At 2:00 am I look up from my book to see Bill sleeping deeply, his sleeping bag gripped tightly around him against the cold. The dim blue light cast by a night vision night light pulls his face out of utter darkness. He’s just a face and a cocoon of maroon puffs of sleeping bag. It’s his turn to keep watch, but these may be the only moments of peace he gets on the Waccamaw. I go back to my book and work to keep my eyes open.
Bill had spotted the Waccamaw River in South Carolina on a satellite map when we were still in the Chesapeake Bay. It looked to be a rare island of wildness in a sea of East Coast humanity. You can’t see wildness very well on nautical charts, which focus on the water depth and landmarks useful to navigation, and hazards like shipwrecks. But a satellite view shows either pale land crisscrossed by lines and little boxes and wires and all the things that humans contrive to make our lives easy; or the deep, unbroken green of forest and unblemished beige of winter wetlands. And in the Waccamaw River, the breadth of the unbroken land was almost too good to be believed. Almost 55,000 acres of this watershed are protected as a National Wildlife Refuge, making for one of the largest continuous wildlife habitats in the southern coastal plain.
We didn’t plan to go to the Waccamaw, having grown quite shy of planning. Any expectation can be dashed. Any plan can be thwarted by the unexpected crab pot, or cold front or mechanical failure or squirrel. But we very much hoped to make it to Waccamaw. We had just traveled through Myrtle Beach where the Intracoastal Waterway is lined with new made mansions and forests about to be felled for new made mansions.
It felt like a weight had been lifted when we entered the land of living trees in the Waccamaw wildlife refuge. Breath became easy and deep. We pulled into a watery tunnel of cypress called Prince Creek just as the sun was setting on December 8.
So this blog is not about the winter solstice as the title might suggest. It is about a different long, dark night.
Clouds had covered the sky all day, casting a cold pall on our journey. But just as we were about to set anchor the sun made a brief appearance, creating the most perfect possible moment, casting the light of a photographer’s dream. As has been the case on this whole journey, (something I did not foresee in my decade of daydreamings), my first mate’s duties took precedence over all else. I took two minutes to have my breath taken away by the beauty of sun on cypress, snapped a couple of pictures, then worked with Bill to set the anchor, and then, for the first time, to set a second anchor.
In the Chesapeake Bay, in almost every case, a boater can rely on a single good anchor, and for the past six years of boating on the Bay, we did. There is very little tidal change or current and there are so many protected anchorages that one gets very spoiled with the ease of anchoring.
We had decided on Prince Creek, a narrow tributary of the Waccamaw River, because we knew a cold front was looming and we wanted to be in a tight place without too much fetch (the distance that allows waves to build with wind). But there’s tight, and there’s tight, and Prince Creek is really tight, only about 200 feet across. That would be fine in calm conditions, but the creek has a fairly strong current that shifts with the tide, which was likely to be exacerbated by the wind—forecast for near gale force. We knew this would be tricky, and so decided to set an anchor off the stern of the boat along with the one off the bow.
We made two attempts to set the stern anchor until it held, or so it seemed, then watched what remained of the sun’s last magnificent rays and went below to make dinner. The wind was starting to toss Maggie May about, so after dinner we decided to start an anchor watch schedule. Not tired, I took the first watch while Bill rested. It was only about an hour into my watch when I checked the chart on the iPad for the 10th time and our boat icon was suddenly perilously close to the shore. I thought it might be a GPS glitch so I went on deck. Stocking feet, no coat, temperatures in the 30s with the gusting wind funneling down the creek.
I walked on deck in the dark and turned on the spotlight, which illuminated the bony arm of a tree reaching so near the starboard side of the stern I could almost have touched it. It was likely 15 feet away. Everything looks closer at night in a gale. Regardless, it was way too close. And on a shore we did not expect to be anywhere near. We had started 100 feet away from this shore and should not have swung this wide unless our stern anchor dragged, and possibly the bow anchor as well.
I ran down and roused sleepy Bill.
“Something’s not right.” Understated as always. “You should come look.”
Once on deck Bill agreed, not good. We tried to shorten the stern anchor line and pull ourselves off the shore, but it was under immense load trying to hold 20,000 lbs of Maggie May against 30 knots of wind ganging up with the current of a heavy tide. I brought the bow anchor line in about 5 feet, just what I could get by tugging at the snubber line (this is a line that attaches to the anchor chain to take the shock off the windlass (the machine that raises and lowers the anchor)).
We were still too close. The boat was nearly beam to the wind, waves and current, suspended by two anchors off a mess of cypress knees, snags and limbs that would gash the hull and tangle the mast. Throughout the past few days we had seen boats wrecked all along our route, including several nearby in the Waccamaw. These visions were ever present as we decided what to do next.
Bill was able to loosen the stern anchor line when the wind rested, and switch it from the port aft cleat to the starboard aft cleat, which had the effect of shifting Maggie May more downstream, more bow to wind and current, and further away from the shore that had us in its grips. Then we deliberated in the icy darkness while the wind howled and waves smacked the boat around. We could let loose the stern anchor all together, with a float attached, and go back and get it once the conditions calmed. This could get us further downstream and mid-channel, but if the main anchor didn’t hold we were in trouble. We could tighten the bow anchor so we were not so close to the shore, but that would increase the likelihood that the bow anchor would drag. We considered several other options that each had their dangers and decided to snug the bow up a bit, just shortening the snubber line, not the anchor chain, and see how we did. That was about 11:30 pm.
