Imagine a snake who is addicted to cold coffee. He drinks the stuff non-stop, all day and night long. And then imagine you are a gnat-sized sailor on a gnat-sized boat motoring through the snake. That's the ICW! Opened in 1912, it's an impressive patchwork of excavated canals that connect natural bodies of water, providing an inland artery of transportation, as an alternative to the open ocean. Natural tannins from decaying leaves steep the water into a murky brown brew.
We began (C and me only for this leg) at mile marker 0 in Norfolk, VA. Having recovered from our harrowing pre-gale overnighter on the Atlantic, we sauntered into what we expected to be smooth sailing. Not so! The ICW has it's own stacked deck of treacheries, like other boats, shallow waters, and short bridges.
DAY ONE presented 8 bridges and 1 lock (Drakka doesn't like bridges, they make her feel cagey). Fortunately she had rendezvoused with her new buddy, Gypsy Soul, for company. Some bridges are sky high, others are shorties and you must radio ahead to request an opening. Most open quickly. Others notsomuch. This goes like: "Gilmerton Bridge, Gilmerton Bridge. This is sailing vessel Drakka, southbound." "Sailing vessel this is Gilmerton Bridge. The bridge will open at 20 past the hour. Await instructions". Then ensues the fingernail-gnawing slow-motion waltz of multiple boats backed up in a narrow chute of coffee stained snake intestine. One cannot stop, nor dock, nor go anywhere, for there are boats and shallow waters on all sides!
Bridges and lock successfully behind us, we prepared to anchor at the end of the long, attentive day. Ah! But the waters we intended to anchor in were not at all as deep as they purported to be, and swiftly saw both Drakka and Gypsy Soul run aground. Remember what I said about charts, shoals, and politicians? Trust none of them. Here is how you get free from running aground:
1. Hop in your dinghy and row a line out to a bigger boat to pull you off.
2. Get your friends to come over with a line in their much zestier dinghy with a vroom vroom engine.
3. Row an anchor out, drop it, and kedge it back in (go ahead, look up that word; I'd never heard of it either).
4. Wait for the tide to rise (which it doesn't in the ICW).
5. Hop up on the wake of a passing powerboat and pray it lifts you off.
We went with #2, and it worked like a charm, untilllll the line we used caught under Drakka's belly and wrapped around her propeller shaft. Damnit! C wriggled into his wetsuit faster than you could say piss in a porpoise and dove into the coffee murk to untangle the mess. Freedom! At last we anchored further downriver next to Gypsy Soul and our other new buds on Elizabeth Jean, grateful for the calm overnight waters.
DAY TWO was mellow yellow. We woke to ice on the deck which swiftly melted into slippery autumnal dew as we motored through the waterway. The ICW is allegedly dredged to a minimum depth of 12', which it mostly is, but leaves one anxiously eyeing the depth reader all the livelong day. One cannot stray outside the charted (yet invisible) track, or face the peril of shallow shoal monsters that shall eagerly slurp up your keel and hold it fast. After safely anchoring without muck or mire that eve, we rowed over to the classy Passport 40, Elizabeth Jean, for sundowners. Rowing back in the calm, moonlit dusk the world was glossier than a pearl rubbed in whale blubber. We gazed up at Drakka where she perched upon the varnished black water in awe. She looked like a glowing computer generated version of herself in the surreal stillness. That's ours. Our dragon. Our home. So much more alive and precarious than a house on land.
DAY THREE woke to rain. Flat, monotonous rain. A treadmill of steely gray horizon all the way across the Albemarle Sound. We were spacing out hard. Until suddenly....what are all those boats doing up there? Closer.... Why are they all clustered together like that? Closer... Mussels in a moshpit! What the heck is going on? The wind started to kick up out of nowhere and there was a schooner run aground at the twisty neck between the Albemarle and the Alligator River. No, two boats! No, three! One valiantly tried to tug another off and grounded himself, then our friends on E Jean got stuck trying to avoid another crossing boat, and voila, ménage à crap! Wind-pushing, rain-spitting, eyes a-squinting and Coast Guard a-crackling on the VHF as Drakka narrowly maneuvered between buoy and mired boat, blessedly escaping the shoals but still in the throes of the wind that was rapidly turning the coffee water into a friggin frappucino. Shortly thereafter we tried to pull in one of Drakka's wings when a beastly gust nearly tore her out of our hands. A radio call to our buddies with all the fancy gadgetry returned the facts: A gust of 41 knots, with wind holding at 27 knots. Alligator River more like Alligator Blender. Wet, tousled and wound up on adrenaline, we made our way out of the weather to a lovely anchorage just as the fickle clouds parted and deposited in their wake a mild night for pumpkin cookie & whiskey celebration on Gypsy Soul.
DAY FOUR was a gunshot straight canal of pliable waters leading from the Alligator River to the Pungo River. Tawny and flanked by swampy autumn foliage on either side. No alligators, trust us, we looked. Mostly uneventful, except for the occasional roll of a passing motorboat's wake, or the comedic relief of going to the bathroom in a bucket (we're having toilet problems). A brief but intense dance party. Snacks. Still watching for alligators. More snacks. Successful anchoring at Belhaven.
DAY FIVE forced us all to part. Playing it cool, Drakka coughed on her molten tears and waved farewell to E Jean and Gypsy Soul who were headed further south. We bobbed down the Pungo (which is an excellent name for a river, or for anything really) in the mildest, warmest weather of the entire journey. Sky a shrimp colored haze. Waters spread out like a beckoning picnic blanket. It was like motoring through a movie set while the filming was paused, like we were sneaking through a slice of time. C napped. I listened to a podcast interview of Vincent Harding. Drakka glided along like Oksana Baiul as we entered the Pamlico Sound. I want to say it was surreal, but checking my own tendency to overuse that particular adjective the thesaurus led me to the word hypnagogic. Hypnagogic! What a word! Thank you, thesaurus. Hypnagogic it was indeed. The warm sweet weather, the stillness of us two in quiet contemplation of our adventure (except when we started arguing politics), the simultaneous weight and release of coming to closure. For now.
I feel immensely proud. Even after my most grandiose murals or intricate miniatures I have been pleased but not proud. To be proud feels vain. But there is something about simply enduring that feels less self-congratulatory. We did not beat anything. We did not win. We are definitely not the first to attempt similar and much harder feats! We merely did not give up, and tried to keep loving each other, and tried to stay attentive for the sake of one another's safety. I'm really, unabashedly proud of that.
I'm also no less fearful of the future, especially now that I've tasted the tequila shot of weather knocking me sideways. We will remain snugly docked in Mesic, NC until mid January, so that we can take on some big fixes (like that toiiilet, for goodness' sake!) and see our families for the holidays, and stuff ourselves silly with Becky's Christmas cookies.