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Sea Savvy - From wildlife to city life along the ICW

ICW SPECIAL PART II -- The Intracoastal Waterway offers a variety of sights and sounds throughSouth Carolina and Georgia

Editor’s note:

This is the second of a special three-part series on transiting the Intracoastal Waterway from Mile Zero in Norfolk, Va., to Key West. Soundings technical editor Tom Neale and his wife, Mel, have made the journey for 21 years (42 full trips), the last six aboard their Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. This second installment takes you to through South Carolina and Georgia. It is not to be used for navigation. Always consult the latest charts and guides, and use prudent seamanship. Click below to read Part I or Part III.

PART I -- Making your way down the ICW

PART III -- From Old South to ‘cowboy alley’

We begin this leg of our ICW voyage down the South Carolina coast just north of the Little River. It’s going to be a trip of amazing variety.

We pass first the Little River inlet. We can’t see the ocean, but we know it’s there as the small river swiftly flows through the dunes. We also know that we’re approaching the Myrtle Beach resort area. We begin to see marinas and expect to see resort surroundings. But as the Little River swing bridge closes behind us, we’re enclosed in a strange world resembling no resort. Old timers call it “The Rock Pile.”


Blasted out with dynamite, this was the last part of the ICW to be completed. The passage narrows; trees loom overhead. Who would think there would be all this jagged rock lining the channel’s edge after the marsh and forest we’ve seen? Straying from the middle can crash a keel or gnarl a prop. When the water is low you can see how far the rocks reach toward the middle. Turtles sun themselves, fish jump, and sunlight plays on the water. It’s spooky but beautiful.

Hague Marina — (843) 293-2141, — just to the south of the stretch, specializes in repairing running gear for those who wander just slightly away from the middle. We call a “securitee” on VHF channels 13 and 16 to help avoid an overtaking situation or meeting another vessel head-on: “This is the motorsailer Chez Nous getting ready to enter the Rock Pile southbound checking for any concerned traffic. Standing by on 16 and 13.” (On a trip through in 1985, a ferry boat answered, coming our way.)

Finally the narrow cut broadens, and civilization reappears. It indeed is Myrtle Beach, with huge houses, golf courses and marina developments. We reach Barefoot Landing, a huge resort mall bordering the ICW. You can tie up there and go shopping, or enjoy many restaurants. A marina is under construction. But we continue on because tonight we want to anchor far back in time — in the Pleistocene age.

Waccamaw and WinyahBay

Some years ago, I watched one quiet evening at dusk as a guy on a Canadian sailboat anchored just up the creek from me. He threw a line over for some bottom fishing — perhaps dinner. He reeled in and cast again into the smooth, dark water. With a cataclysmic splash, something huge erupted from the water where the lure went in. It was an alligator, with the same thing in mind. The large ripples spread and dissipated into the cypress knees. Night fell in the deep swamp of the WaccamawRiver. Eerie jungle noises drifted from the dark.


There’s a widely accepted method of safely over- taking in the ICW where the channel is narrow and there are steep channel walls. An overtaking boat may not be able to pass very far from the overtaken boat without risking damage to prop or underbody. And because of bottom configuration and vessel proximity, what would normally be a safe speed may result in a wake that can cause personal injury and property damage. Usually both boats need to travel near the middle of the channel because of shoals, stumps, rocks and other hazards along the sides. The overtaking boat calls the boat that he or she wishes to overtake on the VHF and asks for a passing. (Sound signal is permissible under the Rules, but VHF is usually preferable in these circumstances.) Usually the vessel being overtaken acknowledges, and both agree to the maneuver. The overtaken vessel moves over (usually to its starboard) to make more room, slows down to minimum steerage speed, and maintains that speed and course. The overtaking vessel also slows and proceeds around on the agreed side (usually the port side of the overtaken vessel) and at the slowest speed necessary to enable it to get past. Under most circumstances, because the overtaken vessel has slowed to minimum speed, the overtaking vessel’s speed won’t cause much, if any, wake. (Were the overtaken vessel to maintain speed or only slow down slightly, the overtaking vessel, in order to pass, would have to use enough speed to throw a potentially dangerous wake.) VHF contact is maintained during the process so that coordinated course changes can be made if an obstacle or change of direction in the channel or another boat appears ahead. Careful attention is important. When the overtaking vessel has passed and it’s safe to do so, the overtaken vessel turns into its wake and falls in behind so that the overtaking vessel can safely speed up and resume its journey. Follow the Inland Rules of the Road, which include the concept of the exercise of prudent seamanship. Circumstances may indicate another practice. For example, there obviously would be less need for this maneuver if the overtaking boat were a 12-foot skiff.

