No Name Harbor
Key Biscayne Island, Florida
25° 40.583 North
080° 09.740 West

January 1, 2005

In and Out the Intracoastal Waterway

By Douglas Bernon

A single tile from St. Augustine's downtown mural.

The ICW is behind us now. Finally.

Ithaka rests at anchor in No Name Harbor, a perfect hurricane hole within a national park, at the end of Key Biscayne, a stone’s throw from the bustle of Miami. Looking back over our 2004 meanderings down the ICW, we’ve regarded the big ditch as a blessing, if not always a joy. The ICW made it easier for us to avoid major hassles and to move expeditiously -- even in junky weather. The general accuracy of charted depths, and the well-timed placement of aids to navigation, all reward diligence and good sense with an uneventful trip, even in the absence of navigational skill and experience. This has been our experience on segments of the ICW.

This time we headed south from Newport, Rhode Island, with the hope that we could avoid the ICW as much as possible, sail “outside” and make faster tracks between cold weather and warm, because despite its conveniences, the ICW is slower going, and I find most of it, with the exception of Georgia, at the same time dull and demanding. Still, Bernadette and I were grateful this year, when we were faced with lousy weather time and again, to go on the inside from Norfolk, Virginia, skating comfortably behind the treacherous Cape Hatteras and arriving safely in Beaufort, North Carolina; and then again, during a procession of northers in Florida, to move from St. Augustine to Fort Worth inside, well protected from the big seas pummeling the coast. The shallow ICW can get pretty choppy in large, open bays, especially in 25- and 30-knot winds, but it’s still a lot smoother than the same conditions in the open ocean.

Although we love our electronic charts from Nobeltec (their’s seems the easiest of the electronic charting systems to learn and use), and we rely on them a great deal for planning and when offshore, they don’t add much to puttering down the ditch, so we used exclusively the paper chart books, aided by suggestions from friends, and two commercial guide books that provide mileage marker information, locations where you can find gas and diesel, the names of some marinas, comments on currents, ideas about some of the best and worst places to pull off and anchor, and some information about shoaling. We have a five-year-old version of Skipper Bob’s Anchorages along the Intracoastal Waterway, and a similar vintage The Intracoastal Waterway Norfolk to Miami, A Cockpit Cruising Handbook, by Jan and Bill Moeller. These guides complement each other well, and because we can never remember which bridge or marker that we’re actually passing or that we’ve just passed, we cut little arrowheads into neon-bright Post It stickies and move them along the page as we go.

What we found in going south this time was that we didn’t feel we had to follow slavishly the suggestions regarding anchorages. If, at the end of a day, we found ourselves running out of energy and light, and the chart showed sufficient depth just outside the channel, even if it was not indicated as an anchorage, we’d creep off the highway and over into a wider area of the waterway, feeling our way with the depth sounder, and drop the hook for the night.

Skipper Bob and the Moellers’ books are fine if you’re not leaving the waterway for any runs outside; but when it was time to bolt out the door for the open ocean, we relied on the information about the inlets in Steve Dodge’s Inlet ChartBook for the Southeastern United States: Chesapeake Bay to Miami. Dodge includes both overhead photographs and large-view charts of the inlets, along with sensible counsel about inlets to attempt or avoid, depending on the depth of your draft and the weather. Four years ago we made what we thought would be a routine exit from the Hillsboro inlet in South Florida and had one of the scarier rides of our lives as Ithaka roller-coastered up and down huge swells over shallow depths at the mouth of the inlet. I still shudder when I recall that morning.

We all know people who’ve mastered the art of entering a room or group with style, who can sense the right moment to arrive, gauge the speed at which they should proceed and know when to turn, whom to turn to, and when to stop. It’s a skill developed with much practice, an art more than a science. The same holds true for entrances and exits between the ICW and the Atlantic. Knowing whether the tide is with you or against you, how calm the area is that you expect to enter, what recent local obstacles have cropped up and may interfere, are all crucial data. Some of that information can be collected from weather forecasts and published tables. Some can be gathered only from local knowledge and advice. And the art of it all comes from having stumbled or barreled ahead many times in the past, learned some lessons the hard way, and not forgotten them. That’s how I will always think of Hillsboro.

