Saturday, November 18, 2017

Arriving in Stuart: reflections on a dying river

Arriving in Stuart

The morning in Mosquito Lagoon was warm with clear skies. We weren’t ready to leave this place, so we launched the dinghy, attached the outboard, and motored over to the beach. A short walk from the lagoon, up the boat ramp of the park, and across the parking lot took us to the beach. The tide was up, so there wasn’t much beach there. In the early morning sun, we walked a short distance out and back. We were impressed, but not by the stark beauty of the place or by the endless wonder of the waves rolling up onto the sand. What impressed us most was the line of plastic trash at the tide line. We’re not used to this, and probably don’t see it because there are so very few unattended beaches along the Atlantic coast. With no one to rake the beach, it is littered with the detritus of our advanced civilization. Most consistent were tops of plastic bottles. Most were from drinking water bottles. I counted two plastic tooth brushes in a short distance. There were plastic fragments of other unidentifiable things.
Looking over the dunes, Canaveral National Seashore

Suitably chastened by the vision into this particular hell of manmade origin, we returned to Luna, lifted the outboard engine onto its bracket on the stern rail, and retraced our path back to the Waterway. We headed south past the Kennedy Space Center and, with a half-hour to spare, reached Titusville and the causeway bridge, which will not open during rush hour between 3:30 and 5 p.m. From here we motored to Cocoa and anchored right off the channel south of town. Still in evidence here, as there have been all along since Fernandina Beach, are the hulls of sailboats broken free of their moorings and washed up on the shore by the recent hurricanes. These unfortunate ladies advise caution to all casual mariners who would think to challenge the strength of the storms.

Sailboat fetched up on shore by recent storms

Nearing Stuart, where we plan to spend a few days, we stop in Vero Beach. Vero is a popular destination for cruisers, and the municipal mooring field is nearly always full of boats. They never turn anyone away, so when the last mooring is taken, new boats raft up with boats already moored there. This lack of privacy doesn’t appeal to us, so we prepared to pass the harbor when I looked over and saw an empty mooring ball, the one closest to the Waterway. I called the office and asked if we could take it, and they said, “Sure.” So we moored in Vero for the night, though the dock master made it clear that we would likely have to raft up when other boats showed up the next day.

Vero has it all, and the cruising world calls it Velcro Beach because, once there, sailors may find it difficult to leave. The beach is an easy walk away. There are parks, dog parks, restaurants, art galleries and an art museum, a free shuttle bus to the larger stores outside of town. There’s a friendly happy hour gathering at the municipal marina at 5 p.m. We didn’t see any of that, however. A week of windy, rainy weather is forecast to start tomorrow afternoon, and we’d like to be in Stuart by then. So we had showers in the marina, took the dinghy over to the nearby Riverside Cafe for happy hour, and left early the next morning.

Expecting windy and choppy conditions on the Waterway, we hoisted the dinghy back up onto the foredeck and lashed it down. The northeast wind built as we motored south, and before too long, we unfurled the genoa and turned off the engine, making 5 to 6 kts by sail alone. There were waves on the Indian River, through which we were sailing, but they were not nearly as high as what had followed us on the Chesapeake, on the Pamlico Sound, or on the Atlantic Ocean off Charleston. We had a really pleasant run down to the St. Lucie Inlet, where we turned to windward up the St. Lucie River and finally furled the sail. From there, we motored the final few miles upriver to the mooring field at Sunset Bay Marina.

The St. Lucie River is remarkable. A short stretch of water that drains the counties east of Lake Okeechobee (and the lake itself, it turns out) to the Indian River and the ocean beyond, its color is unique and nearly beyond description. In Luna’s wake and in the bucket we hoisted up, the water is a sickly shade of brownish-gray. Not the clear tea-brown tannin color of the Alligator River, nor the sediment-rich chocolate color of parts of Lake Champlain after a rainstorm, the St. Lucie simply looks dead.

The St. Lucie River is brown in the outboard's wake

Now I’m no stranger to toxic rivers. I was in Cleveland when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. Of course, that was Ohio, and the river is cleaner now. The area known as the Flats in Cleveland, through which it flows, has become a tourist attraction with restaurants, a brewery, and a river walk. But this is Florida, where in the nexus of politics, business interests, and the environment, greed and power prevail, usually at the earth’s expense.

The South Florida Water Management District, which maintains authority over the health of the river, noted that:

The St. Lucie River and Estuary is an ecological jewel on Florida's Treasure Coast that is integral to the environmental and economic well-being of Martin and St. Lucie counties. The St. Lucie is part of the larger Indian River Lagoon system, the most diverse estuarine environment in North America with more than 4,000 plant and animal species, including manatees, oysters, dolphins, sea turtles and seahorses.

 This sounds good so far. But the environmental group, Rivers Coalition, fills in the background with more detail in a 2007 report. You can read the entire astonishing story of the death of the St. Lucie River here:

According to this report, the modern history of the St. Lucie River began in 1898, when a group of local businessmen, seeking a more direct route to the sea, created the St. Lucie Inlet. This cut in the shoreline allowed salt water to enter the brackish Indian River Lagoon and mix with the fresh water of the lower St. Lucie River. This infusion of salt water extended the estuary and created a rich marine environment in the river, which became densely populated with sea grasses, oysters, clams, and numerous salt water fish. Four U.S. Presidents, starting with Grover Cleveland, fished in the lower St. Lucie River and outside the St. Lucie Inlet.

In 1925, the state of Florida dug the infamous C-44, a canal connecting Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River. This single event marked the beginning of the end of this “ecological jewel.” The canal was deepened after World War II and was followed by canals C-23 and C-24 to drain the marshlands of St. Lucie and Martin counties and permit agricultural and residential development.

As chemical-dependent modern agriculture spread and the pace of urban development quickened, the canals allowed the rapid discharge of pollutants and fresh water from Lake Okeechobee. The local fishery, the sea grass, clams, and oysters disappeared, and, in their place, algae grew in the turbid, nutrient-rich water. In 1950, a coalition of businessmen formed the River League to combat the damage.

When the Cuyahoga burned — and 1969 wasn’t the first time — Time Magazine covered the story, Randy Newman wrote a song, and the attention of the nation focused on the health of its rivers. The EPA was created in 1972 in response to the disaster, and the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts followed. Many new regulations and agencies, both state and federal, indicated a strong government response to the problem of water pollution. Over the ensuing years, more than 21 different government agencies have overseen the deteriorating conditions in the St. Lucie River. Yet, the water quality continued to decline through the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Between 2003 and 2007, the prevalence of cancerous lesions in bottle-nosed dolphins in the lower Indian River increased from 3% to 42%. Apparently, the dolphins have gotten the message. The commander and I have seen dolphins nearly every day along the Waterway, as far north as the Chesapeake Bay. But approaching the St. Lucie, we saw no dolphins whatsoever. Perhaps there are no fish for them to eat.

In 2009, a coalition of environmental groups successfully sued the EPA, challenging the decades-long delay by state and local governments to limit pollution in the St. Lucie. The EPA agreed to limit sewage, pesticide, and fertilizer discharges into the river, but in 2013, even as a massive outbreak of blue-green algae covered the river, the EPA returned to court to attempt to loosen the restrictions.

Agricultural interests depend on Lake Okeechobee for irrigation during dry times, so they lobby to maintain high water levels there. The Water Management District has built a series of catchment basins built to contain runoff when the lake level gets too high. These would direct the water slowly into the Everglades away from the river, but they are inadequate to contain the water during periods of heavy rains. And so 62 billion gallons of toxic water continue to flow annually into the St. Lucie river. Yet industrial farmers continue to demand through their lobbyists and their political allies at the local, state, and federal levels that the high water levels in Lake Okeechobee be maintained. At this point, I should point out that Lake Okeechobee is sugar cane country. Sugar is the crop for which the health of the estuary is sacrificed. The United States Sugar Corporation abetted by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the South Florida Water Management District have been the ones fighting to maintain this unhealthy situation.

