Thursday, April 4, 2013

A ship without an anchor

We are at the Bohicket Marina & Market, just off the North Edisto River on St. Johns Island.  This is the closest marina to the ultra-deluxe resort islands of Kiawah and Seabrook, and the rates here, $2.50 per foot, reflect that.  Apparently, this is where Tiger docked his yacht when playing the tournament circuit there.

Readers already familiar with the waterways will recognize that we are a long way from the ICW, and therein lies a story.  While I am committed to documenting our progress here, some days it's hard to have to tell the tale, and this is one of those times.  Yesterday was a long, hard day for us.

Things started out beautifully, with excellent weather leaving Beaufort, so much so that we would have liked to drive from the flybridge, if not for the lack of appropriate instruments up there.  We weighed anchor at 9:15 to have favorable tides for the hardest part of the trip, which made for some low water in the early parts.  Still, the trip was gorgeous and uneventful until our first tricky part, at the Ashepoo-Coosaw Cutoff.

The Active Captain web site, where we get a great deal of the most current information, suggested the deepest water at the entrance was to the right, and that's where we headed, but I backed out quickly when the depth sounder registered six feet.  The charts showed the channel somewhat left of that, so we probed it slowly and promptly hit the mud. Again I was able to back away, and we had carefully chosen our departure to arrive here on rising water, so we were not concerned.

The boat that arrived after us, a nice motor yacht that looked to be 70' or so, saw us having trouble.  They were hoping to learn something from us, but when they discovered we drew a full foot more than they did, they decided to go around us and pave the way. They relayed their sounder readings -- the deep water was between our two attempts -- and we followed them in.  That was the only trouble we had the whole day's cruise.

In fact, we had such a good run that we decided to tackle Watts Cut at the end of the day, at nearly high tide, to get the skinny water behind us and give us more leeway this morning.  That put us in the North Edisto right where it becomes the Wadmalaw at quitting time, and Louise picked out a well-reviewed anchorage on Tom Point Creek for the night's stop.  We had plenty of daylight and plenty of water, and it looked like we would have a good spot for the night.

Unfortunately, as we did a figure-eight to check depths for swing room, we managed to run onto a shoal not on the chart.  This time I could not back off on my own, and we were in big trouble.  We had just passed high tide, so things would only get worse -- big mistake.  They say experience is something you get right after you need it, and you can be sure we will never again be testing water depths just at the turn of high tide.

As soon as we realized we were stuck, Louise got on the phone to TowBoatUS, our towing service.  We are very glad we paid extra for the "unlimited" coverage.  But with 100,000 pounds of boat already six inches out of the water, and with another six feet to drop before low tide, I could see things going from bad to worse in a real hurry, so I worked on alternate possibilities, not wanting to count entirely on a little towboat to be able to haul us off.

That involved dropping the dinghy and putting our anchor out in the middle of the channel, to try to pull us off with the windlass in a process known as "kedging."  Really that ought to be done with a second anchor and a warping winch, but we don't have a second anchor yet.  We don't really have the right kind of winch, either, but we improvised.

Trying to pull the boat sideways with the anchor chain itself was a lost cause, because once the chain came tight it simply started to bend the anchor fairlead.  (I mostly expected that, and was unworried about the fairlead, as it was already bent from our grounding in February and needs to be straightened or replaced anyway.)  Instead I put a chain hook with a heavy line attached as far out on the chain from the boat as I could get it, then ran the line around one horn of our forward cleat so I could take a wrap on the warping drum of our windlass.

Before I continue I should say more about this, for anyone unfamiliar.  A windlass is really just a fancy nautical word for a horizontal winch (there are vertical varieties as well, called capstans).  Ours has a special wheel on one side for the anchor chain, called a "gypsy" or a "wildcat" depending on whom you ask.  This wheel has evenly spaced pockets on it that exactly fit the links of our 1/2" high tensile anchor chain.  The chain wheel has a clutch, so it can turn (or be stopped) independently of the winch motor.  On the other side is a drum, called a warping drum, that can be used to put tension on a rope -- you take a few turns around the drum, and pull on the free end by hand while the motor does the work.

After we bought the boat, I downloaded all the manuals and even the exploded parts diagram for our windlass, so I could learn how to operate the clutch, drum, and manual operating lever, all of which would be important in the event the motor quit someplace where we needed to drop anchor.  I tested all the features, which I found to be a little stiff from lack of use, but all worked.

Of course, as soon as I tried to release the clutch on the gypsy so that I could use the warping drum, it was stuck hard and I could simply not get the drum to rotate independently of the wheel.  I eventually had to whack at various parts of the windlass with a plastic deadblow to free the clutch mechanism.

That all eventually worked and I was able to put quite a bit of pull on the anchor with the winch, but we did not budge, and I had to back off because we had so much pressure on the line that I was afraid it would part, possibly injuring one of us or further damaging the boat.  At that point our only option was to wait for the towboat and cross our fingers he could get us off.

As it turned out, between me blasting away the mud with our propwash astern, and him pulling on the stern quarter with his 500hp of outboards, we finally backed off the shoal and into decent water.  Ah, but the anchor is still out there, holding us back.  I paid out more chain so we could get to deeper water -- so far, so good.  But then I discovered that the pesky clutch that, earlier, I could not release, now I could not engage.  Between running back and forth to the helm to maneuver the boat, and fiddling with the windlass in the heat of battle, I did not notice the clutch keyway was misaligned with the shaft.  The current kept pushing back aground, and the towboat had to keep holding us off.

