Thursday, March 31, 2011

Aids to Navigation

What you see on screen: Little colored marks
along the edge of the white channel.  
The "Brotherhood of the Boaters" is a wonderful thing. We needed advice on navigating the Chesapeake. So we turned to the AGLCA list of "Harbor Hosts."

On Sunday, Al Miles, Portsmouth-area businessman and boater, drove us to a grocery store so we could re-supply, then took us to a marina restaurant so we could spread out charts and pore over them together. Thanks, Al!

What you see in the real world:
"aids to navigation."
Yesterday the Brotherhood of the Boaters was at work again.  A local guy, Bill Mathus, spotted the story about us in the boating magazine Latitudes and Attitudes and shot us an email.  Could he help in any way, while we were in town?

We were set for groceries but turns out Bill works for the Coast Guard. He generously organized an insider's tour of the Portsmouth Station.

We were excited.  Only Monday we'd been boarded by the Coast Guard.  Now, we would get to inspect them!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Colonial Era

Evidence of careful urban planning: A personal-szied backyard canal,
property of the Colonial Governor of Virginia.  (Cap sez: "I want one!")
We're in Hampton City, VA, waiting on the weather to run up Chesapeake Bay. (Forecast today: "Waves 4 -5 feet.")

Yesterday we grabbed a rental car and burned some fossil fuel running up to Colonial Williamsburg, which the crew has long yearned to visit.

If you're not familiar with the place, it's a living history museum that lets you step back into the 1700s.  The houses, the shops, and the public buildings--armory, courthouse, jail, several churches--have been restored or reconstructed using "historically correct materials." (I DID notice, however, that the antique iron street lamps use compact fluorescent bulbs).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Prepare to Repel Boarders!

Did you doubt the power of the internet to bring people together?  SlowBoat posted about the Belhaven Memorial Bathroom . . .  and now BestRestroomAward is following me on Twitter. (What's YOUR favorite restroom? Vote early. Vote often.)

Earlier this week Dismal Swamp Locktender Robert Peet, on hearing we'd set aside a year for this trip, said (without a trace of irony): "You're going too fast." But SlowBoat keeps a' movin. We left Portsmouth, VA, Monday under swirling little flakes of snow.

We cruised down the Elizabeth River, past container ships large as luxury hotels and Navy ships defended by floating police, and then--all of a sudden--we were starring in a Hollywood action movie! (Does the Cap remind you more of Matt Damon as Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig as James Bond?)  A fleet of SEVEN--count' em--seven super-Zodiacs, spread out in a line, were bearing down on us.  Each one powered by snarlin' twin Mercs. Each one loaded with a full crew of armed men. Each with a machine gun on the bow.

One of them broke the line and pulled close.  The radio crackled to life. "DRAGONFLY! Permission to board on your port quarter!"

Monday, March 28, 2011

King Conch

U-Turn the lockdawg sez:
"That ain't nuthin.
Let me tune up my howl."
We're safely docked in Portsmouth, VA, and we feel right at home--this city has electric buses!

Over the next two weeks, we'll be working our way north up the Chesapeake, with stops in Hampton, Annapolis, St. Michael's and other ports.  Looking forward to greeting visitors.

Our final miles on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal were also our final miles on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.  The trip wrapped up with a literal blast: At the canal's Deep Creek Lock, we met the self-described "world's best conch player," Robert Peek (see photo at left).

Some background here:  Back in the 1800s, before airhorns or VHF radios were invented, canal boaters and locktenders used conch shells to communicate with one another.  By blowing into a hole at the tip of the shell, you can make a sound as loud--and as musical--as any trumpet.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mile Zero

Is that the smoke from burning sox?
(No, redbud in bloom along the canal)
Today we learned that sailors on Chesapeake Bay celebrate March 21--the spring equinox--by burning their socks.

Truth!  In the words of the immortal Dave Barry, I am not making this up.  (Click the link to confirm.)

