Intracoastal Waterway Notes
I have made two round trips from Chesapeake Bay to the souththe first time to Daytona Beach, FL, and the second time to Charleston, SC. I have accumulated some information that I would like to present to you. In all cases, these are my own personal opinions. Please use your own judgment when traveling on your boat, and don't take anything I say for granted.
For convenience, I have listed things as if I was traveling south from Chesapeake Bay.
|Buzzard's Roost Marina, just off the ICW on the Stono River near Charleston, SC. I climbed up the mast to take this picture. The old swing bridge is being replaced with a tall fixed bridge.|
My general philosophy is that getting there is half the fun. Some people are always in a big rush to make as many miles as they can, and travel every day, but I take a more relaxed pace. I plan daily runs conservatively50 statute miles is a really big day, and most days are substantially less. This way, if I'm delayed for some reason, I'll still have time to arrive at my destination in the daytime. I try very hard (and so far successfully) to avoid all travel at night, since I think that night ICW travel would be difficult and greatly increase the chances of getting lost, running aground, or having an accident. I also include plenty of layover daysone layover day for every two or three traveling days. If I'm someplace nice, I might have more than one layover day. Layover days let me catch up on trip planning and boat chores, and also let me relax and enjoy the surroundings. I also add layover days to sit out inclement weather.
My general strategy is to travel down Chesapeake Bay to the bottom of the bay, then travel on the ICW to Beaufort, NC. At this point, I head offshore and make a series of one-day overnight offshore hops down the coast. After each hop, I stay for at least two nights in a marina to catch up on sleep and chores. For example, heading south from Beaufort, NC I went offshore to Bald Head Island, NC on the Cape Fear River, followed by Charleston, SC, followed by Savannah, GA, then Mayport, FL. At this point, I picked up the waterway again. Coming north, I left from Ponce de Leon Inlet near New Smyrna Beach, FL (where I obtained local knowledge before leaving), then went offshore to Brunswick, GA, followed by Beaufort, SC. I traveled the waterway to Charleston, then went offshore to Southport, NC on the Cape Fear River, followed by Beaufort, NC, where I picked up the waterway again.
By traveling offshore, you get to experience an ocean passage, which is dramatically different from ICW travel in almost every respect. Since each passage is only one day, it's relatively easy to work it into the weather forecast during trip planning. I have done the overnight passages by myself, and I find that I don't have any real difficulty staying awake all night. I know that when I arrive, I'll be able to tie up at a marina and get a good rest, confident that the boat is well secured.
By traveling offshore, you also avoid a lot of twisty-turny waterway that might be slow going. You also avoid the Marine Corps firing range, numerous shoal areas, and some areas without a lot of good places to stay. On the other hand, going in and out the inlets to travel offshore adds a lot to the mileage, especially when you go around Frying Pan Shoals between Cape Fear and Beaufort, NC.
I highly recommend getting information from many different sources. Different people have different opinions about things, and have different experiences to report. If you only rely on one or two sources of information, you might have trouble coming up with a broad enough perspective on things. I read many different sources, and took the following information with me on the boat:
First, I figure out the starting point and the final destination. I figure out when I'd like to leave the starting point, and when I'd like to arrive at the final destination. In doing this figuring, I keep in mind the seasonal changes in the weather and plan accordingly. For example, I don't want to linger up north too late in the fall, and I don't want to be down south in hurricane season. As I do all this figuring, I write it all down in my logbook so I can review it later.
I read the Waterway Guide (and other books and guides) thoroughly, maybe more than once, and come up with a list of places I want to visit and things I want to see and do. This list will have more places than I wind up visiting, because it's everything that appeals to me. At this point, I don't bother trying to make it a practical cruising itinerary. I also read the guides and study the charts to figure out where marinas and potential anchorages are, and add these to the list. Some areas of the waterway have lots of marinas or potential anchorages, some areas have few or none.
This whole mass of information makes up the rough plan for the trip. Now I make additional passes through the rough plan, trying to figure out practical daily runs, keeping in mind the various places I'd like to visit and the available marinas or anchorages. Even now, I still don't finalize the details, and still leave the information in rough form. There might be multiple options or variations on the trip still undecided. But at least by now, I have a pretty good idea of all the possibilities and have some practical itineraries that fit into my general timetable.
When I work out the route details, I want to wind up with a list of all the navigational information in my logbook and with the courses marked on my charts. This requires a commitment to use particular stopovers, so I can follow the route as-planned. I think it's too difficult and time-consuming to try to figure out all these details for the entire trip in advance. Plus, if I figured out everything in advance, I might want to change my mind later, which would require refiguring lots of details. Instead, I just work out a few days of details at a time.
