Wednesday, May 7, 2014

In Which We Run Aground, Rather a Lot

Because Baby it's COLD out there

We are devout believers in the old adage, “Real sailors don’t go upwind.” Our practice is to stick our bow out into the river and ask the boat which way she wants to go. Sometimes there are options and she lets us decide. Other times it’s her way or back to the dock.

With ten whole days of sail time ahead of us, we are keen for a big adventure. It’s blowing like crazy from the west, so all indications are good for us to make Ocracoke. We get out in the river and find it’s blowing a little too hard to head straight out. It’s cold and the wind chill makes it even colder. We opt for Goose Creek and the ICW, where we should be able to sail easily and enjoy protection from some of this wind. We can’t make it to Ocracoke in one day anyway; it’s too far.

At the far end of the ditch, past Hobucken, the wind dies. Flocks of buffleheads (known to hunters as “butterballs” because their diet of wild celery plant makes them so tasty) startle at our approach and skitter off with a musical whistling of wings. I love these birds, because the males are so handsome and because you’ve got to love a creature who can fly not only in the air but also underwater.

Once we’re out of the ditch, there’s just enough wind to sail east to one of our favorite anchorages, Rock Hole Bay. This is a tiny, shallow little bay we stayed in two summers ago and where we have never seen another boat. Small fishing boats could get into it, but we’ve never seen one. There are little canals running out from it, one of which cuts all the way through into Pamlico Sound. It’s terribly romantic and very skeetery in the summer. But there are no skeeters now. In fact, it’s so cold we barely make it through the sunset before diving below and cranking up our little propane heater, a brilliant innovation of Eric’s.

Rock Hole Bay Sunset

We sip our wine (for me) and beer (for Eric) and heat up some boat stew for our supper. We have electric lights (thanks to Eric’s careful re-wiring) but we love the warm glow of our oil lamp. After a little while, we cuddle up under a bunch of layers in the V-berth and sleep like the dead. At first light though, I’m wide-awake and raring to go. The wind is still blowing from the west, and we’re excited to see if we can make Ocracoke. From there, I’m keen to see Portsmouth Island and even Hatteras, with stops along the way at the tiny towns of Avon and Rodanthe, made famous by Nicholas Sparks. I am prone to wild ideas.

It’s fantastic sailing downwind to Brant Shoal. Pamlico Sound looks like a huge open body of water both on the maps and from the surface, but underneath it’s riddled with shoals, at some points only six inches deep. There is also an unfortunate bombing range, smack dab in the middle of our route to Ocracoke, so we skirt around it, following the danger markers, toward the big high marker at the end of Brant Shoal. As we get near it, we notice a schooner coming up behind us under power. It’s hard for us to imagine having such a big and beautiful boat on such a perfect sailing day without even a scrap of sail out. Why does this person have a sailboat, if all he does is motor?

We watch as it powers closer and closer, right on our butts, on a perfect collision course. The schooner has an enclosed pilothouse, so we can’t see if anyone is on watch or not. It’s entirely possible someone is watching TV below decks and letting the autopilot take care of the driving. Any boat of consequence would show up on the radar, but not Willadine. We make a sharp turn to avoid collision. She misses us without altering course one iota. We’re close enough to read the name on her stern. We wonder if she even knew we were there.

Just about that time, the wind begins to pick up and shift to the north. Naturally, it’s right on our nose. There is no possible way to make Ocracoke without motoring and we’re short on fuel. We hate motoring anyway, so we alter course to sail toward Core Banks, pulling in our headsail and reefing the main to accommodate the wind, which is now blowing steady at twenty with gusts to thirty.

We’ve been in Core Sound before. Last time it was blowing thirty-five from the north too. The thing about Core Sound is that it’s even more shallow and shoal-y than Pamlico Sound. On the chart, the entrance is clearly marked, so we figure it will be okay. When we find the first marker on the way into the very narrow channel, we are relieved, as the wind has shown no sign of slacking and even seems to be building. Our sail is reefed to a hanky and we’re screaming along downwind at five knots.

