Aug 13 – Of Straws and Camels’ Backs (Part 1)

When last I posted our whereabouts, we were anchored in Bear Creek, just off the Bay River. After the bashing we’d taken slogging down the Neuse River, it was a peaceful place to be. But the impact of the Neuse River Bash had yet to be fully felt. Our trip down the Neuse had been in a northeasterly direction, and the wind was out of the northeast, so we were heading directly into the wind. For most of that part of the trip, we were in a heavy rainstorm, with 15-20 kt winds. The wind-driven waves were about four to five feet high, and were coming at us every three or four seconds. Madge was burying her bow into every other wave, it seemed, and we were slowed to under three knots of speed — sometimes two knots. But the action on the boat was mostly fore and aft, like a see-saw. The rain had stopped by the time we got to the Bay River, and I expected the wind to die down, but it did not. The forecast had been for 5-10 kt winds, except in thunderstorms, and since the storm had passed, I figured the wind would’ve settled. No such luck. At the Bay River, we had to turn northwest, which meant that the waves — still 4-5 ft — were hitting the boat squarely on the starboard beam. We began rolling violently. It would’ve been nice to pull out the jib to help stabilize the boat, but we were too busy hanging on to manage the sail handling — and we only had a couple of miles to go before we would be behind some land, which would help block the wind and waves. We had picked up speed when we turned the corner, so we only had to endure about 30-45 minutes of the rolly stuff. Amidst all the turmoil, I had neglected to disengage our autopilot. It is not sized to handle heavy weather abeam, and it didn’t take long for it to wear itself out trying to fight the force of the water on the rudder. By the time we dropped the anchor in Bear Creek, I knew we had a problem. I just didn’t know how bad it was.

The next morning, we continued on to Belhaven. For about half the trip, we were in a canal, so there was very little pressue on the autopilot. It only had to adjust one or two degrees at a time to keep us in a straight line. However, between Bear Creek and Belhaven, we would have to cross the Pamlico River and travel about six miles up the Pungo River. These were large bodies of water, and had the potential to get rough. Crossing the Pamlico, we confirmed that the autopilot was shot. It could make turns to port, but not to starboard — the side that had taken the beating in the Bay River.

After we anchored in Belhaven, I called my friend, Steve. He’s become a friend, even though our first relationship was business. I bought my first boat in 2003 from his dealership, and he’s been my go-to guy for all things concerning navigation and communications since then. His advice has always been sound. [Aside: the first thing Steve taught me when we were commissioning my boat, Skitso, was, “Never make your mistakes at full speed.” Sage wisdom. When in doubt, I always throttle back.] Steve and I discussed the problem, and he talked me through some diagnostic tests. It appeared that I had stripped the gears in the drive unit of the autopilot — that’s the part that actually turns the wheel when the control unit says to. Steve then tried to locate a Raymarine technician that was close to me, who would be able to fix my problem. There were two — one in Oriental and one in Virginia Beach. Oriental was 50 miles behind us. Virginia Beach was about 150 miles ahead of us. Behind us were the Pamlico and Neuse Rivers. Ahead of us were the Alligator River and Albemarle Sound.

As we’ve moved north and talked to folks along the way, I’ve expressed my desire to visit the towns along the banks of the Albemarle Sound, and those folks have told me of how bad the conditions can get on the Sound. The water is uniformly less than 20 ft deep, and the wind can whip up waves that are large and fierce. We had already experienced that on the Neuse. But I’m fairly convinced that my family landed in America in Chowan County, NC, which is on the Chowan River, which is the main body of water from which the Albemarle Sound is formed. The town of Edenton, on the west end of the Sound, has been the seat of Chowan County since before the Revolutionary War, and there may be records there that provide the missing link between the Bakers of Georgia in 1800 and the Bakers who settled in Chowan County in the mid 1600s. So, I had motive to continue — but I also had big concerns.

Suzy and I deliberated long and hard on what we should do. The first thing we decided was that we couldn’t risk the Albemarle Sound any more than absolutely necessary. We ditched our plans to make the Albemarle Loop. Any visit to Edenton would have to be later, by car. But we wanted to continue north, because we have friends in Virginia whom we haven’t seen in about ten years, and we wanted to get to the Chesapeake Bay. If we kept to the ICW, we would have two risky and not-insignificant bodies of water to cross. The first was the Alligator River, which runs north-south, is three miles wide, twenty miles long, but only ten feet deep. Any wind blowing along a north-south axis could whip it up in a hurry. The second was the Albemarle Sound itself. We’d have to cross about fifteen miles of open water to get across the Sound. I had planned short hops to make the trip from Belhaven to Norfolk, VA. From Belhaven, we would anchor at the south end of the Alligator River and wait for a good weather window to go up to the mouth of the river, where we’d anchor. Then, we’d wait for another good weather window to cross the Albemarle Sound and make our way up to Elizabeth City, from which point we’d take the Dismal Swamp route to Norfolk in two hops. We could have the autopilot repaired in Norfolk. That’s five days of travel, if we had favorable weather each day. But from what we had already experienced of the North Carolina Inner Banks, we could not count on favorable weather. We are used to the normal summer afternoon thunderstorms, where you can travel in the morning and drop anchor before the storms hit. But the storms we’d seen so far could not be counted on to confine themselves to the afternoon, and we’d seen them pop up in as little as ten minutes in the morning and get fierce fast. My confidence in having a three or four hour window to cross the Alligator or Albemarle was fairly low. And I would be hand steering all the way to Norfolk. It would be difficult and tiring, but we decided we would give it a try.

The next morning, a Friday, was a clear, calm day, which looked great for easy travel. We pulled up the anchor intending to go to the south end of the Alligator River. The channel from the Belhaven anchorage back out to the ICW is less than two miles long, but by the time we got to the ICW, I had already made up my mind to go back to Oriental. There was no way I was going to hand steer the next 150 miles of this trip. I called the Raymarine technician in Oriental and set up an appointment for Monday morning, then called the marina we had left two days earlier and reserved our former spot. I would’ve preferred to anchor in Oriental, but didn’t like the options available to me. Plus, the marina had a courtesy car at our unlimited disposal. The winds were faily light and behind us all day long as we traveled first down the Pungo River, then crossed the Pamlico River. By the end of the day, as we ran down the Bay River and up the Neuse to Oriental, storms had popped up around us, but we were lucky enough that they stayed far enough away not to hinder us. We tied up Madge after nine hours on the water, back where we’d begun seven days before. We would lose a week of time, and heaven knows how much money, but we’d have a fully-functioning boat again.