Friday, November 29, 2013

The Adventures of Captain Runaground and His First Mate

Old friends of Pope’s know that, being from a historically distinguished family, he is a big fan of titles and tradition.

Several years ago, on one of my very first sailing trips, Pope, his old friend Jack, and I chartered a boat in the Bahamas. Documenting the shifting sandbars and shallow water in the Bahamas would be like counting pebbles in an earthquake. So nobody bothers much.


Pope, being the last person to pay attention to any official charts, frequently tested the waters, deciding for himself whether he could cross certain sandbars in the rented boat with the 6-foot keel.


Fortunately, there are plenty of powerboat owners around to make sure you lose face by pulling your boat off the bar, accompanied by great glee and peals of laughter at the hapless sailboat skippers.
It was there that Pope earned his esteemed title, and established a tradition that, to this day, Jack and I respect and honor.

The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) resembles the Bahama banks in many places. Shoaling and sandbars build out into the channel, and sailboat skippers zigzag back and forth (sometimes in vain) seeking deep water.

This Thanksgiving (yesterday), Captain Runaground and I celebrated the holiday on a shallow sandbar, with pelicans for company. Back at the marina we had left at daybreak, boaters were enjoying sweet potato soufflé and grilled turkey about the same time we were listing to starboard and shifting our temporary anchor to prevent being blown farther into the marsh by the howling winds and rushing current.

We had one holiday visitor: a licensed captain aboard the boat titled “Towboat USA.” We had invited him to visit us via VHF radio, knowing he was employed by our boat-towing-insurance company. (Yes, it’s a lot like AAA for cars, though more expensive.) After exchanging the usual holiday pleasantries, he tied a yellow line to our bow and tugged, to the cheers of thanksgiving from Captain Runaground and his First Mate.

Later he kindly presented us with a holiday memento—a yellow invoice for a hefty sum, fortunately covered by our policy. 
We bid a fond farewell to our dear friend and savior, and continued down the waterway, successfully negotiating all the other sandbars, shoals, wrecks, weeds, marshes, and other hazards we encountered that day, finally arriving safely at an anchorage in the marsh--where the sunset and sunrise were picturesque, as usual, but the First Mate was sure we would be hard aground by morning, giving the proximity of the weeds and oyster beds.

After yet another freezing cold night, we awoke with optimism that the winds and weather would favor us for a change. Instead we had many close calls with powerful gusts and currents leading us astray into waters much shallower than described on the charts.

We  shivered our way into Florida, still bundled in ski caps and layers of fleece, only to hear on the radio the distress calls of sailboats ahead of us, stuck in the mud around green marker number 1, just past the town of Fernandina Beach. Welcome to the Sunshine State!

We crept up to the offending territory at low tide, about 11:30 am, watching our depth sounder fall from 8 feet to 7, to 6, to 5. Enough of this foolishness! the captain cried, rapidly calculating the consequences of reinforcing his title and reputation a second time in 24 hours. We promptly doubled back and dropped anchor near the town’s marina in 2-foot waves and white caps.
At 12:55 pm, securely tethered to the end of a 90-foot anchor line, we warmed up with hot soup and waited for the tide to rise, and larger sailboats to pass through, before we even considered making another run.
It's now 2:35 pm, and the winds have risen to 25 mph, howling through our mast and halyards and scrambling our already addled brains with their incessant whine. No sailboats have challenged the sandbar at marker 1 in the last few hours, choosing instead to follow our exemplary example and throw out an anchor. We gave it one more fleeting thought before we decided to give up for the day, place our trust in our anchor, and wait for fair weather. That could take a couple of days.

While you all enjoyed a sumptuous feast and the lazy lethargy of the day after, we endured punishing winds and floundered in shallow water, questioning whether we were completely out of our minds to attempt this trip, or just unlucky in our timing.

Oh, how we wish we were just out shopping on Black Friday like everyone else! Happy Day After Thanksgiving!


Monday, November 25, 2013

Living a Dream? Actually, a Fantasy

I retired in July from my job with the U.S. Government. Though I'm relatively young--in the 55-60 category--Pope had been retired a long time, and begged me to join him on one of his sailing expeditions.

