|Carolina Inner Banks
Thursday, October 23, 2008
With a film of lacy white gauze as a backdrop, smudge-pot puffs of fair weather cumulus chug by from west to east. They are packets of gray down and they cruise so low in the sky as to look catchable with a butterfly net. It is 11:30 in the morning. I fire up Kobuk's yellow beast, collect the mooring lines, and motor out from shore to get in the channel.
It is never wise to harbor preconceived ideas about how the unknown is going to be, but I have them nonetheless. Kobuk is a river boat, designed to operate on waters that are more protected from the wind, where the hazards below the surface are often more serious than the ones on it. For the past few thousand miles, Kobuk has coped with open water conditions for which she is only marginally suited. Now, though, her small size and shallow draft should give her an advantage over most other vessels. In other words, I am brimming with (over)confidence.
So sure am I of Kobuk's suitability for this next leg of the voyage that we are departing without the one form of insurance that actually would be available to us at a reasonable price: TowBoatUS. As I understand it, this service is virtually indispensible for anybody transiting the Intracoastal. For not much more than a hundred dollars, one can get the equivalent of AAA towing service. Pay your dues and whenever you run aground a TowBoatUS affiliate will come out, toss you a line, pull you free, and tow you to port. Evidently, this assistance can easily cost the better part of a thousand dollars so TowBoatUS is viewed by most as a no-brainer. I agree: it is. But even so, I haven't gotten around to making the call.
But wait--I'm getting us ahead of
ourselves here. We still have to do this
last stretch of open
water on the
We are out of the
We don't continue at that pace, though. In mid-afternoon I get nervous that we might not get to the Poquoson until after sunset and so to avoid looking for an unfamiliar dock in the dark I fire up the Mazda and we surge and slog south for a couple hours, surfing whenever we catch a wave and struggling to move at all when pushing into the lifting back of one.
Last weekend, I drove down to
In the evening Kobuk lies in placid stillness, her bow pointing off towards the Meekins kitchen, while I make Thai noodles for dinner on the Coleman Stove aft. Wine, and more wine, remind me of the many evenings in seasons past when Kobuk and I have spent time together in this sort of peaceful solitude.
It is a pity that Kobuk could not make it here before the Meekins left. They are lifelong boaters--up and down the eastern seaboard and back and forth across the Atlantic--and their zest for civilized adventure would have, I feel sure, fortified Kobuk's already well-developed sense of mission.
Friday, October 24, 2008
This is one of those days when it
would be prudent and
proper to stay in port, but a month of labor and delay getting Kobuk
service has left me less patient than usual. The
winds all day at ten to
twenty knots. This is brisk and is sure to
roil the waters
a bit, but the forecast for tomorrow is far, far worse and only 20-25
separate us from the protection of
The scene has “November” written all over it: industrial grade overcast blots out the sky and a chill breeze in port means that out on the Bay the ruckus already has started. Out we go, past the ragged string of estuary estates, out past the occasional mid-channel egret post, weaving around the red nuns and green cans, until finally the estuary opens wide and we reach the bay itself. We slog our way out far enough to cross the Poquoson Flats then turn right to cross it in a zone where the electronic chart indicates minimum depths of six feet.
But this is a mistake. We are trying to cut the corner to save a few miles but by crossing here where the water is this shallow the easterly waves of the bay are bumping into each other in their hurry to get at us. There’s little risk of taking on water or suffering significant damage, but the ride leaves a lot to be desired. Besides, I forgot how hard it is to stay on course when the Remote Troll and the little Yamaha are confronted with so much opposition. We muddle through, of course, but it requires constant attention. Every wave threatens to knock us off course and the combination of low engine power and sluggish steering means that failure to anticipate an impending deviation will result in comical efforts to get back on bearing—rather like a novice driver trying to steer his first car down a bumpy road.
The perverse thing is that the waves keep coming at us. Even after turning the corner and heading south, the wind and waves are still only about thirty degrees off the port bow. The more we come around to the south, the more the wind blows out of the south. It seems that I have failed to account for the natural deflection of wind that occurs when it angles against a coastline.
Actually, the presence
of debris, I later learn, is more a
function of recent tidal action than a risk associated with this busy
harbor. Frequent north winds over
past couple weeks have caused higher tides than usual in the southern
minds of most,
Imposing are the
ports where shipping is the lifeblood, but for most of them the cut of
ships and the look of the harbor facilities are . . . well . . . rather
striking than in a harbor dominated by the navy. Of
course the ships are different. In
commercial ports, the mammoth beasts
designed for transport have a prehistoric appearance
This day in
replacing the broken spring on the Remote Troll and completing a list
of other small
tasks about the boat, I take advantage of a break in the rain to pedal
Nauticus, a large maritime museum that combines one floor sponsored by
with a top floor civilian exhibit dedicated to oceanography. Up there on that top floor is a screening
room that happens to be presenting an excellent documentary entitled The
Sea. I shuffle in and spend
forty minutes appreciating its stunning cinematography, but the biggest
surprise comes at the end when the final credits roll and the huge,
curved screen slides back from left to right to
an acre of picture windows overlooking the Norfolk Harbor.
Sitting in a darkened movie theatre looking
out on a broad sweep of the open water between
After this, I move on
down to the second floor to take the flying catwalk that runs over to
of the battleship that the navy has made a part of its museum exhibit. Its guns are big, of course.
An exhibit within the Nauticus building makes
this obvious by suspending a VW Bug in midair and pointing out that a
battleship can send ordinance of this weight some twenty miles distant. What most fascinates me, however is that,
just to keep the below decks from getting too warm in the sun, the entire deck area of the battleship (
This would be a good day for heading south on the Intracoastal, but I opt to stay put and spend most of the sunny hours sitting in the back of Kobuk and working on my online courses. Late in the afternoon, however, I take a break and pedal a few blocks into the city to visit the Douglas MacArthur Memorial. In a park-like setting on a small block in downtown Norfolk, the memorial is housed in two separate buildings. The more substantial of the two—the one with the general assuming a pose in bronze at the foot of the imposing stone steps leading up to the entry—contains all sorts of memorabilia and personal effects that belonged to our heroic soldier. The exhibits are thoughtful and manage to attach meaningful narrative to various collections of what would otherwise be trivial artifacts.
The other building, set off to one side, is clearly intended to play an ancillary role. It is architecturally consistent but lacks the external grandiosity so evident in the main building. In this respect, the main exhibit hall captures well the nature of the man who inspired it: a serene contentment in the role of diva. The secondary building is used to screen a short film on the life of the general.
MacArthur was indeed a heroic figure—courageous in the field, inspirational to his men, and tactically brilliant. But we all know that he was also rather controversial. It is a pity is that the memorial does so little to capitalize on the inherent tensions residing in a man who viewed his own greatness with no hint of humility. The brief film about his life is particularly one-dimensional. Done in black and white, with the smug certitude of a 1940’s newsreel, it presents MacArthur as utterly flawless. Such perfection always leaves one feeling a little empty. All those highs, with every high higher than the last one, with not a single low—how can one stay interested in that? Indeed, how can it be believed?
Poor MacArthur gets caught in what I think of as the George Washington Syndrome. Hardly anyone can think of a derogatory thing to say about our first president because nearly all our sources of information portray him as monotonously good. That’s why Thomas Jefferson is so much more interesting: his penchant for petty behavior and his addiction to Sally Hemmings make him a much more intriguing hero than George. Only someone so simplistic as to like Superman better than Batman could ever prefer George to Thomas. The pity is that Douglas MacArthur was such a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked: we like seeing his remarkable accomplishments, but, please, show us his dark side as well.
