Transiting the Intracoastal Waterway means knowing when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em and when to improvise
We awake this morning at 0530 and roll out of bed. I can see lights on the shore. Good news. No fog. The 30 knots of forecast onshore breeze has not begun, and we have plenty of time to break the big Fortress free, hose off the mud, and get under way.
We’ve had a better than usual night in the anchorage off Banks Channel at Wrightsville Beach, N.C. It wasn’t overcrowded, the wind hadn’t howled, and no one had dragged across the harbor in the middle of the night.
The day promises to start well because Motts Channel has been dredged recently, and we have a reasonable hope of navigating it in the dark without sticking Chez Nous in the mud. This is important because the channel will take us back to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and the Wrightsville Beach Bridge, which we must reach prior to 0700 so we can get through before it begins its hourly opening schedule.
The opening restriction makes it very difficult to meet the scheduled openings of the next two bridges to the north. This can turn what could be an easy day’s run into a late-night foray in narrow channels, racing tides and building shoals — not to mention thunderstorms and gusting winds.
I decide to call the bridge to see if there is any fog on the ICW. Television and VHF reports indicate several areas of half-mile visibility on land. We have radar and two chart plotters, and we’ve had a lot of fog experience. But the more experience we have with it, the less we like it. Even the best electronics can’t deal with the new shoals sneaking from the ocean into inlet crossings or discrepancies between GPS positioning and the actual channel. So we avoid fog if at all possible.
“Do you see any fog?” I ask, after raising the bridge tender on VHF channel 13.
“Well, it’s a little slim out there,” she says.
“Do you mean there’s fog there?”
“Well, I can’t see very well in the dark, but I don’t think it’s fog.”
“OK, thanks. We’ll bring ’er on to make it before your restrictions.”
There’s a pause that makes me uneasy.
“Are you a sailboat?”
“Yes ma’am, a motorsailer.”
“Well, the Figure Eight Island Bridge ahead is broken. It’s not opening.”
Thus, the Wrightsville Beach bridge tender has introduced us to another trying day on the ICW. If she hadn’t helped us with that information, the day would have been even more difficult. The tender of the ancient Figure Eight Island Bridge, within VHF range, then tells me that a part had broken into “three pieces and they were having to fabricate a new part from scratch, bring it to the bridge, install it, and see if it works.”
Bridges are a curse to travelers on the ICW, unless they’re in very low boats. Many have scheduled openings to suit vehicular traffic, with little regard to the safety of maritime traffic. Some politicians apparently think boats can stop like cars sitting on the road, and can make up for lost time to get to a safe harbor by traveling 55 mph. Not true. To make matters worse, in the recent past we’ve known some bridge operators to impose opening restrictions without Coast Guard approval, in disregard of federal law.
Coast Guard Bridge officers — whom we’ve found to be both helpful and knowledgeable — are vastly overloaded with responsibility for a huge number of bridges over thousands of square miles. Further adding to the problems, many bridges are old and break regularly, leaving boats trapped. As we are right now.
Wrightsville Beach offers a respite from bridges and other ICW problems if the weather is good. The normally safe Masonboro Inlet at Wrightsville Beach, although relatively shallow, is well maintained and easy to use in good weather. Around 80 miles to the north, Beaufort Inlet is deep and easy to enter in good weather. We prefer to take this and other sections of the coast outside, and we often do, using the good inlets scattered along the coast. Going outside for a day or several can be a beautiful and relaxing experience, but only in the right circumstances.
We just spent two days offshore, between St. Augustine, Fla., and Beaufort, S.C. The ICW that we skipped is beautiful, but it’s great to be at sea in good weather. Today isn’t such a day. The wind is forecast to blow up to 30 knots onshore by evening, with storms and higher winds thrown into the mix. I won’t argue with you if you call me a fool, but I will if you call me a masochist. If we were in a fast boat we’d make the run because we could be fairly certain of beating the weather. But we’re not, so we’re trapped inside. And we need to move. If we don’t, we’ll have to wait for days south of the potentially dangerous Albemarle Sound because of an even worse weather system developing.
