By March of 2005, about six months after I bought my Cape Dory 25 "Valor", I was starting to get comfortable with day-sailing in the Cape Fear River and ICW. It was time to take the next step - an overnight trip. I wasn't quite ready to try anchoring out, but I knew of a nice little marina not too far away that would make a good destination. Marie and I had camped many times at Carolina Beach State Park and spent hours at the park marina watching the ships and feeding bread crumbs to the garfish.
Not knowing just how long the trip would take, I made an early start - not the smartest move, as the tide was falling in the river. I had fair winds, though, starting in the west and backing into the south and southeast. Slow progress gave me plenty of time to watch the usual heavy traffic on the river, including an outbound tanker and several instances of the Fort Fischer-Southport ferry. I finally arrived at the entry to the marina, right at the mouth of the infamous Snow's Cut with its ripping currents. I hailed the dockmaster and got permission to enter. I tied up at 1350, a whopping 10 miles in 5 1/2 hours, due to catching the ebb tide for most of the way. The Coast Guard uses this marina for its small craft. As I docked, a group of trainees brought in one of the small rigid pontoon gun boats and I watched as they struggled to get it secured. Due to the Coast Guard presence I am sure, a stay at the State Park marina required filling out copious paperwork, showing your registration and insurance, and so on, but the good-natured and pleasant dockmaster made it as painless as possible. The transaction ended with payment of the $20 nightly fee, a true bargain in the marina world.
After securing the boat, I took a hike on the park trails and walked down to the highway bridge. On the way back I picked up groceries at the Food Lion and repaired to the boat for a nice dinner. Later I got a shower in the nice facility available to marina guests.
In the morning as I prepared to leave a contingent of Coast Guards arrived and fitted out two gun boats for duty. What a difference from the evening before - these were no trainees. They mounted 50 caliber machine guns fore and aft and were heavily armed with their own guns. They headed out of the marina and down the river. I followed at 0775 and noticed two big tugs out in the main stream, also heading south. As I rounded the corner and got a view downriver, I saw a big freighter waiting in midriver far downstream. The tugs took the freighter in hand and the gunboats stationed themselves ahead and astern, and escorted the vessel into the Sunny Point facility. Then the gunboats stationed themselves in the Sunny Point channel. As I came past, the temptation was great to get out the binoculars and take a look, but I overcame it and kept my eyes rigidly focused downstream. I knew that I along with everyone else on the river that morning was being watched. I got in just a glance that showed tarped over frameworks over the deck cargo, and my theory is that this was a formation returning from Iraq with their heavy equipment on deck. After I got downstream from Sunny Point, I turned in the power plant outlet and explored up to where I found 5 foot depths. Then onward to Southport to complete my first overnight trip on the boat. Good sailing down the river, fair skies and 60 degrees.