Thursday, March 30, 2023

Back in the ocean, finally

We are underway northbound (well, actually, NE) in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina. This is the first outside weather window we've had since entering the ICW at Statute Mile 1095 near Key Biscayne. We departed the ICW at Statute Mile 285 in Wrightsville Beach, our longest-ever stint on the waterway at 810 statute (704 nautical) miles. In reality we've come 738 nautical miles (849 statute) per our log book, owing to excursions from the ICW to docks or anchorages.

Sunrise over the Atlantic this morning, as seen through the pilothouse window. Too cold to step outside for a cleaner photo.

We left that first ICW anchorage on March 2, and apart from eight days for stops in Fort Lauderdale and Savannah, we made all those miles in just 18 days, a blistering pace for us. It comes out to about 50 statute miles a day, which most will say is really the best you can average on the ICW. Until this window opened up, we were on track to have to do the whole thing all the way to the end.

It is perhaps fitting that this stretch, in the other direction, was our very first open-water passage nearly ten full years ago. It's the easiest open-water detour on the whole route, owing to the inlets being very close to the ICW at both ends of the trip, it being a straight shot across Onslow Bay, and short enough to complete in daylight hours. On this occasion, we're actually swinging closer to shore for more protection, adding a mile and a half to the trip. Fortunately, Range Control told me this morning that the Camp Lejeune firing range was idle today and we are clear to cross.

Not something you see every day. We passed this PWC in North Myrtle Beach, towing a float full of watersports equipment, complete with the rental terms and conditions on a giant sign.

Tuesday morning we left our anchorage in the Santee River to have a fair tide through Winyah Bay and up the Waccamaw River. Apart from the Esterville-Minim Canal first thing in the morning, which is narrow and has some shoaling, the whole day was in wide, deep water that finally provided a break from the hyper-attentive driving of the previous few days. We ended the day in a familiar anchorage at the Enterprise Landing oxbow (map), the last anchorage before the very long stretch to Little River.

Even though we'd used this spot in the past, on this occasion low tide had us just barely resting in the mud for a couple of hours in the evening. We got a fairly early start Wednesday, on the off chance that we might have a window to shoot outside at Little River, and soon we were slogging through "the ditch," a very long and mostly straight cut through Myrtle Beach, followed by the Rock Pile, a section blasted out of the bedrock demanding strict adherence to the channel.

Sunset over our peaceful anchorage at Enterprise Landing. The other two boats were unoccupied so we had the place to ourselves.

It was just past 1 o'clock when we arrived at the New River inlet, but conditions outside were not favorable to make Cape Fear, and they would not be on Wednesday either. That left us with a dilemma: make an early stop at the anchorage near the inlet, or else press on ahead into a section of ICW with no anchorages whatsoever until the Cape Fear River.

I was able to book a dock at the St. James Plantation marina, some four hours further along and with a decent rate for BoatUS members, and we opted to make it a long day and reward ourselves with a marina stay. That made for a long day indeed, a full nine hours under way, but it meant we'd be crossing two trouble spots, at Shallotte Inlet and Lockwoods Folly Inlet, at favorable tide levels.

Passing towing vessel Island Fox, towing the dredge Brunswick with three of her work barges and a pair of pocket tugs, followed by our old friend Bobbie Ann towing a 900' lash-up of dredge pipe.

We were on track for a 5pm arrival, but the universe had other plans. As we approached Lockwoods Folly, I spotted a giant string of dredge equipment steaming southbound toward us on the AIS. The plotter said we were going to meet right at the inlet, and that would have been a very bad idea. After calling them on the radio we decided to stop short, let them cross the inlet, and pass them in the straightaway to the south.

It was the right call, as we could see the current at the inlet swing both the string of work barges with the dredge, and the string of 900' of dredge pipe, well out of line with their respective tugs. We arrived at the inlet just as the last of the dredge pipe was clearing through and had no trouble.

Vector looming large at the St. James Plantation marina.

We plowed our way through the silt into the shallow marina basin, tied ourselves up at our assigned T-head (map), and walked to the on-side Beacon 315 bistro for a casual dinner and some cold drafts. The whole marina is exactly as we remember from our first and only visit a decade ago, although a few more homes have filled in some previously empty waterfront lots in this enormous 6,000-acre development.

Yesterday morning we squared up at the office, had breakfast at the same bistro, and picked up some essentials at the on-premise drug store before departure. After topping off the water tank we dropped lines just before noon to have a fair tide on the Cape Fear. That had us leaving the basin on a much more comfortable tide level. 

Our track going around one of the shallow spots (red) across from Carolina Beach Inlet. I send these tracks to the editors at Waterway Guide.

We had a good run all the way to Wrightsville Beach, with plenty of tide to get us over the skinny bits, and we arrived to the anchorage around 4:30. Normally we proceed all the way to the north end of the channel, anchoring near town for a shorter dinghy ride and fewer wakes. But knowing we might leave the inlet this morning, we instead stopped a full mile short, dropping the hook closer to the Coast Guard station (map).

We splashed the tender and headed ashore to Tower 7 Baja Grill, which has become one of our standbys. We walked to the Blockade Runner and back before heading home. We had an extra five minutes in the tender each way, but that let us sleep another ten minutes this morning, a good trade-off. We were weighing anchor at 6:20, in nautical twilight, and had just enough light to make our way out the inlet.

As we were dropping anchor in Wrightsville Beach, Louise noticed we had picked up a hitchhiker. This log had become snagged on our snubber line; we have no idea how long it rode along with us.

The plotter is projecting a 5pm arrival at our usual anchorage off the Coast Guard station. We will then be back on the ICW at Statute Mile 205, and today's passage will have cut a day off the remainder of our journey, as it would have been two days up the inside. There are no more ocean segment opportunities now until we reach Chesapeake Bay.

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