Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Truth About The Ditch

According to Wikipedia the Intracoastal Waterway is "a 3,000-mile (4,800-km) waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Some lengths consist of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, and sounds; others are artificial canals. It provides a navigable route along its length without many of the hazards of travel on the open sea."  That is slightly overstated.  

It is true the ICW is an alternative for moving north or south along the east coast and when the weather is nasty offshore, it is typically better on the ICW (sometimes referred to as "the ditch" since it is a dredged canal in quite a few places).  However, there are quite a few drawbacks, such as depths, tides, currents, bridges, inland storms, other boats, and the amount of fuel required.  

Specifically, the tidal change in NC is based on wind.  North wind increases water levels, south wind reduces them.  Pretty easy to manage.  SC tidal change is lunar and averages about 7 feet.  That means if you anchor somewhere at high tide in 8 feet of water, when the tide goes out, you'll be leaning over on nothing but mud and 1 foot of water below your keel.  In GA, the tidal change increases to 9 feet.  With big tides, currents get stronger.  The currents are so strong that when you anchor, the boat swings based on current unless the wind is stronger (usually in excess of 25 knots).  If wind and current oppose each other, well you can imagine how things will play out.

When we first went up the ICW and through our first draw bridge, can I tell you how cool I thought it was to call the bridge tender on our cockpit VHF radio and ask him to open it - and he did...yeah, super cool!  Now, if I never have to go through another, I'll be happy.  The problem is the aforementioned currents.  If you are moving towards a 13 ft bridge in neutral and the boat is still going 4+ knots and you have a 55 ft mast that doesn't bend, you know the bridge tender is likely going to tell you that he'll open in about 20 min.  Ugh!!

As I mentioned, the ICW is a dredged channel, along marshes and grasslands that were never meant to have a canal smack in the middle.  So, the bottoms shift and sand moves and shoaling occurs - right in the middle of the channel.  So what you expect to be 8 ft, because that is what is shown on the nautical chart, has shoaled and is now 3 ft deep.  Yep, we could walk across them faster than move the boat.  The penalty for going aground can be devastating and since a sailboat can't stand on its keel, it will fall over, fill with water when high tide moves in and then it sinks.  Yes, there are channel markers but no, they are not always accurate.  And it is pretty much guaranteed that the skinnier the channel is, it is highly likely a power boat going 10+ knots will come up behind you, call you on the radio and ask to pass you on the port side.  So you squeeze over squinting your eyes and holding on the helm tightly all while waving with a smile as they go by.

Lastly, since the channel is so skinny, there is no sailing going on (sometimes on a sound if you're lucky enough to have a good wind direction).  No sailing=burning diesel...there are probably 100 reasons why that irritates me.

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No matter all of those considerations - we have made our way north and south on the ICW and the little towns and anchorages along the way have been wonderful. We met an older couple who have been living aboard their 30 ft boat, "Flying Cloud" for 9 years, going back and forth from Florida and all of this was old hat and never deterred them a bit, taking everything in stride.  They had years of experience that gave them a peace and relaxation to transcend all the concerns with clear thoughts.  We passed them at one point when they were aground.  When we caught up with them the next day on shore, I said "Oh, I'm so glad you guys got through that!" They didn't even know what I was talking about.   They inspire us.  We have added "WWFCD" to our vocabulary which is a source of encouragement when the depth alarm goes off, we see a bridge in the distance or a power boat wakes us so hard we move sideways.  Thank you Flying Cloud for being ICW experts.
Can we make it?  This is a view of our 54' mast under a 65' bridge.
Yay!  All clear.
This is his wake after he slowed down.  Still enough to bounce us around.
Example of a channel marker.  If you go to the right of that marker instead of the left, there will be about 1/2 foot of water.
Flying Cloud aground.  They were floating back on water when high tide moved in.
A bascule bridge (drawbridge) in SC.

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