A Travellerspoint blog

On to Norfolk

sunny 43 °F

Nautical questions on an early morning:
• The person at the helm of our boat has three devices indicating the course on which the boat is traveling. The analog compass, of course; the chart plotter which uses GPS and trigonometry to calculate the heading; and, the autopilot which uses a flux gate compass to calculate the heading. The latter two can be set to true north or magnetic north and we use magnetic. None of the three ever agree; it always takes at least 5 degrees to span the difference between the three headings and, more often, 10 degrees is required. Occasionally the auto pilot compass gets stupid, being kind of close on one heading and then being 20 degrees of after a course change. It's not important to know why but I'd like to understand. The magnetic compass is the default device; it got us from the northern Berry Islands to Nassau when not a single electron of electricity was flowing on the boat. But, which reading is most likely to be the nearest to correct?
• One of our yellow Marinco power cords failed so we replaced it. The new one had an LED at the boat end indicating whether the cord was powered or not. This is such a great safety feature that we bought another one just like it. The subsidiary issue is that they pack these things into coils the size of beer cans for shipping and we haven't had any warm weather that allows the plastic insulation to lose this "beer can" memory; they're hard to coil and store. In addition Marinco changed the coupling on the boat end from threaded to something else. The population of 30 amp threaded Marinco fittings installed on the sides, sterns and cockpits of American boats has to number in the hundreds of thousands. Why would they do this?
• Carol and I are both early risers and usually get underway with the first light, now before 0700. Part of our discipline is to do a VHF radio check, usually around 0630 or so. We have yet to receive a response any time this year. Are we the only guys up?

Mornings on the boat when underway are quite different. No iPad reading of the WSJ, a quick minute for email and no relaxing. Get up, get dressed, get systems up, get the weather, get charts and guides positioned, get things stowed and plan the departure. My mornings now, again, include keeping the log in the book Stan and Connie gave us for our first trip in 2008. The page on which I started 2013 had this citation from a poem by Keats:

Much have I traveled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen ...

The real estate along the ICW really is a realm of gold.

Day one started ugly and ended fair; day two was the obverse, fair to ugly. When we left Belhaven I was looking at a weather system moving north from the border between the Carolinas. We had all our foul weather gear laid out and ready. The clouds arrived at 0900; the wind at 1030. The rain was forecast to start at 1100 but, thankfully, held off until after we were moored. It's good to be lucky.


Most of the day was driving the boat through the Alligator River/Pungo River Canal, a 22-mile ditch carved out of the south annex of the Great Dismal Swamp. Most of the way the canal is fairly narrow, lined with the stumps of cypress trees, seemingly close enough to touch from the boat. The canal is almost without human habitation, completely undeveloped. I suppose that there is beauty there, but if there is, it's not a very interesting kind.

This was our third transit of this canal, having gone north to Norfolk and back in August, 2008. We were returning south to Oriental from Norfolk and got about a half mile into the eastern end of the canal when the engine oil pressure alarm went off. We had the music cranked up and almost did not hear it, the alarm sounding like an instrumental part of whatever song was playing. We shut the engine down and looked in the motor compartment to find one gallon of oil on the deck, one gallon coincidently being the total capacity of the engine. We were too far away to reach any station on the VHF so we tried the cell phone; there was a hint of a signal but we could not connect. A small sailboat passed us so we gave those guys our position and Towboat US membership number and asked them to call on VHF when they could get a response. A good idea except that their boat broke down about a quarter mile from ours. Desperate, I went I went up the mast where the cell signal was stronger, but only for about two minutes. Called Towboat US and gave them our position to which the young lady replied, "But that's on land!" Since we had drifted onto some cypress stumps at the very edge on the canal that was just about correct. The signal then faded, the call was dropped and I wasn't sure if things were set in motion. Luckily for us, they were. The unnamed Belhaven individual in addition to running the marina, restaurant, B&B, and boatyard was also the Towboat US guy which is how we initially met him. There are many legitimate criticisms which can be made of us as boaters; no one can criticize our time on the boat as having been boring. (We also have never again played music or the radio when we are underway with motor or with sail.)

Given this history, Carol's mission on Thursday was to call someone every two miles through the canal to see if there was cell coverage; there was, the whole way but only for calling, not for data transfer. It was really just an excuse to call all her friends and talk.

When we hit the open water of the Alligator River there was a 10 mile straight run with the wind in a useable position. So, we put out a sail and Carol took the helm to get the feel of the boat with pressure on a sail. She did well enough. I have to give her some credit; if she cannot handle lines well, it is, at least, her job to rig the lines and fenders for mooring. Today was a particularly unpleasant day to do that, the day being cold, windy, bouncy and wet with spray from the bow. She schlepped around the deck in a life vest and safety tether and got lines and fenders out without complaint even wearing a knit cap for warmth at the risk of crushing her curls and "depoofing" her hair, a fashionista catastrophe. For decades in Chicago Carol wore no hat; she was always cold but her hair looked great.

The weather must be a factor in peoples' plans, or maybe we are just stupid. We saw two boats underway yesterday and two boats underway today. We were the only boat at the marina in Belhaven; we are the only boat in the Alligator River Marina. In fact, this marina isn't even open but they accommodated us because of the bad weather. Very nice!


This picture was taken on our trip to Norfolk in 2008, no more than two miles east of the Alligator River Marina, the other side of the river in East Lake. The lake isn't much deeper than our boat's draft and there must have been a few thousand crab pots between us and our anchorage. I like the picture even if it is not contemporary.