This swamp grows on us suddenly as the ICW exits its dredged cut and morphs into the channels of the river. The Waccamaw winds through low ground and deep forest of cypress and moss, the gnarly knees dipping into the reddish brown water. The stain already growing on our bow becomes deeper. (We’ll clean it later when we get to the clear waters of South Florida.) Fallen trees jut out from the shore. Sometimes they break loose and float downstream. Civilization occasionally peeks through the wilderness at places like Osprey Marina — (843) 215-5353, — Wacca Wache Marina — (843) 651-2994 or (800) 395-6694, — and Bucksport Marina, known for its sausage, (843) 397-5566. Eventually the river broadens as it picks up its flow to the sea. It opens into WinyahBay, and we see Georgetown to starboard. An anchorage (mostly poor holding in loose mud), marinas, shops and restaurants, a 220-acre historic district, and unbeatable Southern hospitality have attracted cruisers for many years. A Coast Guard station serves the area.

The tide is with us in WinyahBay, and we race downstream. On other trips we’ve used the deep inlet of the bay to escape out into the ocean to head north to the Cape Fear River or south down to Charleston. The loneliness of this remote inlet is both overwhelming and strangely exciting. The ebbing tide pushing us, we’ve been able to shoot out with 3 extra knots of speed in our displacement-hull boat. Long rock jetties protect this inlet, as is the case with many others. They are unforgiving if we hit them.

Memories of Hugo

Today, we make a sharp turn to starboard, leaving WinyahBay and entering another narrow cut, the EsthervilleMinimCreekCanal. We become immersed in a feature of the ICW that we’ll experience again and again through northern Florida: boundless regions of open marsh. We’ve had tastes of marsh thus far, but nothing like this vast sea of tall grass, with only occasional clumps of trees claiming the few islands of firm ground.

The ICW jumps from river to winding river through short, dredged cuts. We sweep out of these cuts into the rivers, following the twists and turns of the channel, and then duck back into another that will take us to yet another river — all as we work our way south. Many of the rivers have good anchorages with lowland protection, and unlimited vistas of wilderness. They remember the past with such names as South Santee, North Edisto, Ashepoo, Dawhoo, Cooper, Bull and Coosaw. They also give us access to South Carolina ocean resort areas, such as EdistoBeach, Kiawah, FollyIsland and Seabrook.

Hurricane Hugo ravaged this part of South Carolina in 1989. We passed down the coast shortly after it hit. Stands of pines were sheered off 10 to 20 feet above the ground, as though a giant with a tall lawn mower had cut them like grass. The wind snapped them off like that because the lower parts were under water. The BenSawyerBridge, just north of Charleston, was set spinning and wound up lopsided and partially “dumped” in the ICW. The floating docks of an entire marina on the east side of the ICW near Charleston were lifted over their pilings — boats and all — and deposited in the marsh on the western side of the ICW.

Television news covered the devastation of Charleston; it didn’t cover the far worse devastation of the tiny, ancient shrimping village of McClellanville to the north. When the water rose there, the people climbed to attics and rooftops and held on. After the storm, when Charleston and other areas were being rescued by the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the people of McClellanville climbed into their shrimp boats, then up in the trees, to retrieve food and water. They got gasoline pumps going, which had been deep under sea water, and pumped the salt from their wells. They survived, all by themselves.

A day or so later, a few hiked out the road for hours until they finally found a telephone that worked. They called their senator, Fritz Hollins, to get word to friends and family elsewhere in the world that they were still around. You seldom hear these stories on the news, but when you spend some time traveling the ICW, you’re a part of them.

We tie up with the shrimp boats at Leland Marine — (843) 887-3641 — go ashore, and stroll beneath ancient trees. A live oak up the road near the church spreads out so broadly that you don’t have to climb it. You can walk up. We buy shrimp still wiggling, and get to know some special folks.

The marsh, sand flats, and shallow bays of CapeRomain reach far out into the Atlantic offshore of McClellanville. From the ocean you hardly see the cape, it’s so low. From the ICW you sense the quiet, unblemished ancientness of this protected wildlife preserve. If we’re careful as to depths and shoals, we can anchor in places such as Awendaw Creek and become a part of it. (Shrimp boats run the creeks night and day, so be careful.)

