Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Morehead City to Charleston SC – The scenery is the same but we are changing!

When we prepared to go cruising the whole concept of basic necessities was very different than the concept of basic necessities now that we are underway. For Pat and me, we have been talking about our cruise for several years and interestingly most of the planning surrounded preparing the boat for the cruise. We have added all sorts of systems ranging from diesel furnaces to water makers and of course the obligatory suite of marine electronics that will allow us to send telegrams to Mars. What we have discovered however is that having a well prepared boat, is not the same thing as being prepared to go cruising.

There are things that I do today without thinking, that I would not have even dreamed about doing when I was a land dweller. A case in point, we will go very long distances for something as simple as a loaf of bread. Indeed the actual act of grocery shopping becomes an integral part of our impression of a community. For example, I would have to check my own blog to remember details about some of the earlier ports of call in our voyage, but I can recall in pretty fine detail where we bought food and the quality of the experience. For example Tadoussac is the town where we bought frozen ground veal and home made maple fudge in a little 2 cash register village supermarket, and Baltimore, despite the world class aquariums and museums is best remembered as the docks that were within walking distance of the Whole Foods Supermarket.

Although the willingness to walk great distances is a change, perhaps the biggest change for me is my desire to meet new people. Pat and I lived in the same community in Mississauga for 17 years. During that period of time, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I actually entered one of my neighbours homes, yet out here on our cruise visiting other floating homes and having others come to ours has been some of the highlights of the trip.

Personally I have always characterized myself as a hardcore introvert, so my idea of a good time, is a quiet evening with a good book, or an afternoon of crawling around in the bilge installing or fixing a boat bit. While I always had the ability to “work a room” as part of my career requirements, it was always just work, something you did because you had to. It has come as a complete surprise to me how quickly friendships develop and how important these new friends are to the quality of our cruising experience.

Pat and I are natural optimists so perhaps we are just seeking out more of our kind, but we both agree that however spectacular the sights we have seen, the people are what we appreciate most. It is interesting that we can maintain a cheery outlook when you consider that we tend to be surrounded by a lot of bad news these days. One would think that with negative headlines combined with lousy weather, narrow channels filled with sand bars, and the US Marines closing the ICW for maneuvers, that any sane person would be looking for a plane ticket out at the next opportunity. Of course while none of us are immune to the events of the world, there is a “je ne sais quoi” about the attitude of cruisers that seems to find the silver lining behind even the darkest cloud. The analytical side of me is trying to understand why this is happening, but the emotional side of me doesn’t really care. I’m just happy that it is happening.

We are safe and sound in Charleston SC. I have only gone aground twice this week, and in doing so I did the cruising community a service by showing other boats where not to go…note to self, fancy electronics will not replace a good set of eyes and a little common sense. Other note to self, sailing straight and moving in a straight line are not the same thing; current can cause you to drift sideways even though your heading never changes…I’m learning!

Even though we have been making steady progress towards warmer climes, the goal of sitting in a bathing suit and having a beer is still very elusive. While “chilly” is a relative term, the majority of people we have encountered this week will agree that temperatures low enough to freeze water will almost certainly qualify. There have been a few evenings when the temperatures dipped into the 20s as well as a couple of days when there were headline making snow flurries. Oh well at least there will be another generation of Carolineans that can say they have seen snow, and an older generation that can say they have seen snow before Thanksgiving….maybe that’s not exactly a silver lining, but its gotta be close!

Pat and I are debating our next move. We can either head offshore from Charleston and be in Florida by the weekend, or we can continue into the hinterlands of South Carolina and Georgia. Since Beaufort and Savannah are both cruising highlights we are in a no lose situation. Anyway you will find out our decision next week. In the meantime, we are going to stay warm, and go looking for a turkey that will fit in our oven.

So to Sylvie, Denis, Heidi, Ken, Gerie, Bill, Georgie & Mike and to all the others we spoke to on VHF and have yet to meet, thanks for making our cruise special this week. Everybody have a Happy Thanksgiving and a great week I know I will. Please keep the comments and suggestions coming!


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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Elizabeth City NC to Morehead City NC – The Epiphany of quality time!

A seemingly common character- istic of the migrant sailors we have met along the way is that everybody is striving to get somewhere. The normal conversation starters when encountering a new person, is where are you from and where are you going. Names and boats enter in the conversation at some point, but usually only after the first two points have been sufficiently clarified.

While Pat and I also have specific destinations in mind, I realized this week that we are truly blessed because we don’t have to worry too much about timing. Many of our fellow travelers have a finite amount of time to cruise before they have to return to other obligations, of family or work or both. Understandably they need to “get there” so that they can enjoy their destination for as long as possible, before they revert back to being land people. Pat and I on the other hand can take as long as we like because we are already home!

