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Sailing Short Stories

The Intercoastal Waterway (ICW)

There is something unique about traveling long distances by water. The reason I know this is because I can remember most if not all of the details surrounding my voyages. You can't say the same thing about a cross-country automobile or airplane trip. Seeing new places is an important part of cruising, but it's the "going" that's the most important. The reason may be that cruising the East Coast by water is slow enough to make it interesting?

The ICW is a wonderful waterway for small sailboats. It lets us travel for short or long distances by water. Meeting people and seeing new places on our Waterway may be better than traveling the waterways of most foreign countries. We can speak the language and read the signs for the most part and that improves our experience. Iím not sure thatís completely true at the City Docks in Miami, FL. It helps if you read and speak Spanish in Miami. Small sailboats can go from point ďAĒ to ďBĒ and then rent a car to get back home for the tow vehicle and trailer. The going part of the waterway trip is always an adventure and you can make it longer when you donít have to do a return trip over the same water. A standard short trip destination around North Carolina is Norfolk, VA and Charleston, SC. Where else can you be passed by a Nuclear Submarine? The Coast Guard with a 50 cal on the bow made sure they had the right of way. All of our little weekend trips are practice trips for the extended longer trips we dream about doing someday.

The reason we use sailboats is because they are more stable than most powerboats and they carry more useful cruising equipment for a lot less money. They are slow, but the travel part of the trip is a major reason for going. Seeing the scenery go by at high speed was never very interesting to me. People selling fuel at marinas donít like little sailboats because they only need a few gallons of fuel. They are more interested in the big powerboats that buy thousands of dollars worth of fuel. Traveling with the sound of a small diesel motor and using a furling headsail now and then is about as good as it gets. I can go to sleep with that engine noise and the sun on my face.

We are blessed on the east coast with the Intercoastal Waterway starting at Norfolk and going all the way to Key West. We also have protected extensions going west to Texas and of course the big Chesapeake Bay going north. These areas can be a great place to explore for a couple in a small sailboat with a small budget. Bigger sailboats are fine if you need the extra space. They travel faster, but they have more maintenance and the rental car trick doesnít work with them. The bigger boats have to travel on their own keels all the way there and all the way back and that can be a handicap.

The Operational Plan:

I really like a shoal draft ballasted boat for the Intercoastal Waterway. The US Army Corps of Engineers has the task of maintaining channel depth and that maintenance can be limited by Federal funds. A four-foot draft sailboat can have a draft problem as it passes by some inlets that go to the ocean. Going off the Waterway to towns or marinas may also have draft limiting streams or rivers. I have talked to some captains that planned on going outside to miss shoaling conditions on the ICW. If you are making miles, going out and back takes longer.

As recreational sailors, we practice with our short trips and plan for an extended trip someday. Where would you like to go and what would you like to see? Most sailors really like the planning part of a trip including me. You can count on about 50 miles per day. The weather and staying over at a beautiful spot can change that estimate. If you are cruising, your time needs to be flexible. I like to go from marina to marina, but other sailors like to anchor out. You need to be able to do both. The marina business means you need to get good at parking a sailboat. You will be docking in all kinds of wind directions and strengths. You only get good at docking with experience and thatís one good reason for all those weekend trips. Anchoring is fine if you can find an anchorage. Guides to traveling the Waterway are excellent for this purpose. In all cases, you have about 10 hours of motoring to go from point to point. Sailing is only possible sometimes and canít be counted on to make miles. Plan on being a motorboat on the Waterway. A big no-no on the Waterway is reaching your destination after dark. Pilots that fly big airplanes determine an alternate airport as a destination before they takeoff. A boat on the Waterway should identify as many safe places to hide off the Waterway between their departure point and their destination. The Waterway is not safe for small boats at night. Tugs and barges travel at night and in most cases canít see you if you are anchored in their path. It is like parking on a highway. Someone is going to hit you. An anchor light canít be seen if you have background lights behind your boat or from wherever. Avoid the Waterway at night and find a good location off the Waterway before dark.

A standard procedure is to call a marina 30 minutes before your ETA and ask for instructions. The marina may tell you dock at the fuel dock and then call them again. Some marinas like to talk to people face to face. Others may give you arrival instructions including a slip number on the radio or phone. Follow their instructions until you have a question or if you think their instructions might be wrong. A good example of bad instructions is a slip that has 20 knots of wind blowing downwind in the slip. Sailboats donít have brakes. If I think the instructions are bad and I need to talk to the Dock Master, I put my boat into the wind and get close to any dock at the marina. I get off the boat at the bow and let the boat blow downwind off the dock. The boat will be safe while I talk to the Dock Master. I big powerboat with big engines wouldnít have a problem with that slip assignment. Wind on the nose is best for parking a sailboat and wind from the side isnít that bad. A sailboatís keel keeps you from moving sideway in a slip. Of course, docking is almost always determined by the wind except for some marinas that are known for their heavy current. The City Dock at Beaufort, SC has current problems at the dock. Locations on the Waterway in GA and SC are known for their heavy current. You will have to live with the current because we canít change them. We can arrive and depart at slack tide if we know and understand the tide tables. One more thing to learn on those short trips is how to use tide tables. Reading the tide tables and estimating the current is important. You can be laid up against a dock on the Cooper River in Charleston, SC and you canít move because the tide is pinning you against the dock. Some people on the Waterway live by the weather and some people in different parts of the Waterway live by the weather and the tide.

