Monday, June 16, 2014

Harbor lights

We are anchored in Charleston Harbor, just north of James Island, west of the yacht club (map).  This is very close to the spot at which we anchored the last time we came in to the harbor, back in December, with the same view.  I wrote about the spot pretty extensively back then, with photos, so I won't repeat myself here.  The reason for coming another mile further west this time was to pass the western boundary of Commercial Anchorage B, so that we are not subject to that anchorage's rules and restrictions.  That anchorage is full of dredging equipment, which is a story unto itself.

We had a very nice passage from Hilton Head yesterday, making excellent time, even though I had to make two detours.  Based on our consumption yesterday, it looks as though the bottom cleaning in Thunderbolt has made a dramatic improvement in fuel mileage.  I'm hoping we can make it all the way to Chesapeake, where fuel is the cheapest on the east coast, on what we have left in the tank.

Regarding the detours, the first was as we were trying to exit Port Royal Sound to the north.  A large shoal extends south from Saint Helena Island, and the ship channel turns due south to avoid it.  Our route takes us to the northeast, and I plotted a course through what looked like a safe break in the shoals.  That course was programmed into the computer, which, in turn, drives the boat by way of the autopilot (cue faux-Russian accent of Pavel Chekov saying "course plotted and laid in").

As we approached the shoal we were at very nearly high tide, +7' or so, and still rising.  We crossed a contour line into what was charted as 13-15' at MLLW, and I wasn't planning to take manual control and reduce throttle until we crossed the next contour into charted 9-10' depths.  But the depth sounder was suddenly reading 11', then 10', and I disengaged the autopilot, cut the throttle, and immediately turned the boat around.  At +7' of tide, we should have been showing 20' or more on the sounder; with just 10' showing in charted 13', we'd have surely been aground in the charted 9' area.  Such is the nature of shoals and charts.

We had to backtrack and continue south for another mile or so to a different charted break in the shoal, the same one we had crossed over in December with no problems at a lower tide level.  The whole detour cost us perhaps two miles or so, maybe 20 minutes.  I re-plotted a new course from there and we had smooth sailing almost all the way to Charleston.

Our track, showing the abrupt turn and detour after we encountered unexpectedly shallow depths.  The green circle to the right is a boiler, presumably the last vestige of an old wreck, a thousand feet away.

This kind of ocean running does not demand the same high vigilance that is necessitated by cruising the inland waterways (or crossing shoals and bars).  One of us is always on watch in the pilot house, but there is plenty of time to do other things as well.  Louise has even posted a photo of an under-way anchor roller repair, which involved both of us on the foredeck while the autopilot drove the boat.  We were, at that time, in the wide and deep part of Port Royal Sound.  Once in the ocean, I glance at the AIS and radar displays every few minutes, and scan the horizon perhaps twice as often.

Thus it was that, from a long way away, perhaps five miles, I first saw the AT-AT Imperial Walker standing in about 20' of water off Folly Beach.  OK, not really -- in fact, I didn't know what it was standing in 20' of water, but it had four fat legs, was a good 10-15' off the surface, and looked industrial.  Drilling rig?  Dredge of some sort?  No clue, but it was not on our route, so I was not too concerned.  Until, that is, we got within a couple of miles of it.  That's when I noticed a barge off to our right (the AT-AT was to our left) and a string of yellow buoys in between, extending directly across our path.

Clearly this was some sort of dredging operation, and I knew from experience that the dredge or whatever it was and the barge might well be connected by a pipeline, so I started making radio calls to see if anyone could tell me what, if any, evasive action we would need to take.  I also called up the latest Local Notices to Mariners (LNM) to see if any dredging operation was listed offshore of Folly Beach.  Nothing was shown in the LNMs, and I got no response on the radio.  In the end, we opted to divert to the east and go around the barge, which, sure enough, was propping up the end of a dredge pipe.

I learned later on that this was the remnants of an operation to replenish the beach using sand dredged from offshore.  The massive dredge Alaska is one of the numerous pieces of equipment parked just east of us now in Commercial Anchorage B, along with many additional sections of pipeline.  The equipment we passed was unmanned last night at 7pm when we went by, but when I called the track up on the plotter today for this post, I could see that three tugs, who were also here in the anchorage last night, are now out at the site, presumably continuing the removal of gear.  I'm still not certain what the large apparatus was, but my best guess is an intermediate slurry pump station -- four miles offshore is a long way to pump dredge material.

Second detour of the day.  The three tugs shown here are where we found the barge last night.

We had dinner under way and set the hook here just before sunset, enjoying sundowners on the aft deck.  Charleston Harbor is picturesque, and I particularly enjoy it in the evening with the lights of the city, the bridges, and the maritime infrastructure all aglow.  The harbor is full of dolphins, and we hear them breathing as they feed in the quiet of the morning. We are content to just lie here at anchor for a couple of days to rest up -- our next leg, to Cape Fear, requires an overnight run.  We might tender ashore for dinner at some point, if we can find a place to land the dinghy.

Our route from here will take us overnight to Bald Head Island at the tip of Cape Fear, thence up the Cape Fear River and across on the ICW to Wrightsville Beach, where we will wait for good weather to make the next hop, to Cape Lookout.  From there things are a bit less clear, with a choice of three routes, all two to three days in length, to our next stop in Norfolk, Virginia.  We'll spend a few days in Norfolk, where we are expecting delivery of a new head as well as a few other items, and will need access to a chandlery and a hardware store.

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