Recap: The Three Stooges Go Down the Ditch

First bridge heading down the ICW

After a delightful couple of days in Phoebus, I weighed anchor and moved the short distance around the freeway bridge-tunnel and into Hampton proper. I had reserved a slip there in order to meet a couple of friends who were flying in to join me on the next leg of the journey.

I’ve known Dave since we were both sophomores (fourth formers, in the parlance) at prep school in New Hampshire. We played hockey together at St. Paul’s and then moved on to Dartmouth together. Since prepping and going to college together, Dave and I have gone to countless concerts (mainly Grateful Dead shows…I know: shocker) and on many an adventure together. Dave’s wife Steff is a dear friend and I’ve watched their sons grow into fine young men. So yeah, we go way back.

Thing is: Dave goes even farther back with Chip. Chip and Dave went to Cardigan Mountain School together, and for years Dave has been adamant that he had to get Chip and I together, that

Dave, Chip and I at the Great Bridge Lock

we’d hit it off gangbusters.


So when Dave said that Chip was a sailor, well, hey…why don’t you two guys come help me move Further down through Virginia and North Carolina?

I picked ‘em up at the Norfolk airport in the car I had rented to drive up to Annapolis and back for the final step in the year-and-a-half-long dental-implant process and hauled ‘em off to the marina and Further. En route, we stocked up at the Harris-Teeter supermarket and then enjoyed a nice dinner at the marina restaurant—where Chip put his Southern gentleman style on full display charming the waitress, the folks at the table next to us and pretty much anyone we bumped into at the marina.

Charming or not, we needed to get going so the next day we loaded up on diesel, pumped out the head and despite a fierce northwesterly wind that tried its damnedest to pin us to the fuel dock, got started out onto the James River and onto the Elizabeth River through the heart of Norfolk. To be honest, it’s kinda hard to tell these rivers apart…they’re all part of the big bay complex that makes up the Hampton Roads region and includes the world’s largest naval base. But with that northwest wind we rolled out the genoa and sailed our way to the first of the gazillion bridges that cross the Intracoastal Waterway. We were on our way.

Sunrise on the Pungo River in North Carolina

And that first day, we timed everything damned near perfectly. We hit every bridge and the one lock at their specified opening times. We made our first stop at the free municipal dock just south of the one lock on the ICW in Great Bridge, Virginia. We found a nice sports bar nearby, got a good night’s sleep and the next day, under grey skies, started down the ICW proper.

We made our way down that first stretch of canals, creeks and bays that were connected to enable shipping to travel north and south without venturing out into the treacherous waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Hatteras in pretty uneventful fashion. In fact, the only drama came with me stressing every time we came to one of the fixed bridges that crossed our path and were supposed to be a minimum of sixty-five feet clearance — but according to the cruising community might or might not actually measure up to said clearance. The top of Further’s mast is about 63.5 feet above the water, give or take. And, in fact, that height is to the top of the VHF antenna, which is just a whippy piece of wire sticking a couple of feet above the top of the soli

The battleground on Further: the cribbage board

d aluminum mast. So in reality, we had enough room…but that didn’t mean I didn’t sweat every single bridge passing.

I had reserved a tie-up for that first real evening on the ICW at the dock in Coinjock, N.C., a marina in a

canal dug to connect a couple of the sounds that hide behind the Outer Banks. Coinjock’s marina restaurant is also famous for its prime rib (did not disappoint) and after dinner, Dave and I taught Chip the basics of the card game, cribbage.

The next day was grey and rainy and windy and just plain miserable. But we pressed on, down the ICW far enough that we pressed our luck (and won) and anchored just south of the Alligator-Pungo Canal. As a result, we had a nice, quiet anchorage, sheltered from the winds and waves raging up the other end of the canal.

We grabbed an end-tie at the dock in Oriental, N.C., the next evening and were pleasantly surprised by a truly superlative meal in the charming little town, and then rolled right past the Beaufort area the next day, opting to anchor just beside the ICW in Swansboro, N.C. That put us a day out of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., our goal on this trip primarily because right next door to Wrightsville is the city of Wilmington, complete with a legit airport from which Dave and Chip could fly back to their lives. And we made great time from Swansboro, hitting the two drawbridges perfectly within their regularly scheduled opening periods. But this final leg of the trip was not without its…entertainment value.

Sunset in Oriental, N.C.

The first showstopper came courtesy of our own stooge-like behavior. Simply put: we ran aground. We were rolling down the ICW, making great time thanks to a nice current flowing in our direction, when all of a sudden the boat lurched to a stop. I knew immediately what had happened and jumped into the cockpit (I was not at the helm) and pulled the throttle back and out of gear. Thing was: with that current pushing us farther onto the sand bar, there was no way we were backing off. After several futile attempts, I shut down the engine and pondered.

No big deal, right? There are two kinds of boaters on the ICW: those who have run aground and those who will. We had simply moved from the latter group into the former. So…deal with it. I opted to drop the dinghy into the water and, using a line, try to yank Further’s bow off the bar sideways. But between the dinghy’s wonky old two-stroke outboard engine and the strong current, let’s just say I wasn’t making much progress. I finally gunned the engine hard while standing up and when the rope pulled taut…BOOM! Ass-over-teakettle, into the drink I went. Whoops.

