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.
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.
Throughout the Georgia marshlands were fishing boats and shrimpers going to and fro from their home ports.
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.
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.
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.
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
The red sky of a waterway sunset.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The entrance to Pungo Creek
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.
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!)
We shared the protection of Pungo with this elegantly restored
sailboat, and waited for the low to pass us all by.
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.
Ducks waddle along the banks of the Great Bridge lock.
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
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
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
they had no bimini, only a small dodger, and that they flew an Italian flag.
Where are you coming from?” the handsome fellow on the other boat called
over to us.
Ithaka pokes her nose into the lock, and we tie alongside as the gates
close and the water begins to drop
“Savannah,” we called back, happy to connect to a fellow cruiser. “What
“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
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.
Baernes cozy pilothouse, the object of our desires three years
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.
Inge and Bernadette
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.