ICW at Night

April 11, 2021

The featured image is from the Dominican Republic, not my trip up the East coast of the USA. It’s a classic click-bait situation, and I am a little embarrassed for selling out, but even my family tells me that they only come for the pictures.

I have seen a lot of nature from the boat on the trip, but I didn’t capture a lot of images of that stuff, instead I took pictures of inanimate objects because they give me time to figure out how to turn on the camera’s power and other complicated technical bits. Here are a few … I add words later, for those that want more than the picture book version. (I am super tired and my humour is often only apparent to me at times like that.)

MV Golden Ray – From a distance this looked daunting as I approached the harbour
The dismantling of MV Golden Ray, from up close, may not be as daunting, but certainly its an engineering marvel
The sunset over the Sidney Lanier bridge spanning Saint Simons River in Brunswick, GA
It’s hard to see dolphins sometimes. See that little black fin, left of middle? Yep. Dolphin.
I really wanted to show you one of the turtles, but you can’t see him (bottom right).
This is what the water looks like along the ICW during daylight. It all seems very pretty.
Here’s what the water looks like underneath all that. If I don’t keep the boat between the blue bits, I’m having a bad day

So, perhaps a bit cruel, but here’s the rest of the story . . . I left St. Augustine at dawn on Thursday morning and began the run North, arriving in Brunswick about 12 hours later. The water was wonderfully flat and I almost stayed out for another night but chose to get some sleep. On turning into the channel, this large mechanical object appeared in the distance (Transformers? MechWarrior? or perhaps a ship building operation?) and it loomed very large in the entrance. As I drew closer (and a couple of bulk carriers passed by), it became clear that this was a ship being cut up. Later in the evening I recalled the story of the Hyundai car carrier that sank a couple of years ago. MV Golden Ray was sunk in the channel due to loading problems and they are now, finally, in the end stages of removing the cars, and cutting up the ship.

I found a relatively quiet place to anchor just a mile or so away from that hulk and out of the shipping lanes. It offered a spectacular view (see photo above) of the sunset over the Sidney Lanier bridge spanning the St. Simons River. After 12 hours on the water, a bit of food, the sunset and my pillow was about all I saw on Thursday night.

Friday morning I was awake early enough to see first light and pulled up anchor just in time to almost get run down by a tanker heading out to sea. One thing I haven’t had a lot of experience with is professional ship pilots, and this trip has had me interact with three of them and their professionalism is quite amazing. When you have a 500 foot tanker bearing down on you, little details are important. My statement that I will stay clear of him was a statement of survival. His statement that I would remain south of the channel and allow him to pass was clearly boat/lawyer talk for an agreement to get out of the way. All said very nicely. A good way to wake up for sure.

I had contemplated waiting a little while for the tide to turn. On leaving Fort Pierce I didn’t wait for the tide to turn. I also didn’t lock the fridge. I scrambled a dozen eggs on the carpet, refrigerator and floor. I didn’t wait this time either but the water was as flat as a pancake with almost zero wind. It was to be a good day on the water.

Given that there was zero chance of sea sickness, I spent some time cleaning the bright work. That was interrupted from time to time by nature and I was surprised by the stuff that I saw. The VHF was barking every 30 minutes about Northern Right Whales (I was going through breeding grounds) but I didn’t see a single whale. I did however see turtles, dolphins, birds galore, jellyfish and a few jumping fish. The dolphins didn’t seem to care about me at all (I wonder if the murky water was a reason, or perhaps they were too busy hunting), but the surprise was the turtles. It started with a little guy, perhaps the size of a snapping turtle who I just luckily noted as it zoomed away from the boat under water. Later, I was working on the stainless on the flybridge when I saw what I thought was a log. It was big, and floating on the water. I bolted for the pilothouse (I didn’t have the flybridge controls activated) and as I got there noted the turtle, about the size of an umbrella dive for cover. I am not a turtle expert, but I would guess an old leatherback. It was very large. Later other turtles were seen but my camera skills are lacking and so I took really good pictures of water (see above).

I had hoped to run through the night and get to Georgetown, but as the evening progressed my fatigue won the day and with flat water, I decided to anchor on the ocean at Charleston. Going into these ports takes (literally) hours off of your transit time, and so I aimed for a designated ships anchorage to the North of the ship channel. On approach I had my second interaction with a professional pilot. Long before he hailed me (it was 3:00am) I put Home Free into idle to wait for the passing of this bulk carrier. Moving out of the harbour at almost 20 knots, I wasn’t even considering crossing in front of him. We had a great chat on the VHF and I was again surprised by the specificity in his language. I will be working on that. My primary intention was to simply stay clear until he passed me in the channel. He clarified my direction, my intentions, my boat type and informed me of other commercial traffic inbound. We wished each other a good evening and all went according to plan. I turned the engine off around 3:30am and slept like a baby for three hours.

At 6:30 am the water was still flat and I got Home Free moving North once again, this time heading toward SouthPort/Cape Fear. Unfortunately, a very nasty weather system was expected Sunday, and I didn’t want to be out on the ocean to see what it had lined up. As the day progressed, the weather was not as accommodating as had been the case on Thursday and Friday, so by early afternoon I decided to take the entrance at Little River, a bit earlier than Cape Fear late at night.

