Alligator River and Albemarle Sound

We left Belhaven to head out to the Alligator River. This is a completely new section of the Intercoastal Waterway that we have never travelled before since last fall Painkiller travelled these waters without us aboard. That is when we had a captain take her from Norfolk down to New Bern, NC while we were dealing with medical issues.

There is a really skinny canal portion on our travels today, it’s called the Pungo River/Alligator River Canal. It’s only about a boat length or so wide so it reminds us of the Erie Canal. However this is really rural with no real towns along the way. So tonight we will anchor in a wider spot just after we exit the canal and before we get in the Alligator River proper.

The red line starting at the bottom of the map below is where we anchored for the night at the base of the alligator river. It was a bit windy overnight, but the winds were out of the north and we were a bit protected just to the west of the base of the river.

The sunset was gorgeous however as we snuggled in for the night!

The next morning we left our anchorage to make our way to the Albemarle Plantation Marina. The red line on the map above marks our path that we will travel today.

The Alligator River and the Albemarle Sound are both rather notorious bodies of water that can be quite uncomfortable in windy conditions due to the relatively shallow water. This area behind the outer banks of North Carolina is also affected by land heating and sea breezes that tend to generate instant thunderstorms.

As you can see from the map above, the Alligator River is positioned north/south and today we had the wind out of the north. As we pulled up anchor and came around the relatively protected area at the base of the river, we felt the full force of the north wind at 15 – 22 knots at the bow of the boat as we tried to make our way north. Because the wind was so strong and the water relatively shallow in this area this was generating waves that were 6 to 7 feet in height with about a 1 second wave period.

So let me tell you a few things about waves to put this into perspective. The wave period is the time it takes for 2 successive wave crests (that’s the top of the wave) to past a specific point. The wave period is often referred to in seconds e.g. one wave every 6 seconds. As I mentioned, the wave period with these waves was about 1 second. Waves very close together makes for very chopped and uncomfortable conditions. Now the other concept at play here is fetch. Fetch is the uninterrupted distance over which the wind blows. The greater the fetch the greater the wave heights. Because the wind was out of the north, there was wide open unobstructed water for miles across the Albemarle Sound and the entire length of the Alligator River for the waves to build. This resulted in wave heights of 6 to 7 feet at the base of the river.

As we tried to make our way motoring north, we would be hit by a wave that felt like the boat just hit a concrete wall and our boat speed would go from 5 knots down to about 1.5 knots. Because the waves were so close together we barely felt like we could get any speed up before we were hit with the next wave. We were not make way to the north very quickly at all. The boat was slamming into the waves and water was washing over the dodger and the bimini.

We had 3 or 4 boats, including us that we know are in the area. Most were anchored near us last night and we all left the anchorage this morning to head up the river. We have no cell service in the area at all so we can’t even check weather apps on our phones to get wind or waves updates. A boat named Silly Goose is ahead of us on the river. We hailed them on the VHF to see if we could get an update from them on the conditions ahead. We are hoping the waves will decrease the further north we head as the fetch will lessen the further north we go. There is a swing bridge that crosses the Alligator River on the northern end that we need to have open and pass through. The bridge will not open in adverse conditions such as sustained winds over 25 knots. When we talk to Silly Goose, he is concerned that we might get north only to find that the bridge may not open. We are all too far from the bridge to communicate with them via VHF and there is no cell coverage to call the bridge. After some discussion about the conditions, Silly Goose has decided to turn around and head back to the anchorage. Mark and I discussed, “Should we turn back?” There is another boat named 3rd Dimension that is behind us.

Ultimately Mark and I decided to keep going, it seems like the further north we head that the wave action is settling down bit by bit. However, it also seems like the further north we head that the winds are getting stronger. We still don’t know if the bridge will open. We keep plodding along wiping down the dodger glass with a cloth so we can see where we are going ahead of us through the window. 3rd Dimension has decided to hang in with us and keep heading north. We got to within sight of the bridge and now the winds were as high as 24 to 25 knots. We were finally able to call the bridge on the VHF to see if he would open. YES! He will open. Thank you! Given the waves conditions and the narrow area have to get through to pass through the bridge, I gave the helm to Mark as I was too nervous to take us through. Mark did fabulous! Once we were able to clear the bridge and make our way out into the Albemarle Sound and turn the boat a bit to the west, we were able to hoist our stay sail. With the wind no longer right on the nose of the boat and having the stay sail up, it helped to calm the motion of the boat a bit and helped to make the boat cut through the waves more than slamming into them. Still not a comfortable ride but certainly better than what we have had.

Today was exhausting and as you can image I didn’t take really any photos as we were just busy worrying about us and the boat. We were grateful to be on the final approach to the Albemarle Plantation Marina and put this day behind us.

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