So far Cape Lookout has been one of my favorite anchorages. Although exposed to the wind, the lagoon-like anchorage was large and well protected from the ocean swell. It felt as though we were perched on the edge of the world. To our back, a thin strip of dune protected us from breaking waves and the mighty sea; to our right stretched a wider strip of land with a few houses, an old lighthouse, and a beautiful secluded beach; wild horses grazed on the shores of Shackleford Banks to our left. Aside from a few fishing boats and a tour boat visiting the lighthouse, Illusion rocked in seclusion, the only boat in the beautiful anchorage.
The wind picked up over the course of the day and into the night. In the afternoon, we opted to explore the lighthouse and seashore (Cape Lookout is a National Park). Our dingy bounced and kicked up a good spray as we navigated the shallower waters along Shackleford Banks. Several wild horses grazed on the ridge above the quiet beach, but being unsure of sandbars, we turned back, taking another route to reach the lighthouse dock. The water glittered green in the shallows as we pulled up to the dock. The sandy beach ran up to a grassy pine forest with a raised wooden walk pointing the way to the lighthouse visitor center (closed in the winter).
The afternoon light turned sea grass to gold and formed halos above back-lit pines. Beyond the lighthouse, another wooden path lead us across a grassy field to a sandy road of criss-crossed tire tracks before traversing the dunes, a gateway to the beach. Gulls dove into the frothy surf before us and waves broke against the shore with vigor. A few carloads of fishermen had settled at the tip of the cape. We saw their silhouettes in the distance and watched a camper van speed along the road behind the dunes. Apparently there are also a handful of small beach cottages for rental through the park.
After a night of cold howling winds, Brian pulled up Illusion‘s anchor and we headed out to sea. Dolphins launched out of the water as pelicans swarmed the waters of the cape, horses grazed the Banks, and we rounded the marker of the inlet. Meanwhile the sun rose behind the lighthouse, and we headed back to Beaufort Inlet. We will definitely be back to visit this beautiful place.
After several attempts, Brian woke our sleepy Westerbeke and placed a pot of espresso on the stove. I slid slowly out of bed as the engine roared to life, and the sun cast yellow rays onto the foggy waters of the Pasquotank River. By the time I had climbed into my blue jeans, Brian was already maneuvering out of the slip. We moved forward, braking the surface tension of the still water, into a yellow haze.
When we reached the Alligator River, the sun had risen and the calm waters reflected the blue of the sky. Duck blinds began to appear along the shore, and we began to see a few other boats. Once under the bridge, the shores receded. There were no more houses or signs of civilization. We motored all day in the dead calm, choosing to anchor before entering the Alligator River Pungo River Canal. It was a beautiful spot, the air was warm and the waterway opened to a wide lagoon of sorts.
That evening, as the sun set, a full moon rose. And as the sun rose in the morning, the moon set. A mist hung above the waters, surrounding submerged logs and hugging the swampy shores. As we motored back to the waterway to begin our next leg, several motor boats passed quickly ahead. I monitored the auto pilot, steering Illusion into the canal. Brian fried potatoes and scrambled eggs, as I scanned the shores for wildlife. Daylight illuminated the banks to my right, but cast shadows to my left; the rising sun blinded me between silhouettes of dark trees.
In my groggy state of waking, I used my hand to shield the glaring sun. I scanned the shores lazily. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a dark shadow scampering up the trunk of a fallen tree. The dark outline of furry ears reminded me of a dead black bear that Brian and I had seen in the Dismal Swamp Canal. I quickly woke to my senses. “Bear! Bear!” I yelled, as I squinted into the sun. Yes, indeed. He appeared again on the other side of the trunk, peering at us as we passed. Despite the glare and back light, I managed to snap two photographs of the small black bear.
I love this portion of the ICW because it is remote and wild, allowing animals to roam within their natural habitats. During our trip north last summer, I even saw a fox running along the banks of the canal. While passing through the Dismal Swamp Canal, we saw several park rangers poking a large black object that had caught under the visitor’s center bridge. As we got closer, Brian and I realized that it was a large dead black bear. Cause of death is unknown to me at this time, but he looked healthy. The park rangers left him in the water overnight – I have no idea why – tied by one paw to the bridge. A sad sight to behold, it was still a good indication that there was a healthy bear population in the area, and the sighting of the live bear several days later confirmed.
After a peaceful day of winding through swamp lands and along the Pasquotank River, we pulled up to the public docks at Elizabeth City, NC. The small southern town is known to cruisers as the “Harbor of Hospitality” and for handing out wine and roses to boaters stopping over for the night. To our dismay, we discovered that the town only carries out this custom on days when five or more boats arrive at the same time. Illusion arrived with two other sailboats, and thus were ineligible for the grand welcome. Also, it being a Saturday, the visitor’s center was closed, and much of the town shut down by 3 pm. Still, the afternoon light cast a warm glow over the tiny town, as Brian and I stretched our legs and wandered the two-block downtown radius. We did stop in at the locally owned bookstore to replenish our reading supply, before hopping back onto the boat for a quiet night of rest and relaxation.
