The Intracoastal Waterway
There’s been a few times since starting our adventure that we’ve wished for less of it… of adventure, that is. We longed for a little boredom, perhaps some monotony. Then we entered the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) …
We have had some “big” adrenaline situations since we started out, like grounding, and our 1st overnight sail, but also, in our first month, not a day seemed to go by without a small dose of adrenaline, and this has been true even on the ICW. The dinghy’s tow line getting caught in the propeller was good for a little excitement. So was the alarming discovery, far out on a large sound, that our bilge pumps weren’t functioning when water suddenly rose above our floorboards. That’s one way to wash all the canned goods down there! We’ve been jolted awake in the middle of the night by our keel nudging the bottom (soft, muddy, giving bottoms) and we’ve been jolted while already awake when our keel rammed bottom (solid, unforgiving bottom). We joked about the crisis-of-the-day that seemed inherent in cruising. We must be getting more experienced, or lucky, though, as the frequency of these kinds of mini-crises has greatly diminished. As we were saying, a lack of upper case Adventure is just fine with us. That brings us to the ICW.
This inland waterway officially runs from Norfolk, Virginia, and travels 1100 miles, all the way to Miami, Florida. It’s a welcome route, especially at this time of year, in that it provides a somewhat protected path off the Atlantic. We eagerly looked forward to that protection. Near the start, there are 2 choices, which shortly after reconvene. One route, the Great Dismal Swamp, was closed. Clean-up from Hurricane Matthew’s fury was still underway. This oxymoronically titled route is much less travelled, and with overhanging trees lining the way, sounds the more scenic of the 2. Disappointed, we headed to port and took the Chesapeake Albermarle route, our only available option.
We’re managing about 40 miles on a good day, getting underway around 9 am, and setting anchor just before dark at about 5pm. If you do the math, you can see that we could pretty much walk at that pace! Some days, the winds and currents have conspired against us, causing us to crawl along at less than 3 knots/hour. When it’s an enjoyable stretch, that’s a perfect speed to absorb it all; when it’s less than enjoyable, it can feel like Chinese water torture. We have had a handful of full-on sailing stretches that have felt glorious, and look forward to opportunities for more, but for the most part, Ariose is forced to be a motor boat.
Some call the ICW “The Ditch”. Its fans do so with affection, but there are others who do not intend to be complimentary with the nickname. Parts are interesting and you could even say enchanting, and there are many navigational challenges to keep us on our toes. At the same time, there are stretches that we have found, well, downright boring. We had longed for some tedium, but parts of the ICW offer a bit more than we had asked for. Where do we weigh in on the thumbs-up versus thumbs-down on The Ditch debate? First, we’ll share a selection of photos to let you form your opinion.
We’ll start at the beginning, at “mile 0” in Norfolk, Virginia, where we entered on Dec 10th, through North Carolina, to our arrival at “mile 535” on New Year’s Eve at Beaufort, South Carolina.
OUR ICW START: PORTSMOUTH.
Well, actually, we’ll start in Portsmouth, a lovely town steeped in history, just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk. This was the first time we felt we could slow our race against winter, and stay put for a couple days, not because we were forced to by repairs nor by fatigue, just because we wanted to!
ICW START: PORTSMOUTH / 1-After our over-night-and-then-some sail to get here, we anchored just out of the shipping channel, and slept. The next day we moved to the Tidewater Marina…
2-.. a slightly swankier marina than we’re used to. A little too chilly, though, for Tim to take a dip in the floating pool.
3-Day 3, we moved to Portsmouth’s free municipal dock – bonus! – and tied up behind MoonSong.
5-Tim’s first comment when we put feet to land, revealing his extensive biologist training, was “leaves”!
4-..Jerry, Nola, and salty dog, Tara. They built MoonSong,this work of art & have been aboard since leaving Alaska over 20 years ago.
6-We enjoyed wandering Portsmouth, a town steeped in its past …
7- … with it’s well-preserved historic district,
8-with homes dating from the 1700s.