Somehow the vernal equinox blew by us this week.  But yesterday was also momentous, because we arrived safely in Norfolk, VA--"Mile Zero" on the Intracoastal Waterway. (Next stop: Chesapeake Bay)

"Should we burn our socks to celebrate our safe arrival?" asked the crew. "No!" said Cap. "I need all the sox I've got to keep my feet warm!"

With a forecast of "High 40, feels like 35," and feeling colder, we pulled away from the Not Very Dismal Swamp Visitors Center dock. A nice little stinging wet mist was blowing, for added traveling pleasure.

But we were well fortified for the day's travails.  Yesterday, after a sunny cruise on canal (photos HERE), we docked to enjoy a fried-chicken-dinner at the Great Dismal Swamp Welcome Center.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pasquatonk, ba-donk ba-donk

Burma Shave!
Today we travelled from Elizabeth City along the Pasquatank River till it became the Great Dismal Swamp Canal.  We've been looking forward to this leg of the trip for a while.  

Heck, just saying the name is fun.  Try it:  "Great Dismal Swamp." There, don't you feel better as you contemplate those piles of snow?

The Great Dismal Swamp Canal predates the Erie Canal (SlowBoat's home) by a good bit. George Washington, a well-known promoter of canals, was strongly in favor of this one, which gave merchant boats a shortcut from North Carolina's (dreaded) Albemarle Sound up to Norfolk and ports on the Chesapeake.

Construction started in 1793.  Much of the work was done by slaves, released from their plantation jobs in the off season. The first boat to float a portion of the canal, in 1805, was a "shingle flat" (which sounds exotic but is simply a flat-bottomed barge loaded with roofing shingles--a popular export product of the region, made from rot-resistant native cypress trees). The 22-mile-long canal (far shorter than the Erie) was completed in 1814, after the British coastal blockade during the War of 1812 made the gummint sit up and take notice how handy the shortcut would be.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Dread Albemarle

Crossing the Dread Albemarle
We left our anchorage on the Frying Pan at the crack of dawn yesterday to head up the Alligator River and out into the dread Albemarle Sound.

Boaters have been warning about this crossing since before we left on the trip.  The route across the Albermarle River is a shallow but quite wide crossing. When the wind is high, big waves kick up. Terry Darlington whined about it extremely in his book Narrowdog to Indian River and ultimately hired a pilot to take his canal boat across. No hired pilot for this crew!

Cap had been monitoring the weather reports.  "Calm in the AM . . .  gusty later in the day . . ." followed by a forecast of days and days of bad weather.  If we wanted to avoid days and days bobbing at anchor in the lonesome Frying Pan, we needed to go.

On the Alligator River the waves, at our stern, pushed us aggressively, creaming over into little whitecaps. So much for the forecast of calm in the morning.  We conferred:  If we stick our nose out into the sound, and it's too bouncy, can we bail out? WHERE can we bail out?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Best Bathroom Ever

Leaving Oriental at dawn.   (Check HERE for  photos of the Oriental Dragons)
"You are not likely to have cell or internet coverage on the Pungo and Alligator Rivers," the guidebook says, and By George, the guidebook is right!  The flip side:  Our route yesterday took us up a lovely wild stretch of water with little development and (at this time of year) few other boats. We anchored for the night in Frying Pan Creek, off Catfish Point. "Perfect place to do some poaching," the crew told the Cap.  (But he resisted the temptation.)

From Oriental we had travelled Monday to Belhaven, where we stayed at a family-owned marina with lots of charming touches: A gazebo on the point, furnished with wicker chairs and brass ship's lamps, perfect for sunset gazing.  Whitewashed rocking chairs for a comfortable wait outside the laundry room.  And quite possibly the world's best marina bathroom.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Shellfish Relay

Walk the plank, mateys!  (It's for a good cause)
From Oriental we pressed seaward on the wide Neuse River, then north up a narrow channel past the shrimp dock at Hobucken. Then, with brisk winds and a following sea, we made a run across the Pamlico River to the tiny town of Belhaven . . .  a welcome haven indeed after a day of jolting on the bounding main.