At marker number five, we run aground. Although this is not a terrible crisis on Willadine, we are surprised, because we are positive we’re in the marked channel and it can’t be less than two feet deep. But it is. We are dead abeam marker five and running aground. We pull up the keel and the rudder and keep going into the deeper water ahead, shaking our heads in wonder. Welcome to Core Sound. A tiny sandbar to the west contains the ruins of a chimney, a victim of global climate change. We might take time to stop over there and explore, except that it’s blowing so darn hard, getting late and it’s hellishly shallow everywhere.

On a calm day, we could run Willadine up on that sandbar, jump off and wade around. But the water is forty-two degrees right now and the wind is whistling in our rigging. We’re both very relieved that we were able to make it through the shoaling in the channel without having to jump out and push her off. Brr.

Riding the northerly wind into Cedar Island Bay, we peer around for an anchorage. Last fall we made it over the six-inch deep entrance to Back Bay for an anchorage, but we both had to jump off Willadine to get her out as the tide was going out. Neither of us is keen for that to happen now so we anchor behind a stand of trees to try to block this crazy strong wind. There was no northerly in the forecast, of course, but here we are.

The anchor drags for some reason, so we pull it up and decide to anchor farther in. Eric becomes entranced with the idea of anchoring in The Great Salt Pond at the head of the bay, so we head for it and run aground again. No wonder we never see another boat in here. It’s incredibly shallow. We use our motor to back off the muddy bottom and somehow get the anchor set. It’s a pretty sunset again, but it’s also getting colder.

Cedar Island Bay Sunrise

When we wake next morning, it’s dead calm, so I talk Eric into launching the kayaks to explore the Salt Pond. Past the entrance, I can see a sandy beach. There is no sign of human habitation on this side of the bay, just marsh and scrubby bushes, water and sky, sea birds wheeling and diving. It’s wild and very beautiful, the blue dome of sky reflecting in the glassy water. 

Willadine looks lost in all that water

At the head of the salt pond, large brown ponies graze near the beach. The word idyllic comes to mind. We beach the kayaks and walk on the narrow strip of beach toward the Cedar Island ferry landing. I wonder if the ferry passengers have any idea what a wild place this is.

Back on Willadine, the wind comes up a bit and we sail over to the Quality Seafood to see about getting some gas. We hail some fishermen in the channel and they tell us there is no gas in there. At least, there is none for sale to us. But there is some wind, so we sail it back to the Core Sound channel, thinking to try to make Ocracoke again. We get all the way back to the channel entrance when the wind just quits. Our sails hang limp. We strip off layers of clothing and bask in the warm sun. What little wind there is hits us right on the nose. We inch our way back and forth at the channel entrance.

To the east, Core Banks begins calling me. I want to go over there. The beach is over there. The pull is irresistible. I suggest to Eric we go over there and he squints at the marshy bank and pooh-poohs the idea, in his easy gentle way. But I persist. I suggest we anchor, since we’re not going anywhere anyway and I’ll paddle to the banks. After much wheedling and cajoling, I win. We bump the bottom several times on the way over and finally get too scared to continue. Eric throws out the anchor and I launch a kayak. As soon as I get away from the boat, I see white sticks in the water ahead. I know what these are. They mark a navigable channel to some destination. I paddle along the sticks and judge it’s deep enough for Willadine. It leads into an opening in the marsh, one we couldn’t see from farther out. There is a derelict dock and a little mud beach. I haul the kayak out and walk up a fairly well-maintained sandy road toward the beach.

I walk only a little way, when I reach a tidal pond and the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. One word roars through my mind: Alligators. I stop dead, peering at the water, looking for eyes and nostrils. I don’t see any. Eric calls me on the handheld VHF radio. This makes me feel only slightly more courageous, so I head back. He’s dying to come over and I want the security of his presence and reassurance that there are no man-eating alligators out here. I’m sure it must be pure paranoia.

