Cruising: a Long Haul North - Sail Magazine

There are many mantras experienced cruisers like to pass on to those less experienced. First and foremost among these is: “Never sail to a schedule.” After that comes: “Choose your weather window carefully.” Unfortunately, this past spring, my husband, Brian, and I violated both these tenets when decided to set sail from Georgia in early March to head north.

Many times in the coming days and weeks, we wished we’d listened to ourselves, but we had jobs in Annapolis to get to by early April, and the time frame was non-negotiable. Having done several leisurely trips both north and south on the Intracoastal Waterway, we now had to think in terms of a delivery, making as many miles as we could each day and jumping out onto the open Atlantic whenever possible. Equally problematic, because it was March and not June, we were going to have to take what we were given by Mother Nature.

Map and Scout resting at anchor off Cumberland Island at the start of the trip

Map and Scout resting at anchor off Cumberland Island at the start of the trip

Of course, such a prospect might not pose too great a problem for those cruisers with larger, modern, well-heated boats. However, aboard our 1965 Pearson Invicta yawl, Scout, comfort is not always an option. Years earlier, when we refitted Scout for long-term cruising we made the conscious decision to keep her classic lines and not completely enclose her cockpit, in part because we planned to head for warmer climes and wanted to enjoy an open cockpit amid warm Bahamian breezes. Fortunately, before leaving Connecticut in 2014, I’d told Brian that if nothing else I wanted a heating system. At the time, he thought we’d never actually use a heater, but if this was the only thing I needed to keep me happy, so be it—a new Dickinson diesel heater was installed before we left.

Fast forward to 2018 and after spending the winter ashore on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, we returned to St. Marys, Georgia, in mid-February to where Scout was being stored ashore. Our plan was a simple one—inspect the fair bit of work we’d thought was being done on the boat while we were away, load our belongings back on board, bend on the sails, provision, splash and north we would go. Unfortunately, upon our arrival, we found out the work we’d contracted to be done had not even started. The boat was not ready to splash and trying to impress on a contractor as to the urgency of a schedule is next to impossible. The countdown to our arrival in Annapolis was now ticking. Our boat is our home, and we needed our home to be in the Chesapeake while we worked. Leaving Scout behind was not an option. Hard decisions needed to be made.

A week or so later, after wasting a week hoping against hope the contractors would do their job, we decided to do the work ourselves. The biggest project was changing out the stuffing box to a dripless seal around the propeller shaft, which involved lifting the engine out of the boat, pulling the prop, replacing the shaft and installing the new dripless seal. Of course, this also meant the extra week we’d counted on for the journey north would be eaten up with boat projects. The good news was that the weather was near perfect for southern Georgia in late winter, and Brian and I, who’d long since forgotten what a cold winter was really like, were working on the boat in shorts!

Then came launch day, February 26, and our first indication of things to come as a front passed through in the afternoon, bringing with it high winds and torrential rains, and convincing us to put off the splash until the next day. By the time we finally did get the boat in the water and had double-checked the new seal, there were only a few hours of travel time left, and we were only able to motor the 11 miles to Cumberland Island. The countdown had officially started—we now had 33 days to make the 900 miles to Annapolis. It looked like a piece of cake, but it turned out to be anything but.

Fortunately, Cumberland Island is a perfect staging area to head out of the St. Marys Inlet to the ocean and aim for either Beaufort or Charleston, South Carolina. In 24-36 hours, we could be done with Georgia and a good portion of South Carolina—all we needed was a wind with anything but a north component. Alas, the next morning we woke to a very strong northeasterly, a sea state that was an angry one to say the least and a weather forecast that was not planning on changing anytime soon. As a result, we decided to start our trip north heading up the ICW. On the plus side, the temperatures remained enjoyable, we were able to walk the island in shorts, and our fool’s logic kept us thinking the trip would not be so bad.

The Pearson Invicta yawl Scout takes a rest in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

The Pearson Invicta yawl Scout takes a rest in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

COLD RIDE UP THE ICW

When you plan a day’s journey along the ICW, you have to take into account many things, including tides, current, wind directions, the number of daylight hours, bridge openings and the speed of your boat. On this trip, though, we had no choice but to push the boat no matter what, because we needed to travel about 50 miles a day to make our deadline. To further complicate things, when conditions are perfect, Scout cruises under power at a slow and steady pace of 5mph, and if we are bucking any kind of a current or headwind, we get even less!

