Monday, November 28, 2016

Tall Tales (Or, Totally Fabricated Stories About Hellish Cruising Experiences in Georgia)

According to The New York Times, creating fake news--i.e., lying--has become de rigueur. It is pervasive, and, apparently, accepted by a large percentage of the population. 

Naturally, I want to conform to societal norms and be one of the crowd. I guess that means being disingenuous in making promises, coming up with some totally fabricated name-dropping to throw out at cocktail parties, and otherwise making up stories that make me look good and blame my troubles on somebody else. So here goes: totally fabricated stories about what could have happened during the last few days of our 2016 cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). Leaving you to ponder: truth or fiction?

We entered Georgia waters expecting to be coddled with good ol' southern hospitality. Instead, we were instantly challenged to find any water deep enough for a boat. The Georgia legislature, it seems, is broke and politically in shreds. No one is willing to vote for expensive projects such as dredging and charting waterways and harbors.
As the number on our depth sounder (which measures feet of water under our boat) dropped down, down, down, I uncharacteristically lost my composure. When it reached 0.6, I descended into full-fledged hysterics, leaving Pope to cope with bumping the boat along through sandbars and mud flats. 
By some miracle, we avoided running aground. We crossed the broad (and deep) Savannah River that flows to the Atlantic, hopping and skipping out of the way of large freighters that barely missed us by inches. Since they travel at 10 times the speed we do, and are roughly 1,000 times as large, steering quickly out of the way of a small sailboat is not their strong point.
The next thing we knew, a northbound sailboat came veering toward our bow, its skipper frantically shouting above the wind: “Bridge closed! Turn around!'

Swing bridges and draw bridges are common on the ICW; in fact, there are roughly five or six dozen erected across the waterway just to vex cruisers like us. At each bridge, we have to call the operator on our VHF radio, then wait, and wait, and wait, for traffic to be stopped and the center of the bridge opened, while motoring in circles, often in strong wind and current. At the one shown below, for example, we waited roughly 30 minutes. Multiply by 75, and you can see why a cruise on the ICW is a long, slow burn.
We confirmed that the swing bridge in question, just south of Savannah, was closed indefinitely, apparently awaiting the heavily touted federal funds promised by President-elect Trump for repairing our nation's infrastructure. In fact, since he announced his plan to fix our roads and bridges, we've noticed a distinct increase in lengthy closures.

To add to this latest effrontery, Trump threw yet another curve ball at us—probably to make sure that those of us who didn't vote for him wouldn't be able to enjoy ourselves in the Bahamas while he had to go to work in the White House. He closed the ICW farther south in Florida, so he and his business cronies could throw a waterside pool party for all of their trophy wives to get a golden tan.

With the sun dropping and the air turning chilly, we needed a place to park the boat, since our proposed anchorage was beyond the inoperable bridge. We were stuck in the Savannah River, with no marinas or anchorages in sight.

As the situation turned desperate, we headed 12 miles up the Savannah River to the industrial port of Savannah—a hellish place to park a pleasure boat.
All but one dock open to pleasure boats had been destroyed by the hurricane. Fresh out of options, sun sinking in the west, we paid a shady-looking attendant $100 to use that lone dock for a few hours of sleep.

But! No rest for the weary in Savannah--oh no! All night long, ocean liners hauling millions of tons of freight pushed millions of gallons of water in their wake, rocking our boat like a child jumping up and down on a hobbyhorse.

The freighters bore down without mercy—closer, closer, their stacks of containers towering above and threatening to crush us to smithereens.
Each time a ship safely passed, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. But Georgia was not finished with us yet. Huge logs, boards with nails protruding, and even whole trees torn from their roots by the hurricane thumped, thumped, thumped against our hull. Sewage poured out of pipes in the seawall onto the side of our boat.

The stress on our lines was unbearable. In the middle of the night, one of our lines ripped cleanly in half. Now I understood the lament of boaters up and down the ICW whose 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch lines had snapped during Hurricane Matthew, leaving their investments in the weeds--literally. Fortunately, I had talked Pope into doubling up our lines that night in Savannah!
As soon as dawn glowed in the east, after only two or three hours of restless sleep, we hightailed it out of Savannah and turned around, heading north, back up the ICW. We didn't stop until we re-crossed the border. We anchored that night in a quiet, calm creek in South Carolina, with plenty of water under our keel.

