The Intracoastal Waterway

There is so much I don’t know.   

First, it’s “intra” not “inter” coastal.  Intra meaning within, inter meaning between.  The intracoastal waterway (ICW) is a 3000-mile inland waterway running from Boston, Massachusetts, southward along the Atlantic around the southern top of Florida, then following the Gulf coast to Brownsville, Texas.  It consists of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, sounds and artificial canals.  Its history dates back to late-1700s.

Not unlike the West coast, we are a part of the migration of boats traveling south in the late fall to southern Florida, Florida Keys, Bahamas, Caribbean, or Jamaica. Our migration, starting from Gloucester Point, VA to Norfolk, down the ICW to Beaufort, NC, Charleston, SC to Fort Pierce, Florida in hopes of finding sun and warm weather.  Our route is a combination of the ICW and open Atlantic Ocean cruising. The migration puts stress on the marinas and facilities.  We call ahead and often get a giggle from the marina dock master because we are calling a little late to reserve a slip, especially this year with the COVID-19 limitations.

We left Waterside Marina in Norfolk on Friday, October 9 after an awesome visit from my sister Julie, nephew Matt and Chelsea, his SO.

We delayed our departure one day and spent the majority of that day studying Dozier’s and Skipper Bob.  Kind of like Waggoner’s and Charlie’s Charts. I’m glad we spent the extra time because within the first 20 miles we encountered five bridges and one lock.  A lot to grasp at the start of the cruise.

We have been introduced to: Bridge Architecture 101.  We contacted the bridge operators to open two vertical bridges, two swing bridges and one draw bridge.  The Gilmerton Bridge (vertical) operator had a little fun with Orenda. With two boats ahead of us, the bridge raised and the operator radioed for each boat to proceed. We held back thinking the operator would also radio us to proceed. Instead he said “Hey Capt, you want to come on through? It’s at 90 feet, think you can squeeze under?”  So ok, we need to put on our ‘east coast’ pants, or what Scott said!

The Waterway Guide explains that the first 200-mile long stretch of the Atlantic ICW consists of locks, canals, rivers, land cuts and open water sounds. It also states that some of the open water has long fetches and shallow depths. The Currituck Sound at mile marker 42 is one large open water sound. It can span from 3 miles to 8 miles wide.  The center channel is supposed to carry 11-foot depths.  We experienced less than one foot under the keel most of the way, our shallowest moment was 0.4 feet! I googled the Currituck Sound and was amused with one question “Can you swim in the Currituck Sound?”  The answer was of course, but swimming was difficult because the water is only knee to waist high!  I did not know a sound could be so shallow.

Our first day on the ICW we made good time, often traveling at 7.5 knots, watching the depth constantly.  At the depths we were traveling, on the West coast, we would have slowed to ‘crawl’ speed to make sure we had time make adjustment before going aground. But folks we have chatted with say “you’ll get use to cruising in shallow water”.  Our first night, we anchored in 4.3 feet under the keel or 11.3 feet of water.  Who anchors in 11 feet of water?  Who would have known?

So the water in the ICW is often brownish.  The brown color is from tannic acid. Tannic acid is released from decaying vegetation which happens to be a characteristic of the inland canals of the ICW. Tannins are released from the roots and leaves of decaying cypress and juniper trees.  I understand the tannic acid can give boats a brown “Mustache”. We will find out when we haul out to have work done in Florida!

There is this “canal effect”. I didn’t know. It’s the tendency of the stern to swing toward the bank in narrow waters.  We experienced “the effect” at the Punga Ferry Bridge when the operator encouraged us to ‘speed her up’ as they were waiting for us so they could close the bridge. The “effect” was quite scary!

Other things I didn’t know – what is – ‘no tidal rise and fall’ and ‘hurricane holes’.  And insects, look like mosquitos, but aren’t.  When we woke in the anchorage, the entire boat was covered with insects, hundreds of thousands of billions of insects! The insects turned out to be Chironomidae, or non-biting midges, locally and not affectionately known as muckleheads.

We picked up the midges at an anchorage called Cypress Swamp on the Alligator River.  The following day during an all-day rain, we traveled the Alligator River – Pungo River Canal.  The canal, or often referred to as ‘the ditch’ is scenic, heavily wooded and relatively narrow.  Hoping to make progress on insect control, I spent the majority of the cruise on the boat deck spraying water and trying Pinesol and dish liquid in an attempt to discourage the midges. In the end, we lost the battle, emptied the water tank and succumbed to a couple of beers at anchor in the head waters of the Pungo river, within earshot of the River Forest Marina in Belhaven.  And so, the following morning, we limped into the marina.  We were met by Henry Boyd, Dock Master who took one look at Orenda and said, “Oh you got into the muckleheads, you must have been in the Alligator River!  You got it bad.”  Yep. No mention in the cruising manuals about insects, no mention from fellow boaters who have traveled the ICW.  I just didn’t know.

We spent the entire day cleaning the boat and just past sunset we declared good enough. Today we are cruising to Beaufort, NC via the Neuse River and Adams Creek. Our plan was to moor in the channel near Beaufort, but we are both wary of another mucklehead attack!! So we contacted Beaufort Docks on the historic Beaufort Waterfront and were able to secure a slip a day early.

We are enjoying Orenda and learning so much, and I still have so much to learn!  To be continued……

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