After several minutes of doing battle like this, we conceded defeat, and realized we would have to let the anchor go completely, or risk remaining stuck in Toms Point Creek.  Fortunately, when we surveyed the boat, I insisted on running all the chain out of the locker, to inspect the chain and locker but also to ensure that there was a short piece of rope between the bitter end of the chain and the bitts in the locker, as indeed there was.

We ran all 400' of chain out until the rope appeared on deck, and I did my best to tie one of our round orange fenders to it as a marker/retrieval float.  There was too much tension on the chain and rope to tie a knot such as a sheet bend -- the best I could do was a rolling hitch after running the fender line back up through the anchor roller.  And then I very sadly cut the cord, and our anchor and 400' of chain is still back, uhh, up the creek.

With no anchor, we had no choice but to find a place to tie up, and this was the closest marina, being the place where the towboat had come from in the first place.  He arrived well ahead of us, of course, and radioed back that we should take one of the empty T-heads on the outside.  We arrived at dusk, and docked without drama (thanks, Capt. Gary!) in what looked to be three or four knots of current.

Of course, with no pressure, tied up at the dock, and with some dinner in me, it took me all of five minutes to figure out the problems with the windlass.  I had damaged the key a bit as well as part of the clutch wheel trying to get it to engage, but it was minor and with a little cleanup and some prodding I got the windlass back together and working normally. In the process I discovered some miscellaneous trim hardware has fallen off over the past decade, so I will clean all that up at some point as well.

I've arranged for some local help to go retrieve the anchor.  I'll need someone in a smaller boat to drag most of the chain out to deeper water so I don't run aground bringing it in.  But getting the anchor itself out of the water is beyond local capabilities, so we will have to do it with Vector and our own windlass.  High tide today would be around 5pm, but we've had 20 knot winds all day so the local skipper who is helping me advised we should wait until tomorrow.  So here we are in a resort marina for another night.  At least our BoatUS membership got us a 10% discount.

The friends we were meeting in Charleston will, instead, make the 45-minute drive here for dinner tonight.  There are several restaurants right here in the complex.  And if we can get the anchor aboard without trouble tomorrow, we should be anchored not much farther along the ICW, with an early morning departure for Charleston on Saturday.  Or maybe not -- best not to ever have a schedule on a boat.

Someday I hope to stop making rookie mistakes and having to write gargantuan posts explaining them.  Perhaps the low country of Georgia and the Carolinas was not the best place to begin our cruising life.  On the positive side, we'll hardly find more challenging coastal conditions for our boat anywhere else, and by the time we get out of here, we'll be, umm, experienced.

No cats were harmed in the losing of the anchor.


  1. Sean - my hats off to you two. Again. I appreciate so much that you took the time to write about your challenges. I admire the systematic approach you two have. I know you would have rather avoided all the trouble but I'm so glad you guys have come through another challenge unscathed. I have no doubt you'll be on your way soon. Thanks for the post. One of your many fans...

  2. Sean,

    Thanks a lot for the posts. I have your blog in my reader and greatly enjoy each post. This one did not disappoint at all. Thanks for the write up and info. Interesting stuff for sure!


  3. Sean, I'm sorry to read about your ICW nav/tide/anchor woes. Gosh it just does not seem to get any simpler for you guys on the boat. But that will get easier with the hard earned experience. But the post will not be as exciting.

    As a past owner of a auto wrecker/recovery business in one of my past lives, I found that most often it was the 2nd attempt by a stranded motorist that caused the most havoc.

    Sometimes a new anchor is well deserved. Save the fender line.


  4. Sure will miss your posts after you've both drowned.

  5. Wow Anonymous... Not Cool!!

  6. Lots of fun things going on in Charleston this weekend. Hope you are able to get here.

  7. i now really don't feel so bad about all my boneheaded mistakes i made when i owned my bus.....things will get better.

  8. It's supposed to be anchors "aweigh", not anchors away. Get that big boat out in the ocean.

    1. You're right, John -- we'd rather take the outside route around the low country. Until I get proper mounts for the scooters, though, I think we're stuck in more protected waters. My hokey jury-rig involving a sheet of plywood and a bunch of #14 wood screws is already making us nervous, and it was much more so on our short jaunt between the Savannah River and Calibogue Sound. We won't lose the scoots, but they could fall over or into each other, causing some damage. I am hoping the jury-rig will last as far as the yard in Virginia, where we will discuss options as to welding or through-bolting appropriate hardware. I imagine, though, that this particular cruise up the ICW will be our first, last, and only one here in South Carolina.

  9. Wow, sorry to hear of your misfortune. You're right, as painful as it is, you're gleaning valuable knowledge for trials ahead!

  10. Sorry about your loss but it will pickup
    How ever on the bright side you get to try out the hose
    you better hope that work or you as they say your ne deep on mud
    O next time stop in a sears store for that TV I spotted 3 that had the type. Of jack you were looking for. 23in. 32in
    Some guys love playing in the mud have fun , you get to keep only 1/2 the clams you bring in
    from Mister Ed

  11. A sailor who has never been aground is a liar. And given a choice of hitting what in your travels appears to be a soft bottom or the hard stuff on the NW side of the country I am sticking to the mud.

  12. Wow...what a day! I have had dreams about loosing our least now I know it's not the end of the world.

    1. Definitely not the end of the world, and we now have an appropriate backup anchor aboard. It's a Fortress, which has the advantage of breaking down into a duffel bag to be easily stowed below decks. And it's aluminum, so even the huge one we need for our boat is light enough for one person to carry.


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