What is going on with the price of gas? When I got to Virginia in late September, gas was selling for about $3.70 per gallon. Now when I check out the prices I see that it has dropped to around $2.40. This rather undermines the widely held notion that a shortage of refining capacity was causing an excess of demand over supply, does it not? As far as I am aware, no new refineries have recently come on line or dramatically upped their productive capacity. One might argue that the high prices have greatly suppressed the demand for the product and that this is the reason for the decline in prices, but such an argument is not persuasive since the sudden surge in prices that happened last year was too abrupt to be accounted for by expanding world demand—admittedly growing, but only at a steady pace and not in a manner resembling quantum packets. No, the price of gas must be tied to less rational forces, such things as uninformed perceptions regarding the availability of the product or manipulations of the market by big players.
These are the thoughts going through my mind as I take gas at a marina over on the Portsmouth side of the estuary. From here, the estuary narrows down and wriggles southward for a half dozen miles before a turn off to the right leads into the Dismal Swamp. The passage through the swamp itself is along a shallow, straight cut that runs for roughly twenty miles and connects a small tributary creek of the Norfolk estuary with the headwaters of the Pasquotank River. The estuary that is straddled by Norfolk and Portsmouth is actually the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River.
In this region, rivers are not exactly what you think. The Elizabeth River, for example is nothing but a very small creek that originates about ten miles inland and runs no more than two or three miles before flaring out to become its own brackish estuary. Not just any old estuary but a great humungous one, big enough to be the home port for America’s mighty navy. The Elizabeth River is not exceptional in this regard; here in this coastal lowland where post-Pleistocene sea levels have been rising relative to the land, lots of insignificant creeks perform a similar miracle.
When I go to the marina office to pay for the gas, I learn from the man behind the cash register that Deep Creek Lock, the entrance for the Dismal Swamp Canal, only opens a few times each day and that the next scheduled opening is at 1:30 pm, which is about an hour from now. Ten miles lie between us and the lock, so as soon as Kobuk works her way far enough up the estuary to escape from the “No Wake” zone, we shift over to the Mazda and fly along on a sinuous slick of calm water. There is actually a strong and blustery wind about, but here the waterway is too narrow for any chop to build. We arrive precisely at the appointed hour and line ourselves up behind the half dozen boats already waiting to enter Deep Creek Lock.
This is exciting. Here I am in the lock with two sailboat singlehanders and also a fellow on a Nordic Tug who is single handing. Not only that, the sailboat slightly forward of me and on the other side is a large Wharram catamaran with a woman on board who has no trouble getting us all into a round table conversation as we stand on our decks handling the lines that secure us to the sides of the lock. It turns out that her name is Ann. She and her husband Neville built their boat in England and brought it across the Atlantic in order to make the seasonal migration up and down the east coast. She asks me about Kobuk and compliments me on her looks, and when I reply that I am fascinated by her boat because I once built a Wharram cat, she encourages me to stay here by the lock tonight and take a look through their craft. This is an offer I cannot refuse, and once through the lock make way to the spacious (and free) public dock no more than a hundred yards distant.
36* 44.761’ N / 76*
A Wharram cat! This is it for me. So far on this trip I have been faithful to Kobuk, but the temptation of a Wharram catamaran is a real test of my fidelity. Of course it is not rational, but infidelity often isn’t. I already have a boat and a plan, and we have proven ourselves to be compatible. I am delighted with this voyage and I think Kobuk is pretty much the ideal companion. So what am I doing lusting after a different boat?
Well, a Wharram cat is special. A Wharram cat is what got my juices flowing in the first place. I was set to build one that I could live on and use to sail around the world. I let practical affairs get in the way and even though I built a smaller Wharram cat and used her to learn to sail, I never carried through with the plan to build a bigger one. I never got to the global cruising. Kobuk and this trip are a mutant manifestation of that original dream, but seeing real people on a real Wharram cat, doing what I had originally had in mind—well, it tempts me to park Kobuk and start work on a new boatbuilding project.
After I tied off yesterday afternoon, Ann and Neville invited me aboard for a tour of their boat, and then encouraged me to stick around for dinner as well. The two of them were the first to have constructed this particular Wharram design and so naturally they know all about what to do and what not to do when building a Wharram. They also are experienced sailors: they have put over 35,000 miles on Peace IV and can talk authoritatively about how she sails. Their enthusiasm was palpable, and I just couldn’t help myself—I wanted to build another one of these things.
It turns out that Ann and Neville sell plans for Wharram designs. When Ann saw how hot I was to build one, she tried to discourage me, pointing out that at my age I might be better served to buy a used one and spend more of my (remaining) time sailing. This was excellent advice but of course I couldn’t yet take it to heart. I wanted to build. She made another logical appeal. She reminded me that I already have a marvelous boat and an exciting plan, and that there is no good reason to “change horses in midstream.” I respected her arguments, but she could see that they weren’t making much headway, so finally she had little choice but to recommend what she thought would be the most appropriate design. In the end, we resolved together that a Tiki 30’ would best fit my needs. It is the smallest reasonable design for world cruising and has lines so sweet as to keep me awake at night.
So now today I am staying here at the dock next to Deep Creek Lock. It is cold and rainy, but the real reason for staying put is to keep myself close to the Wharram dream for just a little longer. It happens that Ann and Neville know the lockmaster here, a good hearted man named Robert who makes it a habit to prepare coffee and provide breakfast for all the boaters tied up overnight. As you can imagine, all the old hands know Robert and look eagerly forward to seeing him again when they pass his way. Evidently, Ann and Neville have a sort of arrangement with Robert that whenever they come through Deep Creek Lock they will assume the morning cooking duties and prepare rum & raisin pancakes for everybody. Thus it is that I attend a sort of breakfast party—and even end up getting to cook pancakes as well as eat them.
The day passes quickly. I get to know others along the dock and for the first time I feel as if I am part of a grand shared adventure. All these people are headed south—off to the Bahamas, for the most part—and they all are buzzed by the excitement of what they are doing. None, it seems, is so wealthy as to take it all for granted. People socialize with an abandon I haven’t seen since the sixties. Nobody is very young, however, so the hippie formula of sex, drugs, and rock and roll is not pursued with the vigor of that bygone era.
The frost is on the pumpkin. Sleep last night was occasionally interrupted by a draft of frigid air sneaking in under the hem of the sleeping bag. I have been using it as a duvet because of the misguided presumption that I am too far south to need a body bag. Robert’s morning coffee helps to get the chill out, but there is now little doubt that I have underestimated the potential for cold weather in coastal Dixie. My cold weather gear is limited so today I plan to transit the canal with all curtains zipped on and the cabin top dogged down.
The canal is rifle-bore straight, except for a single abrupt bend of about thirty degrees part way along its course. Because the waters associated with Chesapeake Bay have a different tidal regime than those in the Pasquotank’s Albemarle Sound, the Dismal Swamp Canal has a lock at each end, making it possible to pass along a waterway that has no current (and also, I suppose, elevating the water level a foot or two in order to diminish the amount of excavation that had to be done during construction).
There is no swamp here. It must be off to the right since the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge occupies a large chunk of territory that terminates here on the west bank of the canal. But really, all I ever see during the passage along the canal is tall trees hanging out over the low banks. It is a lovely passage down a bowered waterway, but nothing do I see of swampiness. Every once in a while an excavated channel joins the canal at a right angle from the Dismal Swamp side, but these do little more than accentuate the fact that the interstices are high and dry.
