When we originally planned the final leg of our trip to Wilmington, we planned for an overnight passage in the Atlantic Ocean from Beaufort Inlet to the Masonboro Inlet at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, then down the ICW to Snow’s Cut, across Snow’s Cut (a man made cut that connects the ICW at Carolina Beach with the Cape Fear River) to the river, and finally up the Cape Fear River to Wilmington. Internet research both before we departed and during the trip south indicated that the ocean inlets on the ICW stretch between Beaufort and Wrightsville Beach all had serious shoaling problems. Running aground on the ICW at an inlet, especially when the ICW route would have had us pass by four problem area inlets, would have ruined our trip as much as striking the Wilkerson Bridge with our masthead would have. For this reason, even our original plan had us doing the outside, overnight, passage in the Atlantic Ocean where there are no bridges and the water is eighty feet deep.
We had two routing issues with the Masonboro Inlet off-shore route. First, the off-shore distance from outer channel marker to outer channel marker on the two inlets is only 60 miles. At an average speed of 6.5 knots, we would cover the distance in a little over nine hours. In order to avoid coming into the unfamiliar (at least to us) and narrow and shallow (nothing like the wide, deep Beaufort or Cape Fear Inlets) Masonboro Inlet, we would have to depart Beaufort after dark and with a strong current running through the Beaufort Docks Marina making our departure in the dark even more tricky. On top of all this we knew there were additional ICW shoaling problems in the short trip from Wrightsville Beach to the Cape Fear River.
Friday morning began with preparations for an open ocean passage. Changed out the primary fuel filter elements, topped of the lube oil, ran jack lines on the deck, pulled all the safety gear out of storage, checked and re-located the “ditch” bag, fixed the electrical wiring problems with the stern running light, and generally got the boat ready to go off-shore. Friday remained a sunny day. We ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant next to the marina. While eating lunch and pondering the difficulties of an after dark departure, we talked about taking the longer, but safer route to the Cape Fear River around Frying Pan Shoals and into the Cape Fear River through the well marked inlet channel. Neither of us could really see a reason not to do this. In May 2012 we took this route north with Chuck and Jeanne, making an overnight passage from Bald Head Island (at the mouth of the Cape Fear River) to Beaufort. We still had the 2012 route in the ship’s computer. Nancy readily agreed to investigate the route change, and we headed back to the boat to view the 2012 route in the opposite direction.
In 2012 we went the whole way around the bottom of Frying Pan Shoals (the shoal that extends 16 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean from the NE corner of the Cape Fear River Inlet) before heading to Beaufort. The 2012 trip was approximatley 113 miles land end of inlet, to land end of inlet. While examining the 2012 route to Beaufort, I noticed the Frying Pan Shoal Slue on the chart, an opening through the shoal about three-quarters of the way out to the end of the shoal. Water in the Slue was 20-30 feet deep as opposed to 6-12 feet deep further in Frying Pan Shoal (why so many ships historically have foundered on this shoal). While Nancy was looking over my shoulder, I reversed the 2012 route on the ship’s software navigation system, then moved the old waypoints from the extreme south end of the shoal to a mini-route through the Slue. The change in the over-all route reduced the route length by 10 miles or about an hour and half of travel time. We were good to go with the new route to the Cape Fear River in the ship’s computer.
We departed Beaufort Docks at about 3 PM Friday afternoon, October 18 in the daylight and with the current in the marina almost slack. Nancy took us to sea out the inlet channel without difficulty. We turned southwest out of the channel when we passed the three mile limit. Winds were light at about 7-9 knots and on our tail. While we could have sailed it would have been a really slow trip, fighting to keep the sails filled with the wind directly astern. So we continued motoring. We had a favorable 1 knot sea current keeping our speed at 7.8 knots at our normal 2500 rpm operating speed. Not wanting to arrive hours before dawn, we slowed the boat down to 2200 rpm and a comfortable 6.5 – 6.8 knots.
One of our goals on this the last leg of our trip south was to arrive in Wilmington prior to the 10 AM bridge opening of the Isabelle Holmes Bridge across the North Branch of the Cape Fear River. Our marina for the winter, Cape Fear Marina, owned by Bennett Brothers Yachts, is located just beyond this bridge. This bridge only opens for recreational boat traffic daily at 10 AM and 2 PM, and that’s it. In order to make the 10 AM opening I knew we had to maintain an average speed of about 6.5 knots.
Once we turned out of the channel, I set a temporary waypoint on the buoy 82 miles away marking the eastern entrance to the Frying Pan Shoal Slue and set the Go To waypoint on the chart plotter and the autopilot. From that point on for the next 11 hours all we did all night long was make +1 and -1 minor course corrections with the autopilot. It got dark around 7 PM and the wind decreased some more. VQ’s radar indicated that we had almost no other boat traffic accompanying us to Frying Pan Shoal. The big commercial vessels all must go around the bottom end of the shoal, so we expected no large boat company until we crossed the shoal. After dark a couple of rain squals showed up on the radar indicating their passage north of us. At about 8 PM I had a breakfast sandwich for dinner and Nancy had two yogurts. Neither of us was very hungry after eating a big lunch. I took the first watch until about 11 PM. Nancy slept in the cockpit. At about 11 PM we switched places. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t. After midnight we passed through a squal line that produced little rain. However, once we got on the SW side of the squal line the wind suddenly clocked around dead onto our nose and rose to about 20 knots for about 1.5 hours, literally, the wind went from 6 knots to 20 in an instant. As we moved further away from this last squal line of the evening, the wind lessened. In between the squals that passed nearby, the full moon was visible in the eastern sky, and provided an unexpected amount of light. Near 1 AM, Nancy realized that some of the “stars” were actually planets, and looked at them through the binoculars. At about 2 AM Saturday morning I took over the watch and Nancy tried to sleep again in the cockpit. We passed a couple of fishing boats all lit up as we approached the shoal.