Of course, travelling up the ICW would be northeast the whole way, and the prevailing fronts during the winter on the East Coast have the wind blowing from the northeast—right on the nose. Our plan was, therefore, to weigh anchor before first light and travel as far as daylight would let us, which in turn meant hitting many of the known trouble spots along the way under less than ideal conditions.

Nonetheless, five days later, after steadily motorsailing through the “sea of grass” (Georgia) we made it to South Carolina. The temperatures were still mild during the day, and we had our trusty diesel heater at night. By the time we picked up a mooring in Beaufort, we were confident we’d be reaching Maryland by April Fool’s day. Looking back now, the fools were Brian and me.

A couple of days after that, we were motoring through South Carolina with daytime temperatures hovering around 35 degrees F, and even with the sun out, we were freezing. Our Chihuahua, Pickles, refused to come up from the cabin, preferring to remain happily cocooned among the comforters in the V-berth. Where we would usually have waited out the bad weather, we now had to keep moving.

Scout has a manual windlass, and I always steer while Brian does the dirty work up on the bow when we weigh anchor. Usually, this is a fairly simple task. But now we were getting underway in the dark in a chill wind, and by the time Brian finished securing the hook, he was frozen for the rest of the day.

Arriving in North Carolina on March 16, the water and air temperatures were consistently hovering around freezing. In the morning, our diesel engine, which is not equipped with glow plugs, refused to start because of the cold. So not only were we now trying to leave before first light, I also needed to have our Honda generator started and the electric heater going for at last a half hour before we could crank it over. If there was one positive thing about traveling this time of year it was that we were guaranteed to have the anchorages to ourselves. I also never had to worry about disturbing others with our generator running at such an early hour.

As we traveled along Bogue Sound, the forecast started calling for a major nor’easter to hit the coast a few days later. In our many transits of the ICW, we’d never stopped in Beaufort, North Carolina, but decided to do so now. As a result, the Homer Smith Marina in downtown Beaufort became our home for the next four days while the winds howled. The marina is an easy walk to downtown, the staff is very friendly and there was even a chance for me to visit the Rachel Carson Reserve, home of a herd of wild horses.

Another angry winter’s day on the open Atlantic

Another angry winter’s day on the open Atlantic

THE ALLIGATOR BITES

We left the dock before the northeasterly had completely died down with an eye toward getting a good start on the next leg of the journey—across Albemarle Sound. This might seem easy enough. But because the sound is fairly shallow and there’s a good bit of fetch, you never want to cross it northbound in a northerly. It looked like we would have a window in the next 48 hours and getting an early start would put us in great shape to take advantage of it.

Daytime temperatures were now in the high 30s. But there now seemed to be a brisk wind blowing every day, and we needed to get across the Neuse River (a messy ride) and into the Alligator-Pungo Canal, a protected waterway, to stage our crossing of the Albemarle on the 24th. As we entered the canal, we did one last weather check and verified that the Alligator River Bridge was functioning. Things looked good. The eastern side of the canal is notorious for limited cell service, and our plan was to anchor there, 12 miles from the bridge, the night of the 23rd, then wake up at O’Dark Thirty, to get across the Albemarle before the winds had a chance to get established.

Alas, this was another plan someone had a good laugh at! That night we shared the anchorage with another boat, a trawler, whose captain must have seen us turn on our running lights as we started getting underway the following morning. He immediately hailed us by VHF to let us know the bridge was broken again and that there was no timeline for repair. The only positive from this news was that Brian had not yet completely brought up the anchor!

Now we had yet more decisions to make, given that another nor’ easter was forecast to hit in next day or so. One option was to sit tight, hope the bridge was fixed quickly and that conditions on the Albemarle would be such that we could still get across. Another was to turn back through the Alligator-Pungo Canal and take the Pamlico Sound route, which would be next to impossible given the forecast. Yet another option was to wait out the nor’ easter at the bottom of the Alligator River for two or three days and hope the bridge would be fixed by the time we set off again. None of these options held out much hope of us getting to work on time. Work ruins everything!

