Home->Sailing Trips->Elizabeth City, October 2021

Elizabeth City, October 2021

Text and Photographs by Paul Clayton

Late afternoon on the Edenton Town Dock. In the morning, we sail for Elizabeth City.

With plans to sail to Elizabeth City on Monday, 10/25/21, I decided to stage off the town dock Sunday evening and save a half hour. Off Edenton Marina dock 17:10, on town dock 17:40. 1 mile.

My plan for Monday - to Elizabeth City with forecast for southerly winds 5-10, increasing to 10-15 in the afternoon, with a slight chance of showers or thunderstorms in the afternoon. Get down to the Pasquotank River as quickly as possible to avoid any stormy weather on the lower Albemarle.

Off dock at 06:15 in complete darkness, my trusty Dorcy picking out the markers as I worked my way out the bay. After a while a red sky sailors warning appeared in the east. There was little wind, and that from the south, but once I passed under the power lines and turned east it was worthwhile to set up sails. There was enough wind to fill the sails and add maybe a fraction of a knot to to our speed. I knew that to make the Pasquotank River early I would have to motorsail most if not all the trip.

We made good time down the sound. The wind came up a bit and much of the way we were making six knots. Ominous clouds were building to the south, though, and I could see an occasional flash of lightning. It looked like violent weather around the mouth of the Alligator River, which was too close for comfort. So the forecast was right about afternoon storms - it was 12:05, five minutes after noon. We were so close to the mouth of the Pasquotank, maybe a half hour short. I rolled in most of the jib, leaving just a scrap, then went to work dropping the main. I had just got it down and tied when the wind abruptly increased from 10 to 20, and as I got back to the cockpit, a blast of wind, perhaps 50 knots or more swept across the boat accompanied by heavy rain. The boat tried to turn up into the wind, but the scrap of jib held the bow off. We heeled far over, but with the mainsail down, didn't go all the way like we had in June. After a few minutes, the wind subsided and I was able to get the boat running downwind, more or less in the direction we wanted to go. The waves were atrocious.

(Later, on the dock at Elizabeth City, a fellow sailor theorized that these sudden storm winds were downdrafts. I could see how the dense, cold, wet air of an approaching front could crash down through the light, dry air and push high winds out along the surface. This microbursts (if they are less than 2.5 miles wide) or macrobursts (over 2.5 miles wide) can create winds of 100 miles an hour, as much as a an EF-1 tornado.)

Even with just a bit of jib set, and the engine running just off idle, the wind and waves carried the boat at over 5 knots in the general direction that I wanted to go. The agitated seas continued a couple of miles up into the Pasquotank, but the wind declined, and soon I had the jib rolled back out to almost full. I gradually increased the engine speed as the seas settled down, then, as the winds dropped to almost flat, rolled the jib back in and advanced the throttle to cruising speed, 2700 rpm and approximately 5 knots.

Canadian boat on the dock at Elizabeth City.

On the town dock was another sailboat, flying the American flag from the taffrail and the flag of Taiwan R.O.C. from the flag halyard. Good on you, my friend, I hope we stand by Taiwan forever. Captain Jeff came by for a chat and mentioned that he sometimes read a website that had stories about sailing on the Albemarle and Pamlico. I asked if that might be neuseriversailors.com and he replied, that, yes, it was. I told him that was my website, and we both got a kick out of meeting on the dock in Elizabeth City.

Also on the dock was Alex, aboard a big Nordic Tug, and a couple of Catalina 30s sailing together. Aboard one was a French Canadian couple with their two-year old son. The other boat was not flying a national flag, but had a Greek name and seemed to have a thirty-something male skipper and a crew of at least two late-teen to early twenties girls.

Soon a cyclist stopped to talk Albergs. Mike was docked at the Bible College aboard his Alberg 30, heading for home on Pungo Creek just outside Belhaven after a four-month tour of the Chesapeake. We talked boats for a while and I gave him a tour of Terry Ann.

With ugly weather forecast for the next couple of days, southbounders continued to trickle in to wait it out on the town dock. The crush was nothing like I have seen it in past years, but still, there was a respectable crowd.

The weather system brought westerly winds. The docks at Elizabeth City line up along a high bulkhead, and while they are wide open to southeasterly winds, they are very well protected from the west. On our boats, we hardly noticed the breeze, though the leaves starting to fall from the pin oaks on the bulkhead scattered on deck. On the streets of town, though, the wind was quite apparent.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday cleaning the decks and scuppers, and whipping the ends of some gouty lines. I had a beer at the Ghost Harbor brewery. The bartender assured me they had good WiFi, but I was never able to get a connection. The beer, a double, was good, though. The next day I went to the library and used their excellent connection. I walked out Ehringhaus a couple of times to get ice at the convenience store. In addition to ice, it stocks cigarettes, vapes and lottery tickets - all the kind of things that the local homeless population likes to buy. The ice was expensive, but it was the best I could do anywhere near the waterfront.