I have been thinking of stopping at the Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center just long enough to see what it is all about, but when Kobuk approaches the dock, the jet drive clogs with debris. I get Kobuk to slide over to the bank of the canal, past the mooring dock, and then attach her to shore with an anchor and a line to a post. The required swim for clearing the jet drive grating cools my ardor for carrying on today, so instead Fred and I take a short ride into South Mills on our bicycles.
Dismal Swamp Welcome
Center, NC: 36* 30.339’ N /
There is good reason to get an early start today. South Mills Lock is located only a few miles farther along and like Deep Creek Lock at the other end of the canal it only opens four times a day. The first opening is at 8:30 am, so boats from here hoping to pass through need to depart around 7:30. I am up well before that, in the gray light of early morning, and start to organize for an early departure. When I unzip the canvas and step out onto the side deck, however, my foot slips off and I find myself straddling the carling. It is a very cold morning, but only now do I realize that not just the windows but the entire topsides are reamed in ice—not frost but a thin layer of ice.
It is impossible to stand anywhere on the exterior topsides, and this greatly slows the process of preparing for departure. By the time the stern anchor and the forward mooring line are retrieved, we are a good ten minutes behind all the other boats. Well, ten minutes tardiness should be easy enough to make up. But wait, as I power Kobuk away from shore the jet drive fouls once again. This means we will have to travel at a slower pace than all the other boats and that sooner or later I am going to have to take another swim. The morning frost is so thick that nothing can be seen through the windows. As a result, I have to contemplate the frigid prospect of clearing the jet drive while steering along the canal with the cabin top open and a cold breeze blowing.
I decide to motor down to the lock, chasing after everybody else, and then tie off to do the dirty deed. Immediately before the lock there is a low bridge and then after that a long wall to which boats can tie when the lock is not open. The lock keeper first opens the bridge to let waiting boats through. Then he closes it and drives down to the lock to open its gate for the boats to enter. I figure Kobuk and I will be too late to get past the bridge to the tie-up wall, but the lock keeper sees us in the distance and keeps the bridge open as Kobuk putts along at her six miles per hour. Meanwhile, the entire town of South Mills appears to be waiting for the bridge to close. I feel anxious, but carry on and then sidle up to the long wall. It is now 8:30, but I think I’ll postpone locking through until the next opening at 11:00. That way, the sun will have a chance to melt the ice off Kobuk before I do the obligatory swim.
This is one of those times when things go right. I wander off to have breakfast on this frosty morning and by the time I return the sun has swept the deck clean. Then, before getting in the water I start the Mazda to see how badly the jet intake is clogged, only to discover that in fact it now works fine. Whatever was up in there must have dropped away when the hull stood still for a while. No swim!
Now in a much better state of mind, and with the thermometer on the rise, we lock through, make the passage along Turner’s Cut, and snake on down the Pasquotank River. All the way to Elizabeth City the river banks are crowded with undersized deciduous trees with a thinning palate of pastel autumn leaves. Many trees along the banks are actually in the water and have wet blackened bases from which the roots splay. A following breeze occasionally ripples the narrow estuary which has water the dark blue color of the deeps. The day is sunny and clear, but the blue and yellow of the sky are upstaged by the striking tints of the trees and water down below.
When Kobuk rounds the last turn before Elizabeth City, there are a few boats already waiting for a bridge to rise so that they can get to the free downtown docks for which this town is so famous. Just as we approach the other boats and have to throttle back, the bridge lifts and we all troop through. Everyone is scrambling to find a vacant slip, of course, but for Kobuk there is no problem because Fred and his friend Steve (who is mayor of the city) are there waving to us and motioning us in to a narrow slot between some pilings. I make a mess of the "landing," but eventually manage to loop lines around the four pilings to which Kobuk must be secured. I needn’t have worried about finding a slip—this one is too narrow for most boats hereabouts.
36* 17.929 N / 76*
Friday, October 31, 2001
Elizabeth City has turned its attention to the boaters who pass by here in such numbers. The downtown is close to the waterfront but the surge of recent commercial development has swept out along the main highway leading in and out of town. In an effort to keep the old city viable, there has been a real effort to cater to the boaters. Here are some examples. Over a dozen slips have been created out from the waterside city park, and they are free to any passing boater on a first-come, first-served basis. If three or more boats arrive on a given day to tie off overnight, the city organizes a 4:30 pm wine and cheese party to which all new arrivers are invited. At this social event, the mayor appears and briefs everyone on what the town has to offer. He touches on most everything a boater would be interested in--things like grocery stores, laundry facilities, restaurants, museums, and hardware supplies. He solicits questions from everybody present and answers the questions with what appears to be upbeat frankness. I do not know if all this is the brainchild of Steve, the current mayor, but in any event it mightily pleases the boaters who not only get to know each other but also learn how to get their shoreside tasks done quickly and easily. (And of course the free party immediately puts them in high spirits.) I doubt there will ever be any going back: this established arrangement is so pleasing to the boaters that they seem to immediately fan out around town to take advantage of all the things they have just been told about. Grocery shopping happens to be inconveniently distant from the waterfront, so an arrangement has been made with one grocery store to provide a car and driver to anybody who wants to shop there. There is no minimum purchase required. In addition to all these concrete ways of catering to the boaters, there is a community pride associated with being hospitable. Numerous people go out of their way to help the boaters and the result is a surprisingly healthy relationship between the visitors and the locals.
I have spent a lot of time around places that have come to specialize in the visitor industry, and in virtually all of them there tends to develop a certain friction between the locals and the visitors--a friction whose roots can be traced to the inequality of the relationship. When outsiders with money come to town and locals needing money cater to them, it is almost impossible for there not to emerge a certain low-grade resentment on the part of the locals. Once the resentment becomes sufficiently obvious, the visitors begin to resent it and then return the feeling in kind. By this time, the place is such a well-established visitor destination that the travelers are too brainwashed to go elsewhere (unless things are really bad) and the locals are too dependent to reasonably contemplate shifting the economic base of the town. It is a poison chalice of sorts: at first it is intoxicating but eventually it proves to be outright toxic.
Elizabeth City is not anywhere near being a visitor destination of note. It is situated near the south end of the Dismal Swamp Canal and all transiting boaters pass by, but the Dismal Swamp Canal is actually an alternative side route of the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway) that only boats with relatively shallow draft can negotiate. This has an interesting consequence: the filthy rich don't make it here much, only those voyaging on boats drawing a mere five feet or less. There are lots of pretty handsome boats out there that can cope with water this thin, but the mega-yachts can't--the ones measuring, say, 50+ feet. The result is a crowd of boaters who, although generally much better off than the average American, are not so rich that they are desperately searching for ways to dispose of their rapidly acruing wealth. The boaters arriving in Elizabeth City are people on a budget--granted the budget may be quite handsome but it is a budget nonetheless. All this makes the gulf between the visitors and the locals rather less extreme than might otherwise be the case, and there is a good chance the situation will not change in the near future. Perhaps this means Elizabeth City will not succumb to the usual forces operating in a destination resort. I wouldn't count on it, though.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
The wind and the cold are gone. Starting yesterday, the cold temperatures ameliorated, as well as the strong breezes. This is an issue since immediately south of here is Albemarle Sound where, according to virtually anybody with experience, wave action often is vicious. When you are inexperienced, it is hard to judge the accuracy of such reports, but there really is no sensible alternative to taking them seriously. In any event, today would be a perfect day to cross the sound. Yesterday would have been too. Since the forecast is for equally benign conditions tomorrow, I have decided to put off departure until then.
