Matt has occasionally made comments about our sailor friends “dropping like flies.” It seems that almost everyone we know who is going south has had something fairly major go wrong that has unexpectedly kept them in some port on the way down. We have been fortunate with only minor incidents so far. Until today. We are in the Maccamaw River near Butler Island. The landscape is beautiful, awash with haunting and surreal trees.
We are motoring along when Matt notices a higher-pitched whine in the background of the engine noise. I navigate while he pulls out the ladder to inspect the engine. He doesn’t see anything amiss and comes back up to the cockpit. Within 20 minutes, we hear a pop and the engine completely cuts off (lesson #3: if something doesn’t sound good, shut it off immediately). No slowing down or idling, just dead silence. We quickly throw up the staysail to maintain steerage and try and stay in the center of the channel while we decide what to do. We eventually call SeaTow (they have already earned their monthly premiums) and they tow us to a marina about 45 minutes south.
Matt and I relax in the cockpit and joke that maybe they can just tow us all the way down to Florida. We have the name of a local mechanic and he is at the marina when we arrive. After running some diagnostics, it is determined that our engine is toast (we may have broken a connecting rod). We kind of knew when we bought the boat that it might eventually need a new engine but we didn’t think it would happen so soon. Matt asks the mechanic for a rough estimate on the price. He sighs and says, “Well, the engine alone will be 14.” One of the things I have loved about heading south is the increasing southern drawl and the heightened politeness and manners. I decide to have some fun with him.
Me: (trying to look oblivious) “Only fourteen dollars? Wow, that’s not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.”
Matt picks up on the joke and continues: “Oh hon, an engine doesn’t cost fourteen dollars. He means fourteen hundred dollars.”
I see the mechanic’s face tighten as he probably wonders if all people without a drawl are this ignorant and wonders how to correct the situation without being rude. He clears his throat. “Ah …, perhaps I should have been more specific. The engine is fourteen thousand dollars – and that doesn’t include labor.” He waits to see our response. We both laugh and say we were kidding. Immense relief washes over his face. When we first bought the boat I was amazed at the tiny, odd-sized storage spaces. And even more amazed to realize that the second biggest storage space was a huge recessed liquor cabinet. Now I get it. I told Matt we should take up drinking.
We had another sketchy section of the ICW to get through this am but some iPhone apps helped us out and we made it through fine. We crossed into South Carolina at 9:23 am and docked at the Osprey Marina in the afternoon. There is plenty of space here so the boys could run and get some exercise.
This post is not about the boys getting in trouble, nor is it about making any huge leaps in my personal development. It is about simple math. This is a photo of our depth meter, registering a depth of 3.6 feet.
Our keel requires 6 feet. If you are mathematically challenged, I’ll do the math for you. 3.6 feet of depth – 6 foot keel = PROBLEM! We ran aground. It was in Lockwoods Folly (a sailor friend suggested it be renamed Matt & Diane’s Folly). We could see a sailboat ahead of us that had run aground so we overcorrected the other way – right into a shoal (thankfully I was not steering, my sailor rating is already back down to a C-). We tipped at a 15-20 degree angle – just enough that the boys’ snack kept sliding across their plates. It took a minute to register what had happened although watching the depth meter quickly inch down is a bit freaky. The captain remained calm and we ended up laughing about it. I told Matt that anyone can go around a shoal but it takes some skill to be able to really nail one enough that the boat sticks. It was actually kind of nice that it finally happened because sometimes the fear of something happening is worse than the actual event.
A helpful motorboat tried to pull us out but Tashtego didn’t budge. We have Sea Tow insurance (the AAA of the nautical world). They said it made no sense to come out until the tide started coming in so we waited around for a few hours. When Sea Tow showed up, they tried to move us but just ended up tipping the boat in the direction we needed to go.
The driver chatted with Matt for a while I went below to start prepping dinner. When the tide was up, Matt yelled down that they were trying again. What I had not planned on was that the boat would tip much further than it already was. I was wrong. As everything began sliding, I grabbed the full dish rack before anything went over the edge of the counter and leaned over the cutting board to stop everything from sliding off. At this point, I’m laughing and thinking it can’t get much worse. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see the pressure cooker inching toward the edge of the stove. I swing my leg up to block it and reach it just in time. I wonder how long I will have to wait when, suddenly, we are free and newly upright and dinner is saved. In the meantime, another sailboat ran aground behind us. We decide to call it a night because we don’t want to be navigating in the dark. There have been enough adventures for today. We find an empty dock along the ICW and tie up for the night.
