Dec 15, 2003
Robin’s Neck, Severn River, Mobjack Bay, Maryland
37° 19.193 North
076º 27.507 West

The Wind Rocks The Willows

By Bernadette Bernon

Ithaka pushed onward through the arteries of North Carolina’s Intracoastal waterway, past undulating corn stalks on one bank and fields of pink and white flowers on the other, here and there past folks’ yards and barns and inflatable wading pools and vegetable gardens and out-buildings – an intimate and endearing look at America through the keyhole of her back door. All along, as the miles drop astern, Douglas and I continued to marvel at how much we were enjoying this puttering in warm weather, in contrast to three years before, when in the throes of ice storms, we couldn’t get south fast enough, and every mile seemed an agony. Our reversed perspective was yet another example of the subtle changes that come over you when you’ve spent some time cruising, and when you’re not miserable in the elements. This time, we had the physical and psychological leisure to let ourselves enjoy where we were, taking the time to look around and amble. It felt all together different.

Sunrise in Mobjack Bay
In Virginia, our meandering took us past the entrance to the Dismal Swamp Canal—a parallel route within the Intracoastal system that everyone tells us is a breathtakingly beautiful jungle ride. But Ithaka’s six foot draft is a bit too deep for us to make it through without frequent groundings, so on we went in the main channel, stopping at Great Bridge, Virginia, where we tied up for two days at the free dock provided to boats awaiting transit of the lock. (Actually we know of people who’ve stayed there for three months. No one seems to monitor time there.) At Great Bridge we celebrated a reunion with some Dutch cruising friends we’d last seen in Honduras, and who now live in a town nearby. They drove over to see us, bearing fresh baked goodies and good memories, and for several hours we sat in the cockpit, leafing through picture albums, reminiscing and planning some future cruising together. Then they did what friends of cruisers always appreciate most: they drove us to the grocery store, the hardware store, a local thrift shop, a bakery, a fishing supply shop, and the public library where we could check our email.

A bridge opens for Ithaka on the ICW
We’d figured we might hang out another couple of days at Great Bridge and get some writing done, but the weather forecasts foretold of an approaching low-pressure system, and the calendar began to pressure us with an approaching lecture deadline in the Chesapeake. Just being back in the States, for the first time in years we were actually writing down events on a calendar and referring to it with painful frequency. The tyranny of time, over which we had eeked out a tenuous, temporary victory, was reasserting its power. We knew we needed to pick up the pace and press onward, even though the temptation was strong to stay awhile.

When the great lock at Great Bridge opened its gates on Monday morning, Ithaka was the only vessel to enter the mammoth hold. We pulled over to the side, fenders hanging all along our port lifelines to protect our topsides from the unforgiving metal walls, and tied our bow and stern to the giant cleats mounted all along the inside of the lock. Then the gates behind us closed, the water level slowly dropped and so did we. When the water levels equaled, the forward gates opened, we untied ourselves and boogied out of there. We were only 12 miles south of downtown Norfolk, a waterfront chock-a-block full of naval vessels, submarines and giant commercial freighters, maneuvering here and there, lugged and pushed by tugboats, their giant propellers throwing out a white-water turbulence that sometimes rocked Ithaka from side to side. We watched several go by us, heading out to sea, but as they turned east to the Atlantic, we unfurled our sails, turned north into the Chesapeake, and set a course for Mobjack Bay.

We head through the shipping mecca of Norfolk
The tides coming in and out of the Chesapeake Bay are nothing compared to the rivers in Georgia, but still, they’re strong enough that you want them on your side as much of the time as you can manage. Heading north we had the incoming tide carrying us for several hours, but our destination was closer to 10 hours away, so we were also going to have it on the nose at some point. Fortunately we had good winds off the beam and managed to make decent time. By 4:00 p.m., we’d meandered into Robin’s Neck in Mobjack Bay, and were dropping our anchor in 11 feet alongside the marshy bank of the creek. Near us was an old weathered house that looked deserted – an idyllic sight – and in the distance was a farm and grain silo – the whole thing a picture from another time. We throttled back on the chain, and felt the reassuring tugging and straining that makes you feel well hooked and safe. By 4:30, with a donkey’s braying carrying through the air, and ducks cackling nearby, I stripped off my clothes, and began to take a long, hot, soapy shower in the cockpit. Ah, the perfect end to a perfect day. (Wait, who said that?)