Back around Wrightsville Beach, we spotted an odd vessel--a boat with a conveyor belt bolted to one side. As the boat meandered just outside the channel, the conveyor belt rumbled, dropping what looked like large chunks of gravel into the water. What the heck?!

After some research, I finally figured out what that boat was doing.  It was a shellfish relay.

I know. The term suggests images of elementary school kids in track shoes, running back and forth with jumbo shrimp as batons.  But actually, a shellfish relay is one way states manage their oyster and clam harvests.

As far as I understand it, fisheries managers move oysters around for a couple of reasons.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


When she uses her net-zero propulsion system, Dragonfly is kind of an honorary sailboat. So we're really enjoying our stay at the town dock in Oriental, self-described "sailing capital of North Carolina."
Oriental's Paul Mascaro
has a roving solar home office

What's the town like? Here's a telling statistic: according to Towndock.net, the popular local news source, Oriental is home port to 2,700 boats--which works out to "more than three boats per resident." There's a nautical consignment shop, where you can pick up bits of teak and brass, cheap. Cap rambled home with some chain for the new anchor wrapped around his shoulders, much to the amusement of passersby.

The town dock sits squarely in front of the town coffeeshop, making it easy for residents to scope visiting boats.  We hear British narrowboat captain Terry Darlington (whose adventures inspired us to take OUR canal boat where no canal boat has gone before) docked here.  And on Earth Day in 2007, the first boat to cross the Atlantic on solar power docked here.  The Swiss-built 42-foot catamaran Sun21 replaced her sails with a canopy of solar panels.

Town residents include folks having fun with sustainable technologies, like Paul Mascaro, who lives aboard his specially refurbished catamaran (includes composting toilet).  When Paul comes to town he doesn't want to have to dig around for an electrical outlet to plug in his personal technology. So his VW van sports a rooftop solar panel which nicely powers his MacBook.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Super-Secret Assault Canal Boat

Hmm, this one is NOT in our
Sibley Guide to Birds
First, Mom wants to know where we are.  We are in Oriental, North Carolina, where the harborcam is trained right on our pretty little hull. Check it OUT!

In other news (if you are not totally tired of reading these things), SlowBoat is the featured story today in a Spanish on-line energy magazine.

We spent last night tied to a restaurant dock in Morehead City, which is near Beaufort but with more fisherman and fewer condos. While Cap teleconferenced, the crew paddled the dink ashore for a commando raid on local antique stores. 

Her commando skills were in fine tune, since Cap and Crew had just successfully navigated the tank-strewn, bullet-riddled, helicopter-policed shores of Camp LeJeune.  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Meltdown Avoided

We're in Morehead City, NC, approaching the dreaded Pamlico Sound today. (More on that anon).  A friend asked recently, "Why are nuclear plants so often sited on coastlines?"  The answer is simple: When you need a whole lot o' cooling power, only the ocean will do.

Landmark event: Repairman on deck!
We've been thinking about the cooling power of water the last couple days, because Dragonfly narrowly avoided a meltdown.  OK. I joke around a lot. The situation in Japan is no joking matter.  I tell our story in the spirit of, "This adventure gave us a tiny insight into the horrors of  'not enough cooling power.' "

When the wind or current is strong, we have to use our diesel engine, which is water-cooled, using whatever water we are driving through at the time.  Water is sucked in; it flows through a counter-current exchange system--much like your car's radiator--and it's returned to the environment, getting rid of excess engine heat.

Late last week Cap noticed a sharp drop in our coolant reservoir.  There was no obvious coolant in the bilges. So apparently the system wasn't leaking.  Where was the coolant going?

He ran over the engine plumbing with a finetoothed comb.  No clues.

