“Yur late!”

July 20 

Beaufort was our last “must see” until the Dismal Swamp, but with 165 miles between the two, we chose three intermediary stops, towns which even North Carolinians may not have heard of, but which Loopers know well. We sadly parted ways with Beaufort’s Caribbean blue water and returned to the Coca Cola brown rivers as we headed north.

First was Belhaven, 60 miles from Beaufort. The dock master back at Lambs in Jacksonville, FL highly recommended this stop, telling us to tell Henry “hi” at River Forest Marina. Upon arrival, Henry took our lines. 

“Ya loopin”? he asked. 

“Yeah…” Steve replied.

“Yur late!” 

Yes. We knew that.

“Why ya stayin’ two nahts? Ya lookin’ fur properdy? Tha’sa only reason anyone stays two nahts.”

😑 Sometimes you just need a day to catch up, but admittedly, the marina felt rather like a ghost town.  We borrowed the marina golf cart and tooled along Water Street past a dozen immaculate turn-of-the-19th-century homes on the water front. We saw the AGLCA burgee on a trawler at the other marina—shoot! Just our luck to miss meeting another Looper. With staffing difficulties everywhere, the creative gourmet Spoon River, which we anticipated for a lovely dinner, was closed during our visit and is now only open Thursdays through the week end. But there was an outdoor pizza place, and it was good. The bugs must have posted an APB—they finally found us in Belhaven!

The lonely Loopers at Belhaven. The lovely home behind is River Forest Manor, an inn and event center. Boasting 9 bedrooms and 11 fireplaces, it is a great example of the beautiful condition of the antebellum homes on Water Street.

Next stop, Alligator River Marina, after a beautiful and uneventful 52 miles with light wind from the north on our nose. We traversed the Pungo River (“river of many fish,” the many fish pots requiring a sharp look-out and a quick hand on the wheel), and from there a 21-mile canal connecting it to the Alligator River, a short river only 47 miles long. The Alligator opens onto the Albermarle Sound. Only for lack of options did we stop at Alligator River Marina for the night. Oh, and good fuel price. In line for cheap fuel were fishing boats, with their requisite topsy-turvy stacks of baskets. As I watched the fuel pump,

North Carolina Blue Crab

I chatted with a young fisherman, and when I asked, he pulled a big basket off his boat to show off his gorgeous catch for the day. Such a beautiful dark sky blue are the legs of blue crabs, and so strong those claws! As we chatted, the young man seemed to be wondering why we would be staying there and tried to direct us to a more popular spot, but it was in the direction one takes when not going the swamp route. Other cruisers tied up on the wall for the night, joining a remoteness that eliminated any activity requiring a Verizon signal.

Elizabeth City, population 15,000, is the staging stop for entering the Dismal Swamp. One docks at the free docks right in town, convenient to the wonderful maritime museum and a few quaint shops and good eateries. With an increased proliferation of bugs on the short cruise to Elizabeth City, a good vacuuming was the first order of business after docking; there is no water for wash downs at free docks or at anchor. Once known for its friendliness when every sailor was greeted with a rose and an evening welcoming party, times have changed, town budgets and personal discretionary time being what they are. With our chores completed, we took a spin around town. First scoping out the beautiful maritime museum, we discovered that it would not be open at all over the week end, and we had 15 minutes to soak in what we could. (“Yur Late!”) A very kind manager approached us a few minutes past closing, engaging in conversation about the museum and the difficulty in hiring staff these days as she graciously escorted us to the door and invited us to come back another time. We found good food at Hoppin” Johnz in a vibrant atmosphere, with a gregarious server, and a fun, girly women’s room, decorated with a full-length mirror framed with pink boa and twinkle lights and fun signage. “Money can’t buy love, but it certainly can buy some cute shoes,” one read.

Our convenient spot on the wall in the center of town was a fishbowl, as folks with kids and dogs walked the water’s edge, attracted by the small, one-design sailboats zigzagging the waters, the farmers market, and our red-hulled boat. By Saturday at 1:00, we had had enough and moved another 8 miles up river. Anchoring for the night in a gorgeous remote bend by Goat Island, we are staged and eagerly anticipate the Dismal Swamp Canal. 

Our anchorage at Goat Island, prepared to enter the Dismal Swamp Canal

Beaufort, NC

July 17

Leaving Wilmington, a mix of natural North Carolina coastal scenery and development kept us on our toes.  Salt marshes, their edges chiseled by water currents, opened to inviting sand bars and sugar beaches, the water changing from muddy-river brown to Caribbean aquamarine. Where there is beach, there are also boats and people, especially as the week end approaches. And homes, of course. Who does not long to watch the sunrise over the salt marsh from every window in their house for all the days of their life? 

The North Carolina salt marsh edges are chiseled into lobular shapes by tidal currents. Grasses here are shorter than in Georgia, and trees appear in the landscape.

The 90-mile cruise to Beaufort at 8 mph is not a one-day leg. We caught the current and 11 mph flashed on the speedometer a time or two, but it’s still too much of a slog in our slow boat. We wish now that we had anchored at Topsail Beach, but for some reason it did not call to us at the time we made the itinerary. And we weren’t keen on the flyover shows at the other anchorage near Camp Lejeune, which many cruisers enjoy but characterize as “noisy.” We opted for the only other anchorage on the chart—Sloop Pointe, noted for “only light small boat traffic.” We have since added our notes to Waterway Guide, that the small boat traffic is heavy— even a tour boat came by—and further, cruisers were either in a big hurry or experienced sadistic pleasure in seeing a tall red boat at anchor rocking mightily in their wake. We should have moved, but we kept thinking traffic would die down. It did not—not until after dark, and it resumed before dawn, inciting us to hoist the anchor by first light. 

