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
Off the Magenta Line
South of Coinjock, at Mile 65, the North Landing River broadens into a 15-mile shot across Albemarle Sound, perhaps the most notorious stretch of open water on the ICW. Albemarle and its neighbor, Pamlico, offer lengthy fetches coupled with shallow depths that can produce a nasty chop. In moderate conditions, however, they can also offer some of the finest sailing available on the trip inside. Upon entering Albemarle, if the weather appears favorable, seriously consider departing from the famed "magenta line" (which delineates the ICW route) and heading southeast to the alternate route through Pamlico Sound.
If your boat's mast height is greater than 45 feet, this choice will require you to pass north over the top of Roanoke Island, then down the narrow dredged channel toward Oregon Inlet. Manteo is a charming stop, though the skinny water of the town's Shallowbag Bay may prove challenging for boats with drafts greater than five feet. Much of this route will have a wild, remote feel to it, and you'll be keeping company with commercial and sport fishermen.
Farther south, the Outer Banks village of Ocracoke is a true gem, with a landlocked harbor that literally surrounds the cruiser with its natural embrace. The touristy bustle of summer has faded by the time most snowbirds arrive here, but the ocean-water temperature often remains in the 70s F well into the fall. At this time of year, Ocracoke lends itself to kicking back for a day or two, though lingering there during an approaching cold front has its risk. The upwind slog west to the Neuse River is tough in a fresh northwest breeze, so wait a day or two until it veers to the north or northeast, and I guarantee you'll log a day to remember.
If you remain on the ICW across Albemarle Sound, a couple of minor bridge cautions are in order. The Alligator River Highway swing bridge, near Mile 84, isn't required to open in winds above 25 mph, so you can get held up there. Because of snags, cruisers in this region must anchor carefully, and the prudent sailor will rig a trip line in case of a tangle. And for those with masts approaching the ICW maximum clearance of 65 feet, the Wilkerson bridge (near Mile 125, at the western end of the Alligator River-Pungo River Canal) has slightly more than 64 feet at normal water level.
Whatever the chosen route, everyone seems to gather again at Beaufort, probably the purest sailors town on the ICW. Approaching the Beaufort/Morehead City area, you begin to sense that you've finally made real progress south. There's likely to be a welcoming committee of dolphins, the vegetation is more tropical, and voices are really beginning to drawl.
Jeb Brearey, long-time dockmaster of the Beaufort Town Docks, swears that cruisers aren't enjoying themselves as much as they used to. They now seem to travel in packs, and their VHF radios and cell phones have become more vital to them than their depth sounders. No doubt Jeb never ceases to be amused by the sight of a new arrival's jaw dropping when informed that Beaufort doesn't have an Internet café.
To a very real extent, the ICW is increasingly defining how many East Coast sailors are going off cruising. Most of the ICW boats I see are better performers under power than under sail. Maximizing a cruising boat for 1,000 miles of motoring cramps its sailing style and fortifies habits that sailors carry well beyond the ICW. Many ICW boats have decks awash in gear that inhibits on-deck movement; monstrous S.U.V.-dinghies swing from arch/davit configurations that appear to defy gravity. To actually sail some of these vessels would barely be worth the effort.
No modern cruising accoutrement stifles the urge to unfurl a sail more than the full-cockpit enclosure. This represents a major first step toward motorboating and the inevitable dulling of the senses of sailors, whose ears are attuned to wind and wave. Sometimes, the faintest sound of the break of a quarter wave moving slightly farther forward is the first and only hint that a displacement hull is straying into shallow water, yet our quest to isolate ourselves from the very elements we claim to revel in dims this essential awareness.
Very few cruising boats plying the ICW appear to be nimble enough to deal with the ever-changing demands of a lengthy coastal cruise. Beaufort Inlet affords sailors their first opportunity to truly cruise--to go "off-road" for a spell under sail. There's no shortage of delightful daysails or single overnights to be had between North Carolina's Cape Lookout and the Florida Keys, but having to rearrange bicycles or jerricans lashed on deck will inhibit the decision to jump outside at a moment's notice.
Geographically, the Eastern Seaboard south of Hatteras is a happy commingling of nearly ideal physical features and a sailor's natural attraction to warmer waters. In the wake of autumn's cold fronts, which march through with predictable regularity, the perfect curvature of barrier islands between Beaufort and Masonboro inlets can provide a long day of closehauled to downwind sailing in 25 to 30 knots in virtually flat water. And you'll be closer to the beach than the magenta line that snakes along behind the dunes. Some of my best days offshore have come in the Gulf Stream-blue waters of Onslow Bay, where I've sailed secure in the knowledge that a straightforward, well-marked inlet awaits me at day's end. The inside passage from Morehead City to Wrightsville Beach--with three restricted bridge openings, the firing range at Camp Lejeune spanning the channel, and shoaling behind the myriad inlets--is one of the more frustrating on the Ditch.
I-95 or Route 66
Leaving Beaufort, snowbirds have the opportunity to decide whether or not the ICW will be their I-95 or their Route 66. Viewing the ICW as an interstate leads to running in packs, anchoring only in guidebook-endorsed spots, and succumbing to KOA Kampground Kruising. The alternative is to view the path south as a two-lane road with interesting detours. The sublime surprise of each new day and what it might bring can quickly erase the monotony of running 10 hours a day, day after day, under power.
One ICW trouble spot these days is the passage behind North Carolina's Lockwoods Folly Inlet. Last winter, the U.S. Coast Guard restricted commercial traffic in the area to at or near high tide and advised mariners that the low-water channel depth was only three feet. As of early summer, the situation appeared less dire (see Jon Eisberg's sidebar to this story, "Captain Jon's Murderers' Row."). Yet cruising sailors can easily bypass Lockwoods Folly with a delightful 30-mile run outside, which is possible in all but the most unusual weather.
You can depart from the Cape Fear River (the shortcut through the Western Bar Channel is precisely as charted), sailing close to the beach in any breeze from northwest to northeast, and return to the ICW via the Little River Inlet. Even in a strong northeast blow, the seas will remain light for most of the ride before a swell finally begins to bend around Frying Pan Shoals. But beware: Shoal water exists offshore just east of the Little River fairway between the jetties, so proceed to the sea buoy before turning in.
If the weather favors the 120-mile run outside from Cape Fear to Charleston, South Carolina, this can be an easy overnighter. However, two hazards here require careful chart work and planning. The rhumb line from Cape Fear Entrance to the Charleston racon buoy passes dangerously close to Cape Romain Shoal. The waters off Cape Romain are lonely, with virtually no lights visible at night along a featureless low coast that's barely discernable on even the clearest days. And this confusion of breaking seas several miles offshore is marked only by a solitary, unlit nun buoy.
The large-vessel entrances of Winyah Bay and Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Fernandina and Mayport, Florida, all share a dangerous feature for inbound sailors at night or in dirty weather. The rock jetties at these inlets can become completely submerged at high tides and in heavy seas; sailors approaching these entrances must know their precise positions at all times.
Why the ends of these obstructions have never been marked with more distinctive nav aids, such as strobes, remains a mystery to me. Even after the loss of the 34-foot sailboat Morning Dew on the Charleston jetty in 1997 (see "Coast Guard Learns Costly Lessons," Shoreline, July 2001), mariners still must discern which flashing red among a long line of slightly varying flashing intervals is the one abeam of the jetty's end.