Cruising Stopover: Elizabeth City, NC

Bad weather forces a cruising sailor to stay put in Elizabeth City on his way south, which turns out to be a highlight of his trip.

Elizabeth City
Pinned down due to weather in Elizabeth CityJon Keller

In the fall of 2018, we all had it rough; gale followed gale, cold fronts spilled rain and cruisers hid behind whatever they could, tucking into harbors and anchorages, covering miles sporadically at best.

I’d raced southward down the Chesapeake, riding a series of 25-knot northerlies from the Sassafras River to Annapolis to Solomon’s Island. I then headed out to Tangier for a quick night before a run to Norfolk, riding 30-knot gusts that kicked up steep, confused chop and kept me glued to the tiller. By the time I left Norfolk, early in the morning as rain sprinkled out of the gray (not yet) dawn, I was worn thin. Between days at sea, my time had been spent either scrambling for boat parts or working on the boat. I’d ripped my main, replaced my boom, torn out the old leaking water heater, replaced coolant hoses, realigned my shaft, and on and on and on.

But once I spilled out of the Deep Creek Lock and into the Great Dismal Swamp, everything shifted — the sun popped out, and all of the anxiety of making the miles between the Cape Cod Canal and Norfolk burned off with the deck dew. I cracked a beer, turned on a Grateful Dead album and chugged along, marveling at the tannic waters, the cypress forests around me so different than any forest I'd ever seen. And I realized that, from that point onward, I'd be able to make a schedule and stick to it. I was on the ICW and more excited than I'd ever expected to be about motoring down a canal. I was in protected waters, and gone were the days of being stuck in one harbor or another while storms raged.

Of course, I was wrong. In Elizabeth City, North Carolina, I tied to a free dock at the Mid-Atlantic Christian University, and after a shower, I found myself with a cruising couple at a tall table in the Ghost Harbor Brewery, sipping porters and eating Jamaican chicken wings while checking the local forecasts.

Ghost Harbor Brewing Company
Fun people and pubs make being pinned down in Elizabeth City not so bad.Jon Keller

And that fast, my plans were gone.

Three days of hard northerlies, followed by easterlies, were predicted to hit Albemarle Sound, so it looked like, once again, I was stuck. Although antsy to go, I reminded myself that being patient and flexible was what sailing was all about — and besides, I had friends behind me, trying to catch up for Thanksgiving.

More and more, as I’d worked my way south from Maine, I was seeing frazzled, over-stressed cruisers. Captains and crew angry that they weren’t able to keep to their schedule, to follow their itinerary — mad, essentially, that things were not as they’d expected them to be. They furled their sails, ran their motors hard, stared incessantly at their weather apps. Wasn’t sailing about dealing with the unexpected?

I tried to kick back. I barely worked on Jade. I walked the town, over and over, intrigued by my first dose of southern architecture, the old houses in repair or disrepair, the lush landscaping, the downtown brick buildings, some boarded up, some showing the dawn of a downtown revitalization.

Ghost Harbor Brewery bartender
The friendly bartenders at Ghost Harbor Brewery were always welcoming.Jon Keller

I sat at the bar at Hoppin Johnz, ate some fantastic “new south cuisine” as I perused charts, worked on my laptop, drank local beer and listened to the New Orleans sounds that filled the room. I walked the residential streets to the SoHo Organic Market, stocked up on bulk beans and rice, and bought some root vegetables.

Back at the university, all of the cruisers had an open invitation to the cafeteria. Dan Smith, who oversaw the docks, told me not to miss the authentic Southern fried chicken lunch and soul-food spread, so a group of us found ourselves eating the best fried chicken any of us had ever tasted while surrounded by college students, staff and faculty. Dan joined our table, talked sailing, and offered his car if any of us needed to run errands. And, much to my relief, no one mentioned religion or politics — just food, culture and sailing.

That same evening, while easterly winds blew, cruisers and locals piled into the cozy Ghost Harbor Brewery. A trio played in the corner. Everyone talked weather, shared stories about boats piled up along the Virginia Cut, backlogged at bridges; boats unable to get through locks; boats gone aground, blown ashore, even lost at sea. And those of us lucky enough to be there … well, we were beginning to realize it.

I stepped out of the brewery into historic Pailin’s Alley, which was shared by Hoppin Johnz. The wind had turned warm. Strings of lanterns crisscrossed overhead, lush plants hung from balconies, the old bricks glowed and music filled the air. I hadn’t planned to be there; I wasn’t as far south as I’d anticipated being, or even wanted to be, but I was genuinely thankful for the winds that had caused me to hold still and experience such a special place.