We fantasized about living aboard a boat. We settled for wintering in the Bahamas. To test the concept, in March Pope and I spent two weeks aboard a 27-foot sailboat in the Berry and Abaco island chains with friends Mike and Ellen.

We passed the mid-term exam on how to get along in a small space (hmm, could be what prison is like...?), and a pop quiz on entertaining ourselves while stuck at anchor, waiting for calm seas.

We earned a C in comfort, a B in compatibility, and an A in fun.

After retirement, I had only a few weeks to pack, put my affairs in order, and make our own boat liveable (as opposed to mechanically reliable--that was Pope's department). On October 24, we launched from Chesapeake Bay, aboard the 30-foot Echo II.
Photo by Sam Paleschic 
Heading south on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), we assumed, the weather would get progessively warmer. Picture beaches, bathers, and palm trees. And each day would take us closer to our target: the Exumas island chain. A dream trip, many of our friends said. Courageous, others acknowledged.

I agree with the first set of friends: it was only a dream.

Heading south, the weather got progressively colder. Picture us huddled under summer blankets, wishing for sleeping bags. The water pump broke, and we waited three days for parts. The wind huffed and puffed and threw us off course. Because the narrow, corkscrew course requires motoring rather than sailing, boats with more horsepower left us lonely in their wake.

Our hope of spending Thanksgiving in southern Georgia dimmed. And I pondered whether our target was beyond reach. .

Until a few days ago, we had persevered--earning a B+ in adventurous spirit. But then the forecast deteriorated.

I know that several of you are experiencing storms with ice and snow. But in many places, winter normally begins in late November. Can you spare a shred of sympathy for those who fled to normally sunny climes, yet still suffered?

For two miserable days, we have motored in blustery winds, with gusts to 30 mph. Strong currents knocked a knot off our speed. Pope, normally a tough guy, was wretchedly cold at the wheel. When my turn came, I bundled up in stocking cap, double gloves, and four layers of clothing. I steered with one hand and hung on with the other.

There is little shelter from wind in marshland--just knee-high grass and small stands of trees.

At anchor, we tossed and swung like a monkey in the treetops. We slept in intervals, between checking the anchor, praying to stay off the bank, and coaxing blood into fingers and toes. The temperature dropped to 34. Yesterday, gusty wind and raging current prevented us from getting the anchor up until mid-day. We made only seven miles before re-anchoring. Today we left at daybreak and suffered for 40 miles.

Gotta assign that experience a D in comfort and a C in endurance.

The sunset, as usual, topped out at an A+.

Three days until Thanksgiving. But tonight, I am already giving thanks. At 1:30 pm, we conceded the battle and left the ICW in search of a marina. We are tied up to a dock, safe and secure, enjoying real bathrooms and a washer/dryer. Neighbors Gary and Joan served merlot and muscato--in real glasses!--on their luxuriously appointed trawler, Lady Jacqueline, with recliners, oven, and queen-size bed. Just like home. It is home, says Joan.

The wifi is free here at the marina, and a big boaters' lounge is furnished with TV, comfortable sofas and easy chairs.

Outside, the wind hasn't slowed down for a moment. The water races past pilings, as if pumped with pent-up energy. Skies were gray long before dusk. The forecast for Tuesday is for 100% rain, and for Wednesday, winds gusting higher, to 40 mph. More misery ahead out on the waterway? Or just stay put?

Another feature in the marina's luxurious lounge is a large wooden dining table and eight chairs. I am gazing at the lovely teak and thinking: perfect size for a makeshift Thanksgiving feast.

The Old and the New

[BONUS: Two blog posts in one day! That's because: 1) we haven't had internet in a while; 2) wehave strong internet here; and 3) I have sooooo many stories to tell!]

The Old and the New

In this blog I’ve mentioned the many large homes being built along the coastal areas of the Southeast. The historic homes are equally impressive. Dramatic porticos and wrap-around porches speak to humid summers, elegant balls, Civil War lookouts, and, in some earlier dwellings, loyalist or revolutionary fervor.