To me, as we sit on Luna moored in the dead river, the foregoing is a cautionary tale. The Clean Water Act and the EPA have not had the power to solve this problem. The EPA’s 2013 effort to loosen restrictions on the pollution of the river occurred during the administration of a liberal, environmentally conscious president. Florida’s politicians may be easily corrupted, but apparently even on the federal level there is not the will to change. Imagine what will happen under the rule of a political party committed to weakening or dismantling environmental protections.

View of the Sunset from the mooring at Sunset Bay Marina

Beyond its doorstep darkened by the polluted river, Stuart is a pretty nice place to be. It’s one of those Florida coastal towns that line up along the Federal Highway (U.S. Route 1) like beads on a string. And in common with some of the other small towns like Fernandina Beach and New Smyrna Beach, Stuart is bisected by the railroad which goes right through the town. The freight trains seem to travel mainly at night. And out on Luna, it’s not the lonesome whistle of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers we hear calling at 3 a.m. It’s the blare of the diesel airhorns, Mroooot, Mroooot, Mroot, Mroooooot, that comes as the train passes the empty crossings.

Cross the tracks, and there is a cute little downtown with restaurants, galleries, and boutiques. It’s all within walking distance of the marina. We can walk a little further to a bakery with decent bread and delicious croissants. There is a decent Taco Shack, where we had lunch with our boat neighbors, who had sailed down from their home a little north of here. The supermarket is also within walking distance.

The Commander and Mike at Ground Floor Farm

While walking about, we discovered an urban farm and café, the Ground Floor Farm. Here they grow vegetables in individual pots and raised beds on about an acre of land behind the building, which serves as a farmstead and café. We spent some time talking with Mike, one of the young farmers whose enthusiasm for the project is infectious. They are experimenting with different growing methods. They use closely spaced individual pots (plastic bags of soil and compost) because the Florida soil is mostly sand there, and because nematodes in the soil would destroy the plants. Their chemical-free method uses far less water than a conventional garden would use. We had lunch in the café, organic food grown there or locally sourced. We bought a loaf of their excellent sourdough bread, a bag of fresh salad greens, a few very tasty heirloom tomatoes, and a jar of their incredible chipotle dill pickles.

Theirs is a soul-restoring operation that provides us a much needed counterpoint to the seemingly hopeless situation out on the river. Yet even on the river, there are groups working to clean up and raise awareness of environmental issues. Beyond the touristy downtown, there is a community of people here that I believe we would be happy to get to know.

A couple miles from the marina is Enterprise, and we walked out to rent a car. Enterprise would pick us up, but we felt we needed the exercise. The car allowed us to get some stuff at West Marine and the hardware store. Back on Luna, I replaced the float switch on the bilge pump that turns it on automatically if the water level rises in the bilge. This was clearly not operational when the heat exchanger sprang a leak back in the Georgia sea islands. I also replaced the hoses on the hot water tank so when we use the engine we will have hot water.

Later, we also took our spare propane tank to be refilled at the local Ferrelgas Company, and we drove out to Staples to exchange the CO2 cylinder in the Sodastream we brought with us to make seltzer on the boat.

The rental car allowed us to do some sightseeing, so we drove north a few miles to Jensen Beach to walk in the sand and sit by the surf for a while. Just to the west, across the Intracoastal Waterway, is Conchy Joe’s, a seafood restaurant on the river. On their covered deck overlooking the water (and trying to overlook the other patrons who were feeding the seagulls out the open window), we had a plate of oysters. The commander had a bowl of clam chowder, and I, anticipating the next leg of Luna’s travels to the Bahamas, had an excellent bowl of conch chowder and a Kalik. The food and atmosphere here were good, and we’ll come back, I’m sure.

Even with the solar panel, we run the generator in the mornings.

There are a few loose ends to address on our final day or two here. I need to get below the V-berth in the bow to reconnect the Y-valve and macerator pump to the holding tank. This allows us to pump its contents overboard once out in the ocean and in the Bahamas where pump out facilities are scarce. Near the holding tank is the transducer for the depth finder, which I will inspect and clean. The Commander needs to wash the sheets and a few other things.

Looking back on this leg of the journey, we’ve covered about 1,200 miles and have spent more than two months living aboard Luna. The voyage has been different than last time. There was the nearly constant anxiety about storms at the beginning. The Waterway has been almost empty of other travelers, and we’ve missed the camaraderie of our last trip when we had friends who were making the trip at the same time. Storms have left the Waterway shallow in places, and we’ve taken extra care and paid close attention to the tides to avoid running aground. And the economy has improved since we travelled this course four years ago, but quite unevenly so. Larger and larger houses now mark (we would say, “mar”) parts of the waterway.

On the other hand, traveling alone and not needing to keep up with companions in faster boats, we’ve been able to sail much more than we did before. And we’ve travelled with much more confidence than on our last trip four years ago. The confidence has paid off. By this time on the last cruise, we’d called TowBoatU.S. twice for help. So far this year, we haven’t had to call for help once.

Authentic Jamaican food in Stuart

Stuart was the Sailfish Capital in the better days of the local fishing industry

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

South through Florida

Zen and the Art of Sailboat Maintenance—South Through Florida

Fernandina Beach, just south of the Georgia border, was surprisingly busy. It turns out the Florida vs. Georgia football game is in Jacksonville tomorrow, and lots of Bulldog fans stay over in Fernandina. The town is abuzz, the sidewalks are full, the stores are open in the evening, and the restaurants serve — what else ?— gator tail. Georgia fans outnumber Florida fans here by a large margin.

As we left the next morning, we were apprehensive about the section of the Waterway that courses through Jacksonville. But the “biggest tailgate party of the year,” as the football game is known, does not extend to parks along the river. We cruised through easily and ended up in St. Augustine, just north of the Vilano Bridge at the very friendly and well appointed Camachee Cove Marina. Here Mike Reed is the assistant dock master, and the only person I’ve ever seen who can handle two dock lines simultaneously. Deftly, he pulled Luna here and there and coaxed her stern-first into a slip (with some help from the captain at the controls).

I mentioned to Mike that we had been having trouble with Luna’s engine running hot and told him about the pinhole I’d discovered in the heat exchanger. He directed me to an onsite mechanic, James Bohanan, at First Mate Yacht Services. Early Monday morning, I walked over and met Bo.

Bo wasn’t sure what I was describing and drove me back to Luna so he could take a look. He thought my repair to the heat exchanger, intact after four days, was adequate. On the overheating issue, he uttered the three words first in the mind of any boat owner except, apparently, this one. “Check the impeller,” he said. “If it’s not that, check the thermostat, but I doubt it.”

Some information for the uninitiated. Boat engines are water-cooled, and Luna’s engine has two pumps. One circulates sea water through the heat exchanger, and the other circulates antifreeze, cooled by the seawater in the heat exchanger, through the engine. The pumps contain an impeller, a spinning rubber wheel with fins that radiate out from the center. As the impeller turns, the fins pick up water or antifreeze from the inlet and discharge it through the outlet. The sea water impeller is usually the one to fail. I had checked it early on, but had neglected the antifreeze pump.

He left with my thanks and refused any more than that. Later, I got out the tool kit and set about dismantling the antifreeze pump. There were six fins on the impeller. Chagrined and relieved, I found only two remaining intact. The others had broken off and were lodged in the outlet of the pump. I walked back to Bo’s shop and bought a new impeller and gasket, even though we carried one on the boat. I installed this and reassembled the pump after removing all the broken pieces of fins.

Following the adventure along with thoughtful and kind silence, the commander offered: “It’s always the impeller.”