In cruising mode, I travel for a few days in a row, then stop somewhere for at least one layover day. On traveling days, I don't usually have enough time to figure out all the navigational details for upcoming passages, especially if I'm by myself. Therefore, I use the layover day to do complete passage planning for several days of day-after-day traveling. While I'm doing that day-after-day traveling, I don't have to do any passage planning. At my next layover, I work out the next set of day-after-day passages, up to the next layover. This way, I spread the time and effort of detailed planning over a long period of time. This also gives me the flexibility to change my plans without having to refigure lots of details. Every time I figure out details, I review my notes for the rough travel plan that I worked out before leaving. I try to stop where I wanted to, using available marinas or anchorages, while keeping within the overall timetable.
In my nomenclature, I consider a "voyage" to be the whole trip, such as heading south from Annapolis to Daytona Beach. I divide a voyage into several "passages", each of which consists of moving the boat from one anchorage/marina to another anchorage/marina. For most waterway traveling, a passage will be one day's run. But on my overnight offshore hops, a single passage spanned two days. And when I came up the coast non-stop, one passage took five days. I divide each passage into several "legs", each of which consists of a single straight-line run from one waypoint to another. When the route passes down a twisty-turny river, I don't try to make straight-line legs, but consider the whole river section to be one leg, usually starting and ending the leg at notable landmarks.
For each passage, I write down the following information in my logbook:
Here are some sample passages, transcribed from my logbook:
Passage 9 South River anchorage near Oriental to Town Creek Marina, Beaufort, NC
legs = 6, dist = 26.2 nm, time @5.0 kt = 5 hr 15 min, @ 5.5 kt = 4 hr 46 min, @ 6.0 kt = 4 hr 22 min
15 Leg 1 Anchorage to SOURA (South River approach) 35°00'07"N, 76°36'00"W
course = visual, dist = 2.5 nm, time @ 5.5 kt = 28 min
16 Leg 2 SOURA to M01795 (Mile 179.5) 35°01'19"N, 76°38'50"W
course = 308M, dist = 2.6 nm, time @ 5.5 kt = 29 min
16 Leg 3 M01795 to M01849 (Entrance to Adams Crk) 34°57'52"N, 76°40'53"W
course = various, dist = 4.8 nm, time @ 5.5 kt = 53 min
16 Leg 4 Adams Crk, plus canal to T----T on chart inset
course = visual, dist = 8.3 nm, time @ 5.5 kt = 1 hr 31 min
17 Leg 5 T----T on chart inset to BEA1 (Beaufort Russell Slough)
course = visual, dist = 5.6 nm, time @ 5.5 kt = 1 hr 1 min
17 Leg 6 BEA1 to RS, to BEA2 (approx., near G"5"), to BEA3 (approx., past G"7"), to BEA4 (approx, past R"12") to G1 then marina
course = visual, dist = 2.4 nm, time @ 5.5 kt = 26 min
BEA1 = 34°45'29"N, 76°40'24"W, BEA2 = 34°44'35"N, 76°40'10"W,
BEA3 = 34°44'07"N, 76°40'32"W, BEA4 = 34°43'42"N, 76°40'08"W
Tides for Tue Nov 20, 2001:
Beaufort Gallant Channel, on Cape Hatteras p. T96 H+:49, L+:44, range = 3.5'
Cape Hatteras L0415, H0149, L1729, H2321
Gallant channel L0457, H1138, L1813, H0010 (Wed)
Core Creek Br L0559, H1215, L1915
Leave 7AM arr about 12 noon
See Russel Slew diagram WWG p.259
Most of the time, when I'm on the waterway, I follow the "magenta line" (the ICW course line). After reading the various guidebooks and the Coast Guard Local Notices to Mariners, I write notes on the chart to indicate shoal areas and other potential problems. While traveling, people often announce hazards to navigation on the radio; if applicable, I write notes on the chart in the affected area. I write other notes to indicate locations of marinas or anchorages for planned stopovers. As I mention below, I note my GPS waypoints on the chart, and also circle navaids as I pass them.
For my offshore passages, there's no magenta line, so I draw course lines to connect my plotted GPS waypoints. The waypoints sometimes use navaids, but sometimes are just arbitrary points on the chart. I then make mileage ticks on the course line to show how many miles to the destination waypoint. I usually make a tick every 10 miles, although if the scale is big enough, I make a tick every 5 miles, and write the mileage number next to the tick mark. When I'm traveling on that leg, the GPS shows how many miles to the destination waypoint. I can glance at the chart and use my mileage ticks to see where I am on the course line. This is helpful when there's a navaid coming up somewhere near (but not on) the course line. Due to swell and wind waves, buoys are only visible for a few miles offshore. There's no point in looking for a navaid if it's still many miles away. The mileage ticks are also useful to see where I am with respect to lighthouses or cities on shore. These lights are visible for many miles.