Nothing has ever been as welcome as what we saw the next morning: waves of golden marsh grass lining the banks, beckoning us to enjoy the tranquil scenery on the journey to our next destination: Washington, DC, and home.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Alligator for Thanksgiving

When it comes to alligators, Florida gets all the attention. There are hundreds of thousands in the Everglades and more than a million in the state, so it's no wonder they spot an occasional stray on the golf course.

But did you know they range as far west as Texas, and all the way north to North Carolina, and in some states are on the rise? (Have you checked the statistics at your favorite swimming hole lately?)

“Alligators responded to the warm spring weather and made appearances earlier than normal in 2016 along Myrtle Beach and other SC waterways,” reported The Sun News. In July, they killed a 90-year-old woman just outside of Charleston.

Having learned of this unexpected attraction in the state we are currently traveling through—on a waterway, no less—I naturally kept my camera around my neck and my eyes peeled for those characteristic horny ridges protruding just above the surface. (Look in center of photo, behind the reeds.)
By the way, did I tell you about our Thanksgiving plans? We docked the boat in Bluffton on the May River. We briefly considered the down-home country fare of the local diner, which promised lots of thick, creamy, fatty, meaty gravy...
...but stuck to the plan to attend Pope's annual family reunion. The feast began with Bluffton oysters—a tradition in the Lowcountry—served outside on a lovely warm day, under massive trees that predate the Civil War.
Then we progressed into a buffet with the usual turkey and trimmings, served up by a few dozen of Pope's cousins, uncles, great-nieces, and the like. But I'm getting ahead of my story. It's the locale, not the food or the family, that got my heart racing and put my photographer's instincts on guard.

We dined on the grounds of a former rice plantation, owned by a not-too-distant ancestor. Much of the real estate, including the rice paddies formerly tended by 386 slaves (up until the Civil War) now makes up the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. The former rice ponds are surrounded by a system of dikes.
The family heirs live and raise cattle on an in-holding, a large estate at the end of a long dirt road, right smack-dab in the middle of the wildlife refuge.
Which makes for an interesting commute, because the former rice paddies are full of wild alligators. (Anyone up for walking to work today?)

Oh, there are birds and snakes, too, of course, but aren't those big horny beasts with their exceptionally long jaws infinitely more interesting?

Not one to willingly let such a fortuitous opportunity pass, I decided to forgo the usual after-dinner nap in favor of a brisk turn along the road in search of wild alligators in the canals and ponds of the former plantation. I was not disappointed. 
Besides the five I saw swimming—or, more accurately, lurking—in the water, a large adult specimen appeared on a bank practically under my feet, just outside the entrance to the plantation. (Look at lower left of photos--the big gray horny blob with tail just touching the grass.) He seemed innocent enough--lazily sunning himself, probably--but, for the sake of prudence, I kept my distance.
Not the usual holiday fare, and certainly not something we considered when making our plans. 

Alligator for Thanksgiving, anyone?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Another Day in the Lowcountry: Gearing Up for Thanksgiving

Another day, another port.

Bluffton, a little way south of Beaufort, is another coastal town in South Carolina's Lowcountry that has been invaded by tourism: high rises, glitzy cafes and coffee shops, inflated prices (though still a third of the DC area). On the water, however, one can still capture the magic of the meandering river, golden sunsets over the marsh, and oyster beds at low tide.

Below, our journey past Hilton Head and coming to rest in Bluffton, where we will enjoy oysters and turkey on Thanksgiving.
Hilton Head: let's protect our precious national shoreline with some basic construction materials, right on the waterfront, and make sure the riffraff can't get access to the beaches—ooh, don't get me started again on that rant!
This hurricane damage is for the birds; in addition to boats in backyards, hundreds of docks and piers lost their floors and railings
Echo II dockside at a Barrow cousin's house in the May River; waiting for Thanksgiving
A little meander by kayak along a tidal creek (pronounced “crick”) draped with Spanish moss; the reeds are extra dry due to lack of rain since Hurricane Matthew
Placid waters reflect the craftsmanship of a traditional wooden skiff owned by friend (and distant cousin) George on the dock next door to ours
How many engineers does it take to erect a mast and sail on a catboat? How about a carpenter, a restaurateur, and a lawyer? (George, Andy, and Pope on George's dock in Bluffton)
Pope demonstrates the latest Coast Guard safety technology--especially important for engine-less boats. Yelling helps too.

