The skipper was below determining our anchorage for the night when the numbers on the depth gauge began to tumble. Elixir’s deep draw of seven feet four inches makes her especially stable in blue water but in the shallow, shoaling waters of the ICW it is a hindrance. While the controlled minimum water depth of the ICW is supposed to be twelve feet the reality is it’s closer to ten and in some areas it is as shallow as six feet. Like the crashing of a hard drive, running aground on the ICW is not a question of “if” but “when”.
Over the last hour I noticed the soundings that the boat was giving were two to three feet shallower than the depths recorded on the navigation chart. I made note of it to Susan and she to Chris, the skipper. He was coming up the ladder when the depth alarm sounded indicating we were in less than ten feet of water; despite being in the center of the channel. The numbers on the depth gauge continued to fall; nine feet six inches, then nine feet, then eight feet…
“Stop the engine!” the skipper shouted.
I immediately pulled the throttle back and the gears clunked into neutral. We were all on deck now, speechless, staring at the depth gauge. The scene resembled a World War II movie where everyone in the sub holds their breath while the enemy hovers above. The numbers continued to tumble and when a black seven filled the screen I prepared for impact – but nothing happened. We drifted forward in silence straining to hear the keel carve into the muddy bottom or worse yet, slam into a sunken tree or boulder, but all we heard were waves gently lapping the hull. Finally the numbers began to inch back up. Once in safe water the skipper flipped through screens on the navigation monitor and discovered the reason for the discrepancy between the charts and depth gauge and why we never ran aground. When he rebooted the navigation software earlier to fix another problem the computer zeroed out the height difference between the sounding probe and the bottom of the keel. That resulted in the depth gauge reporting the water two feet shallower than it actually was. Perhaps sounding with a rock tied to a rope as Mark Twain did isn’t such a bad method after all.
Yesterday was far less eventful; we spent the day tied to the pier. After passing through the lock we came upon a free pier at Great Bridge Battlefield Park and tied up for the night. The following day’s forecast included small craft warnings and four and a half inches of rain so the skipper decided to spend two nights on the pier. The rest day was used to organize all the gear and food that was brought aboard at the last minute and to fix the things that were low priority and therefore never addressed prior to departure. We also dealt with the new problems that arouse en route.
The first thing I learned aboard Elixir is that a sailboat is a high maintenance house adrift, powered by diesel and wind and energized by batteries that always need recharging. Boaters are masochists. They always seem to be fixing, cleaning, painting, pumping, charging, stowing or looking for something. As a crewmember that does not bother me at all, I love “riding” on boats, but I’m not sure I have the temperament to be a “boat owner”. If I were honest with myself I would probably be more content in a condo with a water view. But I have a powerful romantic bent. I envision gentle waves, brilliant sunsets and shapely natives placing sweet wedges of papaya in my mouth and giggling as they kiss the juice from my lips; that is when I whisper, “Gees, I could see me owning a boat.”