I sometimes use the same course line for northbound and southbound travel, by just reversing the order of the waypoints. In this case, I make two sets of mileage ticks on the course line. For one set, I write the mileage numbers on one side of the line, and draw an arrow next to each mileage number to indicate the direction of travel. For the other set of ticks, I write the mileage number on the other side of the line, and draw an arrow in the other direction.
As I'm traveling, I sometimes determine a position fix, which I then mark on the chart, along with the time.
In general, the ICW has lots of navigational aids: daymarks, buoys, and ranges. Most of the time, the navigation is straightforward, but there are some areas of special concern.
Some portions of the waterway cross wide bodies of water that are very shallow, in fact, too shallow for many boats (Currituck Sound comes to mind). In these areas, the waterway uses a relatively narrow dredged channel that is conspicuously marked by numerous daymarks. It's important when traveling in these areas to stay in the channel, because outside the deep but narrow channel, the water can be very shallow (just a few feet, or less). You should frequently look ahead and behind, and observe your boat's track with respect to the channel markers. If there's a crosswise wind or current, you might be heading directly towards the next marker, but you might be drifting sideways out of the channel. By looking at additional markers ahead and behind, you can mentally construct an imaginary line that defines the center of the channel, as suggested by the markers.
Other portions of the waterway travel along wide rivers, or cross large bays or sounds. Rivers can have "points" along the shore, with shoals extending into the river (the Pungo River comes to mind). There are usually navigational aids present, but they may be hard to see from a distance, especially if it's hazy or foggy. Before setting out on such a passage, I pick off waypoints from the chart and enter them into my GPS. If there's any difficulty seeing navaids during the passage, I can use the GPS to steer towards a waypoint instead. Using GPS waypoints also helps a lot when crossing large bays and sounds (for example, Albemarle Sound). From a long ways off, it's often hard to visually pick out where the waterway will resume on the other side of the bay or sound. I usually steer to a GPS waypoint until I can unambiguously discern the navaid.
I always have the chart in the cockpit, and I refer to it often. I usually place the chart on the cockpit seat next to me, and orient the chart so the boat's heading on the chart points directly forward (this is called "heading up" as opposed to "north up"). This way, when I look to my right in the "real world", I look to the right of the "magenta line" on the chart (which is the ICW course line). If the chart shows a green daymark coming up to the left of the magenta line with the river turning right, when I glance up and look at the "real world", I should see the daymark on the left and the river turning right. This technique requires that I frequently reorient the chart so my heading is always "up"; also, the writing on the chart is sometimes upside down from my viewing perspective. I consider these to be minor inconveniences.
As I travel through an area with a series of daymarks, I always try to have the next daymark in sight, although sometimes it can be out of view around a bend in a river. As I approach the daymark, I use binoculars to verify the color and shape, and when it gets close enough, the number. I verify this information against the chart.
Before I pass the current daymark, I study the chart to see where the next daymark should be located, and note its color and shape. Using binoculars, I look in the proper direction to locate the next daymark, and attempt to verify the color and shape. In most cases, as I approach one daymark, I have to use binoculars to clearly see the next daymark. Even if I can see it without binoculars, I always use binoculars at least once just to "make sure". When an object is at the limit of your unaided sight, you sometimes "see what you want to see", and might mistake some other object for the desired navaid. By using binoculars, you can easily avoid this potentially dangerous problem.
Once I pass the current daymark, I verify the number visually then circle it on the chart using a pencil. Traveling along a series of daymarks, it's easy to forget where I was in the sequence, so I mark up the chart. Before I start a passage, I erase all the old pencil marks using a vinyl drafting eraser, which doesn't damage the chart. If I pass a daymark but don't have the next daymark in sight although I think it should be visible, I slow down right awaysomething's not right. The problem is usually that I can't pick out the daymark in the haze or against background clutter, or that I'm actually looking in the wrong direction.
In some locations, the waterway has ranges that you can use to improve your navigation. The ranges are marked by pairs of range markers, however, the waterway usually has ordinary daymarks in the vicinity, too. When studying the chart, it's very important to determine what's an ordinary daymark and what's a range marker. Then when you locate the navaid visually, be sure you're looking at the right navaidit can be disastrous to confuse a range marker with a daymark. Range markers are frequently well outside the channel, so if you think you're steering towards a daymark but are actually looking at a range marker, you may stray out of the channel. Range markers are frequently taller than daymarks, and if lighted, will have a white light instead of a red or green light.