On Thursday last week we were entering the upper reaches of the Pungo River from the Alligator to Pungo Rivers Canal. The canal is a narrow 20 mile long aquatic bowling alley of a waterway where a gutter ball could mean a call to the tow boat. Straight down the middle is the only marginally safe water for its entire length as even 20 feet from the centerline there are many places with only a covering of water. Even in the middle there are numerous sunken tree stumps so you often feel ghostly tendrils of something touching the bottom of the boat as you pass over. For those of us used to deeper water it is a very eerie sensation!

The forecast was for 10-15 knot SW winds with gusts to 20 and a few showers. Wave heights were forecast to be 1-2 increasing to 2-3 later in the day; all in all it seemed pretty benign. What we came to appreciate however was that in the very shallow waters of the ICW, a 15 knot wind from an unfavorable direction can have a very significant effect on water levels and wave heights. In a matter of 15 minutes the water went from relatively flat to short period teeth rattling 2 footers. Of course as we struggled with the wheel to keep the bow within 30 degrees of our heading the rain started and the buoys disappeared into the murk. Thank goodness for GPS and radar because we were able to feel our way towards the marks and stay in deep enough water to keep our keel off the bottom.

When we arrived at the River Forest Marina in Belhaven about 90 minutes later, we were met by a coterie of wet and shaking sailors who had exited the same canal earlier in the day and had experienced even worse conditions. Since the conditions were forecast to deteriorate further over the next 24 hours, we resigned ourselves to sitting tight for at least one day. The one day ended up being 3 days of fog, high winds, severe thunderstorms and tornados before we felt there was a good enough weather window to make the hops across Pamlico Sound and the Neuse River. At the end of the third day, the cabin fever amongst the migrant community was pretty evident, so by the following morning the exodus from the docks began at first light, and we were told later that by 8:00 AM the marina was deserted.

Progress and movement are synonymous, so when I sat down to write this week’s installment, I was somewhat at a loss as to what to talk about. Since the beginning of the week we had only moved from mile 51 of the ICW at Elizabeth City to mile 205 at Morehead City, which means that we have only traveled a grand total of 154 statute miles this week (~130nm). With the exception of the week we took off in Halifax earlier this autumn, the past week established a new low on the progress meter…. Or so I it seemed at first blush.

As I stewed on how to describe a scant 154 miles of waterway, Pat in her usual calm manner, started to remind me of the people we had met and the adventures that we had experienced over the past 7 days. We have been aground, caught in a blinding squall, saved a guy from drowning and shared a drink or two with new like minded friends as we baby stepped deeper into the south. Pat’s words triggered one of those flashes of the obvious where I realized that we were actually accomplishing in spades what we had set out to do when we embarked on this voyage.

For a large part of my life, my work instilled a discipline to always set and strive towards an objective. Success was defined not only by hitting the mark but also by the degree of ambition or chutzpah that was used to set the objectives in the first place. Personally I could accept that coming close, but failing to achieve an outrageously ambitious objective was better than overachieving on something I felt was ordinary. While the rewards of being “successful” are pretty obvious, there are costs that may not be as easily identified. For me one of the hidden costs has been the subconscious reflex to always set targets, and then obsessing on them, even when setting a target is not really necessary….like how many miles we are covering next week!

I’m discovering that it takes an enormous amount of discipline to focus on the now. Not to be confused with alertness and awareness of our surroundings, which is of paramount importance for safety, focusing on the now is about making the most of the present. Years ago when I was an instructor for the Dale Carnegie courses, I used to coach people on the value of making lemonade out of lemons, and yet somehow I seem to have missed my own lesson. For now I’ll concentrate less on how far we are going, and spend a little more time on reflecting about where we have come from. I’m told by more experienced cruisers that eventually I will pass a threshold of consciousness where time will be measured on a scale of weeks and months rather than days, hours and minutes….maybe that will be my next objective……..

Today we are sitting in Morehead City. The forecast is for something the locals call a Canadian Clipper to blow through here in the next 24 to 36 hours. Apparently it is a nasty dry cold front that originates in Canada and brings high winds and very low temperatures. The forecast low night is for 29 Fahrenheit which coupled with 30 knot winds should produce some interesting conditions. Pat and I are warm, dry and we have all the comforts of home including Oprah at 4:00PMso why should we be in a hurry. We’ll let you know where we end up next week, next week!

Have a great week, I know I will, even if I have to repair the head!