This was a serious situation, because we're crossing some big water, and if a boat engine gets too hot, well, it's like a nuclear power plant. You can have a meltdown.  No radioactivity.  But total annihilation of your power plant, for sure.

So, after internal resources were exhausted, Cap acted like a prudent head of state.  He invited help from an expert.  He ALLOWED A REPAIRMAN TO COME ON THE BOAT.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Embroidery, Fudge, Guns, Ammo

Our new neighbors.
They're NOT here to borrow a cup of Grey Poupon.
Our route yesterday took us almost to the border of Camp LeJeune, the North Carolina military installation.  All day, big helicopters buzzed over us like angry wasps.  Chatter on the radio warned recreational vessels to avoid a certain offshore region because of live fire exercises.

We docked at a little marina favored by shrimp and crab boats. Parted the curtains this morning to see four camouflage Zodiacs pulling up on the opposite side of our dock, all manned by helmeted marines wearing sidearms.  Good thing Cap's been practicing his amphibious-assault maneuvers!

Items in the little local paper, the Topsail Advertiser, reflect the local military influence.  A "Women's Expo" held last weekend at the Surf City community center (admission $3) offered local residents this list of attractions:  Bodywear, Embroidery, Massage, Travel, Shoes, Home Improvement, Guns and Ammo.

New amusing photos on the amusing photo page . . .

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Adventures in Anchoring: Extreme Edition

Where we stayed:  Calabash Creek, South Carolina (right on the North Carolina border)
Sunday.  All day, we cruised past Myrtle Beach housing developments. We were looking forward to our planned anchorage, at Calabash Creek.  "Peaceful . . . scenic view of marshes . . . " said the guidebook. "Short dinghy ride to great seafood restaurants."

The site called for two anchors: The honkin' big plow anchor, off the bow, and our petite Danforth, off the stern.  Cap heaved the Danforth over, we ran the boat forward to set the anchor, the current tugged us backwards, and almost too quick for thought the anchor line wrapped around the prop.

There we were.  Up a creek.  Dead in the water.

Less than an hour of daylight.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Low Bridge, Everybody Down

Readers are invited to AMA. Miles Johnson asks, "What have been your top five favorite places so far?"  Impossible to limit to five. But I DO have a new favorite place:  The Waccamaw River, a meandering, mostly unspoiled river that makes up about 30 miles of the ICW north of Georgetown. Click HERE for photos.

Thought we'd seen every kind of bridge there was.
This is a gondola across the ICW
After an idyllic day on the Waccamaw, the next day was a shock. The ICW cuts north in a narrow, straight,  man-made ditch, with crumbling, scalped, and rubble-strewn shores topped with gaudy, oversized houses of recently construction.

And lots of bridges.  Which gave our noble boat the chance to demonstrate once again, that, as Cap'n Mikey said, back in Georgetown, when he pulled out his wallet and offered to buy her on the spot, "This is the Ultimate Looper Vessel."

Near day's end, we approached the Little River Bridge, a swing bridge with a clearance (when closed) of 7 feet.  Radioed the bridge operator, who said, "Sorry, bridge is out of order.  You'll have to wait. We've called the electrician."

Dark was an hour away . . .  as was the next safe anchorage.  Now, Dragonfly's height, from the waterline to the very top of her scalloped red canopy, is 9 feet.   Cap started scrabbling in his toolbox for a wrench.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lats and Atts

We're anchored near Little River, South Carolina--about 30 miles south of Cape Fear.  We cruised along today in the sunlight, with the electric motor humming quietly; about every 100 yards we'd spot an osprey on a nest.  The bald cypress trees seemed to visibly push out their feathery green leaves as we watched. Hopeful signs of spring are good. It all seemed surreal. The news from Japan is terrible.

If you're here on this page because you're taking a quick brief break from bad news, here's some brain candy.  Click to the next page to preview an article that's about to appear in the April 2011 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes, a slightly offbeat magazine for sailboat enthusiasts.  We met the author, Craig Ligibel, during our stay on Useppa Island in Florida.