In the morning there is a farmers market here in the park next to Kobuk. It is an eclectic mix of crafts and garden produce and baked goods, each seller operating in the shade of a small, white, canvas pavilion. The fire department has its truck close by at the ready and a light but steady stream of shoppers passes through looking at everything being offered. It is not a huge attraction, but the scale of each separate seller is sufficiently small that many do what must for them be a respectable amount of business.
So often, the life of a boater is reduced to mundane practicalities once shorebound. Today I must do some of those practical things--laundry, haircut, Internet work. All goes well, and uneventfully, although the time at the barber's ends up being a little out of the ordinary. I find a barber shop in the part of town where only Blacks seem to live. It is called Keystone Barbers, and so when I walk in the scene is very much different from what I am used to. It is different first because everybody in the place is well-dressed and well-groomed. In fact, the Black men and boys who come here to have haircuts appear to me to be already so well trimmed that I would expect them to be exiting, not entering. The barber shops I am used to have the kind of group interaction one might expect in a dentist's office, but here everybody seems to know somebody else in the room and people who don't know each other seem to make a point of greeting the strangers as well as the friends. It is a much more socially engaging place than I am used to. I also get the feeling that most of the people here are completely removed from all that goes on along the waterfront. It is as if this neighborhood, only about four blocks removed from Kobuk, is an entirely different world from the one in which Kobuk is now residing.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
When the wind is down and a broad sweep of water lies mottled under a kindly sky, the surface ripples on a bay seem to creep and crawl in contrary directions, moving at a slow walz pace. This is what it is like in the morning when Fred Beechler and I depart from Elizabeth City and head down the last few miles of the Elizabeth River estuary. Here near the mouth of the estuary, the opposing banks of low lying land are drawn apart from each other to leave a channel that is a couple miles wide. North Star has started off ahead and Kobuk is trailing some distance behind. Fred pilots his boat at a slower pace than most ICW cruisers, but when his Cummings diesel is set at a thousand rpm's--his preferred operating level for long distance cruising--North Star slides along at a slightly faster pace than Kobuk under Yamaha power. The black silhouette of North Star slowly shrinks as a half-hour, and then an hour, and then an hour and a half, slip by. The still conditions are like a hypnotic spell, interrupted occasionally by a passing cruiser trailing a wake.
As we approach the mouth of the Elizabeth to enter Albemarle Sound, I decide to run on ahead of Fred using the Mazda. Conditions are calm now, but there is never a guarantee that they will stay that way. I'll get ahead now and he can catch up later. Kobuk gradually gets up to speed and drops her nose. Then we fly along with the gentle porposing that happens sometimes when Kobuk is carrying speed.
When you exit the Elizabeth River heading south, it takes about a dozen miles to cross Albemarle Sound and reach the broad mouth of the Alligator River. The Albemarle is where wind and shallow water so often hex the passage of small boats, but today is not like those many other days and we are able to carry on quickly for a few miles until it looks as if we have the right amount of head start on North Star. Once back on Yamaha time, the retreating shore recedes at an impreceptible rate and the far shore off the bow seems immobilized in time. Slow and steady, slow and steady the time and miles tick away until at last we are weaving around the extensive shallows at the broad mouth of the Alligator River. there in the distance is the two mile bridge over the estuary, but Fred and I have decided to anchor in East Lake, a turtle shaped inlet off to port. North Star has caught up to Kobuk now, so together we pass through the narrows that afford access and motor across to the far east end of the lake. There Fred anchors in mid-afternoon and I ferry him and his bicycle to shore.
There is a tiny inlet and boat ramp at the eastern extremity of the lake, and we find in there a place to tie Kobuk out of traffic's way--with bow tethered to a post near the launch ramp and stern tied to a bush on the other side of a small drainage ditch. Kobuk rests straddling the ditch and we go off for a bicycle ride. I have ideas about pedaling over to Roanoke Island which appears on a road map to be only a few miles distant, but the afternoon is getting on, sunset will arrive early (clocks were set back last night), and the distance proves to be rather more than either of us cares to cover. We reach the bridge that crosses to Roanoke and off on its southern side is a small and isolated fishing port with a lack of activity but with a fellow sitting there on the tailgate of his pickup. He turns out to be a state employee who does nothing more than drive around from place to place to weigh and measure the fish that people catch. He is mighty pleased with his job since it entails limited hours and requires no significant exertion on his part. He claims that there is only a handful of men along the coast of the state doing what he is doing, and that the job is so desirable that hardly ever does anyone quit and a position come available. He does recall, however, an employee who was caught making up his numbers. There happened to be a supervisor check at a site where he claimed to have been doing his measurements. Naturally, he was fired and a slot opened up. Sometimes it seems as if the less demanding a job the more likely it is that employees will cheat it. A fishing boat appears in the boat channel so the talkative North Carolinian eases himself off the tailgate and prepares to go to work.
As the sun is setting, we get back to the boat ramp and motor out to North Star. Kobuk is rafted onto one side and in the reds and purples of a dying day we each retreat to our separate quarters.. The landscape hereabouts is a ragged, bedraggled wilderness, flatlands on which a mixture of marsh grasses and scrubby trees stand in disarray. It is not ugly because it has the quality of a true wilderness, but neither is it particularly inviting. Now with darkness coming on, however, the blackened shorelines look pretty good since throughout a full 360 degrees there is not a light to be seen.
East Lake: 35* 55.619' N / 75* 49.398' W
Distance: 43 miles
Total Distance: 7,285 miles
Monday, November 3, 2008
In gray light we set off, headed for the Alligator River and the Pungo Canal. Once out of East Lake, it is only a few miles farther on to the long bridge. It is opening when Kobuk arrives so we join the parade and pass through at the end of the line. Now for the first time, we are in a buoyed section of the ICW and the first thing that strikes me is the traffic. Here we are in an area that is devoid of towns and that has virtually no development along the shores--and yet the traffic here on the water is remarkably steady. Kobuk was the last to pass through when the bridge last opened, and now all those other boats are gradually pulling farther and farther ahead. No more than half an hour passes and the bridge opens again and another small fleet of vessels makes the transit. I can see them in the distance a few miles back, but the fastest of them catch us in very little time while the slowest do so only after a couple hours have lapsed. Pretty much everybody catches up and passes sooner or later, though, and by the time a couple hours have passed the surges of traffic associated with the periodic bridge openings has smoothed itself out into a steady stream. After that, we are overtaken with terrible regularity. Some of the vessels passing by are large luxury yachts that cruise at twice the speed of Kobuk, but there are also numerous craft that travel only slightly faster than we do and thus creep up on us, creep by, and then creep on ahead.
It is a curious sensation this voyaging down the ICW. Everybody is going in the same direction--south for the winter. The traffic coming toward us is virtually nonexistent, but the flow of which we are a part is so constant that there is almost no time all day long when Kobuk and I do not have at least one boat in view, either approaching from the rear or moving on ahead. Fred is ahead in his Nordic Tug, but his pace is more or less the same as ours and so the gulf between remains more or less constant hour after hour. All this is going on in what is really a wilderness area. I suppose this will be the normal pattern for the next 700 miles--although the combination of our slow speed and the lateness of the migratory season may mean that in another week or two we will be more on our own.
It takes half a day to get up the Alligator River estuary and then another half day to transit the Pungo Canal. Both are admirably wide so the tenuous stream of passing traffic need do little more than move over a bit to pass us by. The Dismal Swamp Canal was so narrow that passing was considered to be unacceptable behavior, but down here nobody thinks twice about it. Of course there is lots of radio chatter. Whenever a boat is about to overtake another one, the person operating the radio will "request permission" to make the pass and the boat about to be overtaken will graciously grant the request. More often than not, some discussion then takes place regarding speed, wakes, and the like, and then a final set of exchanges occurs in which each boat wishes the other a successful voyage. It is all initiated in the formal radio jargon: "Nice Butt, Nice Butt, Nice Butt, this is Aces Wild coming up behind you on the starboard side. We'd like to pass you on . . ." and so on and so forth, with plenty of "Roger" this and "Roger" that.
