Cape Fear River 2023

Saturday July 8th, 2023

After an amazingly fast beat to windward of 70 mph at times, Moga and I found ourselves in Kure Beach just below Wilmington, North Carolina for a week at the beach with my folks. Every day we’d drive 2 or 3 miles down the shore and find a nice spot to set up. I pulled out one poor soul in a two wheel drive SUV and later got a bit stuck myself, although we easily drove out after dropping the tires down to 15 psi. It’s a nice place, but it’s also an expensive tourist trap. Parking is ridiculous ($8 per hour, 2 hour minimum, 10% “service” fee), food is expensive, and the off road permit is highway robbery at $30 on weekends and $20 on weekdays. I’m used to a 10 day pass up at Hatteras which is $50. The first thing I noticed when we arrived was the tides in this area are around 5′ which is way more than the foot or so in my neck of the Chesapeake Bay. I felt a bit apprehensive about a potential daysail over on the Cape Fear river. At least somehow the boat ramps turned out to be free!

Last fall I managed to snag an East German Freiberger trommel sextant for $150. I really have no need for a sextant, but I’ve always been fascinated by using the sky as a clock to figure out where you are. I figured I’d play around with it some, then sell it for what it should go for and put the money towards building Long Steps. I also had some delusions about trying to get a fix while dinghy cruising, but after doing the sight reductions I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

The first couple days of our vacation had calm winds around 5 mph and the ocean was about as flat as I’ve ever seen it. The sky was clear and the horizon sharp so I set out fixing the perpendicularity, side, and index errors of the sextant. I ran through the adjustments a few times since they can interact with each other, but by and large it all felt a little too easy and I wondered if I was actually improving anything at all. After that I took four sun sights and began researching what I’d need to do to figure out where I was.

#1 50º 2.1′ at 14:27:17 UTC
#2 52º 11.4′ at 14:32:43 UTC
#3 66º 41.3′ at 15:45:26 UTC
#4 76º 17.4′ at 16:45:24 UTC

After some false starts with Youtube videos and websites that talk to you like you already know what you’re doing, I eventually found and their Complete Sun Sight Reduction Procedure pdf. It goes into excruciating detail with examples and over the next two evenings I worked my way through the four sights to eventually arrive at the numbers I needed: assumed position longitude, intercept, and Zn. I did cheat on the dead reckoned latitude by using the GPS coordinates, but let’s just assume I’ve been keeping track of my course. Note to self: don’t forget to convert local time to UTC before doing all the calculations, and despite the name the assumed position longitude isn’t whatever you want it to be.

Finally on the third evening I plotted my line of position and found my first sight was… wait for it… 57 nautical miles off of my true position. Thankfully the other three were only .25, 1.75, and 5.5 nm off. Eventually I realized my error in sight #1 was writing 50º instead of 52º. There’s no way the sun moves 2 degrees in 5 minutes. So, now all I need to do is account for three days of drifting while I was busy figuring out where I used to be!

It was actually a super fun exercise and later in the week I took four more sights and got within 2, 3, 6, and 8 nautical miles of my true position. Better yet I was able to do all four sight reductions and plot them in about an hour since I vaguely knew what I was doing. I think I’ll keep the sextant and try doing some lunar distances sometime to see if I can find the correct time. It’s really given me an appreciation of Frank Worsley on the trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia and Joshua Slocum finding an error in the almanac because the calculations didn’t match his dead reckoning.

Thursday July 13th, 2023

The wind on Thursday was forecast to be southerly at 10 to 15 all day, so my plan was to first motor south through the marsh down to Bald Head and get a picture of the lighthouse. Then I would hoist the sails and head up the Cape Fear River and along the way I’d swing by a small ruined lighthouse beside the Southport ferry terminal. Next, over to Battery Buchanan at Federal Point for some family history and then up through Snow’s Cut to a boat ramp on the eastern side of Pleasure Island.

I launched at 8 am from the Federal Point boat ramp and started motoring south. With the shallow water of the outgoing tide, unfamiliar narrow channels, and wind directly against me I figured there was no point in even trying to sail. The marsh is protected by a 3 mile line of rocks called… “The Rocks” which was built after the Civil War to tame the shoaling in the river. I imagine at high tide these things are underwater just waiting to rip your hull open.

