NC to VA – Go, Slow or Stay: May 6 2020
Our thunderstorm two-step continues. Tucked into Greens Creek was wobbly but nothing compared to the curling waves seen beyond the bridge on the Neuse River as the storm rolled through Oriental, NC. But being boat bound meant a couple more boat projects were completed: 1) changed the main engine oil and oil filter and 2) greased bedroom and bathroom door hardware. Ha – greasing door hardware sounded easy enough until the latch was out of alignment by the smallest smidge…and locked us out of our back-up pantry. Gulp. Some thinking and finagling got it open. Phew.
The ICW uses existing rivers when it can along its 3,000 mile route. For us, today, it was the Bay River to the Pamlico River to the Pungo River as we moved from Oriental to Belhaven (4/24). Quiet Belhaven sees more traffic via outboard motor than over the bridge on North Carolina Hwy 99. The area’s geography of snaking rivers and creeks helped dub it the Inner Banks. Belhaven’s economy has changed from moving tons of lumber floated down from the northeast to more recent shrimpers and crabbers. It is a tight knit community of 1,685 people. A bright star in town is the well-loved Spoon River Art Works & Market (http://spoonrivernc.com/). It’s a restaurant. We placed our order and paid online then selected a time for curbside pick-up. With extra time before pick-up we wandered the well tended town where spring planting had begun and neighboring yards flow from one to another without a fence between them.
We arrived at 5.15pm for our dinner pick-up and the street was positively jammed. Just 30 minutes earlier you could have shot a canon down the same street and not hit a single thing. Clearly, everyone wants this place to come out the other side of the COVID-19 shutdowns and our stomachs are happy to join them. Our dinner was neatly packed and easy to dinghy back to Barefeet at anchor. Wow – this is the closest we have had to a restaurant meal since March 5th (you know the feeling). We had pan seared black angus steak with mushroom/whiskey/cream sauce and all the fixins of salad, asparagus and mashed potatoes. After dinner we sat on the top deck to watch fishing along the shore and the odd boat simply strolling the harbor before the sun set and the town lit up the night.
The next morning we headed ashore early for a walk as weekend fisherman headed out from the town boat ramp (4/25). The largest section of our day was the 21 mile long Alligator Pungo Canal. This (nearly) straight cut was made by the Army Corps of Engineers as a river link between (you guessed it) the Alligator River and the Pungo River (canal depth is good at 15-20 feet throughout). We saw only five boats on the waterway which is unusually low for this boat migration time of the year.
We anchored for the night off of Tuckahoe Point in the Alligator River. Although we have been here before the tree and ground cover ashore seemed thinner than we remembered. Maybe due to fire and hurricane damage?! The star inhabitant of this 152,000 acre National Wildlife Refuge is the American Black Bear (this is one of its premier strongholds on the Eastern Seaboard). There are plenty of other critters, too, which means we need to do some dinghy exploration. Ooops - don’t get too close to shore or your prop clunks through submerged stumps…like ours did (but no real damage – just paint scratches). This area feels very remote. We dinghied around but did not spot resident black bears, American alligators or energetic river otters...just osprey and their mammoth nests. Back aboard Barefeet and the grey clouds returned with chilly temperatures and rain.
Before sunrise there was a huge light show for about an hour. Thankfully, it remained on the horizon as enormous illuminated clouds rather than close, stark lightning bolts. We were up anchor at 6.30am with calm conditions and dolphins accompanying us (4/26). Again, we are looking out into the future at itinerary options. This time we have pretty unfamiliar feelings: our internal compass says to return home to Boston ASAP; however, steaming into the epicenter of a pandemic does not seem like a good idea. Maybe we pause in the Chesapeake and explore as we originally planned before leaving the Bahamas? We will continue to take it one day at a time. Back to today’s route. Crossing the Albemarle Sound was as we hoped – super calm. Gulp, except for the pea soup, thick fog that descended for half an hour at the pinch point (of course). Radar was flipped on and both pairs of eyes were glued forward as we slid between narrow channel markers with two boats in front of us. For the night we tied up at familiar Coinjock where we learned that boat migration north has not just slowed down but has positively slammed to a screeching halt. Tonight was just four boats: NJ, NY, PA hailing ports. Normally, the face dock is full cheek to jowl with at least 50 boats per night (plus rafting). Scuttlebutt says that boats will come north “soon” because they simply cannot wait any longer due to hurricane insurance restrictions. This is a very different time.
