Chowan County round-up: Red skies tonight, sailors delight

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By Miles Layton

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

I am 16-years-old again...only this time it is a sail boat instead of a car.

Yes. We bought a sailboat. Very nervous. I'm learning how to steer and all the other things associated with being a boat owner.

I bought it because it was a lifelong dream to own a sailboat – freedom – same as it is at 16 when you turn the key, maybe go cruising downtown.

I want to thank some folks in Edenton who made this possible. Brian Fitzsimons found the ad on craigslist and advised me that this is the boat for our family. The morning after we bought the boat, he gave my wife a ride downtown and helped her to properly dock the boat. Though I aspire to live on the boat, if I ever buy another house again it will be from Fitzsimons, a realtor at United Country Dowd & Forbes.

And thanks goes to Sheriff Dwayne Goodwin's deputies who carried me and my family home late – LATE – Monday night when we made it to Edenton Bay. Our 8-hour trip from the Alligator River to home took, well, a lot longer than anyone anticipated – 12+ hours.

Chauffeur extraordinaire Ricky Roberts drove my wife to the Alligator River Marina to retrieve our car too.

Scotty Harrell, a seasoned mariner, helped us park the boat in a slip at his place – Edenton Marina – a few days later. He parked it backwards so that the stern faces the dock and the bow is aimed at Pembroke Creek – a good view.

Maybe a word on inspiration should go to Susan Beckwith, owner of the Inner Banks Inn. During a recent interview, she told me about how she bought the inn with no previous experience with running an bed and breakfast. She wanted a change. I thought a lot about that, so … I took a leap of faith and bought a sailboat.

If you're interested, here is a recap of the maiden voyage. The rest of this column, maybe pure vanity, but there is a need to get this confession out on the printed page. However, ignore the rest if you are pressed for time. Put it aside or toss it in the trash.

Let's face it. None of us are getting any younger. One day you wake up and realize, not only are you not immortal, but perhaps it is time to begin living versus surviving.

Realize though, living is frightening for most. No one wants to learn how to drive or to start over so late in life, but … the status quo was so boring, so very boring and slowly lethal.

And no, I'm too young for the midlife crisis. Not true. Moreover, I've done the expensive sports car thing and enjoyed some of the excesses of life that most can only imagine; All a mirage like sailing toward a point on the horizon at sunset – St. Elmo's Fire.

No, I wanted to do something scary, challenging. A yacht. You could die if you screw it up. Ever see “Perfect Storm” “Gilligan's Island” or “Titanic”?

But...a sailboat also offers freedom. I could pick up tomorrow and sail to a distant port, change my name, erase my storied past and make all the same mistakes all over again or not.

Bought a 28-foot sailboat from Mike Hamilton – his family's first sailboat. Sleeps six. Well maintained. Thanks. We'll take good care of it.

The boat was docked at a marina near Oriental – a place that doesn't look that far away on the map. Well...it is. Steered the whole 140 nautical miles – two Sounds, four rivers (Neuse, Pamlico, Pungo, Alligator).

An experienced sailor, Navy brat Pat Joy of Oriental helped me sail the boat those first couple of days – a journey that I thought might take two to three days of easy sailing at the most. Not so.

Soon after putting the key in the ignition, we were sailing. Poured a beer in the river to pay tribute to Joy's friend, Captain Eddy who died last year. RIP.

Needed gas, so we stopped at a very posh marina to fill up the tank. No brakes. Nearly crashed into a quarter million dollar yacht, but by God's grace, I was able to avoid that fate.

We sailed – motored – the boat up the Neuse River to the Pamlico Sound. That night, we dropped anchor in the Sound – nothing around.

Celebration time. Word to the wise. Wine and waves, not necessarily a good mix.

Next day, we sailed up the Pungo River to Belhaven Marina. Docking in this marina was much easier than the last place I stopped for gas. Gregg Baker, the general manager and harbor master, was very good to us. He drove us to a gas station to buy more gas and to Food Lion.

Baker had a long career in manufacturing before deciding one day that he had had enough of the “rat race.” So very agreed. Wanting more out of life, Baker and his longtime friend Brad Condon set up shop at the marina -- a good place to stay. Wifi. Walking distance to restaurants. Also, the marina has VERY clean restrooms and showers. Reasonably priced. I recommend a stopover in Belhaven to anyone. Check it out at belhavenmarina.com

Next morning, a pelican was perched briefly on the sailboat – a good omen. Joy and I traveled up the Pungo River and the Intercoastal Waterway en route to the Alligator River. I got a chance to see a lot of other sailboats and large power boats.

