The Trek South to Vero Beach, FL

We left the Albemarle Plantation marina on November 3rd, Election Day. We were a couple of the very few who were so lucky to be out of touch of the media frenzy of the day, having neither reliable cell coverage nor internet access. It was hard at first for Kathleen to adjust, but it was such a blessing.

We cruised out the narrow channel from the Albemarle Plantation, navigating some stiff winds getting out of the slip, and then enjoying our cruise across the Sound and returning to the Alligator River and through its swing bridge to anchor for the night. The anchorage at the south end of the Alligator River was so blissfully quiet and after an easy dinner, and breath-taking sunset, we went to the upper deck to marvel at the night sky, uninhibited by ambient light, EXCEPT for the blazing (nearly) full moon. Sitting there in awe of the vastness above us, we tried to take it all in.

Alligator River Swing Bridge opening up for us
Relaxing in the pilothouse
Another stunning sunset at anchorage on the Alligator River, NC

Wednesday dawned with clear skies and calm waters – perfect, in our minds! It was also our daughter Katie’s birthday, so we were hoping to reclaim a couple of bars for cell coverage during the day so we could talk with her. The Alligator-Pungo Canal is lush with flora and fauna, and is also NARROW. There was light traffic (thankfully) and we saw several deer gamboling along the shore as we passed by – we even saw two swim across the canal in front of us! Kathleen originally thought they were just some floating wood, as only their heads and small antlers were visible – but Neil caught their movement and we both got a wonderful surprise watching them cross. The other deer on the banks seemed to be playing tag with each other, seemingly oblivious that we were slowly cruising by.

Beautiful day for a cruise on the Alligator River, NC
Light traffic on the Alligator-Pungo canal
Passing a barge and tug on the Alligator-Pungo canal. Best to find a wide spot on the canal and wait for the barge to pass by.

We anchored on the Pungo River near the same place we had dropped anchor during our journey north, just off of the ICW. It was another calm, peaceful evening, and we did get cell service, so we were able to talk with family and sing Happy Birthday to our newly-minted 24 year old.

Thursday morning we departed just before 8am under brisk, partly cloudy skies (which provided a unique and powerful sunrise). As we continued down the ICW, we passed iconic places (like the dock where professional fishing trawlers dock, with a structure advertising “Fuel and Seafood”) It looked like a fun place to explore, but we had a long way to go that day, so we decided not to stop.

Sunrise as we got underway on the Pungo River, NC
Mayo Seafood – sells fresh caught seafood. Just pull up to the dock and place your order.

Anchoring again in Broad Creek, NC was like coming home. It is still one of our favorite places to anchor, and this time it was even quieter. We nestled in just off the main channel and tucked in for the evening, nicely protected from the worst effects of winds blowing that evening.

We were up and going early on the 6th, wanting to travel our 30 miles with a higher tide. Kathleen was VERY excited to see dolphins again surfing our bow wave! We were even hailed by other boats that saw them swimming – they seemed to lift everyone’s spirits.

Early morning departure from Broad Creek, NC
Dolphin swimming in our bow wave
Houses crowding the banks of Adams Creek, NC

Navigating the waterway to the Homer Smith Marina in Beaufort was tricky, including negotiating a passing barge and tug through the narrow waterway approaching the bridge before the entry to the marina, confusing directional buoys that required careful review and observation to be sure we stayed on the right path and in deep enough water. Finally, actually turning into the marina entrance was befuddling, as none of our maps nor our marina directions completely matched what we were supposed to be doing. We avoided grounding, and carefully wound our way in, having to blow our horn twice at two men in peddle kayaks blissfully ignoring our 50 ft trawler approaching them with no room for us to move. They did finally get the hint and scooched out of the way enough, but it did make us both wonder about their thoughts as we approached.

