We’ve had a brutal spring in New England this year. March brought four nor’easters, one a week like clockwork, each with heavy snow and blizzard conditions. April, once it finally got going, was mostly just too damn cold. So I was looking forward to getting back to the boat in Florida and doing some sailing. But sailing all the way back home, given the treacherous season, seemed like it might be a bad idea. Much better, I thought, to do this in stages.
For crew on this first leg I enlisted one Nat Smith, a recently retired geologist from Houston, Texas. He’s pondering whether he might purchase a boat like Lunacy, a Boreal or perhaps some other Francophilic aluminum centerboarder. That’s him steering in the photo up there, head wrapped in a sensible sun hat, during our first short daysailing leap from Jacksonville to Fernandina Beach. A pleasant close reach in a moderate westerly wind.
I’d heard good stuff about Fernandina, which boasts a scenic old-timey Florida town jammed between a couple of paper mills on the north end of Amelia Island, just across the entrance of the St. Mary River from Cumberland Island, Georgia. As we approached we couldn’t help noticing there were a few wrecked sailboats on shore. We eventually also noticed the marina was trashed too, a result of last year’s vicious hurricane season.
The first stranded sailboat we spotted
Another stranded boat (looks to be a Westsail 32) seen in the distance past a funky metal boat installed on one of the free moorings the town seems to have put down to make up for the crippled marina
More metal boats on Fernandina moorings: Lunacy on the left, and a very cool Dutch-built Bestevaer on the right. I’ve long admired these, but had never before seen one in person
I got so excited taking photos of stranded boats I dropped my little Panasonic Lumix camera and bent its fancy Leica lens all out of shape. This, alas, prevented me from taking photos of the town itself after we went ashore. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it is indeed as scenic as advertised.
Portrait of Nat taken while I was trying to fix the camera lens. Eventually, much to my surprise, I succeeded in making a good-as-new repair
We did not linger here and instead sailed north the very next day. A longer 190-mile overnight passage, past all the Georgia coast and the approaches to Charleston, South Carolina, where we had to actively dodge two inbound cargo vessels come to join the small fleet of vessels anchored off there. Arriving finally at the lower reaches of Winyah Bay, where we anchored ourselves not long before sunset off the north shore of Cat Island.
One of many shrimp boats encountered between Fernandina and Winyah, with obligatory cloud of gulls
The skipper gives instructions on how to drink rum after setting the hook
This was a fantastic spot. Very peaceful and sublime. The plan was to spend one night here, loiter through the following morning, then haul back the anchor late in the afternoon to depart on a shorter 70-mile overnighter to Southport, just inside Cape Fear. There was a cold front scheduled to come through, but it was supposed to be weak, and I figured the northwesterly shift would make for a fine night’s sailing.
At about 1500 hours the following afternoon, just before we got ready to hoist the hook, I thought to check the forecast again. Now suddenly the cold front looked to be much stronger, with more northerly wind. It took only a few minutes of pondering to develop Plan B: a jaunt 10 miles up the bay to spend a full day exploring Georgetown while hiding from the front.
Wicked strong current in Winyah Bay. Enough to set a rode to humming
This proved an excellent plan. We arrived at the town not long before sunset and squeezed into a line of boats anchored and moored in Bypass Channel, just off the town’s waterfront. On going ashore we found a massive party tent in the middle of everything, with a wedding reception just underway.
Reception venue on Georgetown waterfront, beneath rising moon
The bridge and groom arrive on the scene
Georgetown, like Fernandina, is a quaint back-country town wedged up next to some heavy industry. A paper mill again, still active, and a dead steel mill. We explored the town in some detail, mostly during a stone quiet Sunday morning and afternoon. It was the scene of some lively combat during the Revolutionary War, featuring the first war hero I remember reading about in my grade school days: Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, a great pioneer of guerilla warfare.
General Marion in action. Irregular troops looked more regular back then
Your humble (irregular) narrator, with his boat in the background
A very old live oak tree. Now pushing 600 years, I reckon
Sunday evening moonrise over the Georgetown waterfront
We lurched into motion again the following morning. First motoring back down the bay to the escapatory inlet, then sailing some 160 miles to Morehead City, North Carolina. This was mostly downwind work, broad reaching, or running wing-and-wing with the genoa poled out. Through the night again, standing three-hour watches, and on into the following day. The forecast had been for light wind, but it was wrong, and we were faster than we’d hoped, arriving 12 hours earlier than expected.
Broad reaching, with Nat on the bow
One of the looked-for dolphins
I’d never been to Morehead City before, though I had been to Beaufort, across the way, at least three different times. Beaufort is very pretty and sailor-friendly, but there is nothing very useful there, and the docks where one might leave a boat for weeks at a time are wracked by strong current. Morehead City, I can assure you, is not at all pretty, but it is utilitarian. The Morehead City Yacht Basin, where I put Lunacy to bed, is well protected, with a serious chandlery within easy walking distance.
They do not favor sailors here, but they do tolerate them. Mostly the town is about sportfishing. It is the only decent-sized port on the East Coast north of Florida that is within easy striking distance of the Gulf Stream, and there are more than a few fisherfolk who like to take advantage of this.
The Morehead City Yacht Basin is in the small square basin you see on the north side of the Morehead City peninsula, just northwest of the port terminal
Lunacy laced into her new berth
Nat visits our new neighbor and contemplates a different sort of life afloat
Charter boats waiting for action on the southside downtown waterfront
Who says you need a boat to go fishing? This young lady (she claimed to be 75!) was hauling them in as fast as she could cast when we walked by
A catamaran moored off the downtown waterfront. It’s boats like this that earn live-aboards a bad reputation
Stage 2 of the homeward migration will begin shortly after Memorial Day. Stay tuned for deets. Hopefully by then the north country will seem much more hospitable.
Hi Charles – thanks for the great travel log. You mentioned a number of places we didn’t see on the way down and we’ll have to check out as we follow you up the coast in the next week or two. When we were in Beaufort in December we left our boat Netzah for a few weeks at Town Creek Marina. This is a great location – out of the current and still within walking distance of the waterfront. Their prices are very good and they also offer the use of a free courtesy van.
Great read. I sail on the Chesapeake and hope to retire in a couple of years and do the down south journey through some of these places, so it’s really helpful. Plus it’s just nice to read the day to day details of sailing instead of simply how great some expensive new boat is 🙂