Joy, Terror, and the ICW

As with many things new in life, a first trip on the intracoastal Waterway—mine of course southward from Norfolk towards Miami—is monumental. I am not among the first to learn a new skill in mid-life, but the challenges on the water do not care if you are young or old, nice or mean, retired or weekend sailing.  And there are challenges aplenty.

Georgia was my terror zone, leaving me mentally and physically exhausted. I knew full well as I edged southward that the tidal ranges increase dramatically. In my marina back in Annapolis we would see a swing of perhaps 1.5 feet between low and high tide on any normal day, but in Georgia that becomes 9 feet, meaning the water depth will change by a factor of 1.5 times the amount of water I need.

Leaving Charleston I began to share the path with a few other boats for the first time since leaving home. Although none of us were buddy-boating, it did brighten up the day hearing familiar voices on the radio both ahead of and behind me as people now familiar to me called to marinas and to other boats along the way, seeking fuel or maybe just a slow pass from another boat.

And to report groundings.

Zach, from Alicia Lee, miles ahead of me calling out to someone just behind him, “You’d better watch it there near Red 42. Gets real shallow,” followed just moments later by, “To the sailing vessel right behind me, this is Alicia Lee. We’re aground. You can pass us to our port side. We’ve been dragging on the bottom for about the last mile.”

Bonnie, from Quandary, was too far ahead to radio me, so she emailed. “Beware of skinny water on the Matanzas at Red 80 and 80A. The trawler in front of us went aground. Then we went aground. We heard several more run aground there in the same spot.”

My grounding happened at the mouth of Wahlburg Creek as I was pulling into my anchorage at the end of one of those taxing Georgia days, and unfortunately I can’t find anyone but myself to blame. Literally 200 yards from my goal, fueled perhaps by exhaustion but more-probably by sheer statistics, I missed a somewhat subtle contour line on the chart and ran onto a sandbar like a speedboat pulling onto a trailer. My depth sounder was reporting 17 feet of water mere seconds before I ran aground.

I grabbed a couple of wooden plugs and popped them into my cockpit scuppers (the holes in the floor of the cockpit that allow water to drain out) so that they wouldn’t let water in if it came to that. I checked the bilge and the anchor locker to make sure everything was in a happy state, called TowBoatUS simply because I was scared, and then I waited. Dana from TowBoatUS seemed unimpressed with my situation. “We all get a turn, buddy,” he assured me over the phone. I recalled Bruce van Sant’s advice from Passages South, where he says (paraphrased) “Go below. Read a book. When you are done with the book check the boat. If you’re still aground go below and read another book. When you are done with the second book the boat will be floating and you will be that much smarter, because you just read two books.”

And sure enough those massive Georgia tides taketh, and then they giveth back. Ryan, the towboat operator, kept me company, telling me stories about running hard aground in his Catalina with his 8-month-pregnant wife years ago. “Would you believe that’s how I got this job?” he asked. “I was kind of afraid to ask if they were hiring, since it was obvious that I might not be the best navigator.” After maybe an hour Georgia decided to pick me up again and send me on my way, the only scars from the incident scratching the frail shell of my ego. The boat was fine. Ryan asked me to email him photos from my journey. “I’d really like to do something like you’re doing someday,” he confessed.

I slept better than I might have expected and trudged onward the next day until I came to Front River, where the chart, the depth sounder, the tides, and the GPS all added up to #$%^&*!. I was tired, I was a tad gun shy, and I truly couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go. With tides at about one third and falling I decided to throw in the towel—I backtracked a bit and anchored off of Dog Hammock Spit in a beautiful but unprotected anchorage, where I stayed the next day, too, while a front went through and the wind howled through Ave’s rigging. Then with a new sunrise buoying my confidence I went on, achingly slowly, a blind man and his boat feeling their way through cuts and straights that seemed to defy navigational logic. The ground stayed where it was supposed to—well under Ave’s keel, and Georgia slowly unfolded behind us. It was, as I described to my friend and sailing mentor Tammy, the most beautiful stretch of sailing that I have ever detested.

Two days later I pinballed my way into the marina at Jekyll Island in what seemed like a parallel parking spot from Hell, with current and wind perfectly aligned for a misery salad. But in the end no part of my boat hit any part of any other boat nor, for that matter, any solid object at all, and I tumbled out of the cockpit into the warm embrace of my friend and former marina neighbor Linda from TrueLove who promised me hot showers and plentiful wine.

The showers were indeed hot, the wine was indeed plentiful, there was a bonfire, new friends, old friends. and the worst of Georgia was behind me. The challenges of the ICW had been met and, if not conquered, at least endured.

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Photo Essay

Ave and I are docked on Jekyll Island, Georgia. The trip is going well, lots of excitement along the way. I promise to write a proper blog post soon to update everyone on the trip.

Meanwhile, here are some photos of our journey since the last update.

~John