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Don't put blind faith in the magenta line

If you’re familiar with the various East Coast intracoastal waterways, you’re familiar with the magenta line. It’s been snaking around for many years on charts of various areas to (hopefully) show us where to go. And it’s been very helpful to many of us, although less so recently.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the I-95 for north- and southbound traffic on the Eastern Seaboard, demands a high level of situational awareness.

Even if you’re not familiar with the magenta line, you might be wondering about all the recent articles about it in various boating publications. Because of increasing inaccuracies due to daily changes in waterway channels, there were proposals to delete it from future charts, and there was much comment from the boating public. The powers that be have decided to continue putting it on charts, with improvements and appropriate caveats. That’s good, and what follows are some reasons why. But it’s also good for those of us on the water to keep things in perspective.

Creek confusion

Approaching Norfolk, Va., from the south on the ICW, you leave the wide Currituck Sound and North Landing River, with its well-marked and dredged channel cutting through shallows, then travel the well-marked marshy upper reaches of that river before you enter the narrow Virginia Cut, with its straight, dredged channel and swampy shores. The Great Bridge Lock ahead is obviously straight, and you can hardly miss it.

Coming out of the lock, the ICW begins to follow the winding southern branch of the Elizabeth River, with creeks meandering out from the sides and bridges to negotiate. Just beyond the Gilmerton Bridge, as the river takes a bend to starboard, one of those creeks, St. Julians, “continues” somewhat straight ahead. The depth at the mouth of the creek and for a short way into the creek is not unlike the varying depths of the ICW. Lulled by the past few miles of straight-ahead, easy steering, it isn’t too hard to do the same here. Quite a few boats have, over the years; most have just run aground.

But there’s more to worry about than the bottom in this creek of misleading expectations. Overhead stretches a high-voltage power line. Some don’t seem to notice this. There are power lines here and there over the ICW, and they’re built to be well above arcing distance for a 65-foot mast, the theoretical fixed minimum vertical clearance for most of the ICW. And as you approach an overhead power line in a sailboat, even if you notice it, you can’t tell how high that line is, relative to your mast. It always looks far too low because of your perspective, so there’s a tendency to stop noticing them. After all, you’re in the ICW channel (you think), where there’s 65 feet minimum vertical clearance.

And so, a bit dulled by the easy navigation of the last few hours and looking forward to a nice restaurant in Norfolk or Portsmouth or Hampton at the end of the day, some have plowed straight on into the creek. Some have died, and more have lost their boats as they flashed and burned when the arc from the power line flashed to ground.

This is a good example of the reasons we’ve long had that magenta line on the charts for much of these waterways. There are many areas where creeks, side channels, dredged areas, rivers and sounds branch off the correct route. It can get very confusing as you navigate. Particularly bad problems occur in exceptionally beautiful places, such as the vast marshes of Georgia and lower South Carolina. Examples include Wadmalaw River to North Edisto River, the Asheepoo and Coosaw rivers, Beaufort River, Cooper River to Savannah River in South Carolina, and the Georgia Sounds, with their sometimes tricky entrances and convoluted rivers in between.

Don't substitute blind loyalty to the magenta line for good navigation skills.

It’s easy to say, “Hey, just look where you’re going, and follow the aids to navigation.” But it isn’t necessarily always that easy. There are many places where the deep channel is much more narrow and appears much less appealing (insofar as navigation goes) than a broader, easier-looking branch that’s shallow or full of stumps.

Heading southbound out the Waccamaw River in South Carolina, you might think this as you come up on Butler Island, with its narrow marked channel bending invisibly off to port and long docks protruding to the channel’s edge. You can get through the wrong side, which opens wide to starboard, but there are more potential problems and obstructions. Another example would be the New River area in North Carolina. That river crosses the ICW channel near the New River Inlet. Southbound, the ICW channel here narrows after the crossing and is constantly shoaling. Going up this river instead of following the ICW channel looks much more like the best route, but it can put you onto hard sand shoal very quickly.

To make matters worse, there are aids to navigation in that river. They aren’t marked as ICW aids, with yellow triangles for the right and yellow squares on the left southbound, but they do follow the same pattern as the ICW in that area, with red being on the right. From a distance, you can’t tell, and many boats, in the confusion of sweeping into that current-conflicted inlet area, have headed up this better-looking route and soon wished they hadn’t.

In each of these places, that magenta line tells you quickly whether to head to port or to starboard. You still should, and always should, take the time and care to “figure things out” as if that line wasn’t there, but if something is amiss, such as a shoal that has suddenly reappeared after a recent dredging or a huge tug and tow suddenly appears around the bend, it is very helpful to have that magenta clue.