The cruise to Beaufort (what a relief to pronounce it the French way, as opposed to the the South Carolinians’ pronunciation of their “Beaufort”) on a Saturday was entertaining, replete with fishermen, small center console week-enders, and even a commercial tow. Add these to the resulting wakes, slow residential areas, and inlets with channel marker changes—with “red” now to the starboard, and now back to the port again—all in a narrow channel surrounded by shoaling. Our timing was perfect—slack current. We thought. In Beaufort slack current arrives an hour after slack tide—the relationship of tides and currents, being specific to each place and changing every day. The dock hand on the radio told us the current was ripping through the marina. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “ Just cruise by and look for me waving by your slip and then turn around and come up into the wind.” As he was speaking we were watching small crafts being pushed sideways and helpless to land where they were aiming. Slow docking speed always our preference, a current requires speed to retain steerage. The crusty dock hand coached Steve (this one did know what he was talking about) telling him “more speed,” but our comfort mode being slow, Steve nailed the sweet spot beautifully. The saying that you’re only as good as your last docking made us feel brilliant in the moment. 

Just another Saturday playing on a NC sandbar
The Dan Ryan of the waters approaching Beaufort

Beaufort is a small, attractive town with eateries and nautical boutiques on the main drag. We checked out the shops in short order and found a good mid afternoon meal. The entertainment for the evening was watching other boats come in, also contending with the wind and current.  The next afternoon we thoroughly enjoyed the North Carolina Maritime Museum. Only briefly referencing the whimsical lore in film and fiction of Edward Thatch (or Teach) aka “Blackbeard,” the museum displayed historical data and artifacts from the site believed to be of his sunken vessel, Queen Anne’s Revenge. Between 1716 and 1718 Blackbeard attacked 70 ships! A guy who develops this kind of notoriety in only 3 years will eventually get his due. And so this swell guy—ladies man and collector of seven wives—finally met his maker, his head mounted on a pike along with the Jolly Roger, as a warning to all. A Jolly Roger, the skull and crossbones flags, were flown by pirate ships particularly during the Golden Age of pirating, the decade of 1710s. Pirates generally had their unique flag, flown only when preparing to attack. Some sources attribute a particularly shudder-producing design to Blackbeard, while others state that he preferred plain flags, the black to signal attack and the red, warning of no mercy. 

Learning about the North Carolina fishing industry at the museum and the development of various boats shaped for specific industries was fascinating, as well. Especially notable is the story of Menhaden, a forage fish with alternative aliases bony-fish, whitefish, fat-bat, mossbunker, and bug-head, to name a few. The Narragansett word for menhaden translates “that which fertilizes.” So plentiful were these fish that, when they were in season in the fall, N. Carolina, fishermen could collect them with a shovel. Commercial menhaden fishing boats, worked by black and white crewmen, hauled in such bountiful catches that in order to coordinate their heaving, they sang rhythmic chanteys, and this musical art form to this day sometimes takes the stage. We saw photos of men waist-deep in menhaden at processing plants, where the fish, high in Omega-3 fatty acids, were pressed for animal feed, fertilizer, and human food products. While not as plentiful as they once were and limits have been placed on a fishery’s allowable tonnage, they still are vital for these same uses, and we ingest them in such things as fish oil capsules, cooking oil, salad dressing, and lipstick. As a matter of fact, Menhaden may be a key to saving our planet, as they are vital to the food chain, filtering phytoplankton and zooplankton from the water they live in, and in turn are eaten by predatory gamefish like swordfish and tuna. So reach out and thank the Menhaden in your life today! 

It turns out that, had we not planned an extra day in Beaufort, we would have stayed for weather, anyway. The courtesy car which we borrowed for provisioning competes for worst beater on the Loop, but we were grateful for its utility. We checked out the wooden boat-building exhibit and wandered into the historic area, staffed by enthusiastic volunteers in antebellum dress, but the return of threatening skies deterred much of a historic walk. One of the favorite stops on the walk includes the “spooky cool” cemetery in which some local lore is retained. One story goes like this:

Sarah Gibbs (d. 1792) & Jacob Shepard (d. 1773)—Sarah was married to Jacob Shepard, a seaman. Jacob’s ship went to sea, but never returned. He was presumed to be dead. Later, Sarah married Nathaniel Gibbs and had a child with him. After an absence of several years, the shipwrecked Jacob Shepard unexpectedly returned to Beaufort to find his wife married to another man. The two men agreed that Sarah would remain with Gibbs as long as she lived, but must spend eternity at the side of Jacob Shepard. 

Locals encouraged us to visit Beaufort in October, after hurricane season and after tourists go home. Perhaps we’ll do just that. 

The Cape Fear River

July 16, 2021

The “Rock Pile,” a length of the ICW north ofBarefoot Landing which is noted for hazards lurking on either side of the channel

Our intention to anchor near Southport was affected by that broken strainer, the generator being the source of power to the Air Conditioning at anchor, which is a necessity these days. And so we gained one more docking experience, as we were blown off the dock, barely able to approach the sandwiched-in space on the inner wall which we were assigned. The dock hands stood with lead feet until Steve just pointed the bow toward an open slip, and they met us there. We are finding, more often than not, that dock hands can put in a thimble what they know about docking; and as it turned out, one of these sweet kids had been handling lines for just 10 days. As a consequence, we are learning to be more directive: “ No, I’ll give you the bow line after you take this line first and secure it on that cleat.”

