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Cruising couple finds freedom on the icw

Lisa Brooks, 49, and Tom Schlagel, 53, are a liveaboard couple from Mystic, Conn., who seasonally cruise south and north on the Intracoastal Waterway aboard their 2003 Lagoon 380 catamaran named Symmetry.

Lisa Brooks, 49, and Tom Schlagel, 53, are a liveaboard couple from Mystic, Conn., who seasonally cruise south and north on the Intracoastal Waterway aboard their 2003 Lagoon 380 catamaran named Symmetry.

We’d sailed in New England for 22 years, spending as much time as possible on the water. Rather than satisfying our need to cruise, we found weekenders and two- or three-week vacations only made us yearn for more. The New England sailing season is much too brief. As we shoveled snow off the decks of our catamaran in February 2005 we knew it was time for a change.

We decided life was too short to put off following our dreams, and seized the chance to go cruising while we were still healthy and fit enough to enjoy it fully, and our families were healthy enough for us to be away for extended periods of time. We could always go back to work, but we might not have this window of opportunity again.

We left our careers in spring 2005, sold most everything and moved aboard our 38-foot catamaran full time. During that summer we prepared the boat — and ourselves — for our adventure.

In September we cast off and traveled the Intracoastal Waterway south exploring much of the East Coast along the way. We spent the winter in southern Florida and the Keys.

We returned eight months later — in May 2006 — to Mystic, Conn., with 4,000 miles under the keel.

As we write this, we are well into our second year and journeying back north after exploring the west coast of Florida this winter. The second year has been even better than the first as we’re more experienced and settled into the cruising life. If you have the dream and desire to go, but wonder what it is really like out here, this is what we’ve discovered on our travels so far.

Living comfortably afloat

While sea worthiness and safety are of foremost importance, our boat and equipment must also provide an acceptable level of comfort for us. The wide spectrum of boats and equipment required to be comfortable afloat was illustrated in the Florida Keys when a nearby liveaboard boater re-anchored his boat by towing it through the water while sitting in an inflated black inner tire tube and kicking his flippers. While this approach to keeping things simple might work for some, we’ve found a well-equipped boat is important for our comfort level.

We’re fortunate to have a Lagoon 380 catamaran which came equipped with dinghy davits, windlass and refrigeration — luxuries we didn’t have on our previous four monohulls. We feel these are necessities for living aboard. Since we anchor out much of the time, we installed solar panels and use a portable generator for alternative power sources. Initially, we thought a water maker might be required, but we’ve found our 80-gallon water tank is more than adequate for traveling the eastern U.S. coast.

We contemplated installing heat after encountering more cold weather than expected on our first year’s journey south. Our portable alcohol heater helps fight off the chill, but exceptionally cold nights are unpleasant. Rather than incurring the expense and hassle of installing a heating system, during our second year we expedited our progress south and on extremely cold nights rented a slip to plug a portable electric heater into shore power.

Another aspect of living aboard comfortably is securing your boat for peace of mind and restful nights. Some cruisers rent a dock or mooring most nights, while others prefer anchoring. Still others, like us, fall somewhere in between. Again, this comes down to balancing your comfort level and budget. We’ve rented a slip for three reasons: when rough weather was predicted and a protected anchorage was not available; when extremely cold weather was predicted and we required shore power for heat; and to visit a destination not accessible from an anchorage. (We also confess to once renting a dock to watch an NFL playoff game on cable TV.)

We’ve been able to avoid unpleasant, sleepless nights on the hook by making the weather our first priority and planning accordingly. For a break from being vigilant about the anchor or to safely leave the boat to visit with family during Christmas, we’ve taken advantage of inexpensive mooring rentals in the few harbors where they are available.

Navigating the Northeast

On a sunny September day, friends on a neighboring boat were up early to see us off on our first year of cruising south. Armed with cruising guides and information passed on by experienced cruisers, we were excited to be on our way. At the same time, it was unsettling to cast off into unknown territory for the next eight months.

We soon discovered there was no need for concern as our New England boating experience more than adequately prepared us for our journey. Our first challenge as we left Long Island Sound was New York City’s busy harbor, including the daunting current of Hell Gate.

We found Hell Gate was quite manageable by timing the fair current as we were accustomed to with the formidable currents in Long Island Sound’s Race and Cape Cod’s Woods Hole.

To that end, while the New Jersey coast requires offshore ocean sailing and (along with Delaware Bay) can be quite rough, we had experienced similar conditions in Block Island and Rhode Island Sounds and Buzzards Bay. The Chesapeake and DelawareCanal reminded us of the Cape Cod Canal, although wider and a few miles longer. Dodging crab pot floats in Chesapeake Bay was a trial, but given the minimal current they were more manageable than lobster pot floats in Long Island and Fisher’s Island Sounds, where strong currents drag the floats underwater and push our boat down on top of them.

The nautical roadway

With the exception of a short jog offshore from Fort Lauderdale to Miami to circumvent a 56-foot fixed bridge, we’ve traveled the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway from its beginning at Mile Marker 0 in Norfolk, Va., to Mile Marker 1243 in Key West, Fla.

