We had been at the marina in Belhaven for a week and had a one-day window to get up the Alligator River and across the Albemarle. If the weather was accurate, we’d be in Elizabeth City by the end of the day. If not, we’d be at the Alligator River Marina for at least three nights – if not longer.
Albemarle Sound is 50 miles wide (from east to west) and anywhere from 5-14 miles long (north to south). It’s deepest water is only 25 feet, but the route cruisers follow to get to Elizabeth City or Coinjock is generally about 10 -15 feet deep and 10 miles across. Because it’s so long and so shallow, any wind over 15 knots creates a nasty chop and tends to be a no-go for most boaters. On our first trip south we had 15-18 knots from behind and we surfed our way across, making a note never to cross it in winds over 15 knots (although we’d be willing to bump it up a tad once again if the wind was on our stern). Our forecast was for 15 knots from the northeast and dropping throughout the day, so with a reservation in hand at the Alligator River Marina in case it proved necessary, we set off with all of our fingers crossed.
Going up the Alligator River we were seeing a steady 15+ knots with gusts up to 20, and we started thinking we would need to cut the day short. But then the wind settled down and we decided to go for it. No sooner had I texted friends of ours to tell them it was a go, the wind piped up to 18 knots again. Hmmm. We heard some other cruisers on the VHF discussing their plans, with one of them pressed for time and continuing on, the other planning to anchor earlier. After some back and forth, Jeff and I decided that we would poke our nose out and see how the Albemarle looked. Worse case scenario we’d backtrack to the marina.
What followed was our second smoothest crossing on the Albemarle. The wind steadily dropped as predicted, the water flattened out, and by sunset we were tied up to the free dock in Elizabeth City. Yes! I felt bad for the cruiser that decided to anchor – it was going to be quite a wait before they would get decent conditions again.
It turned out that our trip across the Albemarle was the precursor to a long, fantastic weather window. After a rainy day a high pressure system established itself across New England and the mid-Atlantic states. There wouldn’t be much wind, but it was going to be sunny and dry, and it was going to last for several days. On top of all that, the currents were going to be in our favor all week with a nice push in the morning up the East River and Long Island Sound. It was a nautical miracle! Time to put the hammer down and finally get back to Groton!
We made our way up to Norfolk and decided to push our departure off by one day (yes, the window was THAT long). It had taken us longer than we anticipated to get through the Deep Creek Lock and our heads weren’t yet in the game for an overnight, so we spent one night at Cobb’s Marina where we had hauled out the previous fall and shoved off at sunrise.
The wind was light until a sea breeze kicked up in the afternoon and the water was VERY smooth. Our autopilot, Roberto il Macchina, worked like a champ, and we had a relaxing overnight up the coast. The only excitement came in the afternoon when NASA hailed us by name on the VHF (hooray for our AIS). It turns out there was a rocket launch scheduled for that evening and our speed and course had us right in the exclusion zone at liftoff. Eventually they said if we could maintain 6 knots for 18 nautical miles we would be clear, so we fired up Big Red and made some tracks.
It was kind of a bummer because we were having a good sail at that point and enjoying the quiet, but at least we were better off than the other two boats who weren’t going to make it at all and had to wait just south of the zone for several hours. Then, to add insult to injury for them, the launch was postponed until the next day. We felt REALLY bad for those boaters. As for us, we continued zipping along.
At some point when I was down below resting, I heard us hit something. Jeff was at the helm and hadn’t seen anything, and nothing popped up from the water when he turned around to look. It was quite the adrenaline rush and I checked the bilge and behind the drawers multiple times, but fortunately no water was coming in. To this date we have no idea what it was, but it was unnerving and I was NOT looking forward to the upcoming moonless night. You can plan all you want and take every precaution, but there is always a bit of luck involved. Fortunately we had an uneventful overnight, and by morning we were making such good time that we decided to press on to Atlantic City. 175 nautical miles later we turned off the engine and relaxed.
Stopping in Atlantic City allowed us to leave pre-dawn for Atlantic Highlands and avoid another overnight. The weather was still holding and the current out the inlet was in our favor as we shoved off at 5:00 a.m. The New Jersey coast was like glass until a few hours before we rounded Sandy Hook when the sea breeze kicked in. At almost 20 knots it didn’t take long for things to get snotty, but we surfed along and breathed a sigh of relief once we got around the corner and were protected by the land. 82 nautical miles later, the anchor was down.
No rest for the weary as we were up with the sun again the following morning for our trip up the East River. This is one of our favorite stretches along the entire East Coast, and it is the sole reason why we didn’t go from Norfolk straight to Groton. We LOVE the East River. It’s a view from New York that we would never get if we weren’t on our boat, and after an almost two year absence it did not disappoint.
Even though we were at Battery Park on a Tuesday at 10:00 a.m, the boat traffic was the least we had seen of our four trips. We figure it was likely due to New York being quieter in general because of Covid.
We spent an extra day in Port Washington (another one of our favorite stops), moved on to Port Jefferson (still getting a favorable current), and by Friday, less than a week after leaving Norfolk, we were pulling into Shennecossett in Groton, very glad to be back home.