What is the actual waterway like? We really had little idea what to expect, and looking at coastal maps, we found it hard to imagine how it would be possible to travel over 1000 miles without the Atlantic’s help. The ICW is quite a mix: some meandering rivers and creeks, some straight cut canals, and some large bodies of open water. Much of it, since it is a major transportation route, passes through urban areas. Here’s a glimpse:
THE WATERWAY / 1-The ICW begins off the Chesapeake Bay, a major Atlantic opening, so we began surrounded by fantastic paraphernalia for loading/unloading freighters.
2-Felt like we had entered a giant’s machine play set.
3-And as if that isn’t a surreal enough experience, then we passed through a major US naval shipyard.
4-Good thing Ariose doesn’t have an inferiority complex!
5-The ICW is a major transportation thoroughfare, so industry, like this pulp & paper mill in Georgetown, dots the shores, belching noxious odours.
6-Industrial turned to residential…
7-and more residential.
8-Hours upon hours, days upon days…
9-…of motoring through people’s backyards.
10-We were shocked by the grandiosity of so many houses. Many looked sterile to us…
11-… but there were also some unique homes …
12-.. that caught our attention.
13-“Unique” was not an adjective that applied to many neighbourhoods, though.
14-In many communities, like here in Myrtle Beach, the ICW is clearly the domain of the wealthy..
15-… but along other stretches, the houses actually looked like lived-in homes…
16-… with some stretches of trailer parks..
17-.. and homes that had seen better times.
18-Of course, living on the ICW, brings with it personal access to the water…
19-…so for hours on end, we puttered at arm’s length past rows of docks. d docks.
20-With the tides, docks usually need to be long, make that VERY long.
21-Unlike our early weeks, when we were alone on in the New York Canals, we shared the ICW with others. Lots of commercial fishing trawlers…
22-… and recreational fishing boats and lots of camouflaged duck hunting skiffs.
23-With the Atlantic just over a sliver of tidal marsh, sport fishing is a big deal. Tim’s not impressed.
24-We’ve encountered a few other sailboats, like Eleda here, but most have already migrated south.
25-Nevertheless, we’ve had enough sailboat company, with more the further we go – no longer questioning ourselves.
The ICW isn’t all urban by any means (thank goodness!!). Every time we entered the more natural sections, our pleasure in travelling was boosted.
NATURAL SECTIONS / 1-Once out of the industrial maze of Norfolk, pine trees appear..
2-… and it almost felt as if we were back in northern Ontario.
3-The ICW follows natural rivers and sounds,
4-and these are connected by straight cut sections.
5-Because of the time of year, the deciduous trees have been leafless, but beautiful in their starkness.
6-Water colours vary, from the tea-coloured brew of tannin infused areas,
7-to blues giving promise of what lay ahead.
8-Most of the ICW is meandering estuaries through tidal marshland, with the Atlantic just on the other side.
9-Kind of like motoring through (flooded) Canadian prairies
10-Slight rises in land height allow trees…
11-.. always a welcome change from the grassland landscape.
12-What felt monotonous on a grey day, came to life with the blue sky days.
13-Motoring, and motoring, with the grasses giving way to trees, and
14-.. trees giving way to more marshland. You get the picture.
15-At one point, Camp LeJeune, a military base, conducts artillery exercises across the ICW. Yes, across this major waterway. There were no exercises scheduled on the day we passed through. We didn’t offer ourselves up for target practice!
16-One of the stops we really enjoyed along the way was at Carolina Beach State Park. It’s similar to Ontario Provincial Parks – we appreciated the familiarity – with a twist of being able to sail in & dock.
17-It was great to get out and ….
18-… enjoy the water from shore…
19-Playing in the sand..
20-.. short hikes, …
22-…and relaxing on the beach. Perfect antidotes to too many consecutive days in a little boat.
21-…checking out wetlands, …
23-Near the North / South Carolina borders, we had several days of motoring through cypress swamps…
24-… and remnants of rice paddies, which have been dormant since emancipation. Profits were reliant on the backs of slaves.