Of course it’s always the impeller! I shall have this engraved on a plaque and place it near Luna’s engine. And when I die, should there be a gravestone, let it say, “It was the impeller.” Not quite as poetic as Conrad Aiken’s marker in Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, which reads, “Cosmos mariner, destination unknown. Give my regards to the world.” But mine would be apt and helpful, at
With the boats at Camachee Cove Marina, St. Augustine, FL
least to the other sorts of mariners out there.

The three-day layover in St. Augustine gave me time to take the heat exchanger apart and check for corrosion. Finding none, I put a dab of epoxy on the inside where I thought water might have gotten in under a weld. Now, the cooling system was all back together and intact. We started the engine to test it out, but the diesel exhaust was blowing back in on us, so the test was short. And, of course, this was not the end of the story.

Being residents of the marina for three days gave us a chance to visit with some of the other boat owners there. Conversations were shockingly similar. A man would stop by and say “Hello,” followed by, “Is that a C&C? I used to have a C&C. Sure was a lot of fun to sail.” This happened at least three times. I am not exaggerating. This is odd because there just weren’t that many C&C boats built between 1969 and 1990 when the factory closed. Yet, we’ve heard the same comment in several stops along the Waterway.

The marina was generous with their courtesy car, and we took it shopping. We refilled Luna’s propane tank (cleverly, we bought a spare with us this year) and visited St. Anastasia Church on Crescent Beach, the final resting place of the parents of the commander and the first mate. We also took the car to dinner and later to a Halloween party at the Conch House with our friend, Tom, who lives nearby in Hastings.
Cruising boats moored near the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine

The layover also gave us the opportunity to plan the next leg of the journey. We entertained the idea of another day and night at sea. We would go off shore from the St. Augustine inlet to Port Canaveral and the Space Center, a distance of 100 miles. The weather looked perfect with 5 to 10 kt winds from the east, 1 to 2 foot seas. The tow boat service said the inlet conditions were safe, and an off shore fisherman said the seas were smooth.

We were a little apprehensive after the pounding we took when we left Charleston, but, when you fall off a horse, the best thing to do is to get back on the horse. The moon was approaching full, the skies were clear. All on Luna were in agreement, even the first mate. We would head back out into the Atlantic with the falling tide the next morning.

The conditions were perfect, and we were all a little excited at the off shore prospect. We left the slip, stopped at the fuel dock to pump out Luna’s waste tank, then motored out through the marina’s narrow channel to the river. The Commander powered up the engine, and just as we left the channel, I looked down at the temperature gauge, which read, “HOT.”

The Captain’s remarks will not be reported here. The Commander slowed Luna to an idle, and we crossed the river to the edge of the channel on the opposite side where we dropped the anchor. I checked the antifreeze level—OK. I took the fresh water pump apart and looked at the new impeller—OK. I got everything back together, we started the engine—right back up to hot. Back to the pump, I took off the outlet hose and looked for fragments I might have missed—nothing. We restarted the engine, and curiously, I saw no antifreeze coming out of the outlet. I looked again—the pump wasn’t turning! I looked closer and found that the belt to the engine was not on its pulley. It was seated against the crankcase behind the pulley. Another dope slap!

When I corrected this, and we restarted the engine, antifreeze circulated normally through the heat exchanger. I added some, then some more, then some more. “The temperature is falling,” called the Commander.

With the antifreeze level up, the engine temperature fell to usual range and stayed there. We could have said, “Well, we fixed it,” and headed out as planned. However, lacking confidence in the system, we voted for staying on the Waterway, foregoing the perfect day and night at sea! Those days don’t come all that often along the east coast of the United States, but you need absolute trust in your ship and your ability to deal with problems when they arise. With that trust shaken by the recent events, we thought it better to heed the old adage, oft repeated and always true, “Better to be in here wishing you were out there than to be out there wishing you were in here.”

So we continued on along the waterway, past St. Augustine to the friendly marina at Marineland. Here we tied up at one of the newly installed concrete floating docks.

Along tidal waters, floating docks which rise and fall with the water level are preferable to fixed docks which require crew members to jump down on or climb up to the dock as the tide changes and the boat goes up or down. And the gold standard has become the concrete floating dock.
Luna at the floating docks in Marineland

To my ears, the juxtaposition of concrete and floating sounds oxymoronic. I looked at the website of Bellingham Marine Industries. With offices in Jacksonville and Ft. Lauderdale and manufacturing facilities in nine locations, Bellingham is one of the leading suppliers of concrete docks. Indeed, most of the concrete docks we walk on are stamped “Bellingham.”

According to the website, the company has installed  over 20 million square feet of floating docks (nearly a square mile). The docks float because the centers are expanded polystyrene foam that are then encased in a reinforced concrete shell. They are quite strong and feel secure when you tie the boat to their cleats. The surface is not slippery when wet, and feels safer to walk on than wooden planks..

With Hurricane Matthew last year and Irma this year, we have seen damage to concrete docks in Fernandina and St. Augustine. When some of the concrete breaks off, the docks cant to the unaffected side at a steep angle. These will need to be replaced.

The marina was not at all crowded, and Luna was alone in her section. That was fine with us, as we watched the sun set over the western edge of the Waterway and the marshland beyond. Before sunset, however, we had time to walk along the beach and survey the damage done to the houses there in the past two years.

Four years ago, we took the same walk and found a road, likely the old Route A1A, between a row of houses and the beach. After a dozen or so houses, we came to a part where the road had washed away, and pipes and wires were protruding from the sand bank. Two houses perched precariously close to the edge, waiting the inevitable.
Storms have damaged homes and destroyed the road along the beach

Now, there is no road. A row of canted telephone poles marks the edge of what once was the road but now is just sand. All of the houses were damaged by the recent storms, some severely; however a few have already been repaired or rebuilt by their optimistic owners. The houses at the far end are simply gone. The Matanzas River, which flows west of the current AIA and the ocean, cut a new inlet to the sea with Hurricane Matthew last year, sealing the fate of some of these houses. Yet, new houses continue to rise along this section of the waterway at Palm Coast, a little south of Marineland. In this housing market, there is little wonder why the governor of Florida refuses to acknowledge climate change in any official state business.

Leaving Marineland the next morning, we’re closing in on Stuart, our final destination before the holidays. We anchor for the night in a little creek off the Waterway below the Ponce de Leon inlet in New Smyrna Beach. It’s quiet and calm, but at night, when the wind dies, a horde of no-see-’ems descends on the boat. These little stinging insects manage to get in through the screens, and we all have a sleepless night, too hot under the covers and too vulnerable outside them. The next night I sprayed all the screens with Off, but by then we were in a slip at the New Smyrna City Marina, and the bugs weren’t a problem.

The course from the creek to the marina was only about five miles, but Luna was having another problem, this time with her transmission. Reverse was fine, but she would go into forward only if you revved the motor. Once you slowed down, she would go back into neutral. The Commander had first noticed this when we anchored the previous afternoon. Once settled, I swam off the back of the boat to check for stray ropes wrapped around the propeller, but all was clean.

After we weighed anchor, we quickly came up to the New Smyrna Beach drawbridge. It opens only on the hour and half hour, so we had a few minutes to wait. Normally at this time, we would idle Luna in neutral if the current is slack or slowly reverse if the current is flowing toward the bridge, as it was when we arrived. With the finicky transmission, neither seemed like a good idea, so I made lazy circles on our side of the bridge until it began to open and we could get through.

Meanwhile, the Commander checked Active Captain and found that the City Marina, just on the other side of the bridge, has a resident mechanic. Once through the bridge, we called on the radio and were given directions to a slip.

Rick Graham, the mechanic, came aboard, and inspected Luna. “Is this a C&C?,” he asked. “I used to have a C&C. Sure sailed good.” His assistant said, “I had two of them.” Rick climbed down through the cockpit locker to look at the transmission. His diagnosis: the conical drive gear is worn out and will not turn the propeller. It would work for a while at high revolutions, but not for much longer. The transmission will need to be rebuilt, a process that may take two weeks, and that’s if parts are available.