Southport is a sleepy Victorian wanna-be-resort town with plaques denoting cottage names and dates of construction, a few small boutiques, a way-over-priced gourmet market, a few antique stores (which were mostly closed), and some eateries. After our disappointment at LuLu’s, we were ready for a nice dinner, and Mr. P’s Bistro was the ticket. Wait staff was top notch, and we enjoyed a lovely dinner with a yummy low-country array of vegetable sides—braised cabbage and grilled pattypan squash to name just two. At the marina, we met Loopers on Sunset from Houston and just missed old looping friends Sue and Bud Hansen on Odyssey, who came in late and left early with a hired captain aboard—again with boat trouble! Bud and Sue have had way more boat trouble (counted in number of events, wait time, and cost) than anyone we know, and we hope we can meet up and cruise with them—sometime!

The Cape Fear River has had several names, but in 1733 this name stuck because of the constantly-shifting shoals at its mouth. We have often tried to envision how much more adventuresome this trip would be without electronic charts and appreciate the way some systems collect information from the sonar of each boat as it passes through, and update electronic charts accordingly. I have imagined cruising with a paper chart rolled out at all times, parallel rules, binoculars, and compass—regularly taking waypoints, which we learned in our early sailing days. Electronics charts are an amazing advance… perhaps Cape Fear should update its name, as well!

The iconic Wilmington bridge has just about served its term and is going to be replaced. To the left, a tow is at work.

Fifteen miles up the Cape Fear River is the picturesque town of Wilmington. We passed under the iconic lift bridge and a small commercial area where container ships are loaded, the top exports of Wilmington being munitions and pork. Wilmington is also friendly to movie filming, and I ran across an online list of 64 Oscar- and Emmy-winning actors who have filmed here. Port City Marina is conveniently located near the historic district and has nice facilities, including a very good restaurant. The town is quaint with a vital boardwalk, maximizing waterfront enjoyment for jogging, dog walking, and sauntering.

While we enjoyed biking around town, we opted for an Uber across the interstate bridge to the WWII Battleship North Carolina on a hot, muggy afternoon. We easily fell down the rabbit hole, trying to imagine nearly 2400 men aboard that huge vessel with an area of 10 acres, over 700 feet long and 100 feet wide. A draft of over 33 feet provides at least 3 decks, maybe 4, below water level. This ship was assigned nine land bombardments, one of which was Iwo Jima. Each sailor had his specialty/job assignment, from piloting the Kingfisher (the small pontoon aircraft), which was catapulted into the air from the deck; to the cleaner of cannons (one guy actually serving as the ramrod, being pushed through the barrel and pulled out the other end by his legs), to cook and scullery, to post master and ship doctor, to navigator, to movie projectionist threading the same movies night after night, to soft serve ice cream server… My interest in the actual weaponry has limits, but it was intriguing to envision daily life cooped up for months at a time with all that raging testosterone. 

Foredeck of the Battleship North Carolina
My big foot—just to show the massive scale of the anchor chain.

Having read about the 1898 coup against the thriving Black middle class in Wilmington, we went searching for the memorial park commemorating this little-known piece of history. The first such insurrection after the Civil War, it was originally reported by the white press as a riot perpetrated by the black community. However, later study of the events came to characterize it as the only successful coup d’etat in American history, by a group of 2000 white supremacists to overthrow their duly elected biracial government. Killing an estimated 60-300 Blacks and Whites, destroying Black neighborhoods, and running off sympathizers into surrounding forests and swamps, the massacre ushered in an era of some of the most severe racial segregation and disenfranchisement in African American history. 

The 1898 Memorial of Wilmington’s Coup d’etat

On a thoroughly positive note: while not perfect, a huge shout out goes to the United States amazing mail and package delivery system! Our strainer arrived in two days from Washington State, and a marine mechanic was on board at 10:00 the next morning installing it. After a rainy afternoon, we took a spin through the collection of shops at the old Cotton Exchange. The post-rain walk to Rumcow, a quirky little gem which specializes in creative small plates, was the perfect finale to our visit in Wilmington.

Tropical Storms and Doldrums

July 9, 2021

With the Canadian border still closed to United States visitors, Loopers’ plans this season are all over the map. Some are hanging out near the Canada border; some are enjoying extended cruising on the Chesapeake; others are on the Great Lakes, having hired a captain to transit the Welland Locks which bypass Niagara Falls into L. Ontario; some are just staying south, poised to enjoy winter; and those who have dirt homes might be taking a hiatus from cruising. While we appreciate the lack of competition for slips and beautiful anchorages, we also are missing much of the social experience which is a delightful component of a normal looping season, one in which a “class” of Loopers “chases 80,” following the seasons, and gathering for docktails and perhaps a few tall tales at the end of the cruising day.

From Charleston, we anchored at Georgetown. Having such wonderful memories of our first visit there with friends, this time felt anticlimactic. Our dinner was mediocre, and our walk past the stately homes on shaded streets with Live Oak archways was humid and sticky. And a little lonely. 

The next morning we cruised two hours to Wacca Wache Marina to wait out Tropical Storm Elsa. Apart from a dicey docking in torrential rain and the 5:30am tornado warning which rousted us out of bed, the experience was— just another tropical storm. We enjoyed reconnecting with dock masters Jason and Matt, who came to know our boat well when Red Pearl was there for 7 months in 2018.

Departing Wacca Wache at day break after Tropical Storm Elsa.