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Baltimore to Elizabeth City NC – In Dixieland we’ll make our stand!

The world looks different from the waters edge. Local differences seem to be more acutely punctuated when traveling by water than if the same distances were covered by land. Pat and I only covered a linear distance of ~230 miles this week, but in the 4 days that we actually traveled out of the last 9 days, we passed through very different areas. Geographically the Chesapeake appears to be fairly similar from one end to the other, but culturally there are worlds apart from the northern to the southern end.

We had just left Annapolis about 2 hours earlier on our way to Solomons Island when the VHF channel 16 crackled to life with an exchange that began with “thanks for giving me so much room A**hole” The response was only partly intelligible and even less intelligent, but Pat and I could not believe what we had heard. Initially we dismissed it as mindless ramblings from two people who had spent too many hours dragging bait around in the water. Less than an hour later another similar exchange from a different pair of bait draggers was over heard. Clearly we had stepped into the twilight zone of boating, where the common courtesies seemed to be considerably less common, and Coast Guard and FCC prescribed radio protocols were out the window.

The exchanges on the radio were an unfortunate epilogue for our stay in Annapolis. While it is terribly unfair to paint the entire community with the experiences from only 3 days first impressions, however unfortunate, are lasting. So much so that it will likely be a long time before I feel the desire to visit again. Firstly the area is a little pricey, which in itself is not a reason to avoid the area. Other areas like New York City and Baltimore were equally expensive, and we are looking forward to our next visit in both places. In Annapolis however we genuinely felt like we were sources of revenue that they would never see again, so it was time too exploit whatever they could.

At the Annapolis Yacht Basin for example, the dockmaster asked us how long our boat was and then charged us an additional 2 feet because our dinghy was hanging from the stern on davits. When I noticed what he had done, he steadfastly refused to adjust his calculation, offering instead to get out a tape measure for a more precise measurement. My argument that his dock did not get any longer to accommodate the extra length did not seem to hold any sway. It was only when we extended our stay due to weather by an additional 2 days did he relent and charge us for the actual 42 feet of our boat. I could go on about other examples, but as I said earlier 3 days is not a trend, it is only a first impression. In the end however the $6.00 will not make either of us rich or poor but it will be a very cold day before he sees Threepenny Opera back in his slips.

Fortunately we met up with John M and wife Alex for dinner in Solomons Island which changed our mood considerably. We had a great evening out, and with a little local knowledge from John, we saw a very different perspective of Maryland. So now our position has changed from we will never be back, to we will never be back in Annapolis!. Thanks John, it was great to see you guys!!

The universe has a way of evening things out. As we moved further south and into the Intra Coastal Waterway there was a dramatic change in the attitudes of the people we met. From the lockmaster at Deep Creek who provided a history lesson as the locks filled, to the volunteers at the Dismal Swamp Visitors Center, everybody was genuinely interested in making us feel welcomed. Since we have entered the famous “ditch” we have encountered nothing but the famous southern hospitality.

The highlight of this hospitality is in Elizabeth City NC. It is the only major town on the Dismal Swamp Canal route through Virginia to the Abermarle Sound area of NC, so geographically it is a logical place to stop. In other words we were a captive audience, but despite the natural advantage given by location, we were welcomed by town volunteers who waved us in and helped us tie up to free docks in the middle of town. Each slip had been donated by local businesses for the purpose of attracting boaters to stop, re-supply and to visit.

One of the greeters was a well groomed gentleman whom I saw several times during the day. At about 4:30 he stopped by Threepenny Opera to ask if we had everything we needed and if there was anything he could do to make our visit more comfortable. We chatted for a while and during the conversation it turned out that our greeter was none other than the Mayor! To apply proper perspective the town has a population of nearly 20,000 residents and is home to the largest US Coast Guard training base in the country. Without a doubt we will be back if only to experience the welcome.

The pace of travel will change now that we are in the ICW. We are no longer going point to point, but rather we can adjust our daily travel to suit our mood. Since the waterway is largely protected for the next several hundred miles, we can stop almost at will and drop the anchor to spend the night. Our initial goal of the Florida Keys is tantalizingly close, a mere 1200 miles from where we are today. Hopefully we will find more gems like Elizabeth City along the way!

Have a great week. I know I will


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Monday, November 03, 2008

New York City to Baltimore - Doth spoke the raven...

Years ago when Pat and I moved to Toronto we were appalled and intimidated by the price of local real-estate. Fixer uppers were selling for staggering amounts and anything “nice” was in the stratosphere. Shock, however severe, never lasts very long and we knew we were getting acclimated to the “big city” when we started using the terms “only” and “$300K” in the same sentence. On our current adventure we have had a déjà vu experience when it comes to marina space.

