December 1, 2003
Great Bridge, Virginia
36º 43.238 N
076º 14.275 W

Toward A Great Date In Great Bridge

By Douglas Bernon

When we weighed anchor at the Isle of Hope, just shy of Savannah, Georgia, our ambition was to exit the Intracoastal Waterway, return to the deep waters of the Atlantic, grab our little piece of the Gulf Stream, and shoot north. We envisioned ourselves cantering along 50 to 75 miles offshore, blowing by the Carolinas all together, staying well east of the notoriously shallow and cantankerous waters off Cape Hatteras, and then entering the southern end of Chesapeake Bay at Cape Henry, north of Norfolk -- an easy trip of just over 500 miles. The weather predictions were all in our favor, the sky was clear, and while we felt wistful saying goodbye to friends in Georgia, we were ready to get offshore and make some tracks. But life, and weather, are always what get in the way of plans.

Throughout the Georgia marshlands were fishing boats and shrimpers going to and fro from their home ports.
Looking back on it, I see now that we taunted the Gods by singing the old folk song “500 miles, 500 miles…” over and over again, as you do when a familiar song from the old days keeps knocking around in your brain. Singing onboard, for those of you not familiar with sea lore, is supposed to be bad luck, as bad, apparently, as embarking on a voyage on a Friday, or stowing a goat aboard (although, frankly, the latter seems obvious). But we couldn’t help ourselves; this tune we hummed incessantly as we motored through the constantly changing currents and tides of Georgia’s bucolic waterway. That 27-mile, zigzagging route, from Isle of Hope up to Savannah and out the channel to the ocean, took us from breakfast well into the afternoon. 

Ithaka spent many peaceful nights securely anchored in mud along the banks of Georgias marshlands.

Once Ithaka passed the shipping buoy marking the entrance to the Savannah River and Tybee Island, we happily pulled the kill switch on the engine, rolled out our big 135% genoa, and headed east-northeast, watching Hilton Head island disappear to port. Once offshore we were immediately reminded of the impact the ice age had on this section of the east coast of North America. Glaciers totally leveled the terrain, so much so that from Savannah you have to head out more than 70 miles before the water gets any deeper than about 80 feet.

As we motorsailed along the waterway, we often had to line ourselves up with range markers such as these to make sure Ithaka stayed in the deeper channels as they cut across shallows.
We had consistent winds just a little ahead of our beam, the kind of run Ithaka likes best. She settled into a steady and kindly sea motion, balanced nicely, and romped along with little guidance from us. The miles fell away. We took our watches easily and slept with some comfort. No storms, no squalls, and few hassles. Only off Charleston did we have to pay special attention to the constant parade of tankers steaming in and out. It wasn’t as busy as the areas around the Panama Canal, but still, there were always three or four big ships plowing through at speeds quadruple to ours. These monsters don’t stop quickly. They don’t turn quickly. They don’t detour quickly, and even with radar reflectors mounted on our mast, they claim that they can’t always see us. Bernadette and I spent our nights on alert, resetting our egg timer every 10 minutes to scan the horizon for the unmistakable lights of ships. That’s the amount of time we measured that it takes one of these fast-moving behemoths to go from the horizon to our doorstep. Even with radar, you can’t be too careful out here. You’ve got to look around at regular intervals.

The red sky of a waterway sunset.
As usual, when we’re underway along the American coast, we listen to the various weather stations, pay heed to the automated, mechanical voice of the US Coast Guard reports on the VHF, and pull down weather faxes at least once a day. By the time we were two days out, the sum of these data suggested that our window of calm around Cape Hatteras was slamming shut. A large and fast-moving low-pressure system was chattering in from the west, giving us less than a 50-percent chance of getting around the shallow Cape in decent weather.

Hatteras is famous for its beauty, its shallows, and for sudden, dramatic changes in its own personalized, idiosyncratic weather systems. Because the shoals off Hatteras run far into the Atlantic -- with the Gulf Stream close by -- and because there’s precious little to temper seas that have been building up and rolling in from 4,000 miles away, these are some of the globe’s more treacherous waters, and no one as fearful as I am wants to be close to land there if things are getting icky. You’re fine 150 miles offshore in deep water, but storms close in, where the water is shallower, can ruin your month very quickly.

All along the Intracoastal Waterway are swing bridges and bascule bridges manned by bridge tenders. They stop car traffic and open the bridges when you call them on the VHF and request clearance.
As we sailed along, with this grim new forecast on our minds, Bernadette and I frequently refigured our speed and ETA every time we gained or lost a tenth of a knot. Then, of course, we did the sensible thing we probably knew was our destiny the moment we’d heard the first announcements about the advancing low. After three days and about 300 miles of comfortable sailing, we bagged our plan to head straight for Norfolk, and altered course for the Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina.

With sand-dune beaches to port and starboard, the entrance channel to Moorhead City and Beaufort runs between Bogue and Schackleford Banks. It’s a stunning entry through the sandy barrier islands, which on this sunny day were dotted with beachcombers exploring the dunes. Before we knew it, we were out of the ocean and back again in civilization. We’d stopped in Beaufort several years ago when we were heading south, and had been charmed by a town that takes its hospitality seriously. The local maritime museum has a car that it lends out for free to cruisers who want to run errands, and the post office has magnificent murals painted in the 1930s by artists sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. There are two well-protected anchorages, a nicely marked buoy system, a library within walking distance where you can check e-mail, and a generous attitude towards those from the sea.