Two days later under gorgeous blue skies, we left Wacca Wache, to date our destination furthest north on the eastern seaboard, and cruised into territory which we have not seen before! We read longingly about the side trip up the lush and scenic Waccamaw River, which we don’t have time for. Wildness morphed into development, with “No Wake” zones past miles and miles of homes with private piers as we approached Myrtle Beach. “Covens” of jet skies swarmed, zipping by and carving doughnuts in our wake. Arriving at Barefoot Marina, a favorite stop among Loopers, one of the dock hands offered us a ride to the grocery for provisioning, which we happily accepted. Greens, kale, a salad mix, celery, peaches, grapes, Rainer cherries, blueberries, avocados, a small ham, a tub of whole yogurt, a loaf of bread, and 18 eggs were repackaged and crammed into our 7cf fridge with a practiced hand.

The following day a short dinghy ride across the waterway took us to the Landing, crawling with families and kids in a carnival atmosphere. A carrousel, play grounds, lawn games, hammocks, and tantalizing junk food were the hub around which shops and restaurants bordered. We browsed the shops, more to escape the heat, but also purchased a few items which will enhance our cruising life. 🙄 Our choice for a low-key dinner at LuLu’s was disappointing; especially memorable was the men’s and women’s kickboxing shown on all four giant screens in unavoidable line of vision, which we found a distressing choice for family entertainment. 

The Barefoot area being not quite to our personal taste, and the seasonal humidity having descended, we spent all day Sunday indoors FaceTiming with friends from home and planning our itinerary for the next two weeks. It also took a good bit of time locating a strainer for the generator, which perhaps was broken when the exhaust was replaced a few weeks ago. A marine mechanic helped us identify the part but could not get it for a few days—longer than we want to hang out here—so we have arranged for the part  to meet us up the road… 

“Arrangements,” of course, having loose connotation on the water….

Chic Charleston

July 4

We have been to Charleston before. We have done the Market and shopped the shops and eaten crab cakes. But it’s the holiday week end, and we are staying off the water to avoid the “crazies.” There is a lot to enjoy in Charleston.

Wanting to avoid the city marina, Red Pearl is docked at Harborage at Ashley River, in the furthest slip from the gate, a quarter-mile walk. While the marina is lovely, we are disappointed to discover that the downtown area is not bike-able, and an Uber is the go-to mode of transportation—usually $20 each way, but when demand is high, as much as $36. Chalk it up to the many details that are just difficult to anticipate. 

Sweetgrass basket artisan, William Rouse

On Saturday, we warmed up our visit with the Charleston Market. The African/Gullah art of sweetgrass basket-making sang to us again, and we finally succumbed and purchased one from William Rouse, a sweet man with a guarded smile, who was beginning a new basket coil as he sat in his booth. His mother taught him the art or gathering wild sweetgrass and bulrush and of coiling and sewing. A fourth-generation craftsman, he was eager for us to understand that originally these baskets served working purposes, such as for the winnowing of rice. Many of his baskets take 3-4 days’ labor, the larger ones up to 2 weeks.

From the Market, we visited the city home of Joseph Manigault, a lucky fellow who inherited several rice plantations and over 200 enslaved people from his grandfather. He married well-twice!-and ended up with seven rice plantations north of the city. Built in 1803, the Huguenot House was served by a separate kitchen and second-floor quarters for enslaved workers, the privy, the carriage house, the livery, and a flower garden, all within less than an acre. The house was not grand, but it was architecturally “smart,” and provided escape from mosquito infestations of the swampy rice plantations. It seemed incredulous that eight children were raised in three rooms on the third floor, following the tradition of children being kept far from adult company until they were 14 years of age. After changing hands several times before and around the time of the Civil War, during which fortunes collapsed, the dilapidated house was saved from razing for a gas station in the 1930s by the Preservation Society of Charleston. In the 40s it was used hard “as a USO post and Red Cross training facility. While at the Joseph Manigault House, soldiers attended dinners, parties, played games and wrote to their families.” Now restored, it is maintained by the Charleston Museum. Our early dinner at The Ordinary was anything but; the fish was delicious, but the “zucchini carpaccio” was a divine blend of simple and fresh flavors. 

The Huguenot House of Joseph Manigault

On Sunday we took a historic guided tour, during which many, many dates flew in one ear and out the other.  The biggest take-aways were, first, the single house style, so common here, in which 2 rooms per floor were stacked, one floor atop another, and another. Second, “Charles Town” (pronounced very particularly by our guide) certainly has a lot of old churches! After the historic tour, we ferried to Fort Sumpter, where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. So much complexity surrounds the history of Fort Sumpter, and we found the political and military strategic background information a little depressing. Perhaps it was the previous barrage of dates; or perhaps our overlaying this history with the continued racial tensions of today was the cause. Our diversion was a delightful dinner at Magnolias on East Bay. Back at the marina, a nice display of fireworks from the aft deck of Red Pearl cheered us.

Fort Sumpter displays lots of cannons of many sizes and designs

Monday was spent at Magnolia Plantation, now a for-profit Romantic Gardens owned and run by 13th-generation Drayton family members. Founded in 1676, its most colorful history encompasses ownership by an Episcopal minister who designed the gardens as a gift and distraction for his wife who pined for the Philadelphia city life of her girlhood. The reverend was destitute after the war, having donated heavily to the Confederate cause, and the plantation home having been burned to the ground—one of 35 which were torched by Union troops on order from General Sherman as they marched back north. To make ends meet, he sold off 1500 acres, and he opened the beautiful gardens to tourism. Another profitable endeavor was the mining of phosphate rock, but the damage which strip mining wreaked on the beautiful land and stately trees eventually was deemed too big a price, and mining was abandoned. A tour of the four remaining quarters for the enslaved workers (housing, also, for paid gardeners until 1990) by our unflinchingly-honest and emotional African American docent was thought-provoking and dispiriting. Back aboard Red Pearl, a taste of home was a balm, as we ate a simple green salad with quinoa and chick peas, processing the uncomfortable history which we encountered again and again this week end and overwhelmed by the failure of our culture to make the shifts that are so overdue. 

