Voice of Experience: Blowout in Belhaven

On arriving at Alligator River Marina after a 15-mile passage across Albemarle Sound, we got a bit of a surprise. The place was practically empty, which was weird considering it was October, the height of snowbird season.
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On arriving at Alligator River Marina after a 15-mile passage across Albemarle Sound, we got a bit of a surprise. The place was practically empty, which was weird considering it was October, the height of snowbird season.

“I’d like dockage for two days,” I told the dockhand, oblivious to what the lack of boats might mean.

He shook his head. “Sorry, sir, but everybody’s got to be out of here first thing in the morning. We’re closing the marina due to high wind warnings.”

“You are?” I asked, somewhat incredulous. I knew there was a hurricane well offshore and that its extreme outer edge would brush the North Carolina coast, but the threat didn’t seem to merit closing a marina.

The dockhand nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “this marina is pretty exposed. We don’t want boats getting damaged.”

Disappointed, my wife, Liz, and I cast off and steered Sonata, our 36-foot Pearson cutter, 20 miles up the Alligator River to Deep Point, where we dropped the hook with a dozen other southbound boats. The weather report predicted 35-knot northeast winds by late the following afternoon.

The rain began before dawn the next morning, and every boat was underway at first light. Clearly, like us, our fellow travelers were running for cover. We’d arranged for dockage in Belhaven on Pantego Creek, which looked good for a strong northeasterly. A nice dock, shore power, restaurants, a hot shower: it all sounded good to us, and we were anxious to get there.

Shortly after our arrival, though, I discovered that our assigned slip had open pilings at each corner and there was no dock alongside. The fairway also looked very tight, which only added to my nervousness. I was used to floating docks, and lassoing pilings when coming into a slip, which is very common in the South, was just not my thing. So, instead I opted to tie up alongside a fixed pier.

Once there, I secured the boat with doubled lines and deployed fenders and two fender boards amidships where the hull contacted one of the pier’s pilings. Then we settled in for the night. The wind held steady almost directly off the bow, the rain slackened, and by dawn it looked like the storm had passed. The ragged gray clouds gave way to clearing skies, and a honking northwest wind began to blow, pinning us beam-to against the pier. Everything seemed to be fine, until the wind increased and the waves started building in Pantego Creek.

Sonata began to move up and down, grinding and dragging her fender boards against the piling and bending them inward. Fearing the boards might break and damage the gelcoat, I decided to yank them out. This was no easy task, but I timed it so I was able to remove the fender boards and deploy some more fenders. I briefly considered trying to get underway. But there was shallow water just a few yards off the beam, and I’d have to back out around a number of other boats while somehow holding Sonata off the pier.

Stay put, I told myself. You’ll just make things worse.

As the wind came in even stronger, the boat’s motion began forcing the fenders upward and out of position. I tightened the spring lines to reduce the lateral motion, but there was little else I could do except keep adjusting the fenders. As the hours passed, I also noticed the water in the creek was now blowing out into the Pungo River.

A dockhand strolled by.

“Water’s dropping,” I said, the tone of my voice hinting at my mounting state of alarm. I had checked the water depth when we arrived and found there was just over seven feet at the dock. Sonata drew 5 feet, 6 inches.

“Oh, yeah, it does that sometimes around here,” he said casually.

“How much does it go down?”

“If this wind don’t let up, the water in the creek may go down more than a foot or two,” he answered. He then told me to have a great evening. I said I’d try.

At about that time, Sonata rose up on a wave and smashed into the pier piling at just the right angle to take out a 2-foot section of her caprail. Fragments of mahogany quickly blew under the pier and began heading down the creek with the water. I belatedly considered setting a kedge to keep the boat off the pier, but I didn’t have the dinghy inflated and wondered if a kedge would do any good anyway. The wind showed no signs of abating.

We were sitting below having dinner when we felt the first thump! shake the boat. I looked at Liz, sighed, and said, “We’re going aground.”

“At the dock?” she asked.

I nodded.

I knew about blowout tides, having experienced them on occasion when I kept a boat in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. Still, I was as surprised as Liz that so much water could blow out of a creek.

Thump! Thud-thump-thud!

“Well, at least it’s soft oozy mud,” Liz said.

“There’s that,” I answered glumly.

I felt helpless. Some of the other boats were tapping the bottom of the creek, too, but I was only worried about our boat.

I stayed up all night minding the fenders. I sat on deck with my back against the cabinhouse and pushed with my feet against the piling to open up enough space to force the fenders back down into position.

The wind eased on our third day in Belhaven, and the water began rising almost immediately. I asked a dockhand to help me move the boat to a better spot.

“Dang! What happened to your wood?” he asked when we were done.

“Piling,” I said.

The dockhand nodded and gave me a knowing look. “Sorry ‘bout that, Cap,” he said. Then he wished me a good day and went on his way.

What We Did Right

We left Alligator River Marina right away and pushed on to an anchorage that left us in a good position to run for cover.

Knowing we were in for a blow, I deployed fender boards and extra fenders, and doubled up the dock lines.

I didn’t try to move the boat when the northwest wind increased. Maneuvering in tight quarters in high winds might have gotten us into more trouble.

When it became clear the fender boards were about to snap, I was able to remove them before they broke and damaged the hull.

I stayed on watch all night to adjust fenders and keep an eye on the lines.

Once the wind dropped and the water level rose, I sought help to move the boat.

What We Did Wrong

I opted to lay alongside a fixed pier instead of dealing with the hassle of lassoing pilings in a slip. With Sonata in a slip, I could have adjusted her windward bow and stern lines to hold her off the leeward pilings. A slip with bow and stern lines run to pilings on both sides is usually much safer than laying alongside any dock.

I trusted the weather report, which forecast the strongest winds would be on our bow. When the wind shifted and increased, it was too late to move.

Anchoring out was probably a safer option here. There were anchorages nearby where we would have fared better.

I should have considered the potential for a blowout tide. If I’d anchored or docked in deeper water, the boat would not have grounded.

I should have set a kedge to hold the boat off the dock when I had the chance.

Got a good story? We want to see it. Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

Illustration by Steve Sanford; photos by David Shaw

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