Later, he called to say he has located a used transmission from a boat whose engine was replaced. He can install this in a few days, and we’ll be back on the Waterway. Finding a used part in the salvage yard and installing it in your vehicle — how utterly Vermont and how instantly we are transported back to the days of funky old cars, patched together with Bondo, pop rivets, and aluminum printing plates, sweating with friends over which is the least discerning mechanic as a source of the next inspection sticker. Back in the day, if we had had cell phones and speed dials, every junkyard in the state would be on there.

But that was then, and this is Luna. Nonetheless, we decided to go along with his plan. We’d be back on schedule, and we’d have the old transmission to send for refurbishing. Luna, built in 1984, is 33 years old, and this is her original engine. Sooner or later, I suppose, the little Yanmar diesel will go, too, though it seems to be running perfectly now. Dealing with repairs on the fly has become a subtext of this adventure so far. Rick’s diagnostic visit was on Friday, so we had a few days to stew about it before his promised return on Monday.

Meanwhile, the thought of maybe spending a couple of weeks stuck in the marina proved too daunting for the first mate. A few phone calls found her a flight out of Daytona on Monday morning and a ride there with Mike, the local driver-for-hire. In three weeks she has become an integral part of Luna’s crew: minder of the lines, grinder of the winches, water bottle filler, juicer of the happy-hour limes, social media maven, and cleaner extraordinaire of the head. She has even taken an occasional turn at the wheel. Over a “last hurrah” dinner at Cork Screw on Sunday evening, we discuss the trip. Was it fun? Even better than expected. Marinas or anchorages? Anchorages. Favorite part? The scary part!

First mate at the helm

On Monday morning the first mate drives off with Mike and dreams for the flip side in the spring. A little later, Rick appears with his assistant, Larry, and transmission in hand. The day becomes an emotional roller coaster, the rises and falls only amplified by the dock master’s announcement that the marina will be full starting Tuesday. There will be no room for Luna, and we’re not totally clear what will happen if Rick can’t get the job done by Tuesday noon.

Rick is not a small man, and to get at the transmission, he has to go down into the locker on the port side of the cockpit. It’s clear that he doesn’t fit, so his first task is to remove the hot water tank that takes up part of the space. He accomplishes this and hands it up. Then he can stretch out on his back down in the locker. He is not comfortable, but he goes at the transmission bolts, some of which are very difficult to reach. Larry hands down wrenches and sockets on request.

But then the unit is out, and Rick is delivering it up to his assistant through the narrow opening. This is good. The new one goes down. Rick has it in place, but it does not fit. The housing that bolts to the engine is too shallow. It will not work. This is bad. Both units and Rick are on the deck. He removes the housing from both units and will attach Luna’s housing to the new unit. This is good. But the bolt holes don’t line up, so no go. This is bad. Rick says he will take both transmissions to his shop and take the parts out of the new one and swap them with the ones in the broken unit. This will take a few hours, giving the Captain’s mood more time to marinate.
Rick Graham (right) and Larry work on Luna's transmission

I can’t remember a time when my feelings have oscillated from optimism to pessimism with such frequency. This is an emotional bungee jump, though I’m not sure the bungee will hold. “It will work out,” the Commander notes. “Don’t worry.” She has heard Rick’s pronouncement that “failure is not an option,” and she departs confidently with the laundry and a shopping list.

Rick returns with Larry in the afternoon. He’s got Luna’s transmission repaired. Back in the hold, he fits in in place, but it will not seat completely. He tries several times, but it doesn’t work. He rarely swears. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. (Emotional free fall.) Larry, from above, gives a suggestion. Rick tries it, and the unit clicks into place.

He replaces the bolts. (Break out the champagne!) But when he goes to attach the linkage from the shift lever at the helm to the lever on the transmission, the latter is backward. (Boing!) Still on his back in the narrow hold, ever calm, he removes the lever, turns it around, and reattaches it.

“Start it up,” he directs. (Send up the fireworks!). He tries it. The propeller spins in reverse, but not in forward. (Unprintable). “It worked in the shop,” he notes. He removes the shift lever again, lines it up, and bolts it back on. “Let’s try it again.” This time it works. The unit shifts cleanly between forward and neutral, neutral and reverse. The propeller spins normally. He replaces the water heater. It’s 5 pm.

I will say I have nothing but respect and admiration for this guy. He spent most of the day on his back in an uncomfortable position dealing with a series of frustrations and never gave up. Beyond an occasional “dammit” uttered beneath his breath, he never lost his temper. I saw him the next day when he presented the bill, and I thanked him for staying with it, expressing sympathy for what must be his aching joints. “I’ve been in worse places.” he noted. I admired his calm perseverance. “It’s easier just to keep going,” he said, “and get it done.”

Little's Pharmacy in New Smyrna Beach, where you can still get a real milkshake at an authentic lunch counter

Tuesday came, and we were ready to check out. We walked into town to the auto parts place to buy some new heater hose to replace the ones Rick had to cut to remove the water heater. Back on Luna, all is ready. Our boat neighbors helped push us off, I stood by to fend off if necessary, and the Commander put Luna in reverse. All good. Out of the slip, into forward, and Luna is off, everything working perfectly.

We’re planning to motor down to Titusville, about 25 miles away, but 10 miles before that is Mosquito Lagoon, a large open area extending nearly two miles off the Waterway. It’s shallow, but deep enough to drop the anchor quite close to the beach of the Canaveral National Seashore on the eastern edge. The water gets quite rough when the wind is blowing, but the forecast is for calm winds tonight and the next few days. After four days confined to the marina, we decide to treat ourselves to an afternoon surrounded by water, and we leave the waterway for the anchorage.

It’s perfect. We don’t get to the beach. We’re the only boat in sight. This watery world is ours, sitting in the sun and bobbing in the light chop. The sun sets. Dinner happens. The stars are out. The waning gibbous moon rises orange. We have a lovely night.
Ruins of an earlier time at Marineland

Luna floats in the Sea of Tranquility in Mosquito Lagoon

Saturday, October 28, 2017

On to Florida

Arriving in Florida

This section was supposed to be the shortest, time wise. Our plan was to leave Charleston on the outgoing tide and make the overnight crossing in the ocean to Fernandina Beach. Leaving in the morning, we’d arrive in Florida by the next afternoon. The forecast, which sounded favorable to us, called for 10-15 kt NE winds, shifting to the east with 2-4 foot waves. And so as the tide fell, we motored into a northeast wind, past Ft. Sumter and out into the Atlantic. And into trouble.

Motoring out past Ft. Sumter

It was not really trouble, as far as Luna was concerned. The passing cold front had left the seas confused and very choppy and larger than advertised (of course). The wind blew in a quadrant from north to east northeast. And, as the coast fell off to the west, our course took us nearly directly downwind.

This combination made for an uncomfortable day. The disordered waves tended to turn Luna to the west, gybing the jib and making her roll. The first mate was sickened by the motion. Steering required constant vigilance. And while I manned the helm, the commander looked at the electronic chart for inlets we could safely enter if we changed our plan.

We sailed on for a while. The mate got more accustomed to the Luna’s motion and, with assurances that the conditions were OK for Luna, less fearful. We took down the jib and motor-sailed with reefed main and preventer. This combination steadied us somewhat. As we looked ahead, however, we couldn’t imagine keeping this up all night in the dark, when we would be unable to see the sail and waves. Moreover, we wouldn’t be able to use the autopilot, which would have been overwhelmed by all the turbulence.

To the west was St. Helena’s Sound, an inlet with a deep, buoyed channel, but with reports of sandy shoaling with the recent storms. On the charts, we saw an anchorage in a quiet creek within the shore. We decided to make for the inlet.

