One of the most appropriate sayings about what the boating experience is like is this – Boating is long periods of boredom punctuating my moments of sheer terror.
Let’s face it, truth be told, sometimes this on board life is boring as hell. Routes through large bodies of water can be mind-numbingly tedious when all you have to do is select your next waypoint some twenty or thirty miles down the way, hit the auto-pilot button, and sit back and daydream. Oh, you keep your eyes focused on the water in front of you, but, like the boat, you’re on auto-pilot too.
Well, that was not the case on our cruise getting from Oriental down to Bald Head Island.
The first leg, from Whitaker Pointe Marina in Oriental to Casper’s Marina in Swansboro, North Carolina, was no big deal. But there were some telltale signs that things were going to get interesting. The biggest sign was the increase in U.S. Coast Guard and Navy traffic on the VHF radio. For instance, there obviously was a bevy of U.S. Navy ships out in the waters off the coast as we heard constant hails from the warships to pleasure vessels that were getting too close to their positions. Also, we heard more hails from USCG and USN patrol security boats. Then, after we passed under the railroad bridge in Beaufort, we started to see the patrol boats, several dozen of them, all flitting around Morehead City harbor and Bogue Inlet, and all of them were armed to the teeth with .50 caliber M2 machine guns, the venerable Ma Deuce killer gun. But the most troubling messages were the communications from the Coast Guard North Carolina Sector to all vessels telling us to go to channel 22A for unscheduled safety announcements which told mariners that the ICW in Camp Lejuene would be closed for long periods of time throughout the week.
After we got into Casper’s Marina that Monday afternoon, I got online and found out that we were smack dab in the middle of Operation Bold Alligator, the largest Navy and Marine maneuvers of the year. Twenty nations were participating in those games and it stretched from north of Norfolk all the way down the coast of North Carolina, and for a pleasure boater it meant one lousy thing; making any headway heading south was going to be a pain in the ass.
Our departure from Casper’s was on Tuesday and our destination was suppose to be the mooring field in Carolina Beach; a long day even with an early start. But the ICW in Lejeune was closed on Tuesday morning from 7:00 am to noon. That put a big crimp in our schedule. But at 11:00 am we undocked, went down to the northern end of the canal, and waited … along with a dozen other boats.
Exactly at noon the navy patrol boat scurried off and we all headed on down. There were two fast powerboats and they zoomed on down towards the Onslow Bridge, but the rest of us slow trawlers and sailboats all trudged along together.
The first obstacle was the notorious Brown’s Inlet detour. According to charts, a boat could just cruise on past it without a care in the world. The reality of it is that it shoals terribly and the green marker has been set way over to the red side of the channel to where a vessel has to dive way over to the red side and make a sharp turn to port to get through it. We remembered this little jaunt from before so we were prepared for it. But the other boats in our flotilla were not ready for it. We were fourth in line and the three boats in front of us were totally got caught off guard by it. They were zooming down the channel when they all of sudden got the picture and took hard turns to starboard to make it around the green buoy. There angle was bad. The first two boats squeaked by, but the third boat, the one directly in front of us, didn’t. He ran hard aground. Fortunately, the boat had a four person crew on board and two of them jumped up at the mast and rocked it back and forth until they got free. We then made it around the marker.
Lisa kept a close watch on the boats behind us and saw that they were all in worse shape. The last seven or eight boats were all sailboats and they were all bunched up together too close. The lead sailboat ran aground and the ensuing mêlée was, frankly, difficult to watch. It was a real mess.
Okay, so we got past Mile Hammock (which was heavy with Navy and Marine shallow draft vessels of all kinds) and we had the throttle lever pushed up high. We knew that we were in a race with the sun to get to someplace safe before the it went down. But where? And we were entering that stretch of the ICW that because of all of the conflicting tides, we could be going ten miles per hour with a tide or six miles per hour against a tide. If we had one thing going for us was that weather conditions were calm and clear.
We kept pushing hour after hour but the math of the situation was clear. If we were able to get to Carolina Beach, it would be in the dark. Now, we have done some nighttime navigation and I’m not all that freaked out about it, but considering we were in the ICW, I was concerned. The thing that killed us was the damn swing bridge in Surf City. We had to wait forty-five minutes to get through. That sealed our fate. We weren’t getting to Carolina Beach at all. We had to settle for Wrightsville Beach. Lisa got on the phone and found us a marina on the back channel call Sea path Marina (a great stop, by the way.)
I believe that of all of creation there is only one thing that is 100% true all of the time – Mathematics – and the math was showing us that we would be navigating in dusk conditions or the dark for about ninety minutes. But we had no choice. We had to go on.
Remember when I said that the one thing we had going for us was calm conditions? That stayed true. There was absolutely no wind at all and we seemed to be following the high tide slack water all of the way after Surf City.
Lisa and I navigated from the fly bridge where it’s easier to see everything around us. I kept the boat on the magenta line while Lisa swept the channel with our handheld search light. I don’t want to say that it was easy, but Lisa and I made it finally down to Wrightsville Beach where we had to wait thirty minutes for the 7:00 pm opening.
I hate the bridge at Wrightsville Beach almost as much as I hate the bridge at Surf City. The currents can be horrendous and I was prepared for a nerve-racking thirty minutes of bridge dancing in the dark. But Poseidon smiled on us. We got to the bridge at high slack water with zero wind. I found a spot, put the boat in neutral, and we sat there almost totally motionless the entire time. The bridge finally opened and we made our way to the marina. They have a very long facing dock and the tie up was easy.
After all of that I sat in the salon and waited for the adrenaline to waft away. After about ten minutes, it did, and I crashed. Nevertheless, we made it safe and sound.
Our original plan was for us to get to Barefoot Landing from Carolina Beach. Instead, we are now at Bald Head Island for a few days. It’s Lisa’s absolutely favorite place. And if Lisa is happy, I’m happy.
Next stop from here – Barefoot. We’re coming Rick! We’re coming!