Our itinerary for the week is dogged with the prospect of another named storm. As we bid Charleston farewell, Hurricane Elsa is on our minds.

Beautiful Beaufort

July 1, 2021

From St. Simons Island we cruised toward Savannah, with a lovely and uneventful night on the hook at Wahoo River. The next morning, however, the race was on for reaching Savannah ahead of  Tropical Storm Darius, headed straight for the Georgia coast.

A return visit to Thunderbolt, where we spent 3 weeks for repairs in 2019, felt like coming home, with a knock on our cabin from Rick, the past chief engineer of the now-defunct maker of our boat, Mainship, which stopped making boats in 2008. Rick is employed in the Thunderbolt boatyard now, and we had enjoyed chatting with him two years ago, he being eager to see how each of his “progeny” is weathering. It was sweet to be remembered, and having a red hull always helps. Light rain turned to an hour-long torrential downpour, accented with more thunder and lightening than we have ever experienced, it being our first brush with tropical storms. It passed in time for us to enjoy a walk along the water’s edge among some of Savannah’s beautiful Live Oaks and past Tubby’s, a Thunderbolt mainstay and watering hole. 

The morning following the storm greeted us with beautiful blue skies strewn with white fluff, and we cruised without a care to Beaufort (pronounced Bew’ fort, not to be confused with Bo’ fort, NC). Beaufort had just regained their electricity after their more direct hit by Darius by the time we arrived, and we were assigned a slip between two boats on an inside wall. The skipper and I had time for only brief discussion as to whether there was sufficient length, and he felt up for the challenge. As we were passing the boat that would be behind us, the current began pushing us into it. Hats off to the facile dockhand, who leaped onto that boat to fend off even before I could get there. At our subsequent debriefing, we agreed to be more discerning and less adventuresome in future docking. It was also during this debriefing that we realized that, as we hyper- focused on docking, we forgot our dire need for a pump out of the black water holding tank before going to the slip.  This would require our using the shore facilities for the next two days—not the end of the world, but an definite inconvenience, particularly in the middle of the night. 

Beaufort is a charming town, holding a proud spot in southern history in both the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars. We wandered the main drag and, upon recommendation from a store clerk, snagged an early reservation at Old Bull Tavern. On a hot day, the watermelon salad jumped out at me and did not disappoint. The following day we rode our bikes down the “rails to trails” Spanish Moss Trail to Port Royal. We scoped out a tiny wetlands there, very popular with kids’ day camps, and at the end of the loop, ducked into a tiny cupcake shop to cool off. Brenda Finkenbinder, I thought of you as I savored my “Pluff Mud” cupcake, chocolate with bitter coffee filling and buttercream. (Pluff mud is the very sticky stuff specific to this area which yielded the precious “Carolina Gold” in the 19th c before the emancipation, making the Carolina states the world’s rice-producing capital, which, not incidentally, was only made possible with the brains and on the backs of enslaved people.) Our bike ride wound up back in Beaufort, as we enjoyed the antebellum homes on the water’s edge and stumbled upon the one which served as backdrop for the Meechams’ home in the movie “The Great Santini.” Pat Conroy, author of the book by the same name, was homegrown in Beaufort, and his eloquent descriptions of the South Carolina marshlands and the plots which he wove through them in his novels have had me hankering to experience them firsthand for years. 

The following morning, an attentive dock hand assisted us in springing off the dock, a special technique using lines to hold in the bow and kick out the stern, in order to leave that tight docking space. He also cheerfully assisted us with our much-needed pump out. Aaaaahhhhh. 

St. Simons Island

Off at daybreak

June 25

As we slowly headed back down the quiet inlet in which we had anchored at Cumberland Island, our gaze kept returning to the shoreline. Goodbye, tangled driftwood. Goodbye, wild horses. Goodbye evocative, mystical eden.

Wind speeds markedly less than the previous day, we still had a jolly, roll-y ride through the notorious St. Andrew Sound. The Sound, justifiably known for its fiendishness, requires a wise skipper to do his homework, studying tide tables, current, wind and weather before crossing this inlet from the Atlantic. Although local knowledge might have provided a more comfortable heading, the 2-to-4-foot waves in close succession reminded us of some of our liveliest sailing cruises on Lake Michigan. 

Some might remember the MV Golden Ray, a 200-meter car carrier, which capsized in 2019, dumping its cargo into the St. Simons Sound. We can report that it is still there, surrounded by one of the world’s largest cranes, as they cut the vessel into pieces of scrap small enough to tow away. Just the previous day, we met a young man on Cumberland who was taking water samples for analysis, discreetly hinting at legal ramifications of this major marine disaster. He commented that car parts had been found as far away as Cumberland Island, some 40 miles south. We cruised by the sight, and later that evening from our slip miles away, we could still see the towering crane, lit up like a holiday palooza at night. 