We went directly to the fuel dock to pump out our holding tank, and while there were given three different slip assignments (not at the same time, just the dock master and crew trying to figure out where to put us – and yes, we had a reservation with info about our boat etc) – with so many people journeying down the ICW, planning for incoming reservations and helping departing boats would be a master’s class in Jenga/Tetris. We did finally get secured at a great slip, with winds blowing and no bumping on our way in. It was nice to be back at this marina again, and we took advantage of a marina loaner car to make a grocery run to stock up on supplies. We were beginning to feel that having a car for grocery shopping was a luxury – something we had never considered when we lived on land and had 3 cars.

Granuaile docked at Homer Smith Marina in Beaufort, NC

Before we cast off the next morning, we encountered a beautiful white egret (or possibly crane – we’re not really sure) picking her way among the mud flats at low tide. These birds are graceful and delicate, despite their height. It is always soothing to just watch them as they make there way through muddy shores with quiet confidence and silent moves.

The weather was not cooperating for an offshore run down to Southport, NC where we had scheduled a visit to the Zimmerman Yard at Holden Beach to address a few issues on our fix-it list. Plus Neil was concerned about a seawater leak in the wing engine’s packing gland that developed during yesterday’s cruise. His efforts to stem the flow of water had failed so we cruised south on the ICW, on routes that we had not experienced on the way north in June. It was a glorious sunny day, and we enjoyed the views, if not the continued challenges of navigating shoaling and boats at various speeds and sizes. We also saw evidence of the hurricane from this past summer, with partially submerged craft and damaged docks regularly interspersed along our journey. The scenery continued to take our breath away, with miles of wilderness occasionally broken up by homes or small marinas.

We turned off the ICW to anchor at Mile Hammock Bay anchorage near Camp LeJeune, NC. There were already several boats anchored in the bay, but our information indicated that it could hold a lot of boats. We spent the next 1.5 hours trying to anchor in a good holding while maintaining safe swing distance from other boats. EIGHT attempts. Good times. On our eighth drop, we did finally hold, and just hoped that the weather predictions for wind strength and direction were correct. It’s not the most peaceful or confident way to anchor, but we were out of sunlight and places to go. We sat out in the cockpit to enjoy the sunset. A couple came by in their dinghy to offer some leftover Halloween candy – and although a lovely gesture, we declined. We guessed they didn’t get many trick-or-treaters…

Busy day on the ICW, south of Morehead City, NC
Cruising past the many beautiful homes along the ICW
Sunken fishing boat on ICW just south of Bogue Sound, NC
At anchorage in Mile Hammock Bay, Camp Lejeune NC

Our departure the next morning, Nov 8th, was timed for high tide so we had lots of water under the keel when negotiating the many shoal areas on the ICW. We knew it wasn’t advisable to travel on the ICW on weekends, but we really had no choice, so once more into the void on this Sunday morning. We were cruising to Wrightsville Beach, NC.

A busy weekend day on the ICW

We anchored at Wrightsville Beach this time in a quieter area, with much less traffic. Wrightsville is a busy, fun place and we enjoyed another relaxing time in the cockpit, watching the sunset and various sailors learning to maneuver around a crowded anchorage.

Anchored in Banks Channel, Wrightsville Beach NC

We raised anchor on the 9th and began cruising just before 9am, again heading out onto the ICW, to journey to Zimmerman Marine at Holden Beach. We had traveled these waters when we came up in June, and this time they seemed less treacherous – amazing what five months of active cruising can do for one’s self-confidence. We saw our dolphins again, and kept watch for shoaling until we reached the Cape Fear River and its deep channel.

Passing a towboat with boat under tow, just as we exit Snow’s Cut Channel a nerve wracking heavily shoaled area of the ICW. A yacht fisherman behind us was briefly aground after speeding through a shoaled bend in the channel, but worked himself off and sped past us.
Dredging on the Cape Fear River

As we turned off of the Cape Fear River and back onto the ICW at Southport, NC, the sun broke through. It was great to be back here again, but it was sad to see the destruction from when Isaias had come ashore here in August. It was a full hurricane at the time, and unleashed its fury on exposed marinas, boats and docks.