Bill said he would stay up as long as he could and keep watch. We set up beds in the main salon—Bill on port, me on starboard. I tried to sleep, unsuccessfully for the most part but I drifted off at some point and woke at 1:30 am to find Bill fighting off sleep.
“I don’t think I can stay awake” he said.
“I’m not sure I can either, but I’ll try.”
I woke surprisingly well and read for a while from a fantasy novel about sailing that my friend Cat had gifted me. The Girl From Everywheretook my mind off the trouble at hand and kept me awake. Around 3:00 the wind began gusting and I checked the digital chart. AlarmAlarmAlarm. Maggie May was now on the opposite side of the creek, almost within the shoal line. Inconceivable. GPS glitch? I ran on deck, shined the spotlight on bony cypress fingers straining to touch the port stern. Disoriented in the dark, I had to walk around the boat shining the light to figure out that we were truly where the GPS had placed us, and in a place we did not want to be, about 5-10 feet from lodging hard aground at the edge of the forest. The stern anchor must have flipped over and was just coasting along the bottom, and the primary anchor must have traveled some too. I woke Bill. More rapid deliberations. We pulled the bow snubber as close in as we could to gain some distance from the shore. Then we put the stern anchor line on a winch and cranked it in with much effort. At this point the anchor was not helping and might be weakening the primary anchor with its wanderings. When we hauled the anchor up on deck, we found a tree stump attached to it.
After the secondary anchor was free, we floated even closer to the shore. Decision time. Stay and hope for the best? (Do not trust to hope it has abandoned these lands). Re-anchor in the center of the creek with a shorter chain scope and hope the primary anchor holds? Leave and head to the mouth of the creek in the dark? Or, turn this movie off and go back to bed?
Finding the center of the creek in the dark proved difficult so Bill declared: I want to go to the mouth.
One thing you have to accept on a boat when you are first mate is that when the captain makes a declaration you accept it, even if you don’t agree.
No moon. No light. Sub-freezing wind chill now at 20-25 knots, I went on the bow and shined the spotlight to starboard, to port, to center, then back to starboard…. When Bill got too close to the forest on either side, I’d say, “Turn to port” or “Turn to starboard”, guiding him for the mile of this narrow winding creek back to the entrance on the Waccamaw. For the first time in this trip we employed the headsets Bill’s family had gifted to us the Christmas before, so we could speak in calm voices and hear each other just fine, though he was in the warm, toasty, probably 40 degree cockpit enclosure and I was on the bow in the 20s. In my haste I had not donned my foul weather gear, just a thin fleece, but I had at least put on shoes. The ride seemed an infinity of time, slow motion through the biting dark. Occasionally the spotlight would fall on a great blue heron roosting on a cypress branch. Heads tucked tight against their feathers, the birds would turn their bodies from the blinding light, too annoyed and cold to even chastise me. (This is quite unusual and speaks to the unpleasant conditions. Herons will always make time to chastise.)
Around 4:00 am we arrived at the mouth, some 50 feet wider than the creek; we anchored toward the middle, set the snubber, and went below into our beds and sleeping bags in the main salon. Neither of us slept until close to 5:00. I set an alarm for 6, slept a bit, woke and checked location, slept a bit, checked location, slept. When the alarm went off, I set it for 7. We got up at that alarm because the sun was beginning to rise. I made hot almond milk and we had some warm granola for breakfast, then tidied the deck and praised the sun, took up anchor and headed out to find a better spot by the light of day.
The wind had calmed somewhat as we headed up nearby Bull Creek, found a wide spot, about 400 feet, and set the bow anchor, before laying down on the hard wooden benches of the cockpit and resting in grateful peace under the warm gaze of the sun.
This was as good a day as any to give thanks, so when we felt rested, we began cooking our belated Thanksgiving Dinner, delayed because we had no propane on actual Thanksgiving. It tasted like the best meal we had ever eaten.
That afternoon we watched the light dim on forest and creek. As the sun went down we heard a strange noise, like a frog or some weird reptile. Finally we looked near the shore and in a tree was an anhinga! Our first truly southern bird. Such a weird call, such a weird bird. Anhinga are like weird cormorants, and cormorants are already weird. Like a snake and a cormorant made a baby. When they swim, sometimes their whole body is beneath the surface, so it appears a snake is swimming vertically through the water. Outrageous.
Bill did the dinner dishes and arranged our real bed in the aft cabin just the way I like it, all to make up for me having to stand on the bow in the biting wind. I was asleep by 7 pm. I had set an alarm on the chartplotter to alert us if we drifted toward shallow water, and though we both woke several times in the night to check our position, we slept blissfully until sunrise.
As the sun ascended, I sat on the frosty deck in my warmest clothes and watched the mist travel across Bull Creek; watched several river otters scramble into the water and swim downstream; watched a young beaver swim through the golden water; watched our anhinga wake from its perch in the southern forest of red leaf and reaching arms draped with Spanish moss, all a safe 150 feet away.
Happy New Year all. I hope your 2021 is filled with peace, rest, and just the right amount of adventure.
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