We left South Harbour Village Marina after three nights… three cold cold nights… nights so cold that when we woke up each morning, we put the Espar heater on before anything else. This was North Carolina and anyone who’d booked their golf vacations that week would have been sorely disappointed with this weather. Then, like a light switch, the weather turned. It got hot and sunny and we were in shorts and tees for the rest of the week.
The north-south water traffic was down but that’s not to say that the waterway wasn’t being used. Every day, we passed small runabouts with people bobbing in the sun and fishing. On the weekend, the shores were full of kids, bundled against the cold but in barefeet and shorts running into the water up to their knees and back out again. The water temperature had dropped to 17°C but that didn’t seem to deter anyone. All the way up the ICW through North Carolina and Virginia, we’ve noticed small signs at the edge of the channel indicating that it was illegal to take shellfish from the area as it was part of a shellfish relay. In a shellfish relay, clams from other more polluted areas are moved to cleaner waters to give them a chance to remove contaminants. The clams are left here for a while (sometimes up to three months), while they filter all the pollutants out using the cleaner waters of the ICW. Looking down at the muddy ICW waters, we wonder at the clams’ other digs if the ICW is considered a cleaner home.
Because of the tidal schedule, we’ve been leaving dock or anchorages at sunrise most mornings; a cold time for boating but one that ensured we arrived at the shallow, shoaled spots on a rising tide. From the Cape Fear River north, we played tag with two tugs pushing barges loaded with cranes. They were on the same sort of long-day schedules as us and we’d pass them each day, sometimes early morning, sometimes at mid day and then towards the end of the day, long after Strathspey was at anchor, the tugs would plow by at 4 knots and anchor somewhere upstream of us.
The number of boats heading upstream with us suddenly increased around Beaufort, North Carolina. It was like an alarm had gone off, signaling that it was time to head north. While most of the traffic last week was trawlers and sport fish boats, north of Beaufort we started seeing many more sailboats. While we waited for the bridges, the sailboats appeared one by one behind us and surprisingly, they’re all making long days like Strathspey. We traveled three days with Sabbatical and Eagles Wings from Sodus Point, New York, anchoring together each night after putting in long 60-mile days. Our last night together, we finally all met aboard Sabbatical and shared our stories. It turns out, we had friends in common as well – Tony and Monica of Kingfisher from Trident Yacht Club (again a pretty small world). The next day, at the fork in the road they went left to the Dismal Swamp and we stayed to the right, following the Virginia Cut north to Norfolk, Virginia.
We’d been having good luck with the winds and current pushing us north, especially across the Pamlico and Arbemarle Sounds, larger sounds in North Carolina where opposing winds can make for a bad sail. After the Alligator River though, it seemed like the weather window was closing down on us. Early that morning we quickly crossed the Arbemarle Sound and were able to dodge the rain and high winds and get secured at the Coinjock Marina along with an armada of other tired and wet boats. By late afternoon, the bad weather arrived and that night, the weather forecast for this area flashed a tornado watch for Coinjock and for most of the Virginia coastline. This is a little too other worldly for us; as if high winds and freezing cold weren’t enough to test us, now a tornado loomed on our horizon. After raining all night, the tornado warning was replaced by flash flood warnings. This is record rainfall for Virginia and for us, the first really big rainstorm we’ve had in almost a year so we’re not going to complain.
At dock in Coinjock, the lightning storm was the worst I’d seen in awhile. Our friends Jim and Jeannie of Estelle, on a 400-mile offshore passage from the Abacos to Charleston, said they could see the fireworks from that far south even. Jim had mentioned last fall that in a lightning storm, your boat oven was probably the safest place to keep your electronics. Apparently a stainless steel oven prevents the setup of electrical fields that fry your instruments. So that night, for the first time ever, our computer, our portable GPS and our handheld VHF radio took up residence alongside the roasting pan in Strathspey‘s oven.