25-For the final shot in this gallery: here’s what looks like a peaceful sunrise from one of our many anchorages, tucked up a creek off the ICW. “Shot” is apt. We were greeted with early morning wake-up alarm of shotgun blasts from duck hunters.
Since the US east coast is essentially slips of land interlaced by waterways, and these slips are densely populated, bridges are a necessity. For us, they have served as milestones, and at times, ego-boosters.
In plotting our course each day, we pay special attention to bridge specs and schedules. Some are fixed, and many of those have a height of 65 feet, plenty for Ariose’s 35 foot mast to pass under. On those that we need to open, timing is important if we don’t want to have to have delays, or worse, get trapped for the night on the wrong side of the bridge.
The other challenge is current. Much of the ICW is affected by tidal currents, and in the narrows under bridges, it can be especially strong. The first time we encountered anything more than just a small boost in speed was unnerving to say the least. We were pushed toward a still closed bridge. Gunning reverse felt like we were in neutral and there was not enough space to turn around. On that one, I had the pleasure of being at the helm. Tim closed his eyes to avoid seeing the carnage as I, without any other option, maneouvred through the narrow sliver of daylight of a still-opening bridge. It felt like I was an unwilling competitor in a game of chicken. From that point on, we didn’t care how annoying we were to the road traffic. We hovered far out until the bridge was fully open before proceeding toward it.
Some bridges also have “rules”, although we weren’t sure if they were official or were made up at the whim of the operator. One didn’t permit passage under sail (even though we had our motor running to ensure steerage). This operator neglected to advise us of this, and instead, watched us tack back and forth for 30 minutes after the scheduled opening until it was too dark to pass through and find a safe anchorage, then advised us he didn’t open because of our sails.
Most operators, though, were friendly and prompt, and it sure does feel affirming to have an authoritative voice on the radio address you as “captain”! At Christmas and New Years, we would even step out of the usually formal communication protocol to exchange best wishes.
BRIDGES / 1-There are many modern, sleek spans, such as this one in Virginia, that we could freely cruise under with no fear of dismasting ourselves.
2-Height, though, is a constant issue. Markers like this one give a live reading according to tide, although, by the time you see the measure, it’s getting a little late to abort the mission. Ariose only needs about 38 feet from the water,
3-It seems that no matter how tall a bridge, there’s a moment where we hold our breath as we seem perilously close to skinning it.
4-Each bridge is unique, and ignited the curiosity of our inner engineer. This vertical lift bridge runs near water level, and upon opening…
5-the centre section rises up…
6-allowing us to pass through!
7-Various styles of bascule bridges would open upward from the centre, with a counterbalanced weight.
8-Le voila! Passage granted.
9-Upon approaching each bridge, we need to hail the operator on our VHF to let them know we intend to pass through, and to clarify procedure and any special conditions. Some open hourly except at rush hours, others on the half hour except on weekends. Some open anytime, upon request…
10-.. kind of feeds our feelings of self importance, watching lines of traffic come to a halt, then having this gargantuan structure pivoting open,
11-and closing behind as we, on our humble little Ariose, passe through.
TOWNS & CITIES.
It’s strange travelling with nautical charts as our primary guide. They are sparse on details beyond the immediate concerns of boaters, so provide very little information as to what’s ashore. We suddenly happen upon some communities, and as far as our chart is concerned, we know nothing more than there is a distinctive church spire or visible tower there. We’re left with just waterfront glimpses of another cluster of homes or businesses. Others towns and cities we choose out of necessity, to move on through. We’re getting surprised reactions from some when they learn we didn’t stop at Myrtle Beach or Charleston or any of the very many other notable destinations along the way. The ICW is a highway of sorts, connecting a string of American enclaves. If we even had a quick stop at each, we’d run out of time and money before we reach the Bahamas of beyond. The ICW is for us, a means to our end.
