We’re moving steadily southward now, trying to cover reasonable distances each day yet still manage to be close to good anchorages at night. It’s not easy. Up until Belhaven, we had excellent anchorages, well protected from the winds and well away from the ICW channel. ICW night number one, we were at dock in Coinjock, night number two, we (and five other boats) were tucked into a small anchorage with good protection from the wild north winds that started howling around 2 am. The next day, we made a short trip into the Belhaven harbour and sheltered from those high winds for two nights before continuing on.
Belhaven is one quiet town; the only thing open on the Sunday we arrived was the pool hall. On Monday though, Blair snagged us a golf cart from the marina to do some exploring. We found a Food Lion with great wine at confusingly low prices; I know our dollar is soaring but their selection of Australian wines was not only extensive, it was downright cheap! The highlight, besides touring Belhaven at a stately 5 mph in the golf cart, was finding miles and miles of cotton fields, all the plants bursting out of their pods, ready to be picked.
We left Belhaven early, heading down to Oriental, North Carolina, sailing slowly in the light winds while Blair did some emergency maintenance on the engine. He had checked the engine that morning and all was fine but once we got out of the harbour and started south, he noticed a bolt had shaken loose from the oil pan and needed to be reinserted (easier said than done when the engine is hot, Blair has no clear view of the oil pan and is feeling around the pan to find the hole that bolt fit into). Once that little job was out of the way, we started the engine and motor-sailed the rest of the day towards Oriental. The route to Oriental led through biggish creeks, wide sounds and one skinny canal. In the canal, we passed quite a few shrimp boats and at one point, had to squeeze over to let a shrimper come through with his wings spread wide.
All last year, one of my morning routines to jump start my day was to check Oriental’s town dock web camera, noting the boats heading south in the fall and then north again in the spring. We’d really been looking forward to standing in front of the webcam, waving like fools and then posting the time and date in this blog so everyone could see us. Unfortunately, by the time we got into Oriental, the anchorage was pretty tight. We skirted around all the other anchored boats for a bit and decided it was too close-quartered for us and reluctantly headed for the next anchorage, six miles on at Cedar Creek. While we slowly exited the harbour, I strung out our wifi antennae and managed to download a whole slew of emails. One of them was from Estelle, a Bristol 41.1 we had met in the Chesapeake. Among other things, the email said that Cedar Creek was an excellent anchorage so that cheered me up measurably. They were right; it was a quiet anchorage, well off the ICW with only about 10 boats in a good-sized bay. A prominent land (sea?) mark on the way in was a mast sticking out of the water; a victim of Hurricane Isabel two years ago.
Our next stop was Mile Hammock Bay in the middle of Camp Lejeune, a military base of about 150,000 troops and support personnel. The military allows sailboats to anchor here but they use the entire area (156,000 acres and 11 miles of beach) for training; that means live target practice, tactical landings, amphibious operations, you name it). The ICW, at the Camp Lejeune entrance, can be closed at any time if the military judges it unsafe to boaters. We cruised on past the entrance, past the amphibious landing craft full of soldiers with rifles and made a right turn into Mile Hammock Bay as V22 Ospreys, UH60 Black Hawks and a pair of A10 Warthogs roared overhead. It was a warm night and in the protection of this isolated little bay, we had our dinner in the cockpit, listening to the roar of the surf beyond the dunes and the distant ratatat of heavy caliber and gattling guns- how’s that for a romantic dinner?
Because of the bad weather this past week, the boats are starting to stack up now, filling all the good anchorages and marinas. We noticed this in our stop at Mile Hammock Bay which easily had three days worth of boat traffic anchored here. This is the only anchorage between Beaufort and Wrightsville, North Carolina and that night there were 23 boats floating here. Unlike Oriental, it didn’t feel tight though as there was good space between us all so no one felt their personal boat space was being invaded.
The ICW scenery is getting more interesting at this point, from the tall dunes shielding us from the Atlantic to the low marsh islands with their tall grasses. This part of the waterway is very close to the Atlantic and, as well as hearing the pounding surf, we can see the backside of all the vacation homes built right along the ocean. All the retiring ‘boomers’ are looking for waterfront property and North Carolina is the place to get it. In fact, all the real estate glossies tout North Carolina as a “Boomer’s Paradise”.
The channel is narrower now and sometimes not very deep. The depth can range anywhere from 6 feet up to 14 feet at low tide and we often hear the boaters further on down the water warning those behind to watch out for shoaling in various spots they’ve passed through. Getting further south in North Carolina, we’re seeing lots of wildlife, even though we’re so close to civilization. Rounding one corner of the channel, we saw trees covered with big white blobs. It looked like the tree had been toilet-papered for Halloween but as we got closer, we could see that it was full of what we think were a group of Egrets sitting in the tree. A few of the low-lying marshy islands we passed had goats grazing near the water and at most of the inlets, groups of dolphins break the surface in quick succession and sometimes even leap out of the water in pairs.
The weather since we entered the ICW has consisted of a succession of one cold front after another and on top of all that we’re getting the side effects of Hurricane Noel as it makes its way up the coast on a track for the Canadian Maritimes. Because Noel’s track and arrival was uncertain, we waited perhaps a little longer than we should have to book reservations into a marina to sit out the high winds. Lesson learned: the marinas get booked up fast when bad weather is predicted and next time we’ll hustle a little faster. To sit out Noel’s passage, we managed to find space in the Harbour Village Marina near Surf City. It is probably the most expensive marina around this area and likely the reason it had some vacancies. No matter, we’re in and glad to be in this particular marina especially as it’s well off the ICW, down a narrow channel in a well protected basin. We’re squeezed into a single slip between two floating docks here and have all our fenders out and are tied stern, bow and spring on both sides.
Late last night, a huge sailboat came ghosting into this marina. David, her owner and captain usually sails Aratinga, a 60 foot Alden with an 80 foot mast, outside on the open ocean but he said he thought this year he’d like to try the ICW. Now…this is quite the accomplishment, given that the fixed bridge heights on the ICW are all around 65 feet. David ingeniously rigged up a way of tilting his boat over so that she “slides” under the bridges, healed up on an angle. He has two one-ton (yes, 1 ton) thick rubber bags of water hanging midway up his mast. His boat has a slight tilt to starboard anyways and when he wants to tilt Aratinga over to pass under a bridge, he lets the line out on these bags of water so they hang over the side and that increases his starboard list. He figures that to cut 10-15 feet off his mast, he has to let the bags hang out 10-15 feet to starboard. It’s worked up to this point and I’ll bet this New Zealander will be the talk of the ICW for years to come.
We shared a rental car with Jim and Jeannie Lea from Estelle and drove to Wrightsville Beach to check out the Atlantic Ocean in all its fury. The wind was howling on the beach and the waves were wild, yet even so there were some diehard surfers out there catching the waves. We went over to the Wrightsville Beach anchorage recommended in Skipper Bob’s Anchorages Along the ICW, a must have booklet for anyone traveling this ditch. In this area, there were about 15 boats, some of which had been with us in Mile Hammock Bay the night before. They were all swinging wildly on their anchors, pitching up and down and generally making us feel pretty good that we’d sprung for our expensive shelter further inland. We found an excellent seafood store, picked up Wahoo filets and shrimp, stopped for a fine lunch at Airlie Seafood Company (fish all ’round) and then a stop at my new, most favourite grocery store chain, Harris Teeter.
For all those who sent us “stay safe” messages, I post this blog to say we’re tucked in away from wild winds, we’ve stocked up on large quantities of excellent seafood and had some fine company today; life is good.