The anchoring experience is a benchmark of wonderful cruising. Relaxing in the cockpit, listening to the wind in the trees ashore, hearing the gentle waves lapping on the hull and watching the sun lower to the western horizon reminds you that all is right with the world and you look forward to an uneventful evening in paradise.
But when you’re out on the water the unexpected should be expected. And even though my family and I have been there enough to expect just about anything, we’ve had some interesting surprises at anchor.
I’ve never forgotten the time long ago when we anchored in the North River, just north of the Albemarle Sound. We were almost back to the familiar waters of the Chesapeake after a winter in the Bahamas. The ICW runs through this river and, if you don’t mind wide-open anchorages, you can pull well off to the side. When the noises of the ship quiet down at night, you hear the creatures on the shore. Billions of them. Mostly bugs and frogs, or so it seems from the noises. We anchor far out because we want them to stay in their trees and grasses. We’ve grown accustomed to these noises, but we’re not accustomed to what we found that next morning.
Green spots. All over the boat. Every square inch of decking, superstructure, dinghy, gear, sail covers, Bimini top and cockpit enclosure. I tied a line on a bucket, dipped it into the dark river and forcefully splashed water on the deck, expecting to see the spots come clean. No way. I got a brush and started scrubbing. They were tighter than a tick on a stray hound dog in the month of May. In some areas, we saw tiny greenish bugs and each one had a green spot under it. But mostly we just saw the spots. After spending an hour or so trying to get even a few off, we weighed anchor and headed for civilization, hoping it was still there about 10 miles upstream at Coinjock.
It was and we pulled into a fuel dock. I didn’t even have to ask the question.
“Wheat lice,” said the man on the dock, shaking his head.
“What?” I said. “What are wheat lice?”
“I dunno, they just show up every once in a while, and sometimes they show up bad, and that’s what you have. You must have had your lights on out there on the water. Those green spots, you know what they are, don’tcha?”
He laughed. I knew. And the fact that the color of the stuff was green didn’t make it any better. “I thought lice bite. Nothing bit us,” I protested.
“Well, they must’ve been biting something because all them wheat lice droppings didn’t just fall from heaven.”
So we spent the next half a day scrubbing with some really strong detergent and lots of fresh water. We still didn’t get all that green off the boat, but at least we felt as if we could sit down — kind of. It took months of sun, wind and rain for our boat to just be “normal” dirty.
That was about 30 years ago. I’ve anchored many times in that spot and hundreds of other spots since then. I’ve never seen any more wheat lice. Actually, I’m not even sure if that’s what they were. I’ve spent some time researching it, but not much time, and I’m not going to. After all, I had a local expert talking to me that day. Have you seen any? I’d love to know.
* * *
The one good thing, I suppose, about the wheat lice incident was that we found out what they were the next morning. This wasn’t quite the case after a night at anchor in the Vernon River a few miles south of Savannah off the ICW. We’d anchored well off the marshy shore and certainly didn’t expect any company.
A distinct splash near our stern awakened me deep into the night. My first groggy thought was that it might have been a porpoise come to play. They often do. But then I heard strange sounds coming from the stern, like claws on metal. It has to be a bird, I thought. After all, what else could it be? And they often light on the boat, particularly herons and ospreys, to make a fuss and make a mess.
So I thought that maybe a bird had landed on the lifelines or maybe the mizzen boom. However, there was a bit too much noise for that assumption and the noise seemed to come from much lower down, just above the waterline. But again, it simply had to be a bird. The deck of Chez Nous is about 4.5 feet above water and nothing could swim out and climb up … I hoped.
Then the scraping, rattling noise grew quiet and we heard the padding of feet as something walked along the deck. Mel heard it walking past the porthole in the forward head as she was standing at the sink and then she heard it heading for the bow. Next came a rattling of the anchor chain, as though it were climbing down it. This was getting serious. But we figured we were imagining things. We had to be imagining things. And I wasn’t about to go up there and check.
As daylight spread across the marshes we opened the hatch and cautiously went on deck. Clearly, in the dew, we saw the tracks of an animal. Could we have picked up a rat at a marina? If it were a rat that big, we were in serious trouble. I’ve seen some big rats around docks, especially in city areas. Rats are especially bad on a boat. And considering the fact that we’d actually heard its footsteps and that the tracks were very large for a rat, we were thinking about sinking the boat so it would jump ship. But what about the splashing I’d heard? We had to consider all of the facts.
We spent the day going into every conceivable space on deck — and there are many on Chez Nous — looking for whatever it was, at least for clues. We found no droppings, no hairs, no litter — nothing amiss. And as we searched, the thought lurked in the back of our minds: What if we find something? What do we do then?
Mel hit the library. We keep a good supply of resource books aboard, including the Audubon Field Guides with descriptions of many animals and pictures showing what their tracks look like. Our tracks had been made on a dewy deck and weren’t very clear, but one of the possibilities was a small otter. Or it could have been an opossum. Could it have been a raccoon? The tracks on deck reminded me of the ones I’ve seen many times on mud banks at low tide.