Over the past few days, we have traveled further down the ICW. We stopped in Oriental, NC where I found a salon that was only too thrilled to fix the boys’ mullets. We also passed Beaufort, NC and, at some point, saw about 20 dolphins. It was the first time the boys had seen them and everyone was thrilled. We docked in Swansboro, NC and then again in Wrightsville, NC. The latter had a great beach so we stayed a few days because we all needed a break. We showered, did laundry and walked around town. The weather was gorgeous so it was nice that the cold lessened for a bit. We are generally on the water by 6:30 am so have seen some amazing sunrises and sunsets.
There is some nasty weather coming so we decide to stay at the marina. We shower, do laundry, clean out the boat, check email and pay bills. The marina has a courtesy car so we decide to ride to town to re-provision. On the way down the dock, Joshua is swinging his small stuffed dog (alternatively named “Puppy” or “Buddy”) from a rope that he has tied to his hand. As it arcs up, it comes off the line and goes flying into the water. Matt goes for help. A marina neighbor comes running and stops when she sees Puppy floating out there and says in a relieved voice, “Oh, I thought it was real.” I see Joshua’s face fall. “Well, … he’s real to us” I say. Several marina neighbors help in the rescue mission. Joshua recovers a cold and wet animal and we continue in to town. (Note: the boys’ new mullet haircuts – Matt’s contribution and a ‘souvenir’ from Portsmouth).
We are only allotted 90 minutes with the car. Town is 15 minutes away. We have just a little time left after getting groceries. It is supposed to get down to 28 degrees tonight with 40-mile an hour winds. Matt and I briefly consider going to the hardware store and getting a space heater. We both decide that once we cross that line there is no going back. Thus, no heater. We make sure the boys are well bundled up and have hats ready if they need them. They have been plenty warm in their sleeping bags. Matt gets in bed and gasps, “Geez, it’s freezing! I think my heart just stopped.” We all make it through the night but no one wants to get out of bed in the morning. There is ice on the docks and snow near the bath house.
Note: A word about these supposed “hardships.” They’re not. Rather, they are simply part of the adventure. I am becoming much less of a wimp than I thought I was. If I can do this, anyone can. After taking out the trash yesterday, I was on the bath house porch about to go down the steps. Pausing a moment, I gazed out at the coming storm. The sky was full of gray and threatening clouds and the freezing wind was whipping. I started laughing. I had the sudden urge to go running down the dock, yelling and waving my arms. I felt wonderful but wasn’t sure what I was feeling. Then I realized I felt alive – and that I had not felt this way in a really, really long time.
We leave Portsmouth, VA on Sat, 11/9, in the early morning fog and call ahead to have the bridge raised so we can go through it.
Portsmouth is mile 0 on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). We want to get down to the Florida Keys, which is somewhere around mile 1,050 (keep in mind we can only go about 5 miles an hour. Matt jokes that most people could walk faster than that). During the trip, one of our water tanks runs out. I lift the floorboard to switch to another tank when a cloud of steam comes up and water sprays all over. I quickly shut down all of the tanks and inform the captain. Matt says we will deal with it when we anchor that night. We stop at a Coinjock marina for fuel and continue on. We anchor after dark in the Buck Island anchorage, eat and go to bed. In the morning, Matt tackles the water line. We are thrilled when he fixes it, then dismayed to realize it drained all of our water tanks (Lesson #1: if you suspect a problem, fix it while in a marina). The good thing is that it means our bilge pump is working well. We are left with 4 gallons of potable water. There is a marina about a day away but it only draws five feet of water and our keel requires six. We have two more days to go until we can get to a marina and refill. In the meantime, dishes and messes are piling up. Matt reminds me we have a foot pump in the galley that brings in water from outside. He opens the seacock and gets it working. I fill up a white bucket with the water to check it out. It’s green. I show it to Matt. “Well, it’s just algae,” he says. “It’s not like it’s bacteria.” I am unsure of the basis for his assertion but this is what we’ve got. I start washing the dishes with it and begin the rationalization. “Well, it’s not that green” I say to myself. “Besides, when you really think about it, algae is just a bunch of tiny, tiny plants. I like plants. So, really, what’s the big deal about washing dishes with water that has plants in it?” [I can almost feel our pediatrician wincing as I write this]. Just to be safe, I decide I should heat it in the pressure cooker and rinse the dishes a final time. I search the pressure cooker manual for the proper cooking time but it contains no information on cooking the hell out of algae. I decide 10 minutes at high heat (250 degrees F) should be sufficient.
We continue motoring down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and see several bald eagles. We also cross from Virginia into North Carolina – progress!