You will soon learn on your short trips that the helmís person has to look behind almost as much as he or she looks ahead. It easy to put the boatís bow between the navigation marks looking forward. The bow stays dead on while the boat slides sideways and out of the channel. Rivers sometimes run down the Waterway on their way to an inlet and the ocean. I have gone aground twice at the same spot in Swansboro, NC. You would think that one time would have been enough. You bow may look good, but your stern is being washed out the inlet and you may go aground stern first. For the most part, the bottom on the Waterway is mostly sand and mud. You can find coral down south and lots of rocks north of the Chesapeake Bay, but sand and mud is in between. Grass is another Waterway problem. Large boats can cut grass that grows on the bottom. Storms and currents can move the floating piles of grass around in the channel. Passing boats can pick up the grass in their cooling system or it can clog a prop.

Desirable Equipment:

Now and then we have to travel across sounds and bays. This is big water to most small sailboats. When the wave height gets above 3 feet, your outboard motor will have problems keeping its prop in the water. The English put their outboards in wells and they act like an inboard motor in the ocean and rivers around England. The downside to a motor in a well is exhaust smell and vibration. In most cases, the little diesel engine is a desirable means of power for small sailboats on the Waterway. An outboard will work, but you have to have fair weather in the big water areas.

We have talked about a shoal draft ballasted boat and how they are desirable on the Waterway. It means you can go where the big boats canít. The ballast makes going outside for short hops possible and desirable sometimes. The Gulf Stream goes north close to FL and it increases boat speed if you are going north. Going south means you need to hug the coastline and use the Gulf Streamís back eddies that are going south. Fighting the Gulf Stream makes no sense and itís almost a sure thing that you are not going to make the next inlet during daylight. Your ETA math is almost never right going against the Gulf Stream in a small sailboat. Big powerboats donít seem to have that problem with all that power.

A furling genoa is desirable. Most small sailboats can handle a genoa downwind or on a beam reach with ease. The engine can be at idle and boat speed will stay about the same. Of course the sails backup the engine if you have a failure. Engines are mechanical and they will stop working now and then. The new Boat US towing insurance is worthwhile. I have seen it in action and it works. In my early career as a Waterway sailor, I carried an extra outboard motor in my seat locker. I didnít have enough confidence in my sailing ability at that time. I do believe that sails are the best back up on most sailboats if you know how to use them. I don't carry extra motors anymore.

Cruising Examples:

I break down cruising into three different categories. They are weekend, short and extended trips. We normally talk about our extended trips like the ones on this Web site. For the most part, those cruises have been done in small sailboats. We have also completed a few using larger sailboats. The popularity of the 23-foot sailboat may be due to ease of handling and its ability to be transported on a trailer. The reason Richard Summers used a 23 is because he needed to sail and portage his boat through locks by himself. We made a mast raising system that could be operated by one person and Richard liked that capability. He cruised the East Coast, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the Kentucky Lakes in his 23D. Com-Pac sold a new 23 to an Englishman who lived in the Bahamas. Buck Thomas and his son-in-law launched that boat at Fort Lauderdale and sailed it to Nassau for this customer. Buck said he flew across the Gulf Stream with a big genoa and a wind out of the south. A young man and his girlfriend took a 23 to the Bahamas and stayed 6 months. He said he only put his feet on dry land 2 nights during the whole 6 months. He was on a budget. He would have stayed longer, but the weather got too hot. Frank Durant just sailed his Com-Pac 23 Pilothouse to the Bahamas this year. He found it be a great boat for 2 people. We have a short story on this Web site about a fast sail down the Delaware Bay. As we sailed down the River, we realized that George Washington must have had a hard time rowing across the Delaware in the heavy current. These were all extended cruises and they are what most sailors dream about doing someday. We did have one sailor sail a Com-Pac 16 to the Bahamas and another sailor take a 16 all the way down the Waterway from Norfolk to Key West. I'm sure they were all adventures to remember.

The Bahamas trip is an extended trip. Trailer to Fort Lauderdale and launch from there is a standard procedure. A marina at For Lauderdale sells maps and organizes groups that make the crossing together. They also let you park your car in their parking lot while you are over there. Itís about 50 miles across the Gulf Stream and good weather is important. You may go in a group, but it is more likely that you will come home by yourself. You will gain your local knowledge going across for coming home. You will be going with the current in the Gulf Stream going and going against the current coming home. The weather coming home needs to be very good. When you get to the Bahamas, the water is clear and the sand is white and everyone brings home sand in their boats. I have a boat on my yard now with Bahamas sand on the floor. The channels around the islands are similar to the Waterway on the mainland. The areas outside the channels are shoal or very shallow. Navigating the Bahamas is a lot like navigation those short trips you took back home.

You can sail the Chesapeake Bay by taking your boat to Deltaville, VA by road and launching it there for an extended trip. Rivers up and down west side of the Chesapeake Bay are great places to visit. Deltaville is the Bayís recreational area for Richmond, VA. It has great food and marinas and all the things that boating areas offer today. A good trip would be going down the Bay from Deltaville to Norfolk and staying at the Waterside in downtown Norfolk for a night or two. You can see many historical sites by foot. North 2 days from Deltaville is Annapolis and going south is 1 day to Norfolk. You could spend a lifetime sailing the Chesapeake Bay. The seafood on the Bay is wonderful.

We can break sailing down into several categories. The general categories are day sailing, racing, cruising and just looking at your boat in the back yard. I donít like that forth category. A third category is using your boat for a big adventure and doing enough category one sailing to get good at sailing so you can do it well. Itís a skill and an adventure that you can think of and talk about forever.