Observations from the Waterway (the ICW Blues) back home

Back Home

Observations from the Waterway


Colin Ward

Three years ago, we traveled the Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW) from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay and back. Despite the fact that I wrote a song called the ICW Blues during that trip, time conveniently healed all the wounds and we only remember the good things from that long ago so the crew of Mandalay undertook the trip again this year. Having returned from the Bahamas in May, we headed north from Miami with a goal of being in the Chesapeake Bay by the middle of June. While some of the trip was “outside” in the ocean, a large portion was in the ditch.

Arriving back in the USA after a few months of chilling out in the Bahamas is a culture shock in itself. There is not much traffic on the VHF in the Bahamas other than cruisers calling each other and the locals using it as a party line. In Florida, we were immediately assaulted by numerous announcements by the Coastguard, by constant thinly disguised advertisements by competing towing companies, by never ending radio checks by people who think their radio is going to fail on an hourly basis, and by boaters complaining to others (referring to them by a name beginning with A and ending in hole) about the wake they have generated. A visiting Martian would never guess that we are supposed to be out there boating for fun.

There are a couple of features of the ICW that overshadow all the rest. One is that some sections of the ditch are no longer consistently deep enough for a sailboat with a six foot draft and the other is that there are relatively few places where the adjacent water is deep enough to allow one to pull over and stop. With good planning, careful monitoring of the tides, and some hops outside, it is certainly a doable trip for a six foot draft vessel. However, we often felt sorry for the singlehanders we saw. It was evident that with no place to pull over, a quick trip à la pissoire often resulted in the unattended boat taking a sharp turn to starboard onto the nearest shoal, usually requiring the services of a towboat to restore it to the ditch. With two aboard Mandalay however, visits to the head were no problem and neither were navigation, meals, drinks and snacks while underway. The singlehanders have it tough. I guess they need a cooler of food and drinks at the helm and a bucket to pee in close at hand. Heaven help them if the authorities see them dumping the bucket overboard.

Another concern of boaters heading up the waterway is air draft, or mast height above the water. Many opening bridges on the ICW have been replaced by fixed bridges with a nominal clearance of 65 feet (note there is one in Miami, designed by a dyslexic engineer, with a 56 foot clearance that Mandalay cannot pass under). That’s great for highway traffic and for boats with an air draft less than about 63 feet, but bad news for large sailboats that can’t squeak under. Their only ICW option is to sail from inlet to inlet and look for a marina or anchorage close enough to the inlet that no bridge stands in the way. A few new bascule bridges have been built recently. I believe the locals will regret not spending the money for a high bridge for years to come but the new bascule bridges are impressive structures, especially in Great Bridge, Virginia which lives up to its name.

Colleen steered the boat almost all of the time on the ICW. Colin panics when he sees the depth gauge showing shallower and shallower water since he has no clue where it will get deep again since it all looks the same unlike in the Bahamas where you can actually read the water. Colin also has Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to sitting behind the wheel watching the markers go by (let's see - is it red right returning going north on the ICW??? - no, unless it is also an inlet from the ocean, in which case it might be yes - or sometimes, no!).

When we reached the North Edisto River in South Carolina we went hard aground. We were in that predicament because the Intra-Coastal Waterway is shoaling in many locations and is not as well maintained in terms of dredging and channel marking. We were also aground because the captain did not stop and wait for the tide when he should have as he knew we were approaching a shoaled-in area. The wind was howling which did not help since it tended to blow us further onto the shoal (although we were not really sure where the deepest water was since it is so murky it all looks the same).

Luckily, we have unlimited towing insurance so we did not have to pay the $884 bill for being dragged off the shoal and we motored on to Charleston for one of those docking experiences we all dread....two knots of current and a 20 knot crosswind, entering a slip we had never seen before, assisted by a 17year old dockhand who has never been on a boat. This was one of those occasions when you want to fork over $20 grand for a bow thruster or trade the single screw sailboat in for a twin engine powerboat. (I looked at a nice new Hatteras 54 Sport Fisherman for sale in the marina there. The price sheet showed an optional engine upgrade which added $254,000 to the price making the total $2.1 million without fishing rods or bait - guess we will keep Mandalay).