Our course had taken us far enough out to sea that it took a couple of hours to reach the inlet, and by then the sun was going down. Under a spectacular sunset and a crescent moon, we followed the buoys as long as we could see them. Then, as darkness fell, we relied on our electronic charts and depth-finder to stay in the deeper water and had no trouble with shoals. We all were relieved when we reached the shelter of the shore and the calm water of Jenkin’s Creek, where we anchored for the night.

Back on the Waterway, we read the daily weather report only to find that more heavy weather, a tropical storm heading inland from the Gulf of Mexico, was to reach us in two days. So we made a short course to the friendly marina at Port Royal, just below Beaufort (that’s Beeyoufort), SC, for two nights. They lent us their courtesy car, and we explored the little town in the rainy afternoon.

Beaufort, and the area around it, has a fascinating history. Predating Jamestown, it was one of the earliest colonial settlements. Spanish, French, and English explorers left their marks here. Under Spanish control, it became the capital of Florida until, facing pressure from the English, the Spaniards moved the capital to St. Augustine.

At the time of the American Revolution, the population of Beaufort was 9,000, which included 8,000 slaves. The area prospered growing rice and indigo in the marshlands, and logging the live oak trees for ship-building.

After the Revolution, the Tories relocated to the Bahamas with their slaves, but sent cotton seeds back to their former neighbors. This crop, highly prized Sea Island cotton, replaced rice as a staple of the economy.

After the attack on Ft. Sumter, the Union army occupied Hilton Head Island, and the interesting part of the local history began. Under Union control, all slaves were freed, and escaped slaves found safe harbor here. The Federal government made efforts at education and economic development. Former slaves became their own masters on the sea islands in what is now Beaufort County, and, under Reconstruction, the area had a majority black population. The Gullah culture, a Creole mixture of American and African influences and language, is celebrated in local museums.

The economy grew with shellfish-packing plants, lumbering, and a phosphate-mining operation. Then came the end of Reconstruction. The party of Lincoln gave way to the party of Jim Crow, a hurricane decimated the local economy, and a fire destroyed the phosphate plant. As many blacks joined the great migration to find work in northern states, Beaufort became an area dominated by whites once again.

With this transition came the collapse of the shellfish industry as pollution took away the once prized Daufuskie Island oysters. The local economy was rescued when the Marines established a training base and an air station on Parris Island. This wartime boost continued through the Korean and Viet Nam wars and prevails today.

Now the area prospers from vacation homeowners as well. Traveling past Beaufort around Hilton Head and Daufuskie Island, we gape at the large homes and boats. One of the historic plaques at the Beaufort waterfront notes that the surrounding county has the second highest per capita income of any in South Carolina. However, where there are no houses, the salt marshes with their tall grass and hidden creeks winding in from the river mark a desolate and beautiful section of the Waterway, and I am glad we were forced to make this detour.

If, seeing the local fishermen in their small boats coursing through the seemingly featureless salt marshes and tidal creeks, one thinks of Luke Wingo, the Prince of Tides, it is because this is the country of Pat Conroy. He graduated from Beaufort High School, and after college, he returned to the area to teach and write until his death last year. The Water is Wide, his book based on his experiences teaching on Daufuskie Island exposed the institutional racism of the Jim Crow era and celebrated the enduring power of education guided by a committed and loving teacher. His tenure, however, lasted but a year, after which he was fired for his unconventional methods and refusal to resort to corporal punishment in his classroom. There is a Pat Conroy literary festival going on, but we arrive a few hours too late to catch stage productions of The Color Purple and Conrack (the Daufuskie Island students’ name for Mr. Conroy).

We’ve learned that Beaufort was the first to build an integrated high school in the early 1970’s and prides itself on having left the legacy of the old South behind. It’s a richly complicated area that moved from slavery to control by the black Gullah culture, back to white dominance, to prosperity in the wartime economy, to the end of the “separate but equal” schools, to a mecca for second homeowners. And, after it all, one may wonder how these princes and princesses of tides voted in the last presidential election. It turns out the county favored the Republican alternative by 55-41 percent, exactly the same split as the state of South Carolina as a whole.

The marina was generous with its courtesy car, but within easy walking distance were several of the shopping staples for the nautical cruiser. We visited the Mexican restaurant, and the next day, I walked to Advance Auto to dump some used motor oil. A little further was the supermarket for a few things, and I passed West Marine. Passing West Marine always produces some anxiety: the thing you don’t buy is the very next thing that will break as you sail away. I was able to control myself, and on the way back, found a little stand selling fresh seafood where I bought a couple of red snapper filets and a pound of fresh crabmeat.
Luna tied to the face dock at Port Royal

We stayed the second day and waited for the storm to pass. We were fine with the rain and thunder, but the wind created huge waves on the river that flowed right by the face dock where we were tied. So we spent a miserable couple of hours banging against our fenders that protected us from the dock. But this too passed, the sun came out, and we had a lovely dinner of fresh snapper, wrapped in parchment with a little Caribbean seasoning, lemon slices, and butter, and baked in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes. To celebrate the passing of the storm and the end of the pounding, we brought out a bottle of nice red wine we had been carrying.

The marina offered three nights for the price of two, but with the storm past us, we left the next morning, riding the tide through the bottom of South Carolina into Georgia. We passed the Savannah River and made a few more miles before stopping at the marina on Isle of Hope. Here we tied up under much calmer circumstances to the face dock between the megayacht and the 50-foot sailboat.

The sailor came over to greet us. He told us he had been sailing north from Fernandina Beach to Norfolk, but the wind and waves were so great that he and his wife couldn’t stand the pounding and came into shore. We felt vindicated for having changed our course a few days earlier.

The Commander and I walked around the streets on the Isle of Hope. It’s a lovely place. Small houses with lots of people out and about in the late afternoon—people walking dogs, kids on bikes, adults with kids. This is such a different feeling from the large homes along the Waterway further north where we rarely saw any people outside. As we walked, we marveled at the huge live oaks draped with Spanish moss, aged survivors of the wooden ship-building days that shaded the houses, streets, and yards.

Spanish moss drapes the ancient Live Oaks

We could have stayed there, but we were off early the next morning. Our thought was that, with the front’s passing, perhaps we could go out at another inlet to Fernandina, but once again, the weather looked like more of the same north winds and big seas.

But the wind allowed us to put out the genoa, and we motor-sailed through the crooked creeks and rivers, around the marshes, and through the sounds of the Georgia sea islands. I remembered times flying north from Florida, when I had a window seat and could look down and see a twisted mess of water and land. And this is what we were sailing through. The rivers were deep. We sailed three miles to make two as the crow flies. The views were spectacular. We were mostly alone in a fantastic remote world of water and grass, and occasionally the wider rivers were joined to the sky by a thin horizon of green marsh grass.

At one point, the Commander looked back and saw a buoy following us. Apparently we had run over something, most likely a crab trap. She turned, and I was able to grab the rope with our boat hook. It led to a styrofoam box, and on the other end, trapped by Luna’s keel, was a plastic parachute and the remnants of a rubber balloon. Directions and a mailing envelope fastened to the box told us how to send the weather sonde back to NOAA. Perhaps they flew this during the recent hurricanes.

We penetrated further into this lonely world. And the thought crossed my mind, “If something were to happen with Luna, it would probably be here, far from civilization.”

We motor-sailed on, and at one point, on a starboard tack, we heeled slightly to port. Heeling to port offers the opportunity to pump Luna’s bilge, which is very shallow because of her swing keel. The pump is on the port side, and when she heels that way, all the water goes there, and the pump can do its job. I turned on the pump, and reflexively, opened the hatch to look at the bilge.

Luna rarely collects much water down there, and imagine my surprise to find it full of water up to the cabin floor. Somehow, water is getting into the boat.

The role of the captain in these situations is to remain calm, assess the problem, and devise plans and contingencies to solve it. It can be a bit like a chess game to think two or three moves ahead with real consequences. I closed the hatch and came up to the cockpit, where I announced, “There is a problem with water getting into the bilge. Don’t worry, everything is fine.”