Further, remaining here at the anchorage for another night isn’t an option in our book. This harbor has areas of very poor holding and many skippers don’t know it until they’ve dragged anchor and are crashing into another boat in the dark. During the morning we watch as other trapped boats begin to pile into the anchorage. We can tell from watching them anchor that some aren’t aware of the type of holding in the harbor. And someone just anchored to windward of us, about 50 feet away, without backing down to set his anchor. Tonight won’t be a fun time in this anchorage.
The previous two nights were fun. We were in Southport, N.C., at the Southport Marina (www.southport-marina.com ). It’s a small Southern seaport with old houses, nice restaurants, the local branch of the North Carolina Maritime Museum and, best of all, friendly people. (See my Destination article on Southport in the December 2007 issue, or search the archives at Soundings Online.com.) We have good friends there — it’s hard not to — and it’s always special to see them. It’s a blessing of regularly traveling the ICW. There are so many good people, and you get to “come home” over and over again.
The Southport Marina has recently been rebuilt and dredged, the people there are friendly and helpful, it’s convenient to the town, and the view is beautiful. PJ’s, across the street, has good home-style cooking. The popular Provision Company, overlooking the town basin a short walk away, is its own special brand of restaurant. There are lots of good things to do and places to visit in this town, so stopping is always fun.
And there have been many other good times and good runs. We spent some great days in Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine (www.camacheeisland.com). It’s one of our favorites on the East Coast. You can reach it from the ICW or the St. Augustine ocean inlet without going through any opening bridges, but the marina and yard are in a well-protected basin. Two loaner cars give easy access to shopping and touring the oldest permanently settled city in the country. There are many marine related businesses around the basin. First Mate Yacht Services and Ship Store sells a thorough selection of competitively priced boating equipment and parts, and provides repair and many other services, such as diving. Camachee Cove Yacht Yard is a full-service yard with a 50-ton lift, an enclosed painting area for very large boats, and 24-hour emergency service. Its motto is “quality workmanship at an affordable price.” The Kingfish Grill is very popular with locals and boaters. Nearby Hansen Marine Services installs and repairs such equipment as refrigeration, air conditioning, watermakers and generators. (See my Destination article on St. Augustine in the March 2007 issue.)
But there’s much more to the ICW than high civilization. There are many places where you can leave your mother ship tied or anchored in a safe harbor and scout around in the dinghy for some spectacular excursions. We’ve spent days exploring, with local TowBoatU.S. captains, the creeks and islands just inside Florida’s Ponce de Leon Inlet and the haunting marsh and beaches of Bird Island just inside Little River Inlet in South Carolina. Other favorites include Hammocks Beach State Park near Swansboro, N.C., and Blackbeard’s Creek at the northern end of Sapelo Island in Georgia. We always look forward to the Waccamaw River, winding through tall cypress trees and low swamp. Creeks and old rice plantation canals invite dinghy exploration. (See my Destination article on the Waccamaw in the February issue.)
Passing through Georgia also is spectacularly beautiful in a different way. You’re surrounded by what seems like unlimited marsh with subdued colors, birds, otters, dolphins and tree-covered hammocks dotting the marshy plain. And to the north of Charleston, S.C., the ICW takes you behind Cape Romain, with its desolate marsh flats and haunting shallows reaching far out into the Atlantic, the land imperceptibly melting into the ocean.
Yesterday, after Southport, was a great day from another perspective. Just south of Wrightsville Beach, we passed a huge dredge busy sucking up the shoal that has been forming where Carolina Beach Inlet flows into the ICW. The channel had grown almost impassable to the average cruising boat during low water. Yesterday it was much better, as long as we were in the right place.
We’ve seen several dredges at work or on the move in the last few days. This is very good news, because federal funding for the continuous maintenance this federal maritime highway requires has been pulled for the last few years. There have been few dredges and tricky shoals have grown, forcing many to wait for weather to go outside to pass bad areas or at least wait for high tides. It’s ironic because the ICW is far more environmentally friendly for moving cargo than trucking on the interstate. Yet the federal government, in a classic Catch-22, allots money only to the extent that the ICW is used by commercial traffic, which cannot use it when the government allows it to shoal. As it shoals, “pleasure traffic” also slows and marinas, restaurants, yards and many other businesses — entire communities — suffer.
