Marsh Harbor to Maine

A week later, I’m still having unsettled dreams, knowing I’m in my bunk below, but not knowing where in hell the yacht is – maybe careening along a skinny, forested canal, trees reaching for the rigging on either side. Photo courtesy Nico Walsh

August 2022

By Nico Walsh

We transited Whale Cay Passage and entered the harbor at Green Turtle Cay, in the Abacos chain of the northern Bahamas. The marina was out of diesel, but we topped off on good Green Turtle water at 30 cents a gallon. We anchored off the cay and decided if the forecast held – and after fueling at Spanish Cay – to head for New England and our home port in Maine the next day.

The forecast did hold. We burped our tanks full of fuel and cleared customs outward-bound, hauling down the Bahamas courtesy flag. By noon we were steering west in the trades, full main and boomed-out jib.

The voyage plan was to sail due west until we were square in the Gulf Stream, at that latitude, about 30 miles off Florida. Then we’d head north, roughly following the coast, but remaining well offshore, to enjoy the two- to three-knot current of the Stream. The route would take us near the North Carolina capes – Hatteras, Lookout and Fear – which would allow us to get a weather forecast before committing to those dangerous waters.

The voyage of Far and Away began in September 2021, at the Harraseeket Yacht Club, in South Freeport Harbor. My wife, Ellen, and I sailed our Cabo Rico 34 cutter from Maine to St. Marys, Ga., where we hauled and went home for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In late January 2022, we returned, and enjoyed an excellent Bahamas cruise, touching at Bimini, the Exumas chain, Long Island, Conception, Cat Island, Eleuthera and the Berry Islands.

Our final destination was the Abaco out islands, which we reached via the town of Hard Bargain in the seldom visited Bight of Abaco. But, in Marsh Harbor, Ellen learned she had to go home, and I was left with the challenge of bringing Far and Away back to Maine. Fortunately, my cousin found herself between gigs and signed on for the trip.

Marta was scheduled to arrive in a week, so, for a change of scenery, I sailed to Hopetown and anchored in the very spot Ellen and I had dropped the hook a week or two earlier. I stayed a few days, walking Elbow Cay’s spectacular Atlantic beach, buying a bit of food, touring the 1860s lighthouse, and trolling from the dinghy for fish for my dinner.

A few days later, I sailed back to Marsh Harbor and anchored. Cousin Marta arrived, and it was good to see her again. Marta is about 10 years younger than I am. Years ago, my father, she, and I were the crew of Dad’s Soling-class keelboat. We campaigned at several Edgartown race weeks and acquitted ourselves well.

My father and I had other crew over the years, and I am not sure if Marta was aboard when the Harvard professor hit us and took out our mast or when – in a southeast gale – the race committee placed the leeward mark so far out in the heavy seas of Vineyard Sound that we all but sank on the beat to the finish. But we had long days of wonderful racing, and we grew close.

I had promised Marta a short Abacos cruise before we set out on the big blue, so, after a night on the hook in Marsh Harbor, it was back to Hopetown, where she could see a pretty Bahamian village. We then wanted to visit Little Harbor, with Pete’s Pub & Gallery, but the tide wouldn’t serve – we bumped – so we anchored in the lee of Lynyard Cay instead. Marta swam ashore and walked a deserted island while I trolled up a nice snapper and, much to my surprise, a good-sized cero mackerel from the dinghy. Cero are very tasty fish indeed, buttery and flaky.

I was getting anxious about the trip north, so the next day, we sailed the 40 miles west to Whale Cay Passage, outside the island chain. It was a fine downwind sail, marked by our catch of a 25-pound mahi-mahi, the biggest fish Far and Away had boated to date.

And now we were finally underway, bound offshore for the eastern seaboard of the United States. My high-frequency receiver had failed, so we’d get a forecast only if a kindly ship wanted to share. If the forecast dictated, we could divert to Beaufort, N.C., just south of Cape Lookout.

Beaufort has a jettied inlet safe in most conditions. We could either sit tight in Beaufort until the weather allowed us to continue offshore, or we could enter the Intracoastal Waterway and head to Norfolk, bypassing the capes. It was a good plan, and, in execution, it worked well.

