View 2 of the ICW
We’ve completed our northward journey on the IntraCoastal Waterway (ICW), a leg of our adventure that we were not looking forward to, but much to our surprise, actually enjoyed. This 2nd look was definitely a “through new eyes” experience, despite our southbound transit only 4-5 months ago. Coming home on Ariose rather than find a warm place for her to await our next adventure had a major drawback for us: the slog up this inland route. Again. After cruising down the ICW’s natural waterways and cut canals that connect Virginia to Florida, it felt like once was definitely enough.
As we mentioned in our last Ariose Note, seasoning and season made all the difference. Being more seasoned sailors has enabled us to differ our approach this time. And our previous December-January transit was a race against winter. We were often cold and uncomfortable as we endured hours of monotonous motoring through rather barren landscapes. This time, our early summer cruising of a greened ICW has been worlds apart.
Here’s an overview of our route. We crossed from the Bahamas to Brunswick, Georgia in late May. We were reluctant to cruise Georgia’s section. It has a reputation for being very shallow and poorly maintained (“everyone grounds in Georgia”), and its many twists and turns require a lot of extra miles compared to a direct off-shore route. We checked the forecast for an Atlantic passage opportunity instead, but there were upcoming storms. While we waited them out, we enjoyed a couple days at anchor and a couple days at a marina in Brunswick. Oh, the luxury of showers & clean clothes! We also provisioned, initially dazed at the selection of products available compared to most stores in the Bahamas. We’re now over the shock, but still are bewildered by how many aisles American grocery stores dedicate to “soda”.
When a weather window opened, we headed back onto the Atlantic for an overnight passage to Charleston, South Carolina. The success of that passage fuelled a certain smugness. We didn’t need the ICW. We would just continue northward with short Atlantic off-shores. We played tourist in Charleston, and checked the weather every day. The mercury continued to rise, and despite having months to acclimatize to warmer temperatures in the Bahamas, being subjected to high 90s / low 100s Fahrenheit felt like it was going to melt us. Well, actually, I should say me, as Tim tolerates the heat far better than I do. Blame it on menopause. After several days, it was time to escape the city. The weather wasn’t going to allow us out onto the ocean, but that wasn’t a problem. We would tackle a short bit of the ICW, and then hop out at the next inlet and carry on with our plan. For the next few weeks, every time we reached a point where we could exit the ICW to the Atlantic, conditions were too strong to feel safe in doing so. So, we’d continue on. In the end, the weather never did cooperate to allow us back on the Atlantic. We stayed on the ICW for the entire way from Charleston, South Carolina, through all of North Carolina, and Virginia to Portsmouth / Norfolk, near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. And we’re glad we did!
That’s not to say that it has all be a delight. We’ve been on a bit of an emotional see-saw. One moment, one or both of us will be filled with impatience, and wish for a wand we could wave to be home. The next, we want to stretch out this homeward journey to last as long as possible, to keep savouring it all. It’s been fun to have that jolt of familiarity as we recognized some sights, whether a scenic bend in the river, an unusual home, or a particular bridge. It has also been remarkable how unfamiliar other areas now dressed in their summer clothes, were to us.
Most cruisers motor or motor-sail the ICW. Meandering creeks, high traffic areas , constantly shifting shoals at the inlets to the Atlantic, cut canals, oh yes, and crab pots everywhere … this just isn’t typical sailing habitat. We did recall with fondness, though, some glorious sails on a few sections of open water, like Cape Fear River and Albermarle Sound, on our way south. As we set out from Charleston, Tim had a revelation. The noise, the smell, and the cost of motoring – these robbed us of the joy we usually feel when sailing. We realized that the amount of time Ariose was a motorboat was directly proportional to our displeasure and our aversion to returning via the ICW. “Hey, we’re not under time constraints”, Tim proposed, “why not sail as much as we can?” And so we did. Of the 700 miles we travelled between Brunswick Georgia and Norfolk, Virginia, about 200 were fuelled by diesel and we relished the 500 that were fuelled by wind.
Why motor at all? There were lots of reasons. Bridge tenders required us to be under motor, with sails down, to pass through. We stayed in a couple of marinas along the way, and needed the motor to get in and out of our slip. There were also times when we were becalmed and needed to motor. Now, let me be clear that being becalmed was not enough of a reason to turn that ignition key when Captain Tim is at the helm. Certainly, if we lost steerage at a time when we needed it, whether to avoid drifting into shore or into the path of a barge, that was adequate rationale. But Tim has developed a fanatical purist attitude to sailing, often wondering aloud “what would Lin & Larry do in this situation?” (The Pardy’s are iconic cruisers who have written extensively about their decades living aboard and sailing their motorless boat through many areas of the world).