An offshore jaunt from Georgetown S.C. to Beaufort N.C. kept us out of the section where the shoaling is the worst. As we approached Beaufort, we were surrounded by eight or more US and British Navy warships on maneuvers. They seemed unconcerned by our presence and we felt well protected, and we were really glad we were on the same side.

After narrowly escaping the largest, meanest looking water spout in our personal history (on the Neuse River), we successfully arrived at the south end of the Alligator River where the peace was only disturbed by the buzzing of the flies and the dogfighting (mock, we hope) of a flight of F-15s overhead as we were trying to go to sleep. We thought we were about to be strafed but then Colleen could see the glow of the afterburners in the night sky as the lead aircraft pulled back and climbed out vertically above us. Actually, the flies were almost as big and far more obnoxious. One monster fly with a beautiful green head that landed under the bimini attracted my attention and I tried to capture him so we could take him to the taxidermist and have him prepared for mounting over our fireplace. But alas, the fly escaped in a daring move in which he knocked the machete clean out of my hand and pushed his way out of the cockpit almost knocking Colleen off her helmsman's perch. By the way, I was able to interview him briefly before he escaped and he informed me that his breed is called Tarheel Hucking Fuge and his favorite food is Englishman's blood garnished with Deep Woods Off.

Other than the waterspout, the weather was pretty good throughout May and June. There was an occasional thunderstorm around but the only time we actually were in one was at Great Bridge where we tied firmly to a dock and a boat with a taller mast was the designated lightning rod.

By that time, we had seen the ICW change from the congestion and mansions of Southern Florida to the 1964 Airstream trailers of rural North Carolina. (A ‘64 Airstream is actually the Westsail 32 of the RV set). The palm trees were replaced by oaks and other leaf losers and we started seeing mallards instead of pelicans.

One of the nice things about the cruising lifestyle is Small World Syndrome (or SWS). You often run into people you last saw in another place at another time. In Charleston, we noticed a boat that belongs to some folks we last saw in Luperon, Dominican Republic. They stopped by that evening to tell us about their adventures in the Mediterranean. They had sailed across the Atlantic since we last saw them. It’s lots of fun to renew old acquaintances and continue to make new ones. In fact, we enjoy the destinations and the people we meet more than the passages and the actual traveling (MUCH more than certain passages I could name).

Our progress up the ICW successfully concluded at Norfolk, Virginia, at which point we could say we had arrived in the Chesapeake Bay, one of the few great sailing spots of the USA where the people actually like boaters in general and sailors in particular (because many, if not most of them, are sailors themselves). This is unlike say, south Florida, where many of the people hate boaters because they get to see the same view as the owners of the waterfront mansions at (believe it or not) a much lower cost.

Despite the challenges that we soon forget, there are some wonderful places on the ICW that make the trip well worthwhile. Our list of favorites would include Miami Beach, Vero Beach and St. Augustine, FL., Cumberland Island, GA., Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown, S.C. and a lot of lonely quiet spots in the sounds, creeks and marshes in between. Many of the spots were so lonely our cell phone did not even roam there. If your favorite spot is not on our list it may have just been too bloody shallow for us to deal with!

All in all, the ICW is a lot of fun, a challenge, and well worth doing. In addition to beautiful places, we saw dolphins, ospreys, geese, turtles, alligators, deer, wild horses, minesweepers, nuclear submarines, and armadillos. A sailboat will probably take between two and four weeks to travel from mid-Florida to Norfolk, VA. We put in 78 statute miles in one long day in June but when we return in the fall, the lack of daylight hours will make that tough to do. We will be in Norfolk to see the tall ships (not to mention the short, fat and thin ships) this weekend and our days on the ICW are over until the fall. We hope to see you then and I will be adding a couple of verses to the ICW Blues in the meantime.