At Zimmerman Marine in Holden Beach, the winds and the current were very stiff, pushing us off the dock as we came in for a stern tie. We had help with the lines and got secured quickly. This marina is a working yard, and as we quickly surmised, not really near any town – which in these days of Covid is actually a really good thing.

At slip at Zimmerman Marine yard in Holden Beach, NC
Sunrise in Holden Beach

Over the next couple days, we had work done on the boat:

  • Rebed a boat deck railing’s stanchions
  • Fixed the wing engine stuffing box seawater leak,
  • Adjusted the wing engine throttle control and cable to eliminate a sticking throttle issue
  • Serviced the 12V alternator on the main engine to address the intermittent operation issue, we hope
  • And scoped the work required to install a Siren Marine boat monitoring system. Will allow us to monitor key systems via cellphone when we are away from the boat: boat location, shore power status, battery banks, bilge high water alarm, bilge pump operation, lazarette hatch door. The plan was to cruise down to Zimmerman’s Charleston yard for the installation. A visit to Charleston was on our wish list anyway.

We did attempt a haul out which would have allowed us to inspect/replace hull zincs that the previous diver was unable to replace and fully service the wing engine stuffing box, but once we had maneuvered into the slings, we determined that the marina’s lift straps were too short for our boat – so we got even more experience navigating out of, into, and out of slips again in high current and wind. We tested our thrusters to their limits with these moves, and were very grateful that we have them.
We were happy to find two fish markets on the docks a short walk away. We indulged in sea scallops, clams, and hogfish snapper (which is neither a hog nor a snapper, but is amazingly great tasting fish).

Fresh seafood next door to Zimmerman’s. Fishing boats at the docks.
Enjoying a morning coffee while docked at Zimmermans

With only a slight delay due to rain (left over from hurricane Eta hitting the gulf), we were able to leave on the 15th, again unable to go “on the outside” (aka on the ocean) due to uncertain weather, high winds, and waves due to that latest hurricane. So we once again sallied forth into the ICW, charting a three-day voyage to Charleston, SC, after an inspiring sunrise. The cruise was more of the same – beautiful wilderness, lots of shoaling, interesting and pretty homes along the way. We did see something for the first time – apparently land based casinos are not legal in South Carolina but are allowed on ships – we cruised past the only two ship casinos in SC.

We anchored in Bull Creek anchorage, where Kathleen “learned” how to try to anchor in a fast current and narrow channel. It took a few times, but anchor was set, and we relaxed to take in the incredible beauty of the South Carolina countryside. This was a peaceful little creek, another rare gem. The trees grew right down to the water, and so dense that you can’t see anything through them. We again sat outside after sunset to appreciate our private concert of evening stars. We could see the Milky Way, and really had a hard time picking out constellations because of the myriad of twinkling lights. We wish there was some way to capture these moments, but they do take our breaths away.

Up at dawn to prepare for an early departure from Zimmerman Marine
Kathleen taking us through drawbridge as we cruised down the ICW through Myrtle Beach,
The Big M ship casino
We saw few other boats on this section of the ICW south of Myrtle Beach as we approached our next stop, anchorage in Bull Creek
Captain kicking back at anchorage in Bull Creek, SC
All alone in anchorage on Bull Creek. Beautiful and peaceful

We were up before sunrise the next morning, and while enjoying tea and coffee, we heard so many animal cries and sounds – when we thought we had heard an infant crying, Kathleen remembered hearing a similar sound in our backyard in Colorado and that it was most likely a fox, not an abandoned child.

