A series of cold fronts have exited the U.S. east coast during our stay in Charleston, making northbound coastal passages impossible. Perhaps the single most important skillset of safe and comfortable cruising involves learning to wait for favorable weather. Oftentimes, several days of unfavorable wind and waves will be followed by a prolonged period of settled weather. Such is the case in the mid-Atlantic area of the east coast during the week of May 9th. With long periods of daylight and conducive weather, the stage is set for rapid progress north to Norfolk.
Having added several pounds during yet another delightful stay in Charleston, the time has come to depart this lovely city. The last vestiges of the flood tide remain as Cutter Loose and Dream Catcher are underway from Charleston Maritime Center at 9:30 AM on Monday, May 9th. By 10:30 AM, we have cleared the jetty alongside the ship’s channel and are headed to sea.
Our immediate itinerary involves an overnight coastal passage to Beaufort, NC. The weather forecast calls for calm and settled weather for the entire 34-hour duration of our journey. The trip to Beaufort involves two legs. Leg 1 takes us 140 nautical miles offshore in a northeasterly direction towards the easternmost point of Frying Pan Shoal. We are watching intently for ocean-going ships that traverse these waters en route to the deep water port of Wilmington, NC via the Cape Fear River. Once past Frying Pan Shoal, a course change to the north-northeast takes us the final eighty nautical miles to the inlet at Beaufort, NC.
Other than one fishing vessel whose meanderings coincide with the course of Cutter Loose, there is very little traffic on the radar on Monday evening. It is a relaxing evening of motor sailing under the stars while listening to music and keeping Cutter Loose on course to our destination.
Just after daybreak, a hazy visual image of a naval warship appears at a range of 8 miles on the bow. She must be huge in order to make out her outline at this distance. This ship is not transmitting an AIS signal because it does not wish to be identified. Nor can it be tracked easily by radar inasmuch as its image on the screen is weak and distorted. Most vessels, including Cutter Loose, use AIS signals and radar reflectors in order to be seen at night, which aids in the prevention of collision. This vessel, however, is designed to evade detection. Soon, the VHF crackles with an admonishment from the bridge of the mysterious behemoth. She identifies herself as a naval carrier conducting exercises in Long Bay. She instructs all vessels in the immediate vicinity to remain clear of the warship by at least one mile. We cheerfully comply with this directive.
On Tuesday at 1500, Cutter Loose is inbound in the Beaufort, NC ship’s channel. Unfortunately, the timing of our arrival is not the best inasmuch as an adverse tidal current is impeding our progress. To make matters even worse, this afternoon’s outflowing current is opposed by an onshore wind, creating short, choppy waves in the channel. Under these conditions, it takes the better part of an hour to reach the Morehead City Bridge where we join the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway for the remainder of our journey to Annapolis, MD.
Our destination today is an anchorage in Cedar Creek, a tributary of Adams Creek northwest of downtown Beaufort. Fighting an adverse tidal current for the entire distance, the anchor is finally down in Cedar Creek at 7:45 PM, just in time to witness a burnt orange/crimson sunset with dramatic cloud formations. After 35 hours at sea and having covered 266 nautical miles since departing Charleston, we devour a quick meal and call it a night.
On Wednesday at 0645, the anchor is up in Cedar Creek. Our interim destination today is Whitaker Creek in Oriental, NC where we have made an appointment with master mechanic Gary at Deaton Yacht Service to perform an on-the-water turbocharger wash. Gary is one of the few Yanmar mechanics that we have met along the way who has received factory training for this annual maintenance task. We are very impressed with the efficiency of the Deaton yard. At 8 AM, Cutter Loose arrives at Deaton’s dock. By 11:20 AM, the service is completed, the bill is paid and we are underway on the ICW in an effort to catch up with Dream Catcher who is well ahead of us by this hour of the morning.
Our course today takes us north in the Neuse River to the Bay River where the ICW passes beneath the Hobucken Bridge before entering the marshland along Goose Creek. From here, it is a three-mile hop across the Pamlico River into the frothy Guinness Stout-colored waters of the Pungo River. Having accomplished 71 nautical miles for the day, the anchor is down at 6:30 PM in the calm headwaters of the Pungo River, just south of the Alligator-Pungo Canal.
On Thursday at 7:30 AM, the anchor is up in the Pungo River amidst pea soup fog. Visibility this morning is less than a quarter mile. We proceed at idle speed using radar to avoid collisions with anchored vessels while carefully navigating our return to the ICW.
