South Carolina

8. Do the Charleston

Howdy from Delancey, currently secure in a slip in lovely Charleston, South Carolina!  When we last checked in, we were waiting for weather at a marina near Belhaven, NC.  We’ve since followed the ICW down to Cape Fear, where we jumped offshore for an overnight to Charleston, SC.  It’s been an eventful couple weeks.

After leaving Belhaven, we followed the ICW into the Bay River.  After a short day, messy with rain, chop, and low visibility we anchored in nearby Bonner Bay. 

We pressed on the following morning to anchor in the flats off Morehead City, NC.  While hauling the anchor, I became fully aware of a suspicion that’d been building:  our windlass was losing power.  It would retrieve the chain just fine, as long as Deb drove the boat forward, but when it came to lifting the dead weight of the last 20 or so feet of chain and the 44 lb. anchor, it would slow down and just sort of give up.  The last few mornings, I’d been hauling up the last bit hand over hand, a muddy, messy endeavor first thing in the morning.  I’d have to look into it when we found ourselves somewhere civilized for a while.

We motored ever south, past commercial shrimp boats and runabouts who, with their local knowledge, buzzed past in places that did not look remotely navigable on the charts.  The marshy surroundings weren’t much to look at, which was just as well as we mostly kept our eyes on the depth sounder. This stretch of the ICW is cut quite close to the ocean and marked by occasional inlets.  Tidal action pushes sand into the inlets, shoaling up the adjacent canal.  At about 1pm, threading between a red and green buoy we felt a thud and everything lurched forward in slow-motion.  Before we could shift into reverse and power back, the current had swung us sideways to the canal.  We were aground, listing about five degrees to port, with our keel set on an underwater hill.

Here’s the log entry:  “Ran aground btw red nun 60 and green can 61A approaching low tide.  At least it’s sunny.”

After some fruitless attempts to power off, we raised the main to try to heel the boat over a bit, but the scant wind was right on our bow and had no effect.  It looked like we’d be sitting there for a couple hours until the rising tide lifted us off.  We resigned ourselves to guiding approaching boats around the hazard over the VHF radio.

     “Southbound sailboat approaching green can 61A, this is the sailing vessel Delancey aground and lying across the canal.  Be advised that we are blocking your view of red nun 60, off our port.   After you pass the the can to your starboard, the navigable water is in front of our bow, very close to shore.”

     “Really?  You’re kidding me.”

     “Yeah, it was a surprise to us too.”

We spent about a half hour like that.  Each time a boat passed, we’d try to use the lifting action of its small wake to help us as we powered forward.  After about five boats passed, throttle high and turning the wheel hard over in each direction, we were able to finally walk her off the bar and back in to the channel.  

That evening we anchored in a little dredged bay off of Camp Lejeune, NC, where we watched marines practice their small craft skills.  We were surrounded by other boats who’d either passed us while aground or heard us on the radio.  A couple said that they’d touched bottom at the same spot, which made us feel a might better.



Sunrise (unless I've got them backwards).

Sunrise (unless I've got them backwards).

We were up at dawn to get a jump on the day, which would require a timed approach to hit the hourly opening of three low bridges.  This insight was not ours alone, and nearly all the boats in the anchorage filed into the canal at the same time.  Our little convoy was fairly chatty, with passing maneuvers discussed between boats who had different ideas of the proper arrival time.  We pushed Delancey’s throttle higher than normal to make the first bridge when we noticed the engine was running a bit hot, something it never usually does.  Ducking below, I saw that one of the coolant lines was leaking.  I cranked down on all the hose clamps, filled the expansion tank, and we pressed on.

With so many boats in such a narrow channel, there’s not room to circle around while waiting for a bridge to open.  We've learned that the way to approach an operating bridge in a restricted canal is to arrive at a point a mile or so away about 10 minutes prior to the scheduled opening; then, motoring just enough to keep steerage, approach slowly until the bridge opens.  Once opened, you get in line with the rest of the group and power hard until the last boat in line is through.  As it happened, groupthink worked and we hit all three bridges on the marks.

