Are we in Florida yet?

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Apologies to those I’m about to offend, but the ICW is boring as ___. Flashes of pretty, the odd dolphin, aren’t enough of a tradeoff for the monotony of motoring day after day along narrow channel. If the weather was fine, it might cross into the realm of pleasurable for a short stretch, but in conditions we’ve had these miles are just something to get over with. To answer the question in the title: no, not in Florida yet! But Charleston for Christmas, along Totem’s slow path south down the ICW, is going to be great.

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So foggy we couldn’t see from one mark to the next

Waking to temperatures in the 30s is getting old. But it’s Jamie has taken the overwhelming brunt of the chill, standing for hours and hours on end at the helm. Hand-steering is the  norm: partly because the autopilot isn’t a good match for curvier stretches of the ICW. It’s also more tuned for offshore use, and tends to fish around too much for the narrow channels. But these factors are trumped by our failing spray dodger. You can’t see through it any more, so punching buttons for +1 / -1 on the autopilot while gazing out from a more protected spot isn’t an option. Meanwhile, Niall and I had a good laugh when we learned the itchy/sore spots we developed on our feet weren’t actually some fungus or infection, but a product of cold exposure (check) and poor circulation (lots of sitting around the boat while motoring).

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The bridge tenders are often a treat to talk to

Shoaling (we draw 6′) and bridges (with everthing stripped, we’re 64’4″) take patience and awarenss. South of Beaufort SC, the ICW water level is tidal (above, it’s influenced by wind): when Totem’s rig is too tall, we wait. We had to wait for THREE HOURS one day, and still needed to rig up the full kit of ballast to get under, but at least we fit.

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Pretty scenery, and pretty weird spec McMansions along the ICW

The weather has changed our eating habits, too. Salads normally feature, and being back in the land of mid-latitude veggies means bingeing on lettuce and other greens that were harder to find in the tropics. But now the cucumbers and tomatoes purchased in Beaufort are languishing because, well, they’re cold and cold is not very appealing. Instead it’s soups, stews, casseroles… basically anything we eat to keep warm! There’s something in the oven every day, because an uninsulated boat oven is a pretty good proxy for a heater on board.

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Did I mention the rain? Horizon level…Totem still in “induced heel” mode.

Is this whiny? That isn’t my style, but I’m also not going to paint a rosy picture of what’s been an uncomfortable stretch. Ultimately though I’m an optimist and believe it’s a choice to be happy, to find it wherever you are. In that vein, although these last couple of weeks haven’t made me a fan of the ICW, there are plenty of bright spots.

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The marshes look on fire in early morning light

Like the day we lingered in Carolina Beach to see old friends Frank & Karen from Tahina Expeditions. We first met in Tahiti, later hung out with in Australia, and last said goodbye to in Thailand nearly three years ago.

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Long history of card sharking with the Tahina crew

Beaufort, NC’s Homer Smith Marina offered unexpected hospitality. We picked it because it was the cheapest dockage in Beaufort where we could plug in to run our space heater overnight. Homer Smith came with a helping of friendly assistance, free laundry, a loaner vehicle, and offers to help with propane or whatever we needed. Shrimpers offload their catch here, and sell to the public, but the manager wouldn’t let us pay for the 2 lbs of fresh Carolina shrimp I wanted (thank you Matt, they were so sweet!) and gave us a free night when weather delayed our departure. The guys sorting shrimp in the shed pretty much made my day, joking around with each other and warmly answering my questions.

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The SSCA’s cruising station hosts in Beaufort, Normandie and Michael, treated us to lunch at a Mexican restaurant, where over horchata and margaritas (oh sweet memories!) we traded stories and discovered we had been in the SAME ANCHORAGES at pretty much the SAME TIMES, back in 2009 and 2010 in Mexico! It is a small, small cruising world — for real. (Normandie writes women’s fiction, and I love–LOVE–that she nails descriptions of cruising and sailing. I mean, of course she does! But that’s unusual to find in books that aren’t about sailing per se.)

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dsc02924We’ve had a good time with the Rockhopper crew, who leapfrogged us after Oriental, and sent back reports on bridge height and shoaling that were a great help for anticipating where we’d have issues to anticipate as we followed in their wake. Suzanne isn’t big on personal pictures so we took one of our feet instead!