The entrance to Pungo Creek
When we were here three years ago, we embraced this hospitality and stayed awhile, but this time we were feeling more private, so after stopping long enough to top up our water and fuel tanks, we motored right through town, then plowed on another 10 or so miles to a more secluded anchorage in Adams Creek. The continuing weather forecasts were for a serious system that was to arrive in 24 hours, and stall over the region for several days. Offshore would be a mess of nasty seas over the shallow banks; we’d made the right decision.

Glad to have the anchor well set, we poured some wine as the sun set, and began looking over the charts. We were searching for a sweet spot where we could just dig in and hang out for several days, waiting for the low to pass over us. Severe thunder and lightening, rain and wind, were predicted to begin within 24 hours.

We shared the protection of Pungo with this elegantly restored sailboat, and waited for the low to pass us all by.
About 50 miles further north of us was Pungo Creek, a narrow estuary with an easy entrance off the main channel. The charts indicated it had navigably deep water for more than a mile, so we could wind our way in and anchor with privacy and terrific protection. Perfect. We were up at sunrise, exited Adams Creek and got underway. We motor-sailed by the sand bank on which we had been so hard aground three years ago that it took a kindly guy in a 65-foot sports fisher more than an hour to haul our sorry selves off of it. Enough time has passed that we can finally laugh about the event, and how we’d totally misread the extremely obvious channel markers. This time we kept a better vigil. (And this time, we have tow insurance!)

Ducks waddle along the banks of the Great Bridge lock.
All day, hour by hour the skies grew grayer, the wind gained strength, massive thunder-and-lightening squalls pounded around us, and we counted the miles to Pungo. By 3:00 pm, in a light drizzle, we were turning to port at mile marker 23, the entrance to Pungo Creek, and heading into a comfortable seclusion that would be our home for the next three days.

During our time there, even though the wind often blew with gale-force intensity, and the rain never seemed to let up, the marshland took the brunt of the blow, and the water around us stayed virtually flat — not the slightest hint of a roll. We read books, worked on essays, made popcorn, caught up on endless boat projects, and said our thanks for being tucked in. It was a reminder that sitting still is often the finest part of cruising, a reward for the worries and efforts of getting there in the first place. That’s how it felt at Pungo, where we re-established our little routines and relaxed. Three other boats came in, a beautiful old schooner that stayed just one night, a lovely cruising trawler, and on our last night a steel sloop. Pungo was long enough that we all had different nooks and crannies completely to ourselves.

Beautiful flowering trees line the waterway at the Great Bridge Lock.

When the skies became blue again, we hauled up Ithaka’s anchor, and motored out the creek and back into the waterway. About an hour ahead of us was the steel sloop. We puttered along at a little over five knots all morning, as motor yachts and power boats overtook us. All the while the steel sloop stayed just ahead, though over time the gap slowly closed between us. Douglas and I figured the other sailboat must have about the same size engine as Ithaka. On the ICW, no matter what kind of boat you have, you quickly find that it’s engine size that’s the great equalizer. Finally, in one of the larger bays of the waterway, Bernadette put out our genoa, and we ever-so-slowly overtook the modest steel sloop, sliding by them close enough to chat. We noticed that they had no bimini, only a small dodger, and that they flew an Italian flag.

Ithaka pokes her nose into the lock, and we tie alongside as the gates close and the water begins to drop
“ Where are you coming from?” the handsome fellow on the other boat called over to us.

“Savannah,” we called back, happy to connect to a fellow cruiser. “What about you?”

“Patagonia,” he answered. Well, there you go. It appears engines aren’t the only equalizers on the waterway. We waved and wished them good luck on their cruise up the coast, and Ithaka pulled away. We had a rendezvous ahead, one to which we’d looked forward for months. At Great Bridge, Virginia, just before Norfolk, we were going to meet Pieter and Inge Van Kampen, who sail Baerne, a 60-foot steel sloop they built in their native Holland. After saying good-bye to them in Honduras more than a year ago, they were awaiting us, ahead.

Baernes cozy pilothouse, the object of our desires three years ago.
Ironically, we’d first seen Baerne three years ago, in November, not far from this very spot, when in an ice storm they toddled right on by us, warm as toast in the enclosed cockpit of their beautiful black Colin Archer sailboat. Meanwhile, we were swaddled in every layer of down and fleece we owned, envying their comfort as we took brief turns at Ithaka’s wheel, our gloves and boots stuffed with the small chemical packs of instant heat. We envied them, and never met them, but the image of their warmth and comfort stuck with us, as did the dramatic beauty of their traditional vessel. About a year after that day, we were in the Rio Dulce river in Guatemala for hurricane season. It was there that we spotted that distinctive black, double-ended hull. We motored over in our dink and introduced ourselves, and this is how we met Inge and Pieter, and how we ended up hanging out together for several months in the Honduran Bay Islands. We’d shared Christmas together, and a New Year’s Eve celebration for which Inge made traditional Dutch olliebollen, a deep-fried pastry dusted with confectioner’s sugar that still makes my mouth water when I think back on it. Being with Pieter and Inge over those holidays softened the sadness of being away from our loved ones – always a difficult thing for cruisers a long way from home.

Inge and Bernadette
We hadn’t seen Inge and Pieter since those idyllic days in Honduras – where we’d gone snorkeling every day, and exploring together, and where we’d talked about everything under the sun, and laughed and cried together, and worked and sweated together on our various projects. But we’d stayed in touch – always promising we’d rendezvous again. Now, with Baerne in Virginia, they were our destination, our impetus for moving on.

Pieter and Douglas

For Bernadette and me, the destinations of connecting and re-connecting with people are often the most compelling. Islands can be stunning, reefs spectacular, landfalls rewarding, and sunsets awesome, but at the end of the day, the prospect of being with people who touch your soul are the finest of all. We carried on toward Great Bridge with excitement.