Even though I hear so many radio exchanges of this sort, nobody ever seems to make this kind of request before passing Kobuk. It is as if our small size makes such formalities unnecessary. I do indeed view them as unnecessary, but one would think that they would be even more appropriate when passing a smaller boat than when passing a bigger one. It is not a question of yachts thinking that Kobuk lacks a radio; our antenna is much more obvious than it is on most other boats because for us it is the only thing that sticks up higher than the cabin. It must sound as if I am miffed at being snubbed but in fact I am grateful to not have to use the radio. It just seems puzzling that Kobuk is never called, that's all. Of course, callers may be deterred by the fact that Kobuk no longer carries her name anywhere on the hull. Maybe nobody knows how to page us.
By the time we exit the Pungo Canal, the day is fading. Fred knows of a good embayment off to the right once out of the canal and so we decide to spend the night there. The bay is moderately large but already there are a half dozen boats anchored. Fred drops the hook out some distance from shore since all the earlier arrivers have taken the space closer in, but I am able to push Kobuk up closer to land than any other boat dare go. We find a small indentation into the flat, grassy shoreline that is semicircular in shape and not much more than a hundred yard in diameter. I drop anchor in four feet of water and let out a hundred feet of rode. We have our own separate bay, it seems. The NOAA forecast warns of rising winds out of the northeast during the night, with rain likely, so properly setting the anchor is more of a concern than usual.
Pungo River: 35* 33.642' N / 76* 28.065' W
Distance: 55 miles
Total Distance: 7,340 miles
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Running down the Pungo on heavy weather day. The wind is behind us so there's no struggle involved, but the ten short miles to Belhaven open up an ever increasing fetch behind us and the chop becomes more pronounced with each passing mile. By the time we approach the breakwater guarding the entrance into Belhaven's estuary, the dip and roll of Kobuk is a ride in an amusement park.
This downstream run on the Pungo estuary is an east-to-west shot, and then the Pungo turns sharp left to head southeast towards the Pamlico River estuary. There at that turn, the embayment in which Belhaven is located appears as nothing more than a continuation of the east-west reach of the Pungo. To get a little protection, Belhaven has constructed a two-pronged breakwater, extending out from both shores and angled outward to create a larger harbor. The problem is that the the two breakwater walls don't seem to be as effective as one would like. In fact, they look like nothing more than closely spaced posts with a railing running along the top of them. They do keep the wave action down, but on a day like this when the wind is beating at the door, there is more than a little harbor chop. Immediately inside the breakwater on the northern, Belhaven side, River Forest Marina has a few docks close up by the breakwater but through the binoculars the placidity of the waters on which these facilities are located look a little suspect. We continue on in, penetrating as far as the Belhaven downtown.
Fred and I communicate on VHF and resolve that he will anchor off while I look for a place along the shore to tie a small boat. There is in this vicinity a small grassy field with a dinghy dock fronting water, and immediately off to its right a narrow inlet leading into a little basin the approximate size of a football field. Heading into here, I find a place to tie Kobuk on a wall and we are in the prime location with near perfect protection. Even so, the strengthening wind is occasionally bouncing Kobuk off the large round pilings that hold back the wall. Kobuk's oak rubrails trump these softwood pilings and so the potential for hull damage is minimal. Such occasional collisions do not make for a good night's sleep, however, so I spend some time trying to rig fender protection.
Belhaven had a couple inches of rain last night and there have been consequences. Along one side of our small basin a stretch of grassy terrain slopes down into the water, below which is a breakwater wall with cleats on it. I had thought of beaching Kobuk on that grassy ground. It's a good thing I didn't. One block away, at the intersection of this inlet with the main street of the town, an intersection is flooded. I discovered this when cruising around on Bike Friday to get some idea of what is here. The excursion also revealed a fund-raiser lunch--a seven dollar bag lunch that contained two large chicken legs, a great mound of shredded chicken meat with some extraordinarily flavorful spice mixed in, a handsome serving of cole slaw, as well as other odds and bits. I took it all back to Kobuk and with the curtains all zipped on to keep out the cold wind and occasional rain, proceeded to eat it all and then go catatonic.
Belhaven Dinghy Dock Basin: 35* 32.216' N / 76* 37.319' W
Distance: 12 miles
Total Distance: 7,352 miles
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Not until this morning did I discover the outcome of the presidential election. It is an historic event for America, it seems, one that at least has the potential to ameliorate our most debilitating domestic problem. For over 230 years, our country has been plagued by the enormous gulf between the idea of equality and the reality of inequality. The de facto segregation between Blacks and Whites in this country is so deeply engrained that the election of a Black president may not change it. Blacks and Whites have always lived in two different geographic worlds--different neighborhoods, different schools, different churches, different social centers. This territorial partition has been the American "Iron Curtain" and just as with the Churchillian one it has encouraged negative attitudes about what lies on the other side.
The election of a president who is viewed by all as being Black may accelerate the process of desegregation. It is a process already under way, but it has been moving at such a glacially slow pace that the polar ice cap might well be gone before Blacks and Whites are one. I doubt there is much in the way of policy or executive action that any president could do to realize rapid desegregation, but the one real power of the president is, as Teddy Roosevelt called it, "the bully pulpet." Whatever his faults, Mr. Obama is one of the most articulate, thoughtful, and effective public speakers I have ever heard. If he can appeal to the natural goodness of most Americans, he might be the person who can persuade this country that a racially divided polity is not just disfunctional but downright morally wrong.
Of course, presidents are at the mercy of events and the great presidents are often, from my point of view, little more than the lucky ones whose particular personal strengths happened to have been just the right ones to meet the challenges that arose during their terms of office. Would Churchill have been so great, for example, if his major challenge had been the Great Depression? Possibly, but I suspect not. Of course, some individuals are endowed with a broader array of useful virtues than others and thus might be expected to perform better in a wider array of circumstances. This is undeniable. But if circumstances permit our country to pay attention to its most serious internal problem--that of racial schism--then Barak Obama at least has one trait that could serve him well: Blackness. For centuries, Blacks have been the disadvantaged group in American society and being a member of that group--even a relatively advantaged member--almost certainly develops a useful set of sensitivities and awarenesses. Now that we have a Black president, let us focus our energies on bridging the racial divide.
God forbid there are distractions. Another attack like 9/11, for example, could direct us towards a different sort of challenge--a sort, incidentally, that even some of Obama's staunchest supporters might ruefully admit could benefit from some of John McCain's strengths.
The racial problem as I see it cannot be vanquished as long as segregation of the two groups is the norm. I doubt that many people think this way. The usual view is that the problem requires a realignment of attitudes and values--an acceptance of the notion that both groups have equal rights before the law. Advocates claim that an attitudinal change of this sort would break down the walls of segregation and cause the sort of inexorable acculturation as has occurred for so many of the ethnic groups that arrived the United States during the past couple centuries. But if it has happened for those other groups why hasn't it already happened for Blacks? Whatever the cause, I think the fact that Blacks and Whites always have lived, and even now continue to live, in separate geographic worlds makes it ever so hard for either group to view the United States as one world.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Foul weather has blanketed this entire region and is not expected to depart until tomorrow. Neither Fred nor I have any desire to move on with wind and waves of this sort, so the day is spent roaming the streets of Belhaven and doing the things that get neglected while cruising.