There’s something about the sight of spanish moss hanging from trees cropping up as if a sign we’d crossed some invisible line in South Carolina. Spanish moss and frosty weather seem incongruous: this bodes well for warmer days ahead. Until then, Jamie’s cockpit lounge wear includes wears a one-piece fleece suit under a full set of foul weather gear, plus a hat and ski gloves that Frank passed along. Our hamster, Mochi, builds herself an igloo from cotton wadding and an old sock. We hibernate below deck as much as possible. We cuddle up together to watch a movie and share body heat in the evenings. We have actually used a hot water bottle at night.

Smart birds flying SOUTH.

Smart birds flying SOUTH.

A few hours ago, Totem tied up at the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina. Welcomed by the dock staff and one of the liveaboards on arrival, with an expansive facility decorated to the hilt for the season, this is going to be a sweet spot for a holiday week….and it’s forecast to be in the 60s and 70s again!

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How to fit a 64’4″ rig under a 64′ bridge

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We’re never going down the Intracoastal Waterway, I said. We’re too tall for the ICW, I said. Totem’s rig is about 68’ over the water, when everything is attached. The ICW is sprinkled with bridges; many of them open, quite a few do not. The controlling height over water for those fixed bridges is 65’ (and, there’s a 64’er in there just for fun). Totem doesn’t fit, but that’s fine, we’d rather sail offshore anyway. Besides being more fun than motoring, it’s faster. We’d get to Charleston in two and a half days going offshore; motoring down the ICW takes a multiple of that.

…And then we headed down the ICW anyway, motoring about 185 miles from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC.

Why? Because we made that fatal error in cruising: we had a schedule. Only one week to get from Norfolk (where Niall sat for the SAT on Saturday Dec. 3) to Charleston, SC (where he was due to take the ACT exam the following Saturday). For non-US readers, these exams are THE two standardized tests that high school students take for college/university applications. One week of time to make what should be a two-and-a-half-day offshore passage. No problem, right? Well, big problem if the forecast isn’t right. And it wasn’t. So with a gloomy weather outlook and the SATs over, we strategized how to squeeze our 68’ tall boat under 65’ bridges. Oh, that 64’ bridge that doesn’t fit the mold. Dangit!

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Stripping all instruments from the mast to prepare included Maretron weather station, windex (wind direction indicator), anchor light, and VHF antenna. The windex was brought down; the rest were taped up aloft. We filled all of Totem’s fuel tanks, water tanks and jerry cans to add ballast; then we measured, carefully, once again. Final height over water: 64’4″. When it came time to go under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge, we’d induce heel. And no, you can’t wait for the tide to go down. Water levels in that part of the ICW aren’t influenced by the moon, but by the weather. Wind from the south or storm systems can elevate levels, but there’s no tide to help us underneath.

More than a few people shared this video of a boat with forced heel in order to fit under a bridge. I swore we’d never do something like that to our Totem. Thanks to the 64′ air draft at Wilkerson, and our 64’4″, well… we were going to induce heel, too. When will the lesson stick that I should never say never?

Changes in plans bring silver linings. An extra couple of days in Norfolk meant finally meeting a friend in person. Always fun to bring out the weapons ceremonial cultural tools from PNG as props behind sea stories.

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We were treated to a fabulous raclette dinner (and a trip to Costco!) with the French-American family of a blog reader that has their own plans to go voyaging with kids someday.

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Departure from Norfolk was a gray drizzly morning. On the first day motoring “the ditch” had fifteen bridges and a set of locks to pass through.

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In company are two boats: our old friend Bill on Solstice (we’ve crossed two oceans together!) and the new-to-cruising Gromit crew. Mike, Brittany and their three girls (blogging here) bought the boat circumnavigated by a Canadian family that we met back in Malaysia. It’s slightly surreal to see Gromit again! Good company, but we had to leapfrog them the first day to get Niall to his exams on time, via rental car from Beaufort, NC.

It was a slow slog of bascule bridges, trestle bridges, fixed bridges…lots of rain, and not much traffic.