Sure I know that true cruisers are more likely to spend their time on the hook and eschew the requirements to hook up to shore power and water, but Pat and I did not set out on this trip to go camping on the water. The real cruisers can call us wimpy, but as November unfolds, we like to have hot water, central heat and wifi. While we are all about independence, neither of us have any real desire to be the poster child for self sufficiency, while scraping the icicles off of our noses. So the sign that we are overcoming sticker shock at the marinas is when we can say “its ONLY $3 per foot”.

And the $3.00 per foot seemed like a real bargain as we huddled in the salon of Threepenny Opera on Tuesday morning. Yet another cold front was coming through the New York area and this time, the forecasters were taking no chances. The gale warnings were upgraded to storm warnings and the wind gusts were predicted to exceed 40 knots. Portions of the city were without heat and light due to wind damage, and a mere 75 miles north, there was 20 inches of fresh snow on the ground. For Pat and me the predictions of dire gloom meant that we were making contingency plans to stay put for an entire week in New York.

By Wednesday however the worst of the weather had passed by, and while some residents of Queens were still without power, the weather forecasts had improved significantly. After the drubbing of the previous weekend we were understandably more than a little bit skeptical that we would actually get decent traveling conditions. The alternative to leaving however was even less desirable as staying put would mean increasing the odds that the next snowfall would not be 75 miles north. So with more than a little bit of fear and trepidation we made plans to leave our cozy, but expensive, berth in New York for the exposed weather beaten shores of New Jersey.

The coast of New Jersey from Sandy Hook, just outside of New York Harbor and as far as Cape May at the entrance to Delaware Bay, is essentially a 155 mile long sandbar. In the summer time, one can tell, from the numerous beach houses and amusement parks along the coast, that it is an extremely popular place to spend a few days roasting on the beach. In November however the roller coasters and ferris wheels are still, and the beaches are deserted. The only real signs of life, apart from the casinos of Atlantic City, are from the fishing boats that live here, and from the steady procession of pleasure boats heading south.

For a sailor this 155 mile sand bar, represents a gigantic lee shore, and it is very easy to imagine your own boat adding to the numerous wreck symbols that seem to dot the entrances to every inlet. Since the sand shifts with every Atlantic storm, the charts do not illustrate precise locations for the channel buoys. Instead of precise depths, there are notations that were likely written by lawyers, warning mariners of variable depths and channels that are constantly being redefined. In so many words the advice is go see for your self or ask somebody else who really cares. In uncertain environments like this, one discovers that sailing is like raising children. There is a ton of advice around on how to do it correctly, all of it conflicting, and potentially dire consequences if you get it wrong.

Pat and I agonized over the charts to try and solve the problem of sailing down 155 miles of coastline with limited and possibly unusable shelter due to lack of water. It appeared that we had two choices. We could bite the bullet and gird ourselves for an overnight sail, provided the weather held, or we could duck into spots like Manasquan Inlet or Barnegat Bay. If it weren’t so personal, the indecision and debate would have been comical, but since the dilemma concerned issues very close to home, the humour was lost. In the end the prospect of a freezing cold overnight passage in temperatures in the low 30’s seemed more onerous than becoming a table ornament on a sand bar, so we elected to tackle a stop at Barnegat Bay as way of breaking the trip into two daylight segments. If we did not have the unlimited towing option from Boat US, our decision might have been different.

The trip down the NJ shore and then back up Delaware Bay into the Chesapeake was marked by some of the nicest and calmest weather we have had in weeks. All of the angst was for not. Despite a few white knuckle moments when channel markers disappeared into the glare of the setting sun, and when the boat seemed to develop a mind of its own during docking in a tidal flow, the trip was pretty boring!! The highlight of the week was spending Halloween night with our friends Connie and Richard from the trawler Active Assets in a Cape May, NJ Karaoke Bar. By the fourth beer, the talent, many of them rough and gruff local fishermen, were starting to sound pretty good. It wasn’t fantasy week in Key West, but it must be experienced to be appreciated!

We are now in Baltimore, the home of Edgar Alan Poe. Our intent is to visit with friends in the area as we meander down the Chesapeake towards Norfolk VA. The temperatures are forecast to be fairly forgiving, even though the next few days will be overcast and potentially wet. By the weekend however we will be below the Mason Dixon line and officially in the South! For the now we will play tourist in Baltimore where the docks are only $2.00 a foot!

There are 3 major airports in the area so if the mood strikes to go sailing, we are only 90 minutes away. Have a great week, I know we will!

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