The catboat's maiden sunset sail. The boat was a birthday present to Bluffton neighbor Andy from his wife Ellen. Coincidentally, it was purchased from Beaufort resident Bill, whom Pope and I visited earlier this week.
Sunset arrives early in autumn and every day is a kaleidoscope of hues

Monday, November 21, 2016

Just Another Day in the Life of a Cruising Couple

This blog post will be very exciting and anxiety-producing. If you have hypertension or heart concerns, I recommend you stop reading right now and delete.

Today was a more typical "rest" day in a late-fall cruise to the Bahamas than the leisurely laying around and loafing I've been doing lately.
Today we prepared to start south again. Pope checked the oil, removed tbe sail cover, stowed the kayak onboard, studied the nav charts, plotted a course, and arranged for dockage ahead.
I cleaned the dinghy. To scrub off mud, mold, algae, and rust, top and bottom, took 2 hours and 17 buckets of clean water. I am rather proud of my before-and-after pictures.
Now I am preparing vegetable soup for lunch. After that I will scrub the floor in the cabin and re-stow all the stuff we've been using, in preparation for a sunrise departure to take advantage of the outgoing tide. If I'm really ambitious, I'll clean the bird shit from those nasty grackles off our bimini (a canvas awning over the cockpit).

That's it. A typical "rest" day. Wasn't that exciting?

Check your blood pressure?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Cold Front A-Comin'

We came south to escape the cold. It ain't happenin'. But the sunsets are striking and the company is fine.

We are still tied up at the Beaufort yacht club, courtesy of our new friends the Cheneys, old hands at sailing who live just down the road. We first looked them up in Maine because Pope was fascinated with the adventures in Bill Cheney's book, Penelope Down East.

Besides sailing, Bill and Kendra are well-versed in literature, history, geography, and a plethora of worldly issues, making for fascinating conversation about everything from world wars to grouse hunting aboard Echo II and in their cozy living room, fireplace ablaze.
For indeed it is cold here. Better to be in Florida. We could have reached St. Augustine by now, where temperatures are 10-15 degrees higher. We are delaying in order to celebrate a sumptuous oyster-and-turkey Thanksgiving, complete with Savannah rice; rich, creamy mac 'n' cheese; southern-style green beans; and pecan pie. The Barrow family feast (with several branches of the family) is worth hunkering down for a few days.

The South Carolina waterway is extracting its price in severe winds, waves, and steeply declining temperatures.
These photos offer a tiny taste of the difference between the calm sunny days of last week and the past two days, when we suffered from temperatures in the 30s, winds in the 20s, and the bang bang bang bang bang of waves and chop striking the hull while we shivered in our sleeping bags and ski caps. There's no way to record the echo of the constant thumping against the boat; I did my best from outside with this video of Echo II rockin' and rollin' at the Beaufort Yacht and Sailing Club dock. 

A few boats left the dock for an afternoon sail, struggling back to safety with the wind and current against them. I would not have been happy to be out motoring, let alone sailing, in these conditions. The pastoral views of marsh and docks belie the winter conditions.
Year-round, even in the absence of wind, the strong currents and 9- to-10-foot tides are a challenge for boaters and landowners. 

They have an ingenious system of floating docks and hinged ramps to deal with them. Boats tie up only to the floating sections of dock; the ramps from ground level to the floating docks shift their slopes as the tide rises and falls. 
The pillars that keep the floating docks from floating freely upstream or downstream in the current are kept separate--a round peg in a square hole. 
The floating docks bounce freely up and down as they try to escape and run with the current. Note the masses of barnacles that are revealed as the water level falls. 

Not to mention the extensive oyster beds uncovered only at low tide. (Aren't they ugly in their natural state? These are the raw ingredients of your seafood salad or raw bar happy hour, all cleaned up and dressed for dinner.) 
Cold or no cold, high tide or low, my mouth waters in anticipation of oyster-and-turkey day.