From wilderness to culture

A whole ’nother world waits less than 40 miles to the south. Past the FrancisMarionNational Forest, the marsh and dunes to port begin to sport huge houses. That, and more bars on the cell phone are two sure signs that we’re getting to high civilization. And “high” it is: It’s Charleston, the capital of the lowcountry and one of several cultural centers of the South.

Charleston is a great place to visit, and we plan to stay at least a couple of days. Old homes, historic locales such as The Market, and an exceptional assortment of restaurants and shops make this one of the more attractive cities on the Intracoastal. As we exit the dredged channel and round into CharlestonHarbor, we see FortSumter to port. The first shots were fired here in that 19th-century unpleasantness between the North and the South.

Our favorite marina is the Charleston City Marina — (843) 723-5098, Privately operated, it’s a huge network of floating docks out over the AshleyRiver. The marina, as do some others, will give us a ride to various parts of the city. Other marinas in the city include the Harborage at Ashley Marina, just up the AshleyRiver — (843) 722-1996, — and Charleston Harbor Resort and

Marina, at Patriot’s Point across the CooperRiver — (843) 856-9996,


Tides in the ICW range from none to more than 8 feet. The following May 2005 spring tide heights give will you a good idea: Winyah Bay, 5.6 feet; southern South Carolina and Georgia, 8.9 feet; Fernandina Beach, Fla., 7.7 feet. During high tide or high water from storms, marsh and low land may be covered, and strict adherence to aids to navigation and charts is even more critical. Often the channel doesn’t go from aid to aid. It will round to avoid shoals jutting out between the aids. During low tides, some of the cuts may be too shallow for the boat. We use half tide and rising to go through questionable areas. Any time we anchor, we check the stage of the tide: 10 feet of water at high tide may be 2 feet at low tide. We consider our swing so that as the tide and winds change we won’t snag a shoal off to the side. We circle before anchoring to be sure we know the breadth of the deep water. In places where there is no tide, such as the sounds of North Carolina, prolonged winds may “pile” the water up at one end, making it deeper or shallower.

Some anchor in the river off the Charleston City Marina. We’ve found the holding to be fairly good, and a few years ago moorings were established. They were then discontinued, leaving, I assume, more obstructions on the bottom to ensnare an anchor.

Satiated with fine food and culture, we escape Charleston through the notorious Wappoo Creek and Elliott Cut. At its southern end, the narrow Elliott Cut channel funnels a current that sometimes approaches 5 knots. The Wappoo Creek bascule bridge (33 feet reported vertical clearance when closed) bottlenecks boat traffic near the northern end with scheduled openings, and single-screw vessels often have a difficult time holding position waiting with a fair tide.

Soon we clear the cut, and we’re back out in open country. Farms, fields, marsh, and rolling yards with big houses surround the wide rivers, cuts and creeks. Many anchorages with good holding invite us to slow down, stop early, and enjoy. It’s like this through much of the ICW, all the way down to northern Florida. But that’s just a little background for what’s to come.


South of Charleston we begin to notice another fascinating phenomenon. It’s subtle at first, but by the time we reach lower South Carolina and move into Georgia, it’ll be very obvious. Barrier islands, one after another, form the coast that separates us from the ocean. Some are so large that they seem to be mainland, while others are but small strips. We pass behind these as we look out inlets at both ends. All are relatively low, formed by waves, dunes and the cut of the currents.

Lady’s Island, huge with forest, marsh and communities, lays to port as we sweep up the CoosawRiver. We duck behind it into Brickyard Creek, which takes us into the BeaufortRiver and the city of Beaufort. (It’s pronounced “BYOO-fort,” while Beaufort, N.C., is pronounced “BOH-fort.”) We see fine Southern homes, high green banks, huge live oaks, and places from history — like the John Mark Verdier House (circa 1790), which the Marquis de Lafayette visited when he returned to this continent after the American Revolution. Filming for the movie “Prince of Tides” and others was done here.

Among the area marinas are the Downtown Marina, in the heart of the restaurant and historic area (has courtesy car) — (843) 524-4422 — Port Royal Landing Marina, a bit to the south (has courtesy cars) with nearby groceries, pharmacy, hardware and other supplies — (800) 326-7678, — and Lady’s Island Marina, across the river — (843) 522-0430,

Our next stop is at the barrier island of Hilton Head, a renowned resort with beaches, restaurants, world-class golf, tennis and other leisure activities. The ICW passes through broad Calibogue Sound, west of the island. The waters of most of the sounds in South Carolina and Georgia are full of swirling brown mud from the marshes. Calibogue, with its entrance into Tybee Roads to its south, floods with clearer ocean water during incoming tides.