In Beaufort, a number of stately mansions along the river date to the early 1800s, and several to the 1700s. Several served both revolutionary and Civil War troops. Beaufort’s coffers were filled by wealthy plantation owners growing indigo and Sea Island cotton.  

One of the Beaufort houses was featured in the movies “Forrest Gump” and “The Big Chill.” The current owners keep it tucked securely and privately inside a grove of trees and iron gate, off-limits to close-up photography.

Back on the Intracoastal Waterway, we wound around the bends of twisted rivers and creeks of the Low Country. We spied the tall tanks of the Savannah sugar refinery way across the marsh--close as the crow flies, but miles away by ancient river.

We docked at the marina on Isle of Hope, Savannah, an island populated with tree-lined streets, historic homes and multi-generation families. (At the marina, Echo II was again dwarfed by mega-yachts.)

In coastal South Carolina and Georgia—land of Pope’s roots—several cousins inherited portions of islands, extensive land plots, and plantation houses. Some parcels donated to states or foundations are open to tourists. Middleton Plantation near Charleston is perhaps one of the best known.

In previous years, we attended Thanksgiving family reunions on large estates in the Savannah area. The feasts included oysters roasted over an outdoor fire as well as turkey and sweet potato casseroles. This year, we arrived too early for the big feast--cruising on a slow boat being an unpredictable sport. Instead, Pope visited cousins Elliott and Charlie and a great aunt.
Then, we headed for Wormsloe Plantation on the Isle of Hope, home of cousin Craig Barrow and site of the first successful settlement in Georgia. Behind the majestic stone gate of Wormsloe is a mile-long lane lined with hundred-year-old oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

The ruins of the original house, built with oyster-shell masonry called tabby, is down the lane from the stately manor used by recent generations (off limit to visitors).

Tour guide Jesse entertained us with stories of Georgia’s roots as a British colony banning slaves and alcohol—later overturned as settlers faced starvation or financial ruin-- and landowners exhuming graves to prevent remains from being carried off in hurricanes. Noble Jones, surveyor and influential figure in the original Savannah settlement, built a fine home at Wormsloe in the 1700s and, once slavery was legalized, a thriving business growing indigo for blue dye.

During Jones’ watch, the Battle of Jenkins’ Ear was fought here in the marsh. In response to Jenkins’ claim that the Spanish had both cut off his ear and destroyed their supplies of illicit rum, the settlers rose up against invading Spanish troops, ensuring continued loyalty to Britain.
Today, we just buy our rum at the liquor store. Count your blessings!

In the evening, we borrowed a marina courtesy car to drive into downtown Savannah. My goal was to buy Velcro at JoAnn’s Fabric, to hand-sew a mosquito net for the boat. The excursion was in stark contrast to our time on historic waterfronts rich with tales of exploration, adventure, and accumulation of wealth. Strip malls and suburban shopping centers outside of Savannah’s historic district quickly dispelled the romantic fantasies of history books and jolted us back into 21st-century America.

Velcro  mission fulfilled, we escaped back to the boat and a return to pleasant dreams of elegant estates and extravagant southern lifestyles. 






Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Yeah, But What's It REALLY Like? Part 3

Some observations from the last 24 hours, which might entice you to fly down to our boat in the Bahamas—or drive you to your couch and the latest TV sitcom.

Prettiest sunsets ever seen: A record every day. Proposing new shades to Crayola: Tangerine Dream and Sky Blue Pink.

 Restless nights:  Wind howling. Sometimes, HOWLING. Halyards (ropes that pull up sail and boom) slapping against steel mast. Clang, clang, clang, clang.. Clangclangclangclangclang as the wind picks up. Creaks and groans as fiberglass warps and ropes pull at cleats. In and out of bed to see if the anchor is holding. Frozen toes.
Damp: Sheets, pillow, towels. Rags that haven’t dried in 26 days. Form-fitting dry bag for the iPad.

Disarray: Hard to stay organized when you’re on the move. How did Antarctic explorers find things in a hurry on their sleds?

