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  • Bruce Tate

Tension

Sudden tension comes on like a rogue wave, a depth sounder suddenly wailing out a warning, or a buoy on the wrong side of the boat in treacherous waters. Building tension ramps up slowly and powerfully like inevitable weather rolling in, a spot on a map marking trouble ahead, or a long day on the water. Many dynamics impact the impact of these tensions on captain and crew like the radio chatter we heard amidst a helicopter rescue as we were navigating heavy seas.


On the loop, we experience many different kinds of tension, but rarely all on the same day. As we crossed the border between South and North Carolina, all of that changed. With our daughter onboard, we needed to run more than 200 miles in six days to satisfy her flight schedules. We were to pick her up in Charleston and drop her off in Wilmington, a run of approximately 200 miles. After we'd booked flights, minor problems started sprouting up like weeds.


First came the weather reports. Before Kayla ever arrived, we lost two traveling days to predicted bad weather. We adjusted quickly by leaving Charleston early, and having Kayla take an Uber to meet us at a downstream marina.


Then came the flight delays. Kayla's flight was delayed, she missed a connection, and just like that we'd lost another day with Kayla and another travelling day. We decided to make up the time by building in one long travel day into our schedule.


The weeds kept popping up, and we kept navigating mostly around them. The next one was our map study. During our regular preparation, we read about two navigational hazards, the famous Cape Fear river in North Carolina and Rock Pile near Myrtle Beach. Cape Fear is famous, or infamous, for unpredictable depths, shifting bottoms, heavy currents, and high tides. and moving sands. Rock pile is a three mile waterway so treacherous and narrow that mariners must announce their presence as they enter the hazard to prevent the crossing of commercial and private traffic at the same time. As we continued to prepare, we read about a third hazard, an inlet called Lockwood Folly. As the tides sweep in and out of the rivers and inlets that border the intracoastal waterway, it often carries and deposits sand at inconvenient places in a phenomenon called shoaling. Lockwood Folly is famous for shoaling. It seems we would be running through three notorious great loop obstacles in the same day. The seeds were sown for a tension filled day.


As we talked to local boaters about Rock Pile, we heard two dramatically different stories. Most boaters seemed to believe we'd be fine if we stayed in the channel. We talked to others who strayed too far outside of the channel for good or bad reasons and taken serious damage as a result. After more reading, we learned that mere inches out of the channel, barely submerged rocks waited, unmoving and unforgiving. Most offered the advice of running through at low tide. slightly reducing the margin for error but bringing the jagged rocks just above the surface. We opted not to do so since we had good charts. In the end, we categorized the hazard as easy to navigate but unforgiving.


We also talked to boaters about Lockwood Folly and Cape Fear but decided our boat's shallow draft and beefy engine would be perfect for the conditions, so we'd approach them with little more than healthy respect.


As the day started, we woke up early to give us the best chance to approach Rock Pile with the best river conditions. Around a half hour before we began our northbound run through the hazard, we heard other northbound boats announce their entrance:


"Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité. This is Northbound vessel Currently entering the Rock Pile. Interested vessels can hail us on channel 16."


A southbound vessel announced their presence, and we slowed down so we wouldn't have to encounter them in the heart of the danger zone. We announced our run, pulled back on the throttle, and slowed to just over idle speed. We passed through with absolutely no incidents, and a third of the day was gone.


Later, after a hot lunch underway, we approached Lockwood Folly. Winds kicked up unexpectedly. Our boat handles high winds well because it's relatively flat, but this day the winds dug under one of the cushions on the bow and blew so hard that the snaps gave. In an instant, it had blown over the boat and into the water. We turned around to give chase, but as winds blew it out of the channel, we waved goodbye to the fabric and around $300, said our last respects, and headed down. We'd entered North Carolina and Lockwood's folly had claimed another victim. With a little less padding in the front and a little more storage available over rainy nights, we headed for the third point of tension, Cape Fear.


The river was high and strong when we entered. As expected, the beefy Volvo made quick work of the river. We carved through the last of the expected obstacles and turned the corner toward our campsite. As we looked out, we saw our friends on a trawler who shall remain nameless, grounded right in the middle of the channel.


I slowly tried to feel my way into the same marina conscious of the fact that another trawler was sitting in the sand waiting for the rising tide. It was Easter weekend so no one was available to guide us into the marina. I slowly ran aground, backed up, and then did the same. With rising winds from an expected storm ariving early, we gave up on our attempt.


At this point, I was exhausted, and couldn't navigate the current and wind to park at our backup marina. After two attempts, I passed the helm to Maggie who successfully docked it. I muscled the boat into the fuel dock, popping off a cleat from the aging structure in the process.


Cognizant of the incoming gale and the aging dock, we tied up every line on the boat using every cleat we could reach to spread the load on the rusting hardware and aging wood. When we were done, the dock was covered in enough trip hazards to make an OSHA inspector explode.


In the end, we had a sleepless night but the ropes held. We laughed, commiserated, and broke bread together as a family. We left the tensions of the previous day at our feet to be carried out to sea by the rhythmic tides of the beautiful blue Atlantic ocean.





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