Inlets and trips offshore   There are enough good inlets to allow most boats to take day trips out in the Atlantic when conditions are good, coming in well before dusk to anchor in or stay at a marina. Going offshore doesn’t necessarily save miles. Count miles from the ICW to the sea buoy and back again when you’re considering offshore jaunts. When calculating distances, be consistent with either statute or nautical miles. Some inlets are deep, stable, and well maintained and marked. They’re used for large commercial traffic. Examples include Beaufort Inlet, Cape Fear River, Winyah Bay, Charleston, Port Royal Sound, Savannah River, St. Simon’s Sound, St. Mary’s River, St. John’s River, Fort Pierce, Cape Canaveral, Lake Worth, Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale), and Government Cut (Miami). Some are relatively shallow but are improved with jetties and/or dredging, and stable and deep enough to be regularly used by commercial fishing boats and larger pleasure boats in good conditions. These include Masonboro, Little River, and St. Augustine. Others, such as some of the sounds in Georgia, are seldom if ever dredged and much more likely to have shoaling and aids to navigation off station or far apart. Many other inlets are virtually impassible except by small boats operated with great skill and local knowledge. Know your inlet before you use it. Consult an updated chart. Any inlet can be dangerous in adverse conditions. Training and experience running inlets is critical. It can be very dangerous to use an inlet without good light or with an onshore swell or sea. Sometimes a far storm will cause huge waves to break in an inlet, even though the weather on-scene is calm. Tide running out an inlet against onshore waves will make them much higher, sometimes dangerously so. When you plan to exit an inlet, remember that you must come in later, also in good conditions. Currents in inlets aren’t only important as to waves; they can substantially add to or detract from the speed of displacement-hull vessels.

We’re tempted to go out into the ocean to head south for a while. In good weather this, and Port Royal Sound to the north, are strategically located inlets for many boats to make a day run and safely get back inside before nightfall. Tybee Roads is the mouth of the Savannah River, which divides South Carolina from Georgia. But Georgia will be just as beautiful a few days later. We can’t pass Hilton Head without stopping.

There are several nice marinas here; our favorite is HarbourTown, a waterway tradition for more than 30 years — (843) 671-2704, The marina is distinguished by the red and white striped lighthouse, a Hilton Head landmark. Its floating docks are in an enclosed basin, and a new 270-foot floating face dock makes megayacht tie-ups easy. Restaurants, shops and homes surround the basin, as do the famous Harbour Town Golf Links and the Racquet Club. Other marinas include Shelter Cove Marina — (843) 842-7001 or (866) 400-7894, — and Skull Creek Marina — (843) 681-8436 or (800) 237-8436,


The Savannah River cuts the narrow ICW channel, bearing unwieldy container ships making their way to and from the seaport. They often call “securitee” as they approach the ICW crossing because they can’t stop or turn to avoid careless boaters.

Immediately after this breathtaking interruption, the ICW re-enters marsh that quickly opens to the town of Thunderbolt. Approaching Thunderbolt, we pass the famous BonaventureCemetery, its old tombstones and trees crowding the shore of the WilmingtonRiver. The remains of author Conrad Aiken and lyricist/songwriter Johnny Mercer lie here. To the south, the MoonRiver reminds us of his well-known lyrics.

Rather than go up the Savannah River, we choose to visit Savannah from this quiet suburb, only a short taxi ride away from the city. Also a cultural center of the South, Savannah was founded in 1733 and has contributed much to modern tastes, as well as history. Scenes from the movies “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “Forrest Gump,” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance” were filmed here. Several good marinas include Thunderbolt Marine — (912) 356-3875, — and Bahia Bleu Marina — (912) 354-2283,

After a few days’ visit we head south again, gradually leaving high civilization behind. Pleasant reminders such as the small town of Isle of Hope with its marina — (912) 354-8187, — and an occasional marina nestled back in a creek soon yield to the haunting remoteness of coastal Georgia.