Tomorrow I'll tell you all about our FURTHER adventures in anchoring, and scooting under low bridges, and meeting (I am not making this up) Captain Kirk.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Anchor as Metaphor

Note:  This is a guest blog from Bill

This is our "on-board self-tensioning weight training
system" . . . I mean, the lighter of our two anchors
We had limited experience with anchors before we set out on this trip.  OK, the rowboat at the family camp, up on the lake, had an anchor--specifically, a rock, tied to a rope. You lowered it over the side, in shallow water, to keep the boat still, so you could fish.

A rock-on-a-rope is a simple system. You won’t find any “how-to” books, or boating websites, or weekend classes that teach you how to use it. Granted, a rock anchor is useless in a gale. But you probably don’t want to fish from a rowboat in a gale.

Until two nights ago, I thought an anchor functioned to keep you in one place; I thought the only real consideration was, where to drop it? That’s how our rock-on-a-rope works.  It’s how a nail-in-a-wall works, or any number of other real-world “anchors.”

Then we anchored Wednesday night in Minim Creek, a narrow tidal river.  

To find out what happened, keep reading, below.  Click here for a different adventure in anchoring.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It

Smoke, just as forecast.  If tomorrow's weather is "cloudy with a chance of meatballs" I'm really gonna worry.
AMA--ask me anything. Miles Johnson asks, "What about the trip has suprised you? Many things, one being, how little cell phone/internet access there is at the coast! (Which is why you haven't heard from us)

SlowBoat left Charleston Tuesday and anchored overnight in a narrow tidal creek.  After dark the horizon heaved with the uneasy glow of reflected streetlights.  In the morning the weather forecast was, "Temperatures in the 50s, wind from the SE at 15 to 20, knots, chance of smoke."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sailing for Peace

We'll be leaving Charleston's MegaDock--and the harbor's endlessly fascinating pluff mud--today.
Locals say it's called "pluff mud" because of
the sounds your feet make as you pull them out of it!

Over the weekend we were having dinner in a little pub with a big-screen TV when a commercial comes on. Typical luxury-car ad . . .  with a twist.  The new hybrid Lexus gets 42 mpg. Which underscores a point I've been ranting about for years.  Car companies CAN make fuel-efficient vehicles, and the American marketing machine CAN make people want them.

Why struggle to convince consumers they want unattractive, low-performance mini-box cars because "it's the right thing to do"? Instead, make sustainability sexy. Desirable. Or at least practical  (See for example, the Hyundai Elantra, 40 mpg and marketed as "having lots of legroom!")

On the flip side, check out THIS story in today's NYTimes.  When people get better gas economy, they . . . simply drive MORE.  (Or use the money they save to buy OTHER products that burn fossil fuels.)

Solution? The NYTimes advocates two paths:  Develop more carbon-free sources of energy.  And, give judicious thought to taxes, penalties and incentives to change behavior. Your thoughts?

After one of my recent posts about solar boating, Carter Quillen wrote to remind me the original emissions-free mode of solar boating is . . . sailing.  Can't get much greener than that.

And if, while you're sailing, you're trying to help bring about peace in the Middle East, why, so much the better!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Gimme Copter

"I'm quite sure that, with just a few modifications,
this copter would fit perfectly on the deck of SlowBoat."
We're still in Charleston. The new flex coupler has been installed and the propellor turns without a wobble!  Thanks, Mid-Lakes!

Cap still needs to re-install the electric motor. But we dragged him out of the engine room long enough to tour the aircraft carrier Yorktown.

The experience just made Cap hideously jealous, since the Yorktown (which, like us, is a large, steel-hulled vessel) has its very own helicopter.

