Friday, June 20, 2014

Cape Fear

We are at the Bald Head Island Marina, on Bald Head Island, North Carolina, just inside the mouth of the Cape Fear River (map).  The island is really what constitutes the cape, the landward end of the treacherous Frying Pan Shoals, which extend some 20 miles southeast into the Atlantic.

We had a very pleasant and mostly uneventful overnight cruise from Charleston.  We had a fair current, which, together with the slightly early departure, put us at the harbor entrance a full two hours early, in spite of the fact that I kept reducing engine rpm throughout the trip until we were loafing along at just under 1200, about the minimum healthy speed for this engine.  We got the best fuel mileage we've ever seen.

Sunset at sea.

Once again I had the early watch, until 03:30, and after passing Cape Romain Shoal we saw almost no other traffic until we arrived here.  At one point I could make out a shrimper plying his trade a good six or seven miles landward of us.  The radar was otherwise empty all night, save for the buoy that appeared out of nowhere around 11:30 or so, as we passed Winyah Bay entrance well offshore.  It ended up being dead in our path, and I had to divert around it.

I actually saw it visually before the radar squawked, because it had a flashing yellow light on it.  In calm weather on a dark night, those really stand out, and I probably noticed it at the visual limit of the horizon, maybe a few miles away.  Once I saw it on the scope, I knew it had to be a buoy because the radar return was large enough to suggest it had a reflector.  Yet no buoys at all showed in that spot on the chart, nor even nearby.

I spent the next half hour loading and scanning different versions of the charts, and combing through the light list section of the Local Notices to Mariners (LNM) to see if there was supposed to be a buoy in that spot, but I came up empty.  It's possible that it was the Coastal Carolina University Lighted Data Buoy W-A, which would have had the correct flash pattern, but that would put the buoy nearly four miles off station.

I could not take a chance that it might be something else, such as the marker for a dangerous wreck, so at about a mile out I diverted seaward to pass at least a quarter mile from it.  That was close enough for me to see it with the spotlight, but I could not make out any markings.  I will report the observation to the Coast Guard, and it might eventually make it into the LNMs.  It gave me something to do, though, for the better part of an hour.

Louise relieved me at 03:30, but being so far ahead of schedule I did not get as much sleep as I'd have liked before coming back to take the conn for the inlet.  There was little traffic, though, and we enjoyed a good two-knot push upriver as we got close to the inlet.  Unfortunately, that same two knots would make it treacherous to try to squeak Vector into the narrow entrance to Bald Head Marina, perpendicular to the current, so we went a few hundred feet past it and dropped the hook for an hour and a half to wait for slack.  I got a quick nap and we had some lunch while we waited.

Slack is hard to predict if you are not a local -- the relationship between tide and current is complex (here, slack lags the maxima by nearly an hour), and tide and/or current reporting stations are seldom where you need them, so you need to interpolate.  Even then, local hydrology can interfere.  So as it was, we came in with maybe a half knot cross current, plus 15 knots of wind, and we crabbed sideways until inside the jetties, at which point I really had to crank the helm to get it straightened out. We notice the ferry just powers through at over ten knots, a speed we can't achieve.

We were tied up alongside by 2pm and relaxed aboard the rest of the afternoon, strolling over to Mojo's right here at the marina for dinner.  This morning we rented a golf cart (there are no private motor vehicles allowed on the island, only maintenance and public safety) and drove more or less the whole island.  We saw the ruins of the last Cape Fear light, a steel-skeleton affair that operated until 1958, when it was replaced by the light on Oak Island, across the river, and I climbed to the top of Old Baldy, the oldest standing lighthouse in the state.  The lantern room is empty now, and affords a spectacular view in all directions.

The marina through the glass at the top of Old Baldy.  Vector is in the middle of the marina, but you'll have to enlarge the image to pick her out.  You can see the lighthouse behind us in today's cover photo.

We also each had a massage at the spa in the little village mid-island, and, while resort-spa expensive, I have to admit it is the best massage I have ever had.  Louise had the same therapist, Leslie, and said the same thing.  Next to the spa is a surprisingly well-stocked market, and we stocked up on fresh meat and veggies.  I also stopped in the hardware store, also well-stocked, and bought some moulding to trim the new fridge install, taking advantage of having a golf cart for transportation.  The prices at both of these captive-audience establishments were actually quite reasonable.

I was fully prepared to spend a day here on the island and then admit BTDT, don't need to do it again.  But we actually found the place very pleasant and relaxing.  It's artificial, to be sure, and the whole thing actually has a Disney-esque feel, with everything manicured and controlled, but sometimes that's what makes for a good resort experience.  We'll probably be back, perhaps with friends, and we'll take advantage of the $25/day temporary membership at the Shoals Club available to marina guests, so we can dine in their restaurants, and use their pool and other facilities (there is a two-day minimum, so it did not make sense this time).

Certainly the marina is very convenient for an outside run -- you really can't get any closer to the inlet.  Shortly after we tied up, we saw Diva come in; we've been playing ocean leapfrog with her since Fort Lauderdale.  She left first thing this morning.  The last time we came through here, we stayed at the sister marina, Deep Point, which is the other end of the ferry route.  For us, that adds nearly an hour to one end or the other of a long ocean passage.

We ended the day with dinner at Delphine, not far from the marina, and having had breakfast at the cafe in the aforementioned market, I think we've now eaten at every restaurant on the island open to the general public.  In the morning we will return our golf cart and shove off just after slack, bound for Wrightsville Beach via the Cape Fear River and the ICW.


  1. If you have the time on this trip (and if not, perhaps on some future stop in this area) I would highly recommend heading up the Cape Fear river to Wilmington to see the battleship USS North Carolina. Of all the American battleships preserved as museum ships, the North Carolina is definitely the best as a museum. I would highly recommend it.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. We have been to Wilmington numerous times, when we were still in the bus, though I confess we did not visit the battleship. It's unlikely we will go there in the boat; it's a detour of 24nm round trip, or nearly 20 gallons of diesel, and then we'd have no choice but to pay $70 per day for dockage. Figure $250 in round numbers for a two-night visit. Battleship or no, a repeat visit to the city does not call us that loudly. That said, never say never, and it is certainly possible that some event will draw us there some day.

  2. Sean,
    If you arrive in Morehead City/Beaufort and still need supplies from a hardware store/Lowes, let me know, I'd be glad to give you a ride. Goldwing Jay


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