That’s not to say that we haven’t made some stops along the way and have acquainted ourselves with some spots, like Portsmouth VA, which we’ve already shared a bit about. In all the towns and cities we have stopped in so far, what has stood out for us has been their strong sense of history. This is where Europeans, for better and for worse, first made their mark It’s where many of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars’ major encounters took place. It’s also where every stop lays claim to the biggest or oldest or most notable something or other.
Oriental, North Carolina, and Georgetown and Beaufort, South Carolina are three that we have particularly enjoyed. Here’s some photo highlights.
TOWNS & CITIES / 1-As we were saying, we are slowly shifting out of racing south gear, and incorporating a bit of relaxing time. Oriental offered us some of that.
2-Oriental’s a small town, with only about 1000 people living there. It is big on boats, though. This fishing trawler was our berth-mate and sure dwarfed Ariose. The town has a reputation as being a place world sailors retire to, and we had the pleasure of meeting some in the local stores and getting their advice on our purchases.
3-Despite being one of the original haunts of Blackbeard, we found Oriental particularly warm, with lots of “hello’s” and offers of hospitality. We were loaned these bikes to tour the town…
4-… and pick up provisions. At the cash in the hardware store, we were even given well-spiked eggnog … ’twas the season!
5-The warmth included rising temperatures – eating breakfast outside Ariose with no wool toque. Now that’s a milestone!
6-Further on, we spent a few days in Georgetown, South Carolina, just up Winyah Bay.
7-Lots of interpretive information…
8-… and museums within our budget (i.e. free)..
9-… and a central neighbourhood full of character…
10-.with grand homes maintained in near-original condition. ..
12-Just beyond the historical core, though, were neighbourhoods, that reminded us of the dark side of the south’s history, and how the riches were amassed. The histories of these neighbourhoods remained unposted.
13-Beaufort, SC, has been another favourite … that’s Bew-fort, not to be confused with Beaufort (Bo-fort), NC, especially when chatting with locals.
14-Again, we were impressed with how well the historic character has been preserved…
15-… and how the community valued its lovely Spanish moss laden trees (doing their best icicle impersonation)…
16-…with low-hanging branches allowed to remain over streets. Tim almost needed to duck at times!
Getting from point A to B on the ICW is not straightforward. We were a little intimidated with what we had read and heard that navigating the waterway can be quite a test.
NAVIGATION / 1-Every evening, we spend time planning our next day’s journey. We check our paper charts…
2- compare them with electronic, factor in suggestions and cautions from our Moeller guide, and bits of experience we’ve gleaned from others. Ready.
3-Some sections are easy, like the ram-rod straight land cuts with consistent depth.
4-And some stretches are well marked (keep green to port when heading upstream or to harbour), appreciated by boaters and birdlife alike.
5-Others, had overly obvious signs – we doubt any boat would attempt to pass on the other side of this marker!
6-But in some stretches, for days on end, this is the waterway we needed to navigate…
7-…looks easy, doesn’t it? This photo, though was taken…
8-… around here on the charts. That apparent wide open expanse is merely a veneer of water, that at low tide turns to marshland.
9-Ariose’s depth sounder is our best friend and greatest irritant on the ICW. In some areas, for hours on end, every few minutes are punctuated by the “shallow alarm” sounding, causing adrenaline to spike and the person at the helm to shift to neutral and try to divine where to turn to get a few more inches of water.
10- Seems that every sailboat runs aground at some point on the ICW, even experienced boats such as Eleda, pictured here. We’ll save our story for another post.
11-Current is another challenge. We’ve already mentioned the hazards it brings when approaching bridges, for example, …
12-… but there was also the planning factor when the current could add or detract several knots from our speed. Could we make it to that safe anchorage before dark? Can our patience tolerate another 3 hours of crawling at 2 knots until the tide turns?
13-There are some much-welcomed wide open expanses, like Albermarle Sound, or Cape Fear River, or Pamlico Sound, where we were finally able to turn our motor off and sail!
