Plans Get Scrambled in NC

As we cruise, Bruce and I don’t always agree on what is a “good” destination or a “not so good” destination. This last stretch of North Carolina, to Swansboro, Surf City, Wrightsville Beach, Southport and Bald Head Island had some of each. And logistics scrambled our plans.

November 9 – 13, 2019
Swansboro – Surf City – Bald Head Island, NC
Days 28 – 31

We don’t typically “plan” very much when we cruise. We have general intentions, but plans? No. On this last stretch of the North Carolina ICW, our lack of plans tripped us up a bit. We had to punt, and make some last-minute switches.

Our last morning in Beaufort was crisp, clear and blustery as the post-frontal northwest breeze blew through. We only had a short travel day on the agenda, 25 nautical miles to Swansboro, so we had a leisurely morning and a nice crisp walk with the pups before casting off. It was an easy exit in spite of the strong ebb-tide. Coming and going from the town marina requires vigilance, as the current can rip through and cause havoc for those who are unprepared for it.

As it was a Saturday, there were a lot of locals out fishing in small boats along the waterway. We picked our way between them, and around a large shrimp vessel that plowed up the narrow channel against the max-ebb, found our way past the Morehead City waterfront, and back into the shallow stretch of Bogue sound.

It was a lovely chilly clear day to cruise down Bogue Sound.

There were quite a few sailboats running down the ICW with us, all of us having been pinned down by the gale and happy to be out and under way again. Some of the sailboats were even enjoying the northerly under sail! – a rare sight on the waterway. One was aground. Something that is not so uncommon on parts of the ICW.

it was a lovely day on the water.

Swansboro, North Carolina

We pulled into the Swansboro town docks just after noon. The docks are unattended: you call ahead, make a reservation, give them your credit card, and hope that the promised slip is actually available. We tucked alongside, once again in strong current, not for the faint of heart.

As we tied up the boat we were greeted warmly by Mike McHugh, Executive Director of the local Chamber of Commerce. He had not only a bag of information about the town, but also some Halloween candy from a recent event and – better yet – cookies for the dogs! He filled us in on the Christmas Stroll planned for that evening. I’m sorry we forgot to get a picture of this friendly hospitality. By coincidence, we had been there last year for their Christmas Stroll also.

Swansboro is small and quaint. It is also one of those destinations that Bruce and I don’t entirely agree on. Bruce hadn’t enjoyed our visit last year so he was edgy about visiting again. I am happy enough with the town. It is a simple town, and has history. Did I say it is small? There are basically two downtown streets at a right angle to each other, one about three blocks long and the other one block long. It doesn’t take too long to explore.

The whole place was decorated for Christmas (and remember: it was only November 10 – we haven’t had Thanksgiving yet!). We took the dogs for a walk, checked things out, and eventually wandered back to the boat. Bruce had a plan for our lazy afternoon: meatballs! He fired up the grill while I made up the mix of beef and pork, and we then cooked them on a cast iron skillet on the grill. This is a very tasty method that insures a great sear. It also allows Bruce to sneak snacks while he cooks, the pups are at full attention, and best of all, the mess stays outside.

Meatballs! One of Bruce’s favorite foods! They are great cooked in cast iron on the grill. Excellent sear, and the mess stays outside.

By the time the meatballs were done it was time to take advantage of a lovely evening and head to the Flybridge. It was crisp, clear and still. The sun went down, the Christmas lights of Swansboro came up, and things were very pleasant.

A flybridge evening getting started.

A meatball supper on board, and then I took the pups for a walk and enjoyed the activity for the Christmas Stroll. There were lots of local organizations giving out cookies and cocoa. The stage on the town green featured presentations and music by local groups. All the restaurants had crowds. It was very festive, and sort of rang in the holidays (a little early) for us. Small town stuff.

Bruce just wasn’t into Swansboro, while I was fine with it. This split happens while cruising — at least for us! It’s OK, and all part of the adventure.

The next morning was COLD! It was 37 degrees when we got up, and there was smoke on the water – just beautiful. We had another short ride planned, just 27 miles to Surf City. We enjoyed the crisp, beautiful morning, walked the dogs, then were on our way.

Smoke on the water at sunrise.

The day’s ICW stretch featured a few bridges, and the Marine Corps base at Camp LeJeune. The bridges required opening – so required timing. We did fine. Camp LeJeune has a live fire location right across the ICW and when they are engaging in live fire exercises the channel is shut down to all traffic, thus it pays to check ahead. We did, and there were no exercises planned, so we proceeded without delay. It’s not nice to to be shot at while cruising.

It’s best to avoid live fire exercises whenever possible.
Surf City, North Carolina

We are trying to visit some new stops this year. I had heard good things about Topsail Marina in Surf City, so why not try? In the end, Surf City wasn’t really our kind of place. The marina was easy enough to get into. The dock staff was helpful, but not really our style.