On the other hand, Cap notes, he has more navigational capability in his i-Phone than the Yorktown could muster during its entire tour of operations during World War II.  So Cap wasn't completely crushed by the carrier's superior copter capacity. (More copter photos--and a picture of the gleaming new flex coupler-- HERE.) 

SlowBoat has been in the news this week: 

1. We send monthly trip reports to our hometown paper, the Centre Daily Times.  Read the latest installment HERE. 

2. The voyage of the Dragonfly was recently featured on the website "SolarChargedDriving."  As the name suggests, the site is all about vehicles that run on the sun.

Friday, March 4, 2011

America's First Superhighway

A transportation system as revolutionary
as an Eisenhower-era freeway!
If you're a regular visitor to this page, you know Dragonfly is a canal boat, and her home port is the Erie Canal.  We've gotten quite interested in canals.  In fact, one of our mottos (right after "High Five! We didn't sink the boat today!") is: "We never miss a canal."

We're still in Charleston, and Wednesday we took a little side trip (by rental car) about 30 miles north of the city, to see a canal that's EVEN OLDER than the Erie Canal.

It's called the Santee Canal, and though it no longer operates, a segment of the original "ditch" is protected in a charming park. We roamed the overgrown banks  in the sunshine, imagining canal boats laden with cotton slipping past the alligators and spotted turtles.  (Check out more PHOTOS HERE).

Historians call the Santee "America's first summit canal." Oh, those historians. There's always a qualifier.  Some canals merely take your boat on a detour around rapids or a dam.  A true "summit canal" connects two rivers . . .  which by definition are in different watersheds . . .  which means the canal must take you up and over the "summit" that separates the watersheds.  (The actual summit may consist of quite a small change in elevation).

The route for the Santee Canal was surveyed in 1773, before America was officially a nation!  No less a personage than George Washington was a fan, saying, "it gives me great pleasure to find a spirit of inland navigation prevailing so generously."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Green House Effect

Green in name and in fact
On Wednesday, the crew pried the Cap'n free from the engine room to explore Charleston a bit.

Our visit to a green shopping center, back in Savannah, made us want to know more about green building technologies.  So we arranged for a tour of the "Green House Learning Center," a facility run by Charleston's Sustainability Institute.

The Green House IS a house. It's painted pale green. And at first glance it looks quite unexceptional--just one more little box in a neighborhood full of similar modest one-story houses.  Then Jay Bell starts pointing out the features. Rain barrels that collect water to flush the toilet.  Spray-foam insulation in the roof that reduces air conditioning costs in the hot summer months.  Energy-efficient LED lights throughout.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

You've Got Questions. We've Got Answers

Good deed for the day: Cap helped the crew on the sail boat next
 to us install their bowsprit. MORE PHOTOS HERE!
We're in Charleston, South Carolina this week, working on the engine . . . and taking your questions about SlowBoatCruising. (Meanwhile, YOU can take our new poll, at right).

Miles Johnson writes:

"What have been your top five places so far, and why?"

Whew.  Do we have to pick a mere five?

I'm going take that question and twist the answer a tiny bit. Here are some (just some) of the crew's favorite experiences so far:

Piloting the boat through downtown Chicago in the early morning sunlight, goggling at the skyscrapers and waving to the commuters.  Sure, you can make the same trip on a tour boat.  But doing it on our own seemed particularly magical.

And the Winner Is . . .

No award-nominated films on THIS screen, alas

The Academy Awards blew by us this year. We don't have TV on the boat, so we didn't watch the ceremony.  

And having seen exactly one movie this year, we didn't know much about the nominees.  

Okay, we'd sort of seen one movie.  We tried to watch "True Grit" in Clewiston, Florida. But the sweet little old-fashioned art-house theatre had the reels out of order.  

We would have enjoying seeing movies on some of our stops in port. But the sad truth is, most towns no longer have a  movie theater downtown (i.e., walking distance from a dock).  And we didn't want to shell out the bucks to rent a car or take a taxi to get to the exurbs, just to watch a movie at a Google-plex.