That decision was, in hindsight the wrong one, but timing matters a whole lot. First of all, I have never been in either of these places. On land, by sea, ever. I don’t know anything. The thinking was clear and concise though and without hindsight my choice was arguably the safer option. I could make it to Little River inlet, which had plenty of depth, in daylight and before winds picked up. I searched the charts and there appeared to be a couple of places where anchoring was possible. By contrast, a run to Cape Fear would involve an additional three hours at sea and could end with heavy winds and high seas pushing me into an entrance that I didn’t know at all, in the dark. While the depths and shelter inside were likely fine, it was a bit riskier. I chose Little River and ran the boat really, really hard all day to make it in daylight hours with some time to spare to find an anchorage.

And that’s where the plan went awry. I did make it into the harbour just after 7 pm and had 45 minutes to find an anchoring spot. I tried two and just wasn’t comfortable, particularly with heavy winds coming in, the depths and space were too tight for my comfort. So I started down the ICW.

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you may have picked up that the ICW is not my favourite place to run Home Free. I didn’t buy this boat to be navigating in 12 feet of water along a channel 200′ wide. That’s in daylight. My first effort at night was in December 2019 in Florida with family as crew, and even with that, I swore I would never navigate the ICW at night again. But last night I did 2 1/2 hours of ICW in pitch black night (moonlight? 0%) alone. Fun fun.

This section of the ICW is very, very straight, and to be completely fair, there are a LOT of houses along the channel here providing some light, but that is marred by significant crab pots all along the channel as well. I hit at least a half dozen of those and was lucky to not pick any up. In the end I travelled about 10nm, crawling along the ICW in the dark through a couple of very, very shallow areas (particularly heavy shoaling around Monk’s Island) and finally found a spot around 10pm that I could feel comfortable with. A small ‘hole’ off of Bowen Point, with 8-12 feet of water through a couple of hundred feet where I wasn’t blocking the channel. I dropped anchor, turned on all my lights (so I could be seen by others), turned off the engines (and then realized there were about 20 crab pots and I was in the middle, oh well!) made some dinner and finally, finally slept. I slept in the salon with my anchor alarm by my ear in case I moved when the tides changed or anything untoward happened.

I did wake up at 2am when that storm that was forecast passed through. My boat will certainly have all of the salt washed off the decks now. The rain came down hard for 30 minutes with heavy winds and then it was over. I fell back to sleep until the sun came up.

Today was much easier (see the photos of the ICW in daylight above), because I could see all the things that I had to try not to hit. It really didn’t matter; much of the time you keep your eyes solidly on that white line and the depth reading.

I poked my way along the ICW to Wrightsville Beach (about 45 nm in total) and finally stopped around 2pm, anchoring about a mile from the inlet where I will exit tomorrow, and have one day running outside of the ICW.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the trip was an area called ‘Snow’s Cut’. I knew this was going to be tough when I was doing my planning two days earlier, but it was far, far more exciting than I had planned for. This little cut connects the Cape Fear River to the New River where the ICW runs North. There is a lot of information about shoaling in this little cut, with depths as low as five feet (and I need six feet), so I was particularly concerned. I did start through the cut at mid tide, so I had an extra two feet of water.

Much of the writing on the cut focuses on the current however, and I noted that strong currents would be present (that is a big deal with an 85,000 pound boat with limited speed and manoeuvrability!) but, my choice was to enter the cut at mid-tide. It’s the ICW after all. (A very cautious person may have waited for the next high tide to peak so you have more water and eliminate much of the current, but that would have left me tired and transiting in the dark again, or waiting until tomorrow morning).

The focus on currents was key. While some parts of the cut did have very significant shoaling and shallow areas (I used every chart I could to find the latest data), the real story was currents pushing the boat over 8 knots at times, while I was at idle throttle. If the boat gets turned sideways that can be very problematic. I used my thrusters a number of times and my throttle judiciously to keep Home Free pointing the right direction and hoping that I understood where the deep parts were and the shoals were not.

As you enter New River, the waterway turns to a playground. There were literally hundreds of boats, jetskis, and other water toys between Pleasure Island and Wrightsville Beach. I was definitely the largest vessel of the day and perhaps the largest the spring break crowd had seen in that channel so far this year.

In the end I found a place to anchor for the night at Wrightsville Beach. I will sleep, let my engines rest for a while and do some organizing and preparation before heading to Beaufort, NC tomorrow. After that, it is another four days in the ICW alone. The good news is that I know the next section, having gone up and down that section last spring/fall.

Here’s what it looks like in Wrightsville Beach right now . . .

The sun going down in Wrightsville Beach, NC

3 thoughts on “ICW at Night

  1. Hi Don,
    What an adventure you are having. Where do you store your horse shoes LOL. Snow Cut at 8 knots at idle & dodging crab pots day & night! It a wonder you could sleep at all. You are doing one hell of a job captain!!
    Cheers
    Nick

  2. Hi Don,
    Great to see you are on the move again, although I already knew, because I have been following the marine traffic!
    Where are you heading too and what’s the plan next?
    B.T.W. It is Home Free’s 14th birthday today (12/04), so I’ll be raising a toast this evening. Happy memories for us as a family and great to see her making memories for you too.
    David.

  3. Sounds like you’ve had some bum clenching moments… Pushed at eight knots by a current doesn’t sound like much fun in close quarters, with or without help. The whale photo was sneaky, but the story was still worth reading. Safe travels, friend!

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