We took it slow this morning at calm Coinjock and peacefully tossed the lines after breakfast only to quickly find ourselves in darkened skies and strong winds (4/27). What?! This was not on the morning forecast and is nowhere to be found on current radar reports. Oh well, forward progress continued but a little slower for the remainder of the day. However, our luck changed at Great Bridge, VA, where we snagged a free wall tie-up between the Great Bridge Bridge and the Great Bridge Lock (yes, those are all actual names). Beth of m/v Boomerang was an angel to catch lines. We chatted at a COVID distance but learned of a new wrinkle to the COVID impact. Boomerang is headed home to Lake Superior, WI, but they cannot get there due to the Eerie Canal being closed because of COVID-19. Yikes, they need to be home eventually but are really not sure what to do. They’ll point north one day at a time – it’s a cruiser mantra this year. Tied up and unable to prepare for cruiser shared sundowners we made the short walk to Kroger supermarket to top up our stores. How easy is that?! Dinner was goosed up BLTs and french fries while watching Extraction with Chris Hemsworth. Wow – super entertaining and amazing to “visit” Bangladesh.
Okay, Spring has definitely NOT yet arrived. It’s 48 degrees where socks, fleece and hot coffee help to kick off the morning chill as we toss our lines and motor along the ICW. Lock and bridge delays made for a longer day than expected but we are now solidly in the 21st century. Norfolk Harbor positively exploded onto the scene after our quiet rivers and creeks and dolphins (4/28). Chris is spellbound by the countless giant machines and cranes and ships of truly enormous proportions. Not to mention the Norfolk Naval Shipyards with aircraft carriers, destroyers – you name it. Heck, we even passed a submarine returning from sea as we exited Hampton Roads. And check out our GPS plotter with dozens of green blobs representing boats. It is busy out here!
Just across the Hampton Bar and we were into the lower Chesapeake (4/29). Yippee…and…insurance coverage is intact because we are now in our required hurricane box. Over the past few days we have been scrambling as we look at our future route options. We finally decided to stop for about a week as bad weather passes. But where to stay and for how long? Well, we ended up at Salt Ponds Marina in Hampton, VA. Ha - they had the one criteria we needed in a marina – they would take us. Maryland is pretty strict at the moment and we could not find a marina in the lower bay that would take a transient boat. Virginia is different and Salt Ponds Marina looks like a good spot with a good price ($1.25/ft per day; pay for 5 days and get 2 more free). Done. After tying up we hit the ground running. Chris scoured the internet ordering parts for delivery for boat projects and I walked 2.5 miles into town to get the lay of the land and see what resources are around. Our hope is that stopping for a week in the lower Chesapeake will allow 1) a delivery point for boat parts, 2) the weather to warm up for better exploring conditions and 3) Boston COVID-19 surge numbers to decline and restrictions to begin to loosen. Who knows how things will shake out but that is our plan for today.
We are still doing the thunderstorm two-step which makes it extra nice to be tied to a floating dock; however, before the storm arrived it was relaxing to walk on Buckroe Beach. Once the storm arrived there was plenty of time for stitchery, reading, laundry and route planning for the Chesapeake - America’s largest estuary with more coastline than the country has overall.
The main boat part delivery arrived in the form of the exhaust manifold for the generator (5/1). The existing manifold is leaking coolant after a JB Weld fix of a couple of years ago that finally wore out. With part in hand the floor boards were pulled up, work clothes put on and box opened. What the f#@$%?! A 4-cylinder manifold is needed but a 3-cylinder manifold was ordered. Drat! Okay, it’s still early in our stay so it was back to the ordering drawing board. Phew – found one and it should arrive in three days. But make no mistake - this was a kick in the teeth. In order to work through the manifold frustration the bedroom/hall light switches were cleaned for better connections, pilot house hatch tightened to stop a water leak and penetrating oil applied to the generator exhaust manifold bolts. AND we were treated to a lovely sunset after dinner. We’re back on track.
The sun is rising earlier and ducks and geese have been added to the morning bird song (aka squawking and honking) which definitely has us in new latitudes. One of the reasons we love traveling is to eat regional foods and to rub elbows with locals. Clearly, this is not in the cards at this COVID-19 time. However, since we cannot go to the crab shacks we brought them to us with a Chesapeake cooking adventure: crab cakes (first time attempt). There are tons of different crabs each with different seasons; hard shell, soft shell, blues, peelers and on and on. We walked to gather supplies at Capt Ron’s Buckroe Bait, Tackle & Seafood where they sell crabs individually and by the bushel – live blue crabs ($9 for a dozen female/$15 for a dozen male) or steamed blue crabs ($12 per dozen female/$18 per dozen male); plus shrimp, fish, scallops, clams and all that is in season. I took the easy road and got lump blue crab because I’m just not in the mood to pick the buggers apart. Customers in line at the 40-year family owned and operated bait and seafood shed ordered one bushel of live crabs and two orders of soft shell crabs which returned us to travel familiarity with regional food and rubbing elbows (at a 6ft distance) with locals. The crab cakes came together pretty easily, cooked up golden brown and had just enough twang with drizzled tomato vinaigrette (recipes below). Yum! It’s another keeper for the recipe box.
