River of fear


To the editor: Somewhere in the wilds of central North Carolina on I-95, where trees grow tall and cell reception is spotty, I passed a green sign that said “Cape Fear River.” It was wide, straight and shallow, more of a creek than a river — the kind that would make for a nice afternoon on a kayak or canoe.

I knew that it meandered on southward for another 100 miles, where it then dumped its brackish contents into the ocean at Cape Fear and spread out over Frying Pan Shoals. Hard to believe that the gentle waterway I was looking at was the same one that my daughter, Rona, and I had battled a few weeks earlier.

There are places in the world that suffer the indignity of a negative misnomer in their name: Iceland is a beautiful island with mild, sunny summers and hundreds of geothermal hot springs. And you’d be surprised how nice a place Hell, Mich., is. But whoever named the Cape Fear River obviously traveled its lower reaches because the name suits it perfectly.

On days when wind opposes the tide, the river’s intensity rivals the Gulf Stream and should be transited with extreme caution. The key to a smooth passage is to wait for both favorable tide and wind. This requires one of the most important skill sets in sailing, something I am woefully short on: patience.

We were traveling north on our Catalina 34 Ukiyo, anxious to reunite with our family in the Chesapeake. The wind blew hard from the south and we were under sail on the ICW. Approaching the southern entrance near Southport, I checked the tides and saw that the afternoon low was soon coming. With the great aft wind, I reasoned, we would have a nice, if slow, passage up the river and catch the slack — and eventually the flood. The sky was blue, we were skimming along at 7 knots and life was good.

Just shy of the turn, I saw what should have dissuaded us from going on. Four boats (and their wise captains) were anchored off to the side of the ICW. Up ahead on the river, the boats were double-reefed and heeled over. Gulp — in for a penny, in for a pounding.

We made the turn. The ripples swelled to 6-foot rollers and the 15-knot breeze freshened to 25. Fortunately, I had already furled the headsail and run out the mainsheet traveler. We heeled over and the speedo accelerated to 9 knots. We pitched and yawed in a giant washing machine as each obstreperous wave lifted the boat and turned us broadside, requiring a hard turn on the wheel. No way the autopilot would handle that, so it was hand steering for now. Not the best situation, but nothing we couldn’t handle.

Ukiyo slugged through what felt like open ocean. It was both exhilarating and energizing — until my eyes glanced down at the small chartplotter and it all came back to reality: Our COG was 1.5 knots. Ouch.

We were dealing with the full ebb of the biggest river in North Carolina. My intractable impatience had put us in a lousy position. It would be dangerous to turn around in these conditions and there were no places of refuge until we were out of the river. So I mustered a smile for Rona and quipped, “Gonna be pretty bumpy for a while, I think we better hold off on lunch.” To her credit, she was enjoying the ride and not worried like the captain.

A couple trawlers lumbered by heading south, no doubt surprised that such a small vessel would be heading north on the ebb. The Fort Fisher car ferry crossed our path, the spray splashing high over its bulwarks. Foot by foot, we crawled up the river that would not release its lock. And on one particularly large and pooping wave, we corkscrewed enough that the wind caught the back of the mainsail and slammed it over to the other side.

Within seconds I detected a reduction of forward thrust. Something was wrong, but I wasn’t in a position to investigate. Rona peeked out in front of the bimini and pointed upward. “Dad,” she said sadly, “the sail ripped.”

“How much?” I asked. “All of it,” she answered. I handed her my cellphone and she took a picture. “Yup, all of it,” I echoed. We carried on, a wounded whale, until I spotted nav aid G177 and the merciful exit from this awful passage.

But the day’s excitement was not over. After negotiating Snow’s Cut and turning into the anchorage at Carolina Beach, we dropped anchor, dragged and went aground. But we finally got a break: The tide began to flood, lifting us off the sandbar and allowing us to motor off to a convenient mooring ball, furl the tattered remains of the sail, and get some hot food in our stomachs. I was asleep in the fo’c’s’le that night before it was dark.

—Robert Beringer is a college administrator with a USCG 50-ton master’s license.

By Ocean Navigator