I still couldn’t figure out how he got aboard, if that’s what it was. He could have climbed up the anchor chain, but I had heard the splash and first noises astern. Then I saw the way. Our dinghy lift/swim platform is hydraulically operated. There’s a ram, but also a large support structure that begins just above the waterline. Something must have climbed up here. That would explain how whatever it was got aboard.
We never saw or heard any more of the creature. No signs of any creatures other than us. And if something’s on your boat, it’s got to at least leave droppings — or use the head. And I haven’t noticed anything unusual using the head. So we assume it plunged back into the water when it heard us rumbling around below.
Sometime later, I was talking to an old friend, Herb Hucks. He’s a genuine Lowcountry boy — I don’t know about the “boy” part; he’s almost as old as I am — and has also been into boating most of his life. He now lives on one of Georgia’s barrier islands. As we sipped some good bourbon, I told him my story and asked him what he thought it was. He didn’t hesitate a split second.
“Hummigator,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s a hummigator. What’s a matter, Tom, haven’t you heard of a hummigator before? Everybody knows about them down here. They’re half hummingbird and half alligator, and they can fly right onto your boat if they want to.”
I said that I hadn’t heard of any hummigators before, embarrassed yet one more time at my lack of knowledge. “Oh, that’s all right, Tom. Mostly they’re from around Pawley’s Island up in South Carolina, but they’ve been rumored to have been getting out and about these days. They can swim, too. They can also hover like a hummingbird. How’d you like to have an alligator hovering over your boat?”
I thanked him, a bit dubiously, for clearing up the mystery, and that was that. Now if you think that I think it was a hummigator, you don’t know me that well. I was there and those tracks didn’t look at all like an alligator’s tracks and they sure didn’t look like bird tracks — not that I’ve ever seen hummingbird tracks. But I do know that strange things happen in the marshes of Georgia.
* * *
It’s not just out in the wilds of Georgia that strange things happen on the hook. A good while back, we anchored at New York City. Parking places are hard to find along the streets there, but we had no trouble finding a spot to anchor off to the side of the Hudson River, on the New York side. I doubt you can do this today, but it was OK then. We remained there a few days, somewhat smugly enjoying being near the heart of this famous city, anchored free with a nice protective moat around us. We paid for dinghy landing privileges at a nearby marina and had no trouble going ashore and enjoying the city. Eventually the morning came to head out to sea and we began pulling up the anchor which we’d done thousands of times before. But this time was different.
After the first few feet of chain came up from the muddy water, I saw a pair of woman’s stockings neatly draped around the chain. I didn’t think too much about it because, after all, this was New York City. But as more chain came up I saw a woman’s dress draped around it. Next I saw various other pieces of apparel that, added together, would have fully clothed a woman down to and including the unmentionables. And they were all draped, some wrapped, around my anchor chain as if carefully done by someone or something. As the chain came up, each piece of clothing slid silently back into the water as if I wasn’t meant to know about them. None made it to the deck, much to my relief. But then I began to think, Um, wait a minute. I’ve seen all the clothes, so where’s the woman?
Fully expecting that there might be a deceased woman — or, more likely, the ghost of a deceased woman — down near my anchor, I sat on the bow, pondering. I definitely wanted to leave, but I had some big doubts as to whether I really wanted to pull up that anchor. Finally, I decided to continue with the job. Pressing that “up” switch for my anchor windlass was one of the hardest things I’d done in a long time. Much to my relief, there was no woman as the chain and anchor came aboard, just mud from the bottom of the river, which I quickly hosed off.
I’ve always been happy to escape the confines of land and head out to sea, but I was very happy this day as we headed down New York Harbor on the tide. I still wonder what that was all about. If someone had just dumped those clothes in the water, what are the odds that they would have ended up in the precise spot of my anchor chain and wrapped around it? Did some prankster swim out from the shore and dive down to make some point? The current is very swift there and the water none too clean. In case you’re wondering, I never anchored there again.
* * *
There have been other strange times at anchor when there was absolutely no question about what was going on. One that comes to mind was Thanksgiving Day in the mid-1980s. Our family was traveling along the ICW in Georgia, heading south to the Bahamas. We always celebrate traditions, even to the point of having a live Christmas tree aboard. This day we stopped early so that Mel and our excited young ladies could prepare a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The anchorage we chose was in a beautiful place, near Fort Frederica on the Frederica River in the northern section of St. Simons Island.
After making sure the anchor was dug in well and doing all of my engine room checks, I settled in the cockpit to read during the last of the quiet afternoon. It wasn’t quiet for long. Soon the sounds of a party began to waft out from a stand of trees ashore. Soon the sounds were no longer wafting but roaring and blasting. It was men and women, and they were saying and yelling some of the foulest and loathsome things you culd imagine. And I’ve been around.
They got louder and louder. I was glad our girls were below with music and I decided that the only thing I could do was ignore them. Wrong! I heard some drunken voice ashore say something to the effect of, “Well, there’s one of them &%@#! sailing yachts out there. Let’s shoot that thang.”