Fred is a deceptive individual--as, I suppose, are many people. When I first met him, it was back at the entrance to the Dismal Swamp when both he and I ended up spending a few hours on Neville and Ann's Wharram cat. We were being more or less entertained by the two of them, but especially by Ann who finds talk to be the a sort of aphrodesiac. Ann held forth on most any topic that might arise while Fred and I sat by and listened. I was of course intrigued by much of what Ann had to say because she was spending much of her time talking about the construction of their boat. Fred did not have the same level of interest in the topic as I did, but he was flawlessly attentive to everything that was said and he always gave the impression that he was interested in both the people and the topic. He was, in short, perfectly polite.
Since then, I have gotten to know Fred much better. He impresses me as being a sort of model single-hander--cautious, attentive to detail, capable of functioning effectively irrespective of whether anyone is watching. He has reached retirement age and lives full-time on his boat. The transition from land lubber to old salt required him to make a giant leap by selling his home and using a very significant portion of his life savings to buy a Nordic Tug. In spite of his caution, he knew what he wanted and made the move. It would be easy for strangers to dismiss him as an unassuming nobody, but in fact his life choice proves to me that he is exactly the opposite of that.
Fred worked for over 35 years as a mechanic for two different dealerships of the Ford Motor Company. Now he has moved into the retirement years without losing his desire to live a dream. He has become a seasoned salt-water migrant. This is his fourth trip south, his fourth voyage down the ICW for the winter. Everything about him suggests that he is content with the life he has chosen. What makes this especially obvious is his unflagging good humor and his ready susceptibility to uncontrolled laughter. He likes where he is and he likes what he is doing. I will say, though, that the routine is beginning to unsettle him. He likes it but I think he is beginning to look for something new. In particular, he has mentioned that it would be nice to cruise in some other warm climate region besides Florida and the Bahamas. He even noted the possibility of a trip to Central America. I jumped on this immediately and have been pressing him to consider going to Cuba, hopping over to the Yucatan, and heading south from there. Fred can see that I am not a very practical person so he shows little sign of buying into such a project at this point. I refuse to believe, however, that he can't be gotten to. Here is a man who spent decades motorcycling all over the United States and Canada. That kind of person has got to be vulnerable to some new, grand adventure like a voyage to the Mosquito Coast.
Friday, November 7, 2008
The bad weather is gone and it is time to get farther on south. Next up is the little town of Oriental, about 45 miles from of Belhaven. Kobuk and North Star nose out of harbor and slide down the last few miles of the Pungo Estuary to where it intersects the Pamlico. Gentle winds from abaft the beam give us a sweet and silent ride across the open waters and up into Goose Creek where the next leg of the ICW ditch runs through to the Bay River.
Along the banks of the broad canal, pines tower upward and shelter us from whatever winds might be blowing. An occasional slot in the forest permits a road that comes to the canal and stops dead, as if constructed for no other purpose than to afford access for shore fishermen. Today there are a few anglers at these access points,each one standing or sitting and as stationary as the scenery--pole in hand, line in the water. The fish aren't biting, as far as I can see, and this only adds to the unreal sense of timelessness.
Part way through this ICW cut, the little roadstead port of Hobucken lines the western bank. The aging wooden dock has tied to it a small fleet of commercial fishing boats, all of them looking exhausted and run down from many years of hard service out on the open ocean. With nobody in sight and nothing moving, the place has the abandoned look of a factory floor at lunch hour (well, maybe a factory floor a few decades ago before global competition forced continuous production). There are no pleasure boats here and all the facilities are tailored to the needs of working fishermen. Out in the canal, the yachts troop by. I imagine that on board each is someone like me staring at the scene and wondering whether Hobucken is on the verge of retirement.
A couple miles farther on, where the forest has drawn back and the flanks of the canal have turned to broad sweeps of marsh grass, I happen to notice the depth sounder on the GPS registering only 2.5 feet under the hull. Even before I can pull back on the throttle, the water depth begins to increase and within a few seconds it has returned to the normal range of 7-10 feet. Kobuk was only slightly to starboard of the middle of the channel when this happened, so either I received a faulty reading from the depth sounder or some unsuspecting yacht headed this way is going to be making a call to TowBoatUS.
When we come out of the canal the mouth of the Bay River estuary is in front of us, and then a large peninsula of land projecting eastward into Pamlico Sound. We curl around this and gradually head south by southwest to work our way up the Neuse Estuary. In a most uncharacteristic fashion, the wind cooperates by backing away from its easterly origins and coming from the north to help us on our way. In no time at all, Kobuk and North Star are running in past Oriental's breakwater.
The harbor is small and laden with boats, but just outside the marina is a space where Fred is able to anchor North Star. He finds a spot next to Peace IV so it seems we have caught up to Ann and Neville. I run Kobuk farther in to where the town dock is located and although it is already occupied with a Nordic Tug on one side and a large sailboat on the other, the dock extends out from a roadside seawall that has open space. The space is suitable only for dinghys, but that means Kobuk can use it. With only a foot of water under the hull, I tie her off in the heart of the village, with a coffee shop across the street, a marine supply store down at the corner, and a village pond with a wooden dragon in it on the other side of the road. We are shoulder to shoulder with a fish processing plant and to get up this narrow cut we had to pass a number of commercial fishing boats. We are at the center of all activity and it's a lively town.
Oriental Town Dock: 35* 01.500' N / 76* 41.758' W
Distance: 47 miles
Total Distance: 7,399 miles
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Oriental is in a fortunate stage of life. Commercial fishing is still viable here, even as the seasonal boaters and the retirees are discovering the place. Money has been spent and the town looks spruce. It is not a large place--about a thousand residents, I'd say--but there is a surprising diversity nonetheless. The full array of marine services is available, of course, but so too are there a few bars and nice restaurants, coffee shops and specialty stores. There are not many of them, of course, but for such a small village to have even a few is quite remarkable.
I have heard from others that the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia is the only remaining stretch of the eastern seaboard where real estate can still be had at a reasonable price. As I see what is going on in Oriental, it seems clear that the buyers' market will not continue for much longer and that the towns like this will be the hot spots where the prices take off first. The current depression surely is delaying the process, but if the economy ever recovers then the land rush will be on in this part of the world.
Fred and I cycle around to do a little shopping and to see what there is to Oriental besides its waterfront. We happen across a boat ramp running into a small estuary a short distance away from the town port and end up there for some time watching the action and talking with people. In particular, there is a perfectly restored mahogany inboard that a couple is sliding into the water for a little afternoon cruising. It almost seems a pity to get her wet, but after the baptism the couple carefully fends off from the dock and brings to life her deep throated engine. Off she goes, looking fast and classy--not extremely fast but fast enough for a boat that prizes beauty above blue ribbons. Her nose shaves down towards the light chop and as she accelerates she moves forward without the usual squatting at the stern. Her bow slices through the water with purpose, looking more like a destroyer than a runabout. But, oh, that gleaming mahogany and that deep rumble rolling out of the exhaust!
After the departure of so elegant a vessel, we turn to see a beast of a different sort--here on dry ground is a fold-up trimaran sailboat sitting on her trailer waiting for launch. Her owner is more than happy to tell us all about her, and he lauds her virtues unabashedly. The connections between the main hull and the two outrigger ones are hinged so as to allow the three hulls to lie close up against each other while on the trailer. Once on the water with her outriggers extended, she has a beam of twenty feet. This is certainly not a pretty boat--and even less so when set in contrast to Miss Mahogany--but one would have to look for a long time to find a better example of diversity in the boating world.