The second day was neither taxing nor demanding. But at day's end there was little difference between a boat with a mast or a cave with a fire: an elemental satisfaction that the labor had ended, we were sated, we were safe, we were warm and we were dry. Maybe that is simplicity after all.

We, read I, had thought that we might lay over for a day and wait for the weather to break. We had a leisurely morning but by 0800 I had the travelin' jones. It seemed that the wind had calmed a bit. There are two ICW locations that are notorious for bad shoaling: Ft. Matanzas, FL and here, where the Alligator Rover flows into the Albemarle Sound. I went on Active Captain and some cruising forums to get advice on how to navigate that 0.5 mile of water. All agreed: throw out everything you know about reading a chart and honoring navigation markers; do a specific thing a specific way for success/survival. So we did. And, it worked never saw less than 10-feet of water. Ain't the internet wonderful!


The wind, on the other hand, had just had a brief time out making Friday morning pretty much an instant replay of Wednesday morning but, with one critical difference; instead of going directly into the wind and waves we were running at an oblique angle. The wind did attenuate to 15~20 knots after a while and we made the run across the Sound motoring with a reefed mail sail. I had wanted to work on our weather legs and this run seemed engaging without being threatening. It was good to have the boat running hard with a sail up knowing that we could bail at any time. Carol is in danger of losing her title of Nordic Princess. Here she is huddled under a blanket while I, the king of cold weather weenies, tough it out.

The crossing took a couple of hours and was fun but bouncy. Here is a few seconds of video with Carol at the helm and, yes, I was having trouble standing up and holding the camera. Carol at the Helm

After that it was a quiet few miles to the marina. We have been watching birds, hoping to see an eagle, something we did on the trip north in August, 2008. There have been lots of sea gulls, quite a few pelicans and every single cormorant in eastern North Carolina. Today was a serious raptor day, but without the eagle. This is a pair of ospreys and the other is most likely a red tailed hawk, or some other hawk, although there is about a 1 in 100 chance that it is an immature or juvenile eagle but, even allowing for distance, it seemed too small for that. I don't know why raptors hold such a command of our, and my, fascination. They are some of nature's perfect predators perfectly adapted to the ether; maybe it is the grace which they exhibit in the air and on the hunt, appearing to defy the laws of mass and gravity, seeming weightless as they float on rising thermal currents. Maybe they hold the embodiment of mankind's desire to, "slip the surly bonds of earth." On the last leg, to Norfolk, we saw several dozen osprey nests all with white heads tucked low into the nests. We assume that there were eggs being tended, soon to hatch.


The last day was a fitting finale. We had about 15 nm of open water to cross and did it into winds that were 20~30 knots. Dull, tedious, boring but also very tiring. When we were into sheltered waters the muscles of my neck and shoulders were badly knotted and very tight; I had been gripping the helm so hard for so long that my hands were numb.

In Coinjock a lady asked for help in very poor English, she being French; maybe she picked us because we have a Beneteau. Anyway, the last 15 miles into Norfolk has several swing, bascule and lift bridges; they were concerned about conversing with the bridge tenders to arrange passages. So we traveled together, our boat handling the communication chores, in this case Carol doing the talking. Listening to Carol on the VHF radio is painful; terse and telic are not words that immediately come to mind.

Carol and I have been reminiscing about this same trip some 4.5 years earlier. We have recounted the Belhaven imbroglio; there was also the Norfolk electrical problem and the Norfolk incident where Carol literally walked off the dock into the water with our only cell phone. We had had the boat one year and we were so naive and inexperienced despite having worked so hard to learn about boats and boating in that year. We are still naive but less inexperienced having put some 5,000 miles of water under our keel. Not a lot by some cruising standards but a lot for us.

The last 10 miles, or so, into Norfolk are fairly industrial, interesting but not engaging. The last two miles are heavily invested in USN ship repair. It's not easily apparent from the picture but there are whole US naval vessels inside the tent like structures; plus there were several that we saw to the south that cannot be seen from the marina. What I have recently read is that we are down to about a 300 ship Navy. If that's the case, then several per cent of that Navy is under repair here in Norfolk & Portsmouth.


When we arrived in Norfolk, and had the boat secured, I decided that I needed a beer to celebrate. The first place we found that served Newcastle Brown Ale was a Hooter's restaurant. This was the first time that Carol had ever visited such a place, naively believing that the chain exploited women, not wanting her dollars to support or continue that exploitation. Sadly, it is the other way around; the guys are exploited by paying too much for bad food and poor service, tipping too much for the privilege sitting in the midst of tight orange shorts. The beer, on the other hand, was frosty and went down easily and quickly. Carol got to pay the bill and to calculate the tip.

We haven't thought too much about next action steps. The trip destinations are planned and routed. What's missing is the weather to enjoy the destinations and the travel. Nights are going to be in the mid-40's for at least the next week, maybe longer. The jet stream continues to be intent on its southerly course. Right now it is warmer in Chicago (47o) than in Norfolk (43o). Go Figure! There is some stuff we can do, e.g. it's almost time for an oil change, but nothing pressing. So, after almost three solid weeks of getting ready to leave, and then the trip to Norfolk, we might just hand out for a few days; one marina is pretty much like another as long as there is shore power.

Posted by sailziveli 08:15 Archived in USA Tagged boats boating

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