Having taken both routes now, I am all in favor of the Great Dismal Swamp route. It’s beautiful, remote, the locks keepers are friendly (the first keeper even played one of his conchs for us upon request), the history is quite interesting, and Elizabeth City has free public docks. Really, what more could you ask for?
I was so excited to have internet on the boat, that I was planning to post live from the Dismal Swamp last night….unfortunately the Dismal Swamp was a little too remote for the internet. You’ll just have to accept a post from the lovely Elizabeth City instead. We’ve had a pleasant few days on the water. lllusion hasn’t seen any sailing yet, but perhaps we will have some fun tomorrow on the Albemarle Sound (our fingers are crossed!).
After we shoved off from Yacht Haven, Brian ran about checking on this or that project to make sure that there were no new causes for concern. With the sun in my face, I monitored the auto helm and scanned the horizon from the wheel; there was little in the way of wind, but a thick cloud cover rolled in. Still we were once again on our way, and it felt great. Brian and I approached Hampton Roads in a glassy grayness. Unlike the last time Illusion crossed Hampton Roads, when the wind had kicked up a messy chop and a small craft advisory had been issued for the area, the boat slid smoothly over the bridge tunnel motoring a clean 6 knots.
We glided toward Norfolk with ease and tranquility – nearly stress free. Well, until I noticed that a giant navy submarine was bearing down on us. It followed us straight in through the channel. To be honest, it looked like a giant shark fin slicing through the water. With tugs passing us left and right, Brian made for one side of the channel. Suddenly one of the sub’s coast guard escorts (there were three!) hooked around and raced towards us. As Brian gestured towards the VHF, someone threw open a door and a man’s head popped out. “We’re bringing in this submarine. Would you mind moving to the other side of the channel?” They couldn’t have been nicer. Yep, no problem. We will definitely get out of the way. They smiled and waved and off they went as we continued dodging tugs all the way to Norfolk, where we dropped anchor for the night.
As the sky cleared, the suns last rays turned the gray clouds to orange, purple, and red, and despite the industrial setting, I couldn’t help but snap picture after picture.
Illusion‘s to-do list is as big as her mast is tall, but lately, Brian and I have been whittling our way through the projects at a brisk pace. Sometimes I feel that each new project just makes our life that much more complicated, but it’s funny how the simplest gadget can also make our lives easier in many ways. Regardless, Brian and I can’t seem to stop ourselves from coming up with new projects and creative solutions to improve our life on the boat. We spent a little extra time in Yorktown ticking a few more items off our list. The radar is finally mounted along with the autopilot, new genoa blocks, a deck-mounted seawater wash-down system, and a new depth sounder transponder. We finally ran a new cable down the mast to the VHF, and Brian put a vented loop on the engine. Before we left Annapolis, we made a few other improvements as well. For example, we installed a new faucet, bought a catalytic heater (camp heater), and a wireless card.
Compared to our former lifestyle, life on the boat is simpler, less cluttered (debatable), and more focused. We have fewer bills to pay, fewer belongings, and fewer luxury items (i.e. dishwasher, microwave, etc.) to encourage lazy inclinations. But in many ways – because we are still participants in a land-based society – when we moved onto the boat, daily tasks became more complicated. I welcomed (and still do) many of these complications, because I am happy to adapt a more active lifestyle. It does take a little more effort to dingy to shore, bike to the grocery store, shop, cart everything back to the dingy, transfer it from dingy to boat, put everything away, and then cook dinner. It was the same with, well, everything. To flush the toilet you have to pump water into the boat by hand and then pump it out again. And washing dishes was its own production because, doing dishes the old way involved pouring water from a cup over pots, pans, and cutting boards, because they would not fit in our small sink and also underneath the faucet. Before we decided to bring the internet onto the boat, I was all-too-frequently taking the dingy in and traveling into town to use the WiFi at various coffee shops in the area to check answer/emails, which of course, also involves the purchasing of a tasty treat or two (or three?). Although seemingly insignificant, it sure adds up over the course of a day.
Since moving onto the boat, we have tried to focus our efforts on those projects that grant us the greatest daily gain. After this recent run, I can now access the internet on the boat (at anchor and while underway!), wash all of our dishes in the sink, sit down while the auto helm or wind vane steers, and enjoy a little bit of warmth at night when we are on the hook. The simplest projects do yield the greatest results. The boat life has seen many improvements recently, which gives us much to appreciate during our journey south. And speaking of the trip – did I mention that I am writing this post from the anchorage in Norfolk? We are sleeping at mile zero of the ICW tonight, and tomorrow we are headed to the swamp, the Great Dismal Swamp to be exact. Pictures to come!