Speaking of diversity, Fred and I end up having lunch in The Silos, a restaurant/bar located in a pair of galvanized metal silos Attached to each other at ground level by an enclosed passageway, the silos are two storys high and have the eating facilities on the second floor. Peanut shells litter the wooden floor and light is admitted limited entry via a couple small windows. The novelty would wear off quickly, but for beer and a sandwich it does just fine. On Friday and Saturday nights this is the place to be in Oriental. If you're going to eat dinner here you will have to have a reservation. As for the beer, I suspect that it tastes about the same as it would in any other bar you might enter.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
For me, the seas lie down. There can be no other explanation. Everybody, including Fred, has stories to tell about the brutish behavior of North Carolina bays and estuaries, but whenever I venture out the waters become a mill pond and the sun shines down. First it was the Albemarle, a long crossing that was done last Sunday when departing Elizabeth City. Boaters trade tales of woe about the terrors of the Albemarle, but when we crossed there was nothing but sweet sighs and gentle whispers. Then on departing from Belhaven it was necessary to cross the Pamlico, another notorious passage. All it did was wave demurely as we slipped by on Friday morning. And then later that same day after exiting the ICW canal and running out into the Pamlico sound we wore around to the south-southwest and headed up the Neuse Estuary. The Nasty Neuse, as some are wont to call her, had no complaints when we ran up her mouth. Now, as we leave behind the Oriental harbor, the open waters of the Neuse are a magic carpet upon which we ride to far-shore safety as if floating on a cloud. The Neuse is the last of the open water passages that must be done in this region of eastern North Carolina where the ratio of water to land is more or less fifty/fifty. People tell grisly tales about struggling through each of the named stretches of open water in this region, but we have crossed them all without ever seeing a wave as big as that put up by a lightly loaded Boston Whaler. It leaves one a little nervous, actually: the sea does not look kindly on such unreasonable runs of good luck. At a different time and in an unsuspected place the sea will take revenge for our having beaten the house in a Vegas casino.
But today it is nothing but fair weather cruising along channels that are lined with domesticated forests and elegant homes. The closer we get to Beaufort, the more refined become the landscapes. One may have a certain vision of rural landscapes in North Carolina, but if it includes any significant element of rusticity or disorder then it does not do justice to the outlying areas surrounding Beaufort. The piney glades look as if they have been managed by a European master forester and the homes nearly all seem fresh and new and perhaps even eligible for inclusion in a publication like Modern Living or Home and Garden.
This entire Inner Banks region of North Carolina has very flat lying land near sea level next to waterways that are subject to tidal ranges of just a few feet. If a sustained wind blows hard and strong from just the wrong direction, however, then flooding can be widespread along the thousands of miles of shoreline. As a result, a good percentage of all homes are built as raised platforms a few feet above the ground. Usually, the construction is on a field of square posts but sometimes it involves a concrete or cinder block base. In any event, for these houses the living starts a few feet above the flat terrain. This has gotten people used to having an overlord perspective. They view their surroundings as if from a tree-house, and the scenic advantages of such elevation has resulted in a greater than usual number of porches and gazebos located high above ground--sometimes as decks on the roofs of houses, sometimes as gazebos suspended above boat docks.
By early afternoon we have passed under the Beaufort Channel Bascule Bridge and rounded the bend that leads up into Taylor Creek. This is a spacious waterway separating the uninterrupted string of development that fronts the water in downtown Beaufort from the completely natural and undeveloped Carrot Island where wild horses roam. Because Beaufort has succumbed to the seductions of the visitor industry, the waterfront is a gay parade of upscale restaurants, spotlessly whitewashed homes, and one grand marina. On this rather windy day, the middle of the Taylor Creek channel is occupied by dozens of anchored boats, all hanging with their bows to the southwest. Fred runs up to the far end where the town is purely residential and anchors in a narrower slot of water, with Carrot Island only a stone's throw away. I spend an hour or so looking for a spot along Beaufort's shore where a small craft like Kobuk might tie off, but real estate here is too precious for that sort of nonsense and so I eventually opt to take a slip in the marina.
Beaufort Docks: 34* 43.002' N / 76* 39.963' W
Distance: 25 miles
Total Distance: 7,424 miles
Monday, November 10, 2008
Back in Virginia when Kobuk was being prepped for departure I discovered that the anode for the Yamaha would soon need to be replaced. Both then and many times thereafter I shopped unsuccessfully for this replacement anode. In spite of the large number of 9.9 horsepower Yamaha outboards that must be pushing dinghys everywhere from here to Australia, the Yamaha dealers claim that the specially shaped anode is rarely purchased and thus rarely stocked. I guess most of these little engines must be operated in the water for relatively few hours each year. Anyway, I've had a devil of a time finding the anode. Finally, up in Oriental the small West Marine store there tracked it down for me. A couple phone calls by the staff discovered that Moorhead Marine, about eight miles west of Beaufort, has two of them.
Beaufort Docks Marina, where Kobuk has a slip, owns a small fleet of 1970's Buick station wagons. There are at least three of these vehicles, all of them midnight blue with imitation wood trim and plush leather covered seats. Fred and I borrow one and head on over to Moorhead Marine to pick up the anodes. Such luxury, such a smooth ride--for the crew of a boat like Kobuk it is a level of comfort that surpasses all reason. Swiftly, silently, smoothly, we glide on over to Moorhead and do our shopping. Never mind that the electric window cranks do not always work. Never mind the splits in the leather. This is comfort with a capital C. With wheels like these, we hold onto the vehicle for as long as decently possible and make the rounds to a host of other stores. Finally, though, we have to return the car and settle back into our more common routines.
The appeal of Beaufort is its unswerving commitment to beautification and preservation. All the seemier sides of urban life appear to have been shunted away to Moorhead City, across the estuary a few miles to the West. There are few buildings here that look ungainly or disproportionately large. Architectural iconoclasm is rare. Not yet are there any condo highrises and so far the private PUD's have been kept away from the downtown. In spite of its, elongated and linear orientation paralleling Taylor Creek (a broad channel, really), the town has remained reasonably compact. It stands in pleasing contrast to the Outer Bank wildness of Carrot Island just across the way. Beaufort is a hive of human doing in a confined corner of Nature's preserve--at least that is the visual impression one gets.
The North Carolina coast has three major capes that jut their sandy headlands out into the Atlantic: Cape Hatteras, the largest and most notorious; Cape Lookout just a few miles southeast of here; and Cape Fear down near Wilmington. Although Hatteras is the one that rightfully receives the most attention as a hazard to navigation, the other two also boast impressive records as nautical graveyards. Fred and I consider running out to take a look at the Cape Lookout lighthouse and visitor's center, but before we know it the day was half over and with darkness descending at an early hour we decide to forgo the outing. Instead, I take Kobuk across the creek and throw the anchor ashore on Carrot Island so as to spend the night there. Fred comes over in his dinghy and we use the golden light of late afternoon to walk around the western end of the island. The wild horses are grazing in a marsh distant to the east, up to their haunches in tall grasses. The town of Beaufort is a glistening string of whitewashed buildings, occasionally visible between the junipers that are scattered around on the sandy soil--soil because it has been so vigorously fertilized by an incestuous band of wild horses.