The last of the three bridges put us in the town of Wrightsville Beach, NC, where we tied up to the very reasonably priced but hardly full service marina attached to the Dockside Restaurant, immediately off the ICW channel.  (I recommend the fish tacos.)  The marina provided little else but toilets (no showers), but from here, we were able to address some of the systems issues we’d been having.  I removed the leaky coolant hose.  It was original to the boat and was failing at a bend.  We walked to a nearby West Marine who had exactly the replacement hose we needed.

I also removed our autopilot motor.  Our wheel-drive autopilot has become increasingly unreliable over the past few seasons, gradually losing its sense of direction and pulling us to port.  It’s also undersized for our boat, only useful for long motors in calm seas.  For these reasons, we hardly ever use it anymore.  Lately, the belt clutch has been binding up, making simple hand steering difficult.  Off it came.

One thing we couldn’t address was our very full holding tank.  North Carolina has very strict poop management rules, even requiring boaters to keep a log documenting their last year of pumpouts.  Unlike up north, where laws designating no-discharge zones also provide for free pumpout services, North Carolina appears to leave it all to the market.  With one exception, we were not able to find a marina in NC with a working or available pumpout station.  By the time we’d reached Wrightsville Beach, our 15-gallon tank was more than full, with the deck cap and vent both exhibiting a thin stream of brown liquid along the deck and hull.  It’s a good thing the marina’s one amenity was toilets.

And now a moment for a quick Lucy Update:  One thing we’ve always loved about living with Lucy is that, in her entire life afloat, she has never really expressed any interest in getting off the boat.  Back home, we let her run around the deck, greeting strangers from the bow, without worry.  Of late, Lucy has developed a disconcerting curiosity about other boats.  Twice she has leaped off the deck and onto another boat.  She has been appropriately reprimanded and we have taken steps to address her new untrustworthy status when near docks or other boats.

Some folks look good in anything.

Some folks look good in anything.

Another day of driving the ditch found us at Southport, off Cape Fear, where we were able to fuel up and pump out (yay!).  At this point we were heartily sick of the ICW.  In the evenings, Deb always looks at the next day’s route, reviewing Active Captain, the crowdsourced online cruising guide, and marks shoals and any other hazards noted by other boaters on our charts.  The next day looked to be the trickiest yet, with shoaling more complex than that which caught us aground a couple days earlier.

Trepidation about shorthanded overnight sailing had trumped the known anxieties of threading through narrow winding channels over very thin water.  It was time for an offshore jump.  Predicting a 23-hour run to Charleston, South Carolina, we exited Cape Fear inlet at around noon so as to not arrive in the dark.  Out in the open ocean, I’d hoped to be able to report our first actual sailing since rounding New Jersey, but no luck.  The wind never got above 5 knots, and that on our nose.  On the upside, seas were calm and we were again joined by dolphins.

After about 400 attempts, this is our best picture of dolphins.

After about 400 attempts, this is our best picture of dolphins.

With no wind, the trip was an uneventful drive, largely in a straight line. 

Go thataway.

Go thataway.

We traded tricks at the helm with stints reading murder mysteries aloud to each other. 

After sunset a cloudy darkness fell.  Around 11pm, the sky cleared to reveal a sliver of a moon only an hour before it too set.  To let the off-watch crew sleep, we eschewed the reading in favor of an audiobook of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, the first in his series of books describing the exploits of British Naval Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic Wars.  We’ve read and listened to this 20-book series upward of a dozen times, so it was easy for the off-watch catch the thread of the story after waking.

The following morning, we followed the buoys along the long entrance to Charleston harbor, past Fort Sumpter, and into a slip at the Charleston City Marina.  The weather was forecast to turn and we knew we’d be staying here for a few days.  After a bit of sleep and a shower, we were eager to explore.  We walked all over downtown, browsing markets, reading plaques, and making frequent stops for refreshment.

