It’s an ongoing joke now that a tropical storm is about the only thing that would have convinced me to leave Ocracoke. This is probably pretty accurate. We had planned on spending 2 weeks in Ocracoke, although the fun police, aka JR, kept saying, “I don’t know that we’ll have enough time fore 2 weeks.” “Boo on him!” I thought, and planned for my 2 weeks anyway :) Two weeks is exactly what we got because once we caught wind of this tropical storm, we immediately started planning our departure. Sad face.
It’s funny because I always encourage JR to chill out a little when we know we are going to be spending time in one spot. I tell him that he doesn’t have to check the weather incessantly and that things will be just fine. We did look at radar often because there was thunderstorm after thunderstorm that hit us at Silver Lake Harbor. But because JR is JR, he still checked the weather, just not with his usual intensity… Anyway, I was browsing Facebook one day and I saw a post from a cruising friend that was still in the Bahamas saying that they were going to high tail it home due to the possibility of a tropical storm. I looked at JR and said, “Hey, did you know there was a tropical storm brewing?” He was all like, “No!” Oddly enough, the brewing storm did not show up in the wind forecasts and weather predictions he usually checks. I guess it was too far out, but we only found it on the National Hurricane Center’s website! Needless to say, our departure date became very clear as this storm formed and was predicted to head directly toward our sweet Ocracoke!
We left Ocracoke on Monday, June 30th, exactly 2 weeks after our arrival, and sailed a really long day to make it to the southern end of the Alligator River – Pungo River Canal. Our plan at that time was to be in Norfolk by Thursday afternoon because the storm was supposed to hit Friday.
The next day was long as well and we made it to the top of the Alligator River. Because we are cheap and have T-Mobile, we didn’t have an internet connection and couldn’t see that the storm was officially a tropical storm now (not a depression) and that it was gaining momentum! We were listening to the National Weather Service voice broadcast on the VHF and found that the storm was going to hit Thursday night/Friday morning instead of Friday day. We decided that we didn’t really want to travel far on Thursday because we had A LOT of stuff to do to prepare our little boat for a tropical storm so we reassessed and decided that the Elizabeth City free dock could work for us. Our biggest fear was that the docks would be full. Ha!
On our way there (it was a pleasant sail, by the way) we looked carefully at the charts and thought that maybe those docks were a little exposed. At this point it was Wednesday afternoon and we knew that we had at least 24 hours to figure it out, so we met Gus at the docks and tied up for the night. We were the only boat there, never a good sign.
We did some regrouping and used Elizabeth City’s free wi-fi to reach out for advice. The locals all said that you really don’t want to be at the free docks for a storm, the other side of the Elizabeth City bridge is always more protected, so we had a few options there. Our cruising God Parents, Tammy and Chip contacted us and were advising as well, they are very familiar with NC water! And lastly, I posted to my Woman Who Sail (WWS) Facebook group and asked for local knowledge. The response from all of these resources was fast and overwhelming (in a good way.) Our options were: 1) a bulkhead at Jennett Brothers Food Distributers free dock right on the other side of the bridge 2) A couple of small marinas in Elizabeth City 3) Goat Island anchorage about 10 miles north of Elizabeth City 4) South Mills bulkhead (wall) about 17 miles north in the Dismal Swamp Canal 5) The Dismal Swamp Visitor Center docks, about 22 miles north of Elizabeth City. Options are good. We took all this info to the new Elizabeth City showers and took nice, long, thinking showers. We talked it over at Hardees while we ate a fast, greasy dinner, and we talked some more once we got home. On Wednesday night, tied up to Elizabeth City’s free dock, we decided to head for the South Mills bulkhead with plenty of time to 1) continue on to the Visitor’s Center if it looked shady 2) do all of our prepping 3) turn around and hit Goat Island or Jennett Brothers if need be. Ahhhh… A plan.
We woke up nice and early to request a bridge opening before the rush hour restrictions took effect. We checked the weather first thing and saw that the storm had been upgraded to a hurricane. Ruh Roh! At about 6:30 am, Gus helped us untie our lines (yup, he was there at 6:30am!) and we headed north. There are quite a few reasons that we chose the South Mill bulkhead over the other options. First, we decided early on that anchoring out wasn’t for us. We saw very quickly via my WWS Facebook page that anchoring or tying up to a dock is a very controversial choice! We knew for us, perhaps ignorant or naïve, that we wanted to be tied up to something. We did give anchoring consideration since we have a lot of faith in our ground tackle after so many nights at anchor, but since the wind was expected to back 270 degrees between the time we anchored and the end of the storm we would need two “primary” anchors. We have two good anchors, but only one rode is all chain and the other is more of an emergency anchor for us than one we would want to actually rely on during a major storm. Also, after riding out “the derecho” on a mooring and knowing how our boat likes to swing around like a bathtub toy in strong winds, we felt like it made more sense to put faith in many attachment points rather than just one or two. The marinas seemed like a good option, but we decided based on the predictions of the storm that getting farther north and inland would be wiser. If we waited for the marinas to open, the timing would be off for the bridge and what if they didn’t have any availability? One of the marinas was said to only have 4 transient slips. So we decided to head north early. The beauty of the Dismal Swamp is that it is in between locks. There is not much tide here in NC, but Tammy told us that the water is wind driven, so often times during a storm, the wind will blow the water out and back in. That’s boo for line adjusting so we figured in between locks we wouldn’t have that problem. The Dismal Swamp is also crazy protected. We are currently nestled in a nice little community, houses on both sides, some trees for further protection, and in about 5 feet of water. It is insanely protected in here. After locking, we approached the bulkhead and saw how big and sturdy it was. We quickly decided that this would be better for us than the visitor center docks. You could probably fit about 10 boats on here and the cleats are welded steel and nice and sturdy, there aren’t many trees that are close enough to fall, and hanging fenders was easy because of the consistent bulkhead. After being here for a bit, we also noticed how the water in the canal was much lower than the surrounding land which kept windage off of our topsides. We are sunk down nice and low, extremely protected.