Another peaceful, calm and beautiful morning for our continued journey let our Monday departure begin on an upbeat! It was a sunny, cool day, with again, lots of shoaling and obscure tracks to avoid grounding – with swirls and crosscurrents from inlets and side rivers adding to the fun. We have learned a lot about successfully steering this big girl through the ICW. Around noon, Neil surmised that we should anchor sooner than planned, as the tide was approaching a low point and we had some shallower waters to navigate. We pulled off the ICW onto a creek that led to the ocean, Five Fathom Creek (which was nowhere near five fathoms, but was deep enough for us). Kathleen again worked to get the boat oriented properly for an anchor drop in swift-ish current and a narrow creek – with much better success this time (she did cheat using the thrusters, with absolutely no apologies).

This was the first time we had anchored in this type of environ – salt marshes, close to the ocean, with not much traffic other than watching larger fishing boats coming home at sunset and setting out before sunrise the next morning. Anchoring here would allow us to leave the following morning during high tide.

Dredging operation on the ICW at Santee River at a notorious shoaling area. They were blocking 80% of the channel. Had to call them on VHF to confirm where we should pass.
View of anchorage at Five Fathom Creek, SC. Inlet to the Atlantic Ocean is ~3 miles downriver from here.
Trawler returning home at dusk. From our anchorage we viewed the local fleet of commercial trawlers heading out to sea at dawn and returning as the sun set

We left Five Fathom around 9:00 in the morning on the 17th. This turned out to be an EXCELLENT idea, as between high tide and rain runoff from recent storms gave us a lot of water under our keel. There were still several areas requiring very close attention (due to shoaling – never-ending around here apparently). We had the current behind us, so we were making good time – this was a plus and minus. Plus in that we had lots of water over charted shallow areas, which made navigation much easier. Minus because we needed to arrive at Charleston Harbor Marina at slack tide, which was not until late afternoon.

We turned off the ICW onto Charleston Harbor, and we were back in a very busy international harbor with dredgers, freighters, tugs and barges, large and small boats, motor and sail. The entrance is stunning, with a beautiful bridge spanning the water. We had time to kill (like 2.5 hours), so we slowed even further down and just cruised around the area, went under the bridge, and got very close to a couple freighters loading containers. They are even more impressive up close, and we are left wondering exactly how they do move through the water – looking at the same time like lumbering buildings and fragile boats laden with stacked piles of cargo containers on the deck (with the hold completely filled down below).

After cruising around the bay and confirming with the marina that we were indeed at slack tide, Neil skillfully steered our girl through a few tricky turns and then into our slip.  Kathleen called out directional instructions and handed lines to dock help, and we were secured with no mishaps.

Passing tug and barge in ICW near Awendaw, SC
Entering section of ICW that passes through the Isle of Palms, just east of Charleston
Cruising under the Arthur Ravenel Bridge that spans the Cooper River in Charleston, SC
Container ships at port on the Wando River, Charleston SC

This marina was beautiful, and the help was wonderful. There were many egrets, cranes, and kingfishers here. It is also a resort, so there are amenities that we can use if we choose. On our first night here, we went to the Bridge Bar – an outdoor bar with a stunning sunset view, where we toasted our arrival at a safe distance from others with a bartender mixing excellent beverages. It was a very nice first night.

Charleston Harbor Marina

On Tuesday, the 18th, Neil met with the Zimmerman Marine team to start installation of the Siren Marine monitoring system. This system will allow us to monitor several of the boat systems remotely (if we ever get to travel away from the boat again, that is.) We also planned to have the boat hauled to have the wing engine stuffing box re-packed, hull zincs replaced and to have some work done on a seacock located in the lazarette.

Granuaile needed a serious bath – desperately – however it was a bit chilly as yet with wind, so we kept putting it off. In the meantime, Kathleen got caught up with blog drafts, and Neil worked on one of our spotlights mounted on the stack. There were worse ways to pass the time in a lovely place. The next day we got Granuaile scrubbed and polished, and waxed the superstructure (not a favorite job, but she looked very pretty when done). We took a few walks to the grocery store that wasn’t very far away, enjoying the sites around the marina, including a memorial park, the Cold War Submarine Memorial.