Worth noting, liberals own sailboats and conservatives own power boats – or so I'm told. Crap. And I thought I would be able to avoid politics on the water. My wife is a liberal and I'm...well...not, so maybe it'll be OK.

Intercoastal Waterway and Alligator River – amazing! Nothing out there. No houses. No people. Nothing. Trees and marshlands all around. I imagine it is like traveling up the Amazon.

We went through(?) that draw bridge separating Tyrell and Dare counties to the dock at the Alligator River Marina. There I learned that docking is a patience-building task, so it is better not to gun it into the marina.

Alligator River Marina is a nice place to stay that offers a lobby with a television, clean bathrooms and wifi. Located at the foot of the Alligator River, the marina is not too far from places and ports nearby like Manteo and the Outer Banks. Reasonable rates. Maybe check out their page on Facebook.

That night, a major storm blew through so travel the next day was not happening. Because the marina is close to home, my wife and I were able to drive Mr. Joy home that day to Pamlico County. Mr. Joy said I could handle the rest of the tour – Alligator River to the Albemarle Sound en route to Edenton.

Class was over. Exam time. My wife and children came along to help me make the last leg of the journey home. When it is supposed to be easy, it never is...

The day started with a small craft advisory – not a good time to be on the water. However, we had no choice. School was out and our family's tight schedule demanded that we get the boat home.

I steered into the waves – many of them 4-5 feet high. A lot of wind. Brisk that day. The going was very slow. We were tossed around like a fishing bobber. Either over the starboard side or via plastic bags, the kids and wife made their peace more than a few times with the Albemarle Sound.

And ever try taking a piss break in a moving sailboat? Inside, well...the walls... Outside it is not any easier in restless seas with an arm and ankle wrapped to a sail's guide wire while leaning over the starboard side.

The advisory was supposed to end, but was extended and really, though the Sound grew calmer late that afternoon, it was not easy going. Wasn't supposed to be on this vision quest.

To add to our woes, the anchor perched on the railing by the bow kept slipping from one of its hooks, so my wife had to crawl up out there to reattach it multiple times to get it to stay while I steered. Boat would go up 10 feet in the air, drop 10 feet.

Later, we needed to fuel up. That's not an easy task while in 1-2 foot waves in the middle of the Sound. Engine needed some oil too.

Near sunset, we saw the Route 32 bridge between Chowan and Washington counties. That was divine. Sigh of relief. More or less, we had made it home but the journey was not over – not by a long shot.

We put the boat into full throttle so as to be able to pass under the bridge in daylight. That didn't happen. It was dark and getting late, so we decided to drop anchor in the Sound.

Trouble was...we couldn't get more than a few feet of anchor line out because the rope had become stuck. Imagine that. A family in the dark, a wife and husband doing their best to steer, untangle an anchor line and keep the kids calm.

The anchor line didn't untangle, meaning no anchor.

No anchor and with rescue a distant possibility, we had no choice but to keep going – in it to win it. For whatever reason, that scene from the movie “Footloose” popped into my head. During that chicken contest with tractors, Kevin Bacon, aka Ren McCormack, realizes his shoe is tied to the brake – he can't stop. He knows he has to win it or die trying, so he resigns himself to fate and pushes the gas pedal.

That was me, my wife and our family with that boat that night spinning around in the Sound.

We started traveling to the bridge. Red and green lights mounted at the tallest point on the bridge allowed me to thread the needle and cross under. Sigh of relief.

Night sailing/boating. I don't recommend it. Never again.

Unable to see navigation markers, my wife guided us using a program she had downloaded onto her cellphone. Fortunately, through God's grace, sharp eyesight and laserlike focus on the cellphone's nav chart, we didn't hit any power lines, crash into any obstacles or get tangled in the rope lines leading to crab pots submerged in the murky depths below.

My wife kept us alive – well...she's my hero.

When we saw the lights from the Roanoke River Lighthouse and the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, we knew we were home. That's a pleasant sight. Home. Even if we hit a cypress stump or tree, we could still swim to safety.

Late that night, we tied up the sailboat as best as we could and stepped off onto the dock. Alive!

Staff writer Rebecca Bunch was up when we staggered into the office – she's more of a night person than I am. She called Sheriff Goodwin and his folks helped us to get home to Rocky Hock Landing. Forever grateful.

Epic trip.

Thanks be to God for preserving our family and the good folks of Chowan County for helping us in our time of need.

Now to change my name. Move to Bermuda.