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Sailing to Oriental

Text and Photographs by Paul Clayton

During the winter months of early 2020 I started making plans to sail from Edenton to Oriental for yard work at Sailcraft Service. I wanted to have a roller jib furler installed, as I am getting too old to crawl around the thrashing foredeck of a 35 foot yawl doing sail changes. Bottom painting was certainly in order after three years on the Albemarle. And with the installation of my new composting head, two through-hulls could be glassed over. Myriad other unexpected repairs would probably be in the offing. So, well worth the sail. The yard was eager to have the work, and quickly provided an estimate.

Friend and avid sailor Taylor Ward expressed an interest in buddy-boating with me as he had work to do on his Hunter. In addition, he had a bucket-list item, to pass through the Alligator River Bridge by sailboat. As a lifelong resident of eastern North Carolina, he had passed over the bridge by car hundreds of times on the way to the banks. We made tentative plans to sail in April.

By the end of March, Covid was running rampant through much of North Carolina, though not the eastern part of the state. Even so, the boat yards were closed to do-it-yourselfers as a precaution. I don't mind paying for work that I cannot do myself, but I can't see paying for bottom-painting and such. So I let Sailcraft know that I wouldn't be there until they were able to fully open.

In August I heard from Taylor. He was planning to sail to Oriental and wondered if I wanted to buddy-boat, or if not, crew for him, on the trip. I contacted Sailcraft and found they were accepting stay-aboards and do-it-yourselfers, so Taylor and I made plans to sail down in mid-September. At the last minute, a propeller blade broke off Taylor's boat, so I suggested he crew for me, part or all the way. He decided to come along at least the first day, as far as the Alligator River Marina, and maybe on to Belhaven the next day. In the end, he sailed with me all the way to Oriental - to my pleasure, as he proved an affable and competent crewman.

Taylor at the helm on the Pungo River with a fair wind for Oriental.

We sailed from Edenton Sunday, September 13th, 2020 with a forecast of 5-10 knots of wind from the north to northeast, increasing to 10-15 later in the day. With Taylor at the helm, I raised the main and then the big #1 genoa in the bay, and we set a course close-hauled down the sound. With crew I was confident we could swap out the genoa for the working jib when and if the wind came up. The benefit of not having to start the day undersailed was already apparent as we sailed under the power lines and toward the old bridge at three knots. The wind was still very much from the northeast and we were pinching it as we approached the bridge, so we added a motor assist for a minute to avoid what happened to me last time I passed east under that bridge - I bounced off the lee cribbing before getting through.

Once we cleared Bluff Point we took a long board to the north and got a better angle down sound, especially as the wind started freeing to the north. Even so, we motorsailed most of the way, to make sure we reached an anchorage before dark. Speeds increased to around 4 1/2 knots by the time we turned south to enter the Alligator River.

After running the motor much of the day, I wanted to top off the tank at Alligator River Marina. I got no reply on VHF 16, not uncommon for this marina, and without a phone number, decided to enter, tie up at the fuel dock, and if nobody was around, at least get gas from the pump at the highway. In truth, the marina looked closed, with no transient sailboats in evidence, just a couple of small fishermen.

Easing in the channel just into the rip-rap breakwater, we abruptly took ground. Best efforts at backing off proved futile, only allowing the stern to inch to leeward nearer to the granite rip-rap. I decided to swim a line to a piling upwind and just abaft of abeam which at least would hold us safely in the channel and might turn us back into deeper water. Taylor volunteered to take the honors, as a recent triathlete, but as skipper I claimed them for myself. I did accept the use of his fine quilted pfd to avoid popping the CO2 on my inflatable. We scrounged up line and I got into the water and made the easy swim to the piling. With a line fast, I started back across to the boat. Half-way my knot holding two lengths of line together - a double sheet bend, which should have been adequate - came free, leaving me treading water half way across the channel. Taylor went below and got the heaving line and attached it to the bitter end of the free line. He looked at it sceptically, then made a perfect cast right across my shoulder. I wondered if in addition to a triathlete he was also a slow-pitch softball pitcher.

With a line to the piling, we started winching the bow around, though the boat seemed to still be pretty well aground. At least we were in a safer position, and if we had to wait overnight for Towboat U.S. we would be off the rocks. But I could feel the boat shifting, and with the motor running and Taylor pulling from the bow, we started to work free. Suddenly we were moving, and I called to Taylor to cast off the line, a minor sacrifice. We motored back out the channel and then into the bay behind Sandy Point where we could get some marginal wind shadow. With the sun going down, the wind went along with it, and we found good holding in eight feet of water.

