Monday, December 5, 2016

Echo II's Winter Roost

Last stop for Echo II: port of Charleston.
Having survived a day of sandbars in Georgia canals and and a night of pure hell on the Savannah river--where the boat rocked itself out of alignment and promptly started leaking, and one of our dock lines snapped in half--we turned around and headed for home. This latest leak, unlike the 17 previous ones, was from the bottom of the hull rather than the top deck--i.e., potentially life-threatening.

(Those of you who wondered whether that previous blog post was all lies can now begin to glimpse a glimmer of truth...?)
Our bouncy pier in the commercial port of Savannah, tucked unsteadily among ocean liners, pilot boats, barges, and tugs. Do you see any other small-ish sailboats here???

Early December, however, is not the best time of the year to tackle the mid-Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland can get chilly. Especially in a leaky boat. (Besides, going north is SO embarrassing when passing all those Bahamas-bound Canadian vessels.) So, reluctantly and after many deep conversations and analyses of the options, we decided to get off the waterway altogether and abandon our boat for the winter.

Our first dock after the momentous decision, in the industrial port of Charleston, South Carolina, was only slightly better than the torturous tie-up in Savannah. More freighters, tugs, barges. And a plethora of rusty equipment, pipelines, and cranes for loading and unloading tankers and container ships.
 The port of Charleston: calmer waters than Savannah, but still not a favorite for small-ish sailboats

We grimly endured the night, holding out for the promise of a haul-out the next morning and a place to park the boat until spring.

Ever wonder how a multi-ton vessel with a 45-foot mast (on top) and 4-foot keel (below) gets out of the water and onto dry land? Roughly the same way cattle, horses, and animals destined for the cookpot have boarded ships since the beginning of sea travel--in a sling, lifted by some type of crane. In this case, a heavy-duty "travel lift" at a boatyard.
Drive that baby right up onto the front sling and snap together the back sling behind the keel
Pull the chain and lift her up out of the water: she's airborne!

Drive the travel lift off the finger piers onto dry land, and carry our baby to her winter berth

Put her up on blocks and unsnap the slings, so the travel lift can move on to another haul-out

Her surroundings attest to the superb order, cleanliness, and uncannily high safety standards of this particular boatyard. (Tongue-in-cheek; did you catch that? Wow. It looked so good on the website.)
Well, at least our boat is better off than the boat next door, which seems to have gotten knocked around a bit. Possibly in a hurricane. (Those holes go all the way through the hull.)
And there rests Echo II, next to her flailing neighbor, until the mid-Atlantic sheds its chill and we return to Charleston to fix the leaks and bring our baby home.

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