When we first went cruising, I’d thought one could willy-nilly hop in and out of the ICW, depending on whim and fancy, but I learned soon that two consecutive inlets may be separated by days of motoring, that some inlets can be too shallow for a sailboat’s draft, and that depending on wind and sea state, others would just be suicidal. We found ourselves watching the weather carefully, even though we were “inside,” and making exit-judgments accordingly.

This year we entered or left the ICW at these inlets: Norfolk, Virginia; Beaufort, North Carolina; and, in Florida, at St. Augustine, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. With the exception of St. Augustine and Beaufort, which are decent-sized channels, the rest are humongous, so big that we passed or were passed by submarines, battleships, freighters, cruise liners and all manner of small boats that buzz about at wake-and-fury inducing velocity.

Norfolk was the most dramatic; seeing a submarine right behind us was an altogether novel experience. Beaufort feels like an old friend now; this was second time we’ve used it. St. Augustine is a beauty to enter with its easy, wide and wonderfully buoyed channel all set under the watchful eye of the old Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Marcos. As we traveled further south, we were saddened to see sights that made us wince: hurricane-wrecked boats piled on top of each other, leaning against the shore or their noses or masts poking up from underwater.

Vero Beach in particular was filled with dramatic hurricane damage. We pulled into the Vero Beach Municipal Marina – a protected bay just a few hundred yards off the ICW. There was no place to anchor along this stretch of the ICW; charted depth to the sides of the channel were way too shallow, so this was the only place to stop on the day we traveled through the region. The place was a revelation. Inside the protected cove was a huge field of mooring balls. You take one for $10 a night -- first come, first served -- and if the place fills up, which it does almost every day, boats raft up together.

Everywhere in South Florida is evidence of this year’s battering by four hurricanes in six weeks.

This is a congenial spot. In this comfortable retirement community, the town runs free courtesy busses that circle the community every half hour, stopping regularly in front of the town marina as well as the malls. Vero Beach marina offers great showers, a television room with internet access, a safe mail drop if you’re expecting packages, and a helpful staff of boat lovers, one of whom gave us a lift to the grocery store when we’d just missed the last bus of the afternoon. At Vero, there were cruisers who’d been moored for a month or more, enjoying the area, the affordably priced facility, and the social swirl of so many cruisers together in one place. Because it’s also a good staging spot for those on their way to the Bahamas, the crowd can really grow in the fall.

Vero Beach Municipal Marina is a favorite gathering spot for transient cruisers; many end up rafted together.

We were only looking for a place for the night, but we did need some fruit and veggies. So we lowered the dinghy, lowered the outboard onto it, and zoomed ashore to do our shopping. Already too late for the free shuttle bus, when we finished provisioning we phoned a cab, and waited, and waited some more. Fifteen minutes went by. We called again. Then 20. Then 40. Finally, a nicely dressed fellow walked up and said he’d noticed us outside the store when he went in a half an hour before, and did we need a ride somewhere. In this day and age, such an invitation was a refreshing gift, and serves as a poignant memory of short time at Vero. The next morning, at first light, feeling a warm glow about the whole place, we cast off our mooring line, and puttered back out onto the road.

An hour south of us, the ocean inlet at Fort Pierce looked awful — monster breakers outside the entrance, and big swells from all the lousy weather of the week -- so we skipped it and stayed inside for another day of motor-sailing to Lake Worth, which has a terrific and well protected anchorage that could hold scores of boats. Leaving early from there the next morning, we puttered on down a few miles to the Lake Worth inlet, which is wide and deep and easy. With glee, we escaped the ICW again and headed south toward Fort Lauderdale’s inlet, called Port Everglades -- a major thoroughfare for an extraordinary number of megayachts and cruise ships.