Granuaile in slip at Charleston Harbor Marina
USS Yorktown CVS-10 museum at berth next to Charleston Harbor Marina
A beautiful Charleston sunrise

One of our dear friends lives in Charleston, and works for the historical society. Unfortunately, with Covid we all decided it was a better idea to miss seeing each other (and having an amazing tour guide) this trip just to keep everyone safe. Hopefully, we will be back again next year and we will be able to get together.

We did take an Uber to Charleston from the marina and spent a great day walking around the old city, marvelling at the homes south of Broad St (true mansions with impeccably sculptured yards), the historical buildings (including old churches from the 1600’s with cemeteries to explore) and an original Slave Market that has been turned into a museum honoring the African Americans that were brought here in bondage and the history of their lives here.

After walking up King Street with its high end shops (rather like a Rodeo Drive of the South), we had a nice dinner and headed back to our boat.

Washington Square in downtown Charleston
From downtown Charleston, looking out across the Cooper River towards our marina
Walking tour of downtown Charleston’s historic buildings

The boatyard was not able to haul Granuaile for the needed work as Zimmerman Marine announced at the last minute that they had to isolate their crews due to possible contact with someone with Covid. As none of the work was really in need of immediate attention, we checked the weather and saw that we’d have a good window for going out on the Atlantic, leaving Thanksgiving day with arrival in Ft. Pierce FL on Saturday afternoon. We spent our remaining time securing the boat and making sure we were prepared for a run on the “outside”. We celebrated Thanksgiving a day early, complete with turkey (breast), sweet potato souffle, asparagus, cranberries, gravy, stuffing, and key lime pie. Who says you have to scrimp while living on a boat?

Thanksgiving dinner

We departed the marina around noon, knowing that the first part of our journey might be a bit rough. The weather was sunny and warm with light winds. Once we got out of the harbor and into the ocean, we had 3-4 foot seas with about a six second period – this means it was a bit rocky, but nowhere near as bad as our cruise north in June. With Scopolamine patches secured to our necks behind our ears, we were set to brave the seas.

Departing Charleston Harbor Marina, heading south down the Cooper River to the Atlantic

The sun set rather early, but was spectacular with light clouds giving a dramatic effect. Kathleen got some pictures of the sun appearing to set into the sea. The first night was uneventful (which was great) and the seas calmed down to gentle rolls as opposed to stiffer waves. We had a full moon which lit up the sky and the ocean beautifully (and Kathleen got a picture of that too). The sunrise was breathtaking – watching the sky slowly lighten, almost imperceptibly, until the dramatic colorful staining of the eastern sky – it’s hard to find the words to describe this event.

Beginning our two day passage down to Florida
Sun setting as we prepare for night cruising
Night on the ocean lit up by a full moon

Friday was a gorgeous day, again with little happening – occasionally ships would appear on radar, but we rarely saw any other boats. It was peaceful and serene and lovely. And the water was nearly calm. The night shift brought us down past St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral. Kathleen was a little spooked by the 10+ freighters at anchor waiting to enter the shipping lane and port as we had to cruise between the ships and the port – Kathleen said a few prayers that none of the ships decided to start moving. Only one ship was actually moving, and we were never near each other.

Neil had a fun experience during his shift – he was hailed by another sailboat at ~1am asking if we were turning into the Canaveral channel, as he was going there. Neil told him we were headed further down the coast. The sailboat captain then pointed out a tug and barge that was brightly lit – and carrying the SpaceX booster that was returning after a recent launch. Kathleen was deeply asleep at this time, but she believes Neil’s recounting…

