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
The Outside Tradeoff
The tradeoff for jumping outside is the risk of missing something of interest inside--like the scenic ride down South Carolina's Waccamaw River, the closest thing to a jungle cruise on the ICW. The timing of this leg, which is preceded by a tedious and narrow land cut passing behind Myrtle Beach, can be greatly enhanced by catching the strong ebb running out of Winyah Bay. Georgetown is a favorite stop among cruisers and an example of a friendly, rejuvenated community that relishes its proximity to the ICW.
Most everyone stops for a while in Charleston to savor the charms of this wonderful city. Cruiser-friendly, convenient, and strategically located, Charleston is an ideal layover, whether you wish to relax, accomplish a boat-related project, or simply get away from the boat for a while.
Sailing offshore from Charleston to the Florida border will take a major bite out of the number of ICW miles required to move south. The inside passage through the South Carolina low country involves much meandering and backtracking. Weather permitting, I always run outside and bypass this snake path.
But if you like inland wandering, this stretch offers opportunities to sail, and the route through much of Georgia has the remote flavor of a drive through the desert. Its monotony is offset by the dramatic transformation of the landscape between low and high tide and the knowledge that here remains one of the last unspoiled stretches along the Eastern Seaboard. Just before you enter Florida, Cumberland Island, the southernmost of Georgia's barrier islands, presents a marvelous opportunity to experience this landscape intimately. Cumberland is near the top of my list of ICW favorites. Beauty, mystery, and peace will surround those who explore her dunes and broad beaches or stroll beneath her live-oak canopy on age-old paths.
Once south of Hatteras, there are many offshore-leg/ICW-sightseeing combinations to consider. The following entrances are reasonably reliable in settled conditions: North Carolina's Beaufort, Masonboro, and Cape Fear River; South Carolina's Winyah Bay, Charleston Harbor Entrance, South Edisto River, and Port Royal and Calibogue sounds; Georgia's Savannah River, Sapelo, Doboy, and St. Simons sounds, and St. Marys River Entrance; and Florida's St. Johns River Entrance and the inlets at St. Augustine, Ponce Inlet, Port Canaveral, Fort Pierce, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. Steve Dodge's recently published Inlet Chartbook: Southeastern United States ($20; 2002; White Sound Press, www. wspress.com) is an excellent resource for anyone considering using inlets in which buoyage is uncharted.
The coastline south of Charleston forms the great crescent that eventually runs southeast toward Canaveral, so navigating and running inlets requires more care and forethought. Unlike farther north, where much of the coast trends along an east/west axis, the farther south one sails, the more of a lee shore this coast becomes in the aftermath of a frontal passage.
The breeze appears to swing more rapidly from northwest to northeast down here, and the resulting onshore swell is magnified by the shallow shelf waters extending well offshore. When the wind opposes powerful currents flowing out of the sounds and inlets, an entrance such as St. Marys can become a gauntlet of dangerous standing waves and tide rips. Caught out in deteriorating conditions, the prudent seaman should attempt to run these entrances on a high flood tide.
Mile 965 finds you at Fort Pierce, and that should be enough ICW for even the most devout motorsailor. You didn't come to Latitude 27 to endure the endless waits for bridge openings in the shadowy canyons between high-rises or the VHF pestering from condo commanders complaining of your eight-inch wake from 18 stories above. So now it's time to take the left-lane exit at Fort Pierce Inlet and seek the inshore countercurrent spinning south off the Gulf Stream. This is the time to see how the new gennaker looks against the towering tropical cumulus and to once again feel your boat lifted by a wave not manufactured by a passing motoryacht.
The Atlantic Intracoastal has probably delivered more sailors to the waters of their dreams than any other waterway on Earth. Cruisers from around the world marvel at this singular creation of nature and mankind, which I've had the pleasure of cruising for nearly 30 years. It's no surprise, then, that autumn is my favorite season--when I fall in love all over again with a special part of America and the endless realm of possibility that cruising represents.
Jon Eisberg logged his 200th ICW trip in the fall of 2003. He makes his living photographing Grand Prix and Indy auto-racing events and delivering boats the length of the Eastern Seaboard. His free time is reserved for projects and escapes aboard his Allied Chance 30-30, Chancy.