“That’s good,” said the Commander at the wheel. “But how come you’re wearing your life jacket and climbing out onto the swim ladder?”

That didn’t actually happen. I came up and said, “Water is getting into the bilge from somewhere. I’ve turned on the pump, but I have to climb down into the cockpit locker to have a look.” When the mate and I got all the stuff out of the locker and opened the hatch to the back of the engine, I expected to see a loose through-hull fitting or maybe a burst cooling hose. What I found was a pinhole in the heat exchanger and a spray of seawater soaking the area under the cockpit and draining into the bilge.

Luckily, we have an alternative means of propulsion, so at the expense of a little speed, we could turn off the engine. While the Commander sailed Luna through the Waterway, I thought of ways to fix the hole, or to reroute the cooling hoses to bypass the heat exchanger and run sea water directly through the engine. I discounted the idea of duct tape, useful in fixing nearly anything else. However, we did have a tube of quick setting epoxy among Luna’s tools. So I cleaned the area with lacquer thinner to remove any grease, mixed up some epoxy, and coated the area, trying to work the stuff into the small hole. We continued to sail for a few hours to give the glue plenty of time to cure.

We came out on Sapelo Sound, the wind in our face, and the tide running against us. We tried to tack upwind and up current, but it seemed we lost ground with each tack. The only way forward was to start the motor. If the patch failed, we’d just have to keep the bilge pump going. We held our breath, and I turned the key. We started against the tide. I looked down into the motor—no water. The fix held, and remains in place today, four days later. Hopefully it will hold until we get to Stuart, and I’ll replace the heat exchanger there. It must be corroded from the inside.

Meanwhile, we found another lovely secluded anchorage in the marshy low country, this time on the Crescent River. The next day, running at high tide, we passed the shoals at Jekyll Island to anchor off the northern end of Little Cumberland Island at Terrapin Cove in St. Andrew’s Sound. Here, the waterway is wide open, and at night we can see the lights of Brunswick to the north and the glow from Fernandina Beach in the south. And, aside from a few flashing buoys and the deserted beach that wraps around to the east and south, there is not much else. There is a watery world before us, and we have it all to ourselves. At least above the surface.

From there it’s a short hop (20 miles) to Fernandina Beach, so there is no rush to leave next morning. The Commander sleeps late and makes pancakes for us when she rises. The sun is warm. We have a brief swim and bathe in the salty water, rinsing off with the fresh water in the sun shower. Finally, we’re back on the magenta line, motor-sailing with the east wind to Fernandina Beach, where we pick up a mooring at the Municipal Marina. Florida at last!

Sunrise in Fernandina

Friday, October 20, 2017

To Charleston

Through South Carolina

After a week in Wilmington we left the dock at the Carolina Beach State Park to continue the waterway down through South Carolina. Our departure was not without fanfare. We’d spent the week visiting my brother and sister-in-law and the Commander’s sister and brother-in-law. They all showed up at the dock, mimosas in hand (Note, alcohol is strictly prohibited in North Carolina state parks) for a below-decks toast to Luna’s continuing voyage. They all, minus Lisa, the Commander’s sister, who signed on to the next segment of the journey, helped push Luna from the dock, and we were seabound once again.

Toasting to a safe continuation of Luna's voyage

We timed our departure to reach the Cape Fear inlet at slack tide falling, so we had a nice ride down the Cape Fear River on the outgoing current. At the inlet, we turned south to continue in the waterway, past Southport and on to our first destination, an anchorage at Calabash Creek.

We didn’t know anything about this anchorage, but it was a reasonable (40 mile) distance and received good reviews on our crowd-sourced navigation program, Active Captain. The reviews proved  justified, as the anchorage was peaceful, lovely, and, as Luna was alone here, quite remote. A couple shrimp boats came by at night, heading out to sea. Calabash is the home of Jimmy Durante’s Mrs. Calabash, who operated a seafood restaurant. Since the 1930’s Calabash has been known for a style of cooking that involves frying fresh seafood. The Commander and I tried some on a road trip a few years ago. We’ve tasted better.

However, in honor of Calabash, I cooked up the trigger fish filets we brought with us from our favorite seafood shop in Carolina Beach. Dredged in flour and a beaten egg, then coated with panko breadcrumbs and fried in oil and butter, they made a delicious meal, better than we remembered in Calabash.

Once you get down through the development along the waterway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is an absolute delight. We loved it last time we cruised through, and it continues to charm us. Here, the waterway enters the Waccamaw River. The river is named after the Waccamaw people who lived between it and the PeeDee River to the south. Here they grew cotton and tobacco. They were nearly totally wiped out by the Spanish and English during the colonial period. I must have missed the T shirt that said, “I welcomed the explorers, and all I got was this measly river.”

If the river is any indication, the Waccamaw must have been a beautiful people, fortunate in their choice of a home. The waterway winds through forests and coastal lowlands. Abandoned rice fields line its bank in places. Finally, there are few if any houses here. The Waccamaw flows through the most remote part of the route.

A thunderstorm passed, ushering in a cold front that would bring cooler temperatures and a brisk north wind for the next few days. We anchored in a winding creek off the main waterway. We were the only ones we saw on Prince Creek.

Morning at anchor in Prince Creek

The next day took us further into the remote lowlands. The muted colors of green and yellowing deciduous trees, tan and green grasslands, brown tangled branches of the swampland, and the tannin-colored brown water delighted our eyes in every direction. The north wind allowed us to hoist the genoa and sail for much of the route down to another remote anchorage at Duck Island, a few miles south of Georgetown.

The creeks along this section are affected by changing currents, often swift, as the tide changes. We used two anchors, one on the bow and one on the stern, to limit Luna’s tendency to swing and either move too close to shore or turn with the wind and trap the anchor line around her keel.

After three days on the relatively quiet waterway, we entered civilization again on the way to Charleston. More boats, now, are heading south. There are a few sailboats, but still most are power boats.

There is an etiquette on the waterway when a faster power boat passes a slower vessel. The slower vessels slows to an idle, and the faster vessel also slows to pass. This minimizes the wake that would rock the slower boat. Usually, when the faster boat approaches, he calls ahead on the radio to announce his presence and his intention: “Luna, this is Large Power Yacht, and I’d like to pass you on your port.” We appreciate this courtesy, and call the passing vessel after they are by to thank them for passing us slowly.  And, as this section of the waterway is affected by shoaling, we may ask them to alert us to any skinny water up ahead. This has been very helpful to us at times.

Of course, there was a time when a large power yacht roared by, barely slowing down as we did and throwing up an enormous wake. Boats move along three axes. When they rotate around their transverse axis, they pitch. When they move about their longitudinal axis, they roll. And when they sway along their vertical axis, they yaw. As this inconsiderate lout passed, Luna pitched, rolled, and yawed, somewhat violently. “We should call him up and tell him how it’s done,” the Commander said.

But I was lost in another thought. “How are we going to make America great again,” I asked, “if the stronger or faster continually press their advantage against those who may be slower or weaker, but perhaps offering of other advantages in other ways?” Yet isn’t this the essence of the new ethic? Full speed ahead, take all you can get, and never mind your wake. And isn’t this what is being offered as the best America can give to its own people and to the rest of the world?

I am reminded that the Commander has banished from Luna forever any reference to him who will not be named here, so that will be the end of this particular discussion.

There are houses along this stretch, but they are not at all like those on the North Carolina waterway. Here, the houses blend into the trees. When painted, their colors are muted and natural, shades of gray or green that seem to grow out of the forests themselves. Not at all like the showy monoliths that are packed shoulder to shoulder on treeless slabs of ground further north, these houses evince an understated elegance and grace. We appreciated this ethic greatly.

