Late October found us readying Duet to go south, none too soon as the temperatures were dropping far too low for Nancy's taste. Little did we know what a predictor this was, as the weather on this journey was to be truly terrible. Prior to our departure, however, Ron installed one last piece of equipment, a new boat computer, complete with large screen for navigation. The trickiest part of this installation was the screen mounting hardware, which Ron finally found on an Internet site. This computer performs only boat functions, such as navigation and keeping our log. Weatherfaxes remain on the family laptop, so that we can receive faxes while underway, without the risk of crashing the primary navigation machine. We also keep a backup copy of our navigation software on the laptop, in case the primary should fail.
We left Herrington Harbor South November 5, about 3 weeks later than last year, bound for the Solomons. Once we reached there, the pattern of this journey was established, as we were weathered in for two days before being able to move down the Bay. During this time we enjoyed life on the hook and visited our friends at Washburns, so Ron could add some last minute parts to Duet's ever growing inventory. As an aside, for those readers who thought they saw us in the December issue of PassageMaker, yes indeed that was Duet and her crew. We did a testimonial for Washburn's, as we felt they had done a good job for us. So far it hasn't brought us fame and fortune, but it did reconnect us with old friends who saw the ad and contacted us. It has also made Tristan and Maggie more famous than ever.
We also began to wonder about our fuel. We took on 650 gallons at Herrington Harbor South, as Nancy had negotiated an advantageous price. Now we were realizing why it might have been so advantageous, as there was a combination of black particles and water in the fuel. In Herrington Harbor's defense, it's very possible that some or all of this material was in the tanks prior to loading the new fuel, as we'd seen the black particles before on our offshore leg from Miami. The water could have leaked through the deck fill fittings, as their O-rings were rather worn when Ron recently replaced them.
Anyway, the fuel didn't look as pristine as we expected, so Ron assumed his Mr. Science role (backed up by a degree in Organic Chemistry, admittedly from 20 years ago) and began experimenting. First, he removed the cover to one of the tanks. Key to this activity was marking the orientation of the top so that it could be put back on the same way, as each tank top has at least 12 bolts to hold it on. After removing the top, significant time was spent peering into the tank, supported by chemist Maggie. Ron decided to stir the fuel to dredge up the gunk on the bottom so our fuel polishing system could clean it out. The system uses a pump to circulate fuel through a large Separ filter. Centrifugal flow causes water and large particles to settle out before the fuel is passed through a 10 micron filter element (same principle as Racor). The system can polish 3-4 gallons per minute. Polishing the fuel removed the black sludge but a new problem was created: now the fuel was cloudy! The fuel burns fine, although we noticed rough running at low revs which is unusual for us (the engine ran smoothly when we used a fuel tank which had not been stirred and polished).
After more thought, Mr. Science decided to test the stirred polished fuel by adding salt, which he claimed would tend to make the cloudiness go away if it was due to water (don't worry, he only added salt to a small sample of fuel). Nothing changed. He then heated a sample of fuel (gently!) and this made the cloudiness go away. Therefore, was the cloudiness due to the recent rather cold weather? Mr. Science remained unconvinced, which Nancy found disappointing since she had contributed two of her best Pyrex measuring beakers for these experiments. We now think that stirring the tanks was a bad idea as it probably overwhelmed the Separ with water from the bottom of the tank; the pumping action probably created an emulsion of fuel and water! Oh well, live and learn (we hope). Everything seems to be running better since we added Racor Diesel Plus fuel additive (no more rough running) and the cloudiness has gone away. Next time we try to clean our diesel tanks, they will be empty first!
After this two day interval we decided to move on, knowing that the weather wasn't perfect. Not perfect was an understatement, as we crossed the mouth of the Potomac River with 20 knot headwinds and 3-4 foot chop. While 3-4 foot waves don't sound like much, Bay chop has to be seen to be believed. The waves are square, close together and come from different directions, leaving the boat staggering around like a punch drunk boxer. During this trip Nancy established a new measurement; when you can see bright blue sky through the anchor roller as the boat moves up a wave, the downside is going to be a doozy. We once read a quote from a circumnavigator that the worst weather he'd ever experienced was on the mouth of the Potomac; now we understand why. We continued the next day in similar conditions, reaching Mobjack Bay late in the afternoon. As Ron said "this is a good shakedown cruise, because if it hasn't fallen off by now, if probably won't". Duet did very well and, surprisingly enough, so did we. Nancy has acquired a new toy in the form of a ReliefBand, which is an electrified version of the wrist bands used to put pressure on the acupuncture point below your wrist. Nancy borrowed one of these bands from a friend and was so pleased with it she bought her own. Ron maintains all it does is distract you by randomly shocking you; Nancy doesn't care how it works as long as it works.
