It was a bit of a shock to go from the quiet rivers of northern North Carolina to a jumble of bascule bridges and a lock system in Virginia. Waiting in narrow waterways for bridges to open while avoiding other, larger sailboats that are also waiting, a large tug boat that is waiting too, and trying not to run aground or into the bridge isn’t what I would call relaxing (and that is apparently a good day!). We snaked our way past a graveyard of dilapidated boats, an industrial maze of cranes, naval ships, and tugs leading container ships. A small craft advisory had been issued for Hampton Roads that day, but we pushed onward, despite the discomfort, to Hampton, where we planned to meet up with my family for my brother’s birthday dinner.
Although I grew up in southeastern Virginia on the York River, I had only been sailing in the area a few times as a child. It was definitely an eye-opening experience to arrive by water, and I began to see the Chesapeake in a new light. Nearly all of the other sailboats that had been traveling alongside us up the coast of North Carolina stopped at the anchorage in Norfolk, but we had a little bit of insider knowledge from family friends, so we sought out the quieter anchorage in Hampton. We were quite happy with this choice, although there were only a few tight spots to drop the hook. The town of Hampton was impressively accomodating; in fact, the dock master even gave us a welcome packet upon our arrival (and we weren’t even renting a slip!). They offer a public dingy dock, $1 showers, and free bicycle rental.
Our first night in Hampton, in the midst of dropping our second anchor, a squall hit. My parents were waiting for us at a nearby restaurant with my brother when a 40-knot gust of wind hit us side-on. The wind shifted quickly, pushing Brian and the dingy into a nearby dock, while Illusion heeled way over under the force of the blow. The wind generator was on and cranking, as I struggled to locate the off switch and turn on the engine in case the anchors drug. We were terribly positioned, side-on to the wind, as Brian climbed back onto Illusion and tried to winch down on the second anchor rode. He managed well enough, and although we still weren’t in an ideal position, both anchors seemed to be holding us tight. Still, a second squall line was headed our way.
Between phone calls with my parents (should they go ahead and eat dinner or not?), we put out fenders, closed hatches, and prepared for a second blow, which never came. We waited instead until the rain subsided and then took the dingy to shore to meet the family for an after-dinner beer and birthday cake; by that time, we had unfortunately missed dinner. Despite our initial concerns, it turned out that we had positioned Illusion in a pretty nice spot, which we enjoyed for the next few days. We even made friends with some young folks on another boat that we recognized from Charleston, trading sailing stories like a couple of old salts (we aren’t) until we pulled up the anchors and made our way to the York River. We sailed most of the way, which was fantastic, reaching Yorktown just before dusk.
We’ve been enjoying the area in between working on the boat (Brian), preparing scholarship applications (me), and visiting with my family. I think I can safely say for the both of us though, that we had the greatest time kayaking to Goodwin Island from Back Creek yesterday. It may have been a hot day (101 degrees), but it was nice and cool on the water.
Illusion covered the coast of South Carolina in just two full days of offshore sailing, and had conditions been a little more favorable, we could have probably made the trip in less time. In contrast, it took us a couple weeks to cover the coastline of North Carolina on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). Partly due to a short visit with my family and some coastal exploration of small towns along the way and partly due to weather, we made slow progress up the coast of North Carolina.
Compared to our offshore travel, the ICW seemed slow and tense, especially in the southern portion. There were many boats to watch out for, shallow water to avoid, and the most crowded anchorages that I’ve experienced. With that said, there was also much to see along the way and beautiful scenery. We motored nearly the entire way, pulling out the jib whenever possible to gain an extra knot and speed up our pace. I think next time we will try the offshore route around North Carolina, with one stop at Beaufort, NC, to explore Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks, which we were sorry to have missed on account of poor weather.
We stopped to explore several towns along the way. In Wilmington, we docked for one night at the public docks to recharge our batteries and fill up the jerricans with fuel and water. The town is in the middle of revitalization efforts, but it was a cute riverside location and the docks were located right in the center of everything. We grabbed some pizza, checked out a few art galleries, and just wandered for a while. When we reached Swansboro two days later, we anchored in front of the bridge. My uncle came to pick us up, and we visited with his family at the beach for Memorial Day Weekend. I was excited to hang out with them at their house for a few days, and Brian was happy to get in a few surf sessions. The ICW was a zoo of motor boats over the holiday weekend, so we were happy to avoid the crowded waterway. We did experience some of the madness when we left on Monday, but things had started to slow down by the time we reached Beaufort.
The anchorage in front of Beaufort town (Taylor Creek) was quite crowded our first night, and I was amazed to see so many cruisers in one spot (obviously, I haven’t been cruising for very long). I liked this anchorage because it provided easy access to the town and was right beside the Rachel Carson National Estuarine Sanctuary, which had wild horses on it! It was a popular spot because of its proximity and easy access to the ocean and its proximity to several other cool anchorages (Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks). Beaufort had many cruiser amenities (even an entire bookstore devoted to cruising books), and I particularly enjoyed the North Carolina Maritime Museum. North Carolina has such an interesting and unique maritime history; I remember visiting Bald Head Island as a kid and being fascinated by the Frying Pan Shoals and the stories of pirates like Black Beard and Stede Bonnet who occasionally took sanctuary on the island.