The Commander picks up shells on the beach at Bull Island
 We spent the fourth night in Price Creek, a favorite anchorage we discovered on our last trip. Here is an inlet to the ocean. The creek is 20 feet deep, so we let out 140 feet of anchor rode, but it’s wide enough that even when we swung around, there was enough room that we would not wander too close to the banks. We took the dinghy down and motored to the beach, a wildlife preserve called Bull Island, admired the ocean and collected whelk shells. We marveled at the dolphins in the waters, particularly a juvenile who enjoyed jumping with the exuberance of one who has just learned to swim and is trying out his fins for the first time. He was airborne above the surface of the water several times until his mother appeared and herded him away from our dinghy.

The final day was a short ride to Charleston, just 19 miles to the St. Johns Yacht Basin on the Stono River, a little south of the city. The marinas in town were filled for the weekend, as boats came through on their way south. On the way I saw several flags displaying a palm tree and what appeared to be a crescent moon. Turns out this is the South Carolina state flag, which is also on their license plates.

Now this is interesting. Rather than a snake that says, “Don’t tread on me,” here is a tree inviting a hug. I learned that both these images, the palmetto and the crescent, were images from the American Revolution, made into a flag by Colonel William Moultrie in 1775. It was the first revolutionary flag. The palmetto was of use to colonial soldiers. Covered with sand, the palmetto trunks provided the breastworks that repelled British cannon balls. And the crescent (pointedly, not a moon)  was a breastplate worn on the uniforms of South Carolina militia. The background blue color of the flag was the color of those uniforms.

The South Carolina flag appears on the license plates

South Carolina played an important part in the war. In Charleston, colonials confiscated British tea, selling it later to raise funds for the revolution. The loyalists here allied with the British who intended to squeeze General Washington’s troops from the south. They were helped by escaped slaves, who were promised freedom by Britain. However, irregular fighters in the lowlands and creeks stymied the British and the loyalists, culminating at last in the British evacuation of Charles Town on December 14, 1782. This day is officially designated as South Carolina Independence Day, and the city was renamed Charleston to sound less British.

The loyalists, of course, evacuated to the Bahamas to settle with their slaves in the Abacos, but that is a story for later.

The point of all this is that it makes one wonder: “Wouldn’t it be interesting, and much less divisive for this country, if South Carolina and her sisters in the South were to commemorate the American Revolution rather than the Civil War?” Savannah manages to erect monuments to Revolutionary War heroes in its public squares, but it is a city quite unique in this respect. Of course, Savannah managed to sit out the Civil War. When General Sherman approached, a delegation met him and surrendered the city asking him to spare it from the flames. It is not written what they offered him in return.

The north winds are abating somewhat and as the front passes finally, will moderate and clock around to the east. It is Thursday, and by Saturday conditions offshore should allow us to reach south to Florida. In the meantime, we’ll do some restocking and enjoy some of the restaurants in Charleston.

Luna's wake sparkles in the sun in the Carolina lowlands

Sunday, October 8, 2017

North Carolina

North Carolina

The winds on the Chesapeake calmed down, and we were able to sail much of the way to Norfolk. Past the huge Navy ships in the Norfolk Naval Yards, past the container ships being unloaded at the quays by the Star Wars cranes, we anchored off the Portsmouth Naval Hospital. Aside from two unmanned boats in the anchorage, we had the place to ourselves. We wondered: “Where are all the sailboats going south like Luna?” The predominate species so far has been huge motor yachts.

Star Wars cranes unload shipping containers in Norfolk, VA

We left the anchorage early and passed Mile 0 of the Intracoastal Waterway. From here, on our GPS (and everyone else’s), our route is marked by magenta line that extends from here all the way to the Florida Keys. At this point, one can choose between two alternatives. The Dismal Swamp exits from the main channel a few miles down. Continuing straight on is the Virginia Cut. The former route has been closed since Hurricane Matthew passed through in 2016. Reports are it will open at the end of October. We continued straight into the wider and more heavily travelled Virginia Cut.

There is one lock on the system, and we passed through easily. We fell in line with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredger and a larger sailboat, Second Option. We made a little parade and followed them all the way south to Coinjock, about 12 miles shy of the Albemarle Sound. On the way, the route passed through the Currituck Sound, which was open and fairly rough with the 15 kt north wind that was blowing. We took advantage of this to put out our jib and motor sailed through at a good (for us) speed of 7 kts.

Our companions stopped at the marina in Coinjock for the night, but we continued on to an anchorage we had identified on the chart. When we arrived, we found it fairly wide open, and the north wind created rough and somewhat blustery conditions, so we turned back and motored back to the marina. When we checked in, I thanked the owner for not saying, “I told you so.”

Coinjock Marina consists of a very long face dock, a restaurant and store, and not much else. The friendly dock hand tied us in the line of boats that had very little space between them. Aside from Second Option, we were the only sailboat there. The rest were (you guessed it) enormous motor yachts. One very sleek number from as far away as the BVI seemed to have no one on her. We guessed they sped up here when the threat of hurricane approached and sought shelter at Coinjock.

I asked a captain of one of the other motor yachts, Knucklehead (really??), why we were seeing so many large yachts on this trip. He said that the conditions for going outside (taking the ocean route) have been very unfavorable, so he was taking the inside route. This makes sense. I imagine a line of huge motor yachts going out in the ocean straight to Florida. Much more efficient, but then who would there be to see them?

One such boat pulled in, and the captain put 1,200 gallons of diesel fuel into the tank. More than we use to heat our house in a cold Vermont winter. The Commander and I are wondering if the number of these behemoths is a manifestation of the income equality that seems to be getting worse in this country. And we think, “And you’re going to cut taxes for these?”

The Albemarle Sound has earned a nasty reputation for rough conditions when it is windy, and we stay a second day to avoid 20-25 kt winds the next day. The day after calls for 10-15 kt winds with 2 foot waves, and we spend a delightful day sailing downwind across the bay to the Alligator River 14 miles away on the opposite side.

We have been running with a preventer on the boom. This is a line attached to the toe rail on the leeward side with a snap shackle, which goes up to a snatch block on the boom, back to the toe rail with another snatch block, to a winch in the cockpit. When the wind shifts or the mainsail gets back winded, the preventer keeps the boom from gybing. The arrangement makes sailing down wind so much easier and more pleasant, I wouldn’t be without one now. We can run wing on wing without worrying about the mainsail.

The wind followed us up the wide Alligator River, but soon the waterway became twisting and narrow and we doused sail and motored on. Off the main channel, which continues south along a dug canal to the Pungo River, we followed the river around a couple bends to a very quiet and fairly well protected anchorage for the night. Here the water is faintly brackish and tea brown, the latter from the tannins in the scrub pines, the yellowing marsh grass, and the few reddening deciduous trees that grow on the coastal lowlands through which the river and its feeder creeks flow.

An Alligator River anchorage all to ourselves.

We are in a beautifully serene spot, no one else in sight, alone with the crab pots. The sun sets over the marshes. The waxing moon rises.  We bathe in the soft water of the fairly warm river. We don’t want to get too far away from Luna, the thought occurring to both of us simultaneously: “Do you think there are alligators in the Alligator River?”

The next day, we motor and sail to Belhaven, a small town on the Pungo. Large yachts from Coinjock pass us. Our favorite, whom we’ve seen off and on since Norfolk, is Starlight, a racing green and mahogany 125-foot ship from Palm Beach, FL. She passes us slowly and courteously, and the captain from the wheelhouse gives a hearty wave. Luna and Starlight. We like that.

Starlight pulls into the Marina, but we anchor in the harbor near the public dinghy dock. We hoist the dinghy off the foredeck and take a tour of the town. Behaven is one of those Carolina waterway towns that prospered in the 19th century by lumbering the local pines and by fishing. A railroad spur connected it to trading centers up north. The town calls itself the birth place of the Intracoastal Waterway. This is because the final link of the route was completed in 1928—the interminably straight and boring Pungo-Alligator River Canal, which we just passed. The completion of the waterway allowed barges to take products directly to Norfolk, thence Baltimore and New York or overseas. Belhaven must have been doing pretty well. Then, of course, the interstate highway system changed all that.