But haunting me as I wait at Wrightsville Beach is the fact that areas that have caused problems in recent years were, on this trip, benign. I’m a little superstitious, and I figure that if I get a break one day, I’ll pay for it another way. One break this trip has been that the dreaded Rock Pile was a piece of cake. This was the last part of the ICW to be created. It’s also called, more officially, Pine Island Cut. It was blasted from the rocky ground behind Myrtle Beach, S.C. The average passerby would have no clue that the ground is anything other than the sandy loam that you find on the surface in that area, but when you’re in the Rock Pile, especially at low tide, you’re amazed at what’s there.
The banks are high, and the channel runs through a narrow cut with boat-killing rocks on both sides. The bottom of the cut is also rocky, so if you lose power you can’t rely on anchoring. Current flows rapidly up and down the cut, and if the bridge operators at either end decide to ignore their “open on request” status, you can get into serious trouble. In the past the ancient Little River Swing Bridge, supposed to have been replaced when a new high-rise was built next to it, has caused us problems here. This bridge is still in use, despite the high-rise a few hundred feet away.
In much of the Rock Pile area it’s imprudent to pass and necessary to rigidly hug the middle. You do not want to meet an oncoming vessel of any size in the narrower regions. So serious are the potential consequences of doing so that we call out before we enter: “Securitee securitee, this is northbound (or southbound) motorsailer Chez Nous preparing to enter the Rock Pile, checking for any concerned traffic. We’re standing by on 16 and 13.”
The very first time we ran this passage, years ago, we encountered a ferry boat on a delivery trip, coming from the opposite direction, well after we’d entered. For some reason, he hadn’t heard our call. We agreed to arrange our speeds so that we’d meet in a wider area, slick our port sides with bacon grease, and do the best we could. I still don’t know how we squeaked by without damage, but we did.
A few years ago a tugboat cast off from a construction dock that should not have been built on the shore of the area and met us coming on, not having his radio turned on when we called the securitee. That’s a problem with this area. Construction on shore is rampantly proceeding with little regard, in my opinion, for appropriate environmental concerns and issues affecting the safety of maritime traffic. But on this trip we passed through the Rock Pile with ease and stopped to fuel and rest at Harbourgate Resort & Marina (www.harbourgatemarina.com ), a favorite stop in the North Myrtle Beach area.
But I digress. You do that sometimes when you’re sitting on a boat waiting for a bridge. We’re still in Wrightsville Beach, wondering how long the next bridge will be down. The bridge tender helpfully tells us he’ll keep us posted. A few minutes before noon he calls and says they’re going to perform a manual opening at 1300 hours. But it’s too late to pull anchor and make it to the Wrightsville Beach Bridge, which will only open on the hour. So Figure Eight Island Bridge arranges for an opening at 1330.
We’re at the Wrightsville bridge, ready to go at 1300, and as soon as we’re through and clear of the no-wake area we rev up, heading for the Figure Eight. Once we clear Figure Eight we have to make the nearly 18 miles to the Surf City Bridge, which only opens on the hour, so we can get through in time to reach a safe anchorage before dark. Again, we rev up and let her do her thing.
We push thoughts of fuel consumption aside because being out on the ditch in rainy, windy weather at night is not good. We know we have a good anchorage ahead for the weather, and we’re happy. It’s at Mile Hammock Bay. Normally, this is a terrible anchorage because the soupy mud on the bottom makes holding very difficult unless you know how to work your anchor into the thicker mud beneath. We use our Fortress, which works well here. And there are few other boats here tonight that will be dragging about. We can sleep.
Our ability to make these bridges on time and better reach safe harbors is yet another benefit of the larger engine and prop installed by Marine Pro (www.marinepro.us ) last year. Displacement boats typically run the ICW at speeds of around 6.5 to 7.5 knots. A speed of at least around 9 knots will solve many bridge problems and help to reach safe harbors before dark.
It’s now a day later, and a nor’easter is setting in. But one of the many good things about the ICW is that you travel, for the most part, in narrow waters. If you have the skill and experience and your boat has the power, you can keep moving in weather that would send you ducking for cover at sea. With that in mind, we plow on. But the weather gods let us know they always have the last word. Near the southern end of Core Creek near Beaufort, N.C., we suddenly encounter a white squall and record gusts to 50 knots. Disorientation occurs easily in white squalls.