We immediately got busy, tying lines first, then stowing stuff away. We stripped our jib and put the dink on deck in Elizabeth City, so once settled in here we just needed to take care of canvas and stowe all of our cockpit goodies. We decided to take off the bimini but leave the dodger so that we could peak our heads out without flooding the cabin. Also, the strongest winds were predicted to be coming from the north, which is precisely the direction we were pointed! We figured our dodger could handle the direct wind without much damage. We did decide to take off all the solar panels, though. JR tied and retied lines and added chafe protection everywhere the lines rubbed the bulkhead. We had two bow lines, two stern lines, two spring lines, and 2 fenders and we were tied up on our port side. No cleat was left un-touched :)
I re-packed our ditch bag to include (in addition to the normal stuff) some food for Leo, dry clothes, shoes, cash, meds (thanks Jaye!), and more snacks. We charged all of our electronics and emergency stuff like the portable VHF and the spotlight. I pulled out and organized our foulies, head lamps, harnesses, life jackets, extra lines, and swimming goggles. I read the tip about the swimming goggles from Carolyn at The Boat Galley. She said to use your snorkel mask so that if the rain is pelting you in the face, you can still see. I thought this was brilliant and wished that I had read it a month ago before we started dodging summer thunderstorms. The swimming goggles were more accessible, so I went with those. JR kept laughing at me because I was insisting on the life jackets and harnesses. He kept saying, “One step and I’m on land!” “I can stand up in the water in this canal!” But, because he is nice, agreed to use them if he went outside <3
We finished up our chores, drank a nice strong rum and coke, and prepared our first fish taco dinner, tilefish courtesy of the Ocracoke Seafood Company. Leo had some good outside time and the mosquitos ran us inside at dark.
The NWS upgraded Arthur to a category 2 hurricane at about 9 pm. Boo. We slept pretty well (although it was HOT) until about 1 am… I’m going to let JR take it from here, because my fingers hurt :)
After a couple of long days of running away from and getting ready for the storm, we were tired and going to sleep was not too much of a problem. We went to bed at around 10 pm with very light wind out of the south and only the slightest bit of drizzle now and then. Arthur first made his presence known to us at about 1 am when I woke up to the sound of rain on the deck. The rain was moderate at this point and the wind had still not really shown up. After checking on things and seeing that the fenders were still doing their job and the lines were all still pretty slack, I went back to bed.
Both of us woke up at about 3 am when the wind backed to the east and had picked up to the point that it was blowing rain into our open forward hatch, which is over our bed, even though it was mostly covered by the dinghy. I got up and checked everything out again and saw that all the lines still looked good, their chafe protection was still in place, and the fenders were still keeping the hull off the bulkhead. Again we fell back to sleep, though Drena had moved to the salon where it was a little cooler.
At around 5 am, we both were woken up by what was about the worst of Arthur as we saw it.
The wind was howling in the rigging and it was still raining, but not as hard as it had been earlier in the night. It was blowing steady around 20 knots and gusting to at least 25 knots out of the north. Since the canal we were in was so protected, there weren’t even whitecaps, only the slightest ripple on the surface. The only rocking of the boat, which was minimal and barely even noticeable, seemed to be caused by the tugging of the docklines and bouncing off the bulkhead with the cushion of the fenders when the wind gusted rather than the choppiness of the water. I suited up in my foulies and went out to adjust the chafe protection on the lines and did a general check on things from deck level, and found everything to be in order.
We stayed up for about an hour and a half before deciding that we had seen the worst of the storm and we were still tired enough to fall back to sleep.
At about 8:15, I woke up and stayed up. At this time the wind had increased a little more, now out of the northwest, but the rain had stopped completely. We were seeing gusts near and sometimes over 30 knots, but this direction pushed us off the bulkhead so there was no issue of damage. I did have to adjust the chafe protection again, but this time I didn’t even need the foulies.
I plotted Arthur’s track on our iPad navigation software to see just how close the eye had come to our location and found that it was closest between 3 am and 5 am, around 60 statute miles away from us. By 9 am the eye was already north of us and well offshore. The wind died down slowly over the next several hours but remained gusty. By around noon, the wind was light, the skies were clear, and the sun was shining as if the storm never even came close.
We feel very fortunate that we were able to gather so much information and make what we feel was a good decision on where to ride out the storm. Chances are, unless we had been in open water and seen a direct hit, there was nothing life-threatening that would have happened to us regardless of where we chose to hide at anchor or tie up. But being only 60 miles away from the eye of a category 2 hurricane as it passed by for several hours and being able to describe it as “uneventful” with not even a scratch to report (not to mention being able to sleep through most of it, including Leo), I like to think that some of this is due to good planning and decision-making. Thanks for everyone’s help that offered suggestions, tips, ideas, and those of you who checked on us regularly! Now to put this boat back together!