To stay fully aware of the dangers and cautions posted about traveling on the ICW right now in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, I highly recommend keeping up with the latest information from online resources, such as the Cruisers’ Net, BoatUS, and Waterway Guide. These folks are working hard to keep you updated with the latest for anyone going south this time of year. It is important to know what to expect on your horizon, at least a couple of days into the future, before you cast off. Otherwise, you might get stuck somewhere for an unplanned stop.
Even as the waters subside in the Carolinas, and waterways are inspected and cleared, things are not back to normal by a longshot. The Coast Guard closed a long section of the ICW in South Carolina until later this month. And while no one is talking about other side effects as they relate to boating and the ICW, they are very real.
In North Carolina alone, with its billion-dollar pork industry, at least three hog waste lagoons were breached by flood waters, six suffered structural damage, and some of the other 130 lagoons overflowed. The result is that millions of gallons of hog feces flowed into the state’s waterways. And that’s not all. Local news in the area estimates that 5,500 pigs drowned, as did 3.4 million chickens and turkeys. I’m told the smell from the Neuse River is beyond description in the New Bern area. The Neuse flows into Pamlico Sound just below New Bern, but then what? Where does all this death and waste go and how long before it dissipates?
Okay, enough of the bad stuff from Hurricane Florence. We will get through this.
At some point, there will be a green light for those headed south for the winter. This annual migration is an adventure to some, a chore to others, perhaps even a scary prospect for those doing it for the first time.
One factor that sets the tone of the trip, at least in the early stages, is the weather. If it is already getting cold and stormy where you are, you will want to make serious tracks south to reach warmer conditions. There is nothing less enjoyable than waking up to find ice on your side decks. Unfortunately, not everyone has the flexibility to travel without some constraints, such as working the Mid-Atlantic boat shows or starting out from Canada, so the early part of the trip may just be about getting as far south as possible. Running long, non-stop days to get into North Carolina might be a good initial goal.
But then it might be time to reevaluate the trip and your “plans.”
Taking all the above into account, the big thing to keep in mind is that unless you are professional delivery crew who make a living taking boats north and south on a regular basis, there is not much point or fun to be had by going 24/7 down the entire waterway. Even in a small sailboat chugging along at five knots, there is much to recommend keeping your eyes on the big picture as you travel from day to day. Trust me, it gets really old spending every day at the wheel, leaving at the crack of dawn, running all day long, and only stopping to reach the fuel dock before it closes, or when the sun sets and you anchor out. Having a quick dinner and you are sound asleep in no time. Get up early the next morning and repeat, day after day. That routine quickly turns you and your crew into zombies. And you won’t remember a thing about the trip.
I suggest a better plan. And that is to not have a rigid plan beyond taking each day as a fresh experience and taking time to enjoy the waterway.
I know couples whose cruising routine on the ICW is simple. Travel for two, relatively long days, then take the third day off, usually in a stop they know has something to offer. This becomes a fun challenge to research the many cruising guides and discover something of interest that you would otherwise pass by. Take the day off in Beaufort, SC and enjoy a guided tour of the town in the morning, then lunch downtown, followed by casual shopping before going back to the boat for a nap and/or some maintenance. Dinner at a local restaurant peacefully ends the day, and you wake up refreshed and batteries recharged. The same can be said for Beaufort, NC, Norfolk, Elizabeth City, Morehead City, Georgetown, Southport, Charleston, Savannah—there are a lot of places that can hold your interest for a day. It is a much more fun approach to traveling the ICW, and one that creates memories instead of endless hours of the same thing, day after day.
That is my number one suggestion for anyone planning to do this trip. Keep it from becoming a mindless delivery and see the world.
I have met some creative folks in my time at PMM, with great ideas to shake things up on their way south. One group of guys stopped in our office, just off their Hatteras motoryacht. They planned to play golf all the way south to Florida. I forgot how many golf courses they calculated, but these four guys were stoked to play as many as they could. Their wives had bid them farewell and they were taking their time to combine two passions.
