War games, Watch systems and Intracoastal Delight

We weighed anchor in Fort Pierce at noon on Monday, June 7th. Taking a picture in homage to the place that had been our home nearly we a month, we proceeded out of Fort Pierce Inlet and into the open ocean.

The offshore passage lasted some 80 hours. We established a round-the-clock system of two hour watches, which we felt struck the best balance between short watches and long sleeping time. With two people, no watch system provides enough sleep, and the watches in the open ocean are always exercises in boredom. Additionally, the wind wasn’t strong enough to power our mechanical windvane (autopilot), and our electric autopilot lost its mind and tried to send our ship in pointless circles when we tried it. The result was hand-steering the entire time, forty hours each. It’s difficult to describe how slow and painful the hours were.

Try this: Imagine a planet the size of Earth made completely out of steel. Every thousand years, a single dove flies by this planet, grazing a single point on the planet’s surface ever so slightly with its wing. This process is repeated until the bird’s wing has managed to erode the entire planet. At that point, we checked the ship’s clock and found that we were seven minutes into our watch.

The first evening of our passage, we observed a submarine off our port (left) side. The submarine had stopped moving and was sitting still as we sailed slowly past. After fifteen minutes or so, it started to move, circling behind us and continuing along its path, which we presumably had interrupted. During the encounter, our eyes were glued on the submarine and the water between it and us, watching for the telltale sluice of wake that marks an inbound torpedo. We were lucky. This time.

The days were hot and sunny; the nights cool and boring. There were, however, millions of stars to gaze at, as well as a series of squalls and lightning on the horizon in all directions.

In the last twenty-four hours of our passage, the number of military vessels became numerous. Cruisers, destroyers, battleships and aircraft carriers were ubiquitous, and it wasn’t until after we crawled past under motor did we hear over our radio that they were conducting minesweeping operations. To the disconcerting tune of muffled booms, we motored past the misnomer Morehead City, North Carolina and into the Intracoastal Waterway.

That evening, Thursday June 10th, was our first real taste of the Intracoastal. With the sun setting, we motored through a narrow canal, no more than one hundred feet across, with occasional homes on each bank. American flags flew from every staff, dogs frolicked with their owners in verdant backyards, and boys sat tending fishing lines off wooden docks. We passed other boaters: teen boys taking their girlfriends out fishing, a battery of Marines heading south, an elderly couple out for a sunset cruise… Accompanied by dolphins playing in our wake, we waved to the other mariners and the people on the shore, enjoying a pleasant breeze and soaking up the pervasive comfort of the place. We were especially happy in the knowledge that we would be able to sleep through the night after anchoring.

Besides the houses, the natural scenery was wonderful. On the banks of the canal, tall trees with bare trunks and flat canopies were spread thickly back into distance, the furthest fading into a white haze. Hundreds of creeks ran off the main canal into many shades of meadows, and large birds roosted in the sand or the brush.

We anchored in semi-darkness on the edge of the channel, unable to find any other anchorage and unwilling to pay a marina to dock for the night. After a refreshing night of sleep, we got up at about 9 a.m. on Friday and were underway by ten.

The narrow canal soon gave into a large river, which we motor-sailed through, being harassed by flies all the way. In the afternoon, the Waterway narrowed into another canal in a less populated area. We were fortunate to slip under a bridge that lacked signs indicating clearance and started looking for an anchorage for the night that would allow us to get to Belhaven in time to watch the European Championship soccer game between England and France on Sunday.

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