Odors: Imagine bed, toilet, sink, stove, ice chest, dinette, engine, fuel tank, water tank, and septic tank in your 10’x20’ dining room. Place 1 man, 1 woman inside for 1 month. Now, sniff.

Home cooking: As good as many of the restaurants along the docks. Last night, eggplant/potato/onion in foil on the grill mounted outside on the deck. IPAs and rum cocktails at sunset. Pasta? Pope’s specialty. Compensation for conditions? $1 packaged pudding from Dollar General (ubiquitous in the South). Chocolate truffles sent with us by neighbor Gini.

Fine dining: An occasional gem. Amber’s mushroom ravioli with tarragon cream sauce in Georgetown, SC. Pope’s oyster roast on Isle of Palms. Bourbon bread pudding and bourbon pecan pie. (Is there a theme here in the South?)  Sorry the picture is sideways! I tried to load it upright but it's an iPhone thing..
Scenery: Life imitates vacation. We don’t bother with museums or amusement parks, but we visit historic waterfronts, beaches, recreation areas, and wildlife habitats (marsh, forest, and stream).  Dolphins, turtles, and pelicans for company.

Social life: Chatting with sailors on docks and in waterside pubs (below). Our first happy hours on board in Charleston, with my friends Cindy and Dave and with Pope’s cousin. Getting to know each other better. (With all its ups and downs.)
Gear: I love the solar-powered lantern and the pillows and organizing pockets I made. 
Pope is entranced by boat things. Battery charger. Energy-efficient LED lights. Holders on the steering wheel post for iPad, portable VHF radio, coffee mug. Hammock for hanging fruit. Along the way, Pope installed an oil change pump and antifreeze overflow tank. I am hand-sewing mosquito nets. 

Folding bikes: As highways bypassed small-town America, grocery and department stores followed, moving 1-3 miles from waterfronts. I couldn’t find a loaf of bread in downtown Beaufort, SC, so Pope rode to Piggly Wiggly. The bikes take up 1/5 of our storage space. Worth every inch.

Smiles and tears: Life on the move in a small space has ups and downs. (Duh.) The scales tip every couple of days, then level out, and harmony is restored.

Fears: I hope Pope doesn’t experience them like I do. He doesn’t admit to it. Of course not, he’s a guy!

P.S. Internet: rare and weak. Took 3 or 4 hours to get this loaded.


Sunday, November 17, 2013


Threw off my ski cap and put away my gloves--at last! Sunny sky and sunny disposition as we sneak into Toler's Cove Marina in Charleston at low, low tide. No problem, at least one foot of water beneath the keel! Marsh surrounds the city on all sides. Oysters on mud flats as far as you can see.

Earlier in the day, a boat pulled alongside and we were boarded! Pirates? No, police. Yikes! Do we look like smugglers? Did we fail to use our turn signal? Just a routine inspection, ma'am, and no, you can't take our picture while we're on your boat. Documents in order. Call in your names and passport numbers on the VHF radio. Any illegal aliens, terrrorists, or Cuban cigars in the hold?


After that, we need a stiff one. Initiated Echo II into the revered Association of Marine Happy Hour Hosts, sharing wine and rum cocktails with good friends Cindy and Dave.

Celebrating staying out of jail.
Touring the town, sunning on the patio of Vickery's Restaurant, watching the fishing boats in Shem Creek unload shrimp and crabs.
The Battery is the historic waterfront of Charleston.
Oyster roast on Isle of Palms. Buckets of oysters, all you can eat. I feasted on roasted jalapeno peppers with cheese, and made s'mores around the campfire.

After four weeks on the water, I luxuriated in a hot bath and plush king-size bed at Cindy and Dave's beautifully furnished home. Pecan pancakes in the morning. Ooooooh. I could get spoiled!
Back at the boat, the sun fled, leaving drizzle, humidity, damp blankets, and chilly atmosphere. Big change. Oh, well. Engine on. Head for Elliott Cut--a narrow channel leaving the city with swift adverse currents, known to sweep boats right back into Charleston Harbor. Anxious to get to the Bahamas, we plowed through the Cut at 1 knot, Pope at the wheel, basking in the memories of our 5-star vacation in Charleston.