Unfavorable winds turn an offshore adventure into a sleepy crawl down the Ditch
By Dave Baldwin
We emerged from the darkness of an overnight passage 10 miles off the North Carolina coast when Joe asked an ordinarily easy question: “Should we turn off the engines and sail?” The light breeze had finally clocked around so that it wasn’t hitting us on the nose and—having spent most of our three-day delivery motoring down the Intracoastal Waterway—we were itching to stretch our legs. This looked like our last chance. So at 0830 we cut the engines, raised the screecher, and enjoyed a reach through gently rolling seas at 5 knots, for one hour, in the wrong direction. But at that point we didn’t care.
A mid-October Ditch run wasn’t our original plan. Kurt and Joe, two West Coast sailors only vaguely familiar with the ICW’s existence, and I were delivering a 38-foot Seawind 1160 catamaran from Norfolk, Virginia, to Charleston, South Carolina. We intended it to be an offshore run, and it was to be my first catamaran passage—a chance to drink the multihull Kool-Aid and cast aside my silly monohull tendencies. But as with many best-laid plans, the moment you set out to do one thing, you end up doing something entirely different.
We could thank both the wind and Kurt’s son for our change of itinerary. He had booked a slip over the Internet at the Tidewater Yacht Marina, which—as luck would have it—was located at mile marker zero of the ICW. Then NOAA forecast a steady southeast to southwest breeze that would hit us smack in the face if we poked out to round Cape Hatteras. Even on a stable catamaran, that didn’t sound like more fun than meandering down the ICW.
“What do you guys think?” Kurt asked two hours into our adventure as we approached a fork in the river and frantically flipped through the cruising guides trying to decide between one of two canals. “It must be called the Great Dismal Swamp for a reason,” he speculated. A passing sailing couple yelled, “You don’t want to go down there,” warning us of low overhangs and shallow conditions. We decided on the more popular route.
For three days we soaked it in: Our engines churned up water the color of two-day-old coffee as we slipped through locks and past sleepy canal towns with boats parallel-parked bow to stern up and down Main Street. Commercial barges transported goods up the waterway while decrepit fishing trawlers, inspiring thoughts of Forrest Gump’s shrimper Jenny, headed out to sea. “It’s like RVing on the water,” said Kurt after the first day.
We experienced an isolated part of America that felt at times like a scene torn from the pages of Tom Sawyer or cut from movies like Platoon and, dare I say, Deliverance. On the second day we stared down the barrel of the 25-mile Alligator-Pungo Canal, both shores lined with massive overturned trees. As we entered the abyss, taking cover under the cat’s wide canopy when rain began to fall, it felt like we were on patrol duty in every Vietnam War movie I’d ever seen. You assume that you’re in remote wilderness—that if you went ashore it would take you weeks to trudge through the marsh to find even a hint of civilization—and then you see a car, or a “for sale” sign, or bulldozers clearing a tract of land, and you realize that the world lies hidden just behind a thick layer of brush.
By the end of the third day, though, we had seen enough. While many of the catamaran’s virtues—its size, space, comfortable wide-open layout—had already become apparent, we were eager to get to open water and determined to do at least a little offshore sailing. We finally popped out into the Atlantic that evening at Beaufort, North Carolina, and motorsailed down the North Carolina coast toward Cape Fear and around Bald Head Island. The lack of heel left me wondering on more than one occasion if the wind was even blowing. Joe illustrated the benefits of two-hulled sailing when he put a wineglass down on the helm station in front of me. “Try doing that in a monohull,” he said, and it barely moved as we motored dead to windward, slamming into the 5-foot seas. “And it will stay there until Hawaii.” Point taken. “One type will never replace the other,” he said. “It’s just a different sensation. I like the flat platform because it keeps me in the game.” Cooking meals, washing dishes, getting dressed, and most important, putting in my contact lenses—an exercise in futility on a monohull that tends to result in face-planting the mirror or jabbing a finger in my eye—became non-issues. And so the sun finally rose on one of the more comfortable offshore passages I’ve experienced.
Which is why I didn’t mind so much when our one hour of sailing ended. We had traveled almost 375 miles over 80 hours, and one hour of play was all we would get. At 0930 we throttled up the boat’s two engines and steered toward Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina, so I could catch a flight out of nearby Myrtle Beach. As Murphy’s law would have it, the following day Kurt and Joe had a gorgeous reach all the way to Charleston. But that’s cruising. We had seen the best of both worlds, sailing the catamaran offshore—albeit, only briefly—and passing through a new-to-me part of America. I guess the wind hadn’t really been against us after all.