After several very nice days in the East River off Mobjack Bay (where we again demonstrated how small the cruising world is by anchoring next to an old friend from three years ago) we headed to Norfolk. During our stay in Mobjack we saw many loons, which apparently migrate through the Bay in the fall, although we'd never seen them before. They make a haunting call, familiar to anyone who has see On Golden Pond. Ron tried out his calling ability, wailing away each evening, but the loons were unimpressed. We also saw a large pod of dolphins on our way out of the river. There were at least a dozen and they stayed with us quite a way. We view dolphins as an omen of a good journey and it was a pleasure to see them again. The weather on the trip from Mobjack to Norfolk was at least different, fog, fog, more fog and then thunderstorms. Our regular readers will recall that we first experienced fog from Norfolk to Coinjock the preceding year. Our boating skills have come a long way since then, and this time we proceeded cautiously but with confidence, in near zero visibility. We deploy several tools to improve our safety in these conditions. First, we use the radar, set on enough range to give us time to react if there is anything in the way. This is usually between 1.5 and 3 miles since we travel rather slowly. Second, we deploy our navigation software, Nobeltec, in the heads up mode (the perspective is looking in front of the boat) which matches the perspective of the radar. Finally, we make Nobeltec place range rings equal to the radar range rings. This makes it easy to determine if targets on the radar are navigation aids, which show up on Nobeltec, or boats, which don't. This combination gives us functionality similar to overlaying the radar image on the chart image. Third, we have a watchstander outside, even in the rain. Nancy gets this duty, as Ron has convinced her she has sharper eyes. Finally, we go slowly, usually at about 4- 5 knots rather than our 6-7 knot cruising speed. This combination of caution, electronic leverage and an old fashioned lookout has worked for us so far. We came into Norfolk in a thunderstorm, passing a Navy destroyer hooting it's fog horn while maneuvering, and made our way carefully to the Hospital Point anchorage. This anchorage is right off one of the main Norfolk channels, so one must have absolute faith in the ability of other mariners to follow the buoy system; note the red buoy in the foreground, which is all that stands between us and this Navy vessel.. We also spent some time observing the harbor and noticed what we assume is our Navy communicating with Iraq.
The next day we moved on to Coinjock, NC, beloved by us and others, for the prime rib at the Coinjock Marina. We had a rather exciting trip, again due to weather, this time wind rather than fog. Crossing Currituck Sound we violated Nancy's rule of not traveling in water shallower than the wind speed. We had 25-30 knots on the stern, which set up choppy following seas. Duet tends to horse around a little with following seas, which is fine in the ocean but not in a narrow shallow channel, so Ron had his hands full keeping her in line. On arrival at Coinjock a significant current (put up by the wind) presented a serious docking challenge. We approached correctly (having learned how not to do this last year in Charleston), with wind and current on our nose. The dock was crowded and to avoid being pushed into the boat behind, Ron applied significant horsepower, unfortunately causing us to bump the dock piling with our anchors. Both the piling and the anchors survived, although the owner of the boat behind us (who assumed we'd hit him) almost didn't. Excitement over, we adjourned to the restaurant for an excellent dinner.
Similar to last year, we then moved on to one of Ron's favorite anchorages, the Pungo River just north of Belhaven. We arrived in the dark, which was something we couldn't have done last year, and we passed a slower moving tug on the way, which was something we almost couldn't do this year. Fortunately, the tug captain realized our dilemma and slowed down enough so that Duet, at maximum speed of 6.8 knots against the current, could struggle by. At Belhaven we discovered that the minor docking mishap in Coinjock resulted in a positive change to the anchor roller, pushing its cheeks further apart so our large CQR now sits more securely. Ron is now referring to this as his 'modification' of the anchor roller rather than a 'docking mishap.'
From Belhaven we moved to the South River, off the Neuse River near Oriental, to ride out the upcoming front. As mentioned earlier in this missive, the weather was terrible, with front after front marching through, leaving short windows to move quickly from place to place. Weatherman Ron concluded that the jet stream was much further south this year compared with the same time last year, and it was serving as a highway for fronts traveling through. Nancy concluded this was sent to test her planning ability, as first we decide to go somewhere and then, after the weather report, we decided to go somewhere else, or we went nowhere at all. Suffice it to say our new motto (stolen from a quote in Cruising World) of "we've no plan and we stick to it" was very appropriate on this journey. Maggie spent most of her time in the accustomed Labrador way. Much of Ron's time was spent combing multiple weather sources, including the famous weather faxes, NOAA forecasts (now the with new male and female voices) and the well known November Mike November, which provides forecasts for the entire Eastern Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Nancy's favorites are the ones that start out "Gale Warning", closely followed by an escalating set of sea states " waves 4-6 feet, 6-9 feet, 9-12 feet, 12-15 feet" etc. November Mike November in particular can make you glad you aren't some of the places being predicted, as the weather off New England at this time of the year, witness The Perfect Storm, can be really entertaining.
