2009 WaterTribe - North Carolina Challenge

by Bill Fite


NCC2009 was a roughly 100-mile circuit challenge for kayaks and small sailboats around Cedar Island and other land via Pamlico Sound, the Neuse River, Clubfoot Creek, Harlowe Canal, Harlowe Creek, the Newport River, Taylor Creek, Back Sound, Core Sound, and finish via Pamlico Sound. I competed as a solo sailor in my SeaPearl 21, and dropped out on the second day, maybe around the halfway point. I had a few equipment failures, but my major disappointment was in losing focus on my primary goal of continually pressing myself within the limits of safety and good seamanship. This account will focus on the bad stuff.

It's important to say at the outset that my head was never in this adventure. Family issues (not marital) have made for a miserable summer, and I hadn't touched the boat since the Lake George trip in June. I entered because I wanted very much to support this new WaterTribe event, but during the entire trip and event I wanted to be home. Lesson one: these kinds of events generally require your full attention and best attitude. Stay home if you're ambivalent about it.

I had four inflatable beach rollers to get the boat off of the beach. They tested fine before the event, but one of them failed during use in getting the boat from the water onto the beach on inspection day. Moments before the start another roller failed, and not long after the start a third failed. It took me over an hour to get off of the beach. Even when I got to the water almost an hour after the start I needed a couple of first downs to get to where Moon Shadow would float. I was covered in sweat and sand, exhausted, and disgusted. The only boat in sight was Dave Bolduc's "Enigma," the Matt Layden boat known to many that I sail with.

Once underway I sailed poorly. Rounding the stone breakwater of the Ocracoke Ferry into a NW headwind the boat heeled excessively and bounced around in a chop that was surprisingly heavy. Perhaps not having my "sea legs" yet was making me anxious, but in any case, after tacking a few times I heaved to, reefed 3/2 and filled the ballast tanks. Of course the wind then seemed to abate, and I cursed the agonizingly slow beating, Moon Shadow's worst point of sail, and my own worst as well. Soon I wasted more time by heaving to, pumping out the ballast tanks, and rolling out the reefs.

I guess it took me a couple of hours to catch Enigma. Dave was calm and cool, right on his game plan and, unlike me, completely unbothered by being over the horizon behind the field. I sailed on searching in vain for any sign of the others.

When I reached the Neuse River and turned SW the wind was only about 6 mph, but now more or less on my beam&emdash;time to deploy the mizzen staysail! I got it out and rigged the tack and clue. Then I managed to foul the halyard trying to undo the elaborate hitches I had used to try to prevent it from flapping when not in use. The halyard got caught in the gooseneck, and in yanking it free I managed to pull one end of it high above my head. Employing new curses and a boathook, I tried hopelessly to retrieve it. I angrily hauled it through the pulley atop the mizzen mast and flung it into the center cockpit. By now I was hurling epithets and phrases that would result in the death sentence in the Middle East. I knew that at least two of the sailboats ahead of me had mizzen staysails and would be using them to good effect.

I sailed unhappily on until the wind seemed to try to shift and all but died&emdash;time to get out the oars and power sail! The problem was, I had no visible aiming point in any direction, and I could not see the compass from the rowing thwart. Moreover, I could not read my Lowrance GPS in the daylight without picking it up and holding it at a certain angle. After zig-zagging for about half an hour I gave up the row-sailing, figuring the extra distance covered, the physical effort, and the resultant frustration were not worth the added speed.

My focus had been mediocre all day, but at this point I completely abandoned my goal of pressing hard and decided to simply enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Unless killer whales attacked and sank the boats in front of me, I felt I would never catch them. I thought if I just sailed competently and didn't sleep, however, I would save myself from an out-and-out spanking.

Right away things got better. The pressure was off, the scenery was beautiful despite darkening skies, and the wind shifted to my stern and picked up to 10 kts or so. I clipped along at 5 and 6 kts, enjoying the trip for the first time. The wind picked up even more and I began surfing, hitting 9.6 kts as a top speed, but staying in the 7s and 8s for good stretches. This was exciting, intense sailing, but not particularly scary. I did not have the yawing and sliding control issues that I have had before while running in bigger swells. It occurred to me that if the people in front of me were already in Clubfoot Creek or the Harlowe canal, I was surely closing on them a little bit at last. Still, as rain and lightning started, I heaved to and reefed down to 5/3 as a precaution against one of these storms having short-lived but severe blasts of wind that could dump me. My speed slowed to about 5+ kts and I steered south of my planned course to get closer to shore and in more shallow water for better emergency anchoring.

