fifty feet.  Interconnected air sacs under the skin of the breast protect it from the force of the water.  I love my bird book.

Since the wind is easterly, there is no way we can make Goose Creek, which was my first choice, so we head straight across the river, for South Creek.  We pass a flock of gulls that stretches from one side of the mouth of the creek to the other at least a half a mile across, an astonishing number of birds.  As we make the turn into Bond Creek, another large flock appears in the mouth of Muddy Creek and more fly in from the SE.  More and more appear on the horizon, silently gliding overhead as we glide silently over the water.

As we approach the anchorage, we disrupt another flock of seabirds.  They are floating very low in the water so they look like black balls on the surface.  As they fly off, I grab the binoculars and note the white collars and very small size.  Later, I struggle to identify them, guessing possibly Goldeneyes (but all female) or maybe Dovekies out of their usual northerly range.  There just don’t seem to be dark birds with white collars and white spots on their wings.  It’s a puzzle.  Later I decide they must be Grebes, probably the Horned variety, which ironically do not have anything resembling a horn.

We set two anchors in preparation for the predicted gale.  Eric spends a lot of time sorting out the snarled rode on the big anchor, but we get them both down and set before dark, about 5:30.  We light the new red lantern and enjoy its heat and warm glow while sipping tea and soup.  A song comes to mind, with minor modification:  “Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow!”  We’re tucked in safe for whatever storm comes.

26 December 2012

The storm didn’t amount to much overnight, just a few little gusts and a few showers.  We stayed warm under the wool and down in the V-berth.  We had hot tea with milk for breakfast and homemade chicken and rice soup for lunch.  Then, it started to blow.

Eric had turned on the radio and we heard a tornado warning.  Fortunately, it was headed offshore and not towards us.  It blew so hard I got nervous and started frantically stowing things.  Eric’s eyes were wild.  Willadine heeled over and shuddered in the gusts.  We spent a tense few hours until it began to let up.  By sunset, it was clear, still very windy, but clear, with fewer strong gusts, a great relief to us both.

The birds were wheeling around us, four Gannets moving very fast, Pelicans in a group with their slow easy turns and one adorable little Grebe, bobbing in the chop and looking at Willadine with deep suspicion.  The Horned Grebes are a small seabird, with a racy white slash across their faces and a petite sort of cuteness.  I tried to get a picture of this little fellow, but by the time I got the camera aimed, the picture was nothing but water.  And, mind you, as a former photojournalist, I’m pretty quick on the draw.  I got the feeling the little bird considered us rather dangerously insane and felt it safer to be on the bottom grazing for crustaceans.  According to the website linked above, “In Blackfeet lore, the trickster Old Man tricked several ducks into closing their eyes and dancing while he killed them one by one.  The smallest duck looked and alerted the others.  This "duck" was the Horned Grebe, who became the first to notice trouble.”

The sunset was rather spectacular, as often happens after a storm.  It made us very happy to see the sun at last. 

Sunset Bond Creek

Although the forecast called for an ongoing gale warning, we went to bed feeling as though the worst was over, but were awakened towards midnight by another round of heavy gusts.  We were glad we didn’t attempt our harebrained scheme to night sail to the Pungo.  The moon was so bright in our faces through the skylights, it was hard to sleep, but we managed.  At least it was warmer outside and we were tucked in cozy.

27 December 2012

Although it was warm in the V-berth we could feel the turn in the temperature on our faces when we woke up.  It’s cold, not terrible frost on the sail-cover cold, but much colder than yesterday.  Eric looked at the thermometer in the cabin and reported 43 degrees.  And the wind is still moaning in the rigging.  The gale warning continues for gusts to 35 knots, which really isn’t that bad in the scope of things.

Out in the Aleutian chain in February, fifty knots blows every day, no big deal, especially not a big deal in a 200-foot freighter.  But here on the Pamlico in our little 23-foot water-ballasted sailboat, 35 knots of wind is enough to heel her over and make us a bit nervous.  Not sure if it’s enough to keep Eric from sailing.  We’ll see.  It’s a bit formidable for me, combined with the cold.  If it were warmer, I’d be sailing anyway.  Eric says we’d break something in a 35-knot gust, but I think we’ve sailed in that much wind before.  He’s out in the cockpit right now girding himself for it.  I think he’d like to be off sailing, but for now, he’s content to putter.  He started Trusty (cranked right up!) to charge the battery and he (brrrr) washed the dishes over the side.  I’m thinking about a bigger boat with a proper galley, hot/cold running water, etc.  I washed my hands out there earlier and my hands did not like it.  It’s cold.

Just for reference, I am wearing long johns with two layers of pants, three shirts and a jacket.  I have on socks and slippers, a scarf and fingerless gloves.  I’m sure my Northern friends are laughing their heads off, thinking 43 sounds right balmy, but my blood is thin.  I *hate* cold.  I think I’m tolerating it pretty well.  Hot tea helps.  Eric made grilled cheeses for breakfast (hence the dishes) and that was nice too.  Warm food is good.  Now, if I can just get my feet warm.  Maybe I should go putter around deck with him in the wind.

I can’t help thinking that this would all be so much more fun if it were twenty or thirty degrees warmer.  But at least there are no bugs and we have the stove and a cozy wind-free cabin.  Eric says he’s having fun.  I agree, for the moment.  Out on deck, six American White Pelicans glide by in a Vee.  They are not supposed to be here, preferring to winter in Florida, but I swear this is what they were.  Our usual Brown Pelicans are, well, brown, not snow white like these were.

About three o’clock we screw up our courage; emboldened by the relatively flat water in our safe little anchorage and frankly bored with being holed up for so long.  Eric gets the big anchor up pretty easily, but it takes some time to get the little one up.  Eric says it must have been buried three feet into the muck.  I want to sail out, so I set the reef in the main ready to go because it’s still gusting a bit.  Luckily, Eric convinces me to motor on out, partly to clean off the anchor, which is completely covered in mud.  As we cross the mouth of Bond Creek, we can see it’s far too rough to sail.  White caps are everywhere and there is a nasty two-foot chop coming out of South Creek, along with a steady 25-knot wind, gusting to 30 or 35.  As soon as I see how it is, that we were deceived by our protected anchorage into thinking we could sail, I’m ready to head back in, but Eric wants to see how it is on the river, which is not much farther.  Unfortunately, to get out there, we have to pass the shoal coming off the point and since it is only a few feet deep there, the chop increases to 3-4 feet and the wind is powerful.  Trusty overcomes the wind with no problem, but it’s daunting conditions for Willadine.  

We duck back into Muddy Creek and are amazed at the slacking of the wind and greeted by a large group of Grebes, who appear to be rather put out at our appearance in their creek.  We clumsily set the anchor and end up a bit too close to the lee shore, but it’s soft marsh grass and we are too tired to reset it.  Eric pulls up the rudder, just in case.  The sun presents us with an astonishing show of color in the west, which we admire while Eric grills sausages and broccoli from the farm. 

Sunset, Muddy Creek.  Photo does not do it justice, at all.

Just after sunset, he goes below and I call him back because the full moon is rising through the trees.  The world is pure magic.

Moonrise, Muddy Creek