Always read the plaque.

Always read the plaque.

Downtown Charleston is charming.  Compared to my experiences elsewhere, its scale and expression are a combination of Old Town Alexandria, VA and Nantucket, MA, two other port towns that thrived in the early 19th Century.  Although neither Alexandria nor Nantucket have quite so many palm trees.  As with many towns with a large hospitality component, about half of the service folks we met (shop staff, bartenders, etc.) were transplants from other parts of the country, giving the city both a cosmopolitan and authentic feel.  If you’ve not been, I recommend a visit.

We met up with the sister of a close friend for a good southern meal (Deb: shrimp and grits.  Pete: brisket).  Another evening we scored seats for fine dining at the bar of FIG, one of the town’s most touted restaurants.  At the marina’s complimentary happy hour, we made friends with another cruising couple, hosting them over for cocktails in our cockpit and trading happy tales of boat systems woes.

Speaking of system woes, the full-service Charleston City Marina was the perfect place to check on our failing windlass.  After an hour of testing, the verdict was in:  the motor was shot.  Ugh.  Our windlass installation is rather idiosyncratic, with jury-rigged rollers that perfectly guide the chain around the windlass and into its locker.  I had no expectation that the manufacturer of my windlass would even be in business, let alone support a 25-year old model and I didn’t relish the idea of having to redesign the entire system.  I did a bit of web research and discovered that, not only is the Ideal Windlass Company still a going concern, but they will rebuild any windlass they’ve made since World War II!  Yay!

Now I just had to get the damn thing off the boat.  The company website had detailed instructions for the removal.  What I failed to anticipate was just how tenaciously the components would be held together after a quarter-century of service.  After an hour of liberal application of both WD-40 and a hammer, I called in the big guns.  The yard guy came over with a torch and an angle grinder (to cut off seized pins) that made relatively short work of the job.

Kill it with fire!

Kill it with fire!

Once off the boat, I trundled the 60 lb. box of components to the UPS store.  I should have it back in a few weeks.

In happier systems news, our SSB works!  All summer I’d been installing the many components that make up our Single Sideband radio system.  The SSB radio is like a marine version of a HAM radio and provides us with long-range communications, as well as the ability to send and receive text email via radio.  It’s not such a big deal on the east coast of the US, but it will really matter when we’re in the Caribbean.  Although installed, in the rush to prepare for departure, I’d never fired it up.  While in Charleston, I used the opportunity to hire the marina’s electronics guy to test and confirm that the input and output signals met spec.  They did!  I installed everything correctly!  Yay!  To celebrate, the following morning we listened to our first of Chris Parker’s Marine Weather Center forecasts.

After nearly a week of fun (and expensive) Charleston, it was time to again cast off.  The forecast called for a 24-hour window through which we could make the jump to the St. Mary’s Inlet, at the Georgia/Florida border.  Once outside the harbor jetties, we experienced the full force of six-foot seas from the Northeast.  The wave period was quite short, and as soon as we climbed over one we were faced with another bashing on our bow.  Once we pointed southeast, the seas would be on our stern, which requires constant steering to continue pointing forward as they roll under you.  Conditions were forecast to moderate in the night, but that still meant a good 10 hours of this.  Not fun.  After an hour, we turned around.

Which finds us now in the Charleston Maritime Center, immediately across town from our first marina.  We made the most of our unexpected extended stay by visiting the farmers market in Marion Square, passing through the throngs of cool kids at the food stalls (a la Smorgasburg for you New Yorkers) to purchase fresh tomatoes, cucumber, and shrimp from the purveyors' tents.

As of now, we’re officially antsy to get moving again.  We think we’ve got a window tomorrow, but we’re going to confirm as the day progresses.  If it doesn’t look good, we’re here at least through the rest of the week.  All in all, there are far worse places to get stuck.

Happy Thanksgiving y’all!