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We've gone aground on the Cape Fear

Sailing fathers unable to take their boats with them on family vacations to the seashore face being marooned on a beach, building sand castles. But even if they don’t have a sailboard or a surfboard to car-top, they could get lucky and find a beat-up, sun-trashed Hobie or Sunfish to rent, although certainly not a high-performance keelboat.

Jack Sherwood

Whenever I head to the seashore for a week, I go to North Carolina and visit an old sailing buddy, John Barry, in Oak Island. He has a Boston Whaler Nauset and a Rhodes 19 sailboat on trailers, which in the past got me out on the water. This summer place is a throwback to a 1960s coastal beach town, which I like, and it has a vast ocean beach and a fishing pier I can enjoy for a day before being overcome by the urge to sail.

These sailing prospects in southern waters improved for me after Barry changed jobs last summer at Bald Head Island, from being a mate on the ferry to manager of the island’s sailing club. When the club added a pair of J/80s to its fleet of Optis and 420s last summer, I booked a flight to Wilmington.

Bald Head, a handsome and well-planned upscale community of summer homes on the Atlantic near Southport, started its sailing club (www.bhisail in 2004 with the addition of three Harbor 20 keelboats, which were not always suitable for ocean sailing. Last summer, Rona Garm, director of sailing, negotiated an arrangement with the Chesapeake Boating Club that sent the H/20s to Annapolis. In exchange, the BHI club got two high-performance J/80s — named Jive and Joyride — 26-footers with large, self-bailing cockpits and deep keels to better handle ocean conditions.

While sailing out of Annapolis in my boat, I often encounter swift J/80s from J/World’s Chesapeake Boating Club and Sailing School in Eastport (including Jive and Joyride in the past), but I never thought I’d be sailing one off Cape Fear. The addition of these stable racers, equipped with roller-furling jibs and asymmetrical spinnakers, was also a feather in Barry’s cap. I couldn’t wait to sail one after the high season had slowed in September and Barry’s US Sailing-certified instructors had gone back to school and freed up one of the boats.

J/80s have no power, but the club has an electric outboard that can be easily mounted on the transom for light-air conditions and a center-console chase boat with a 70-hp Yamaha. Experienced sailors, however, are expected to sail to and from the floating dock inside the small Bald Head harbor, which puts them to the test because of shifting winds and the frequent comings and goings of one of two 86-foot catamaran ferries arriving and departing through a narrow entrance.

On our first of two daysails, we sailed out of the harbor under main alone. The wind was out of the southwest at 20 knots, a good direction, and J/80s sail quite well without a jib. Barry turned the helm over, and we blasted down the Cape Fear River toward Southport, keeping a watchful eye on navigation marks and heavy seagoing ship traffic to and from Wilmington.

We sailed Jive, and three club members were already out in Joyride under main and jib after Barry had raised the main at the dock and sent them off. Later, heading into the ocean at the river’s mouth, we encountered our first 4- and 5-foot rollers. I soon had enough of that bone rattling and turned around to surf downwind with Joyride in pursuit. (Incidentally, a J/80 has done a trans-Atlantic.)

Before the sail, we motored in the sailing club’s golf cart — the required mode of transportation on the island — to the Shoals Club for lunch. This private club overlooks the dramatic Cape Fear Point, where breaking shoal water is visible far out into the ocean. Tiny islands rise and fall from the churning sea with the tides, showing why this cape is part of the so-called Graveyard of the Atlantic.

Our second outing, however, was a somewhat embarrassing experience for me. I was flying home the next day, and it was my last chance to get photos to illustrate this column. I was at the helm after we departed Bald Head, again under main alone and in 20-knot winds. Barry was way forward in the 12-foot cockpit shooting digital images, at my request, trying to get Bald Head and the historic Old Baldy Lighthouse as background.

I asked for a target on land to steer to, and we were soon moving fast on a very broad port reach toward Southport and a water tower in the distance. But Barry’s photo shoot was suddenly interrupted when we touched bottom (the boat draws nearly 5 feet) on the edge of a curving shoal off Caswell Beach. I wasn’t paying attention to an outgoing tide of 3 knots pushing us ever so slowly off course and toward the shoal, forgetting that the river “carpet” under us was moving. Barry was distracted by the photo shoot.

I should have immediately tried to do a 180 and jibe the main but could not, because our forward progress had been halted. I didn’t know where I was in relation to a key green buoy I had lost track of. Barry took over the helm immediately and strapped in the mainsail as the boat bumped along the bottom and tried to slide off with the wind. But any progress was reversed by the opposing tide going out under us, and there was nothing we could do but wait for the flood to lift the boat off.

Barry was sitting on the cockpit sole with his hand on the tiller and the mainsheet at hand. I moved to the leeward shrouds to heel the boat more to starboard, beyond 40 degrees. “We got on this shoal, and it is up to us to get off,” he said.

A Coast Guard patrol stopped twice, but we knew they were not permitted to tow us off, since there was no emergency. “Thanks for stopping,” said Barry. “We’ll just wait for the tide.” We had all the proper communications gear, and he was continually monitoring our GPS position. The keel, incidentally, was not pounding into the sand, and there was no damage.

“Here comes the ferry,” I said, as the ferry made its first of many passes to and from the Bald Head terminal. Barry said nothing. He knows everyone who works on the ferry because he was a mate for 2-1/2 years and a Coast Guard-licensed captain. The ferry captain, Steve Wilson, called to check if all was OK. Barry waved and said it was, signing off and continuing the waiting game. Unfortunately, those on the ferry thought Barry had grounded the boat, because they saw him at the tiller and not me.

I decided to sing some sea chanteys to lighten up the situation, making up some words to “If I had the Wings of a Dove,” a favorite Caribbean tune. To wit:

“If I had de wings of a dove,
If I had de wings of a dove,
I would fly, fly, fly,
Away up to de sky,
And off dis boat named Jive. “

I asked Barry if he was enjoying my singing. “I am paying no attention whatsoever,” he replied. I popped open a cold Heineken and tossed him a plastic bottle of Fiji water. I apologized for driving us aground, but things can go wrong when sailing, as we both well know.

To sum up, after several hours Jive began sliding off the edge of the shoal as encroaching water began moving under our keel, and the wind heeled the boat over with the mainsail strapped in tight. We finally peeled off and happily resumed our daysail, enjoying the rest of the afternoon.

As we boarded the ferry at the terminal early that evening for the 2-mile ride back to the mainland, Capt. Wilson looked down at us from the bridge and smiled. I had to point out I was at the helm when we ran aground, not John, taking the blame for this minor mishap.

Barry said nothing. On the ride home, I reminded him of an old Chesapeake saying: “If you haven’t gone aground on the Bay, you haven’t sailed on the Bay.” That could be said of Cape Fear River sailing, too.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.