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Driving The Ditch

At the end of the Bahamas Pokie Run, we found ourselves on Growler in South Florida, 1,000 miles from home. We'd had a marvelous time in the Bahamas, but now reality hit that we had to get our new boat back up to Chesapeake Bay. It was an opportunity that excited me, however-the chance to run the Intracoastal Waterway soup to nuts, from Palm City home.

Jerry and Wendy Taylor had brought her down from Annapolis a month before. While the experienced delivery captains might have been available for the return, I wanted to do this trip, even as Laurene flew home to rescue Boomer from her family. So I seized the opportunity and flew my cousin Rob down from Sea Bright, New Jersey, to make the trip with me. Rob is an experienced sailor but new to this trawler thing, and he was as keen as I to make the ICW trek.

The ICW is a marine highway of major proportions, running from Norfolk, Virginia, all the way south to Miami and the Keys. It connects natural waterways with manmade canals and is a marvelous slice of American history and culture. From the hubbub of Florida's extravagant yachting scene to the understated charm of Georgia's low country, from the scenic splendor of the Carolinas to the enormous naval presence of Norfolk, the ICW is a trip worth making.

Given Growler 's speed, we easily cruised at 14 knots much of the time, and I did not find the speed limits and no-wake zones as intolerable as some complain. The manatees obviously prefer rich neighborhoods, though, or is the number of signs holding us back in ritzy areas just a coincidence?

Rob and I left Palm City, Florida, on June 15, soon picking up the ICW at Mile Marker 987. We stopped in Melbourne to top off with fuel and made it all the way north to Daytona Beach, where we stopped for the night at Daytona Marina. Despite the plethora of manatee and speed zones, we managed 146 nautical miles this first day, comfortably finished with dinner at the Charthouse restaurant located in the marina.

Over the next six days, our daily routine was roughly the same. We got an early start (0730), tried to manage 14 knots as much as possible and planned our stop for the night during the afternoon as we got an idea of where we'd end up before sunset. Reservations by cell phone took all the guessing and worry out of the equation, and marina staff responded by staying open to accommodate us. We refueled each evening before settling in for the night, and serviced holding and water tanks as necessary. A shower before cocktails ignited the wonderful afterglow resulting from another satisfying day on the water.

Despite the grueling image of running at speed nonstop for a week, it was anything but. In fact, driving a nice boat in such diverse geography was delightful and fascinating. We navigated the many ranges in Georgia from the comfort of our air-conditioned helm, with flies, mosquitoes and other nasty bugs held at bay around the outside. We passed slow-moving sailboats whose crews endured thundershowers, heat and humidity in their open cockpits. But the majority of boats heading north for the season had already made the trek, and we often had the waterway to ourselves.

We passed dozens of trawlers going in both directions, on their way home or beginning a summer cruise. I frequently called them to chat and we discussed their plans via VHF. The number of PMM readers currently cruising is great to see, and they are obviously having a great time.

Current plays a role in ICW travel and was especially noticeable in Jekyll Harbor Marina, Mile Marker 685, where docking against the floating docks required some boat-handling skill in the swiftly running water of the Jekyll Creek estuary. I did it backwards, and it would have been better if I'd turned around and approached against the flow. Sea Jay's Restaurant at the marina was the perfect place to discuss such tactics as Rob and I reviewed the day's events.

Later, in historic Beaufort, South Carolina, we met several PMM cruisers at the municipal marina, which is located right in the middle of the action. Unfortunately, the lovely downtown was mostly closed by the time we fueled and got cleaned up. I've made a note to visit here again soon. The location could not be more convenient to transient trawlers.

From there we left old Southern architecture and history and journeyed into a wilderness of natural beauty. On the Waccamaw River the scenery is breathtaking. We stopped at Wacca Wache Marina just before it closed for the evening. Located in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, the well-kept facility is surrounded by tall oak and cypress trees. The town restaurants will send someone to the marina to pick you up, so we enjoyed fresh seafood and drinks at Russell's Seafood Grill a few miles away.

The ICW presents a different mood each day, and our relatively fast speed made the navigation duties that much more demanding in the changing landscape. Some of the channels are quite narrow, and one must pay close attention not to stray off into single-digit depths.

I relied on paper charts, as well as Nobeltec's Visual series electronic charting and Furuno's chart plotter with C-Map NT+ cartridges. I used all of them all the time and found none is perfect all the time. Occasionally, the Furuno GPS signal, supplying location information to both chart plotter and laptop, would have us paralleling our true course- but on land a distance from our actual position.

The electronic and paper charts (all the latest editions purchased new for this trip) had many errors as well. For instance, many indicate lowclearance bridges that have been replaced with tall spans that achieve the 65-foot clearance goal of the waterway. And many markers and buoys are not where they are indicated on the chart, having been renumbered, moved or removed altogether. Shoals also move around, and the charts can't keep pace.