I have a Magellan 315 GPS mounted next to the steering pedestal. I use an accessory power cord to power the GPS from the boat's DC power. I keep the GPS on all the time, except when I stay in a marina.
When I do my trip planning, I study the chart and figure out where it might be helpful to have a GPS waypoint:
To set a GPS waypoint, I draw a point on the chart and write the six-character waypoint name next to it, and draw a box around it. I take off the latitude and longitude using dividers, and double check the data very carefully. I write all the information in my logbook and program it into both GPS units (main and backup). Recent vintage Maptech Chartkits have many GPS waypoints already noted. I use the same names they use, although I have to convert their numbers from "minutes and decimal minutes" into "minutes and seconds", which is the way my GPS is configured.
Whenever I anchor, I let the boat settle into its final position, then capture a waypoint on the GPS. I can use the latitude and longitude from the GPS to plot my position on the chart. Then I tell the GPS to "Go To" the anchorage waypoint. The GPS shows the distance to the waypoint, which is normally 0.00 nm or maybe 0.01 nm. If the anchor drags, the distance value will increase. The GPS has an anchor alarm feature, but the beeper inside the GPS is so quiet that the feature is not very usable. Instead, I select the GPS screen that has large characters, turn on the backlight, then orient the GPS so I can see the screen when I'm below, looking out the companionway (the GPS is mounted in the cockpit by the pedestal). Although I can't hear the alarm from below, it's easy to see the numbers, even at night.
When I'm traveling on narrow rivers or canals, I don't usually use GPS waypoints. However, it's still useful to look at the GPS, watching the latitude and longitude numbers for my current position. On many waterway charts, there are black grid lines across the chart every two minutes of latitude and longitude. When the GPS shows an even number of minutes for latitude or longitude, with seconds equal to zero, you are right where the latitude or longitude grid line crosses the magenta line. When the GPS shows an odd number of minutes with zero seconds, you are halfway between the grid lines.
My GPS has an odometer screen with two valuesthe trip odometer and the main odometer. I reset the main odometer only at the beginning of the overall voyage, so it keeps track of the total mileage. I reset the trip odometer after every passage, so it keeps track of my daily run. When planning a passage, I normally use the chart to figure out how far I'm traveling each day. I try to measure the distance carefully, and write it down as a figure including the tenths of miles. When traveling, I can look at the GPS trip odometer compared to the computed amount to see how far I have to go. I also frequently use the GPS ETA value to see when I'll reach the next waypoint.
Frankly, I prefer having crew, since it eases the workload and provides companionship. But crew isn't always available, so I sometimes travel by myself. Here are some tips for solo waterway travel:
Since I travel in a sailboat, I'm not the fastest boat around. Plus I'm not exactly in a rush, anyway. When traveling the waterway, I am frequently passed by all kinds of boats, both sail and power. There is a protocol to follow to facilitate passing in a narrow waterway, but unfortunately, I don't always see it followed (especially when sailboats pass sailboats).
I have a list of items that I put in the cockpit prior to each passage:
I listen to the NOAA weather first thing in the morning, and last thing at night (and sometimes during the day if there are some weather concerns). I jot down the information in my log using a personalized shorthand. For example, if the forecaster says "increasing to", I just draw an upward arrow. I also have a tiny microcassette tape recorder on board that I sometimes use to record the forecast, then play it back multiple times as desired. This is especially useful for the SSB offshore and high seas weather forecasts, which aren't broadcast continuously like the VHF forecasts. Look in Reed's Almanac for a listing of VHF weather channels in your area, and for SSB frequencies and schedules.
The weather broadcasts usually report current conditions at various locations in the region. This is very useful to see what the wind and waves are doing; the reports seem to be quite reliable. The forecast for the next 12 to 24 hours is usually fairly reliable. Any further than that, it becomes somewhat of a guessing game. I might pay attention to the advanced forecast just to get a rough idea of the possibilities. But there have been enough times when the advanced forecasts were way off, so I don't take it as gospel.
When traveling the ICW, there are several different boating situations that affect how you interpret the weather forecast. If you're traveling down narrow rivers and canals (where the waterway gets its "ditch" name), you can remain relatively protected from big winds and waves. If you're traveling on some of the big bodies of water (Chesapeake Bay, Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, the Neuse River, etc.), you have much less protection and should be more conservative in your planning. If you go out on the ocean, especially heading south in the winter, you have essentially no protection and should be quite conservative in your planning.