Entering a fog bank off Jacksonville FL
Dawn on the 28th

We had favorable currents cruising down the Florida coast, and arrived at Ft. Pierce with time to kill as we wanted to enter the inlet at slack tide (or as near to that as possible). We have learned (the hard way) that waiting for slack tide is very preferable to just running an inlet when there is a strong ebb current – ocean and river water colliding in a narrow inlet with rock breakwater walls on either side makes for an “exciting” transit. After making a very lazy figure eight – and dodging various boats also trying to enter at slack tide – we followed a parade of boats (including one sailboat being towed) into the Ft. Pierce inlet. We had already decided to anchor at the Harbor Isle anchorage for two nights to relax (and we were not expected by our Vero Beach marina until the 30th!). As we were turning into the anchorage, we were hailed on the VHF by our friends Clark and Michelle on the Nordhavn 55 Roam. We had last seen them in Annapolis earlier in the summer, and they were docked at the Ft. Pierce City Marina near us. They invited us to swing by in the dinghy once we had rested up.

Kathleen was very excited to see dolphins around us again, fishing and playing where we were anchored. After securing the boat for the anchorage, we ate and pretty much collapsed early!

Harbour Isle anchorage, Ft Pierce FL
Enjoying a beautiful Florida sunset at anchorage

The next day we lowered the dinghy and went exploring, ending up over by Clark and Michelle, and spent an hour or so catching up with them. As Clark was laboring washing the boat, he didn’t seem to mind the interruption. We also saw Gale from Nordhavn 57 WorkKnot, whom we had last seen when we were traveling north, passing him at the Atlantic Yacht Basin marina on our way to Norfolk. We joked with him that we had just missed him several times on our journey north and south, and it was good to catch up.

Back on our boat, we rested up, had dinner, and planned to leave the next morning for the last leg of our nearly six month journey.

Monday Nov 30th dawned sunny, but we knew the weather was forecasted to change, so we wanted to get on our way. Departure was a lot faster than we had anticipated (the anchor was not caked with gunky mud…) and so the extra time we had built in to get to the Ft. Pierce North Bridge was a bit too much time. Neil spent nearly 30 minutes circling in a turning basin in increasingly windy conditions, with the tide swirling the waters where we were. We did receive a hail while we were waiting – our friends Mark and Susan from Tropic Jones who had been docked next to us in Vero Beach when we had left in June were headed south and to the gulf shore. We were sad that we would miss them, but it was great to hear from them.

After clearing the bridge, the trip north was relatively uneventful (except for the refresher course on how narrow the ICW is in this part of Florida and that there are incredibly rude boaters everywhere). The rains started about 30 minutes before we turned into our marina. Kathleen got the lines and fenders secured, and as we turned home, a dolphin swam up to our bow and guided us back to our slip. (OK, maybe he didn’t know which slip was ours, but he did swim with us the whole way to our dock). Friends waited for us on the dock to help us tie up, and although we hadn’t been here long before we started our summer journey, it felt like we were being welcomed home.

The weather was unusually cold for the next few days, which made scrubbing the boat a “challenge”, but we got her all cleaned up and de-salted. We also got to see our local dolphins playing, as well as a rare appearance from a manatee who popped up to say hello and let us take some pictures and video before quietly slipping away.

Manatee welcoming Kathleen back to our Vero Beach FL marina

We will spend the next few months preparing for our next adventure, which we hope will be a journey to the Bahamas at the end of February for two to three months. We have no plans to travel for the holidays, so Christmas will be a new experience here on the boat. Hopefully by this time next year, 2020 and its pandemic and politics will be a distant memory, and we can be planning to see family and friends. For now, we are grateful for the friends we have here, who share this cruising lifestyle with us and make us all feel that we are part of a big family. We have no plans to go anywhere, but plan to learn how to use our drone/camera that we decided would be a great Christmas gift to ourselves this year. Bikes are in our future, and hopefully some visits to the beach. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad.

One thought on “The Trek South to Vero Beach, FL

  1. Thank you for posting your trip. It looks like a great life. Also, your pics are great, thanks again and enjoy your winter in Vero Beach. Stay safe and healthy.

    Like

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