I was wondering if I’d heard right. I didn’t have to wonder for long. They opened fire from the trees with shotguns. I instinctively yelled, “Hit the deck.” My two young daughters, not being familiar with that expression, immediately wondered, Why does Dad want us to hit a deck? Is he mad at it or something? They both popped up the hatch as shot began to hit the mast. I got them back down again quickly as shot began to hit the deck. Thankfully it was birdshot and thankfully it didn’t hit any of us. It didn’t even damage anything. We’d been just far enough offshore to be almost out of range for that shot. But that wasn’t what we expected when we came in to anchor for Thanksgiving.
I called the Coast Guard to report it and asked for them or the local sheriff to come out. The Coastie on the VHF said they’d call the sheriff. Maybe they did, but no sheriff showed up and the party went on all night long. We carefully made our way out through the shoals in the first light of the next morning, happy that we weren’t going to be feeling like that crowd in there under the trees when they woke up — and hoping they didn’t wake up until we were out of sight. And I hope the local deputies all enjoyed their turkey.
There was another surprise event when we had no trouble at all getting a visit from the local law. It was the late summer of 1979, and our first daughter Melanie was only a month or so old. I was still practicing law, although we lived aboard full time. After a busy week of crisis after crisis at work, we decided to take off early on a Friday afternoon and go out and anchor for the night. We slipped away to one of our favorite rivers off the lower Chesapeake Bay. We worked hard to get our anchor set in the rich, soft mud. This ensures a relaxed, trouble-free evening.
I headed down into the engine room to do my evening check and decided to change the oil in the generator. Melanie was hungry and Mel nestled in the cockpit to nurse our tiny baby. So I worked away below, covering myself with old spilled engine oil, as usual, while Mel enjoyed those most perfect moments of early motherhood. After about 15 minutes, I heard Mel call down.
“Tom, we’ve got some company.” I assumed another sailboat had come into the anchorage and was settling in. In those days it wasn’t unusual for people to come over and visit in the dinghy. Maybe this would be such an evening, although I really preferred not. We’d both longed for — and deserved — some quiet time together as a family. Next I heard, “Um, Tom, I think you’d better come up.” I was puzzled and felt a bit of unease in the tone of her voice.
Coming up was easier said than done without creating an environmental hazard with the containers of old oil in my engine room, but I managed it and, wiping my hands on my jeans, I crawled out of the companionway to where Mel was still discreetly feeding Melanie. I thought I was in the movies. They were everywhere. Coming out of the creeks, coming down the river, coming up the river. And the ones already there were beginning to circle. Circling around — you guessed it — the Chez Nous. You’ve heard Andy Griffith’s priceless recording, “What it Was Was Football” (and if you haven’t, you should). Well, this came to mind as I realized that “what it was was” a genuine deputy sheriff maritime invasion.
I was kind of hoping they were invading because we’d anchored in a good rockfish hole and were messing up the fishing, but I soon figured I was wrong. I knew the invasion was probably even more important than rockfish because they were all close to drowning. They weren’t even wet yet, but it was clear they were going to get wet.
They’d commandeered all the boats they could find from the farmers and fishermen along the shore and up in the creeks and all climbed in just to come to see us. Each boat was so overloaded it was tipping back and forth like a volleyball in the ocean. This was because the boats weren’t just overloaded with the numbers of deputies; they also were overloaded with the size of the deputies.
As they got closer, they started circling faster. This presented a problem of great magnitude because none of those boats could handle a wake at that point, and those deputy sheriff-commandeered boats were throwing wakes like an earthquake throws a tsunami. I would have worried because none of them were wearing life jackets, but I didn’t worry because each had plenty of natural flotation around the middle and hanging out over their belts.
I just stood there, stupidly staring. Mel just sat there discreetly breast feeding. And then, hallelujah, from out of the tumult appeared an orange boat. The Coast Guard had arrived. At first they couldn’t get through the circling deputy sheriff boats, but being well-trained, I suppose, the deputies finally broke circle just a little so the Coasties could get through. They came up alongside and I said hi. They said something about a law-enforcement check. I wanted to say something like, “You won’t have to check far to see law enforcement,” but I figured I’d better not and invited them aboard. Mel smiled; Melanie continued with her dinner.
The guys and I went below and I apologized for the messy oil change and showed them our papers. They seemed to become less and less happy. Finally, one of them asked me, “You mean you just live near here and you came out for the weekend, right?”
“Yep,” I said and showed them some more papers. One of them shook his head and said something like “good grief” and then got on his little radio and said something like, “Tell them to go home before somebody gets hurt.” I assumed he wasn’t talking about us.
They said they’d be leaving and apologized for the interruption. I said they were welcome to stay and relax and, oh, by the way, what was that all about, anyway? It seems somebody ashore had seen our “big” 47-foot sailboat and just assumed we had to be drug smugglers. It was going to be the biggest bust in the history of several counties. It was going to be in the newspapers. It was going to be on TV. Maybe everybody was going to get promoted to the FBI. But from the perspective of all involved it just turned out to be one more thing in an anchorage that was, you guessed it, unexpected.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue.