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Overnight to Bath

Text by Paul Clayton, Photographs Paul Clayton and Taylor Ward.

The winter of 2023-2024 featured one stormy, rainy, windy front after another along the North Carolina coast, and my Alberg 35 Terry Ann stayed tied to the dock from September to May. I spent a fair amount of time on the boat and got some work done, but never felt tempted to sail. Even in April when we usually see some of the gentlest and most benign weather of the year, the winds continued to howl and the rains to lash down. Finally, though, in the first days of May, the weather relented. After the long layover, I took the opportunity to make a quick day sail down to Blount's Bay, running Don Casey style, "jib and full awning", the motor on the whole time in deference to the light airs. Everything worked well and no repeat of a bilge pump syphoning incident that put water over the cabin sole last fall. My good friend and sailing partner Taylor Ward found time for an overnighter so we decided to run down to Bath and lay over on the State Dock. Even then, we didn't make the "go/no go" decision until the evening before we planned to sail, due to a distinct possibility of thunderstorms (rain showers we can handle).

Unsettled weather, the day before our trip. Photograph by Paul Clayton

The local shortline Carolina Coastal Railway ties up in Pinetown each evening and in the morning the first order of business is to run down to Washington, cross the river to Chocowinity and connect with the train from Wilson. The swing bridge usually closes early in the morning and stays closed until the train returns with its day's work. Usually by around 10:30 the bridge is open and boats tied up at the Washington docks can proceed downriver. With summer-like warm, unstable weather, our hope was to get out on the water as early as possible and get to Bath before any afternoon storms brewed up.

Our chances for an early start this Monday morning in May didn't look good, though. The Chocowinity-bound train trundled over the swing span and across the long trestle at the late hour of 8:45am. If they had much work to do at the NS yard, I could foresee it being noon or later before the bridge would open.

I have a sailing friend who won't keep his boat in Washington because, years ago, he got caught above the railroad bridge when it malfunctioned and couldn't open for several days. He missed a good portion of his annual sailing vacation that year.

Taylor arrived from Ahoskie at 9:30 and stowed his gear in the forecabin. We got the boat squared away to cast off, and I walked up to the dockmaster's office to see if he would use his high position to convince the bridge tender to open for us. Sometimes they will do that if it is going to be a long wait for the train. I was told to hail the bridge on 16 and that I could probably get an open.

I tried, and a few minutes later tried again, but got no response. The dockmaster happened by and suggested that the problem was that I had hailed Washington Bridge and not Washington Railroad Bridge, so the tender didn't think the call was for him. This seemed unlikely, since the highway bridge to the best of my knowledge hasn't opened in years and I believe requires a call to NCDOT to set up an opening a day in advance. But I tried again, specifying Washington Railroad Bridge, with the same result.

The dockmaster chose to be merciful and provided me with the bridge tender's telephone number. I called and the pleasant respondent told me he had just talked to the train crew and they thought they would be back to Washington between 11:00 and 11:30, so it was too late to open the bridge and then get it closed in time for them. At least now we had a known time and we settled in to wait.

At 11:15 the train cleared the bridge and, with a hand from a C-Dock neighbor,we cast off lines and started slowly motoring down the waterfront. At 11:20 the bridge began to swing open, and we advanced the throttle, passing through a moment later to a friendly wave from the bridge tender.

At the mouth of Chocowinity Bay the channel turns slightly to the east and the wind, before almost dead ahead, came more abeam. We rolled out the jib, gaining a few tenths of a knot. The winds were light, the trip was short, and the sun was hot, so we chose to motorsail under jib and full awning, gaining comfort at the cost of a slight reduction in speed. Even if we had set the main, we would have had to continue to run the motor to make decent time and reach Bath by early afternoon.

On the Bath State Dock. Photograph by Taylor Ward.

We were taking one hour tiller watches and Taylor's second came to an end just as we approached the mouth of Bath Creek. He asked if I minded him keeping the tiller through the slighly twisty entrance, so he could practice pilotage using the Navionics Software on his IPad. I told him by all means and he carried us through past marker 2, where I took the tiller for the trip up the creek. I found some shallow water in the vicinity of missing Marker 3 off Glebe Creek but didn't touch bottom. Approaching the State Dock just below the marina at the Highway 92 bridge, with the wind blowing more or less straight up the creek, I decided to lay the boat on the windward side of the dock and set plenty of fenders. The dock has an almost-flush edge, with the pilings poking out just a bit, so this was a workable method. We tied up at 3:00, 3 hours and 45 minutes and 15.6 miles from Washington.

A few minute's work set the boat straight and then we enjoyed a round of Kinston brewer Mother Earth's "Long Weekend". I have always found their beers to be delicious, but this is one of the best. It is not overly bitter and hopped like some craft IPAs, but is very flavorful. After this we walked around Bath, ending up at the marina, where we had a good conversation with a local sailor who has a self-built, Benford-designed, junk-rigged dory. On the way we had passed Blackbeard's Tavern where we had planned to have supper, and found it closed on Monday. We learned that there was a cafe down the road, and also the Quarterdeck at the highway crossing at Back Creek, so we thought we had things covered.

I learned something about the fitness community as we walked around Bath. Taylor groused that he had forgotten to put on his watch, so all the steps he was taking didn't count. If you can't document it, it didn't happen.

It was early still, so we sat on the boat as I drank another beer, and then we hiked down the road toward the restaurants. The cafe was closed on Monday, and as we approached the Quarterdeck it looked suspiciously like it was closed. Yep, closed at 6:00, and it was currently 6:30.

On the walk, we had passed through the social center of Bath - the school, the Post Office, the ball fields, the Dollar General, and, I kid you not, "Ye Olde ABC Store", lettered in Gothic script. The ball fields were mobbed with Junior League (Peewee? Pygmy? Dwarf? - tiny children) ball teams and their doting parents and grandparents. Taylor, who has lived in the area his whole life and knows the culture, suggested there would certainly be a concession stand and we could get something to eat there. So we ended up with hot dogs and Pepsi for dinner - not good, but not bad. That had been the description I had heard of our first choice, Blackbeard's Tavern, so I guess we came out ok. It could have been better, though. Taylor's wife called and asked him if we had had "pizza and rum" for dinner.

The route. Generated on OpenCPN.

Back at the boat we had one more round of Long Weekends and then Taylor disappeared into his den in the forecabin. I racked out in my usual port settee in the saloon. In the morning I put on a pot of coffee and made our standard egg and cheese sandwiches that we both agree makes a good breakfast. At 7:30am, after spending a few minutes pondering about how to get the boat off the dock, I decided to line it back to the tee-head. Then we could kick the stern across the eye of the wind and pivot around a piling, getting the bow pointed in the right direction. It didn't work quite like that, but after a few minutes of backing and filling in the narrow confines of the State Dock channel we got the boat on its way down the Bath Creek channel.

Out in the river we followed our tracks right back to Washington, covering 16 miles and arriving at 11:30. With the boat happily resting in its familiar slip, Taylor and I drove over to Frank's Pizza for lunch. Afterward, he dropped me off at the waterfront and headed for home.

It was a good, quick trip. All boat systems worked well. No thunderstorms, not even a shower. A good start to the summer sailing season.

Text by Paul Clayton, photographs by Paul Clayton and Taylor Ward.
Posted 05/10/24.

Copyright © 2024 Paul M. Clayton.