More than two years after buying a 2002 Duffy 37 lobsterboat and modifying her for long-range cruising, we realized our goal of wintering in Florida. Our plan was to leave our home port in Virginia Beach, Virginia, follow the Intracoastal Waterway south, and circumnavigate Florida, hopefully making a side trip to the Bahamas. Four months later, we would return north.
We had last traveled the ICW five years ago. On our recent trip we found that there had been many changes along the waterway since then, the most notable of which were prevalent shoaling and a huge increase in fuel prices. What we didn't anticipate were the wintertime fog we experienced in southern waters and the heavy springtime storms that affected our return trip northward.
ICW CRUISING: A FADING DREAM?
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, covering 1,090 statute miles between Norfolk, Virginia, and the Port of Miami, is controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers. For many years, migrating boaters known as snowbirds followed the waterway south in the fall, wintered in Florida, and returned north in May. Cruising in mostly protected waters with a projected depth of 12 feet to Fort Pierce, Florida, and 10-foot depths to Miami, boaters enjoyed an abundant variety of low-cost marinas, good anchorages, and, most importantly, low fuel prices.
Unfortunately, the carefree snowbird lifestyle is slowly disappearing as Florida's population grows, tourism flourishes, and marina access diminishes. Some municipalities have installed mooring fields, while others try to restrict free docking and overnight anchoring. Florida's portion of the ICW is well managed by the state's Inland Navigation District. By law, marinas must keep a portion of their slips available for transient boaters. Although slips are increasingly costly, many marinas stay full during the winter as transients linger. Some hurricane-damaged marinas have not been rebuilt, and others have disappeared as a result of condo conversions.
But the biggest change has been to the waterway itself. Project depths have not been maintained. Except for waters heavily used by commercial vessels, depth maintenance has virtually ceased. Seasoned ICW cruisers are wary of all inlets and have learned to travel during midto high-tide cycles only, especially in South Carolina and Georgia.
With the exception of certain chronic shallow spots in Georgia, there is hope for ICW users. Congress appropriated $13.28 million for maintaining waterway depths during fiscal year 2008. Funding amounts included $5.5 million for North Carolina, $2.18 million for South Carolina, $1.87 million for Georgia, and $3.74 million for Florida. This marked the first time in two years that funding was provided for South Carolina, and the first time in more than six years that dredging was funded in Georgia.
In 2005, the Corps of Engineers announced that, due to limited commercial use, waterway depths would not be maintained between Port Royal Sound, South Carolina (Mile Marker 552), and Cumberland Sound, Georgia (Mile Marker 713). This 161-mile section of the waterway runs from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, to the Georgia-Florida border. It is the most problematic part of the ICW and contains many shallow spots, including Hell's Gate Cut, the Florida Passage, Field's Cut, Ramshorn Creek, and numerous shoaling areas in southern Georgia.
The Corps does monitor conditions and depths for this part of the waterway and periodically reports depth measurements by mile marker and buoy number on the website www.sas.usace.army.mil/navrprts.htm. The latest five-page report on the site is dated June 2008; a previous report is dated March 2008.
The good news is that dredges have cleared many of the problem spots and shoal-choked inlets in North and South Carolina. But that troubled 161 miles of waterway that lies north of the Florida border remains an impediment to cruisers. Because of contractual delays, dredging in Georgia will not begin until late spring of 2009. With Georgia's limited funding, only notoriously shallow Hell's Gate Cut will be dredged. Other trouble spots will not be cleared.
Unfortunately, the president's 2009 budget request continued to favor the needs of commercial shipping over recreational boaters. It also severely reduced next year's ICW maintenance funding to $2.2 million.
In addition to the above-mentioned problems with "skinny" water, some navigational aids, including some critical range markers, are too faded to read, are damaged, or are missing. What once was an idyllic trip through pristine waters and beautiful shorelines has now become a navigational challenge, especially for boats with drafts over 4 feet. With 8-foot tidal ranges in Georgia and 7-foot ranges in South Carolina, a good depth sounder and an electronic chart plotter's embedded tide tables have become essential tools for safe transit of the waterway.
PREPARING FOR EXTENDED CRUISING Before our trip, we made some modifications to Ebb Tide II. We installed a 6kW Northern Lights genset, a second anchor, cockpit fans, an aft cockpit Sunbrella cover, and a hoist and davits for cabin-top inflatable/ outboard stowage.
Adding Storage Space
Unlike most trawlers, which generally have flybridges and plenty of room, our galley-up sedan has 360 degrees of glass in the saloon, which limits stowage options. To prepare the boat for four months of living aboard, my wife, Kathy, and I had to be a bit creative.