On our way in, in late afternoon, we had a clear field entering, but once past the breakwater we felt like Lilliputian among a convention of Gullivers. Everywhere we turned there were monster boats and monster mansions. For any number of sound reasons Fort Lauderdale is often referred to by boaters as “Fort La Di Dah.” There are zillions of marinas, but only two small anchorages for the throng of vessels that pass through there. We set our sights on the anchorage in Lake Sylvia, and hoped for the best; on the chart, this little lake seemed shallow for us – perhaps too shallow.

From the deep water buoy offshore into Lake Sylvia is only a few miles, but Sylvia demands a careful approach. Experienced friends had told us that the lake holds deeper water than the charts indicated, but there’s an unmarked shoal mid-channel in the entrance. They suggested that before turning into the entrance way, we should line ourselves up with Bahia Mar Marina directly behind us and enter on a course of 187 degrees True, hugging the docks on our port side and not straying more than 10 feet from them as we wend our way in. We followed those directions precisely and found at least four feet more water than the charts indicated all the way into the inside of the lake. Once inside, Lake Sylvia is a surreal world. Surrounded by a few grand houses that Bernadette lusted after, and a couple of McMansions she didn’t, this perfect little hurricane hole has enough room for a couple dozen boats who’d rather avoid paying Lauderdale’s exorbitant prices. The night Ithaka spent there, only six boats shared this pretty spot with us.

The inlet leading to Fort Lauderdale and the route to Lake Sylvia.

The next morning we crept out of Lake Sylvia at sunrise, turned briefly into the ICW, and headed for the same inlet as we used to enter the afternoon before. We could barely see, but wanted to catch the falling tide and get an extra push out the channel toward sea. With the sun now rising before us, we sailed out of Port Everglades, winding through the gaggle of large sports-fish boats circling in the turning basin, each waiting its turn to nestle up to the “live bait” boats and get stocked for the day. There was also a cruise ship that had just come in and several other sail boats leaving as well. At one point I counted 26 boats maneuvering about.

Happy to be outside the breakwater and safely away from the throngs, we laid a course for Miami that we’d never have followed at night, but in good light, it was a great. The Gulf Stream is only a couple of miles offshore here, so to go south can pose a battle if you edge into that powerful north-flowing river, but by sailing no more than a quarter mile off the beach — never deeper than the 30-foot contour — we grabbed an advantageous half-knot and then a 1.25-knot south-flowing counter current, and arrived at Miami’s Government Cut channel (only 20 nautical miles away) in no time at all.

On the way into Miami, you've got a great view of the freighters loading and unloading.

Coming into Government Cut in a small boat is akin to landing a Piper Cub on the same JFK runway used by a bevy of 747s. You keep looking around to make sure you see them, because it’s unlikely they’re looking for you. The entrance is massive. It’s deep. It’s broad. It’s actually pretty exciting. On the north side were cargo vessels and cranes, large containers being picked up like match boxes, swirling in the breeze and being set down on the pavement. To port were large homes and flashy condos, and straight ahead of us was the Miami skyline. We puttered past the giants, under the Rickenbacker Causeway, and threaded our way here, to Key Biscayne Island’s No Name Harbor.

No Name has potent memories for Bernadette and me. We spent our first cruising Christmas here, and made friends with Harold and Diane on Sea Camp, generous souls who took us under their wings that initial year. And when we returned to the States a little more than a year ago, we spent two glorious weeks here with our cruising friends David and Shauna on Zia Lucia, after sailing up from Central America together, and experiencing together the confusions of re-entry after the seclusions of the cruising life. All four of us had felt so depressed as Ithaka pulled out of No Name one day and Zia remained in Miami. This time, as we came into No Name for the third time in our cruising lives, the ICW and the ocean no longer registered on our consciousness. We were bursting with excitement, knowing we’d soon be reunited with David and Shauna for the holidays; they’re living in Miami now. Two hours after anchoring, our friends were aboard Ithaka. