Back of the Pack -
&nbnsp;October 31, 2002
"Little Gidding" bringing up the rear, as usual
The eastern seaboard fall migration has begun in earnest. Boats from Canada and New England have been trickling down the east coast since the end of the summer. Chesapeake Bay became a staging area for many of them. There they waited impatiently for the end of hurricane season before venturing further south. The US Sailboat show held in Annapolis over the Columbus Day weekend was a convenient diversion and one last opportunity to haemorrhage money. Better stock up on a few more spare parts and assorted boat gizmos - who knows when you'll next find them once you leave North America. The moment the show was over, it was a mad rush south. By then, the days were getting shorter, the temperature colder, and the pocketbook slimmer. To dally any longer might have resulted in death by exposure, bankruptcy or both.
Hallowe'en (today) seems to be the unofficial date for boats bound for the tropics to exit the Chesapeake. Strictly speaking, the northern hemisphere hurricane season extends to the end of November. Southbound cruisers tend to push the date forward a month because: (1) historically, the frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes has sharply decreased by the end of October; and (2) the frequency of winter cold fronts has begun to sharply increase. Thus the organizers of the Caribbean 1500 Norfolk-to-Virgin Islands cruising rally schedule the start of their race for the first week of November. But, as any follower of the stock market will tell you, relying on historical trends to make short term decisions comes with a risk. A few years ago, the Caribbean 1500 fleet got clobbered by the remnants of hurricane Mitch, one of the deadliest hurricanes on record.
We're part of this year's mob heading south. Some of the group are going offshore directly to Bermuda, the Bahamas or the Caribbean. Others (including us) are bound for Florida, and perhaps further afield later in the winter. We arrived in Norfolk last week to find the anchorages crammed full. We heard on the radio of boats being turned away from some of the marinas. We are lemmings rushing to the sea.
We were eager to try out our brand new chart of Cape Hatteras. Then we heard the offshore weather report. Our dour friend November Mike November (the computer-generated voice of the National Weather Service) predicted gale force winds and twelve foot seas. Not pretty. Eileen suggested, "Let's keep that chart nice and unmarked, and take the Intracoastal Waterway to Beaufort instead."
Beaufort, NC is around the corner from the treacherous shoals off Cape Hatteras. It's a 200 mile trip in relatively sheltered waters on the ICW from Norfolk - four days for a boat of our speed at this time of the year. David wasn't feeling very heroic, either. "Sounds good to me. By the time we get to Beaufort, the weather might have changed for the better and we can go outside from there."
It seems that a lot of other boaters were having similar thoughts. Just before dawn a few days ago, there was much rumbling of anchor chain in our anchorage by Hospital Point (mile zero on the ICW) . Everyone was planning to catch the first opening of the Jordan Highway lift bridge at ICW mile 2.8. As we motored en masse up the Elizabeth River, it looked like a re-enactment of the Normandy invasion. It proved to be an interesting lesson in group psychology.
We've noticed that a strange mentality often grips people when they're in a queue - whether that line-up is at a supermarket check-out, a crowded freeway at rush hour, or on a constricted waterway that's clogged with boats. Some folks just have to be at the front of the line. Now it just so happens that the first few miles of the ICW are encumbered by many bridges and one lock that must open before a boat of any size can pass through. Some of the bridges open on demand, others operate on a fixed schedule. This is a fact of life. You might find it frustrating and inconvenient, but there's nothing you can do about it.
Despite the ironclad certainty that a bridge that is scheduled to open on the hour will not open 15 minutes before the hour, some boaters find it necessary to pass every other boat in front of them so they can arrive at the bridge first and wait 15 minutes for the rest of the fleet to catch up. On our first morning on the ICW, there was a motor yacht the size of a house that was particularly anxious to get ahead. High up on the bridge, the skipper avoided eye contact with the mere mortals in the boats below him. At the first opportunity to pass, he would roar ahead, a tsunami trailing behind him. When we'd arrive at the next bridge just before it opened, we'd smile and wave up at him. He wouldn't wave back.
Then there was the single-hander in a sailboat about the same size as ours who crept along at the fringe of the pack, surreptitiously slipping ahead of one boat after another. Perhaps his throttle lever was stuck on high revs. We passed him just before the lock at Great Bridge. He was stuck in the mud at the edge of the channel.
Don't get us wrong. We're just as eager as everyone else to get to warmer climes as soon as possible. But if we're all going to end up at the same place at the end of the day, we don't mind being at the back of the pack. It's a lot less crowded, sometimes even peaceful. Come to think of it, maybe that's why we quit our jobs and went cruising.