Aboard a small sailboat, the winds and seas define the experience. Waves are children of the winds, and the winds are capricious. When talking with other sailors, it’s interesting to see the breadth of different feelings towards different bodies of water. What the weather is doing on any one day colors your perception of place…we met many folks who had uncomfortable days on any one stretch of the ICW, where we had benign sunny skies and following winds. Of course the opposite is true as well. We recall with trepidation stretches which others remember with fondness. During our trip South, we were fortunate to have settled weather during the majority of our open-water crossings (Chesapeake Bay not withstanding). Sailors speak of the Alligator River and Albemarle Sound with a shiver, we had uneventful crossings southbound. Anchorages suffer the same fate, Pine Island, Grahams Creek, Long Key were incident pits trying to break our stuff. In settled weather, they are bucolic and serene.
Before we left, Jim Wagner of Regent Point Marina showed me a poster on the wall of his office. It reads “The superior sailor uses his superior judgement to avoid using his superior skills.” Discretion is the better part of valor. It’s taken me just about the entire trip to really learn this. That being said, if you wait for superior conditions, you will never leave the dock. So when NOAA was calling for SW 10-15 kts, 1 foot seas on the Albemarle, we knew we couldn’t wait for much better (Despite the foreknowledge that NOAA almost always underestimates, or so it seems to us anyway).
We made our way North up the Alligator River and through the opening bridge. That was our first hurdle of the day, the bridge doesn’t open in winds of 35 mph or more, or on the bridge tenders discretion. We’ve heard tales of the bridge not opening in 25 mph winds…which would necessitate a 20 mile beat to windward back to the nearest protected anchorage. We were very relieved to have light winds and an open bridge. As we negotiated the river mouth, and raised our now habitually double-reefed main, the winds and seas began to pick up as expected. The truth of it is, even 1 foot seas are rather uncomfortable aboard our little boat. As we got out into the middle of the Albemarle, the wind shifted to the west, apparently funneling down the east-west axis of the sound. This set up a cross sea, with a chop from behind us from the Alligator River, and seas rolling down the length of the sound. Winds were the forecast 15 kts, but the gusts were enough to plunge the rail in the water even with our tiny scrap of sail up. “Firefly” likes to sail leaned over, no doubt. We motorsailed on, and after about an hour and a half of white knuckles and held breaths we got under the lee of some headlands about 8 miles distant, enough to check some of the larger waves. As we entered the Pasquotank River, the winds increased to 20+ kts, but by then we were in protected waters and “Firefly” put her shoulder down and fairly flew through the chop. We dodged crab pots disguised among the whitecaps. We joked and laughed in the lulls, happy to be safe. We tied up at the free docks in Elizabeth City, and fairly ran for a burger and some beers.
Experiences like this have given me a new-found understanding and respect for the small boat voyagers I consider my heroes. I can’t imagine taking a small boat in the ocean, and yet the allure is still there. Perhaps someday. Perhaps on OPB’s (Other People’s Boats) (or Other People’s Blogs). We are expecting North winds for a few days, so we have some time to leisurely make our way up the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Elizabeth River, and prepare for what will surely be a memorable sail up the Chesapeake Bay, and home.