It was a pleasant day in May, the Saturday before the Memorial Day weekend, when our family boarded Val-De-Ri, our Catalina 34. We were preparing to sail from our homeport in Bath, North Carolina, to Chesapeake Bay, a long-anticipated cruise. Our son, David, and his wife, Quentin, had planned a two-week trip and had asked my wife, Nancy, and me to join them for the first week. We’d already made reservations at several marinas in the southern Chesapeake.
Leaving Bath Harbor Marina, we noticed a considerable amount of white smoke coming out the exhaust, so we returned to the dock and quickly checked the engine, which had recently been overhauled by our mechanic. David also dove under the boat and scraped some barnacles off the propeller. He could see no other problems. Getting underway again, the smoke was still there, but there was no sign of the engine overheating, so we continued up the Pungo River to Dowry Creek Marina, where we docked for the night.
The next morning we learned there was a storm brewing north of us, possibly heading in our direction. Most of the other boats at the marina elected to stay put, but according to our interpretation of the forecast, our route would only skirt the edge of the rough weather. We were eager to get on our way, so we left Dowry Creek and headed to the Alligator River.
Upon entering the river, the wind started freshening, and we noticed a line of black clouds piling up in the north. Still convinced the storm would pass to the east, we proceeded upriver, hoping to take advantage of a good wind. Suddenly, without warning, the first blast hit us. We scrambled to reduce sail, don life jackets and start the engine to keep the boat headed into what quickly became 5-foot waves. The wind was soon blowing 40 knots, and we were drenched by cold, driving rain. Visibility dropped to near zero. Our bow plunged deep into each wave and sent cold water surging into the cockpit. After nearly an hour of making little progress we were beginning to feel hypothermic, so we reluctantly turned around and retreated to a sheltered cove at the river entrance, where we joined nine other boats at anchor.
Relieved to be out of the weather we started to prepare a meal only to discover we were out of propane. (We’d been in such a hurry that we’d failed to check our supply before leaving.) So David set off in the dinghy with a bottle of wine to see if he could barter a couple of tanks from one of the other boats. He visited three boats downwind of us before he was successful, then found it took all his strength and willpower to row back to us. He is a strong man, but was exhausted when he finally returned.
Meanwhile, Quentin, a diabetic, discovered that the remote control for her implanted insulin pump was no longer working. She had spare needles, but they did not give as accurate a reading. We called ahead to the Alligator River Marina, our next stop, to order a new pump to be delivered there and hoped it would arrive before we did.
Next we discovered that both our water tanks were empty. We’d known they were low and had planned to fill them at the next marina, but apparently they were lower than we’d thought. (This was something else we’d failed to check back in Bath.) Fortunately, we had a supply of drinking water, but there was nothing for cleaning dishes or washing faces and hands.
Meanwhile, the wind and rain showed no signs of letting up, and the boat was starting to toss uncomfortably on the two anchors we had set. We ended up spending three days in the anchorage and had to wear earplugs at night to block out the incessant moaning of the wind. On the fourth day, we woke to find the weather had cleared, so we eagerly hoisted anchor and headed upriver under sail. By now we had also learned that the bridge between the Alligator River and Albemarle Sound had been closed during the storm. So it was fortunate we had decided to turn around.
Heading into Albemarle Sound, we were on the lookout for two particular markers where shoaling had been reported and it was strongly recommended that boats stay in the middle of the channel. When we sighted them, we started up the engine to maintain control and fortunately made it through just before the engine stopped—for good. Now we faced the prospect of having to dock under sail at the Pelican Bay Marina in Elizabeth City in a brisk wind, a feat we had never attempted before. Fortunately there were four strong men at the marina to catch our lines and guide us to a facing dock.
As soon as Val-De-Ri was secure we called a mechanic, who soon solved our problem. The rough weather had stirred up all the sludge at the bottom of the fuel tank, which then plugged the fuel filter. He was able to clear the line, and after several more hours of delay we set off again, motorsailing up the historic and scenic Dismal Swamp Canal toward Norfolk.
As we entered Deep Creek on the canal, we misjudged the tide and went aground. We tried kedging off, and several powerboats tried to free us as well, but it was no use, and we had to call a tow service. The tow boat finally freed us after much effort, but in the process our rudder jammed, so we could no longer steer. After an hour’s ignominious tow to the Portsmouth shipyard near Norfolk, we were left alongside a bulkhead open to the busy harbor traffic.
We all breathed a sigh of relief, thinking nothing else could possibly go wrong. But then, suddenly, a flash fire erupted from one of the cabin lights. Fortunately, while we were trying to figure out what to do, the fire put itself out as suddenly as it started.
It was now Memorial Day weekend, and there were no workers at the shipyard, so we lay helpless for the next two days. However, we did take the opportunity to tour Portsmouth and Norfolk and treated ourselves to some excellent seafood. The boat was finally hauled on Tuesday, and rather than wait two weeks for a new rudder, we repaired the old one by filing a quarter inch off the top of it.
Because of all the delays and mishaps, Nancy and I had to abort our portion of the trip and fly home. Unfortunately, we never did make it to the Chesapeake! After the repairs had been made, David and Quentin were able to continue with their cruise—albeit a shorter one—during which they enjoyed beautiful weather and no additional setbacks.