Our forward cabin has six drawers under its queensize berth and two large hanging lockers, but that isn't enough for an extended trip. We bought two sizes of clear plastic containers with locking tops. The large, tapered containers, measuring 10 inches wide, 15 inches long, and 6 inches high, fit perfectly on the forward cabin's shelves and on top of the hanging lockers. The smaller containers, about the size of a shoe box, fit where the shelves narrow toward the bow. On our trip, these containers held clothing and shoes, books, CDs, digital cameras, cell phone chargers, and other personal items. The locking covers were a good idea; everything stayed dry when the forward portholes were left open during a rainstorm.
Our mountain bikes, kept under a waterproof cover, were secured against the aft cockpit washboard. Maintenance equipment, spares, the extra anchor and rode, and snorkeling and fishing gear went into the storage area under the aft cockpit. Wet suits and extra charts rode nicely under our mattress.
Ample storage space under the settee and in the galley gave us plenty of room for canned, boxed, and bottled items. We added an extra cabinet on the refrigerator's side to hold everyday items and spices, and we also built a bookshelf to stow ICW charts and guidebooks. (These additions were featured in PMM Sept. '07.)
Our 7-cubic-foot refrigerator-freezer looked awfully small, so we considered buying a portable freezer for the trip. It wasn't needed. Kathy vacuum-bagged and froze various meats and sauces in meal-size portions. They stacked compactly with frozen vegetables in the freezer, with room to spare for two ice cube trays. Once under way, we bought and froze meats as needed.
We did learn several handy tricks. Fresh vegetables keep longer when placed in special green plastic vegetable bags, and organic milk lasts much longer than regular milk. With their side spouts, half-gallon milk containers can lie on the refrigerator's top shelf and will stay very cold under the chill plate.
Communicating And Banking
Both of us brought our cell phones and laptop computers, and we found that only a few spots along the ICW lacked cell phone coverage. Without an onboard satellite receiver or a wi-fi boosted antenna system, we had to rely on our laptop's wireless capability.
For this trip, I tried to rent broadband cards that use cell phone signals to provide Internet connectivity for laptops. But our cell phone company only offered twoyear contracts, so we relied instead on available wi-fi access. Accessibility and signal strength vary along the waterway. Some marinas had free wi-fi, while others charged for daily usage. Sometimes, the only Internet access was at a coffeehouse or library.
We also learned that competing phone companies will not send another's emails. All accept incoming email, but only your provider will transmit your emails. The only way we could send emails in another phone company's area was through our provider's Internet website.
Banking was really easy. We pay our bills electronically from our bank account, and we continued that process throughout the trip. I applied for the bank's debit card and used it at ATMs when cash was needed.
UNDER WAY IN COLD WEATHER
On the Monday after Thanksgiving, we crossed southern Chesapeake Bay, bound for Norfolk and the official beginning of the ICW. At sunset we stopped in Coinjock, North Carolina, 50 miles down the waterway. The next day, we traveled to Belhaven, North Carolina, 132 statute miles down the ICW.
Aside from occasional day cruisers, we were the only "southbounders" between Belhaven and Morehead City, North Carolina, at ICW Mile Marker (MM) 205. It wasn't long before I learned my first winter ICW cruising lesson: defrost your windows before getting under way. With the heat running all night, moisture clung to the inside of the saloon's windows. In the morning, I used a squeegee and towel to dry them. Once under way, the cold outside air fogged the windows heavily. Running cockpit fans to warm the windows before getting under way helped prevent fogging.
South of Morehead City, the ICW passes many ocean inlets known for shoaling. By delaying our departure until nearly high tide, we passed each inlet with plenty of keel clearance. In the early afternoon, while following the ICW southwest, the sun's low angle caused excessive glare on the water, making forward progress very difficult. After covering only 60 miles, we had to stop. Another ICW winter cruising lesson learned: short days and low sun angles will slow your progress.
The next day, we stopped at MM 348, just north of South Carolina's "rockpile," a 19-mile portion of the ICW that was blasted through limestone. Needless to say, it's very unforgiving if you ground there. The first 3 miles are extremely narrow. Before entering the narrows, boaters are cautioned to make a Securité call, since passing is difficult and turning around is risky. If a tug and barge are transiting, your only option is to wait until they clear the narrows.
Early the next morning, we followed three very cautious sailboats through at low tide. Zipping along at 4 knots, we endured nearly an hour of enforced rock watching. After passing the "sails" at Barefoot Landing Bridge, we cruised down the Waccamaw River into Georgetown, South Carolina, at MM 403.
In five days, we had covered nearly a third of the distance to Key West. Early December daytime temperatures were above 60°F. At night, temperatures dropped into the 40° range. The next day in Charleston, South Carolina, we began to experience morning fog and increased tidal ranges. Both would affect our progress on the waterway. Charleston's tidal range is about 5 feet. At Hilton Head, 90 miles farther south, the range is 6 feet. In southern South Carolina and in most of Georgia, the tidal range varies between 7 and 8 feet.