Another couple on a Grand Banks loved tennis, and they intended to play almost every day. It became a game to find out where they could locate tennis courts in addition to fuel docks and places to provision.
More recently, I followed the Great Loop journey of Dave Pike, who played pickleball at every stop by making arrangements with his pickleball association a few days out. He got off the boat regularly, kept active by playing with local fellow pickleball players, and met new people every day. He was never tied to a schedule and his flexibility allowed him latitude to enjoy unexpected pleasure. His experience was far richer than a couple of curmudgeons who do the same routine every day, never getting off the boat except to refuel and provision, arriving to their final destination with not one truly memorable moment other than to have completed the trip.
If you have not made this trip before, and your boat fits the minimum requirements, well outlined in the cruising guides, I highly recommend doing the alternative Dismal Swamp route at least once. Sure, it is slow going, but it is something different and special, with a history that goes back to George Washington. You might pass cows so close you can almost touch their noses with a boat hook. I was held up for a couple of days one year at the Norfolk-side lock into the Swamp, a result of high winds that backed up all other cruising boats ahead of me. A number were rafted together at the Visitor’s Center, and the rest hunkered down in Elizabeth City, unable to cross a wicked Pamlico Sound in such conditions. I had fun with the other stuck cruisers. The lockmaster brought donuts and we enjoyed each other’s company. Even finding a restaurant for dinner proves an adventure. So quaint was that unplanned stop that I clearly recall when the checkout girl at the supermarket asked where I was from. I said Annapolis. She looked at me. “Where is that?”
Even if you were not planning on buddy boating, there is always the opportunity to make new friends along the way and perhaps you might find it fun traveling in company with another boat for a few days, even if that only means you both agree to stop or anchor at the same destination at the end of the day, with plans to get together that evening. There is always so much to share with other cruisers, making memories and telling tall tales over drinks.
My friend, Chuck Worst, always said we call this pleasure boating for a reason. There is no truer statement when it comes to heading south on the ICW. Take it slow, take time off, enjoy the experience. I once did the trip from Stuart, Florida to Chesapeake Bay with my cousin on Growler, my Zimmerman 36, in six and a half days. I couldn’t tell you anything about the trip, as it was a blinding blur of running 12 hours a day. Was it fun? Sort of. I do remember the prime rib at Coinjock, on the same day the town’s police force came for dinner. But that trip was the only time I ever did the trip in delivery mode.
I know another couple with a similar boat, who shared their style of running the ICW. They get an early start to the day, often at sunrise, and run at speed until lunchtime. Four to maybe six hours at 15+ knots got them down the road just fine, every bit as far as a slower sailboat or trawler. They only planned far enough ahead to make the distance to somewhere interesting. Then they refueled and washed off the boat, had lunch, and settled in for the remainder of the day, exploring the town at a leisurely pace. They might visit a museum, take a tour, long walks, or whatever. For them, it broke up the routine of constantly on the go, and made for a great experience.
The best advice I can offer is to not approach getting your boat south for the winter as a tedious nonstop effort, but to break it up, however that works for you. If you are on a cruising sailboat, or Monk 36, or some other displacement-speed cruising boat, no matter. You need to make miles each day, of course, but try to include some other non-travel activities into your routine. Many towns, even the small ones, have lots of history and plenty to do and see. To stop at the end of the day for an overnight in Charleston and not spend the time to tour the city by horse-drawn carriage is a shame. Ditto wasting time walking the aisles of the nearby Harris Teeter, or the farmers’ market. Many towns have festivals during the fall season. Enjoy them if your arrival coincides with these special events. I promise you’ll get back to the boat as if you had a mini-vacation, like coming out of a theater after watching a great movie.
Be open to what is around the next bend in the waterway, and flexible enough to stay for awhile if something tickles your fancy. Life is short. Enjoy it!