Saturday, December 1, 2012

Cape Hatteras on a Good Day

The run down the Bay was smooth until near Cape Charles harbor when a small storm came in making for a windy and rainswept night. Fortunately we can just put the heating on and relax with Eric Clapton on the DVD. The prospect of exploring the small town of Cape Charles (pop 1,134) did not seem too interesting but, as we usually find, when you scratch the surface of all communities you will find intriguing things and interesting people. Investment = Return. The Admiral met the Mayor (of course!) while I networked around the local businesses; in the general retail wilderness I discovered a wonderful gourmet wine shop about the size of a tobacconist which even had Cloudy Bay in stock.....cheaper than Fortnum & Mason.  The town is close to the foot of the Delmarva Peninsula (DE, MD, VA ...........) and was founded as the railway terminal. Curiously enough the line ran down the peninsula and then the rail cars were loaded onto barges
to be towed by tugs across the mouth of the Bay to Norfolk. You can't make this stuff up. On one side of the main street of the town are the shops and on the other are the rail cars. The barges are around since the rail line still operates. It would be quite surreal to take the
train south from New York and wake from a nap to find yourself crossing the Chesapeake on a barge. I wonder if they have life jackets on the train, railway cars are not known for their buoyancy.  Of course now one can drive across the mouth of the bay via the Bridge/Tunnel, one of the longest in the world (over 25 miles). For the tunnel sections, a ditch on the sea bottom was dredged; tunnel segments lowered, divers bolted these together and then the water was pumped out. Rather like the Battery Tunnel in New York last month. Looking at the chart of the mouth of the Chesapeake we pay particular regard to Note F "Maneuvering in close proximity of the bridge-tunnel complex is discouraged". You bet.
Ahead we had a 215 mile two day passage around Cape Hatteras. The cape is the junction between the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic Bights, and the meeting place of the cold Labrador Current with the warm Gulf Stream. The notorious Diamond Shoals have claimed more than 600 shipwrecks since records began and earned the name "Graveyard of the Atlantic". I have been looking closely at the weather and tomorrow there are forecast light North winds (behind us) and seas of 2-4 feet and falling. It seems that the Coastguard, PassageWeather and Windfinder are all in synch. The Diamond Shoal buoy wind forecast is in low single figures.
I should mention that to journey south from the Chesapeake one can either head outside - round Hatteras, or inside - along the ICW. We came inside on the way up earlier this year. With the weather forecast so good, the outside is the best choice. The inside alternative involves 2 or 3 stops for the night, because running the ICW in the dark is impossible. Additionally the inside run entails a great deal of vigilance in driving the boat; taking care in the narrow and shallow ICW, and the endless succession of bridge openings which require close attention to speed and timing. However, on the outside run there are no places to stop and you are at the mercy of the weather. 
Our departure from Cape Charles was, as usual, low key. 8am; the wind had disappeared and so had the clouds. But it was damn cold; a freezing temperature and thick frost all over the docks. We ran the lesser known North channel down and under the bridge; the tradesman's entrance to the Chesapeake. The radio was busy; the pilots were snaring any foreign-flagged vessel. Every foreign-flagged vessel over 100 tons requires a pilot North of Baltimore and anywhere in the Delaware Bay..........a run up or down the latter will cost a minimum $3,576. Ouch. Another pitfall for the unwary who registers their vessel overseas (Last Mango is 60 tons by way of comparison). Outside the bay a warship was conducting a live firing exercise.........the captain was re-inforcing his warning on Channel 16 to a fishing vessel close by - even I could hear the machine guns chattering away in the background to his broadcast. The Coast Guard were grilling a local fisherman over his licence and his catch. All in a day's work. We cruised directly across the mouth of the bay, pausing briefly to let a thousand-container ship pass in front of us on its way to the Panama Canal.
Our route was approximately 5 miles off the Outer Bank shore all the way to the Cape. The weather forecast was right on; the seas reduced to that glassy quality when all is calm. Eventually the sun disappeared West and straight away the moon appeared East, almost as if they were joined together on a piece of string. There was very little traffic, just one tug with a tow ahead of us. We were doing 3 hour watches, and rounded the Diamond Shoal buoy at 2am in a dead calm, the Cape Hatteras lighthouse pulsing away in the background. An experienced captain was saying to me recently that all the hard work should go into the preparation, maximising the probability that the passage will be relaxing and uneventful. Amen to that. 
Research ahead gave us the choice of Beaufort or Morehead City for a rest up for a couple of nights. Some more research with Active Captain and we booked into the MC Yacht Basin. Friendly folk; cheaper than Beaufort and no current. And we certainly have left the snow behind in Maryland; here in North Carolina the temperature is in the high 60's. With a local IPA in my hand in the Ruddy Duck things were looking good. Tomorrow there is the local craft fair, the Christmas flotilla, the art walk................
Next - Charleston.

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