On our first full day at this anchorage, we had several encounters with the local flora and fauna. First a small sparrow flew into our salon while we were having breakfast, sat unconcernedly for several minutes and then flew our again. The Labradors, always on guard, completely missed it. Later that same day, as dusk approached, Nancy was working on this document when what appeared to be a bat flew into the salon. Fortunately it flew out again before we had a chance to examine it too closely. We then closed the salon door for the evening.
We departed the South River several days later after the weather settled down, and headed for Wrightsville Beach. Our departure from South River was very memorable. We left before dawn with the moon still up. We were treated to a meteor shower, the first we'd ever seen, and a very bright 'star' on the horizon, later identified as not a star at all, but rather the planet Venus. Dolphins cavorted beside the boat with Maggie watching them carefully. Both dogs are clearly aware of the dolphins (they can hear them breathing even if they can't see them) but only Maggie spends any time observing them. Tristan, now he's determined they aren't a threat to the pack, tends to look once and then returns to parade rest. As a result of the morning's pyrotechnics, Ron has begun studying the stars. Currently he is able to identify a few stars and one or two constellations but by the time we return from the islands we expect him to be a full fledged astronomer.
We stopped over night in Swansboro at Dudley's Marina, which has the distinction of being the least expensive marina we've ever stayed in. That said, it was clean, well run and they offered to drive us to and from dinner or lend us a car, so Dudley's is definitely on our 'return to' list. As our regular readers will remember, Wrightsville has always been a bit of a bug-a-boo for us, every time we've been there we've had a boating incident, including a grounding, a near ramming by a dredge (our fault not his) and a close encounter with a dinghy. This time proved no exception: At the turn for the anchorage a powerboat in front of us stopped and, with no warning at all, turned broadside across the channel to wait for a slip in a nearby marina. We, and the sailboat next to us, were forced to maneuver, with the current behind us. This process was quite entertaining for those on the dock. We've noticed that many twin engined powerboaters don't seem to understand the constraints that single screw boats (power or sail) face in tight quarters. Anyway, we, the sailboat, and the offending power boat all survived this encounter and we proceeded without further incident.
We traveled on to Bald Head Island on the Cape Fear Inlet. Bald Head is reachable only by boat and has been developed with an eye to preserving the natural beauty of the barrier island. It has a narrow channel leading into a protected marina basin. Duet entered this channel with about 4 knots of current on the beam, which made for an exciting but ultimately uneventful arrival. We rented a golf cart to tour the island, which Tristan and Maggie in particular enjoyed very much as it culminated in a two hour walk on the beach. Maggie distinguished herself by falling headfirst into a tidal pool while running full tilt. Fortunately, she suffered no injury except to her dignity and the water and sand dried off. We found Bald Head to be beautiful, well maintained, tastefully developed and rather isolated. That said, it looked like a great place to vacation. Our dawn departure was almost as eventful as our arrival, as we not only briefly backed into a piling (lots of wind on the beam) but Nancy also spent some time observing the young male crew on the megayatch next to us, whose morning ritual included wandering around in boxer shorts while brushing their teeth.
As the weather was still not cooperating, we then girded ourselves for the trip through the Rock Pile. We managed it without incident, as we got lucky and followed a large tug and barge through. This commercial equipage was traveling slowly (less than 6 knots) but we reasoned that no one in his right mind would try to pass it coming the other way. We did meet several small boats not in their right minds, but we stayed safely behind our large companion. At the end of the canal, a number of boats passed the tow, including one aggressive sports fisherman who exchanged views with Nancy on the VHF while passing us under a bridge. His premise was that we should speed up and pass the tug in the narrow area just past the bridge, but we did not agree. Nancy's remarks, while tasteful, were memorable enough that another boat listening in actually complimented her several days later.
We anchored that night in the Waccamaw, a beautiful stretch of river just above Georgetown, SC. This part of the journey almost makes up for the Rock Pile, as there are many gorgeous anchorages and lots of natural scenery. After several days cruising this beautiful area, we arrived at Hilton Head Island, tying up at Palmetto Bay Marina, which had been recommended by our friends Bill and Julin Lynn. Palmetto Bay is the oldest marina on Hilton Head, well located with many liveaboards. It's not a "yatchy" type marina which suits us fine as we're not really white ducks with clean boat shoes cruisers anyway. We spent a quiet Thanksgiving and then left for New York to take care of some family business.
We plan to stay in Hilton Head until around Christmas, then head for Ft. Pierce, hopefully reaching it in time for the New Year. After the New Year we'll depart for the Bahamas, planning to stay through April. We'll return to the Chesapeake for the summer. There will be no updates to this site while we are in the islands. We wish everyone a healthy happy holiday season.