It was a pleasant time with mostly blue skies. Now and then, somebody would stumble in with stories of the havoc out in the sound. Wednesday morning a single-hander (with a dog) in a big new Beneteau came in from the south. We helped him get docked, and he willingly admitted what was clear, that he was a rank novice at sailing. The day before, he had crossed the Albemarle, and was still a bit shell-shocked at the treatment it had doled out. He had arrived on the upper Pasquotank late in the day, and hadn't been able to nerve himself to approach the docks in twilight, so he had anchored in one of the bays just to the south. He was stopping just for a few minutes to run to the drug store before he headed north up the Dismal Swamp Canal. He wasn't aware there were two locks ahead, thinking there was just one, and didn't know the locking schedules. It was already late in the morning, and we encouraged him to push hard to be able to make the 3:30 opening and get to the State Park dock before dark.

The truly shocking thing to me, was that he planned to meet up with the Salty Dog group at Hampton Roads and accompany them on the blue water route to the Bahamas. It seemed like a rather ambitious agenda for an older man, maybe in not great health, on his first sailing trip.

Ardea reaching down the Pasquotank River.

The bad weather was supposed to lift out late Wednesday, with mild easterly breezes Thursday and then a violent storm bringing gale-force winds to the region Thursday night, Friday and Saturday. I had things to do back home, so I needed to take the opportunity to sail back to Edenton while it was on offer.

My plan was to leave as early as possible Thursday morning in case the violent weather forecast for the evening came in early. I was the first boat off the dock at 6:15 in pre-dawn blackness, with Alex on his Nordic Tug just behind me - for a few minutes. He soon passed me. Jeff, aboard his Ericson 32 Ardea, was not far behind. As we motor-reached down the river in the dawning light, I looked back and counted nine more sailboats and a couple of trawlers following us down the river. Everyone was trying to use this sliver of a weather window to get some southing. The fast boats could expect to reach Belhaven, while the rest would put in at Alligator River Marina or risk the unsheltered anchorage on the river at the mouth of the canal. Ardea gradually reeled us in and passed us at the mouth of the river, to the credit of her modern (compared to Terry Ann's) hull form. I was the only one to turn off to the west, up the Albemarle Sound.

(Later, I got a report from Jeff that the anchorage on the Alligator was not too bad other than a 180 degree wind shift, but he did see 35 knots of wind on the Pungo River the following day).

Heading up the sound I passed the mouth of the Little River. Someday I hope to go into it and anchor overnight. I had toyed with the idea for this trip, and if the weather had not been so unsettled I might have done so. Claiborne Young had his reservations, as the river edges are shoal, but he wrote his classic Cruising Guide to Coastal North Carolina in the days when every boat did not carry a chart plotter. There is only one marker on the river, at the mouth, and the channel twists and winds its way to the headwaters. Careful attention to the plotter and depth finder would have to take the place of a marked channel, but it should be possible to penetrate seven or eight miles upstream. What's it like up there? I don't know. Nobody I know has ever been there. If that's enough to get your blood stirring, email me and we'll buddy boat up the Little River.

I messed around off the mouth of the Little River for a few minutes, heaving to and getting a bite to eat, then trying to sail for a few minutes (not enough wind), motor-sailing wing and wing (instantaneous jibe), then deciding to make it simple and take down the main, and motor-sail onward with just the jib set. That proved to be a good choice. We made a consistent 5 1/2 knots for the next couple of hours, until the wind died off for a while, and then came right back up near the highway bridge.

OpenCPN plot of the trip back.

The last stretch to the power lines and in the bay we saw probably the best wind of the day. Between the rolled-out genoa and Beta 20, we averaged just under 6 knots. In Pembroke Creek, in deference to the shallow water, we crept in at a couple of knots, always ready to drop out of gear if water shoaled to less than our draft. We actually dropped to an idle for a few minutes to allow an enormous trawler to come through the narrow section. As we continued up the creek, I looked back to see her hang up for a minute, then with a burst of power force a way over. Pembroke Creek is not for the faint-hearted.

I tied up next to Sea Wasp, a Tartan 34 sailed by friends Tom and Ann. The two boats are the prettiest in the marina, and look good together.

We had some rough weather in Edenton for the next couple of days, but nothing like the pounding they took on the lower Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. I hope everyone, the NC sailors as well as the snowbirds, came through safely.

Elizabeth City is a favorite destination, and I'm already looking forward to the next visit.

Text and Photographs by Paul Clayton.
Posted 11/12/21.

Copyright © 2021 Paul M. Clayton