Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A pat a buttah y'all!

Americans are no strangers to random acts of kindness. And the smaller the town, the kinder they are.
Up in New York City where the whole world crowds together and the Senegalese guys tout bags in Chinatown while the Chinese sell cowboy hats, humanity is forgotten in the shuffle. Tiny square dog parks are fenced in concrete blocks, and Haitians crowd the dirty beaches of Coney Island behind the derelict buildings, on a Sunday morning, chanting to a long lost god. It all just goes by too fast.

So we’ve headed south. South, where “y’all” is a part of every sentence and the accents lilt and list in a syrupy dance of bendy words, as they enquire where in the world we could be from.
Apparently the south starts from the Carolinas. Or the ‘Carolaaaaahnas’, where everyone knows everyone in the tiny towns that line the ICW. And when our two crews of maritime squatters arrive, we are noticed and identified. “Y’all ain’t from around here!” is a statement far more than a question.
Everyone bends over backward to help. Whether we need a ride to the Piggly Wiggly a few miles away or a special engine oil, there’s a local with a car and a smile and an offer before we get all the words out.
Not everyone has a very big world view though, and when South Africa is mentioned by us, “Ebola?!” is sometimes the response. But curiosity wins over fear and we make friends anyway. So many towns, so many touching memories…
Towns like Belhaven, where half the crumbling houses are for sale for under $80k and fishermen and farmers can be found on a Friday evening, calloused elbows on the padded bar, pouring their worries into a Bud Light at the local pool hall. The place smells like urine and bleach and the concrete floors are chipped with years of working class feet. Through the clouds of cigarette smoke everyone inside welcomes us with warmth. We ask about smoking laws and the bartender exhales a mouthful of smoke, “technically this is a smoke free establishment, but this is Belhaven and no one cares a damn!”. She opens our beers and starts an evening of local banter with us, with all. 
The pool hall bar in Belhaven

It’s the people. The people, who despite the obvious dismal economy, have a twinkle in their eyes, who are down to earth, honest, friendly, and will always bend over backward to help a stranger.
Towns like Oriental that boast a special blend of boating folks, artsy newcomer locals, and the old salt of the town. Where acting and origami as well as banjo playing each have a dedicated club and where everyone can be found at The Bean, the one coffee shop at some point in the day. If they overhear your foreign accent you can be sure they will have some advice, local knowledge to share or an offer of assistance. You will be invited to the parties and be given free bikes to see the town. You will leave with a feeling like you belong in as much as transients can.
The famous Bean, Oriental NC

Swansboro lines it’s main street with tea lights in white paper bags on an early November night, keeps all the knick knack shops and restaurants open and lets you drink wine in the streets! They light their Christmas tree and let you dance like no one’s watching in the town square to the live band.
The townspeople of Swansboro enjoying the candlelight fest
And the kindness of North Carolina extends to it’s nature. Just when you think that Fall in America means pumpkin pie spice lattes,  you traverse a stretch of the ICW, a stretch of uninhabited tree lined bliss, where you will sniff the fresh autumn air and marvel at the reflection of yellow, red and brown trees on the glass still water. 

The tranquility was broken only by the lolling drawl of some American cruisers chatting on the VHF radio.
“So, how far south you going?” the man asked.
“Well we’re gonna put a pat of butter on the bow, and we’re not gonna stop ‘til it melts!”
Good idea.
What lies ahead or below, however you see it, is hopefully warmer weather and more of the same beauty and warmth from the people who receive us.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The best laid plans and the realm of chaos

Some days living aboard is quite mundane. Some days we make coffee in the morning, clean toilets and hair out of drains. We shake dust out of rugs and surf the Internet. Some days we run our daily errands, cook, wash dishes and in the evening we watch our favourite TV shows. Some days.
But then there are the other days. Days that drag on past the 24 hour mark where mayhem reigns. When there’s no time to be nervous or worried. When we push the envelope and find ourselves and our boat in situations that beg for Sod and his law to wave the magic wand of distaster.
Yesterday morning we woke early with a plan to drag our water craft out of a channel with ripping currents, onto a beach. She would gently tip forward as the tide dropped, exposing the propellers below, which would be changed out for fancy new feathered ones that promise to make us sail faster and look sexier. The work window would be just until the tide started to rise again, then we’d calmly wait for high tide to carry us off the beach without incident. What could go wrong?

JW and our prop guy pulled Shiloh backward onto the sand as I let out all the chain we had (and boy was it rusty at the bitter end!!). The current pulled and tugged Shiloh sideways but we managed to get her tied over. And indeed she began to tip forward ever so slightly.
But despite the best laid plans (over a steak and some red wine the night before), we began to realise as the tide went out, that the spot we’d chosen did not expose the propellers. Shiloh did not tip forward enough and prop guy tried scrummaging in sand, cold, dirty, wet, with no luck at all. We managed to scrape a few offending barnacles away but only on the back half of the boat.