Much like traveling a twisting, narrow country road rather than a straight, wide super highway, the ICW allowed limited use of our autopilot and sails. Most days we were under way just after daybreak and motored 50 to 60 miles flying only the jib. Arriving by mid- to late-afternoon increased our chances of finding a spot in anchorages favored by snowbirds traveling south.

The GreatDismal SwampCanal begins about 10 miles from the start of the ICW and connects the ElizabethRiver in Virginia and the PasquotankRiver in North Carolina. The coffee-colored waters of the 22-mile canal are narrow with overhanging trees, submerged logs and a lock at each end.

On our first passage through the swamp we politely slid over to enable a trawler to pass and promptly ran the starboard hull into the mud. This was quite a rush since a catamaran spins 180 degrees when only one hull catches the bottom. However, we easily backed off and returned to deeper water in the center of the canal.

Tight spaces

The South Carolina and Georgia ICW is a maze of creeks and canals with flat marshlands stretching for miles. Shrimp boats motoring along distant creeks appeared to be floating across the top of the marsh grasses. Currents were strong and over the course of a day’s journey helped or hindered our progress as we crossed the many sounds and inlets.

Anchorages in that region have few trees for wind protection and the anchor often rides under the boat in the strong current. The notorious Rock Pile near South Carolina’s Myrtle Beach is a harrowing four-mile stretch lined with rocks rather than the usual forgiving soft mud. To add to the fun, encountering a barge is a good possibility.

Dangerous rocks are normal to New England cruising, but we still approached this area with much trepidation. The serpentine creeks of Georgia are especially shallow and falling tides make for interesting transits. When we ran aground on a shoal, a friend on a boat behind us congratulated us on our “naviguessing” skills. Our third journey through Georgia was the charm with an exceptionally high spring tide flooding the shoals and giving us fair current much of the way.

The Florida ICW, much like their highways, is fairly straight and easy with numerous bridges. On a day’s journey from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale our 60-foot mast clearance required 19 bridge openings. In the Florida Keys, we quickly became acclimated to the shallow depth readings even in the center of the channel. The clear, aquamarine waters look even shallower than they are in reality. Florida’s west coast was similar as we wove our way along mangrove-lined channels and islands with white sand beaches.

Historical encounters

The East Coast is rich with history and our history lessons were renewed as we cruised by and toured significant historic landmarks. It was thrilling to view the New York City skyline from the boat, but it was a somber moment as we observed the gap in the skyline created by the missing WorldTradeCenterTowers.

Traveling the PatapscoRiver we passed under the FrancisScottKeyBridge with Baltimore framed behind it. We saw the flag flying over FortMcHenry from the same perspective as Francis Scott Key while he was on a ship in the harbor writing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

In Annapolis the NavalAcademy and Maryland State House are important landmarks. The state house dome is still adorned with the original working Ben Franklin lightning rod. General George Washington resigned his military commission in the Old Senate Chamber and the Treaty of Paris was signed here officially ending the Revolutionary War.

In Hampton, the Virginia Air and SpaceCenter is well done with many interactive exhibits and a great view of the harbor from the third-floor deck. We toured the battleship USS Wisconsin berthed in Norfolk not far from Mile Marker 0 of the ICW. The Dismal SwampCanal was built in the 1700s and is a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

As we sailed into Charleston, S.C., FortSumter stood guard at the harbor entrance and we were reminded that the first shots of the Civil War were fired here. While docked next to the military ships at Patriots Point in Charleston, the hull of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown loomed surreally over us.

Passing through the Carolinas the waterway was lined with historic southern homes and ancient live oak trees draped with Spanish moss.

Miami Beach’s Art Deco buildings presented a radically different period of architectural design as we sailed along SouthBeach. In Key West, we rode on a restored PT boat and a former PT boat engineer emotionally shared his 1940s war time stories.

We visited the Dry TortugasNational Park, about 70 miles south of Key West, and toured FortJefferson, which served as a federal prison in the 1800s. Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg following the assassination of President Lincoln, was imprisoned here.

On the west coast of Florida, John and Mable Ringling’s mansion overlooks SarasotaBay. This is part of their museum complex bequeathed to the state that includes a circus museum and art gallery.

Natural wonders

Mother Nature often treats us to a daily spectacle. Most evenings, magnificent sunsets turn the sky and water red and orange. On clear, calm, moonless nights the stars surrounded us from above and below as they reflected in the water. Other nights the moon shone brilliantly, lighting up the entire anchorage.

We observed abundant wildlife in its natural habitat. The wildlife changed in concert with the scenery and weather.

On both trips south we sighted the first pelicans in the Chesapeake near the Maryland/Virginia border. In the Dismal Swamp, turtles sunned themselves on logs and three bald eagles perched on a tree at the edge of the Alligator River-Pungo River Canal.

Along North Carolina’s ICW, dolphins surfaced frequently and a bobcat crouched at the water’s edge. Wild horses grazed on North Carolina’s CarrotIsland and Georgia’s CumberlandIsland. A deer waded and goats romped shore side on the WaccamawRiver in South Carolina.