The removal of MV Golden Ray and her cargo of cars as scrap, bit by bit, in the St. Simons Sound

We arrived at Morningstar Marina, not at high tide, but it wasn’t slack tide, either; and the current was strong, coupled with a 10 mph wind in the same direction. As Steve radioed the dock hand he asked twice for a slip which would allow us to dock INTO the wind. No response. Sure enough, we were assigned a slip downwind. After two scary tries, we insisted on an upwind slip with a side tie, and then docking was easy peasy. Another lesson in self-advocacy! As we talked to locals who had “watched the show,” all had stories about near misses—and some collisions—in that tidal current.

Other than the services at the marina—one lovely restaurant, a hair salon, a swimming pool, the requisite yacht broker—one needs a car or at least bikes to enjoy the island. We unpacked our folding bikes, only to discover the loss of an itty bitty screw which secures the handlebars/steerage; so first stop was the hardware store for said screw. Mission accomplished, we cycled down to the village for lunch, making a loop through both lovely and modest residential areas. One house had a big sign posted in front, “Not for sale. Don’t even ask!” an interesting  sidebar at a time in which, once again, the housing market is absolutely bonkers.

We have fallen in love with coastal Georgia: its barrier islands with their fine white sandy beaches, their earth-scented live oak forests and wide-open salt marshes, all which allow one to believe a fairy tale for the moment that all is well with the world.  Its access to Florida’s warmer climes and the eastern seaboard’s historic sights are attractive to us who have trouble deciding which is better. We make a mental note and tuck this little pearl away to re-examine at a later date, as we continue our journey north.

While cruising coastal Georgia on a beautiful day, one can pretend that all is well in the world.

Serendipity at Cumberland Island

June 23, 2021

We are back on Red Pearl and cruising again! Those who we saw in Goshen might prefer to skip to the middle of this blog. Those who have no interest in the mechanics may also skip. If you are a boater and enjoy commiserating with other boaters, or if you just enjoy the misery of others, keep reading!

Thankfully, the Jacksonville, FL Ortega River marine community, unlike Palm Coast where marine mechanics were scheduling two months out, was available for repairs! Because Steve had made arrangements, we had not been docked for more than an hour at Lambs Marina before repairmen began showing up. First was the water issue! The leak DID turn out to be a broken fixture at the stern which is used to attach a hose to city water, bypassing the water tanks. The two systems are connected, however, so with the internal hose to the fixture broken, our tanks drained. It was an easy repair and we quickly had water and a dry bilge again.

Next, the service manager came aboard to give all systems a thorough going over, and we created a prioritized “to do” list. At this point, the only thing on my “don’t do” list was stopping for another repair in the next week, so as far as we were concerned, just about anything that Shane suggested was a “do.” Just before her haul out, Red Pearl received her final set of replacement isinglass, so we can put to bed that repetitive bit of bitching and moaning! On the hard, suspected “to dos” were confirmed: replacement of both cutlass bearings, replacement of both through hull seacocks, and the gnarly replacement of an exhaust hose—gnarly because of its inaccessibility, and the costly but necessary maintenance of the bottom paint, called “a bottom job.” Things that did not require out-of-water access included fixing the leak of the flybridge scupper (a problem we inherited with the boat, the generator compartment always damp and cause of the steerage failure that we experienced a couple of weeks prior), replacement of two voltage and temperature gauges on the upper helm (only one having failed, but the corresponding gauge for the other engine needs to match, of course!), and a growly davit motor (the davit being the hydraulic thingy that sets the dinghy in the water and lifts it out). With temperatures forecast in the high 90s and marine AC requiring circulating water for cooling, we decided to go home to Indiana.

Three weeks later with appointments, visits with friends and family, and planned service in our dirt home  complete, we jumped in a rental car and high-tailed it back to Jacksonville. Tropical storm Claudette trailed us by hours, and we were grateful to have everything unloaded and to watch the torrential rains that night from our cockpit in our covered slip. But first things first: a beeping carbon monoxide alarm greeted us upon entering the boat. We aired out the cabin, thinking perhaps exhaust from another boat had settled in while someone was working on her, and the beeping stopped. Until midnight. We fiddled and unscrewed and ran internet searches and vacuumed, and finally the darn thing shut up. Our internet search revealed that carbon monoxide sensors last five to six years, and we’re thinking this is 17yo and wonder why this was not identified in our boat survey when we bought her. We reasoned that there was no source for CO on our boat without the engine or generator running, since everything else that hums is electric. And we read that the burning of diesel fuel is not as prone to causing CO fatalities as is the burning of regular gasoline. Still, as we turned off the lights at 2:00am, I made certain that the first page that would appear on my phone when the authorities found us was regarding carbon monoxide, just so they would know that we had been aware. Another item on the “to do” list.

Boat repairs complete—all but the growly davit motor—we readied to depart during the next couple of days. One final outing before leaving this charming port of call was to our favorite restaurant, Biscottis, in the village of Avondale for any one of several dishes that were deliciously memorable—and a gigantic piece of their to-die-for cake. Nirvana itself. Another night, we had dinner on the fly bridge with Key West friends and Gold Loopers on Salt Aire, sharing laughs and finding solace as they regaled us with their saga of repairs along their trip around.

