Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Local Knowledge

The Little Alligator River, N 35 55.996 W 76 01.538

This morning we got a late start, leaving Elizabeth City around 1000. We had to motor at the start, but in a short time a nice breeze started and we could sail. We sailed past the Coast Guard station and got to watch a helicopter practicing dropping and picking up rescue swimmers. It was plain that a sailboat could not be approached that way unless the sails were down. The circle of spray kicked up by the copter's down wash was very impressive.

We also passed the blimp factory but, alas, there were no blimps out in the open today for us to see.

We crossed Albemarle sound, thankfully, in these mild conditions. I've heard the bad stories about the Albemarle and I have no desire to challenge her in bad weather.

Entering the Alligator River from the Albemarle is difficult. The entrance is badly shoaled, and channel markers have been moved and renumbered. Neither our charts nor the Lowrance GPS correctly show the markers. Worst, the shoaling patterns don't follow what the charts and GPS say. Two years ago, on our first passage this way, we struck bottom after passing the entrance.

The chart and GPS show dotted lines marking the entrance to the channel, but there is a green marker far to starboard about 1/2 mile away. The instinctual assumption is that the green must be part of some other channel. Not true.

I had plotted a straight in approach but I was eyeballing that green marker as I came in, wondering if I should divert course to go way over there. I was following two power boats, and both of them were ignoring it and heading straight in. I decided in favor of caution, and elected to go the long way around the green.

After passing through the dog leg in the channel I encountered one of those two power boats aground. He was a Chlorox bottle boat (big bright white plastic with a flying bridge) He didn't run aground by going the wrong way around that green but he was aground where Tarwathie had struck two years ago. I offered assistance but he was already trying to kedge off and refused help.

A few minutes later we heard another power boat on the radio warning a sailboat coming in that was also going the wrong way around the green. "Pay attention to the markers," he said. The motor boat clearly had local knowledge. The sailboat never answered and probably never heard. I watched with binoculars and the sailboat made it through OK. I also heard Tow Boat US on the radio later en route to rescue the Chlorox bottle.

Local knowledge is very valuable, and cruisers passing areas where they don't have it get into trouble even if they try to be careful. In Elizabeth City we heard two stories about the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomoc River during the heavy winds last week. One story was from our friend Andre. He was sailing night and day and in the middle of the night he encountered big steep waves and swirling currents and started spinning around. Andre said that he tried to sail away in each of the points on the compass without success. He dropped the sails and tried to motor away, again trying all the compass points, without success. It was like being caught in the Maelstrom. Finally he tried the old sailor's trick of letting go all the sheets, and stopping the motor, and just drifting. That did the trick.

We heard a similar story from John. John was from Havre de Grace Maryland and he also was sailing down the Chesapeake the same day. John also encountered the weird seas and currents at the mouth of the Potomac.

Yesterday, in Urbanna, I related these stories to our local buddy Gary. Gary was familiar with it. I told him that I would make sure to sail up the eastern side of the bay when passing the Potomac in NW winds. Gary had local knowledge and he had a better way. Gary said that one should hug the shoreline and sail up the Potomac a mile or so, then cross the river and hug the shoreline going out. The squirrelly conditions happen only in the localized spot where Potomac waters meet the bay waters. Nothing beats local knowledge.

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