Lightning Storms and Running Aground

Six days ago, we continued on our Bahamas journey, now a crew of four. Dom Neves was the newest recruit to the trip. I figured he had missed the most serious emergencies of our adventure, but I changed my mind when we stood on land staring at our dry docked boat with a broken strut four days later. But let me start at the beginning of this ridiculous chapter of our voyage.

After another day of prep work in Hampton, Virginia, we set out for Norfolk, Virginia, crossing through on the Intracoastal Waterway. The ICW is a widely popular route for sailboats heading down and up the coast, since it avoids North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, a treacherous and sometimes extremely dangerous area for any vessel due to shifting tides and quick weather changes with no safe harbor within fifty miles.

I originally thought the heat was extreme in Virginia, but crossing into North Carolina gave us a true taste of humid, heat-stroke inducing weather. The ICW is rather narrow so we had to stay alert, navigating shallows and going through six or seven swing bridges. Still, we continued on successfully and docked at Great Bridge, North Carolina. My favorite part of this town was the fact that their drawbridge was titled “Great Bridge Bridge.” Here we had some great food in the local town and returned to the boat just in time for a thunder storm to hit. Storms in the South are simply a hundred times worse than what New England experiences apparently. We were hit hard with heavy rain, but in the morning we dried off what we could and headed on down the channel. After some setbacks with the engine, we were able to continue on our way and anchored in Duck, North Carolina, in a small inlet called Broad Creek. The foliage already had a tropical appearance, and it felt as though we were on a safari as we watched the sun go down on the surrounding mossy banks.

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The next day we continued on after weathering another storm through the night, leaving the inlet at 7:30am. We made great time despite the heat, and we entered the Alligator River in the mid-afternoon. We saw no gators, but it was still a beautiful (if long) passage, and we reached the Pungo River around 7:30pm. We anchored in a small, beautiful inlet called Scranton Creek, and we hoped to reach the tiny marine town of Belhaven in the morning. Scranton Creek did not seem so safe and beautiful after that night. Every night there had been some sort of lightning storm or heavy wind, and as the sun went down, wind speeds were already reaching twenty five miles per hour. I was uneasy and so was Bobby. Our anchor alarm began beeping, suggesting that our anchor was not holding as well as it should. Bobby checked the GPS, but we seemed to be firmly held. I climbed up on deck and Bobby and I were dozing off waiting to see if any problems developed. I began to slowly fall asleep when through the pitch black I heard the rustling of reeds. I sat upright and looked to my right. The shoreline was fifteen feet from me. Our anchor had broken hold due to a change of wind direction and a bent shank on the anchor. Within minutes the wind was had drove us straight for shore. I jumped up yelling for everyone to wake up as Bobby also sprung into action. I whipped out the keys and thrust the engine into gear only to have it fail on me immediately. The propeller had a caught a rope from a crab pot when we were drifting and as soon as I revved the engine, it wound the rope around shaft of the propeller. We were helpless. Within seconds we were aground being thrown against the shoreline by the gusts of wind coming from the South East. Another thunder storm was supposed to hit us within the hour.

I radioed the Coast Guard, informing them of our situation and called for a towing service. Unfortunately, my insurance and boat membership was not in their system yet, and the towing service radioed in, informing me that it would cost me fifteen hundred dollars. I radioed back:

“Sorry for waking you. We will get out of this ourselves. I am not paying fifteen hundred dollars. Over.”

A plan was formed. We put together a foldable boat we stored on the side of Eagle Wings, and strapped on a two and a half horsepower motor. Taking the anchor in the dinghy, we motored out into the middle of the inlet and set it once again. Bringing the rope back through the chalk of the sailboat, two people pushed off the shoreline, while two of us pulled on the rope with all the strength that we could muster.

The tide was going out, and we had still made no headway, leaving us sitting ducks. I sent out a couple prayers and texted a couple people on the spot with alarming messages such as, “Please pray pray pray. Aground and about to be hit by a storm.”

We had talked about using the winch for extra leverage and power to help pull the boat off the muddy shoreline. The boat was deeply sunk into the mud, and it seemed to be an unrealistic option at this point. I had a gut feeling that we needed to try it one more time. Gut feelings are a mystery to me, but I have grown more and more conscious and respectful of them.

I knew there was little chance we could escape this, but I encouraged that we should try once more. Matt and Dom were pushing off the shoreline, while Bobby cranked and I pulled the rope through the block. Suddenly, we got an inch.

“…I think we are moving… are we moving?? We are moving!!!!”

Suddenly we were whooping and hollering as the boat came free of the shore and we began pulling it back into deeper water. The wind died down, and the storm that was meant to hit us never came. Giving the big man upstairs credit for that one.

Still, a crab pot’s rope was tightly wound around our propeller. Bobby and I spent over an hour diving with knife in hand slowly cutting it off piece by piece. At four in the morning, the rope was finally completely off our propeller shaft.

Our problems did not end there, however. The next day we discovered a new problem. We broke our strut to the propeller by trying to run the motor not knowing that a crab pot was wound tightly at the time. Once again, we were immobile. We used the dinghy to grab water at a small marina nearby. A lady there mentioned that her boat had been struck by lightning three times. Considering we had already been through four lightning storms in her area, I was getting a bit nervous for Eagle Wings. Getting struck by lightning in a sailboat means a lot of bad things. It is the equivalent to totaling your car, except with more repercussions. Actually, it is similar to totaling your car but not being able to get out of the car because you could drown if you do. The metaphor is weak. But anyway, I digress.

We had no choice but to anchor in this cursed inlet once again for the night, and we spent the day swimming in attempt to withstand the ninety five degree weather. I found out later the inlet is a hotspot for sharks, but that’s all right.

That night we had the worst storm of the trip yet. Winds over thirty knots and lightning in bursts every second. We had no motoring capabilities, and we had no choice but to wait and hope for the best. At one point during the night, we felt the wind push the boat and swing it around completely. We had put out two anchors, but I was still skeptical they would withstand the storm. Lightning lit up the sky, and made it look like day time as I stared through the closed windows, hoping and praying.

Bobby heroically donned rain gear and checked the anchors, returning to confirm that we were still held. This was the fifth storm we had seen in five days. Once again, I was not getting a wink of sleep. I sat with VHF radio in hand, aware that we could end up on shoals in the inlet or be swept into the channel if our anchor broke.

Morning came, and the anchors still held. We made it through the final test of this chapter. I was able to call the towing agency and get pulled into the sleepy town of Belhaven where we dry docked the boat. I immediately began researching a new sWP_000089trut I could purchase so we could continue on our way.

We are currently staying in Belhaven until we get the strut for the boat. This town of two thousand people is something out of a strange but good dream. We have a golfcart at our disposal that we drive around town, going to the only local grocery store. People were spotted driving around in golfcarts in town, one having car seats in the back of it. After being here three days, it feels as though we are already the talk of the town and known by sight by most of the townsfolk.

“You those guys Axson towed in on the sailboat. I heard him talkin’ bout y’all on the VHF radio.”

When asking what there is to do around town, we were recommended the hardware store. The people of this town are loving and welcoming, however, making the lack of activities a non-issue. I feel like we are living in a different era here. Looking forward to getting back on the ocean, but it has been quite an experience stopping in the middle of nowhere and seeing their unbelievable hospitality and generosity.

Stay tuned for more details on repairs and our experiences in this small North Carolina town!

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