From the bow Susan announced, in a concerned voice, “There’s a man on a boat ahead of us that just took off his shirt and started waving it. I think he’s in trouble.”
We were in a sliver of a channel barely two ships wide. The trees along the banks were more lush and green than we had seen in Virginia and tilted toward the canal forming a partial tunnel of green and gave the stretch a cozy southern feel. In contrast, the muddy shallows between the channel and the shore had the black limbs of snags reaching out from the brown soup like the boney hands of a skeleton reaching out from a grave.
The bare-chested man stood on the deck of a small, weather beaten sailboat half the size of Elixir. The peeling paint and unpolished bright work made me wonder if he had recently run an old boat aground or sunk a few seasons back and was waiting for global warming to go down with his ship. As our boat drew near I saw more desperation in the man’s face than I expected. He ran aground three days earlier, had no motor, radio or phone and had been without water for at least twenty-four hours.
The “Ditch” is too narrow to sail in most places so a motor is a necessity even on a sailboat, as is a VHF radio. He said other boats had attempted to pull him free but failed. He reminded me of the folks I’ve met at gas stations along the interstate who ask me to buy them a tank of gas but cannot provide a reasonable answer as to why they started driving cross-country so ill prepared in the first place. On the narrow and busy ICW, which is used by both large commercial vessels and pleasure boaters, such behavior endangers others.
The skipper climbed into the dinghy, a small Zodiac with an eight-horse power outboard and headed toward the stranded boat. He secured a line and gradually pulled it taunt as I drove Elixir in tight circles in the middle of the channel. To the north I could see two sailboats motoring toward our little circus. Susan and I both gasped when the grounded sailboat began to inch forward. When the sailboat was once again in the channel the skipper returned to Elixir and secured the Zodiac as I began to motor south again. Susan tossed the shirtless man two bottles of water that fell short and splashed into the muddy mix. He thanked us and scooped them up with a long handled fishing net. An hour later we heard another Good Samaritan on the radio asking the Coast Guard to send the shirtless man a tow and to call his family to tell them he was doing fine.
For the next three days the rain left us alone and that allowed us to travel fifty miles a day. That’s a lot of miles to be standing and driving a boat that chugs along at six to seven knots an hour. Many cruiser average closer to thirty-five miles a day and stop at Elizabeth City, Oriental, Beaufort or other towns along the route to explore the local culture, food and museums. The cities are well aware of the boater’s presence and schedule festivals to coincide with the migration.
But our draw was a bit too deep for some of those ports and even though the skipper was retired the crew joining him in Morehead City, who were going to help him sail Elixir into the ocean and on to the Bahamas, had day jobs and limited time. As a result we anchored out for three straight nights. For me anchoring out is one of the best parts of sailing. You just drop the anchor when and where you feel like it. It costs you nothing and the sunsets, stargazing and sunrises are wonderful. On the water at night, without the light pollution of the city, the sky becomes so congested with stars you struggle to find the big dipper.
The other thing I loved about my boat ride down the ditch, in comparison to hiking the Appalachian Trail or bicycling across the US, is at the end of each day, no matter how rainy and cold it was, I always had a warm dry place to sleep, eat and sip tea. And yet I was still in contact with my surroundings. I could feel, hear and smell the air, wind and water. Even tugboats pushing barges past us at night were a pleasant experience. Sitting in my bunk I could hear the low rhythmic churn of the diesel engine in the distance, long before the tug was near. Finally it would rumble past and in a disproportionally short amount of time it was quiet again, except for the gurgle and splash of the waves against the hull.
After dinner I’d go on deck to take a last look at the sky and the red and green lights blinking along the edge of the channel. By then it was chilly, too chilly to hang out on the deck for long, but at least the mosquitos that were pests at sunset had vanished. The water was now an eerie black and reflected the stars on its surface like a darkened window pane reflects a face at night.
My final day on the ICW I bundled up in three layers plus my foul weather jacket and still felt the cutting wind as we drove the channel into Morehead City. Unlike my first two days at the helm, my last two days I felt confident and relaxed. Or as relaxed as you can feel driving someone else’s boat down a narrow channel through shoaling waters.The weather and channel were never conducive for sailing so I learned how to motor instead, but that was OK with me. It was a new skill.
At Morehead City the skipper deflated the dinghy and lashed it to the deck, filled the spare diesel cans, stocked the galley and did what else was needed to prepare Elixir for leaving the ditch and entering the ocean. He planned to travel under sail twenty-four hours a day for two to three days at a stretch, making Florida as quickly as he could. It would be hardcore sailing, big waves, four hour two-man-watches and no lifeboat; just a vest and one hell-of-a-ride. Somewhere south of Daytona Florida he planned to wait for a weather window then hop across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. In spring he would sail back to Norfolk.
The offer to come along was tempting, one I would have jumped at when my hair was still brown. I guess I could have created an excuse like, “Thanks, captain, but I don’t have the proper gear”. But the truth is it just didn’t sound that fun to me. As I said before, I’m a traveler, maybe even a cruiser but I make no claims of being a sailor. Thank you skipper for a great ride and a tempting offer, I wish you, “Fair Winds and Following Seas”.
Epilogue: I heard the skipper and his hardy crew made it to Cape Canaveral in only six days and were last seen cruising the town in a friends Cadillac. I am sure he will meet his goal of spending Christmas in the Bahamas.