In Coinjock, we visited with two trawlers who had braved the Albemarle Sound with us (Jim and Sandy Garrus of Footloose, an American Tug 41 and Jim and Mary Holmgren of Irish Lady, a Uniflite 46). We enjoyed good conversation ranging from American politics, particularly interesting right now, right on down to the tipping of dock staff. The tipping aspect of arriving at dock is always worth comparing with fellow boaters; yes/no, how much, who and when. Jim Garrus had a funny story about pulling into dock once and handing over some nice tips to the two men who helped him in; he found out later that one of the men was a fellow boater (a sailer no less) who had not protested one smidge when offered the tip. We all had a good laugh over that one, especially the fact that it was a sailor.
We’re out of the ICW now, having busted loose on Monday amid heavy rain and the occasional thunderstorm. We’re in Portsmouth, right at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Last night we celebrated both our arrival in the Chesapeake and our leaving the ICW. We went to Fusion 440 in the historic area of Portsmouth, an excellent restaurant with the best fried green tomatoes I’ve ever had. The menu described them lovingly as a ” Biscotti encrusted green tomato tower with a fine herb Boursin cheese mousse, topped with jalapeno spiked grilled sweet corn salsa, and grilled scallion jalapeno aioli”. Definitely worthy of our ditch-the-ditch celebrations!
Portsmouth is on the west side of the mouth of the Chesapeake and Norfolk is on the east. Both cities have historic downtown areas, museums and wonderful walkways along the Elizabeth River; that river that the ICW starts and ends its journey at. On Tuesday, we spent the afternoon at the National Maritime Center, part naval history museum and part USS Wisconsin (an Iowa class battleship with the most beautiful teak decks we’d ever seen). The museum was across the river from Strathspey‘s dock so we traveled there by ferry for just $1 each. In a really odd coincidence, as our ferry left dock around noontime we were neck and neck with our traveling buddies Sabbatical and Eagles Wings who were heading upstream. We waved like mad but at this stage, we’re not sure if they knew who we were or just thought we were silly tourists aboard the ferry waving to a passing sailboat.
On this trip, we’ve gotten used to seeing megayachts but in Portsmouth, there was one that made us stop and actually take photos when we arrived on the Norfolk side of the river. At dock, around the corner from the ferry, we stopped to admire the huge super yacht Skat that was being lovingly cleaned and polished by her crew. Skat is owned by Charles Simonyi, a former Microsoft executive, the fifth ever space tourist and Martha Stewart’s longtime boyfriend. On our way back to the ferry at the end of the day, we passed Skat once again and were in time to see a helicopter landing on its helipad. We stopped in the rain to gawk just a little bit as Charles and Martha stepped out of the helicopter and made their way into the yacht. To be truthful, I got a good look at him but I couldn’t swear that the blond with him was Martha.
While in Portsmouth, we actually went to a movie; definitely not the sort of activity we’re used to while aboard Strathspey. Joining us were Jim and Sandy from Footloose, who had pulled in to dock behind us earlier that day. This was no regular movie theatre though. We went to the Commodore Theatre, a restored 1940′s vintage theatre in the downtown area. It felt like we were at a Vegas show because rather than regular seating, the place was full of cozy little tables with dimly lit lamps and comfortable arm chairs. Once we were seated, we browsed through the menu and after deciding what we wanted, Blair picked up the telephone on our table and called our order in to the kitchen. We’d already eaten dinner but it felt like we were curled up in front of the television at home when the beer and popcorn arrived a few minutes later and we settled in to watch Leatherheads.
The weather in Portsmouth is gray, a little bit rainy and with a strong northeast wind it’s not so great for traveling up the Chesapeake Bay just yet. We passed through here pretty quickly on our way south in the fall so we think we’ll stay here another day to explore this area. It feels good to be here at the beginning of this big bay again and we hope to stop in some areas that we missed last fall. The bugs aren’t out yet and spring in the Chesapeake sure sounds like it might hold some promise.