Once under the Wilkerson Bridge, Cutter Loose enters the 25-mile, narrow, dredged cut known as the Alligator – Pungo Canal. Navigating the Canal in fog is not difficult. It is simply a matter of keeping Cutter Loose positioned midway between the banks of the Canal while being attentive to any approaching traffic.
By 11 AM, the fog has dissipated upon exiting the Canal and entering the Alligator River. At 2 PM, Cutter Loose passes through the Alligator River bascule bridge with several other vessels, including Dream Catcher. From here, the ICW traverses Albemarle Sound and enters the North River in the general vicinity of Kitty Hawk and the Wright Memorial at Kill Devil Hills. This section of the ICW is known as the Virginia Cut. At 5:40 PM, the anchor is down on the south side of Buck Island with another 73 nautical miles under the keel of Cutter Loose for the day.
On Friday, the anchor is up at Buck Island at 0700. Once under the Coinjock Bridge, the ICW traverses Coinjock Bay and the marshy lowlands of the North Landing River before entering the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. There are three restricted bridges along this section of the ICW. Go-fast power vessels are anxious to pass the slower-moving sailboats and trawlers in an effort to arrive at the next bridge in time for the opening which is generally on the hour and half-hour.
Approaching each bridge, the voice of the bridge tender can be heard on the ship’s VHF radio, herding all of the boats into a concentrated clump in order to minimize the amount of time the bridge needs to remain in the open position. Skippers inherently resist the herding instinct of the bridge tenders, as this requires tricky maneuvering under power in wind and current to avoid collisions with other nearby boats. Eventually, a queue is formed, the bridge is raised and all of the boats pass under the bridge in an orderly fashion. Once the procession is complete, a race ensues to the next bridge where vessels stack and jockey for position to be first in line for the next bridge opening.
This activity reaches a crescendo at Great Bridge where boats pass under the drawbridge and enter the Great Bridge lock. When the door of the lock finally opens, there is yet another race through the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River to arrive at the Gilmerton Lift Bridge in the City of Chesapeake in time to make the opening before the bridge closes for several hours to facilitate rush-hour traffic.
Anxiety dissipates after the Gilmerton Bridge opening as pleasure boats move freely through the maze of container ship docks and shipbuilding facilities in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News. The primary challenge here is to remain out of the paths of the big ocean-going ships, tugs, tows and barges by remaining positioned at the extreme edges of the shipping channel.
Just listening in on VHF channel 13 to the conversations between the numerous vessels in the shipping channel is fascinating. There is a definite hierarchy in the harbor wherein smaller vessels yield to larger vessels. Invariably, however, commercial captains and pilots are very business-like, polite and empathetic in their conversations with one another. The sights and sounds of a vibrant international port with numerous military shipyards makes this passage a most interesting experience.
Our destination today is Hampton, VA. After yet another 70-mile day (the third in as many days), the anchor is down at 5:50 PM in the Phoebus basin near Fort Monroe. Here, the I-64 tunnel emerges from its watery depths on the Hampton side of the shipping channel. This anchorage serves primarily as a tactical staging area for rapid access to the Chesapeake Bay in the morning.
On Saturday, the anchor is up in Hampton at 0730 for today’s 69-mile journey north in the Chesapeake Bay to Mill Creek on the Great Wicomico River. We have been blessed with favorable weather for northbound travel since leaving Charleston. However, our good fortune appears to be coming to an abrupt end. A strong cold front exiting the U.S. east coast later today is expected to bring strong northerly winds to the Chesapeake Bay for several days. This weather feature will undoubtedly delay our northerly progress to Annapolis.
This morning, there is no evidence whatsoever of an approaching cold front. There is not a cloud in the sky nor is there a ripple on the water. From Hampton, our course takes us past Fort Monroe and into our home waters of the Chesapeake Bay. At 11 AM, a slight breeze from the south helps to push us towards today’s destination. A thin layer of high clouds begins to appear on the northwest horizon as the iconic shape of Wolf Trap Light passes astern at noon.
The NOAA weather forecast broadcast on the ship’s VHF radio now predicts that the front will pass sometime on Saturday evening. This forecast instills confidence that we will be able to make our destination before the front arrives. With this thought in mind, Cutter Loose continues to sail north beyond Deltaville, VA on the Piankatank River. By 2 PM, southerly winds have increased to 10 knots as an initial accumulation of cumulus clouds begin to appear to the northwest.