Ospreys perched on nests atop many of the waterway daymarkers. Manatees lollygagged in Mosquito Lagoon between New Smyrna and Titusville, Fla. Beside the New River in Fort Lauderdale, squawking green parrots decorated trees and iguana lizards sunned on cement bridge abutments. Herons, egrets, and ibises were most plentiful along Florida’s low water line.

In BootKeyHarbor, Marathon, there was a loud splash behind the boat, but rather than a sea creature it was Tom diving after our dinghy when he forgot to secure it.

On the west coast of Florida, black feral hogs strolled PuntaBlancaIsland’s beach while tortoises crawled on Cabbage Key and a manatee scratched itself on our anchor chain. A pink flamingo and white pelicans flocked on shoals near Venice. Magnificent frigate birds with wing spans in excess of 6 feet soared on the air currents as we watched from the top of FortJefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

The sound of freedom

We feel privileged to have the freedom to choose to live on our boat and cruise our country’s waterways. The price of this freedom is evident along the waterway in many ways.

The United States military strength was impressive as we passed through Norfolk where aircraft carriers, missile cruisers, frigates and other military ships lined the shores. We anchored for the night in MileHammockBasin, which is part of the Camp Lejeune Marine base in North Carolina. Military helicopters flew overhead as marines occupied the tents on shore.

A section of the ICW travels through the base and flashing lights indicate boats must stop while firing exercises are in progress. Homeland Security boats zipped by near the sea islands of Georgia. In the Dry Tortugas, homemade boats of scrap wood and metal, waterproofed with roofing tar and powered by converted car engines, were abandoned on the beach. It was troubling to think Cubans traveled over 90 miles at sea in these boats to seek asylum in the United States.

As we cruised near military airbases, planes roared by low to the ground while practicing maneuvers. While motoring outside a designated target practice zone in Chesapeake Bay a patrol boat requested we alter course. A plane roared overhead making it impossible to hear the VHF transmission so we asked to have the instructions repeated. The patrol boat crew prefaced their response with, “Yes, sir, that is the sound of freedom.”

The sound of silence

Cruising allows us to truly get away from it all. There are still many remote anchorages totally isolated from civilization. Away from the noise of cars, trains or planes there is absolute silence.

We spent a spooky Halloween night anchored off the Alligator River in North Carolina in total silence — without even a cricket chirping — and no cell phone signal.

In the southwest corner of Florida in the EvergladesNational Park there are miles of deserted coastline with white sand beaches and mangrove trees as far as the eye can see. Anchored there in the Little Shark River the only sounds overnight were occasional bird squawks and sea critters crackling on our hull. In pristine waters sea critters make a sound similar to pouring milk on rice cereal, only louder.

The people you meet

Another pleasant aspect of our journey is the small community of cruising snowbirds traveling up and down the ICW. Acquaintances quickly become good friends since we are far from our home waters, friends and family, and have the cruising lifestyle in common. We may travel together for a week or two, go our separate ways and months later reconnect in a distant anchorage.

The cruising community is quick to lend a helping hand and serves as a surrogate family during holiday celebrations. There were about 200 cruisers sharing a potluck Thanksgiving dinner in Vero, Fla., last year. Each couple brought their specialty dish so we sampled a little of everything and stuffed ourselves silly.

We were introduced to this cruising community as we were leaving Long Island Sound on our first journey south. The East River passage through New York City was closed due to the United Nations being in session, so cruisers on another catamaran offered to show us an alternate route. As we followed them offshore overnight along the Jersey coast we wondered if they might be guardian angels who appeared when needed and would disappear into thin air.

We traveled together as far as Baltimore, where our new friends introduced us to the cruiser’s happy hour. We learned the protocol of bringing our own beverages, glasses and an hors d’oeuvre to share as everyone from the anchorage gathered on a host boat. At some of these gatherings musically talented cruisers have brought their instruments and entertained us.

In addition to making new friends, occasionally we’ll see familiar faces when our journey coincides with relocated or vacationing friends or family. We’ve also crossed paths from time to time with two other boats cruising full time from our homeport of Mystic.

We’ve discovered southern hospitality is alive and well on the waterway. Robert, the Dismal Swamp Deep Creek lock tender, epitomized southern hospitality as he made the locking process easy and enjoyable, and serenaded us on his conch shell.

Elizabeth City, N.C., may be the friendliest town along the ICW. Volunteers greeted us at the complimentary town docks and provided a welcome party in the evening. Fred Fearing and the Rose Buddies have been hosting these events each evening since the 1980s, when roses were presented to the ladies on arriving boats. Friends relocated from Connecticut to Charleston, S.C., invited us to their home and treated us to Low Country cooking.

Our journey continues

Living aboard and cruising north and south each year on our quest for warm weather allows us an endless boating season.

Our boat is our waterfront home with an ever-changing view. We never tire of the sights, sounds and people we encounter along our journey. While we have given up shore-side luxuries, and occasionally tolerate cold, rain and rough conditions, the plusses of our lifestyle heavily outweigh these few negatives.

We feel lucky to have this opportunity and are treasuring this time in our lives. We are on our way back to New England and are looking forward to visiting our favorite home water destinations this summer.

We hope to see you out there.