Imagine a two and a half month stress test over a distance of 1100 miles. If you’d been following my blog posts, you know that instead of our days being a “piece of cake”, many days on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) were a “bellyache” like the day, after 10 hours plowing through a rain spattered sea for 50 miles, we faced 18 knot cross winds as I pushed Dolce Vento against a 4 knot ebbing current into Charleston Harbor, racing the coming night to get safely into a slip. Why did we do this? To escape the shoals and fixed bridges of the ICW that lay between Georgetown and Charleston. By the time we cleared the bridges south of Vero Beach, we swore never again to go under an ICW bridge. It’s coastal and off shore sailing for the rest of the trip.
Ever-changing sand and mud shoals combined with slowly sinking 30-year-old fixed bridges build on sandstone and persistent high water made us a boat load of harried sailors. My conclusion is that this ancient (like since the 1920s & 30’s) inland waterway, the Intracoastal Waterway, is not a ribboned bouquet of interconnecting waters as so often advertised, but rather a broken zipper looping around the U.S. east and southern coasts. The pieces just don’t mesh together correctly anymore whether the cause be climate change or aging infrastructure. We traveled safely, preserving our mast after we lost two instruments atop the mast, by moving with the tides, seeking aid from BoatUS pilots on occasion, and staying put for “another” day, if we weren’t sure.
Lesson Learned: Understand that 65′ MHW clearance is not a reality
Published 65′ fixed bridge clearances at mean high water (high tide) are lies, so don’t believe them ever again. As I said above, even though we knew high tide clearances would be a challenge, mid-tide to low tide clearances should have been a piece of cake with a foot or more clearance. The reality in 2017 is that you must have a mast with fixed instruments that measures 62 feet or less in total (don’t count the VHF antenna that bends easily) to clear many of the bridges on a rising or high tide– climate change has raised water levels and some bridges have sunk six to 12 inches. If you have a mast with instruments at approaches 65′, ICW life is more stressful than it needs to be.
Lesson Learned: The Cruising Guide is not sufficient
The Cruising Guide is not sufficient to keep you out of the mud and off the sand bars. Serious tides in the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida are a fact of life. The ICW shoals appear and disappear as storms and naturally strong tidal currents flow across inlets that connect the ocean to rivers and the ICW exposing shoals that get darn right nasty for any boat with a 5 foot draft or longer. I don’t believe that you can travel the ICW in a boat with a draft over 6 feet on the ICW without many stressful moments. BoatUS can provide pilot support for getting you under a bridge, if needed. We did in Daytona with a super moon.
Plan your daily ICW travel by the tides (we used tides4fishing.com). The higher or lower the tides (aka super moon), the more you must worry about shoals. Join and read ActiveCaptain.com and call BoatUS to get connected to the BoatUS captain in the area you will be traveling through. Remember to carry the premium BoatUS membership coverage and don’t be embarrassed to call BoatUS for a tow (we did twice). It can save you hours of waiting for a rising tide to lift you off a shoal.
Lesson Learned: Currents must be respected
Having sailed for years on the Chesapeake, I forgot the challenge of tides and currents. Maintaining control in a fast current from the stern requires engine maneuvering skills. Pushing against an ebbing tide with a strong current when entering a channel is frustrating and exhausting for boaters and their boats. Too many helmsmen do not account for boat momentum or the power of a current to push a boat sideways, or do they have the skills to maneuver in close quarters, whether they be at the wheel of a power or sail boat.
Trying to leave a dock with a three knot current at my stern, almost cost me our bow. The solution, I learned, is to leave a slack tide, when the water is your friend, not your foe. Never approach a dock with the current at the stern. Listen to the dock master and follow his/her directions.