Our world becomes one vast marsh crisscrossed with creeks and rivers, some of which we take, some of which we carefully pass by. Names such as Ogeechee, Bear, Julienton, Old Tea Kettle, Little Mud, Mackay, and Little Satilla add cadence to the quietness of the marshes. The Florida Passage, a narrow cut through mud and grass, reminds us of where we’re going. Hell Gate, splitting Raccoon Key and Little Don Island, reminds us of how careful we need to be in some areas.

At high tide we see across the flooded marsh to forest far beyond. At low tide we’re 8 to 9 feet down, gliding between muddy channel walls, barely able to see over the tops of the swaying grasses around us. It’s a land of shrimp boats and local fishermen, birds and gators, and wind rustle. Deep anchorages with good holding wait around the bends of creeks. When we stop here at night we see the stars like we can in few other places on the East Coast because there are few land lights to compete. And we’ll have more than 100 miles of this world to travel at our leisure.

Florida on the horizon

When we begin to feel like we’re forever lost in marsh, the river or creek opens into a sound with broad waters plagued by mud flats and sand bars, but deep enough in the right places. St. Catherines, Sapelo, Doboy, Altamaha, Buttermilk, St. Simons, Jekyll and St. Andrew each give variety to our days. The water of these sounds slides out over the shallows into the ocean, elusive channels winding through the bars to meet the swell. A few of these give safe passage out; most require intimate local knowledge, but all are beautiful. In St.AndrewSound the ICW channel rounds out into ocean waters. If the sea is running, breakers crash on shoals all around us — yet another place requiring great caution but giving the sea’s constant promise of great adventure to come.


In South Carolina and Georgia increased tidal range brings increased current flow. Many long stretches with a strong side-setting current are marked with ranges. Most range markers are red with a white stripe; some are lit but many are not. In a few places there are no red or green aids, just a series of ranges to follow around the bends. The major inlets and rivers, for example Winyah Bay and Charleston Harbor, have numerous well-lit ranges sized for large ships to follow. Ranges are sometimes hard to line up. Some are front ranges that we steer directly toward; others are behind us and require looking aft to line up the range while also looking forward. When the two markers (or lights at night) are aligned one directly above the other, we then steer to keep them that way until we’ve completed the leg for which they were intended.

Much of this land of marsh is really barrier island, with sand dunes built up from the storms of the centuries. Like most of this coast, these islands have a history rife with pirates and warring conquerors, but each is unique. We anchor in Walburg Creek behind St. Catherines and listen to perhaps the strangest night sounds on the Eastern Seaboard.

Ashore is a center for the protection of endangered species. When we stopped here three years ago we heard what sounded like exotic birds, monkeys and other creatures we couldn’t begin to identify. St. Simons and Jekyll offer very different experiences. On St. Simons we visit the ruins of FortFrederica, built in 1736 by Gen. James Oglethorpe. You can anchor off the fort if you very carefully follow the FredericaRiver.

JekyllIsland, purchased by Georgia in 1947, is mostly undeveloped but sports the former estates of such millionaires as the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. We can visit the estates if we want to forego the pleasure of being aboard our boat to see how these less-fortunate lived. If we need a town fix after all the marsh, we can head up to Brunswick with its very protected marina.

Next we wind behind CumberlandIsland, the southernmost in Georgia. A nuclear submarine, speeding up Cumberland Sound to King’s Bay Submarine Base, provides a striking contrast to the island, much of which is a wilderness preserve. A dock at the park ranger station lands the ferry (no bridges to this island) and gives us an easy place to land our dinghy. The holding is moderately good if we work at it, and we leave the boat at anchor to explore.

Trails take us back into the woods, where we see armadillos, wild turkeys, deer — always wondering what we’re not seeing in the dense foliage. Around a half-mile across the island the path opens to dunes and beach. On some days we’re alone on miles of beach, save for the herds of skittish wild horses scampering across the dune. At the right times, we see the tracks of huge sea turtles that labored ashore at night to lay eggs. At the southern end of the island, we visit the decaying ruins of the great Dungeness mansion, once home to the Carnegies. Many years past it was the scene of gala events, with ladies and gentlemen strutting about in high fashion. Now it hosts quietly grazing horses and strutting wild turkeys.

This is an island where we stay a few days. But soon we’re tugged by the call of our voyage. From that southern shore, past the old DungenessCemetery, we look across Cumberland Sound and see Florida.

Click below to read Part I or Part III.

PART I -- Making your way down the ICW

PART III -- From Old South to ‘cowboy alley’