We left Beaufort for Oriental several days later, hoping to visit the marine consignment store there. The sleepy town reminded me of childhood and carefree days of summer in a bygone decade; it was beautiful, quiet, and quaint – the perfect location for a bed and breakfast. Houses kept manicured lawns with flowers and vegetable gardens galore and sidewalks that made it easily walkable. Apparently the marine consignment shop doesn’t operate on Wednesday and Thursday (we arrived on Thursday), so we missed out as we continued north for Virginia the next day. In the early hours of daylight during our departure from Oriental, we happily wasted (enjoyed) a few hours of time sailing on the Pamlico Sound. It was one of the most relaxing parts of our trip up the ICW – no engine noise, just wind and waves.
The wildlife and stretches of deserted waterway in the northern portion of the state provided a refreshing change of scenery after the crowded waterways of the south. I think my favorite stretch above the Pamlico Sound was the Alligator River, which I kept scanning for alligators and snakes (I never saw any). Although the water was brown, the banks were verdant, lush with vegetation and the occasional cypress tree. Butterflies fluttered around Illusion as we passed through the Pungo River Alligator River Canal, and I saw a fox running through the trees along the shoreline.
We made the mistake of avoiding the Great Dismal Swamp route and Elizabeth City, because of a misperception that it was too shallow for our 5’9 draft (we will definitely take it if we have the option again), but we ended up spending a beautiful night on the North River, which we discovered was a freshwater river. Excitement ensued when we anchored and, shortly thereafter, jumped in the water with our shampoo and soap for a little swim and a scrub. It was the first night since the Cape Fear River that we spent anchored alone (unless you count the hundreds of crab pots that surrounded us and the frogs with their croaking nighttime chorus). We were one with the natural scenery and felt rewarded with an unbelievable sunset. It was a peaceful and beautiful night even despite the disconcerting appearance of two tugs pushing barges up the narrow, serpentine river after dark – an indication perhaps of what was to come.
On our last leg of the North Carolina ICW, we achieved several hours of sailing in the Currituck Sound surrounded by hunting ospreys and nests full of their half-grown offspring; it was a beautiful last stretch of waterway to contrast the hubbub that awaited us in Virginia.
After Illusion‘s first storm experience a few weeks ago, I have been paying extra attention to the weather and the various cloud formations in the sky. I am constantly pointing out cumulous cloud formations to Brian (perhaps to the point of annoyance), including the occasional cumulonimbus, whose name I love to say. Part of this fascination with cumulous clouds can be traced back to my younger years and my father’s incredibly long explanations of weather patterns concerning aviation (he works in aeronautic safety). Although perhaps only half paying attention back then, I always remember that cumulous clouds hold moisture and are formed when hot air rises quickly. Cooling as it reaches higher atmospheric levels, the air condenses and begins to drop, full of water vapor. The air warms again in the lower atmosphere and rises to the top again, leaving the moisture at the bottom and creating a circular effect. When the air reaches a certain height (and cold temperature), the moisture will drop out of the cloud as rain. These clouds are fascinating to me because they grow vertically and can reach towering heights. I saw many of these formations over the coastline, when we sailed offshore from South Carolina.
When I first started reading about weather a few weeks ago, I flipped through a book on the boat that Brian had acquired a while back called Weather at Sea by David Houghton. Brian’s version (I am not sure which edition it was) was the British version, which was an earlier version and admittedly left us both wanting, but I did learn a few interesting facts. For example, I was pleased to discover that many of the old sailor sayings about weather are true. One night during our offshore-sailing adventure, Brian noticed a ring around the moon. There is an old saying that goes: “When halo rings the moon or sun, rain’s approaching on the run.” Upon further reading, we discovered that the ring around the moon can be seen when a thin layer of cirrus clouds forms across the sky. Cirrus clouds indicate that a low pressure system is on its way. When the low comes in contact with warmer air, it creates storms and brings colder temperatures. Similarly the saying: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” also holds some truth. It is based on an old shepherds’ observations concerning the sun’s angle to the clouds, the direction the light reflects off of them (to the east or to the west), and the visible spectrum of light (red).
I recently ordered two more books on this subject: Mariner’s Weather by William Crawford and the Weather Wizard’s Cloud Book: A Unique Way to Predict the Weather Accurately and Easily by Reading the Clouds by Louis D. Reuben, Sr. et al. The former is a more in depth look at weather, but with a focus on practical information for sailors, and the second book focuses on the study of clouds and what they can tell us about the weather. To ease some of our sailing worries (isn’t there already enough to worry about?), we also acquired a radar that we will install here in Virginia, generously donated to Illusion‘s great (mis)adventures by Brian’s family and a close family friend. After consulting the cruiser’s forum and asking other veteran sailors and cruisers their opinion on the matter, we determined that the radar would be more useful to us than satellite weather. I am eager to try it out because I’ve never used one before. We do, in fact, have a barometer (floating around the boat somewhere), which I plan to hang up and put to good use in the future. I hope that a better understanding of the weather will ease some of my fears and help me make more informed decisions in regards to travel plans, routes, and generally what to expect of the weather.
These are some cloud formations that I observed during our trip up the North Carolina ICW.