Some days, we sailed along, or rather, I should more accurately say, floated along, at less than a knot for hours. My patience would be stretched toward its breaking point. (“What would Lin & Larry do!? They’d likely be wishing they had an engine!!”, I’d argue.) Often, though, whenever I started to put the pressure on to fire up the motor Tim would ask for a few more minutes. The wind always comes back, he would say. And it would. And when it did, it would be exhilarating. On the day we crossed the mighty expanse of Albermarle Sound, with its fearful reputation of heavy seas, we ghosted along for hours, barely moving on its atypically calm waters. Just as I was about to insist we motor so that we could make it across to a safe anchorage before dark, the winds picked up and we had an invigorating 7knot sail the rest of the way.
More sailing has lead to other rewards on the ICW. Incongruous as it seems, we’ve been able to hone certain sailing skills more during these few weeks on this water that no one seems to sail, than during months in sailing territory. Yes, we’ve gained valuable experience on longer open water sails, but generally, you need to do little more than set your heading, trim the sails, and sit back. Sailing the ICW required constant attention to the continual wind and course shifts, with frequent adjustments needed. I was reminded of sailing a dinghy as kid, never cleating off the sheets, but rather keeping them in hand, playing them while finding just the right trim. One morning, within the first half hour of sailing along the snaking North Landing River, we hit every point of sail, all the while maintaining decent speed. (Landlubber translation: point of sail is the position of the boat relative to the wind – sails are trimmed, or adjusted according to the point of sail). We tried to pseudo-solo most of the time, only calling on one another when necessary. It’s a great sensation being so engaged, feeling one with the boat, and feeling our self-assurance in handling Ariose grow.
Being more seasoned has also given us added confidence in anchoring. On our southbound trip, we usually only anchored in designated or recommended areas, and frequently stayed overnight at marinas. This time, we did stay at marina’s 3 times (Brunswick GA, Carolina Beach State Park NC, and Alligator River, NC) but anchored out the rest of the time. We took hints from Skipper Bob’s well-thumbed ICW Anchoring guide, but also trusted our judgement to find the spots that would give us a secure and hopefully, bug-free night (100 % success on the former intention; 50% success on the latter). This has been a huge cost savings, but more importantly, anchoring out provides a much more agreeable experience. Ariose swivels with the wind, ensuring we always have a cooling breeze flowing through the cabin, and we’re spared the inevitable marina noise, whether docks groaning with the tides, halyards slapping on masts, or partiers revelling into the wee hours. Oh yeah, or mega yachts running generators all night to keep air conditioners going and neighbours awake. We have found the loveliest spots to call home for a night or 2, whether peaceful saltwater marshes, or dwarfed by ancient cypress in their swamps. Here’s a few favourites:
We’ve also honed our skills in sailing on & off anchor. It can be quite an art, and one that we have become pretty good at as a team. From examining the chart and the conditions we expect to face through the night to agree on a spot, to sailing up with just the right speed, sometimes slaloming around crab pots as we do, to back-winding the main to set the anchor once dropped, it’s been a fun challenge. Sometimes, we’ve had all the time in the world, and are free to take a couple runs at it if needed. Not always, though. One day on the Pongo River, threatening clouds were moving in so we began to reef the main, anticipating we’d soon be hit with strong wind. We looked up to the dark sky advancing at an alarming rate and made a hasty change of plans. This was not a storm we wished to be sailing in. Let’s anchor. We had less than 5 minutes from the time of our decision to then confirm a safe spot off the channel, get there, set anchor, drop sails, secure them and other things on deck before we were hit with a blast. When it hit, though, we were snug below, and had an extended, albeit rather bouncy, lunch while we rode it out.
One treat in traversing the ICW in summer weather has been to be able to comfortably pause and enjoy the sights along the way. We’ve made a point of stopping in towns that we skipped over on the way south. Charleston and Beaufort were two that we favoured.
We enjoyed Charleston, a city proudly steeped in its history. When we passed by on the way down, we could see grand historic homes lining the waterfront, and regretted not stopping. This time, we found a place to anchor, just a short row from the city marina’s dinghy dock, so had easy access to town. Charleston is tucked into a large harbour, fed by waterways in every direction. It was a the Memorial Day weekend, and it seemed that every Charlestonian must have a vessel of some sort and be out in it, zooming this way and that across the harbour. In one of Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard’s, more audacious acts of piracy, he and his fleet of ships and 400 men blockaded the entrance to this very harbour. He held the entire city hostage. He aquired a lot of riches, but his main demand, interestingly, was for medical supplies. Our main demand would have been for some peace and quiet and no wake, please! We did, though, have a great time exploring the city over the course of a few days.