It doesn’t take more than a minute to convince Eric to try for the dock. We bump the bottom several times, but the channel is deep enough for Willadine. I’m a little worried we’ll never make it out of there again, but the pull of the shore is irresistible. On the road, I tell Eric my fear about the alligators and he says there aren’t any here. As we walk, I cling to his arm and he laughs at me. I’m scanning the sides of the road and I see raccoon tracks, but nothing else, until we come around a bend and see this:

Later we decide it was probably an opossum, but I'm it looks reptilian to me!

I’m sure I know what this is and it’s terrifying, more so because I sensed the presence before I even saw the tracks. But, by now, we’ve reached the unoccupied house and we can hear the surf beyond. 
Core Banks Cottage

The beach is untouched. There is no sign of human life in either direction, as far as the eye can see. Dolphins surface just offshore. The beach is littered with shells of all size and description. The surf is easy and perfect. If it were warmer, I would want to swim. We sit and watch the surf until the sun begins to set and then we walk back to Willadine.

During the night I awaken, worried she might be sitting on the bottom, but in the morning, she’s still afloat, barely. We get her out of there somehow only to run aground again at marker five. We knew it was shoaled up there, but the tide must be farther out than it had been because we run hard aground this time, even the motor won’t pull us off. Eric tries backing the mainsail, but we’re good and stuck and the tide is going out. Eric strips off his boots, socks, long johns, pants and wind pants and steps off the swim ladder. After a half hour of pulling in the freezing water, Willadine floats free and we motor out of there and back out into Pamlico Sound.

Sunrise, Core Banks

Somehow, the wind comes around enough to make headway to the north. We’d talked about going into Portsmouth Island, but by the time we get close, we’re too tired to think about running aground any more. Our chart is very sketchy on Portsmouth Island, where the last resident left for good in 1971. Some of the houses have been restored and boat tours are available from Ocracoke, so we’re hoping to find someone with local knowledge. We won’t be going anytime soon anyway, because a nasty storm is forecast.

At the town dock, it’s blowing hard from the southwest and as we pull up a guy in a baseball cap comes over to tell us the docks are closed for renovations. We end up on a bulkhead, with no power or water (neither of which we need) for a reduced rate. We’re very happy with this arrangement, especially when our stay stretches out to a week. The next day it begins to rain and gusts to forty, but we’re happy to pedal around on our little folding bikes, eat at Eduardo’s TacoTruck and shop at the old-timey Ocracoke Variety Store, where you can buy pimento cheese, dock cleats and a bottle of whiskey.

Me and Willadine in Ocracoke. Does it look cold and windy? It is!

When it clears up, we feel rested enough to attempt to make Portsmouth Island. The wind is predicted to stay northerly and then shift to the south in the afternoon. That’s exactly how we like it, since Portsmouth is to the south. We sail downwind both ways. Like the rest of the sound, Ocracoke Inlet is very shoal-y and it sports a nasty current as well. Outside, if you are unlucky or foolish enough to be caught out there is a brutal line of breakers and the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” So, we advance toward the inlet with extreme caution. We’ve timed our excursion for the slack at high tide and we make it across without a hitch, except for some minor bottom bumping. In the binoculars, we can see birds standing on the bottom in the middle of the water. At low tide, these sandbars are high and dry.

Because it takes a long time to get across, we tie up at the “Haulover” dock just as the tide begins to ebb. Terrified of being swept out to sea by the ebb, we are relieved to be tied securely at the dock. There is not a soul there, but us. The town is silent, the sky a sweeping blue overhead. Even the birds seem quiet. I try to imagine what it must have been like for the people who lived there, especially the women. I think it must have been a hard life, especially when I see the little graveyards and imagine what it would be like to be mortally injured or to drown in such an isolated place. With no warning, a hurricane would have been cataclysmic.

Willadine at Portsmouth Island. The pictures simply do not do it justice at all. Note the roiling current.

