Sailing the Intracoastal Waterway
A delivery captain and cruising sailor spills his guts about diversifying the Intracoastal Waterway experience, countering disturbing cruising trends, and spending more time actually sailing
For many U.S. East Coast sailors, a trip south on the 1,090-mile Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) might mark the beginning of their first extended cruise, at the very least their first real departure from the familiar comfort of home waters. In many respects, the protected waters that constitute most of the Ditch are the perfect classroom in which to learn the rudiments of Cruising 101.
Nevertheless, the southbound seminar, while often tending toward the monotonous, can quickly penalize a moment's inattention with a sharp rap on a helmsman's knuckles. It's supremely difficult to get into any real trouble on the ICW, but one can quickly find oneself in a bit of grief or a lot of embarrassment.
The most unfortunate consequence of a first-timer's sojourn south, however, is the likelihood that much of the trip will be done under power. Sailors can spend hour after hour, day after day, on boating's "dark side" and, as a result, pick up some nasty, noisy, and expensive habits. Numerous cruising guides provide, statute mile by statute mile (for the ICW is measured in inland increments), the nuts and bolts of such a passage, so my aim here is to inspire cruisers to diversify their experience and maximize the likelihood of some quality sailing.
Most cruisers begin their inland treks at Mile Zero, at Portsmouth, Virginia. Unfortunately, the curse of the first 20 miles of the Ditch is the nine bridges, each with its own opening schedule. Unless one is under way from Mile Zero well before first light, the better part of a day will be required to cover this distance. You can save lots of time by running to Great Bridge, Virginia, at about Mile 12, in the evening or early morning--if you're accustomed to piloting in twilight.
To Sea or Not to Sea
The first 50 miles, to Coinjock, North Carolina, can seem like a forced march. The push to make the next bridge opening is constant and ever at odds with the necessity to reduce speed to allow the never-ending flow of powerboats to perform a courteous pass. And by the first day's end, you may begin to think that courtesy is all but gone from the world.
An alternative for cruisers homing in on Norfolk--especially those sailing offshore of the Delmarva Peninsula--is to bypass the first 170 miles of the ICW altogether by continuing past the Chesapeake Bay entrance to Oregon Inlet, at the north end of Hatteras Island. Timed with the passage of a moderate cold front, this route offers marvelous sailing down the Outer Banks, after which it leads into Pamlico Sound, behind Cape Hatteras.
The key to this passage is to arrive at Oregon Inlet before the breeze moves from northwest to northeast, in which quadrant a sizable swell begins to run in from the east. This inlet is not to be taken lightly, even in settled weather, and I don't recommend this route to those unfamiliar with running inlets of the sort found between Montauk and Norfolk.
The Perfect Pass
Over the years, animosity between sailors and powerboaters has increased, and as freeway drivers doing 50 in the passing lane heighten the road-rage quotient, cruising sailors must often share the blame for many of the tensions that ensue on the ICW. If you expect to be passed by a faster vessel in a courteous manner, you simply must throttle back to idle speed, thus permitting the overtaking vessel to do the same.
Though I'm a sailor on my own time, I mostly deliver sportfishing boats or fast motoryachts. My idea of a perfect pass is to first signal my intention to the slower vessel with a horn signal (one short blast if passing to starboard; two short blasts if to port). If the slower vessel accepts the faster boat's plan, then it sounds the same signal. I think that VHF communications are often unnecessary and, in most cases, overused, and a 20-plus-knot closing speed often precludes effective dialog.
I maintain my running speed until within a couple of boat lengths of the vessel being overtaken, then sharply throttle down to idle, which instantly flattens the wake. The slower boat, by then at idle, permits me to pass close aboard and maintains idle speed until my quarter wave has crossed his bow. Then we're both again off to the races. When executed properly, this entire maneuver can be done in 45 seconds, with no hard feelings from either party, and the overtaken boat has sacrificed but a few boat lengths of distance made good.
When a powerboat operator has neither the inclination toward courtesy nor the skill to demonstrate it, you can minimize the effect of a rogue wake by turning away from the wake and throwing a hip check with your own boat's quarter by beginning to cut sharply across the wake, then deliberately putting the boat broadside at just the right moment. In most boats of at least moderate displacement, this results in little more than the overtaken boat bobbing up and down, with a minimum degree of rolling.
Approaching Currituck Sound, you'll encounter a typical characteristic of the Ditch: the narrow, dredged channel crossing a broad, shallow bay. When navigating these tedious sections bordered by a hard-edged channel, keep glancing aft to ensure that you're still centered between markers ahead and astern.
South of Morehead City, the need for 360-degree vigilance is increased by the effects of river and tidal currents, and throughout South Carolina and Georgia, you shouldn't hesitate to use the provided range markers. Always resist the temptation to cut corners or even pass navigational aids closely; generally, you should split the difference between markers and view the channel in a bigger picture than that defined by a single nav aid. Farther south, in the meandering river sections of the low country, you'll constantly be reminded of a lesson from eighth-grade Earth Science: The deepest water is usually found on the outside of the bends.