Under increasing cloud cover at 3 PM, southwesterly winds increase to 15 knots as we travel north past the entrance to the Rappahannock River. This is clear and convincing evidence that the front is making rapid progress towards the Bay. Sooner or later, every sailor learns an important lesson which is never to underestimate the timing and power of an approaching cold front. It is infinitely preferable to be tucked in at a protected anchorage well before a cold front is forecasted to arrive.
In 20-knot southwesterly winds, Cutter Loose enters Ingram Bay on the Great Wicomico River at 4 PM in tandem with the ferry from Tangier Island as it delivers its payload of passengers to nearby Reedville. Winding our way through the circuitous and increasingly narrow channel of Mill Creek, we become sheltered from the wind by the dense tree-lined banks of this attractive tributary. This is an excellent place to be anchored in a blow.
Under heavy black cloud cover at 4:30 PM, the anchor is down in a small cove on the northern side of the Creek that affords excellent protection from westerly, northwesterly and northerly winds. Along the shore are several attractive homes with small private docks.
Greg and Sharon aboard IP 40 Dream Catcher are anchored nearby in a 90-degree bend in the Creek. In a short time, we will learn what this storm has in store for us. But for now, we are feeling good about the protection afforded by Mill Creek.
At 5:30 PM on Saturday, a pre-frontal squall line passes through our anchorage, delivering 25-knot wind gusts and pelting rain. Within an hour, the rain subsides but gusty northwest winds persist throughout the evening hours.
On Saturday evening, the National Weather Service issues a gale warning for the Chesapeake Bay that will remain in effect through Monday morning. Sunday’s forecast calls for 20 to 25-knot winds from the northwest with gusts to 35 knots. This will undoubtedly create some tempestuous seas on the Bay. Even after the wind abates, it will take some time for the seas to calm.
Throughout the duration of this weather system, the sea state in our little corner of Mill Creek remains a scant ripple. Occasionally, a 15 knot wind gust will send Cutter Loose tugging on her anchor rode as the tidal current battles the wind for superiority. We will remain at anchor here on Sunday or until weather conditions improve for northbound travel. Besides, it is comforting to rest and relax for a day in this attractive setting having logged 480 nautical miles in six consecutive days since leaving Charleston on Monday, May 9th.
With sunny skies but a chilly 40 degrees on the thermometer on Monday morning, May 16th, there is barely a hint of wind in the anchorage. Cutter Loose is covered in lethargic mosquitos which have become paralyzed by the cooler temperatures.
Thankfully, cell phone coverage affords an opportunity to check the buoy reports on the Chesapeake Bay to reach an informed go/no go decision. Overnight, there has been a dramatic reduction in wind and waves on the Bay. Today’s NOAA marine weather forecast calls for moderate westerly winds. It appears to be an excellent sailing day for travel north on the Chesapeake Bay.
The anchor is up at 8:45 AM. Our destination today is Solomons, MD some 50 miles to the north. The wind is benign and the water is calm as Cutter Loose enters the Bay from the Great Wicomico River. Our hopes for a comfortable sailing day are thwarted at Smith Point near the mouth of the Potomac where the wind is not west as forecasted but rather north-northwest at 15 knots. Cutter Loose is now motoring directly into 4-5 foot seas with her deck covered in salt water. For a brief period of time the wind backs to the west before diminishing to 5 knots at the mouth of the Patuxent River. After motoring almost the entire distance today, the anchor is down at 4 PM in peaceful Mill Creek at Solomons, MD.
With a warm front approaching from the south, drizzle and overcast skies prevail on Tuesday for the final push to Annapolis. This calls for yet another day of motoring into wind and waves, except that conditions on the water today are damp and chilly but more benign in terms of wind and waves.
At 3 PM, Cutter Loose is docked at Port Annapolis Marina.
Our 2015/2016 winter cruise has covered some 3,662 nautical miles. Cutter Loose now rests in the very spot where we began this amazing journey 218 days ago.
After a thorough stem to stern cleaning and an intensive regimen of routine maintenance, Cutter Loose will rest at her slip in Annapolis for the summer while we resume our landside lifestyle. We will visit frequently to lavish her with the attention she so richly deserves after keeping us safe and comfortable during our passages to so many fascinating places.