The sailing that followed was a good adventure. There was rain and lightning and poor visibility, with navigational issues to boot. Closer to shore I was off my planned course, and the GPS straight-line bearings to waypoints led me into some shoals and marsh islands. I had plenty of wind to go any direction needed, though, and it was fun improvising. I saw a WaterTribe kayaker who had taken refuge ashore during the height of the storm.

The winds eased and almost died by the time I reached Clubfoot Creek. I sailed slowly through it and even down the Harlowe canal for a ways before rowing. The rowing was easy, as the strong winds had pushed water up the Neuse and through the canal in my direction. A few kayakers passed me, including Running Mouth (aka SP 21 owner Jonathan Coble) in his new Kruger Sea Wind. Once through the canal and partway down Harlowe Creek just before dark I put masts back up and ghosted along toward the Newport River.

The roughly six miles from entering the Newport to the checkpoint in Beaufort were tricky. The wind and rain picked up again, the tide was low, and the night was extremely dark. I got confused by the shore and harbor lights and bumped the bottom a few times near the bridge, and then sailed through without incident.

This was Friday night, and the Beaufort waterfront was lively despite the weather. A loud band and singers were in full swing. Ridgerunner (Doug Cameron) and Graybeard (Michael Collins) were still at the checkpoint in Doug's Core Sound 20, and they directed me in and helped me tie up (I learned later that they also had a slow start to the challenge). It was great to see them, but the astonishing thing was that Doug told me that he and Graybeard were going to join Roo/Tinker in the EC22 and DWSB/SOS in their CS20, all of whom were spending the night there in Taylor Creek in Beaufort. He explained that a big blow was coming and he said "We're going to leave at first light." My joy was considerable because I had had every intention of sailing on into the night as long as I possibly could. I thought "Wow, what a concept: a civilized challenge. The class 4s get some sleep and take up racing in the morning!" Now I was out of my cruising mode and looking forward to being back in the game the next day.

Well, I signed in, enjoyed hot tea a lady gave me, chatted a bit and then sailed down the creek to join the others. The wind wasn't bad at all, and it was with me. I must admit it occurred to me that I could keep on sailing and be the class 4 leader, at least until Roo could pull anchor and chase me down. To me though, it seemed like such a move would be like advancing under a yellow caution flag; a weasel-like, shameful act that would erase what little respect I might have in the tribe. I spotted Ridgerunner's CS 20 anchored off in the dark among the moored boats, and pulled in near him. We were about a mile short of the end of the creek, which would have been a better anchorage for a quick exit in the morning, but the favorable wind made progress easy at the time, so I didn't worry about it. I couldn't see Roo and DWSB/SOS; Doug said they were a little ways down. I got out of my soaked clothes, into dry ones, called Sheila, ate some Beanie Weanies, drank a beer, and smoked a cigar. Sometime before midnight I fell asleep thinking "Is this a great Country or what?"

I woke up around 0300 and couldn't get back to sleep. Lots to do anyway, so I freed the boat from up on the bank where wind and tide had left me, filled ballast tanks, secured all loose gear in case of capsize, ate, cleaned up, listened to the weather report (yikes!), and waited. There was no sign of activity aboard Ridgerunner's boat. Around 0600 I called over, but got no reply. I guess it was about 0630 when I saw them moving about, and I hollered out "How soon are we going?"

I won't try to report exactly how the conversation ensued, but the essence of it was Doug wasn't sure when they were going to move out, and he wasn't in a hurry. "Have you talked to Roo?" I asked. Doug said "Oh they left hours ago." I blinked stupidly trying to sort out what was going on. I had totally misinterpreted Doug the night before: the "we" in "We're going to leave at first light." meant Doug and Michael, not a cozy little fraternity of class 4 competitors. I was now about four hours behind the leaders, which meant I couldn't get within sight of them if I used a Honda 2 and good binoculars.