FOG AND SHALLOW WATER
Experienced ICW travelers caution that you should travel through lower South Carolina and Georgia only during mid- to high tide. After a weekend at a Hilton Head marina, we checked the tide tables and planned to be under way at 7 a.m. Fog delayed us until 8 a.m., when it thinned to quarter-mile visibility. Crossing Calibogue Sound toward Daufuskie Island, visibility dropped to zero. Relying on radar, we groped our way to an island dock, where we waited more than two hours until the fog lifted.
By that time, high tide had passed. Following a falling tide into Georgia, we safely crossed the shallows in Ramshorn Creek. Three hours later, just before the falling midtide, we entered the notoriously shallow half-mile Hell's Gate Cut. The cut's small, temporary red and green markers were lying on the exposed sandbar with a ribbon of water between them. Our boat draws 4 feet 3 inches. Taking a deep breath, we inched ahead at idle speed. Both depth sounders went below zero, but Ebb Tide II kept moving forward, her keel slithering along the bottom.
Because of the fog-induced delay, we lost our tide window and had to stop. In midafternoon, after only 55 miles of travel, we moored at Kilkenny Creek, MM 615. Another ICWlesson: watch the tides!
Next morning's high tide was at 9:40 a.m., but fog kept us moored until 10 a.m., so it would be another short cruising day. We found that the fog always thickened on large, cold bodies of water and that visibility was better near land. We passed several very shallow spots with barely enough keel clearance. The worst was the northern half of Jekyll Island Creek, approaching the island's bridge and marina. Nearly as bad was a series of shallow spots north of Kings Bay, Georgia.
Finally, we entered Florida. Six hours of harrowing travel ended as we moored at Fernandina Beach's City Marina, MM 717.
TRANSITING FLORIDA'S WATERS
We left our boat in St. Augustine (MM 778) and returned home for Christmas. After New Year's, we continued southward on Florida's well-maintained portion of the ICW, following a 10-foot-deep channel in the wide Indian River. Don't drift out of the marked channel into the less than 3-foot shallows on both sides. You will run aground.
After Boca Raton (MM 1046), ICW progress is slowed by many bridges and no-wake zones around Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. We crossed Boca Inlet into the Atlantic Ocean and then followed the 180-milelong Hawk Channel to Key West. After threading our way into the crowded Key West Bight at MM 1230, we moored at a marina. It had taken 97 engine hours, 22 days under way, and two months' time to get to Key West.
After a two-week stay, we intended to cruise northward along Florida's Gulf Coast, cross the state on the Okeechobee Waterway to Stuart, Florida, and then follow the ICW north. But the Okeechobee was closed due to low water levels. Rather than waste increasingly expensive fuel by traveling up the Gulf Coast and returning to Key West, we decided to stay put for a month before heading north.
Despite the warm, humid climate, winter months in the Keys can be unsettled, with strong winds and active waters. We anticipated benign seas while cruising through the Keys and other parts of Florida, but we experienced only one calm day while under way.
A MISHAP NEAR MIAMI
Our only cruising incident occurred after leaving the Keys. We were 2 miles offshore, just a few miles south of Miami, when Ebb Tide II began shaking violently. I chopped the throttle and shifted into neutral. The engine seemed fine; it ran smoothly at increased rpm. We hadn't heard anything hit, so I slipped into reverse to clear whatever had tangled the prop. If we had snagged an unseen lobster pot, the driveshaft's SPURS would cut the pot's line.
No such luck. The wild vibration returned at any speed above idle.
In 3-foot seas, going over the side to inspect our running gear was not an option. We limped into Miami Beach Marina, where a diver cut away nearly 20 feet of knotted, shell-encrusted polypropylene towing hawser that must have been floating under the surface. Luckily, our boat's five-blade prop and the shaft seal were undamaged. Two hours after snagging the hawser, we continued northward.
GEORGIA-THE RIGHT WAY
To avoid Georgia's shallows, we entered the Atlantic Ocean through St. Mary's River Channel, a wide, wellmarked inlet near Fernandina Beach. Once clear of the breakwater, we turned to 021 degrees magnetic for 60 miles. That course kept us about 6 miles from the coastline. We returned to the ICW through another good inlet, St. Catherines Sound. Our trip outside saved us about 35 miles, four hours of travel time, and a lot of anxiety. After anchoring overnight, we timed our departure to follow high tides across the shallows at Hell's Gate, Field's Cut, and Ramshorn Creek.