It’s pretty shallow in places (maybe impassable at fully low tide?) and I relied on my centerboard centrally mounted, adjustable height depth finder to stay in the deeper water and protect the trolling motor. I knew there’d be a lot of motoring today, so I kept it to 150 watts. From testing I know that will push me at 3.8 mph for 15 miles in perfect conditions and since I planned to go 9-10 miles I figured that would give me some safety margin.

Lots of tight squeezes and I had to backtrack a few times since it was getting on for slack tide. Most of the marsh was thick piles of mud with jagged oyster shells sticking out. I think all the guys fishing back in here thought I was crazy. I thought one guy was being polite when he dropped down to hull speed as he approached me from behind. He gave me a good once over and then gunned it leaving me a steep wake to negotiate with no time to turn into it. He wasn’t the only oblivious person I ran into today.

I saw these towers all over today, I think they are range lights to help ships stay in the channel.

Eventually I made it out into the the Cape Fear River and just a straight shot to Bald Head, right? I mean, the lighthouse is right there on the horizon.

Not so fast, I had to bump my way through some 6″ water, backtrack, and get out and pull once. Straight ahead is the entrance to Bald Head Creek and at high tide there’d be plenty of water to get over the sandbar. My paper chart didn’t show some of these shoals and it was tough to see them on the satellite map on my phone’s screen in the bright sunlight.

Eventually I made my way up the creek past a row of multi million dollar houses and a herd of kayakers. Old Baldy was built in 1817 and is the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina. It was pretty windy on the river so on the way out I decided to see what would happen with the jib only. Plus I had all day to get up to the boat ramp, so speed wasn’t too much of an issue.

I headed across the inlet and started to realize ferries were all aver the place. There’s a constant loop of them from Bald Head to Southport to Fort Fisher. I have very little experience being around big commercial boats like this, so I generally tried to hug the right hand side of the channel. It was surprising how quickly you can go from deep water to scraping the bottom.

Up the river a thunderstorm was brewing and I caught a glimpse of a flash of lightning. About 10 minutes later someone on the radio reported their boat was hit, but fortunately no injuries. Pretty shallow water through there. When planning the trip I thought I might be able to pick my way through to cut the corner, but once I was here it didn’t seem like a good idea to try.

Made the turn around Battery Island doing 4 mph. By now the tide had turned and was helping me along. My jib is 23 square feet so not all that big, but it was nice to see what it could do. I saw someone walking along the beach and thought it was strange since the island is closed for bird nesting during the summer. I figured maybe it was ok if you stayed below the high tide line, but shortly someone got on the radio to tattle to the Coast Guard.

Up closer to the ferry terminal the channel gets narrower and I really tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Ferries were going by left and right and there was a steady stream of huge yachts heading north.

I much preferred the traffic of a flock of pelicans flying by.

Up near the ferry terminal I swung in to get a picture of Price’s Creek lighthouse which dates to 1850. This is the last remnant of a system of range lights that guided ships up the river to Wilmington. It was a bit of a risky detour since I couldn’t sail upwind and the wind and current were moving me along at a pretty good clip, so I lowered the trolling motor and got ready to make a hasty departure.

When the centerboard started bumping the bottom I declared the photo op over and gave the trolling motor the full 30 amps and we escaped from being embayed by the shoreline and a long pier leading to an ADM food processing plant. Up near those piling I hit some wild waves. I guess the normal waves bent around and interfered with each other because it felt like being in a washing machine with waves popping up and disappearing all around.

After I got back in the channel I started following the map and ticking off buoys while keeping out of the way of ferries and spoil islands.

Next I cut over towards the Fort Fisher ferry terminal close to where I launched. That mound of sand with the two trees is what’s left of Battery Buchanan which was a Civil War earthwork guarding the New Inlet. At that time it was one of two entrances into the Cape Fear River which was vitally important for the Confederacy since Wilmington was the last port blockade runners could use to deliver supplies and export goods.

My great great grandfather was unfortunately on the wrong side during the Civil War, but as a history lover it has been fascinating teasing out the details of his service. He started out in a light artillery unit, transferred to the Merrimac for the battle with the Monitor, guarded Fort Sumter for a year, served on the ironclad Fredericksburg and commerce raider Chickamauga, and finally manned Battery Buchanan during the battle of Fort Fisher where he was hit in the leg resulting in its amputation.

