The Intracoastal Waterway has always awaited with an air of intrigue for me.
It has had the appeal of a secret staircase in an old mansion. It was fun to think there was a way to avoid an offshore passage by finding a hidden door to a corridor that wound its way under bridges, through canals, curved through rivers, squeezed into locks, and crossed sounds.
Its threats were as plentiful as its seductions: There’re snakes in them-there waters, alligators, and all matter of saltwater sea life that sends shivers down my spine ever since I was forced to take swimming lessons as a nine-year-old while standing in a bay full of crabs that would pinch, jellyfish that would sting, and little snappers that would nibble at our toes unless we dug them into the sand for the scallops to nip.
Besides the nightmarish sea life, I had heard of the danger of grounding. Or let me rephrase that: the certainty of grounding. Though, of course, I knew that *I* wouldn’t ground. I, the navigator. I, the attentive sailor. I, Mathias.
By some, I was warned of the boredom. The endless miles that for some strange reason are marked statutorily along the ICW rather than nautically, making it even longer. Though I supposed it added to the allure that this was not some nautical passage, but a secret, almost-land path.
Finally, the navigation is tricky. The ICW follows a rule that is neither the standard IALB system of “red, right, returning” or even the European's reverse. Rather, the ICW system of buoyage is that red is right when heading clockwise around the United States mainland. Of course, anytime, the ICW crosses an inlet, or when there is a river intersecting with the ICW, it changes back to red, right, returning. Confusing? Why should it be when we have chartplotters these days, right?
More than once, I was warned, “Don’t follow the ICW route marked on your plotter; follow the buoys because of all the shifting groundswell.” Why, of course, was my mental response. Who do you think you’re talking to? Tis I, the navigator. I, the attentive. I, etc.
I had avoided most of the ICW by sailing with Patrick from Stuart, FL “on the outside” in the Atlantic on a four-day passage to Beaufort, NC. My ICW trip north started from there. I spent five days traveling “the ditch” and now have arrived here in Norfolk, VA.
The experience was all of the above. Though in unexpected ways.
First: the boredom. Particularly when you are singlehanding, the ICW is an exercise of a uniquely sadistic boredom. The stretches of water are not long enough or empty enough to set the autopilot and go down below to make lunch or even to sit and read. You have to constantly pay attention to the waterway with the occasional speedboat suddenly coming from the opposite direction, or the rare log that’s floating mid-channel, and – most frustratingly of all – finding the actual channel. In some areas, it runs along the markers and buoys, in others you need to keep some distance from them. So you meander along, watching the depth sounder as you do your speedometer while driving, always adjusting course to find the “good” water. In other words: its enforced boredom.
|Navigation warning about the ICW. Shiver me timbers!|
|My station for five days. Chartplotter, binocs, depthsounder, crossword puzzle.|
This boredom, however, stretches against a background of beauty. I went through days of swampland so remote, I had no cellphone signal. The low-lying area was the way it has ever been. Raw and unforgiving to all but those animals who live there.
|One fork of the ICW is called The Dismal Swamp. Given that this was my view for much of North Carolina, I took the standard route.|
I had the pleasure to spy some of those living there. To my greatest surprise was seeing dolphins. Who would have thought you would find those seafaring mammals so far inland? Dolphins are some of the most intelligent animals we know, and far better navigators than I, so we can only conclude it is their choice to be here. Are they here just temporarily? Seasonally? Permanently? There is still so much we have to learn about the wild kingdom.
|Dolphins in the ICW. Who woulda thunk it?|
As if dolphins weren’t surprise enough, once in the middle of nowhere, I came across a man swimming across the canal. No wait, can’t be. Looks more like a dog. But THAT can’t be either. The ears are too round. It’s, wow, it’s a bear!
|One can't help but ask even if we know the answer: Why did the bear cross the canal?|
I grounded twice. Once, when I left at dawn and followed the ICW line on my plotter through some pretty tricky turns around an inlet. I could see all the daymarkers marking the channel. In addition, there was one more, uncharted buoy. I compared my position on the plotter and looked at the buoy again that was directly between me and the sun. It apparently marked a shoal. I kept it to starboard, staying on the plotter’s route and in short order Phoenix stuttered into mud.
Reverse, forward, reverse. Nothing helped. I was grounded. I had been the first one up and out on the ICW, but soon I saw the parade of boats coming up behind me. They all recognized the additional buoy as a red nun. And now I could see that too. (Why hadn’t I used binoculars to confirm what I was seeing?) I should have left it to port. The sandbars always shift around inlets. “Follow the buoys, not the chart,” reverberated recriminatingly through my head.
It took me about 15 minutes, and with a mixture of slow and hard throttle on the engine, I was able to eventually jiggle out of the mud. (Too much throttle and the boat “squats” deeper into the water. So sometimes, it’s good to try to push hard and then give light throttle to see if you can ease over the sandbar.)
|Dawn over Dowry Creek, NC. Within an hour the clear air congealed to fog.|
The other time I grounded, I couldn’t get off on my own. It was six o’clock in the morning, and no one was up yet. I turned off the motor and sat in the quiet, staring at the water. Soon I saw a flat fish wing by. Slowly, calmly. And sometime after that, I jellyfish pulsed close, dove a bit, then turned and pushed toward the surface, lingering just beneath it, then inverting again to dive, following some mysterious behavior pattern that was either beneficial or perhaps simply pleasing.
Eventually a motorboat passed, acquaintances I had made the evening before, and they pulled me off.
The owners of that motorboat were “loopers.” The Great Loop is another secret passage in America’s mansion. It is a waterway circumnavigating the eastern half of the country. From the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi, along the Mexican Gulf’s intracoastal segments and up the East Coast ICW to the Erie Canal. I had heard of this route, but thought it was a feat accomplished by the rare folks seeking some bizarre challenge akin to crossing the continent on a lawnmower. Au contraire: It is so popular that they have their own flag, get-togethers at various ports and a culture all onto themselves. The couple that pulled me off was on their second consecutive lap of the loop.
I’m glad to have gotten to know the ICW. Though it is a bit like fish and friends. After three days, …
|Aligator River Swing Bridge closing after the bridge master kept it open for an extended period just so I could catch it while it was open.|
|I was excited to see chicken and okra on the menu. Silly me; this is the south where everything is deep fried and served with catsup.|
|Full moon rising as seen through a portlight on Phoenix.|