On Wednesday, June 23, a weather window allowed for passage to our next port, though not without anticipated rain. It being hurricane season, we will have to accept the regularity of afternoon showers. That said, it was a gorgeous, overcast cruise to Cumberland Island. A pod of a couple dozen dolphins greeted us as we re-entered salt water; our delight at the sight never dims. We also felt lucky to observe a pink bird flying overhead and then saw the whole flock of Roseate Spoonbills feeding ashore at low tide. We anchored and lunched in time to take the dinghy over to the island just to get a sense of its stately beauty, its pristine calm, its protected wildness. The live oaks here are stunted by the salt air, growing horizontally in corkscrew patterns; on their labyrinth of branches, vibrant green moss and ferns glow warmly, and gray draping Spanish Moss sparkles like Christmas tinsel in the dappled forest light, all lending textures and depth of field that command reverence. We walked the half-mile across the island, leaving the earthy aroma of the forest for the salt air and subtle scent of sea life amidst pristine sand dunes, rethinking schedule and weather, and the pros and cons of hanging out here for another day, another week, another season…. 

Gorgeous Cumberland Island—the labyrinth of branches and the dunes, all within a half-mile walk.

The tides here are pretty amazing, an 8-foot fluctuation twice a day. As we watch birds “walking on water” and feeding during low tide, it seems like a mighty fine plan to provide regular feeding times for these creatures, and then give the smaller guys a break from their predators during high tide and a chance to live their lives, too. This big fluctuation in water levels also creates some respect-worthy currents, and Steve and I fought like crazy to bring the dinghy parallel to the stern when we returned to the bigger boat from our walk. 

With winds still topping 18 knots and our need to cross the wide open St. Andrews Sound, Skipper Steve opted for staying put another day. The forecast for rain receded, opening up the opportunity for another serendipitous visit to the island Thursday morning. This time we walked south through the wizened moss-draped live oaks to the area where western civilization has left its scar. Similarly to Jekyll Island, Cumberland has a 4000-year history with native Americans. Early French, Spanish, and British settlers left little trace here, but Thomas and Lucy Carnegie (he, the brother and business partner of more famous Andrew Carnegie) built a large estate over the ruins of the original 1803 tabby Dungeness left by the widow of Revolutionary War Hero Nathanael Greene. Thomas died at the age of 43, before completion of Dungeness, but Lucy persisted and raised their nine children on the island, building a home for each of them as they had their own families. It must have been a stunning estate, in which they lived self-sufficiently if having 200-300 staff can in any honest way at all be called “self-sufficient.” After Lucy’s passing, Dungeness served as venue for a daughter’s wedding in 1920 and then was left deserted until its destruction by arson in 1959. The Carnegies have left most of the island to the state of Georgia, now a National Seashore, which protects its wild horses, makes it available for rustic camping and meditative inspiration, and allows this little spot to return to what nature makes of it. 

Thomas and Lacy Carnegie’s Dungeness, now only ruins
Over 100 wild horses call Cumberland Island home. We were able to identify a dominant mare, and watched as she told the others it was time to move on. The first mare compliantly trotted on with her foal; the last one went nose to nose with her and snorted. Eventually the two moved on side by side.

St. Johns River: Part 2

May 20, 2021

From Hontoon, we cruised another long day to the town of Acosta. We knew the marina lacked charm, but a warm shower was the main attraction, made possible in the comfort of our own head (yacht bathroom) by a stern hose hookup which provides running water without having to fill the water tanks. Once docked, I was a woman on a mission as I located the connecting piece of hose, performed the necessary gymnastics over the straps and davits on the swim platform to attach it, screwed the regular hose to the connector hose and the regular hose to the spigot on the dock. Water on!… only to have Steve note that the connecting hose astern was spluttering water into the bilge at a pretty good clip. Sigh. Water off. Perhaps this contributes to the big picture in our water dilemma…or perhaps we have three separate water issues. Steve was very adult in opting to shower at the marina locker room but I, noting how sandy the jaunt up there was, opted for not returning from a shower only to have sandy feet. I washed my hair in the tepid water that had sat in the bathtub cistern for two days and took yet another sponge bath. There could be worse things, like discovering in bed that you still have sand between your toes. 

Our itinerary the next day was leisurely and highly recommended, a short 18-mile cruise to Murphy Creek with a full afternoon to gunk-hole Dunns Creek. We found a derelict boat in our first choice anchorage, and further up the creek a huge derelict barge with 2 old school buses and an old Air Stream trailer spoiled the view of the next anchorage. This, coupled with our having noticed the forecast for the next day with winds topping 18 mph, gave us pause and dampened our spirit for adventure. Upon deliberation, we decided to make a beeline as far north as possible to minimize what local knowledge anticipated could be an exhausting passage, fighting the slap of white caps abeam all day. We anchored in beautiful Black Creek, after a 58-mile cruise, which positioned us just 20 miles from our destination at the Ortega River, and trading the cacophony of “whoopy cushion frogs” and territorial birds for the road noise of civilization.

The final leg of the return to Jacksonville was a quick morning slog. Slapping white caps of 2 to 3 feet pitched us back and forth and camouflaged the myriads of crab pots, forcing us to make abrupt corrections to avoid running afoul of their lines. We passed Ortega Landing Marina this time and docked at Lambs Marina and Boatyard, also highly rated, but more for boat repairs than creature comforts. The marina is designed for long-term dockage, with well-crafted covered slips totally obstructing any view. Our window panels can be replaced here while we address the water issues and have a thorough inspection, so as to avert these emergent crises for a while.

Itinerary undetermined again, the lemons are plentiful and juicy. Lemonade coming right up.

This creek offers a compelling invitation to come explore.