Carrot Island: 34* 42.677' N / 76* 38.903' W
Distance: 1 mile
Total Distance: 7,425 miles
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
When you leave Beaufort to head south on the ICW, the first thing you have to do is cross the island-infested shoals of the Newport River Estuary. The route bends and twists to keep you in deep water, but the boat traffic here is plentiful and the buoyage is thorough so there is no problem finding your way. As we pass through in the early morning, crisp air and a stiff breeze give the feel of an autumnal coastal place a thousand miles farther north. As soon as we leave Taylor Creek, the sky becomes laden with sea gulls--many more than usual, hundreds of them dashing and darting with violent and frenzied unpredictablity. They are not purposefully jockeying for position as they normally do when trailing a fishing boat with dinner in mind. Besides, they are too numerous to be so confined to one small part of the sky. Their erratic behavior and seemingly preColumbian numbers makes their presence seem surreal and sinister. As quickly as they assembled, they dissolve and fade away, leaving one to wonder whether it really did happen.
A short time later dolphins surface, first out leading North Star and then off Kobuk's starboard bow. They have been a common sight ever since leaving Elizabeth City, but no matter how often you see them they continue to fascinate. Their backs and dorsal fins curl up out of the water with no sound and no effort. They make the water seem alive for it never gets displaced by their muscular torsos. Instead, the water parts for the dolphins like fine metal filings giving way to a magnetic field.
I have seen many faces of the natural world during my life, many divine faces so exquisite as to approach perfection. Whether it is the purple depths of the Grand Canyon or a golden sunrise over backlit Bora Bora or a haughty bull moose stepping out of an aspen forest or . . . any of a number of other such humbling sights--they all are perfect in their own way and cannot be improved on in any conceivable manner. And yet also have I seen remarkable works of art that have taken sights like these and captured some essential element of each one's perfection. The art does not outdo the original, but great art often pays tribute to it in a manner that somehow compliments the original. But so far I have not seen any work of art that fairly plumbs the mysterious essence of a dolphin. In short, dolphins defy description.
Beyond Moorhead City, the Carolina coast bends westward and the large sounds of open water that separate the barrier islands of the Outer Banks from the mainland disappear. Instead, a narrow strait runs endlessly behind them, snaking all the way down the coast to the Keys off Florida. The barrier islands retain their character: elongated slivers on which grasses and dwarf trees struggle to stabilize the restless sands, low lying windbreaks whose ocean face absorbs the thundering Atlantic even as the leeward face fronts on a protected lagoon and enters into it with marshes. Here in the lee, we motor along in relative protection. For twenty miles, we follow the inland edge of Bogue Sound, a stretch of open water that gradually swells to a couple miles breadth but then just as gradually shrinks back down to become a slender thread once again. It is more or less the last open sound of any real significance; the coastal charts indicate that for the rest of the way to Florida the ICW will be following the thread with no significant open water crossings. Much of the time the ICW will be nothing more than a buoyed channel in this narrow strait, but considerable mileage also gets covered in excavated channels and in the final few miles of rivers just before they reach the sea. Once out of Bogue Sound, North Star and Kobuk follow the slender thread.
By midafternoon we reach Mile Hammock Bay, a small indentation on the inland side of the ICW, one that looks natural but that also appears to have been engineered to have a straighter shoreline and deeper waters. With a half dozen other cruising boats, North Star and Kobuk come to hang by their anchors in this protected retreat. The cruisers' world is not the only one occupying the bay, however. One stretch of its shore has a long pier, a boat launching ramp beside it, and a mock ship of war nearby. Shuttling back and forth between these sites are three very large Zodiacs outfitted for battle and with marines aboard. The Zodiacs are painted in the blotches of greens and browns that afford camoflage and the marines are dressed to match. The three boats maneuver slowly from place to place. It is, I gather, a field exercise, a set of maneuvers being executed on the water. But the boats are moving around at such a slow pace that they appear almost to be drifting. There is no sound coming across the water, just American marines silently moving these inflatable craft from place to place at slow motion. There is no way to fathom the intent of these "war games," but that they are happening is to be expected, I suppose, since this particular section of the ICW runs along a stretch of the coast that belongs to Camp Lejeune.
Mile Hammock Bay: 34* 33.077' N / 77* 19.428' W
Distance: 45 miles
Total Distance: 7,470 miles
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
The tidal regime in the ICW is beginning to make some sense. The ICW runs along behind the barrier islands and the islands provide protection from the vagaries of the open ocean, but tides are masters at operating behind enemy lines. There are inlets between the barrier islands, narrow cuts often no wider than a few hundred yards that separate one island from the next. As a rule, a barrier island is quite long, many miles long, but sooner or later it comes to an end where an inlet separates it from the next barrier island in the chain. The inlets usually form where a river from the interior intersects the coast. But the sea level waterway running behind the barrier islands complicates the dynamic because any arriving river first empties itself into there before driving through the inlet between barrier islands so as to reach the open sea. A flooding tide rushes through the inlet from the ocean and then strikes off in all three directions: up the river that caused the inlet and along the two side branches of the narrow waterway behind the barrier islands. As the tide ebbs, the water flowing out through the inlet sucks current out of those same three waterways. The barrier islands vary a lot in length; the inlets are irregularly spaced. Some inlets are much larger than others. Some parts of the ICW channel are shallower than other parts. Some of the rivers that intersect at the inlets are large and some are small. All these variables mean that it is hard to estimate the direction and strength of the current in the ICW at any given time and it is nearly impossible to figure out when the direction of flow will switch. The least stressful course of action is to ignore the question of tides and currents and just live with the fact that, if the odds don't play favorites, it will all net to zero in the end. On the other hand, with hours each day behind the helm with little to do but steer the boat and think about things, it is often fun to do mental calculations regarding when the current will be favorable or unfavorable. Usually, at least for me, the calculations are wrong, but that only stimulates a little additional thought about how to adjust the model used to make the projection.
In early afternoon, we turn right after a bridge and follow the channel that leads to a narrow strait lying on the back side of Wrightsville Beach. Fred anchors North Star and I tie off Kobuk at a public dinghy dock. This location is more or less ground zero for the surfers and sun worshipers who congregate here during the warm summer months. Now that it is November, the crowds are gone, but the businesses that cater to them still keep their doors open and pray for a miracle.
If you walk two blocks east from the dinghy dock, you arrive at the Atlantic. Wrightsville Beach is a broad, straight strand before which the Atlantic rollers slowly heave themselves up before finally curling forward and breaking a small distance out from shore. Today, and I suppose most days, the waves come in at a slightly glancing angle so that short stretches of each breaking wave roll along parallel to the beach for a while. This is where the surfers are, and even now in cool November they ride the waves. They all have full body wetsuits and when they come ashore they peel them off down to the waist and frequent the coffee shops and restaurants bare chested and black tailed.
The skies are still clear, but the wind is starting to strengthen from the south. The weather forecast does not offer good news. The next three days are supposed to be filled with heavy rains and strong south winds. It happens that the upcoming section of the ICW includes a dozen or more miles running south on the Cape Fear River. In south winds this would be most uncomfortable so it looks as if we might not be going anywhere until Sunday when the dirty weather is expected to begin clearing out. But then there's the bright side of things. Fred has friends who live near here and they have invited us to dinner.
Their names are George and Beth Cameron and they do things in ways that I like. George has a large powerboat on which the two of them have cruised to the Bahamas and back, but now that they are more or less planted in the Wrightsville Beach area, George lives on the boat in a marina and Beth lives in a rented home. They treat each other with more respect than I usually see between two married people and according to Beth they have an ironclad rule that neither will call the other before nine in the morning. How cool is that?
Wrightsville Beach Dinghy Dock: 34* 12.509' N / 77* 47.814' W
Distance: 40 miles
Total Distance: 7,510
Nov 13 - 15, 2008
For three days, Fred and I remain in Wrightsville Beach. Our time ashore gets split between sightseeing and visiting with George and Beth. I catch up on work and Kobuk gets a rest.