There are large houses along the river and a couple of marinas, but the town does not seem to be thriving. Most of the shops only open on weekends, clearly catering to the summer yachting trade. During the week, only one local restaurant is open at a time because there is not enough business for all.  As in other marinas we’ve passed, most of the slips are empty. I believe many owners pulled their boats out before the hurricanes threatened, but it gives a desolate look.

Many of the large houses are for sale. Walk to the further reaches of the main street, and it’s clear there is a divide in the town along economic and racial lines. We’re heading for the post office, which is a mile out of the center of town, across the divide. People here are friendly, waving even from their cars. One man stops and offers us a ride. Another offers directions when we ask and wants to be sure we’ve found it when we pass him on the way back.

Belhaven’s one claim to fame arose from this side of the divide. Eva Narcissus Boyd was born here in 1943. She moved to Brooklyn and found a job as a housecleaner and nanny for Carole King. The latter, enamored of Eva’s voice and way of dancing, wrote The LocoMotion  for her, and Eva recorded this as Little Eva. Eva died in 2003 and is buried in the cemetery here, under the gravestone with the locomotive.

The next day presented one of those opportunities, mentioned earlier, to test our goal directedness. We left the Pungo River as it joined the Pamlico River. From there, the magenta line coursed through a narrow passage to the Neuse River where the town of Oriental is our destination for tonight. However, the Pamlico River enters Pamlico sound, another of those long, narrow, shallow bodies of water separating Carolina’s barrier islands, the Outer Banks, from the mainland, or the inner banks as they are called. There is a 15 kt northeast wind, and we can reach the Neuse River by going the long way through the sound, a course that will add about 15 miles to our day. When the wind blows over these shallow sounds, it kicks up a pretty rough chop.

So, do we follow our goal and motor the most direct route to Oriental. Or do we go the long way and have a fairly exciting sail, just for the fun of it. What do you think?

Of course, we sailed. Despite the detour, we reached Oriental by 5:30 and tied up at the free public dock. There, we met our friend, Joanie, who will join us for a few days. We had dinner at an excellent restaurant, M&M’s, recommended by several locals. Oriental has only about 900 permanent and friendly residents, but it seems full of interesting shops and restaurants, is hosting a music festival in a few days, and has the most amazing seafood dealer. At Endurance Seafood, owner Keith Bruno catches and sells fish. His fishing boat is tied to the dock in his back yard, and his cooler is an old refrigerator truck. In the morning, he sells us a two-an-a-half pound flounder, still swimming in his tank, for dinner. He cleans and fillets the fish, and we add a couple of dozen little neck clams  to our purchase for an appetizer. We put them in Luna’s refrigerator and continue south.

From Oriental, Carolina Beach is about 130 miles, and we do it in three days. The first day takes us to Beaufort, of which we have fond memories from our first trip through. However, we read that the anchorage at the town is full of private moorings now, and there are few opportunities for staying over if we wish to avoid the marinas. We anchor behind the town in Town Creek and spend a pleasant evening eating our fresh seafood and watching the full moon rise over the water.

Luna at the town dock in Oriental, NC

The next day, we stopped in Swansboro, a bit south of Morehead City for (what else?) more seafood. Captain Clyde Phillips has fishing boats and a funky store on the north side of the bridge before the town itself. He allowed us to bring Luna into his dock. “Park on the side with the shrimp boats,” he told us. We bought shrimp fresh off the boats and a pound of crabmeat. We packed it all into Luna’s refrigerator and continued south.

Tied up at Captain Phillips Seafood Dock
 Four years ago, we loved the Carolina waterway south of Morehead City. It was lined with small homes with wooden docks reaching out toward the channel. There were trees. There were couples in skiffs fishing by the channel. Now, in a fairly short amount of time, the feeling is different. There are many large new homes along the waterway. Gone are the majestically spreading live oak trees to make room for the sterile houses. Gone are the small skiffs. Now larger motor boats speed along the waterway. Before a 70 hp outboard seemed large. New boats have enormous motors, sometimes two or three. Speed is king. Size matters. Grace is gone. Punctuating the lines of large homes, occasional smaller homes surrounded by their old trees remain, though one wonders for how long.

As the Waterway nears the ocean, the tides affect Luna’s speed. Riding a rising tide through Camp Lejeune, Luna’s speed rises to over 7 kts. And that was how fast she was going when she ran into the sand bar toward the left side of the channel. Our friend, Joanie, was at the wheel, and suddenly she noticed the depth falling when we felt bump, bump, SLAM! Seven tons of boat came to a halt, and Luna was stuck fast. The commander, washing her hands in the fortunately confining head, was thrown forward, though unhurt. Luna appeared unhurt. But we weren’t going anywhere. Rocking with the motor in forward and reverse simply succeeded in turning Luna sideways to the current.

I felt the need to get off the sandbar more urgently, perhaps, because the red lights on the large sign indicating live fire exercises in progress were flashing. There was a patrol boat in the channel, and the marine waved us through. I wondered, though, if perhaps they didn't know we were in there.

I considered throwing out an anchor, or kedge, to use Luna's winch to pull her off the bar, but then I noticed a breeze blowing from the north. We could try to hoist the sail and heel Luna to leeward. This would tilt the keel off the bar. We put out the genoa and sheeted it in tightly. Joanie and I stood on the lee rail. The Commander put the engine in gear and pushed up the throttle. Slowly, Luna, heeling to port, moved forward, and suddenly she was free, lucky in the wind and the rising tide.

The early morning surf at Surf City
It’s about 2 pm, and there’s an anchorage below Camp Lejeune. However, it is a sterile, industrial looking lagoon, a launching site for marine vessels, and, other than its proximity, there’s not much to recommend it. There’s another anchorage about 4 to 5 hours away in the sound between Surf City Beach on Topsail Island and the mainland. We decided to aim for this, and we were glad we did. It is a lovely spot to the west of the channel, and you can hear the ocean on the other side of the barrier island. The moon rose, the crab cakes and shrimp cocktail were wonderful, and in the morning, we took the dinghy to shore and walked on the beach.

And finally, we reached Carolina Beach on the Cape Fear River. The segment was one of the shorter ones—only 30 miles—but in many ways the most challenging. Delays at two drawbridges meant circling in the current, and there was a constant stream of motorboats churning up and down the waterway. We spent the time dodging their wakes and watching the crowd-sourced navigation program (Active Captain) on the iPad to be sure we weren’t caught unexpectedly by another errant shoal. Since Hurricane Matthew last year and the storms this year, there are many.

And that wasn’t the end of the drama. We have reserved a space at the Carolina Beach State Park, a protected basin right off the river past Snow's Cut. I call to tell them we are on the way. The ranger notes that at low tide the entry channel depth is 4.5 feet. I check on low tide: 5:37 p.m. today. It’s 4:15, and we have about 40 minutes to go. We draw 4.5 feet. We slow down for shoals in Snow’s Cut. We reach the Cape Fear River and the buoys to the park. We’re coming in. The Commander is at the wheel. The depth finder measures less than a foot under the keel. It goes to zero. We don’t bump. With nerves of steel, she is inching forward. We enter the basin unhindered!

We have family here. My brother and sister-in-law pick us up. They deposit us at the home of the Commander’s sister and brother-in-law. Carol's sister, Lisa, will join us for the next segment of the cruise. In the meantime, we will wait here until Hurricane Nate storms up to the west of us from the Gulf Coast to New England. We’ll use the time to visit, clean Luna, do some routine maintenance, and reprovision.

Large new homes and motorboats now mark the Carolina waterway