We reached the Frying Pan Shoal Slue at 3 AM. I took VQ through. There is a pair of small, unlit red and green buoys marking the very center of the Slue’s channel. Even with a full moon, I could not see either buoy when I was a little less than a mile away. Our charts on the chart plotter at the helm station in the cockpit showed no chart detail below the 6 mile range setting, and at this range setting the red and green buoys were so close together on the chart on the chart plotter I could not safely steer between the buoys for fear of hitting one of them. So I woke Nancy up and had her take the helm while I guided her using the charts on the ships’s computer below at the navigation station in the salon that showed great detail at much lower range setting. With me calling up to Nancy new course bearings, we easily passed through the Slue seeing no less than 20 feet of depth and mostly 25-35 feet for most of the transit through the Slue.
We crossed the Slue and turned north to the Cape Fear River inlet at about 4:30 AM. I took the helm again and remained at the helm until VQ was well into the river. At about 6 AM and still very much in the dark, we reached the Green 7 channel buoy where I had previously decided to enter the inlet channel. At this point I made a “pan-pan” annoucement on VHF radio channel 16 announcing our entrance into the channel to all concerned traffic and our northbound route intentions. I could follow the next few lighted green and red buoys marking the entrance channel fairly well, but once we approached the actual mouth of the river all I saw was lights in every direction and in varying intensities and flash timing. At this point I woke Nancy up again to help me out with light identification in order to stay in the river entrance channel as it twisted and turned several times on the way into the river proper. Nancy also helped me spot the Southport ferry crossing our path as well as several recreational fishing boats heading out to sea for some early morning fishing. Without the chart plotter at the helm station showing me the channel and the radar in the chart overlay position “lighting” up the buoys on the electronic chart, it would have been extremely difficult and unsafe to come into the river with just a visual on the channel lights.
At 7 AM the sun started to rise, the sky lightened up, and I gave the helm to Nancy, who stayed at the helm until we traveled up the river about 16 miles to Wilmington. We had a very favorable current once in the river. At times VQ was speeding along at 8.5-9 knots. Nancy said she saw 9.6 knots for a moment. We reached Wilmington’s first lift bridge at about 9 AM. I checked the tide board with our binoculars – it thankfully showed 66.5 feet of clearance. We next tried to reach the bridge tender on the Holmes bascule bridge on the VHF. No response, probably because I didn’t really know the name of the bridge. I then tried to reach Bennett Brothers marina on the VHF and got no response. Frustrated and getting a bit upset, we tied up temporarily at the Wilmington Town Dock in front of the Hilton Hotel. The city’s dock master came out and assisted us in contacting the bridge tender. I also reached Bennett Brothers on the cell phone and received a temporary slip assignment.
At exactly 10 AM Nancy took us through the bridge opening on the Isabelle Holmes Bridge and shortly thereafter we tied up VQ at the first Bennett Brothers dock after passing the bridge. We then turned off the engine and both of us got a couple hours of sleep. For me, I think it was the first sleep I had since waking up Friday morning. Later that afternoon I got our permanent slip assignment for the winter (I selected from five available slips), though we wouldn’t move til the next morning at slack tide. Then we started cleaning up the boat and putting safety gear away that was taken out for the ocean passage. I also took a taxi to Wilmington’s airport (5 minutes from the marina) and picked up a rental car for the weekend and trip to Myrtle Beach. Saturday night we had dinner at Caprice with Dina Greenberg.
Sunday we spent the morning moving VQ to her permanent winter slip and cleaning and preparing the boat for a long winter at the dock with only monthly visits planned by the two of us beginning in January. We met Dina again for lunch at La Catalan, a french bistro/cafe right on the river. Dina and Nancy went shopping for a few hours while I amused myself taking in the street sights in historic downtown Wilmington. We returned to the boat at about 5 PM for more cleaning and boat preparation. Nancy completely emptied the fridge and freezer and turned them off. Some food got dumped, but much was taken to Dina’s apartment in downtown Wilmington. We returned to Dina’s apartment at 8 PM with all the usable food and some boat electronics I did not want to leave on the boat for the winter. We ate outside on Front Street at Circa, and returned to the boat at 10:30.
We departed Bennett Brothers at 7 AM Monday morning for the 1.5 hour drive to Myrtle Beach, SC where we dropped off our rental car and headed for the terminal and our airplane flight back to Baltimore-Washington Airport. We flew Spirit Airlines from Myrtle Beach for less than half the cost of flying US Air from Wilmington, saving about $400 even with renting a car. JoAnne Norton picked us up at BWI and drove us to Annapolis, where the three of us had lunch as we shared with JoAnne our trip adventure. We drove home from Annapolis in my car which had been parked at our marina for the last eleven days. We were home in Cherry Hill by 5:30. It was a tough trip in some respects, but it was a great trip too.
One post script on the Wilkerson Bridge. Cruisersnet.net (our guide to ICW problem areas) reported on October 17 that a day or two before we passed under the bridge, a sailboat with a 63 foot mast crashed into the bridge when the tide board was reading 62.5 feet. Apparently, the sailboat suffered significant damage. I read the internet article on the crash this morning. Once again I’m thanking our lucky stars for our safe passage under the bridge.