My biggest complaint with the paper chart kits, however, is the lack of detail at the printed scale. It is not very comforting to navigate a course in shallow water at speed when the detail on the chart is a magenta line running down a channel that measures only 1/16th of an inch wide! So day after day we ran the laptop next to the chart plotter, with paper chart kit in hand, continuously checking one against the other, verifying what we saw out the windows. For the umpteenth time I was reminded that even the ultimate helm still needs an experienced navigator to sift through the information from plotter, computer, radar and chart.

As we moved from one Carolina to the other, I was happy to see that Growler easily cleared most of the bridges, while sailboats and motor cruisers with flybridges had to linger or anchor out to wait for the hourly openings. On several occasions we dropped our short mast to pass under bridges with 12-foot clearance.

At Casper's Marina in Swansboro, North Carolina, the friendly marina staff handed me a package of local-interest material and a map. Designed to entice the transient boater to linger for a couple of days as well as to answer a boater's questions, this was something we got at almost every marina we stopped at, and it served only to make me want to do this again when I have more time.

Along the entire stretch of ICW we saw dolphins, turtles, herons and other interesting creatures. Not so divine were the many swarms of bugs that are typical of the area.

Another observation was that after hours and hours of narrow ditch driving, it was somewhat unsettling to occasionally enter a large river or bay, such as King's Bay in Georgia and Southport, North Carolina. We would go from being alone in a skinny channel to being surrounded by tugs and barges and commercial craft of every shape and size. Days of confined travel disoriented me. I found my mind wishing to be across the large body of water and back inside the safe cocoon of skinny water.

Our last night at popular Coinjock Marina (home of the 32-ounce prime rib) was a perfect final stop, as the weather had at last cooled off. We slept without air conditioning for the first time in weeks. I passed on the prime rib.

I left Growler with her builder, Zimmerman Marine, for service and to make some small changes. The boat is 2 months old, but she had already traveled 2,500 miles in one month. I'm happy to say she already has 250 hours on the Deere and 150 hours on the Westerbeke generator. We are definitely using this boat!

If you get the chance to travel the ICW, do it. Every town has something unique to offer, and the marinas provide all sorts of friendly tips, recommendations and help for transient trawler owners.

I can also happily report that Rob the Sailor had a great time and now understands why I'm so keen on this lifestyle. Running a sailboat on the ICW is much more tedious, and the looks we got as we slowed to pass each sailboat spoke volumes.

Whether you like to fish, golf, shop, try local food, sightsee, swim or simply watch the world go by, there is something to enjoy along the ICW. And it is a leg of the great-circle route, which takes it to the next level.

I think ICW really means Incredible Cruising Within.

A Sailor's Perspective

Being a devout sailor for more than 30 years, this power cruising experience was quite an eye-opener in many ways. Traveling the Intracoastal Waterway's channels, rivers and canals is truly a motoring experience, regardless of the type of craft you are on. Growler is an amazingly comfortable way to do that traveling.

Counting the miles to cover made us realize that we would need to average 150 statute miles per day. Not exactly a leisurely pace, but a vacation nonetheless. We were able to comfortably cruise for 10 hours a day or more and cover the distance for a number of observed reasons. These include:

Relatively quiet and vibrationfree running

Built-in air conditioning

Enclosed cabin with great visibility

Truly functional windshield wipers with washer

Stidd chairs for helmsman and navigator (a pleasure for my bad back)

Convenient galley with microwave, refrigerator and freezer

Lack of a flybridge, but a 3-foot mast that lowered, enabled us to negotiate the 12-foot vertical clearance bridges with impunity.

A quiet generator, which supplied more than enough hassle-free electrical power.

In addition, I also observed that we overtook a wide variety of cruisers, but a trawler cat was the only one that passed us by (hmmm. . .), while the sailboaters looked decidedly unhappy in the hot, often soggy conditions (big dilemma . . . foulies or T-shirt and bathing suit?).

There are many nice marinas convenient to the ICW, some very good restaurants and lots of interesting and friendly people. As for traveling on protected waters, a good turn of speed definitely improves one's options, and 14 knots is twice as much fun as 7. Safety and navigational ability would be the limiting factors traveling at top speed. (Note: I wasn't the one paying for the fuel.) I also observed that marinas certainly cater to powerboaters on a much different level than to sailboaters.

Other comments: Satellite radio is the only way to go, afloat or ashore, and wellprotected running gear is a must in some of the more challenging areas.

Six days certainly was not enough time to totally enjoy this stretch of the "ditch," especially because of the limited time ashore. The scenery, however, is still there for one to observe, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

A wonderful week off the pace. -Rob