The battery was armed with two 11″ Brooke smoothbores and two 10″ Columbiads. The Brooke guns weighed nearly 12 tons and the Columbiads nearly 8. He was wounded during the first battle presumably when they repulsed Union ships dragging the inlet for torpedos. I’ve always wondered which gun he was on… those two outside ones had a 180º field of fire but little protection.

Here’s a view from the top looking toward what was once the New Inlet with the Cape Fear river on the right. That parking lot is the boat ramp where I launched. Hard to imagine that just up the road at Fort Fisher was the biggest naval bombardment and amphibious assault until D-Day. Apparently 50,000 shells were fired at it over the two battles.

Anyway, with that family history detour out of the way I started back up the river. By this point the winds were getting a bit lighter so I stopped to run up the spritsail. I’d put a preemptive reef in when I rigged at the boat ramp and decided to leave it in since I noticed the wind tended to pick up later in the afternoon. Along the way the 750′ 3,800 TEU Polar Costa Rica container ship passed me going from Wilmington to Savanah. I have never been this close to anything so huge and even though there was plenty of room, it was still a little terrifying.

After he passed, I idly watched the wake wash up on the spoil island ahead with a continuous rumble. Then as I got closer I saw the ripple from the tanker turn into two feet of foaming water rushing right towards me! I quickly realized that when I turned to nose into the wave I’d be sailing by the lee, so I jibed and shifted my weight aft to help raise the bow. Right before the wave hit I just knew I’d have a mountain of water over the bow.

Suddenly the bow was pointed at the sky, the rub rails blasted the water out to the side, and then a quick slam back down as the sails went “whooomp” and everything was ok. I doubt a dozen drops of spray made it in.

After surviving the tanker wake I headed back down the channel ticking off the buoys. A buddy of mine is a photographer so I photoshopped two pages of charts together into one big one and had him print it off on his 3′ printer. So much easier than squinting at my phone screen in the sun! Off to the left is the Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point and they have a large restricted area along the west bank of the river right out to the channel. When researching I was a little worried I might accidentally wander into it, but there are plenty of signs close together to let you know.

After about 3 miles of mostly having the river to myself I made a right for the long narrow channel to Snow’s Cut. Plenty of powerboats flying along through here. It was pretty obvious I needed to keep green on the right, but I didn’t understand until later that in the ICW you keep greens on your right to go north. And the yellow splotch signifies it’s an ICW buoy.

Blasting along on a broad reach at 7-7.5 mph was the fastest sailing of the day. With the reefed mainsail I didn’t even have to get on the side deck to hike once! I think this might be the first time I haven’t had to hike like my life depended on it.

Into Snow’s Cut. This was dug in 1930 to connect the Cape Fear River to Myrtle Grove Sound and avoid the Frying Pan Shoals which stretch out 30 miles from Cape Fear. I managed to sail about halfway through before the wind became pretty flukey.

The jet skis flying through here were insane, but I guess that’s to be expected when there’s a jet ski rental place on both ends of the cut.

Eventually I gave up trying to sail and lowered the trolling motor. Up by the bridge little eddies were forming around the piling and I feel like the tide must be meeting in the middle because it was definitely helping me before.

Eventually I made it to the ramp and anchored and got everything tidied up. Perfect timing since my wife and folks were just driving off the beach. I sat back to finish my lunch (does anyone else just not have time to eat when sailing?) and watch pelicans dive into the water just off the port bow. I must have been in prime real estate.

I’ve been really impressed with the trolling motor setup. The model airplane propeller has worked really well, maybe 1/4″ of the tips have gotten chewed up but I just round it over with a file periodically. Today I motored 11.5 miles and consumed right at 614 Wh of energy. From my motor testing I thought 50 Wh per mile would be a good estimate for planning purposes and I was glad to see that the real world result of 53 Wh per mile matches pretty well. Especially since I was mostly motoring against a pretty decent breeze. All in all I went 27.8 miles in 8 hours with a top speed of 7.6 mph.

And the day just wouldn’t be complete without one last oblivious person. As dad was backing the trailer into the water and I’m motoring toward him, a lady on the dock decides it’s the perfect time to throw a cast net directly between us. I made no effort to slow down or avoid it, so she reeled it in pretty quick!


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