What Lurks Beneath
Claiborne S. Young
After 30 years as a cruising guide author, and almost that much time as a regular speaker to nautical groups, I’ve learned that some questions pop up time and time again. “How did you get into writing cruising guides?” “How do you go about your research?” “What is your favorite cruising ground (a loaded question if I ever heard one)?” Well, you get the idea.
The impetus for this version of “Young’s Yarns” comes from another of those oft asked inquiries, “What is the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you on the water.” I’m always ready for that question, for, as you will see, I have an apt answer!
Back in 1990, I was hard at work preparing the first edition of my Cruising Guide to the Northern Gulf Coast (covering the coastline between the Florida Panhandle and New Orleans). One fine fall morning, my dear friend, Andy Lightbourne, and I were researching the waters of Pearl River. This lengthy stream acts as the coastal divider between Mississippi and Louisiana. Furthermore, the river’s upstream reaches flow into the John C. Stennis Space Center. From time to time, barge traffic heads up or down the river ferrying gear to or from the complex. To this day, there is a picture of a barge carrying a liquid oxygen tank, pulled along by a tug, in CGNG. That photo was taken on the very day in question.
When the Stennis Space Center was first built, the US Army Corps of Engineers, “straightened” Pearl River. How do you “straighten” a major coastal river, you may ask. Well, you simply dredge artificial channels, bypassing all the Pearl’s various loops and wanderings. You end up with a much straighter outlet to the open Gulf. The bypassed portions of the river are known in the vernacular as “lost loops.”
This “lost loop” phenomenon is not unusual. Bypassed streams of this ilk are often encountered wherever channels have been dredged, particularly along certain sections of the various “Intracoastal Waterways.” Over the years, I’ve learned that many of these “lost loops” make great overnight anchorages. Others, for reasons I don’t fully understand, shoal quickly, and become traps eager to say hello to your keel and underwater hardware.
Consequently, whenever I find lost loops, they demand a thorough sounding and assessment. So it was on that fine fall morning that Andy and I were exploring at idle speed one of Pearl River’s bypassed waters north of the Highway 90 bridge. Thus far, everything was looking good. The shoreline was untouched, and the creek had a truly “out in the middle of nowhere” feeling. Depths were proving to be in the 7 to 8 foot range, and there was excellent shelter from inclement weather. Things were about to take a truly bizarre turn, however.
I distinctly remember that I was just musing upon what size craft could comfortably swing on the hook, when, with no warning, it felt as if we ran over some sort of underwater obstruction. We were conducting our research in a small but sturdy, 19-foot, 1972 model Chris Craft, stern drive powered vessel, which I still use to this day in protected waters. This is a HEAVY boat for its size, and you will want to keep that statistic in mind as this tale unfolds.
Anyway, back to the action. The bow rose out of the water a good 10 degrees. I quickly glanced at the depth sounder, and was amazed to see that, at least according to the instrument, we were still in 7 Â½ feet of water. Next, I waited for the stern drive (the deepest part of this particular vessel) to make contact with whatever we were riding over. But, IT NEVER DID. All of a sudden, whatever was holding our bow up was just not there, and once again we were put-putting normally up the creek.
“Well, that was strange,” Andy commented. It was about to get stranger. About twenty yards farther upstream, a similar occurrence took place. Once again, it felt as if we were on top of something under the water’s surface. The contact was quicker this time, but once again the depth sounder never read any less than 7 feet, and the stern drive never even bumped. We began to feel that it was high time we left this loop behind, but, though we didn’t know it, these waters were not yet finished with us.
Just as we thought our getaway was accomplished, we came across the “underwater obstruction” for a third time. On this occasion, it almost felt for a moment like we were high and dry. And, when we got off whatever it was, there was a sort of sideways motion, as if whatever was underwater was moving off under its own power. Again, not to be repetitive, but the depth sounder continued to show plenty of water under our keel, and the stern drive remained untouched. By now, we were truly spooked, and all concerned had had enough of this game. I goosed the throttle, and we got back out into the main body of Pearl Rover post haste! Never was I so glad to be back in deeper, open water.
I’ve told this story to many yacht clubs and other nautical groups on the Northern Gulf coastline. Explanations have ranged from a “giant catfish” to a “really large alligator.” Whatever it was, there was something in those depths, that was really big, and it was just playing with our craft. Yet, we never saw anything break the surface, not even a ripple. And, whatever it was, knew enough to avoid the prop and stern drive!
Whatever was down there in the murky depths of this Pearl River lost loop, will always remain a mystery. I’ve never had the nerve to return, and within the pages of CGNG, all cruisers are warned to stay away!
If you, by some chance, have ever had a similar experience on Pearl River, or any Gulf Coast waters, please let’s compare notes. Please click the “Comment on This Posting/Marina/Anchorage/Bridge” link below, and share your story
I guess it just goes to show that we cruisers often do not know what really passes under our keels. Maybe it’s better that way. Otherwise, we might never find the gumption to leave the dock. In any case, if anyone ever does anchor on any part of Pearl River, and your anchor should become stuck, such that you can’t break it out the next morning, may I strongly suggest you just cut the line, and buy a new anchor. Diving overboard to retrieve your hook might prove to be a very, very bad idea on the waters of Pearl River!
Good luck and good cruising to all!
Claborne S. Young
September 10, 2006
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Comments from fellow cruisers on “What Lurks Beneath”:
Iâ€™ve been a faithful fan of your cruising guides since your very first edition. Your witty stories and personal testimonials put your guides head and shoulders above the rest!
Dear Mr. Young:
I think I may have a possible explanation for your experience.
I live in a canal front home on Merritt Island Florida and had a 25 Catalina sailboat docked alongside the sea wall. There are steps and a walkway to the narrow pier.
One day I was hand trimming grass alongside the step. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw my boat lurch partially out of the water. Since the boat was about 5500 lbs I knew it was impossible and went back to my trimming. Shortly later I again got a glimpse of my boat lurching upward and, again, couldn’t believe it. The third time this happened I got up and ran down to the boat. There was a large Manatee wedged between the boat and the pilings munching on the grass clippings. The boat’s mooring lines had sufficient slack to allow it to drift close the pier and whenever it bumped the Manatee the animal would actually lift the boat up and out of its way.
I couldn’t believe my eyes and ran for a camera. However, by the time I returned the Manatee was working its way up the canal. We frequently see these animals in the canal. but, that was the only time one shoved my boat around.
If one could manhandle my 5500 lb sailboat, your 19 footer would be a comparative feather. I think it was good luck, not smarts, that the animal didn’t get hit by the prop.
Merritt Island, FL