After a quick IPA and supper of macaroni and cheese with Andouille sausage, Taylor set the anchor watch on his very comprehensive I-Phone navigation software, and we retired to our respective berths - me to the port settee in the salon, Taylor to the starboard berth in the forepeak. I fell into a deep sleep the second my head hit the pillow, but I was up two hours later for a quick look about, then on two hour intervals for the rest of the night.

In the morning I half-expected Taylor to insist that I approach the marina channel so he could swim in and get a ride home, but he enthusiastically asked about the day ahead and stated that he had decided to come all the way to Oriental with me. Clearly he was a real sailor - he had enjoyed that hard, anxious day on the water. I can't express how glad I was to hear that. Having crew, especially a competent, willing one who is also an interesting conversationalist - makes for a much easier and more pleasant voyage.

The big question at this point was - did we have enough gas left, after the motor-sailing and the power applications on the shoal at the entrance to the marina - to transit the Alligator-Pungo Canal? If not, we needed to backtrack out of the river and sail down to Manteo for resupply. A glance into the filler neck and judicious sounding with the stick suggested that we had a good half tank left - enough, with care, to reach get us through the canal and onto a dock in Belhaven.

After a breakfast of egg and cheese sandwiches, which turned out to be standard fare for both of us, we got in the anchor, raised the main and motor sailed out toward the bridge. I hailed the bridge master, asking for passage at his earliest convenience, and received a laconic "10-4". We approached and made a couple of short circles while he got his plant locked down, and then motor sailed through the open span. Taylor checked one thing off his bucket list and took the tiller while I went forward to raise the genoa.

With plenty of wind, we shut down the engine, rigged the preventer and sailed wing-and-wing up the river. By late morning we were approaching the mouth of the canal, so we started the engine and dropped the main, but kept the jib up to give us a little extra boost with the fair north wind. At noon we entered the canal and had an unexceptional passage, exiting at 4:30. Another sailboat followed us through, gradually gaining on us, but still a mile back when we passed into the river.

Out on the Pungo, we found 10-15 knot winds on the beam and made a nice run down the river. The sailboat that followed us down the canal never appeared, and we heard on the Oriental dock the next day that it had been unable to clear the nominal 64 foot Wilkerson Bridge. It had anchored north of the bridge to await low water.

All day long we had been hearing on weather radio about deteriorating conditions with small craft advisories on the sound, but we never saw it. Exiting the canal, we called River Forest to see if we could get fuel, but they told us they were getting ready to close as a violent storm was in the offing. We could see it down the river but it was gone by the time we got to Belhaven.

With a nice breeze, we sailed right in the Belhaven channel and dropped sail about half way up to the factory dock. We motored in to the dock and made an easy mooring, then walked up to the convenience store for ice. After a dinner of lentils and rice, we had a second round of IPAs before hitting the rack.

In the morning Taylor walked across the street to the gas station and bought five gallons of gas. It turned out the cashier, mother of the station owner, used to run the restaurant in Pantego where Taylor had lunched for many years when he owned the gin there. In the meantime, I handed the genoa and bent the working jib in preparation for the heavy winds we expected for the day.

Big Ketch on Bay River.

The remnants of hurricane Sally were passing through, and winds from Teddy far offshore were adding to the mix. Gale warnings were in place for the Pamlico Sound, with small craft advisories for the rivers. The winds were forecast out of the northeast, which was a fair wind for us, promising a quick trip to Oriental. We sailed down the Pungo and across the Pamlico, with a quick motor assist into Goose Creek, then sailed to Hobucken Cut, a motor assist through cut, and then sailed the rest of the way to Oriental. In the cut, Coast Guard trainees were learning the rudiments of boat handling. Fortunately they were not practicing boarding, as they could have found a thing or two to ticket me for aboard Terry Ann.

Down the Bay River we made good time on a beam reach, with a big ketch motoring under bare sticks gradually overtaking us. He passed us just at Marker 1 where we cut the corner for Maw Point while he continued to Neuse River Junction, squared off and passed us again a little later. It was tricky sailing the rest of the way in, with following winds and seas, culminating in a horrendous jibe while I had the tiller that left us turned around in irons not far short of the Oriental entrance. No matter, we were almost home. We dropped the jib at Marker 1SC and motor-sailed into the harbor, where we dropped the main. We found a spot on the north side of the new town dock where friendly sailors took our lines and held us off while we got fenders sorted out. It had been a fine three-day passage of approximately 120 nautical miles.

The next day Taylor's wife Gail drove down to pick him up and we had a pizza at the Silos before they hit the road. I had the rest of the day and the one after to get Terry Ann straightened out for a yard appointment on Thursday. That will be another story.

Copyright © 2020 Paul M. Clayton.