We make it to the Albemarle Sound and decide to put the sails up. The waves are pretty high but I love this kind of sailing. I’m behind the wheel and one minute we are looking up at just sky and the next moment we have crashed down and are staring down at nothing but water. I start whooping and tell the boys it’s like riding a bronco (I have no basis for this comparison but that’s beside the point). We motor down the Alligator River (sadly, no alligators) and anchor at Bear Point on Sunday night. We had some trouble setting the anchor but it was late and it seemed ok. Matt woke up at 1:30 am and realized the anchor came loose. We had drifted across the channel and probably just missed hitting the buoy marker. We were then up for another two hours fixing it (Lesson #2: No matter how tired you are, stay up until you know the anchor is right). We continue down the ICW. I pump more sea water to wash dishes again and see that it is brown. A book says it is just the tannins in the water but I decide that one must adhere to some minimum standards. I let the dishes and mess pile up. We arrive at Dowry Creek Marina (NC) late in the afternoon (Monday, 11/11). I have never been so happy to see fresh, clear water come out of a faucet.
We take it easy on Wednesday and go sightseeing on Thursday. We cross the water to Norfolk in a ferry. We had our mail sent ahead of time and there is a big packet of letters for Malachi from Ms. M’s class. He is thrilled! As we arrive, we see a huge schooner with orange dots all over the rigging. We can’t figure out what they are (I wondered if it was a boat that had been in a Halloween parade). As they draw closer, we finally realize they are crew members in orange rain gear. They are perched high above and are singing in unison as they dock. It is incredible to watch – a “once in a lifetime sight” as another onlooker comments. The vessel is from Norway.
We go to see the museum Nauticus with an amazing 3D movie about the ocean and another about being a fighter pilot and tour the largest U. S. naval warship ever built (the USS Wisconsin). We use our last day in port to fill water and fuel tanks, do laundry, get some supplies and run other errands. We made it down the whole Chesapeake Bay (Matt and I even saw some dolphins!). Our next step is the long motor down the Intracoastal Waterway.
We had a rough but fast sail from Yorktown to Portsmouth, VA. The towns we stop in have been wildly different. From quiet, sleepy Reedville to Portsmouth with its hulking naval vessels and busy channels.
It was blissful to get in a little early as it is the first time we arrived anywhere before 7 pm. We dock at a marina, go out to dinner and then come back to the boat and collapse.
We get to Yorktown late – it’s about 8 pm but we don’t get the boat tied up until 10 pm. The marina is completely unprotected and is being hit with incredible wind, waves and tides. Matt is not happy. It is also closed for the season – so no facilities. We do the best we can. After docking the boat we literally use lines (i.e., ropes) to pull our 30,000 pound baby to a different spot and re-tie it. We collapse in bed that night – only half joking that we will need a year off to recover from our year off. Thankfully, morning finds us in the same spot but it has not been a restful night. We re-do some lines and then go to breakfast and church. It’s a tiny church. We are the last ones in and the only place left to sit is the front row. I can feel eyes on us as we walk up the aisle with the boys in their life jackets (we are a grimy contrast to those in their Sunday best). Everyone is welcoming. We meet the pastor after mass and he offers us the use of a house to shower and do laundry (I briefly wonder if we look homeless). We arrive back at the boat to find that a line has snapped off and the boat is now at a 45-degree angle from where it was. Matt is not happy but we work well together in getting it re-tied. I’m finally starting to realize how much of the sailing part of this trip is on his shoulders and the complexity of it all. We eat out for an early dinner. On the way to the restroom I see a poster advertising ‘Restaurant Week.’ Curious, I glance at the list. It includes Ruby Tuesday’s and IHOP. Well, I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore. Or maybe it means we are in Kansas now. Hmmm …
The next morning we move to a more protected marina on the other side of the bay. It feels like we can finally relax. Other highlights include seeing historic houses with cannonballs from the war still stuck in their sides, ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s, and viewing cannons and battlefields.
After exploring the whole town, we realize the only thing open is the small post office (the two restaurants are only open Thurs-Sunday, the ice cream place is only open Saturday, and the two banks and gas station have gone out of business). It becomes comical as we realize there is no chance of getting Halloween pumpkins (or even any food) here. The kindness of strangers, however, continues. One neighbor offers the use of her dock, another motors out to ask if we need anything (including the use of a car), and a random stranger drives Matt to the next town to get pumpkins. The next day an older gentlemen motors out with two dogs and offers to take the boys to his yard so they can get off the boat and run. We have just met him and yet we let the boys go (we can see them from the boat). We later row the dinghy over and sit with him on his porch. The next day, while visiting the town museum, we realize he is the narrator in the movie we are shown.
Matt and the boys carve pumpkins and then get dressed for Halloween. They are ninja sailors – or maybe sailing ninjas. We put jack-o-lanterns on the back of the boat before we row to shore. We trick or treat on the one main street. A few of the houses are spectacular – with a ghoul sneaking up to me from behind a tree. I scream. Matt and the boys think that it is hysterical.