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Most of the bridges have a gauge so you can judge the available height based on the water level. Some are easier to read than others. At least we know this one is well over the 64’4″ we need!

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Besides being rainy, it’s cold. 30s overnight, 40s in the daytime. The channel dredged to depth that accommodates Totem’s 6′ draft is narrow, requiring constant attention at the helm. And because the old question of time and money has delayed replacing the dodger sides, the helm is exposed to the elements. Jamie is a champ: I kept him company and took the wheel now and then, but he did 99% of the three and a half days of motoring to Beaufort in less than comfortable conditions. At least on a few stretches the headsail gave a nice pull.

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The scenery is beautiful. I’ve heard people love this aspect of the ICW; of course,they mainly travel when it’s at least 20 degrees warmer and there are still leaves on the trees. I hadn’t given the it much thought since the route was written off as “not what we were doing” in my head. Absorbing the landscape of the inner banks was a gift.

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Long stretches held no signs of civilization; at other times, the intimacy of homes along the waterfront, where you can almost hear the TV flashing through a back window, felt uncomfortably close. And then there were the hidden gems, like this mysterious camper (Airstream?) overgrown with vines, or the hint of a classic car under cover in a back yard.

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We anchored in the water north of the Alligator-Pungo channel: turns out, military jets come here to play.

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Quiet evenings at anchor made for fun family time. The kids decided we were due to start holiday decorating, and so we did.

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What else did we do? Niall logging many hours daily on ACT practice tests and study guides. The girls did a lot of reading. There were a few rounds of Hamilton sing-a-longs. Ah, who am I kidding… that’s a nightly event currently (thank you Cindy!).

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The glassy anchorage at Alligator-Pungo was a perfect spot to finalize preparation for inducing heel to fit under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge the next day. We estimated we should have at least 6 degrees, and more was better. Talk about the PERFECT example of real-life trigonometry, just in time for our exam-cramming kid! Meanwhile, going aloft again, Jamie added a pigstick to the mast. PVC pipe, about 3″ diameter and 3′ long, facing forward. On a dead slow approach, if the stick hits the bridge — we bail out. If it passes under, no problem. All the jerry cans and a 50 gallon bladder tank filled with water were strapped on the starboard side deck.

As we got close to the bridge, further heel was induced. Additional weight at the end of the boom, swung out starboard, would further increase our angle of heel. First, our 18hp Tohatsu was tied on. Then, the spare anchor, a 70 lb CQR. This came with Totem: it’s the first time we’ve used it. Next, a couple of full jerry cans, and a heavy bag of rigging hardware.

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Then, we added the kids. Probably should have put PFDs on. Please don’t judge.

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We estimate we had 500 lbs on the boom, in addition to an extra 700 lbs on the starboard side deck. To top it all off, Jamie opened a through hull and we flooded the bilge with another 40 gallons or so of swamp water. At Wilkerson, the water gauge read a about 63’11”.

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Hooo boy. Boom OUT, heel ON!

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The pigstick test worked: a sigh of relief as it passing under the last of the girders.

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Yeah yeah yeah yeah! A very happy family.

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Jamie’s comment: size doesn’t matter. Trig does.

A few resources were especially helpful down the Norfolk to Beaufort, NC, path for the ICW:

I made a document that outlined our progress by hazard (and, what we’d do about each hazard). Inputs to these: Active Captain, the Salty Southeast Cruisers’ Net, and the ICW cruisers guide. Water levels at Neuse as a proxy for what we might see at Wilkerson. It’s amazing what details are in the USCG notice to mariners and US Army Corp of Engineers sites for updates on dredging and mark placement. The human factor is always the best, and in true cruiser tradition, the best came from a roundup of “ICW doulas” who were a big help with our last-minute decision to go down the ditch instead of making an offshore passage. My friend Judy Hildebrand, a delivery skipper who has driven boats (including Totem’s sisterships) up and down the ICW many many times. Nicola, Suzanne, and many more members of the awesome ICW subgroup from Women Who Sail.

It was beautiful if chilly trip. I’d like to think that was “roll credits!” but… well, never say never. Looks like we’ll start down the ICW again, leaving from Beaufort tomorrow…

Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem... already sporting an ICW moustache!

Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem… already sporting an ICW moustache!