A Side Trip Down the St. Johns River… and More Lemons: Part I

May 17, 2021

From Palm Coast, a two-day cruise landed us at Ortega Landing Marina, on the southwest side of Jacksonville, Florida. Ortega Landing is iconic among Loopers, a hands down 5-star favorite. I will agree that there are many pros, and our stay was great, but generous slip size would not be one of them. With the beam of Red Pearl at 14 1/2’ and our slip not more than 15’, our big round fenders which we use for locking, were essential for keeping us off the neighboring boat. Of prime importance was connecting with a canvas company who will replace the remainder of our flybridge panels. Our prime delight was our afternoon with Mike and Brenda Finkenbinder, who made a quick trip down to Florida from Minnesota just because. It was so good to be with them and to meet their new family member Bertie, a big, handsome Australian Sheepdog Poodle mix. 

I will just mention (but not go into the weeds regarding need for) the services of Eric Weatherly, a quiet,  unassuming and highly-trusted marine repairman, who fixed our AC pump, our shower pump and our forward bilge switch, which all malfunctioned at the same time. I could also tell you what one-way plane tickets to South Bend cost that day….

After repairing the above-mentioned mechanicals, we provisioned and readied for a week in remote river country. Two weeks would have been ideal, but we have a date with the isinglass man, so 7 days it is! We departed on Friday, May 14, on a 50-mile cruise to Palatka, an old town a bit down on its luck, where most of the vessels in the marina appear to have been forgotten. The local dock master assisted us with our lines, as steady winds exceeding 15 mph buffeted us off the dock. Craig also was a garrulous story-teller, smacking of “the fish that got away” variety. We decided to pass on his recommendation for carrying in pizza for dinner and, craving activity, walked across the bridge two miles to Corky Bell’s Seafood and Grill. Corky Bell’s proved to be a very popular spot, and we had the best fried clams ever, and delicious local stuffed flounder. The kink in our plan occurred when the Uber service, which we had scoped out while making our plans, had no cars available. Steve was limping by the time we hiked back to the boat, although neither of us was worse for the wear the next day. On Saturday we were up with the bass fishermen—literally hundreds of bass boats dotted the city docks by day-break just feet from our dock. Craig informed us that this was a benefit for children’s cancer, and then regaled us with details of the tournament a few weeks earlier, which attracted the real pros and was televised live with overhead drones capturing the action and awarded prizes of over $100k.

A 30-mile cruise on Saturday took us to an anchorage around Welaka, where we met this magnificent fellow while gunk-holing up the Ocklawaha River. 

About 5’ long, this handsome guy apparently enjoyed our photo shoot.

Feeling that we had no choice but to ignore Loopers’ caveat to avoid weekend cruising, Sunday was our big 60-mile day. Our strategy was to get to our southern-most point so that we would have fewer boats to maneuver around as we dinked our way back north, exploring the sights on weekdays; but even so, the hordes of Sunday boaters around popular sights made the long Sunday cruise simply unpleasant. We reached Butchers Bend, which had been described as an idyllic spot…and it WAS pretty, but for the beach revelers just the equivalent of a block away! Steve and I both felt a little cranky; we were primed for wild-ness, and instead experienced mad jet skis, worrying tubing and packed-in family beach excursions. 

At this point in the story, “cranky” turns to “despondent”:

Ah, perfidious Red Pearl! Your siren call of Looping Delights wooed me, Your guiles now doth wound me.

The water pump has always been a—“question” of minor concern. A new pump two years ago did not remedy the occasional and random pulsing every few hours and eluded the plumber’s search. The pulsing has gradually become more frequent until, as we left Palatka, we agreed to turn the pump off at the panel except when needing water. But then, that evening Steve found the aft bilge full of fresh, clean water, with the water tank monitor registering only 1/4 full. We had topped off the tanks just the previous morning, but now 150 gallons of water were gone. Pumped out of the bilge into the river!  We quickly filled everything we could find with what remained in the tanks—buckets, thermoses, quart soup tubs—and the bathtub became a cistern for bathing and flushing. How uncanny that we pressed to our furthest destination, only to have this happen! 

Monday morning we stepped outside to the silent beauty which surrounded us—wafting mist on the water’s surface and the permeating scent of cedars, elegantly draped with moss all around the small oxbow anchorage. With our heads finally around this new water debacle, we relinquished the need to race back to Jacksonville, although we WOULD have to compromise the solitude of the anchor for fresh water at marinas. What a remarkable difference a Monday makes on the river, with only codgers like us making waves! We enjoyed gunk-holing the Dead River at Hontoon, seeing lots of turtles, a few alligators, an array of herons, only one manatee. Our most memorable sight was a great blue heron at the shallow water’s edge catching a 6” sunfish-shaped fish, wrestling it, and swallowing it whole.

As night falls, the wind has died. An alligator swims by purposefully, perhaps in pursuit of a hot date. The little turtle which has sunned himself all afternoon still perches alone on the end of his log. Frogs have begun their grotesque, whoopy cushion serenades; the birds, their cacophonous, tinny, speakeasy mating calls; and…I wonder if that wild cricket-ish racket is the once-in-17-years treat of cicadas. Night in the wilderness is noisy!

Our anchorage at Butchers Bend
Alligator hunting season in Florida is August 15 to November 1 and limits entry to 7000 permit holders, for which 15,000 will apply. Each Alligator Trapping License authorizes the harvest of 2 alligators, with specific dates for each permit. Hunters typically use airboats equipped with flood lights for nighttime hunting.
We are back in Egret territory. Below in a series of three: a hungry Great Blue Heron ignores the threat of our presence and catches a fish, wrestling with it and swallowing it whole.
“Do you have a problem with that?!”
Ospreys thrive on the waterways among boat traffic, often opting to nest on day marker platforms. Nonetheless, this mama is a showing her disapproval of our proximity.
Nightfall in the wilderness is noisy.