After a final farewell dinner with our anchorage neighbors on Sunday, we drove to a bus stop in Baltimore to pick up our third crew member. We found our friend Michael Kayton, a San Franciscan musician and photographer, picking strings on his guitar with cold fingers at the deserted stop. With news from New York City, San Francisco, and his recent gig in the Big Apple, we had plenty to catch up on. Plus, this being his first-ever sailing trip (his first sailing period), he had many questions to ask during the road trip back to the boat. After a brisk dingy ride from the boat landing (and grand tour of our home), we drank red wine, listened to music, and warmed our hands over the small propane-fueled camping heater that Brian and I had purchased the night before.
It was with warm weather on our minds, that we set about the boat Monday morning, securing our final belongings and preparing to pull up the anchor. Around 2 pm, Illusion was ready. Brian hauled up the anchor while Mike washed away the creek mud, and I manned the helm. The wind swept over the stern as we turned out into the Severn River and headed out to the Bay. We were the last boat on Weems Creek to head out from the anchorage.
As we moved into the Bay, we joined the other sailboats already moving south. We pulled out the sails. It was a chilly ride, but Illusion performed beautifully. We sailed her late into the night for a solid 12 hours, until our fingers and bodies were tired and chilled from wind exposure. Without any sort of enclosure, having made the mistake of not rigging up the wind vane during the daylight hours, and it being Mike’s first day of sailing, we decided to anchor near Soloman’s Island, MD, to warm up and catch some shuteye. It was the pragmatic decision.
The next morning, as we prepared to head out once more into the Bay, Brian found water in the engine – a large quantity of water that prevented the engine from turning over. Although he managed to force it out, it was a bad sign, signifying more engine projects on the horizon. Over the course of the morning, the wind began to die, forcing us to motor sail for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The noise can be grating, but clear skies mean sun, and without the wind we felted much warmer, and therefore, eager to push on through the night towards our destination.
With darkness surrounding, we switched to short watches, each of us in turn keeping a sharp eye on the horizon for tugs, tankers, and other traffic. At night, every new light is a mystery to be solved and a potential danger to the boat. Our diligence paid off because we passed numerous tugs in the lower Chesapeake. Early in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday morning, we turned into the York River and Brian took over the last watch, as I took the opportunity to squeeze in two hours of sleep. Within no time at all my alarm rang out, and I grabbed my jacket and gloves. Waking Mike, we smoothly picked up a mooring ball at Yorktown and all three went down to bed. Winds blowing across the York River from the northeast, kicked up waves and made for a rocky few hours. In the daylight, we swiftly crossed the river to Sarah’s Creek, to rid ourselves of a mooring ball that insisted upon beating and battering the hull.
Illusion is underway! And oh, what fabulous sailing we experienced upon our Monday departure from Annapolis. Illusion, with a crew of three, traveled 150 miles down the Chesapeake Bay arriving in Yorktown at 4:30am Wednesday morning.
Check out Mike Kayton’s Flickr page to see his photo-documentation of the trip (there are pictures of Brian and I together in action!) and to check out his sweet tunes here.
In Charleston, autumn was a brief respite from the heat, palmettos and marsh grass remained much the same, and the trees, though they did change color and lose their leaves, did not seem as eager to participate in the vibrant color displays of the north. Amidst our seemingly endless preparations for departure (I mean trips to West Marine, of course), Brian and I made time to visit a park in Annapolis called, Quiet Waters. With sunlight filtering through the yellow and red leaves of fall above us, we strolled along the winding dirt pathways towards the South River, reflecting on our time in Annapolis, our trip north last summer, and all the work we put in last winter to repair Illusion.
The strong sense of nostalgia that always strikes me this time of year fell about me as the leaves swirled on a light breeze. So much we have accomplished thus far, and with so many unexpected turns along the way, still we have moved forward and embraced the opportunities that we have been given. This time last year Brian and I were preparing Illusion for our first sailing trip to the Caribbean – a trip (we were soon to discover) that we were unable to make at the time. Instead we launched into an adventure of a different variety, experiencing the unexpected, making new friends, reconnecting with old friends and family members, revisiting our home towns for extended periods of time, and exposing ourselves to life in a new location. It’s been good for the soul, and in many ways I am a new person, having gain some much-needed confidence in areas that I felt weakness. I am thankful, and I am humbled by the beauty of this changing season.
Now that all is said and done, Illusion points once again towards the Caribbean, but with greater confidence and more experienced crew. We are ready to revisit old friends, test our strengths and weaknesses, rejoice in the beauty of nature, and further integrate our lives with the elements.