We have just passed one of our favorite marinas — Morehead City Yacht Basin (www.moreheadcityyachtbasin.com) — and decided to push on, since the weather was better at that point. How we wish we had stopped there to hunker down and see old friends. We get a compass bearing to stay on course. Also, our chart plotter, a Standard Horizon CP300i with C-MAP MAX cartography, helps keep us out of trouble. During brief lulls, we locate aids to navigation using our Steiner Commander XP binoculars.
The white squall lasts a very long 10 minutes, and when it roars away it seems to suck the wind out of the weather, leaving an eerie, chilly, misty atmosphere. We proceed in just rain for the rest of the day, collecting more than 5 inches in a bucket on the stern. Rain isn’t a problem for us unless it kills visibility.
We stay dry in our enclosed cockpit and keep on plugging, finally anchoring in the dark well off the channel in the upper Pungo River. We’re exhausted. As we back down to set the CQR, it drags. The mud here is very soft, although in the past the CQR has done well in this river, as it does in so many other areas. Ever more exhausted and working with spreader lights, hand-held flashlights and head-mounted walkie-talkie radios, we pull the hook, reset it and carefully work it down beneath the soft mud into the firmer bottom beneath.
Before heading below for a beer, I take one last scan around the boat with my powerful Golight Profiler spotlight and see we’re surrounded by crab-pot floats. If we swing onto one it could entangle the propeller or rudder. I spend another 10 minutes searching the water carefully, estimating swing for the scope I have out should the wind change, and finally quit for the night, confident that we won’t foul with any. It’s 9:30 p.m., and we eat dinner quickly, wanting to sleep. The next day will be important.
Ahead waits Albemarle Sound. There’s only around 20 miles of open water between the Alligator River and the north side of the sound, but it can be one of the meanest runs in the ICW. Because of its shallow depth and its funneling winds, it can spawn vicious waves that pummel like a merciless boxer. Huge tugs will wait for days to avoid going out there in bad weather.
Tomorrow there’s supposed to be a bit of a lull in the nor’easter, perhaps enough to make it across. The storm is forecast to grow much stronger the next day and continue blowing for three or four days after that. If we don’t get across the sound tomorrow, we’ll have to go into the one marina on the Alligator (Alligator River Marina, a good option for many) or wait for days in a desolate anchorage. The anchorage is beautiful, but with poor cell phone coverage and its isolation, being stuck for a long time can be lonely and frustrating.
This day will show us, yet one more time, that it’s important to have a reasonable amount of speed and power in your arsenal when you make this trip. Being limited to only 5 or 6 knots can cost many days and leave you in undesirable situations. Speed is relative, and many boats buzz along the waterway at many times our rate. Whatever your ability and custom, fuel is always a factor. We heard this morning that fuel is reported at more than $5 a gallon in some parts of South Florida. In a few spots in North Carolina and Virginia, it’s almost $1.50 less than that. But we’d rather spend the fuel and get across, if it’s safe. We won’t know until we reach Albemarle Sound.
We wake up at 0-dark-thirty the next morning and head into the Alligator River-Pungo River Canal. The north end is Mile 105 of the ICW. It takes us into one of the most desolate wilderness areas of the trip. We once saw a bear swim across the cut ahead of us. It’s around 20 statute miles through the cut and another 20 down the Alligator River to the sound. The tension builds as we plow along, wondering whether the sound will be too rough and whether the bridge will decline to open, as it does when the wind blows 34 knots or more.
We call ahead to the bridge tender when we’re in range and he tells us he has only around 18 knots from the north. Good news! And it isn’t even raining. This is important because the entrance to the Alligator is plagued by shoals, and the channel snakes back and forth. It helps immensely here to be able to see well. Also, a Coast Guard broadcast securitee has warned of two large pilings or tree trunks sticking out of the water at a 45-degree angle near flashing red 8, near a bad shoal area at the entrance.
