An Alligator, a Bear, Dolphins and Stormy Weather: Charleston to Swansboro on the ICW

Swansboro, NC – Wildlife sightings along the ICW have been delightful highlights of our trip, ranging from a lolling alligator, to a curious bear, to a pod of dolphins. Ever-present behind Vinyasa’s stern, a storm coming up the coast from Florida, which reached us as we tied up in Swansboro yesterday.

Motoring away from historic Charleston.

We left the anchorage at Charleston, SC, early on Saturday, August 26, and motorsailed 77 nautical miles north along the Intracoastal Waterway. Given strong headwinds, our average speed varied from 5.5 to 6.5 knots, so we’re covering ground slowly. Our 2017 ICW Planning Guide listed weekend openings at Ben Sawyer Memorial Bridge as being on the hour. We called on the VHF to confirm; hearing they were operating on demand was an auspicious way to start the day, and a reminder to monitor scheduled bridge openings more closely going forward!

Passing through a bascule bridge.

Bridges are potential choke points for sailors on the ICW. Fixed bridges 65 feet or higher from the water do not open, so you must be sure your mast can pass below unharmed. Where bridges do open, waiting for a scheduled opening can eat up precious daylight hours, or stop your progress until the next day.

No scraping sounds passing beneath this 65-foot bridge.

Vinyasa’s mast height is 62’4″ plus her antenna, so we know she easily clears “most” 65-foot spans. However, the visual perspective from below always makes that seem unlikely, leading to sighs of relief each time we slowly pass beneath without scraping sounds. About one out of every five or six times we do hear her antenna scraping, never pleasant.

Northbound from Charleston, the ICW snakes between swaying fields of tall grasses, tree copses, and the occasional cluster of houses on stilts. As Saturday wore on, the wind was a steady 24 knots on Vinyasa’s nose, but the ride was silky smooth compared to our offshore days.

Mid-afternoon, Allan spotted a pod of feeding dolphins, an unexpected sighting. Sarah and I hopped up on the deck to admire them, and they soon vanished from view. Soon after, abandoned rice fields gave way to the expansive Winyah Bay and the Waccamaw River where the majestic oaks provide thick walls of green and cypress-gum trees sink their roots in the water.

Nearing Sandhole Creek.

We’d been aiming for Georgetown, but decided to seize the daylight hours left, and press on, eventually dropping our hook in a sweet anchorage at Sandhole Creek, amidst the cypress-gum swamp.

We then scored a major win figuring out our new boat! Vinyasa has a small refrigerator and a small refrigerator/freezer in her galley. We’d mourned the freezer’s failure and loss of contents while we were at sea, adding it to the growing list of things to troubleshoot later. Also, our brand new house and starting batteries had been losing their charge. That was a biggie, and we kept monitoring the levels closely. That night, as we double-checked the settings in the breaker panel, Allan flipped the “shore power” switch, and both of those issues were resolved. Apparently, when we’d run the generator with that switch in the “off” position all it did was consume diesel, instead of actually powering appliances, systems, and lights. Hence the spoiled food, and the low battery readings, as they were powering Vinyasa’s systems without being replenished when the engine wasn’t running.

The next day, we were on our way at 6:30 am, with pink gray light on the shimmering, still waters. Within the hour, Sarah had pointed out lily pads nestled in a bend beneath the Spanish moss trees, a roosting heron and a flock of ibis who took flight as we motored by, as well as the head of an alligator, lurking about 10 feet from the shore.

Allan soon scored another “understanding the boat” win at our Raymarine nav station, when he pulled in a weather overlay. Seeing the storm systems over Texas and Florida was jaw-dropping. How are we getting the data feed? TBD… We’re drinking from a firehose, learning as we go on this delivery/shakedown cruise.

Sarah on the bow.

Throughout the day, we took turns at the helm, enjoying VHF banter with the bridgekeepers, whimsical exchanges with passing boaters, such as the woman who waved at Allan and joined her hands in namaste, or the friendly young dock helpers at a marina who did a double-take upon hearing Sarah was our delivery captain.

After we crossed into North Carolina the waterway felt much busier, especially as we neared Southport, where we tied up at the fuel dock for the first part of the night. Given the strong tidal pull on the Cape Fear River, we departed at 1 am to get across this river and through a subsequent cut with the current in our favor. The only traffic on the river at that early hour were two large tankers.

Earlier, we’d agreed that after the cut, we would decide whether to anchor at the first available spot, or press on to the Wrightsville Beach Bridge, where we would get some more sleep, and be ready to move again when the bridgekeeper opened the bascule at 7 am. We decided to press on, with each of us playing a role in the cockpit. We alternated turns at the helm and keeping watch from both the port and starboard sides. The watchers used a large spotlight to pick out the unlit day-markers as we passed them. Running the Garmin BlueChart app on an iPad was helpful, as it had details and comments that the Navionix chart on our chart-plotter lacked. We would not attempt navigating this way with fewer than three crew, and then only if we had an urgent need to do so.

High winds on Tuesday morning, moving north.

Our urgency on this trip has been driven by schedules. Sarah needs to leave the boat soon, and we need to get back to work, so we’ve been putting in long hours at the helm each day to push north. Knowing bad weather would be moving in late Monday, we wanted to make the most progress we could safely make. We had hoped to reach Beaufort, NC, but the weather forecast persuaded us to plan to hunker down in Swansboro, NC, instead. After we made it through the Onslow Beach Bridge – which will not open when winds are 30-mph or above – we called several marinas before finding space at the Town of Swansboro Marina. Almost to town, we clearly saw a bear standing on its hind legs in the middle of a grassy clearing leading to the waterway. It peered as intently at us, as we did at it, as we motored by.

Conditions seemed to be worsening when we arrived at the dock, with opposing wind and current making the maneuver into a slip pretty challenging, so after a couple of exploratory circles, we tied up at the T-dock instead.

Sarah and Allan secure the bare bimini poles.

Mike, a liveaboard sailor who works in the adjacent Bake, Bottle & Brew, came down to the dock to grab our lines, and share some local knowledge. The tide would turn in about 30 minutes, and that should give us a window to move Vinyasa into a slip. His friend David, who’d arrived in the meantime, thought that storm surge might negate that calm. Concerned about the 50-mph gusts forecast, we removed Vinyasa’s canvas bimini while we waited.

Fortunately, as Mike predicted, the current did calm down and we soon moved Vinyasa into the widest of the slips – we had our pick of the seven-slip marina. David came back out onto the dock to catch our lines in driving rain.

After tieing her down securely, we promptly strolled over to have a celebratory drink and thank Mike at the Bake, Bottle & Brew.

We left the store with David, who provided a short but memorable tour of Swansboro…which will be the subject of another post. This one is more than long enough already!