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The Inlet

After the trip to Swansboro we daysailed every weekend for a while. Sometimes up and down Banks Channel, or easy trips north on the ICW to Surf City or North Topsail Beach, taking advantage of the prevailing southerly winds were the norm. When the wind shifted to the east or north, a trip to Figure Eight Island was a nice change of scenery. Almost always the return trips were under motor, not sail. The outboard moved the boat at hull speed at less than full throttle. When the wind was blowing 15-20 knots, sailing on a reach or broad reach was at times exciting. As were the 3 or even 4 foot wakes from large motor yachts moving on the ICW.

Following Hurricane Florence, the Coast Guard picked up the remaining ATONs marking New Topsail Inlet. As I travelled by it when headed south, I thought about trying to get outside for a sail. Previously the inlet had been dredged and was well-marked. We frequently sailed outside on our other boat when the inlet was navigable. Trips outside south to Masonboro Inlet or north to New River Inlet and back were enjoyable, although occasionally anxiety provoking on the return through Topsail Inlet. Florence resulted in severe shoaling in some parts of the inlet and the bar at the mouth of the inlet was reported to be shallow. The breaking waves across the bar pretty much confirmed the thin water.

After a few weeks I decided it was time to try to get outside through the inlet. It seemed that with a rising tide, calm seas and a light breeze, motoring through the inlet could be possible. That would allow me to get an idea of the severity of the shoaling and whether or not the bar could be safely crossed. Finally, that day arrived. I always wear an inflatable life jacket when navigating inlets, so I put one on. I also wear a life jacket when I’m sailing solo if the weather might present some interesting conditions. Attached to my life jacket is a small personal locator beacon. The two safety devices give me a sense of security most of the time. Still, I maintain a healthy respect for the sea, and inlets especially.

The inlet is nearly two miles from my dock. Interestingly enough, the inlet has migrated south a mile or so during the 50 years I have sailed the area. With my eyes constantly on the water, looking for the tell-tale signs of shoals, and on the depth finder, I cautiously moved through the inlet against the current at 3 knots. Topsail Island is on the north side of the inlet. Lea Island is on the south side. The area between the navigable water in the inlet and Lea Island typically is heavily shoaled, with lots of breaking water. That was the case. On the Topsail Island side, the water is calmer, and typically deeper, although the channel meanders a bit. It was nearly high tide, and the inlet water depth varied greatly, from 4 feet to 20+ feet under the keel. The seas were calm in the ocean, but were 2 feet or so in the inlet, with a period of 5-7 seconds. It was very comfortable.

Upon entering the inlet the breaking water on the bar could be seen. I decided that at the very least I would approach the bar and then decide whether or not to cross. The closer I got to the bar, the calmer the seas became. There was an opening on the south side of the mouth of the inlet where the water was not breaking. It looked to be 20 yards or so wide.

So far so good. The outboard purred along and speed remained fairly constant at 3 knots against the current. It was time for a decision. I decided to cross the bar at the opening. Everything was working out just fine. The bar was approached, and the water depth was 3 feet in the wave troughs for a distance of 10 yards, then after crossing the bar it became 15 feet, and then 25 feet. The sea was calm, and the wind still light. Not being able to resist, I hoisted the main, unfurled the genoa and sailed east with the wind on the starboard beam. Being just a little nervous about my return trip through the inlet, I frequently looked back over my shoulder to see how much breaking water was at the bar. After sailing for an hour, I tacked and headed back, following the breadcrumb trail on the chart plotter. My intention was to do the same back through the inlet. As I approached the bar on the reciprocal course heading, everything looked fine. The main was doused and the genoa furled in preparation for crossing. The opening was still there, and I was making 5 knots with the outboard at quarter throttle. All was good. A little anxiety started to develop as I got closer and closer to the bar and the breaking water on either side of the opening. Fifty yards away from crossing conditions changed. The opening suddenly disappeared. There was breaking water all along the bar, and no opening. I couldn’t figure out what had changed so suddenly. I wondered if it was a random series of larger waves or maybe the wake from a ship that passed the island miles out to sea. So I turned and motored parallel to the shore, with my eye on the area that had been open.

Slack tide was approaching in about an hour. The last thing I wanted was to go through the inlet on a falling tide and an opposing wind. It was decision time once again. I could go back to the original point of exit from the inlet where I knew the water depth, or I could try to find a place where the breaking waves were smallest. Back and forth I motored along the bar watching and waiting. The high tide and the change of current direction was imminent. The safest path seemed to be the original point of exit and the reciprocal course.

The genoa was unfurled to provide some stability moving through the breakers, and along with the outboard the boat made hull speed, 6 knots. There was only one line of breakers on the bar. If I could get through that without broaching, the trip back to Banks Channel should be a piece of cake. Motor sailing on the back of a wave, I tried to ride it, but the wave was moving faster than I was. Best case was that I managed to get over the bar without the wave actually breaking over the stern. I had no idea about the buoyancy in the stern of the boat, but with the rudder hung on the transom and the transom and cockpit joining, there wasn’t much room for error if a wave boarded.

Holy ****! I had not put the hatch boards in place! The companionway was wide open and even with something of a bridge deck, being boarded by a following sea would surely sink the boat. I gunned the outboard, pushed the tiller hard to port and spun the boat around.

I could not believe I had not put in the hatch boards, but soon they were in place and the hatch secured to the top board. Looking at the breakers on the bar again, searching for an opening, it was clear that there wasn’t going to be one. I have taken boats through this and other inlets before, even in very challenging conditions, but never with an outboard hanging off the stern. And they were larger boats. I had two choices: cross the bar and handle the following sea; or, sail down to Masonboro Inlet, which has a breakwater and is protected, and come back on the ICW from Wrightsville Beach. The trip to Wrightsville Beach and back to the dock is 28 miles. There was barely enough daylight left to get to Masonboro Inlet.

The wind had freshened. The genoa was pulling the boat well, so with the outboard idling I sailed on the back of a wave, once again heading toward the bar. As before, the waves moved faster than the boat. Soon I was riding the subsequent wave and crossing the bar, when the wave broke amidships. The boat held steady, although the rudder wanted to turn hard, then immediately the next wave broke just before reaching the transom. The stern of the boat was pushed hard to port, and it felt like the boat might broach, but the stern rose with the white water and started to surf. I gave the outboard full throttle and saw white water covering the bottom half of the engine cowl. The breaker finally subsided and the boat was again in calm water with gentle swells. Even though the boat responded well in the breakers, needless to say, my heart rate was slightly elevated.

The other boats I’ve taken outside all had inboard engines. The outboard lowered to its operating position could have been completely covered by a wave, and potentially stalled, resulting in a very bad outcome. Although the Com-Pac 23 handled the seas well, once again the outboard bothered me. I really enjoyed sailing the boat, liked the way it handled under sail, loved her lines and look, and felt comfortable with it. However, if I planned to keep the boat, replacing the outboard with an inboard diesel was now a requirement.

And so began the search for a small diesel for JaVa.