The first night was squally and unsettled, thunder and lightning all around but not yet on top of us. Toward the end of the midwatch, Marta gave me a yell, and I left my bunk to find the yacht barreling along under full sail in a thunderstorm with 40 knots of wind. We quickly collapsed the jib and got it rolled up, leaving the pole up until we were at leisure.

I tucked two reefs in the main but then decided motoring under bare poles was just fine until the wind decided what it was going to do. Before dousing the main, we did jibe, perhaps twice, and not intentionally. But our robust twin-boom tackle system held the boom safely in place, and no harm was done. I recommend that system to any cruising sailor who worries about an uncontrolled jibe.

We then had several days of good sailing, covering 130 to 180 miles per day, with two to three knots of favorable current. Nearing Beaufort, the forecast called for a northerly gale, so a little after dawn we entered Beaufort inlet, anchored, hoisted the Q flag, and waited for U.S. Customs to grant us pratique. Clearance came about 10:30 a.m., and into the Waterway we went.

Our first stop was the Mayo Shrimp docks. It was Sunday, so no shrimp (fresh-caught/$5.95 a pound), but it was cheap dockage, and being alongside is always pleasant.

The next day, we hoped to make Elizabeth City a very long day that would require us to cross several arms of the contiguous Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, bodies of water that, together, make up the big bay lying inside the barrier beach of Cape Hatteras. But the northerly gale had arrived, and our tough little boat had a hard time making reasonable speed in the sharp chop of this shallow water.

We crawled across eight miles of open water in Pamlico Sound, entered the Pungo River Canal, a narrow 20-mile cut in a swampy forest, and, on exiting the canal, saw genuine rollers coursing down the Alligator River arm of Albemarle Sound, a sea dangerous for any small boat. So, we turned around, which was challenging enough in confined waters, the wind now gusting to a scary 45.

But where to anchor? The recommended anchorage was outside the canal, protected from the seas well enough but in a treeless marsh. We’d have to anchor for several days until the gale relented. A safe enough situation, perhaps – given good bottom, it’s the seas, not the winds, that make an anchorage untenable – but it would be a howling misery aboard.

Just before we’d exited the calm, forested waters of the narrow canal, I’d seen what appeared to be a low dock face. I suspected it was rotten old wood with two feet of water alongside, made for skiffs; one sees this sort of thing along the canalized parts of the waterway. We could never anchor in the canal (tug and barge traffic), and anchoring outside would be awful. Could that old dock do?

To my gratified astonishment, the dock revealed itself to be 100 feet, concrete and steel with a smooth face, with six feet of water alongside, nothing sharp or protruding – absolutely made to order.

We moored to trees, and our mast knocked down branches. The dock, although in excellent condition, was overgrown with pines and, judging from their age, had last seen service 15 or 20 years ago. We found an old roadbed, raised two or three feet above the surrounding cypress swamp, which ran from the pier perfectly straight for a mile and a half and then ended, still deep in the swamp. That road was a head-scratcher until I realized the pier and the road had been built to get timber out and loaded onto a barge.

That night it rained, and it blew. Toward dark, I heard voices and poked my head up. Two guys in a double kayak had just entered from Albemarle Sound, seeking shelter from the storm. I called over to them, suggesting they change in the cockpit and come below. Marta and I cranked the diesel heater and prepared adult beverages.

Our guests were two ex-servicemen, Brock and Keith, who had fought together in several of our various wars. They had fought as senior enlisted cryptologists – a rating I wrongly thought implied deskwork. In fact, they regularly deployed with special combat teams, placing trackers and other devices and assisting with communications.

Brock and Keith were on Day 8 of an 800-mile trip down the waterway to raise money for special housing for our badly wounded (#Atlanticditchrun800). It was fascinating to listen to these men, and the encounter was a shining example of the extraordinary people one meets cruising. They stayed for dinner, took me up on an offer of bunks, and made a camp the next day.

We were alongside that blessed pier for four days. On Thursday, the morning of the fourth day, the wind dropped, the forecast was good, and we were ready to go. But we were hard aground.