A bit of warm weather had us walking on the beach as well as all doors and windows on the boat being thrown open (5/3). It was a great mood lifter after another quarantine week down and yet another still ahead; so it goes. And it seems birds are not the only dock critters. At twilight a racoon was spotted with spoils from a trash can. Wow – their hands are so human-like. They are amazing. With the generator manifold delayed 24hrs due to storms in Dallas we pivoted (5/4). Chris prepped the generator for work tomorrow (fingers crossed) and I gathered six gallons of engine oil and 2 gallons of generator coolant. But all work and no play makes Barefeet a dull girl…so…I also picked up fixins for pina coladas. Liquids for the boat and liquids for us. Ha ha - and you should have seen the male googley eyes I got while waiting for a cab accompanied by the comment, "That is a lot of oil."
It’s package day! The AIS antennae replacement arrived for plug-and-play installation and voila - AIS is back in full operation. But the big show was the arrival of the generator manifold (5/5). The bolts were pretty corroded so it was good to have applied penetrating oil in advance; however, ping (bad sound) the tip of the big screwdriver broke off and was sacrificed for the job. Ultimately, the recalcitrant bolts required penetrating oil, a wooden lever, the heat gun AND the dremel in order to be broken free. You can see from the photo that the old manifold in Chris' hands had provided tremendous service (the shiny new one is behind him on the floor); plus, the up close photo of the place where the coolant flows is quite blocked with gunk. There was a final bit of generator obstinance at the end of the job when a blurp of coolant geysered all over the engine room. A job well done Chris! Now let’s clean up and have margaritas – it’s Cinco de Mayo. And everything looks better with twinkle lights.
Weather reports have been changing every morning and are often in direct opposition to each other. Our plan was to leave today but it has been a tentative plan until the lines were actually tossed. Eyeballs were a final check as we walked out to the beach to check the sea state (5/6). Winds and waves had settled down so we were off at 9.30am. Salt Ponds and its surrounding neighborhood have grown on us with the roaming honeysuckle, beach vibe and friendly people at every turn. We’d like to return but NOT like Blackbeard whose head was placed on a stake at the entrance to Hampton River as warning to other pirates. Our ride up the Bay was slightly bumpy but not bad at all ending as we slowly snaked through the entrance channel and were anchored in Jackson Creek in Deltaville, VA, before dinner…and before the black clouds and rain downpours cycled through as the sun dipped for the day. We’ll continue up the Bay pointing north but gale warnings and strong weather continue which will have us picking our travel days and anchor spots carefully.
1 fresh red tomato - chopped
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 clove garlic - chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Add all ingredients to blender, food processor or use a jar and an immersion blender.
Blend until smooth and no large chunks of garlic or tomato remain
Store in a container with a tight fitting lid for up to 5 days in the refrigerator.
(It may separate during this time - just give it a couple shakes).
Best Ever Crab Cakes
(makes 10 large cakes) Jason Epstein
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, plus 2 T. for sauteing
1 cup scallions, finely chopped, white and some green
1/2 cup jalapeno chile peppers, finely chopped
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons dry mustard
pinch cayenne pepper
2 pounds lump crabmeat, well drained, and picked over, patted dry
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups white bread crumbs, spread out in a flat plate
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Melt 1 1/2 sticks of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute scallions and jalapenos for about two minutes, until bright green. Add heavy cream and bring to a boil, stirring for 3-4 minutes until thickened. Remove from heat, add mustard and pepper. Cool five minutes. Place crabmeat in a large bowl. Gently stir in scallion mixture. Form uniform cakes and place on waxed paper lined sheets. Refrigerate until firm, two hours. When ready to serve, place eggs in shallow bowl. Melt additional butter and oil in skillet over medium heat. Dip each cake into the beaten egg and then the crumbs. Saute until browned, 2-3 minutes on each side. Turn cakes only once - they will break easily. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately. I sometimes grill these with no egg or crumbs. Also, these can be sauteed earlier in the day and re-heated in a very hot oven. If leftovers exist – re-heat at 325 degrees F for 15 minutes.