This wasn't a tragedy, but it was an important lesson I hope not to forget. Ron Hoddinott told me once that an important racing principle was "race your own boat", meaning don't get caught up worrying how someone else is pointing higher than you are and that sort of thing. A parallel principle would be "follow your own plan or strategy", and change it only for your own reasons. My original plan was to sail on until stopped by weather or until I was a zombie. Instead I stopped when sailing was still feasible, and zombification had barely begun.

So I was back into a cruising frame of mind when we left around 0700. The best part was that Doug and Michael are super guys, and it was fun sailing more or less with someone (we hadn't agreed to stay together, but we did monitor our VHFs).

It took us about an hour to get out of Taylor Creek due to the adverse wind and foul tidal current. Out in Back Sound the wind was whipping stronger than the 10-15 kts I measured before we left the creek. The tide was low, and you couldn't read the water because of the chop, so both boats ran aground a few times trying to get away from the Beaufort area. Eventually my tiller swung across while I was pulling up a leeboard, and the handle of the tiller extension hit the gunnel with enough force to break the tiller wood away and knock the tiller extension and mounting sleeve completely out.

The wind continued to pick up, and the loss of the tiller extension became more of a problem than I would have imagined. I couldn't sit far forward, and I couldn't lean out to windward much to counter the heeling of the boat. I was reefed 4/2 and still managed to let green water over the rail several times, very nearly capsizing. Bailing was almost impossible without heading up because I needed both hands to sail the boat. Sometimes I needed a hand to backwind the mainsail to get through the wind when trying to come about, and after a few hours I needed two hands to pull up a leeboard. When I'm using a tiller extension I often hold it under my arm for a moment to free my hands, but without it I sometimes lost the tiller and it would swing out over the gunnel on the low side. Crawling down to reach for it was unthinkable. I pulled it back with the mizzen sheet, which then sometimes came out of the clam cleat. My eyes are not good, and I couldn't read my GPS without picking it up and trying different light angles&emdash;another instance where a third arm would have been useful. Frequently a sailing problem would occur before I could read it or make sense of what I was seeing on the GPS screen, and I would have to put it down quickly and regain control.

All of these problems made for sloppy, slow sailing. Doug and Michael eventually passed me and got several hundred yards ahead as we neared the E end of Harkers Island. They seemed to be sailing quite well when I saw that they had heaved to, so I thought they had seen that I was struggling somewhat and were waiting for me. When I reached them I thanked them for waiting and said go ahead, I'll be OK. It surprised me when Doug said they were turning back, so much so that it took me nearly a full minute to agree that was a good thing to do! The truth is that we were both under control and progressing, but it was after noon and we had over 30 miles to go. One reason I hadn't planned to turn back yet was that the wind was now SE, and our point of sail would soon be a reach. I did worry that darkness was going to find us in areas that have a lot of fish traps, which are uncharted lines of tall poles close together with fish nets between them, all perpendicular to our direction of travel. The weather was ugly for night sailing. Doug and Michael didn't need to prove anything, they are both first class outdoorsmen who have finished probably a dozen ECs between them in different types of craft, and they won the EC a few years ago. I didn't need to prove anything, because nobody cares what I do anyway, so the decision was pretty easy.

Sailing back was quick and fun. We tied up at the public ramp and caught separate rides back to Cedar Island to pick up our cars. By about 1600 I was on the road headed home, with my main regret being that full support for the event meant finishing if possible and sticking around for the awards, and I didn't do that.

With luck I'll be back next year, better prepared. The venue is super and SandyBottom and her volunteers did a great job.

An important point for newer or prospective SeaPearl owners to remember is that these were serious conditions, and the boat was up to the demands put upon it. Day 2 of NCC09 was a day when nobody with good sense and not in a challenge would choose to go sailing, and if caught in such conditions one's goal normally would be to head home or for shelter, which was quick and easy to do. Obviously in the rare cases when the goal is to sail on through the day and night in rough weather, especially single-handing, you do risk trouble, but it would not likely be from a shortcoming of the boat itself.


Bill Fite