Bonnie James and Jim Miller sailed their Newfoundland-registered Victoire yacht ‘Vagrant Sea’ from the Queen City Yacht Club in Toronto via the ICW to the Bahamas and now we cover the return journey
ICW Charlestown to Georgetown – ICW North part 5
Charleston is a rarity on the waterway. It has an honest-to-goodness harbour, not just a bulge in the bank of a river. There is much commercial traffic, and a naval presence, though this has decreased somewhat in recent years. We left Vagrant Sea here for the off-season in 1998-99, at a boatyard on a decommissioned portion of a military facility. It seemed to us we could rely on the security.
Charleston is also home to a major U.S. Coast Guard station, and a tragedy that took place right here in December 1997 has raised many questions about USCG operations. The sailboat Morning Dew was being delivered from Myrtle Beach, SC, to Florida during the Christmas break. On board were the owner and three teenagers: his two sons and a nephew. They had sailed along the Atlantic coastline for a day or two, then entered Charleston harbour about 2:00 a.m. on December 29. The boat struck a rock jetty and was severely damaged. One of the young boys issued a distress call on VHF radio. The operator who received the transmission could not hear it clearly and did not investigate or report the incident to his superior.
Four hours later, the bosun of a container ship entering the harbour heard a cry for help from the water. The vessel’s pilot boat did a search, in poor pre-dawn visibility, but found nothing. They informed USCG of the incident, but again coast guard did not launch its own search. The bodies of two of the teenagers washed ashore at mid-morning, close to where the voice had been heard. A search eventually located the bodies of the other two crew members, as well as the sunken boat. The incident was the subject of a formal inquiry that identified shortcomings in USCG response and made recommendations for changes to its operating procedures (see link). The families sued the U.S. federal government. In June 2002 the appeal process ended with a decision that the families would receive $21 million dollars in damages.
We enter Charleston from the Intracoastal Waterway and anchor in the Ashley River, off the downtown. The collection of boats around us includes small weekend cruisers, some liveaboards, a few foreign-flagged vessels on extended voyages, and the usual scruffy derelicts rotting at their moorings. Our progress north has been relatively slow, and we have over 400 miles left to reach Norfolk, so we decide to stay only a single night. We get underway Saturday morning, planning to cross the harbour and get through the only bridge for the day before 9:00 a.m.. Early in the morning, the bridge opens ‘on demand’, but once the boomers in the suburbs start driving into the city for their weekend outings, it opens only on the hour.
While Jim is on the Ham radio chatting up friends thousands of miles away, I (Bonnie) try to dodge a large military tug and its tow. I have trouble gauging its intentions – is it going up the Cooper River here or to that base over the other way? Am I fast enough to cross ahead? If I give way, will I be too late to catch the bridge? Then visibility drops in heavy drizzle, and I can’t find the channel markers leading from the harbour into the ICW. Maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad to be home shovelling snow right now.
All this aggravation is for nothing. We just get into the waterway and a real downpour hits. There is no option but to head for the nearest reasonable anchorage – just a wide bend in a river – and wait it out. We are miles from nowhere, and stranded on board, so it’s just like a blizzard day back home. We read, play Scrabble, listen to Radio Canada International and cook huge meals. By Sunday the rain has stopped and we are keen to make an early start. After a quick breakfast, I step up to the cockpit to start the engine, as Jim goes to the foredeck, ready to haul the anchor. I switch on the starting battery, pull back the priming arm and move the gear shift into position, then press the starting button. All I get it a faint click. The engine won’t start.
We’ve been lucky during our southern cruising to have very few mechanical problems. Jim is not given to panic, so he works us through all the possibilities he can think of, step by step. Then he takes out Nigel Calder’s book, which lets you look up the symptoms and works you through to a diagnosis. As a last resort, there is always swearing and praying. On this occasion, the thoughts of what it would cost in U.S. dollars for a service call up this lonely creek help to focus our efforts. We realize the engine isn’t getting fuel, and the lift pump seems to be the problem. Eventually, we coax the engine to life, and off we go again.
This night we stay in McClellanville, a fishing community that is several miles up a narrow creek from the ocean. We’ve never been here before, but our five-year-old guidebook and some sailing friends we spoke to recently both told us it was a delightful small town, with a supermarket and other interesting shops and facilities. Well, the place is still pretty, with a few big plantation-style homes, and a fresh-scrubbed look. The sad news is that it has lost many of the essentials of town life. It is now so influenced by the big cities within commuting distance that local services are non-existent. Everyone has a car and takes the highway to go to work and shopping. There is no longer a need for a grocery store or coffee shop that people can walk to. Even the post office has been moved out near the highway. We walked three miles along a road where no one is expected to walk, so there is not always enough space on the shoulder. At the highway junction we find a gas bar and convenience store with the usual junk food, beer and lottery tickets.
This may be “The South”, but it’s only February and the weather has been cool, and getting colder all the time. On many days the thermometer reads less than 10 degrees C in the cabin when we get up. We have a heater on board, but we don’t operate it while we sleep. Since this is a sailboat, one person needs to stand all day in an exposed cockpit. I pay for my lack of skill in other areas by spending most of my time at the tiller. To stay warm, we depend on hot liquids. Breakfast is cooked cereal. All morning we have hot drinks – coffee, hot chocolate, tea, instant soups. If it’s a good day, the sun is strong enough to thaw us out by early afternoon. On a bad day, we have hot toddies after we drop anchor for the night. We usually aren’t able to do more than seven or eight hours’ travelling. It is so cold in the morning we often don’t leave until nearly 9:00, and we need to stop before the early sunset.
As at home, we listen to the marine forecast on VHF radio. The voice sounds eerily familiar, something about that odd accent. It took us a while to figure out that both Environment Canada’s Weather Service and the U.S. NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) Weather Radio use the same computer-generated voice. We are now on the part of the waterway where the mechanical man gives us the forecasts for both Northern South Carolina and Southern North Carolina, without ever once mixing up the names. This week the outlook is not pleasant. Strong northerly winds are as unwelcome for sailing here as in Newfoundland. We sail up the wide Sampit River to Georgetown, a route that used to carry rice, cotton and indigo from slave plantations to world markets. We anchor in 11 feet of water, less than a mile from a steel mill, in shouting distance from a tourist board walk on the restored waterfront. This should be a good place to lay low for a few days.
Fair winds and snug harbours,
Bonnie James – Vagrant Sea
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