VIOLENT WEATHER IN CHARLESTON
Charleston's City Marina was supposed to be a onenight stop, but heavy thunderstorms were predicted for the next day. Wisely, we stayed alongside the marina's concrete Mega Dock for another night.
When the evening storm hit, Ebb Tide II was pelted with 50-knot winds, heavy rain, and dime-size hail. Several tornadoes touched down, and one was predicted to form in southwest Charleston-where we were staying. Knowing the boat wouldn't survive a tornado, we stuffed our foul-weather gear with wallets, flashlights, medicines, and cell phones and were ready to dash for shelter in a 235-foot steel coastal cruise ship moored halfway down the dock.
The tornado did touch down a few miles away, causing serious damage. But we didn't have to abandon our boat.
From Charleston northward, the tide cycle was against us, with high tides near dusk and dawn. Unlike our southbound trip, a midday low tide led us through the Carolinas. We passed Shallotte and Lockwood Folly Inlets with 2 feet of keel clearance and then approached shoal-filled New River Inlet an hour after low tide. Idling through carefully, with less than a foot of clearance, we squeezed past a fishing boat hard aground to starboard. At low tide, we would have grounded.
ALLIGATOR RIVER BRIDGE
There were 3-foot waves and strong winds as we left North Carolina's Alligator River/Pungo River Canal. Twenty miles ahead was the Alligator River swing bridge. Three miles out, I called the bridge tender on the VHF. He advised that he could not open the bridge in more than 35 knots of wind, adding that he was nearly at that limit. Then, he said, "Keep 'er coming, captain." We closed the bridge at full throttle. I didn't want to have to turn back and seek shelter 25 miles away.
At nearly the last moment, the bridge was partially opened, giving us just enough room to get through while bouncing and rocking in the roiling water. The bridge tender told us the winds were predicted to reach 55 knots, and he suggested we stop at the marina at the base of the bridge, which we did. A half hour later, I doubled our mooring lines as the winds blew past 50 knots.
A WILD RIDE IN ALBEMARLE SOUND
After being pummeled by the wind and pelted by rain overnight, we awoke to a quiet morning. The winds had calmed, and it looked like we had a good weather window for the 12-mile Albemarle Sound crossing, so we were under way before 7:30 a.m.
The lull lasted about 4 miles. Winds, often stronger than 35 knots, pushed steep 4-foot and occasional 5-foot waves at our port bow. Our Duffy likes rough water and proved her seaworthiness by plowing ahead at 15 knots through heavy spray and wildly churning water for nearly 50 minutes. The autopilot steered our boat far better than I could have.
Leaving the Albemarle, we entered the semi-protected North River. Two hours later, passing through Coinjock's land cut, we lit off the genset to make coffee and warm the boat. In Currituck Sound, wind and waves returned, almost directly on our bow. Soon we were in Virginia, passing the first two swing bridges. Strong winds and wind-driven current made it difficult to hold position in the narrow river while waiting for the bridges to open.
We anticipated being home in a few hours. I checked the weather on Chesapeake Bay-not good! NOAA reported gale warnings, winds at 40 knots with stronger gusts, and 5- to 6-foot seas in the southern part of the Bay. There would be no homecoming today.
Reluctantly, we left Ebb Tide II at a repair yard a few miles ahead. We had intended to have the bottom painted a month after arriving home, so we asked that the yard haul the boat now and start early.
Our four-month trip ended 13 miles short of ICW Mile Marker Zero.
The snowbirds have the right idea: head south early and stay late. And don't try to travel home in nasty weather.
A cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway is an unforgettable experience. It provides an irreplaceable opportunity to see more than 1,200 miles of our country's coastline at a pace of your own choosing. Despite the challenge of navigating the ICW's shallows, you can visit many interesting marinas and towns or stop at an endless variety of anchorages. The entire state of Florida has many attractions, but the Keys are the perfect boating destination.
During this trip, we traveled 2,265 nautical miles (2,605 statute miles), burned 1,857 gallons of diesel fuel, and logged 196 engine hours. We met many interesting people, visited unique and historic places, and all the while enjoyed being among a wonderfully diverse group of boaters.
Our relatively small, single-screw Duffy 37 was designed for lobster fishing in Maine's coastal waters, not for long-range cruising. She is a strongly built boat with classic lines and legendary seakeeping ability. Her original owner wanted a cruising sedan and fitted her with top-of-the-line equipment and a meticulously finished teak interior. Our modifications have made her an exceptional ICW cruiser.
With her Cummins 450C diesel engine, Ebb Tide II performed flawlessly. In port or under way, she was comfortable in all weather conditions. When cruised at trawler speeds, our Duffy is very fuel efficient. If needed, we can push her to 23 knots. For us, she is the perfect boat for an ICW cruise.