And so, we’d managed to save over $850 to haul the boat out and paying $1000 per prop for a professional prop guy doing the job at a professional boat yard.  Instead, well, we had a day on the beach as it were.
Life onboard all day consisted of sliding sideways. No cooking, not much of anything except a general unease. I knew the evening was coming and the fun and games of getting ourselves out of the sand lay ahead. Prop guy had given up and gone home so it was just captain and me.
Meanwhile other cruiser friends had left the channel as there was a predicted storm with high winds at night. Not us though, we had other concerns.
By 5pm the line holding us to shore was creaking and rock hard, pulling and wheezing at us. I went up on the bow, planning to lift the chain, pull us forward, JW would let go the shore lines and we’d pull into the channel.
But no! One of the back lines snapped, the current swung us wildly sideways and some of Shiloh’s underbits made a thud on sand. “Pull forward on the chain!” Shouted captain. And I tried, but the pressure against it was massive. The windlass trip died. We couldn’t put engines on as the props, or at least one, was still firmly in sand.
Captain jumps in the dinghy and tries in vain to push us away from the shore and looming rocks. The current is winning. I run down and try the windlass trip once more and it works! Just then the tide brings us high enough to get free of sand. We swing a bit, throw the engines on and I am bringing up chain with speed. We’re free! Sigh. Of relief. For now.
But then here come the predicted winds. The VHF radio has a computerized man-voice warning us of 40 to 50kts wind gusts, asks boaters to seek safe shelter immediately. Yeah. It’s dark and our anchor seems pretty snug.
We make supper amidst the howling winds, and as each hour passes it gets colder, windier and the rain starts. And just then we see lights passing by us fast through the salon windows. We run outside to find that we’re sailing around in huge circles.
We’re surrounded by boats on 3 sides, two on mooring balls and one on a jetty. On the other side, our beach. The wind whips my hair past my squinted eyes, my toes immediately frozen. Should we throw the engines on? How high IS this wind? Will our anchor hold? The couple on one boat are VERY interested in us, especially as we sail toward them with speed. Just as we reach 20 feet away, our anchor, the wind, the current, swing us away and careening toward the moored boat.
And as my heart hits the back of my throat we’re off in another direction. The wind hits 36 knots and I’m finding it difficult to come around to the cockpit from the bow. Inside, a movie’s plot long forgotten sits on pause and abandoned luke warm tea gives up and goes cold. An hour or more has passed.
Just then I look up and notice our mainsail has been swept up in a gust and is blowing wildly around. We need to get it tied down immediately. Captain find ropes and balances above on the bimini, swinging around with the boom in the wind. We’ve all but forgotten our bouncing in circles toward boats and rocks yet all around us, it’s happening. The main is stuck behind the stay ropes and it is struggled but we get it held and tie a line round and round it.
Now to the dinghy, which in all the commotion, has been swung right under Shiloh, the outboard engine bashing against the underside. Getting the captain in that dinghy in that current was near to impossible. Getting it tied and lifted, another Olympic event that we came in medalists…
I have no photos from this experience, but this about covers it

Back inside midnight has long passed and we’re still doing intermittent anchor watch, though the wind has come down to a steady 25 knots. Our anchor has held, despite the current vs. wind dance that caught us in the middle. We collapse into bed with one ear open and a far less than restful sleep follows.
The next morning is today. A sunny day, the plan is to motor 24 miles to a quaint little town and take in their candlelight festival. Along the ICW. What could go wrong?

We start out in a bit of a disorganized rush and I’m on the helm with the chart plotter zoomed in real close. It’s a complicated exit from Beaufort. So I can handle it! I get us out and around and lefts and rights through the channel and then I hand over to the captain. I’m going to make breakfast! But the waves are huge. I mean huge. Wait a minute?! This is intercoastal water. How can it be. OH NO! I’ve lead us out the channel to the ocean!!!!! I’m crazy to admit it in print, but there it is. I run out, zoom out on the chart and confirm what I’ve done. “Turn around captain!” Wrong way. 

Well he is not impressed. To say the least. But as we do a watery u-turn, we realise the current is flowing FAST out of the channel into the ocean and hence directly against us now as we head back in. And then, one engine overheats with a loud high pitched alarm. With one engine we are doing 1 knot against the current trying to get back in. The wind is 20 knots against us. This is not good! After one attempt to sort the engine, and our high speed of 2.5 knots, I smell smoke. Shit! The same engine is now smoking. Engine off again. This time we are at the full mercy of wind and current and it takes us over an hour to come back in where it had taken us 10 minutes outbound. Oops.
Today was supposed to be relatively mundane! Instead we’re pulled over and anchored along the ICW, 3 hours into a journey, with progress toward our destination of about 4 miles. The captain is down in the engine (aka our bedroom!), with Capt Al of Alley Cat (also pulled over and anchored to help). I just looked down there and I see two sweat panted butts in the air. There are tools and pipes and black smudges everywhere. An offending burst pipe has been located. 

Hopefully they will get it sorted and we will make our evening festival. For now, a cup of tea. Which I’m going to drink no matter what.