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!
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 ICW isn’t all urban by any means (thank goodness!!). Every time we entered the more natural sections, our pleasure in travelling was boosted.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve enjoyed some low-key celebration of special days along our 1st 500 miles of the ICW.
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.