Beaufort, North Carolina (that’s Bo-fort) was another spot we enjoyed. It’s a lovely town, historic but without the pretention we felt in some of the others. Again, it was only a 5-minute row to the dinghy dock, so no effort to get there, especially when it was Tim doing the rowing! We anchored just a stone’s throw from the Rachel Carson Nature Preserve, and enjoyed watching the wild horses that live on the island nibbling grass along the shoreline. On the other side of us was the town, and looking in that direction, we were entertained by wildlife of another kind passing by on the tour boats, many of which were pirate-themed.
Beaufort has a really well curated maritime museum. This time we’ve spent living on Ariose has given us a feeling of connection to the sea, and learning more about the related history has taken on more meaning for Tim and me. Fishing’s rise and demise, boatbuilding methods from indigenous to modern-day, the changes in rescue technology – it was all interesting. The remains of Blackbeard’s flagship were discovered resting on the bottom in the channel into this harbour. Aha. So this is what has spawned the plethora of chintzy pirate-themed tourist activities. One aspect of pirating that we hadn’t been aware of was England and France’s roles in supporting the pirate industry. During Queen Anne’s war, in the early 1700s, a fight between England and France for control of North America, both countries provided licences to “Privateers”. Qualified folks (i.e. must have own boat & a bit of a nasty streak) were authorized to destroy the opposting country’s vessels and could keep the bounty for themselves. Once the war was over, the privateers lost their source of income, so those with a resourceful entrepreneurial spirit resumed the same occupation, but this time with a lawless twist.
On the topic of laws and lawlessness, we’ve been entertained by the abundance of “rules” signs that seem to dominate. Clearly, lawyers, or at least wanna-be legal folk have been busy word-smithing. Here’s one dissuading people from harming the wildlife in parks. That’s reasonable. Check out the sign’s rather thorough wording, though. Hey! They missed amphibians… I guess we would have been permitted to torment frogs had we been so inclined. When I checked us into the city-maintained free dock in Portsmouth, I wasn’t surprised to have the 2 pages of rules and regulations read to me. Among them was the stipulation that we could only remain for 36 hours. That was disappointing as we hoped to stay longer. What did surprise us though, was that the visitor information lady overseeing the docks verbally appended the “36-hour rule” by adding “unless you’d like to stay longer, of course, then you can stay a week or two weeks if you like”. Some rules are easy to follow.
We have had remarkably little drama along the way, really only 3 “incidents”, which is not a bad track record for a month’s travel. One minor situation was our 2nd fouling the anchor of our entire journey. We were just off the channel on a straight stretch north of Holden Beach. As along much of the ICW, this area was dotted with crab-pot floats. We thought we were careful to set our anchor between 2, but the next morning, when departing, we found that our rode must have danced all night long with a crab-pot’s rope. Untangling it without resorting to cutting us loose took ages. And no, we didn’t help ourselves to the captive crabs, however tempting, we just reset the trap and were grateful that we didn’t spark an angry encounter with some burly fisherman.
We also had a mechanical breakdown that offered more of annoyance than drama. Our autohelm, which attaches to the wheel and steers Ariose to a set compass course, is getting to be nearly 20 years old and close to the end of its life, we have been told. It was progressively making stranger and stranger noises. Even when not engaged, the wheel would catch and require some wrestling to steer. Taking it apart and checking out the gears and rollers revealed nothing amiss. Now, an autohelm, is not a necessity, but on longer stretches, especially with only 2 people aboard, it is difficult if one of us has to be hand-steering at all times. It can be downright exhausting. As dawn broke on our overnight passage to Charleston, so did the autohelm. I had set it to head below for some reason or another, likely to use the head, and before I was even through the companionway, we were doing an accidental gybe. Yikes. I rushed out, regained control, and chided myself thinking that in my fatigue, I hadn’t actually engaged the autohelm properly. On the second attempt, I remained behind the wheel to be confident it would hold, but sure enough, Ariose swung quickly around, completely off course. When I turned it off, the wheel was stuck, and as I tried to get us on course, the backing plate controlling the wheel imploded, it’s guts (i.e. the belt) gruesomely hanging out. Shoot. Long story short, replacement parts are no longer being manufactured, and a new autohelm would be about $1600. Tim, ever resourceful, located a $20 after-market belt, had it shipped to Beaufort, about a week up the ICW, and was able to get it working again.
The third incident of our ICW journey was more than an annoyance. It was rather frightening. It was one of those close-calls that spike the adrenaline levels, but in the end, cause no serious harm. It’s been a while since we’ve done the cliff-hanger thing in an an Ariose Note, and we would like to share more about this 2nd view we’ve had of the ICW, so we’ll pick up from here next post.
Oh, for the sake of those who have been anxiety-holders for us on this adventure, we’ll end with a peaceful moonrise from our anchorage at Beaufort to calm spirits.