The ‘correct’ route

The magenta line on chart 11489 passes on the wrong side of two red markers at the junction of the Crooked and Cumberland rivers in Georgia.

There are also areas where the best way has simply changed because of Mother Nature. She’s still alive and well, despite what we try to do. A good example is the area where the northern end of the Alligator River merges with Albemarle Sound in North Carolina.

In days past, when budgets had money and dredging work was plentiful, many channels were cut to make as straight a course as possible to accommodate boats, especially commercial traffic. This often bypassed the natural lay of the bottom. As dredging budgets shrank, the artificial passages shoaled, as they had been before we messed with the rivers. Now, the best way often is the original way. This is the case here, and some years ago the route was recharted to jog to the west, as one would have done before the creation of the artificial channel.

But people are still following that old magenta line through the now shallow, poorly dredged route, ignoring the aids to navigation that direct them to the new-old western route and ignoring that they haven’t updated their charts for years. It isn’t unusual to see some “expert” complaining about going aground because there was a magenta line there. It’s like complaining about running into trees because you took an exit on I-95 a mile or so before the exit.

And there’s a huge distinction between telling us the correct route to take and telling us that the correct route is going to be deep enough today — and if it is, exactly where that deep water is located. There are many passages in the ICW that are so narrow that the magenta line almost fills them. You really don’t have a clue as to whether to favor the port or the starboard side of the channel. An example of this would be portions of Church Creek in South Carolina. There are many others, such as the Isle of Palms area north of Charleston, where shoals, which never stop building and shifting, are now straddling or crossing the magenta line.

There have long been areas where aids to navigation are on the wrong side of the line, as in St. Andrew Sound in Georgia. The outside shoal in this changeable area has continued to build toward the ocean, and the marker appropriately has moved, but the line remains as it had been for years and now indicates passage on the wrong side of the red marker on the tip of the shoal — or it did the last time we looked. In reality, it isn’t the wrong side at all; that’s where the deep water was found when the area was last surveyed.

Nearby, where the Crooked River flows into the Cumberland River, is an area long changed from the original route of the magenta line. The magenta line is now drawn accurately on the charts, but for years it crossed over a small island and then on the wrong side of two red markers. Some boaters, attributing some sort of supernatural accuracy to that magenta line, ignore the aids and then complain when they hit the bottom.

Another place where this has occurred on more than one occasion is where the ICW passes Matanzas Inlet in Florida. The ICW channel here is always filling in, as is normal when dredged channels meet inlet channels. When it happens, a floating temporary can or nun is installed or moved to help you through. What the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard are looking for is deep water, not imaginary lines. This area is historically so changeable that, as of now, the magenta line has been removed from the charts.

Interstate 95

All this worked rather well for a long time. What really began to cause a problem wasn’t shifting shoals so much as it was I-95. I remember taking a spring break road trip from my college in Virginia down to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., (where the girls were) back in the early 1960s. A bunch of us piled into someone’s car and headed south, down Route 1. Going down Route 1 took forever and forever, but it didn’t matter. We just kept driving, taking turns. I remember the trip well, even though I don’t remember much about what happened when we got there.

When you see a spot with shoaling, use good judgement and stay well away, no matter what the magenta line indicates.

Some things were simpler then, but following Route 1 wasn’t. It went through countryside and towns and cities and merged with local roads and took many an unexpected turn, especially at 0200 in the morning. But we figured it out. It’s true that there were those familiar Route 1 signs, but they weren’t in all of the places they were supposed to be and should have been.

Today, you just get on I-95, put it on cruise control and go. You don’t even need to get off onto local roads for rest stops. Gas and restaurants, maybe, but the signs are so big you couldn’t miss them driving blindfolded in a Sherman tank. And far too many people think that going south down the ICW is like driving down I-95. It’s all supposed to be cut and dry. Just stay on the right side of the road — a done deal for the traveler, a fool’s road to paradise.

You and I know that driving a boat isn’t like driving a car. We know that navigating waterways isn’t like cruising on asphalt. We know about things such as keeping a lookout, following charts and looking at the compass. We know that situational awareness includes what’s under you, what’s over you and what’s coming your way, as well as the current state of the scenery. But many others don’t seem to know this.