Until that day, we had not seen less than five-foot-three alongside in an area with just a few inches of nominal tide. But all morning the water had dropped until we were in four feet. These wide shallow waters are subject to highly local “wind tides.” We learned that the unrelenting northerly had nearly drained marinas in Coinjock, up the North River in northern Albemarle Sound. I thought our location between the two sounds might protect us, but I was wrong.

The night before, a new Tartan 395 had come in, and the skipper invited us to dinner. Nice boat, also aground. The owner wasn’t letting any wind tide hold him up, and he rang for SeaTow. We have a SeaTow policy, too, but my pride urged me to wait for the water to come back. When SeaTow’s hefty boat appeared, I gave in when the skipper asked, “How’s about you?”

Ten minutes of hearty pulling had us off and headed to Elizabeth City.

We passed through E-City’s drawbridge at nine that night and tied alongside the college dock. That was one long day. After a shrimp-and-grits breakfast in a local restaurant, we took advantage of the supermarket to provision for the next offshore leg. Then it was off for the Dismal Swamp.

The Dismal Swamp is a huge cypress swamp southeast of Richmond. Cypress was a prized shipbuilding wood, and, in the late 18th century, the swamp’s apparently inaccessible fortune in timber was notorious. After his presidency, George Washington led a group of investors who financed the construction of canals, some for navigation (connecting the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound) and many to get the cypress and cedar out.

Enslaved Americans dug the canals in awful conditions. All the digging was by hand, with shovels filling barrels that others hauled off. Trees and roots were cut with axes and saws, often underwater. Work rules required that labor continue until the water was armpit deep. I leave aside snakes and disease. Many slaves died, and many escaped to hummocks deep in the swamp, where the “Maroons” formed communities.

The canal is above sea level, and one locks in and out. It was so narrow that the trees nearly met overhead. We spent the night at the free dock of the visitor’s center, which happens also to be a Highway 17 rest area. Folks who didn’t know much about boats wandered over, full of questions. It was fun.

The next day, we locked out, and a few miles later, we were in the Elizabeth River, Norfolk. I have read that greater Norfolk is the largest combined military establishment in the world. For miles, carriers, destroyers, cruisers, submarines, and assault ships crowd the river, on Navy piers, or in repair yards. At all hours jets and helicopters roared and gunboats buzzed. It’s an exciting place, but don’t veer too close to the floating fences surrounding each ship, or you risk being machine-gunned.

We moored alongside at Portsmouth’s free High Street Landing. Steve and Joan Baum, an old buddy from my Coast Guard Cutter Steadfast days, hosted us for dinner and laundry. The next morning, at 0600, we were underway for Freeport, in the Piankatank River, passing more U.S. Navy ships before we entered thick fog on the Chesapeake.

With radar, the radio, and our chart plotter, we navigated out of the bay entrance and were soon headed back offshore, where a sailor can relax a little.

Three uneventful days later, we entered Buzzards Bay’s familiar waters. At dawn, we neared the Cape Cod Canal entrance. There had been talk of stopping for breakfast or lunch with Marta’s family, but the canal tide had just gone fair, and we weren’t slowing down. A few whales, a quiet night, and suddenly Cape Elizabeth was abeam to port.

“What were you thinking about, those last fifteen miles?” my son later asked me, to which I responded: “I was thinking, keep your head in the game. A lot can go wrong in fifteen miles.” And that’s true, although I was also beginning to feel that South Freeport, and the end of our long cruise, really was close.

Then it was Pound of Tea, at the mouth of the Harraseeket River, South Freeport harbor, the Harraseeket Yacht Club, Ellen standing on the dock. And we were alongside, and the lines made fast.

I shut down the engine, and we were home, nine months and 4,000 miles after departing.

What an odd pastime cruising is! A week later, I’m still having unsettled dreams, knowing I’m in my bunk below, but not knowing where in hell the yacht is – maybe careening along a skinny, forested canal, trees reaching for the rigging on either side. But I do love it.

Nico Walsh is an admiralty lawyer practicing in Portland, Maine, who has been sailing for 50 years.