Mind Over Mud

By Tom Neale, 6/3/2004


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Photo by Mel Neale
As the sun rose, shimmering orange over the Georgia marsh, the mosquito didn’t have a clue about the way he was to die. Perhaps he felt a bit of apprehension, but probably not. Flying into moist dark holes was old hat to the blood orgy veteran. Sure, he might have known that there was some risk, but only risk of a quick and decisive finish—not what was to come.

I was doing what I usually do in marshes at first light. I was pulling in the anchor. I was also paying for the relaxed secure night that we had just enjoyed, free from worry about dragging. Numerous factors go into creating just such a night, and one of these is a good holding bottom of high quality mud. Lots of mud, of the very highest quality, was coming up with every link of my anchor chain. Despite all reasonable efforts to wash and shake it off, it was still clinging to the chain, clogging every loop, as it rattled aboard. Then, as the chain jerked between the anchor roller and the windlass, gobs that had tightly hung in there all the way from the bottom of the river, flew off in all directions. Being a hands on sort of guy in everything I do, I, at this point, had the mud also clinging to most of my parts, not the least of which was my hands.

My instinct was unambiguous as I heard and then felt the mosquito fly into my ear. Unambiguous, but not completely sensitive to all the facts. First came the smack. Then, realizing the ineffectiveness of this tactic, next came the jab as I rammed my finger up into my ear. I saw “The Caterpillar” in Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” years ago, and I know all about bugs in ears eating through the brain and coming out the other side. The lesson didn’t go unheeded. So I was vigorous and thorough as I routed for the intruder, until I remembered what had been on my finger. As I pulled it from my ear, most of the mud remained up inside with the mosquito, which was now condemned to a slow death of suffocation by mud.

You have to be optimistic to be out on a boat, and so I peered anxiously at my now slightly cleaner finger, hoping to see the mosquito. I didn’t see much of anything, because the slap had spread mud over most of my face, including my glasses. Panic growing, I tore them from my face, laid them on top of the anchor windlass, and squinted carefully at my dirty digit. I had hoped to see some sign of life there, or at least evidence of recent life—like a wing or two or a few mosquito legs. The life I saw wasn’t what I had in mind. Dozens of tiny, almost microscopic shrimp-like creatures frantically wriggled in the finger tip mud. It was unclear to me whether they were upset from having been pulled up from the warm Georgia waters, or just upset because most of their friends and relatives had been left behind in my ear. The friends and relatives were obviously also upset. I could feel them thrashing about in there, looking for a way out but apparently not knowing which way was it.


There’s an easy way to get mud off your chain without a wash down pump. All you have to do is grab the chain, pull it up a couple of feet and let it go, so that it quickly moves vertically up and down in the water. This removes much of the mud (except the very highest quality stuff). Usually it takes 4 to 7 pulls per section. Do only a section at a time, as needed. Don’t try this vertical dunking if the water is too deep and, therefore, the chain is too heavy because of its length from your roller to the bottom. This could be a back killer. And be careful about catching fingers and toes under the chain. You probably won’t be able to do this if wind or current is moving your boat back, keeping the chain taught.

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Deciding to forget about the anchor for awhile, I turned to head aft and below to the shower with its flushing stream of warm water. I reached down to retrieve my glasses off the windlass, hoping to better see and avoid the huge clumps of mud on the deck around me. As my hand closed around them, I realized that I had again been perhaps too optimistic. There was no way I was going to see the deck with them, with the amount of mud spread and splattered all over the lenses. The realization that they needed washing had just flashed into my mind when they, along with a considerable amount of mud, squirted out of my fist and into the creek. Although the charts describe good mud as sticky when it’s on the bottom, this characteristic changes considerably when it’s on glasses. There was a little good news to come. As I knelt down to peer over the side, hoping that they’d float to the top, I discovered that two of the larger clumps of mud on the deck were actually my feet. It’s always nice to know that your deck isn’t quite as dirty as you thought it was.

Walking aft through the cockpit and into the cabin isn’t normally a big deal. It is when you have bugs in the ear, mud on the feet (and most other parts), no glasses, and when you’re in a bit of a hurry. With my considerable experience at sea in all sorts of emergencies, I’ve learned long ago how to handle a situation like this. I hollered, “MEL,” at the top of my voice. She left the wheel and came quickly, (if not warily) forward. It was probably helpful that I couldn’t see the expression on her face.

We keep a hose on deck, plumbed into the fresh water system, for wash downs after swimming and salt removal after windy passages. Appraising the situation as she neared the border of the mess, she turned around and headed back to get this hose. It’s probably also good that I couldn’t see the look of satisfaction on her face as she cut loose in my direction. With the flurry of muddy spray, no one really knew what did and did not come out of my ear (and I’m sure you’re glad I’m not going to dwell on the subject any longer). Nor did we get to analyze further the microscopic shrimp-like creatures. Only one fact was clear as the darkened waters ran toward the scuppers: it was, indeed, a fine quality mud.

I like mud. Really I do. It drives me nuts to hear somebody say, “Oh, we got some horrible mud on our anchor. We’ll never anchor there again.” I know one couple who regularly go into marinas when they’re cruising, spending $75.00 to $125.00 a night, simply to avoid the stuff. Do that enough, and you could just cut your chain and anchor loose, on those muddy mornings, and probably come out ahead. High quality mud will hold onto a good anchor and keep your little island safely in place through the stormy night. It allows you to relax for a stress free evening. Mud, in my book, is rated from one to 5 stars. Five stars go to mud that’s partly gray clay. Once a good anchor digs in, you’re good to stay. The lowest rating goes to really runny mud that wouldn’t keep a boat from dragging even if it were sunk. But there’s more to mud than anchoring.

If you’re going to go aground, mud is the place to do it, especially the 1 star mud. When I’m picking a landing spot, unlike anchoring, I want to go for the soft stuff. I spend a lot of time in places with hard sand bottoms, rocky bottoms, and reef. There’s not much forgiveness here. So it’s always good to get to an area with a wide array of mud ranging from soft for when you’re going aground and don’t want to stay there, to thick and sticky for when you’re in deep water and do want to stay there.

But mud’s piece de resistance comes in a little known fact. I learned it many years ago when I first started cruising, on a skiff with a tent and no screens. Spread it all over you, really thoroughly, and the mosquitoes won’t bite.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale