During the summer sailing season I had kept Radiant Beam, my Cherubini Hunter 27, close to my favorite cruising grounds near Pamlico Sound in North Carolina. As November approached, however, it was time to bring the boat back to her homeport in Wilmington. As a solo sailor, I would normally do the 120-mile marathon trip in two days. But as a year-end treat, I decided to do just 10 miles on the first leg and spend a quiet night at an anchorage just inside Shackleford Banks, near Beaufort.
The trip down Core Creek was uneventful. I motored past Beaufort and continued to within a few hundred yards of the inlet leading out to the ocean. From there I turned north across the shoals that separate the main channel from the small channel that runs just inside the Shackleford Banks. I had visited this anchorage earlier in the year and knew the shoals had been reshaped by recent storms and were no longer accurately depicted on my chartplotter. My depthsounder beeped out warnings as I slid through the troughs of the big waves rolling in from the ocean, but things quieted down as soon I entered the deep channel running to my anchorage. I dropped the hook in 12 feet of water about 50 feet from the sandy shore, took a swim, and ate my dinner while watching wild horses graze nearby.
This was a routine run down the ICW, so I had not paid much attention to the weather forecast. As it got dark it began to rain, and the wind shifted to the northeast and picked up to 30 knots. The tidal current started running hard, with a 2-foot chop, and at times I noticed that Radiant Beam was being blown forward into the current toward her anchor. I considered leaving, but decided that moving back through the uncharted shoals at night would be dangerous.
At about 2300 I felt something was wrong. The boat was now facing east, perpendicular to the current, and the anchor rode was pulled tight along the port side. Apparently, the rode had wrapped around the keel. It was amazing how the boat was almost perfectly balanced against the incoming current. I first released some rode to see if it would slide off the fin keel. No luck. I then tried pulling in some rode, but it was so tight I couldn’t budge it. I considered starting the engine to motor forward to release the load on the rode, but I decided the risk of tangling the rode in the prop was too great. By midnight, the boat had been stable for over an hour, so I concluded the best course was to wait for a few hours. Hopefully the rode would free itself when the tide changed.
At 0100, after getting zero sleep, I felt the awful shudder of a dragging anchor. Then came a horrible thump—the keel bouncing on the bottom. How could this be? I was in 10 to 12 feet of water with an incoming tide. I rushed on deck. The boat was now more than a quarter mile from the beach, nowhere near where I’d anchored. I turned on the GPS to check the waypoint I’d set when I dropped the hook and found I was now nearly half a mile to the southeast. The rode was still wrapped around the keel as it bounced on the bottom. I was in deep trouble.
I knew Radiant Beam had enough power to motor off the shoal, but I was still afraid of tangling the anchor rode in the prop: the anchor had to come in first. Using a boathook, I was able to snag the rode where it came out from under the starboard side. I then pulled on it for more than five minutes before it slowly began to move. Finally, I got the anchor aboard, secured the still tangled rode, and started the engine.
I motored directly back up-current to my original anchorage, where I dropped my backup anchor. Fortunately, it held, leaving me free to deal with the primary rode still wrapped around the keel. After unshackling the rope rode from the chain leader and anchor, I tried pulling the line straight back toward the stern, but it would not budge. I then decided to try to use the boathook to push the line around and under the prop and rudder. Of course, it got hung up at the stern. Now, with the anchor rode tangled in the rudder and/or prop, I could not maneuver under power.
After much soul-searching, I slowly climbed down the stern ladder into the chilly water where, after a few minutes of jerking and pulling, I managed to free the line from both the prop and the keel. I then reconnected my primary anchor, reset it, and felt safe at last.
The wind and rain continued the next morning, and I wasn’t able to leave the anchorage until nearly 1300. This was much later than I’d hoped, as it was nearly 45 miles to my next planned stop, the anchorage lagoon at Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Marine base.
I motored through the day in intermittent rain directly into a 20-25 knot wind and finally arrived at Lejeune just after 2100, by which time the wind had picked up to near 35 knots. There were five other boats in the basin when I came in, and I dropped anchor several hundred feet from the nearest one in 10 feet of water. The anchor set well, but the boat was swinging badly. However, I was confident the anchor would hold, so I went below, had dinner, and prepared for bed.
At 2230 I felt that horrible shuddering again and rushed on deck to find the boat had dragged 100 feet. I dropped a second anchor to stabilize things, but it was too late. Motoring forward into the high wind, I was able to pick up the second anchor, but the primary anchor was a different story. Radiant Beam was now sliding toward a 40-foot catamaran, where the owner had his boathook at the ready. I got back to the helm and motored hard away from the cat and finally was able to pull in the primary anchor. By now my confidence was shattered, and I did not believe it was possible to reset the anchors and spend a quiet night at this location.
So there I was, motoring out of the anchorage at 2330 in a T-shirt and shorts, with no cell phone, no navigation lights on and nowhere to stay! Approaching the channel leading out of the basin, I dashed below to turn on the nav lights, pick up my cell phone, and grab some rain gear. I then called the nearest marinas, but got no answers. After clearing the New River Inlet, I motored south in the ICW and came to the first marina at Swan Point. With some trepidation, I slowly motored in and spied a spot at the dock. I tied up, climbed off, and actually got down on my knees and kissed the wooden deck. My ordeal was finally over.
What I Did Right
I kept a close eye on the boat’s status as the weather changed at Shackleford Banks and was aware a problem might be developing.
I was alert to the danger of using the engine to maneuver while the anchor rode was wrapped around the keel. On a Hunter 27, the trailing edge of the keel is only a few feet from the prop. Getting the rope tangled in the prop could have been disastrous.
I set a GPS waypoint when I anchored at Shackleford Banks. Knowing where I was and where I needed to be was essential to resolving my problem there.
I was willing to get wet to free the anchor rode. Sometimes going for a swim is the only way to solve a problem.
I believe my decision to leave Camp Lejeune, even though it was late, was a good one.
What I Did Wrong
I should have paid more attention to the weather forecast. Even on a routine trip, you should never take weather for granted.
Entering the anchorage at Shackleford Banks through uncharted shoals limited my options once I got in trouble there, as I could not easily leave again.
Getting into the water with a strong current running without a tether on was a bad idea. If I had lost my grip, I might not have been able to swim back to the boat.
It was a mistake to stick to my plan of getting all the way to Camp Lejeune for the second night. I should have taken it
Illustration by Steve Sanford; photos by Tony McMahon