Brad and Terri Geddes were heading south with the Sail to the Sun ICW Rally in their Jeanneau 44DS, Reflections II. Leaving Hampton, Virginia, they were on the Intracoastal Waterway just past Norfolk along with 18 other boats. Things were going well until, with a sudden bang, their boat stopped dead in the water. Their mast had hit the Chesapeake Expressway bridge. But how? Why? The tide boards at the bridge showed the clearance to be 63 feet 5 inches, and their spar was less than that.
It turned out their mast height, which the yard had told them was 62 feet 6 inches, was actually 64 feet, and that didn’t count the Windex, transducers and VHF antenna, all of which added another foot. Fortunately, their gear wasn’t damaged, but Brad’s relaxed attitude was totaled. Their carefree trip now became a constant vigil for the next bridge, the challenge being to clear it safely.
At any given sailing seminar, I typically get questions about depths and problem areas on the ICW and how to deal with them. That’s a valid concern, but boats of up to an 8-foot draft can handle the ICW without undue difficulty, provided they watch the tide.
Just as an example, American Star, a 100-passenger cruise ship drawing 8 feet, runs the ICW regularly. Its two major routes are between Baltimore, Maryland, and Charleston, South Carolina; and Charleston and Jacksonville, Florida. Its secret? It plays the tides.
Really, these days, instead of depths being the problem, mast-height issues are currently a bigger challenge for ICW cruisers. In previous rallies, this had not been an issue. Of course, those events didn’t follow Hurricane Matthew, which hit the area in October 2016 and dumped immense quantities of water into the ICW, raising the water levels for weeks to follow. Even the lunar tides had an impact, with the full moon exacerbating the problem.
Following Matthew, several areas of the ICW were closed for days as storm waters filled with debris poured into the waterway. Clearance heights of 62 and 63 feet were observed at the Socastee Bridge and other locations in South Carolina. These bridges are supposed to have 65-foot clearance at high tide. Southbound cruisers were trapped in marinas, unable to proceed until the waters receded.
More than a month after Matthew, and on much broader bodies of water, such as the Waccamaw River just north of Georgetown, South Carolina, problems persisted. The Lafayette bridge’s clearance was inadequate at high tide for three of the rally boats. They turned back to spend the night at a marina they had just passed to wait on the morning’s lower water.
VHF conversations between cruisers all along the ICW focused on observed bridge clearances. One woman assured us her spouse would climb the mast to determine the actual amount they cleared by, and radio the results back to the rest of the rally fleet. That suitably impressed us, and even more so when her report came in — they’d cleared with mere inches to spare.
The difficulties experienced were the result of the hurricane, of course, but the lesson is that conditions are always in flux along the ICW. Notwithstanding Matthew, there remain problems with bridge clearance in a number of locations along the waterway. That’s because the foundations of several ICW highway bridges have sunk since being built. Engineers refer to this as soil compaction. According to a civil engineer I contacted, any bridge built on a sandy base will eventually sink to some extent. This is due to vibration caused by wind and vehicular traffic.
Vibration causes the soil beside and under the support columns to shift and move microscopically. Over time, the pilings shift lower. You can see this by wiggling your foot in the sand on a beach: Your foot starts to dig itself in. The same thing happens with a bridge piling, it just takes years before you see the results. This comports with my experience, as when I started cruising 15 years ago, I don’t recall any 64-foot bridges on the ICW.
One well-known problem bridge is Wilkerson Bridge, just north of Belhaven, North Carolina, at the south end of the Alligator-Pungo Canal. This bridge has only 64 feet of clearance at high tide. To get by it safely, check out NOAA’s Hydrologic Prediction website (water.weather.gov/ahps2/index.php?wfo=mhx). NOAA’s online charts are available all along the coast and give a graphical representation of the state of the tide at each tidal station.
In Daytona, Florida, the southernmost bridge’s clearance rarely shows more than 64 feet, and there is less than 6 inches of tide. However, the bridge tide boards show what is termed “low steel,” which is the lowest clearance of the bridge at its outer edges. In the center of the bridge, there is 65 feet of clearance.
This was made clear to two of my 2015 rally participants, Chris and Fiona Cook, who felt they were trapped at this bridge by their mast height. After a two-hour wait with no discernible change, Chris spoke to a nearby marina manager who assured him he had adequate clearance. They then proceeded with no problems by staying in the middle of the channel.
So how did Brad and Terri Geddes deal with their problem as they approached bridges with inadequate clearance for their Jeanneau 44DS?
Returning to Atlantic Yacht Basin, in Great Bridge, Virginia, Brad headed up the rig, where he removed all the gear from the top of the mast and turned the VHF antenna upside down. This brought his clearance down to just his mast height of 64 feet. This wasn’t quite enough for some bridges, however, so at the Pungo Ferry bridge, in North Carolina, they enlisted four husky college kids who were out fishing to sit at the end of their turned-out boom and on the rail of the boat. Two more men from the rally group took to bosun’s chairs hung from halyards. The resultant heel was enough to clear the bridge.
Farther south, one of the smaller rally boats took Brad’s halyard and heeled Reflections II over as they went through another low bridge. And at many bridges, Brad’s careful timing was such that he was able to simply pass through. Given that tides increase as you go south — to 9 feet in Georgia — the likelihood of coming to a bridge with inadequate clearance becomes much less. (In central Florida, however, where there are fewer inlets, tides on the ICW can be quite minimal.)
Bridges aren’t the only height issue, however. The power lines across the entrance to Boot Key Harbor in Marathon, Florida, are at 65 feet, as Brad and Sandy Fisher, rally participants on Doc’s Orders, discovered. They anchored outside and waited for low tide before entering.
Brad is now considering taking a hacksaw to his too-tall fractional rig before going back north. He spoke with Fort Lauderdale-based rigger Paul Hite about shortening the mast by 2 feet. According to Hite, this is not as uncommon a solution to the problem as one might think. He has shortened several masts.
Paul grinds off the aluminum cap at the head of the mast, cuts the mast and roller furling to the desired length, reinstalls the furling, halyards and wiring, and welds the plate back on. Not counting the welder and any cutting required for the sails, it was a $3,000 fix for Brad, who’s quite content to pay that for the peace of mind he’ll get in exchange.
Other solutions to the bridge-height issue include removing the mast and shipping it south. This was the choice for Sail to the Sun ralliers Frank and Mary Grace Stitch on their Fountaine Pajot Helia 44 catamaran with its 72-foot mast. The ICW was a bucket-list trip, and removing the mast was the only way they could accomplish it.
You might be thinking, why not just go offshore and avoid the bridges? For some that’s fine, but not everyone wants to do a multiday offshore trip. At other times, weather issues make going offshore a bad choice, as anyone who has gotten caught out in a late-fall norther can attest. And although it’s hard to believe for those asking, some people really do enjoy the ICW and all it has to offer.
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Wally Moran has 30 ICW passages under his keel and brings up to 20 boats and new cruisers south with him every fall in the Sail to the Sun ICW Rally (icwally.com).