My first reaction was: glad I’m a northerner because the water’s not cold. My second reaction was: shit, I wasn’t wearing the kill switch so the outboard engine is still revving full-tilt, yanking the dinghy this way and that like a kite in a gusty wind storm. I tried several times to pull myself up into the dinghy to put the outboard into neutral—probably not the smartest move I’ve ever made—and through it all, Dave was yelling at me to “let go! Get away from it,” with “it” being the spinning propeller. He was right but in the heat of the moment, I felt I had to get the dinghy under control. I finally succeeded and everything calmed right down. I got back into the dinghy, pulled it back to Further’s stern and climbed aboard to get out of my wet clothes.

After getting the dinghy back up into the davits where it belonged, we lucked out when “Big Al” (it said so right there on the transom of his boat) came along in his 20-foot-or-so center-console runabout. He tossed us a line, which we secured to Further’s bow, and with his boat pulling sideways and me gunning Further’s diesel, we got off the bar in no time. Really, it turned out to be no time: the whole episode probably took no more than 20 minutes and we were on our way down the ICW again.

Fortunately, we were able to make up whatever time we’d lost and thus made our scheduled bridge openings, including the drawbridge at Wrightsville Beach itself, our destination. But we weren’t done yet.

Just south of the congested heart of Wrightsville Beach’s waterfront, we encountered a U.S. Coast Guard chase vessel heading north on the ICW. Immediately after passing us, the boat did a 180 and hailed us on the VHF radio. I responded and when asked to switch to channel 22A, replied that my radio didn’t have that channel (it does, but at the time I couldn’t find it and didn’t realize that on my radio channel 22A is actually channel 1022…live and learn). On the primary hailing channel on the marine VHF band, channel 16, the Coast Guardsman in charge informed us he was going to do a safety inspection, which wasn’t too surprising since we’d heard him say the same thing to another boat about half an hour earlier and to which somebody listening in responded, “Must be the end of the month and they need to make their budget.”

Anyway, the Coast Guard boat pulled up alongside, tied up to Further and three or four crew came aboard. We did the inspection, which passed with flying colors, after which the leader of the crew asked if we minded if the Department of Homeland Security guy that was with them brought his dog on board for an inspection since they were training the dog. I said I didn’t mind at all and the DHS guy ran the German shepherd through the cabin.

One of the perks of being in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., for a few days: SURF!

In reality, I minded quite a bit, but what was I going to say? “No, you can’t inspect the boat”? Get real. And why did I mind, do you ask? Well, to be perfectly honest: I had a couple of containers of cannabis gummies in my fridge and one of my crew likewise had not only some gummies but also a joint. And to be perfectly honest: I didn’t think we were doing anything wrong, especially since said cannabis had been purchased legally in states where adults are allowed to be, well, adults. But that’s not what the federal government thinks so we were taking a big chance.

After a few minutes, the DHS guy came topside and said the dog had gotten a hit on the grey backpack in the forward cabin. That’s my camera bag, with a gazillion different camera bodies, lenses and accessories, but zero illicit substances. The guy asked if it was possible the bag had been exposed to smoke or something like that and I said sure, it was possible since I’d been a journalist in Alaska where marijuana was legal (I didn’t say that that had been 20 years ago) and had covered events where the smoke was heavy. Well, he and the head Coastie went back down below, looked through the bag and then came back saying that the while dog had gotten the hit, they weren’t saying I had drugs on board, but that we should be very careful. Whatever. It was hard to take them seriously when we knew there was cannabis on board and they said their dog had detected something, but the dog clearly hadn’t detected what was on board because that forward cabin was nowhere near when any of the gummies (and the joint) were. Like I say: whatever. Anyway, they gave me the passing grade on the inspection, went back to their boat and departed. And I finally stopped sweating bullets.

So yeah, an eventful last day for the Three Stooges on the ICW. We settled into Wrightsville, hung out for a couple of days and then the boys took off. I stayed a couple of days longer and even managed to get some surfing in when a nice swell rolled into the beach that was within walking distance of the marina.

But what has stayed with me ever since that day on the ICW in North Carolina is what Dave said to me after we’d gotten back underway after running aground. We were recounting what had happened because, in the heat of the moment, I didn’t hear Dave, Chip didn’t understand what Dave was yelling about—basically, mass hysteria. And at that point, Dave kinda chastised me a bit, saying I shouldn’t be so cavalier because, after all, I am approaching sixty.


Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that fifty-seven was approaching sixty. I think like most men, I still consider myself to be twenty-seven or so. Sure, I realize I’m not as fit as I once was, but I can still jump out of boats and into dinghies and pull myself out of the way of rabid outboard propellers while being pushed downstream by a fierce tidal current. Sixty, my ass!

But yeah, hearing it like that, from a true friend, well, it hit hard. And it hit true. That’s not to say I still haven’t tried to do stupid shit like the twenty-something I once was. But it does mean that I’m a little more cognizant of my limitations. And it has definitely contributed to the midlife crisis I’ve been undergoing for several years. Anyway…

As much as I liked Wrightsville—and I did like it quite a bit—it was time for me to push on, solo…


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