In the end, we decided to wait where we were another 24 hours in the hope the bridge would be fixed and then attempt the crossing. If the bridge was not fixed in time, we would backtrack to Belhaven, North Carolina, to ride out the nor’ easter and decide what to do next.

As luck would have it—and we hadn’t had much good luck thus far! The bridge was fixed later that same afternoon, although it was too late to move until the morning. Crossing the Albemarle is only a 15 miles transit, but you definitely want to time the crossing with a good bit of wiggle room in case of problems.

Pickles does the only sensible thing on yet another chilly day

Pickles does the only sensible thing on yet another chilly day

After talking it over with the captain of the nearby trawler, we decided we would weigh anchor at 0600, which would get us through the bridge and starting across the Albemarle by 0900. The next morning, though, the wind was already 15 knots from the north with gale warnings issued for noon. This was far from ideal. However, our trawler captain friend planned to cross before us and said he would report back on the sea state. Our backup plan was to ride out the storm on South Lake, located immediately to starboard after going through the bridge—which is exactly what we did after our trawler captain reported back on the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions he’d encountered.

South Lake proved to be a great anchorage, and we were safe and warm even as the winds blew a steady 35 knots. Nonetheless, after two days of our boat heeling in the wind and always standing at an angle while cooking, we were ready to be done with this trip. There was a lot of grumbling among the crew, as we both clearly stated we would never travel north during this time of year again!

Finally, it came time for us to cross the Albemarle. When we did so it was so cold there was ice on the decks. It even started snowing at one point while Brian was hauling in the anchor—we had reached peak insanity!

The author (left) and Brian (right) dressed for success: 

The author (left) and Brian (right) dressed for success: 

THE LAST BIG PUSH

Everyone who has traveled the ICW knows Coinjock Marina, whose restaurant is famed for its prime rib dinners. This time, though, all I could think of was washing down the boat and filling up the fuel and water tanks for the last leg of our trip north. Little did we know that in winter the marinas north of South Carolina shut off the dock water to keep their pipes from freezing. As a result, we ended up having to fill a number of 5 gal jugs from the washroom and lug them back to the boat. Once there, we had to be careful not to slip on the icy decks while getting the jugs below to fill our tanks. It only made matters worse to see Facebook pictures of our cruising friends enjoying sundowners down south and swimming in aqua-colored waters.

We left Coinjock on March 28, four days before our first day at work. We still had one lock and five bridges to get through before breaking free of the ICW and setting sail up the Chesapeake Bay. But how hard could it be? Famous last words!

For future reference, if you ever happen to find yourself cruising with us on the ICW and there are some railroad bridges that are reportedly always open up ahead, just assume you will be stopped at each and every one of them for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour waiting for a train to pass. At the last bridge, we waited for not one but two trains to pass before finally being able to continue on and drop the hook at Hospital Point, mile post zero of the ICW.

After that, the final couple of days of our passage would take us directly up the Chesapeake. This is not a body of water you want to sail with a headwind. But again, we had no choice. We reefed our main and did our best to set a course that allowed us to motorsail to our advantage, deciding to drop the hook for the night at Solomon’s Island and complete the journey to Annapolis the next day. The winds we woke to were far from the light breeze that had been forecast, forcing us to change plans yet again. We went up Back Creek at Solomon’s Island and dropped the hook near the Calvert Marine Museum.

Finally, April Fool’s day arrived, and we had only 49 miles to go to Annapolis. After a month of fighting headwinds, we had a perfect sail, the engine finally had a break, and we didn’t have to fire it up again until the entrance to Back Creek. Better still, the temperature was in the 40’s, and the sun was out. After weeks of slogging, our boat finally had a chance to do what it was meant to do, sail!

Now, when first-time cruisers ask us when would a good time be to start their journey back to New England or the Chesapeake, our response is, why rush? Start your trip from Florida in late May and enjoy the trip in comfortable temperatures and allow the clocking of winds to slow down to a spring and summer schedule. Sail when you can, and pick the days for a comfortable journey. Remember cruising is not a race, and don’t sail to a schedule—plans are meant to be laughed at! 

Photos By Tara Flanagan

April 2020

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