13-There are some much-welcomed wide open expanses, like Albermarle Sound, or Cape Fear River, or Pamlico Sound, where we were finally able to turn our motor off and sail!
14-You can imagine our disappointment when we reached some of these areas only to find dead calm.
15-At times, rare times, the depth and width and wind have been in concert, and we are treated to …
16-…some glorious sails.
17-Being at the edge of the ocean means weather conditions can change… like a heavy fog bank suddenly moving up on a blue-sky day…
18-One time, we had to tightly circle a marker until we regained some visibility.
19-Other times, we were able to inch along, steering soley by our electronic charts, and keeping a watch on commercial traffic through our AIS. Always reassuring to be informed when these big guys were at anchor, and not heading toward us.
20-Even when fog isn’t an issue, the heavy commercial traffic poses a challenge. This time, we were both puzzled why there would be a light-house mid-way on a land-cut, and why neither of us had noted it on our charts…
21-… only to feel somewhat foolish when that “lighthouse” turned out to be a tug pushing one of the many massive barges right toward us.
22-And just in case we felt overly confident in our ability to navigate, the ICW holds lots of reminders of what can happen to those not paying attention.
A definite highlight has been the wildlife along the ICW. Here’s just a glimpse of the prolific birdlife along the ICW – we’ll share more in an upcoming post.
FAUNA / 1-Cormorants are ubiquitous, thinking the ICW markers have been placed for their convenience.
2-We’ve spotted several bald eagles (not a great shot of this one), and ospreys too.
3-Oystercatchers stumped my resident birder for a bit.
4-Lots of great blue herons and other shorebirds too.
5-Pelicans have been one of our favourites… solo…
7-and flocks of them.
8-We’ve been surprised to hear the ever so familiar call of the loon on the ICW, but it has donned toned-down plummage for its southern attire.
9-Kevan C – if you’re reading this, could you give Tim some help in identifying this species please?
Swallows using Ariose’s rigging as their personal playground. That wind vane sure can spin!
11-We’ve been thrilled to have dolphins play alongside. This is a typical shot we’ve taken … you have to trust us, there was a dolphin there a moment ago…
12-…and a few times, they’ve allowed us to catch them on camera.
We’ve enjoyed some low-key celebration of special days along our 1st 500 miles of the ICW.
CELEBRATIONS / 1-Tim’s birthday was cause to fire up our oven for the first time…
2-… for a feast of chocolate chip cookies for the birthday boy.
3-Shirley’s birthday was celebrated ashore at Carolina Beach State Park…
4-… with gifts of a gorgeous sunset…
5-and a chocolate birthday treat!
6-Signs of Christmas had been everywhere almost since the start of our journey…
7-but it was hard for us to feel the spirit far from family and familiar surroundings…
8-… although we have found the quirkiness of some decorations amusing.
9-Other boaters, really went all out.
10-Our Christmas eve ritual was no different than other evenings aboard: find an anchorage, take down the flag, & tuck into bed.
11-Our Christmas anchorage in an oxbow off the ICW, deep in a cyprus swamp was one of our favourites…
12-… with trees decked out in their mossy holiday best.
13-We awoke on Christmas, untied our dinghy Poco, and spent the morning exploring this enchanted setting.
14-Our final celebration on the ICW: in Beaufort, SC, we bid 2016 farewell and welcomed in the New Year, knowing it will be a memorable one for us.
So, that’s our virtual tour of the northern portion of the ICW. Are you thumbs up or down on The Ditch? We pretty much flip-flop our opinion on a daily and sometimes hourly, basis. If you’ve followed our whereabouts, you’ll know our actions speak louder than words. Once we reached Beaufort, SC, we jumped at the next weather window that allowed us to head back out on the Atlantic and with relief, skipped over the entire state of Georgia’s ICW. We gratefully landed in Florida. This was an overnight sail that put a smile on our faces!
PS – Our favourite sailing magazine, one that a good friend got us hooked on (thanks, Fred!), has published an article written by Shirley in its current issue. If you’re interested, check out Good Old Boat.