So let’s talk about dock staff. We have found that at this point in our cruising, we are generally happier just doing it (docking) ourselves. Far too often, dock hands do things that are not helpful. In almost every case, we simply want to position the boat where we want it in the slip, then drop the lines on the cleats, make them fast, and voila: done.

Dock hands are often overly eager to be helpful, and in trying to be helpful, make things more difficult. Worse still, they sometimes assume they know more about docking our boat than we do and that never ends well. Please don’t grab our lines off the boat, please don’t haul on them without our asking, and please don’t make them fast before we are ready for it. Well, we had some of that at Surf City, so getting in was made more complicated than it should have been.

Topsail Marina at Surf City currently has nice new docks (and some showers that we never tried), but there isn’t much more than that. There is a large vacant lot behind the docks so we assume that there are plans to expand, but for now there is nothing else to the facility. And really, that’s fine with us: we don’t need fancy marinas.

Town. Surf City is pretty much just what the name suggests. It is on a barrier island, Topsail Island, and is a beach town. With a new highway bridge it is bound to expand quickly. The previous swing bridge must have choked off access and limited growth. We tend to like towns that have community, infrastructure, and a sense of “place”. Surf City doesn’t seem to have that. I imagine it’s great if you like long beautiful beaches — it has that!! But the architecture is “surf” condo and apartment buildings, and the food is pizza and fried. There is a Mexican spot that had good reviews but we didn’t get there.

Anyway, I went for a long run. Like so many barrier islands, the road is down low behind the dunes so you really don’t see any of the beach and ocean unless you walk out one of the beach access paths. It’s just houses and condos.

The beach at surf city is lovely.

In the evening we tried to find some seafood but ended up at a little pizza joint, Santino’s Pizza and More. The waitress was delightful, the beer was cold, the pizza was good and the salad was acceptable. All’s well that ends well.

A flybridge evening as the sun sets behind the new bridge at Surf City.
Another Gale, Busted Plans, and Bald Head Island

We had expected to go from Surf City to Wrightsville Beach and then to Southport, both of which we have enjoyed in the past. Enter: another gale, and flotillas of sailboats soaking up all the available dock space.

Last year we could get a slip almost anywhere we wanted with less than a day’s notice. This year, not so much. We had secured a spot in Wrightsville Beach at The Bridge Tender Marina for one night, but when we tried to extend it because of the gale in the forecast, we could not. Then we tried Southport, which we love, but none of the three marinas we called could accommodate us because of two large flotillas of sailboats traveling en masse. Both of these developments were disappointing, but this is cruising so we roll with it.

So we tried Plan C. I have always wanted to see Bald Head Island. I called the marina there, and yes, they could accommodate us through the gale. And yes, the marina is very protected and secure in spite of being “out there” on the barrier island at the entrance to the Cape Fear River. Perfect.

We had a gorgeous day to travel the 43 nautical miles from Surf City, through Wrightsville Beach, past Carolina Beach, through the narrow Snow’s Cut, and down the broad Cape Fear River to Bald Head Island. For much of the trip we trailed the Grand Banks Wait N Sea that we had been alongside in Surf City. He gave us a heads-up on a couple of shallow spots at the dicey inlets: that was nice. He also draws more than we do, so a good boat to follow through shallow spots.

Shrimp boats helping each other out on the North Carolina ICW. “She broke.”

We pulled in to Bald Head Island by mid-afternoon. The docks and staff were nice and friendly. We got secured and cleaned up, then went off with the pups to get oriented.

Bald Head Island is a cool little spot! It is only accessible by ferry, and except for delivery and construction vehicles, there are no cars on the island. Golf carts and bicycles are the only way to get around. Ferries come and go constantly (every half hour or so) from the mainland terminal in Southport. During our visit the island was very quiet. Most of the activity was maintenance and construction, and a few fellow yachties in port to sit out the gale. I imagine that in-season it is a much different place, as vacationers fill the houses.

We rented a golf cart for a day to explore the island. It was such fun! Our first stop was the well-stocked grocery store, then we wandered along the roads, through neighborhoods and out to the beaches. There is a little bit of everything for everyone: simple beach cottages, a few condos, and some substantial luxury homes. Most of the island is quite beautiful.

There are a couple of restaurants around the harbor. The only one open was Mojo’s. We retreated there in the evenings where we enjoyed the company of other boaters tucked in for the weather. The crew from the Hinckley Bluewater II who we had met waiting out another gale in Portsmouth, VA was there, so we caught up with them. There were a few guys on a Meridian 38 Blew on the Water from New Jersey who were a hoot. And a single guy named Chris on an 25’ Ericsson who was taking his boat outside to Charleston. Chris left on the back side of the gale in a strong 30+ knot north westerly. One tough guy. We hope he had a safe ride.

The gale meant business. We saw solid 30 mph, gusting to 50 at times.

Bald Head was a fun stop for us. Lots of cold, wet, wild, windy weather, but we had enough good weather to get out and explore the island, and the camaraderie in the local restaurant among stranded mariners was good cheer. We had a great time, but after three days we were ready to roll once more.

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