Suffice to say, taking the ICW all the way from Norfolk to Charleston was not plan A. I think we are on plan E or F by now, but that is what weather will do. Every time we’ve been near an inlet (a channel that leads to the ocean) the weather has been less than ideal. Instead of waiting for good weather we just took the ICW to our next port. The ICW is pretty safe, weather wise, but there are plenty enough hazards along the way that are unique to this route.
For one, there is a lot of shoaling (shoaling is when a normally deep area is silted in by stray currents making it too shallow transit easily). The further south we go the worse shoaling seems to get, perhaps because there are fewer barges to blast the channel deep enough. There is a great resource for cruisers which alerted us to most of the problem areas, www.activecaptian.com. Before the start of the next day’s run I quickly jot down all of the hazards noted on Active Captain for our route such as missing markers, shoaling, and bridges that open on schedules. When approaching a shoaling area we slow down and take it slow, most of the time other cruisers would note which side of the channel to stay on to get deeper water.
Current is another issue, again the further south we go the stronger it gets, this is because of the tides. From South Carolina to Georgia the difference between high tide and low tide gets bigger and bigger until its about 8 feet in Georgia. This massive amount of moving water results in very strong currents which can either give you a boost (extra speed) or slow you down. If you’re lucky you can time the tides to always catch the boost, most of the time the difference gets split. For example, on our run from Wrightsville Beach, SC to Southport, SC, we had a 3.5 knot current against us at Snow’s Cut, and a 4 knot current with us just past there. Considering the cruising speed of our boat is only 6 knots, the current makes a huge difference!
The ICW channel is identified with green and red markers on the left and right side of the channel, respectively. Sometimes the markers are close together and sometimes they are far apart, sometimes you can’t even see the next marker without binoculars. Rain and fog affect your ability to see the markers, we tried to avoid travelling on days when weather would hinder our ability to see the markers. While the advent of GPS and electronic charts allows you to see your exact position without needing to see the markers, it is still wise to validate what is on the charts by locating the markers with your eyes as sometimes the markers move frequently, particularly in the aforementioned shoaling areas.
That being said, we did leave on a day with pretty thick fog, the forecast showed it burning off by 9AM however it wound up sticking around until 1PM! We were travelling with Totem and they led the way, using their radar to validate there were no obstructions ahead. However, when we came up on an area that experiences bad shoaling (and thus the markers move frequently), we wound up treading water until a boat came along with local knowledge of the channel location and we followed them through.
Bridges can be an issue for some boats. Our boat has a “bridge clearance” of 62 feet, meaning we can go under any bridge that is more than 62 feet high, although we prefer more than 64 feet! Most bridges are designed to be 65 feet tall at high tide while others are 64 feet, but the tide, wind and weather conditions affect this. Was there a recent full moon? Are winds pushing the water north or south? Has there been a lot of rain? Bridges typically have a “tide board” posted so you can tell how much room there is to pass under. A few of the bridges we went under showed 63 feet, some as high as 67 feet. Totem, one of our buddy boats on this part of our journey, has a bridge clearance of 67 feet, they had to take some interesting steps to make it under some of the bridges!
Then there are the opening bridges, which sometimes run on schedules that are difficult to meet perfectly. You might wind up treading water for 30-60 minutes waiting for the next opening. Learning how to stop the boat and keep it stopped, accounting for wind and current, is a skill we’ve learned a lot about on this trip!
Anchoring isn’t always easy. Most of the ICW is a narrow, dredged channel that you can’t just pull off of without running around. Our first day on the ICW, we anchored in an area off the channel and ran aground in the middle of the night when the wind shifted. Since then, we’ve learned to plan our anchorage for the next day, and identify “bailout” anchorages along the way should we not make as good of time as we planned to. Even then, some anchorages are small or shallow, or have poor holding (the surface at the bottom doesn’t hold an anchor well). You have to choose your spot carefully to avoid crab traps, swinging into a shallow area when the tide shifts, swinging into other boats. One night in particular we had to worry about swinging into a sunken sailboat!
There aren’t many opportunities to sail on the ICW, and so many days of running the engine results in wear and tear, such as this broken copper lug that prevented us from starting the engine. Then a few days later the nut backed itself off the same lug and caused our instruments to malfunction. Maintenance is a fact of life on a boat!
Despite all of the challenges we faced, this has been a beautiful journey and full of God’s wonder! We’ve seen dolphins, eagles, sunsets, sunrises and buffleheads. We’ve met generous and interesting people who have blessed us in many ways, and it’s only the beginning of our journey! By now we’ve left for Jacksonville, FL, stay tuned for a post about our stay in Charleston, SC!