Passing through the bridge, we feel the wind building as it funnels from the broad sound into the mouth of the river, but we keep on. Chez Nous, a heavy 53-foot motorsailer, is an incredibly powerful boat with her new 200-hp Yanmar. As long as the wind is northerly we know it’ll only get better as we head across. We see one of the pilings — clearly a ship killer — still in the channel and proceed very carefully and slowly, not knowing where the other is.
We clear the entrance and head across. With the new engine and propeller, we can maintain 8.5 knots (around 10 mph) into the oncoming waves and wind. Before, we’d have been lucky to do 6 knots. It feels good to run a good boat and be able to let ’er do her thing, unhampered by shoal water, broken bridges and no-wake zones. This is what we let ’er do now, and she does it well, taking us quickly across the sound in comfort.
But this feeling of freedom and power is short-lived because soon we’re past the North Carolina Cut and Currituck Sound and entering Virginia waters, which will narrow significantly as we pass through the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal. There’s one lock (Great Bridge) and six time-restricted bridges to go — perhaps more if some of the railroad bridges are lowered. Three bridges north of the locks will not open for two hours in late afternoon — near the time when we’ll be there — to accommodate rush-hour traffic. This means you’re trapped, possibly in the dark, in one of the busiest commercial rivers on the coast if you don’t time your trip right. To the north are huge freighters, container ships, military vessels (including aircraft carriers and submarines) and many bustling tugs controlling huge, unwieldy barges.
We always approach bridge areas with reluctance. A few bridge operators are sometimes ugly to pleasure-boat operators on the VHF. This is inexcusable, but from listening to them over the years I think I understand part of the reason why. Many seem exasperated at the large numbers of us who just don’t know what we’re doing. For example, many don’t stand by on VHF channel 13 as well as 16 in areas of commercial traffic. Many fail to give right of way and fail to recognize the problems of maneuvering large commercial vessels. Many crowd while waiting for bridges and rush into an opening when a tug with loaded barge, pushed by a fair tide, is making its way from the opposite direction. Many don’t even know what bridge they’re at or whether it’s on a schedule and which VHF channel it uses.
Many cruise without updated charts or guidebooks. Many are oblivious to sources of information available. For example, my wife, Mel, and I report “East Coast Alerts” on the BoatU.S. Web site (www.boatus.com, then select the “Cruising Logs” banner with Tom’s name, near midpage). It’s free to the public, but we’ve seen many cruisers get into trouble because they didn’t have information that was posted there.
With jaw set firmly and a resolution not to blow my cool, we head into the melee. Immediately after we pass through the third timed bridge (Great Bridge Bridge) we hear a securitee stating that the bridge is closed until further notice because a truck accident on another bridge has rerouted vehicular traffic to Great Bridge Bridge. They don’t want to inconvenience the folks in cars, so they block maritime traffic on the ICW. A tug pushing a dirt barge is told he’ll just have to wait — no easy thing to do in the wind with his rig. Mel and I shoulder punch each other. We made it through just in time, but it’s not over yet.
We clear the Great Bridge lock and pass through the Steel Bridge’s hourly opening, but then we hear on the VHF that a railroad bridge ahead is going down. This bridge is operated automatically as trains approach, and there isn’t a bridge tender with whom maritime traffic can communicate over VHF. We get there and start waiting. After around 45 minutes and no train, we call the Coast Guard Bridge Office, which promptly checks and finds that there is a train stopped and sitting on the bridge switch.
Ahead, the rush-hour-restricted bridges wait, and the misty drizzle is turning into serious rain, accompanied by higher gusts. The railroad bridge opens (apparently because of the call from the Coast Guard Bridge Office), and on we go. The next bridges are no problem, and finally we’re free.
The lower reach of the Elizabeth River and Hampton Roads welcome us. Ahead is the excitement of passing huge ships from all over the world and some of the greatest ships of the greatest Navy the world has known. Ahead is one of the best cruising areas in the world: Chesapeake Bay.
We’ve run the ICW for many years, and we love it. Trips usually go much better than this, but you’ve read about those in all the glamour stories on the subject. Good days or bad, it’s a priceless experience. It’s a boat trip in a very different world and an immersion in a moving, living collage of unique and overwhelming experiences. We can enjoy it more when we’re aware of the opportunities for trouble as well as the opportunities for fun. See you out here.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at