I confess to being somewhat of a wimp when it comes to the weatherif the forecast calls for stormy or rainy weather, I might just stay put an extra day if I'm at a marina. Heading south in late fall, though, it's pretty hard to avoid windy cold weather. In some situations, I have stayed at a marina an extra day to wait for the winds to die down, to avoid the risk of the boat being blown into a predicament where it would be impossible to recover without damage. The basic problem is that my boat maneuvers poorly at slow speed, especially when backing. I have a very difficult time turning the bow through the wind if it's breezy and I'm motoring slowly. Sometimes my turning circle can increase to more room than I actually have, which makes for a predicament.
I carry on the boat a few hurricane plotting charts; you can download a PDF version from this NOAA site. During hurricane season, I'm usually somewhere on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay. Most of the time, thankfully, hurricanes don't threaten my immediate vicinity. But occasionally, a hurricane will cause some concern. It's very handy to have a plotting chart, so you can plot the track of the hurricane. Like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the plotting chart is very helpful in establishing any general trend in the hurricane's path. Instead of a plotting chart, you can use NOAA chart #108, which shows the entire East Coast and the western Atlantic from Canada to the upper Caribbean. This chart is also useful for interpreting the high-seas weather forecast, and for large-scale routing and trip planning.
If you have internet access, you can access marine weather information from the top-level NOAA forecast site, and you can download maps from this NOAA site giving current conditions and forecasts up to several days out. They have ordinary surface weather maps, plus winds and sea state (significant wave height with swell direction). The maps are very handy; but like any forecast, they need to be interpreted with caution.
As part of my detailed trip planning, I always figure out the tides and currents along my daily route (note that slack current is not necessarily the same time as high or low tide). Tides can be very important, starting around Beaufort, NC and heading further south. The tides can be several feet (up to nine feet in Georgia), which can have a significant effect on water depths. Although the "project depth" of the ICW is 12 feet, this is not guaranteed. I found many places where depths were a lot less, including one land-cut canal in South Carolina that had only 3.5 feet at the entrance at low tide (I had to make a big detour that day). I had a couple of stressful days when my traveling time happened to straddle the time of low tide. If you have internet access, you can use this online tide calculator.
This is how I handle shoal areas: During normal waterway cruising, I make an effort to stay in the center of the channel (using the chart, observing my track with respect to daymarks, watching for changes in water color/texture, paying attention to the inside/outside of curves, etc.). Normally, I glance at the depth sounder several times a minute. If the water depth is less than 13 feet and continuously decreases, I start to watch the depth sounder more frequently (every few seconds). If the depth keeps decreasing to below 10 feet (the display now shows "feet and tenths"), I slow down and put the transmission in neutral. Meanwhile, I start turning the boat slowly 45 degrees to the right and left while closely watching the depth sounder. If the depth increases while I'm heading in a certain direction, I keep going that way until the depth starts to decrease, then turn the other direction. The purpose of turning right and left is to locate the deepest part of the channel. Sometimes I haven't actually encountered a shoal across the channel, but instead have slowly strayed out of the center of an otherwise deep channel. If I can't find deeper water any which way, I idle ahead slowly. Once the depth goes below 7 feet, the depth sounder starts beeping (I have the "shallow water" alarm programmed and enabled). If the depth keeps decreasing, I prepare to turn around (my draft is 5.5 feet). It helps to figure out well in advance which way you should turn if you have to turn around. In some situations, one direction might be a big mistake, the other direction might be fine. Finally, I have encountered some situations where the water was just plain shallow, over long distances. There weren't any shoals and the bottom was level, so although the depth was less than 10 feet, I could continue to motor ahead at full speed (although this does cause me some anxiety).
Big tides can also cause significant tidal currents to flow. This can slow you down or speed you up, or can push you sideways in certain areas. Currents are of special concern if I'm planning to stay at a marina. The easiest type of marina facility is where the marina has a long face dock that's parallel to the current. No matter which way the current is running, you can motor into the current, turning the boat towards the dock to travel towards your tie-up location while motoring ahead slowly to maintain your fore-aft location along the dock. It's more difficult if you have to motor across the current between piers, then turn 90 degrees into a slip. I try very hard to avoid having a strong current pushing me into a slip, since it's very hard to recover from docking boo-boos. It's even more difficult to handle arriving or departing with a strong crosswise current in the slip. To tell the truth, I make a point to avoid this situationit's just not worth the stress and risk to my (or someone else's) boat.
A few times, I have had to decline a particular slip assignment (and ask for a different slip) when upon arriving at a marina, it became apparent I would have significant trouble getting in or out of the slip. This can be due to too much current or just the lack of sufficient maneuvering room. In my opinion, getting in and out of marinas when there's significant wind or current is definitely the most stressful part of cruising.
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