If you don’t believe me, go to a boat show and see what people are looking for in boats: Where’s the wet bar? Does the flat-screen television recede into the wall? Don’t you have one with a king-size bed? How many can you sleep under the center console? Will the beer holders chill the beer? Where’s the hot tub? Can I get air conditioning for this bowrider? And observe some of the marketing. You begin to get an idea about why so many folks believe that following the magenta line is all they need to do.

We’ve come a long way, we “seamen.” But to remind myself of how far we haven’t come, I like to look back at those before us who went a lot farther than I could ever go and with nowhere near what I have to do it in. One of the worst enemies of safe boating is hubris. The sea just doesn’t allow it. So it helps me to have perspective to realize how puny my efforts are. Some of the old greats give one a very good perspective. Take Magellan — Magellan’s magenta line was in his head and in the body of his experience, instinct and seaman’s understanding.

Magellan and the Horn

Ferdinand Magellan helmed the first expedition to sail around the world, but he didn’t make it all the way home. He didn’t fail because of poor seamanship, but because of poor judgment as to whom he could wade ashore and attack in some “uncivilized” islands, so most give Magellan major credit for the accomplishment — and deservedly so.

Recently I stood on a dock in St. Augustine, Fla., and looked across the water at a very close replica of a 16th century Spanish carrack, the Nao Victoria. The original Nao Victoria, just over 85 feet long, was the first ship to successfully circumnavigate the world. The voyage lasted from 1519 to 1522. The ship left Spain as part of a fleet of five under the command of Magellan, with about 270 men aboard. The Nao Victoria was the only vessel to complete the circumnavigation, and it had only about 18 men aboard when it returned to Spain on Sept. 6, 1522. In command when the circumnavigation was completed was Juan Sebastian Elcano.

Problems had plagued the voyage from the beginning. Certainly the most tragic development was Magellan’s death. He was killed in a skirmish with islanders in the Philippines. He was reportedly first wounded by a bamboo spear and then essentially beaten and stabbed to death. The fleet also faced mutinies, loss by storm, malnutrition, illness and irreparable damage necessitating the abandonment of one vessel and a holdover for repairs to another.

The ship I saw was rough and crude and cumbersome by today’s standards. It was built to tough standards by tough seamen and shipwrights at the time, but that time was long ago. I couldn’t help but compare it with the sleek fiberglass sailing yachts around the harbor, many with the best gear available. And I couldn’t help but imagine living aboard her in the conditions she encountered for that long a period of time — equatorial heat, tropical humidity, freezing cold, poor provisions and months at sea with no sight of land, hoping the navigators knew where they were going.

It’s too easy to say the ship sailed around the world without thinking of what this meant at the time. Without going into the seemingly impossible navigation accomplishments by modern standards, it’s telling enough to remember just one relatively short passage: when the fleet found its way around Cape Horn. Magellan, of course, was still in command. Without really knowing whether they were “right” and that this was indeed a passage to the Pacific, they proceeded, guided by instinct, an old-fashioned seamen’s sixth sense and astute navigational common sense.

They proceeded through a passage beset by conflicting torrents of current, seas, curvatures in the route, killer winds and a hopeless jumble of rocks and reef. This passage is about 310 nautical miles, and it’s only 1.1 nautical miles wide at its narrowest point. It was aptly named the Strait of Magellan.

And by the way, we need to keep reminding ourselves of things that they didn’t have, things we take for granted. They had no engine. They had no GPS or chart plotter or radar. They had no satellite weather or EPIRB or single sideband or communication with the folks back home. They were totally on their own — there was no help if there were an emergency of any sort. We can go on and on about what these people did not have. But the men pressed on and found their way. One more thing: They didn’t have a magenta line.

Not much has been said about Magellan’s voyage lately, but much has been said about the magenta line. Before I say more, I admit that I love the magenta line. It’s been of immeasurable help to me for years and saved my backside on more than one occasion. I’m glad the government is going to keep it and update it on ICW charts. But, as mentioned earlier, it always helps to keep things in perspective.

The magenta line that has received so much attention has never really been all that reliable in the sense that it has given precise routes along which you’ll never run aground. It’s never been a substitute for good seamanship, and those who think it is should do their cruising along the interstate. The magenta line has helped many to figure out which of the many possible turns or creeks or rivers so frequently branching off the main track are the correct ones. Sure, you can figure it out by studying the chart and using some seaman’s common sense, but when you’re in the labyrinth of channels and marshes in parts of Georgia or South Carolina, it helps to have that magenta aid.

I could never come close to doing what Magellan and his men did, but I like to remember their accomplishment. Sometimes it makes my dragons a little less fierce, even where there is no magenta line.

April 2014 issue