We walk a loop around the town, past the schoolhouse, peering in windows and reading the signs outside the houses. A half-mile trail winds through some beautiful scrubby pines and up and down dunes and comes out on a grassy field that turns out to have been an airstrip. An abandoned cistern has some beautiful green water plants growing in it. 

A park ranger (this is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore) keeps the grass cut in all the yards and maintains the grassy road.

Back at the dock, we eat some lunch and for some odd reason, decide to head back on the ebb as it heads toward slack. Right off the dock, we run aground. It’s about a foot deep and Willadine draws eighteen inches with her board up. Naturally, the tide is going out. Trusty the Outboard pulls us off and we zip around the corner. Without clear knowledge of where the channels are, I’m terrified of running aground again. The current is extremely swift (maximum ebb now) and we try to anchor just off Portsmouth, but it drags and we decide to continue. The tide is well out now, almost all the way low and the channels look different now with more little sandy islands everywhere. I look out at the water with the binoculars and see a hodgepodge of red and green markers, all looking equidistant to us. Off to the east, I can see a horrifying line of breakers at the mouth of the inlet. With the distortion and the magnification, they look like they could be fifteen feet high. I ask Eric if he wants to look, but he knows what is out there and he declines to look.

Even though I am confused and turned around, luckily, Eric is a master navigator and remembers where the markers are and how to negotiate the channels. We drag the bottom as we near the first marker, but the rudder goes back down once we make the marker.

When we get to the other side, the Ocracoke side, we feel more relaxed and decide to anchor for a bit and rest. The wind has come up very strongly from the south, as predicted, but it’s sunny and nice out. Eric throws out the anchor and instructs me to back down on it, which I do. Then we wait for the boat to turn into the wind so we can see if it’s stuck or if it’s dragging. But something strange happens and we seem to hover right over the spot where we dropped the anchor. The anchor line hangs limply. We scratch our heads and eye the shoreline to see if we’re dragging. The water is churning past the boat as if we were sailing along at three knots. We look at each other and look around in puzzlement.

Finally, Eric says, “I know what it is.”

“What?” I say, ready to fire up Trusty to save the day.

“It’s the current opposing the wind. We’re just hovering here, no wonder the anchor isn’t pulling. The wind is pushing us north and the current is pulling us south.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure of it,” he says.

I chuckle nervously and eye the beach for movement. There isn’t any. We haven’t moved. But the water is coursing by, making it seem like we are moving. It’s very disorienting. There is no rest for either of us here, because when the tide slacks the wind will whip us out of here fast and we don’t know if our anchor will set or not. Eric pulls her up and we motor on into Ocracoke.

By the time we reach the entrance to Silver Lake, Ocracoke’s tiny harbor, we are both elated with our success and exhausted. We are completely unprepared for the unannounced appearance of a charging ferry coming out. Normally, they blow a whistle before they come out, but we heard nothing. Perhaps the south wind carried the sound in the other direction, who knows. We know the ferry can’t leave the channel to go around us, so we veer off and throttle up to beat it out of the way. The adrenaline keeps me going until we reach the dock, where we tie up and go below to crash.

The forecast is for rain and high winds again the next day so we putter around Ocracoke, making an excursion to the library to read up on Portsmouth Island (fascinating) and take in yet another fabulous burrito from Eduardo’s TacoTruck. Along with a Duck Rabbit Porter (I’m a big fan of their Milk Stout and didn’t even know they made a Porter) from Zillie’s, it makes a wonderful meal.

We never make it to Hatteras or anywhere else because the wind keeps blowing until I have to go back and get the kids. Eric’s son, Ansel, arrives on the ferry to take my place and he and Eric get Willadine back to North Creek a couple of days later, with a slight detour because of a contrary wind. I’m a little disappointed to miss the crossing, but glad for Ansel to have the experience. It’s always a fun time on Willadine, wind or no wind, grounding or sailing. We love our shallow draft boat in these NC waters.

Willadine is barely floating in about eighteen inches of water. If it wasn't so cold, we'd just wade ashore.

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