Just when my hair was full of shampoo, I felt a chill in the air and noticed a dark squall line approaching us at an alarmingly rapid pace.

“Hey, Douglas!” I called below as the scenery began to disappear behind a curtain of rain. “Quick, take a look at this.”

He climbed into the cockpit. “Wow!” he said. “It’s almost black.”

Within a couple of minutes, the first raindrops were falling on Ithaka’s teak deck, but in no time at all we felt the wind gusting, and the gentle drops turning into a hammering torrent. Douglas rushed to close the forward hatch, and to turn on the sailing instruments and GPS, so we could keep track of depth, wind speed and position. It was a good thing. Within moments we were engulfed in the hardest pounding of rain I’d ever experienced aboard. We clocked the wind at 30, then 35. In the protection of our cockpit, under our overhead bimini and behind the dodger, we were out of the elements. As I started rinsing off, the wind gusts hit 40, then shifted dramatically from a different direction. We could no longer see any scenery around us—just a thick curtain of gray rain. Then I looked at our depth sounder. Where it had said we had five feet below our keel a few minutes before, now it said we had less than a foot.

Farmlands surround the marshes in which we were anchored in Robins Neck
“Douglas, we’re dragging!” I bellowed, and immediately turned on the engine to get control of the boat as he ran forward to begin bringing up the chain with the anchor windlass. The rain was so thick that I could hardly see him on the foredeck. Then the depth sounder read 00.0. We were broadside to the wind and I could feel us aground! The wind was now clocking 43 knots, and things were getting dangerous fast. The one lucky thing is that the bottom was mud—not a coral reef that could hole a hull. Worst case scenario, we could motor our way out of trouble, or (ugh) get pulled. As the anchor chain kept coming up, I motored us forward. Still the depth sounder read 00.0, and I could see we were kicking up mud in the water behind us. Eventually, slowly, we finally began to make progress, inch by inch. We have our anchor chain marked with colored cable ties – red, white and then blue—to let us know how much chain we have out, and finally Douglas called back to me at the top of his lungs that he was beginning to see the red ties coming up. This meant we had only about 25 more feet of chain to bring up. Finally, in the height of the howling wind and rain, as thunder and lightening crashed all around us, I saw him give me the “All’s up!” signal, meaning the anchor was on deck, and I began to move us back into deeper water.

Adrenaline was in control now. The wind was clocking around a bit, and I still couldn’t see any shoreline anywhere around us, even though it was only about 100 feet away somewhere – the rain was still too thick. Completely disoriented, I steered by compass toward where I thought the middle of the creek was, the place where we’d had 11-foot depth. It took forever to fight the heavy winds and make headway, and it was hit and miss to find deeper water again. Seeing 00.0 over and over again on the depth sounder was petrifying. Were we motoring toward shallower water? I wasn’t sure! When we finally found a bit more water, then a bit more, we tried anchoring two times without success. Then finally the anchor caught, we throttled back on it several times to be sure, and then Douglas put on the snubber, and rushed back to the protection of the cockpit as the thunder claps rocked the world.

The sun sets on another cruising day
“Look at you!” I said. He was soaked from head to toe, his hair plastered down around his face, his clothes sticking to him. As the rain-washed landscape re-emerged from the fog, the wind calmed, and the donkey’s brays could be heard again wafting across the marshes.

“Look at you!” he said. I’d never finished rinsing the soap out of my hair before we’d dragged, and I was still stark naked.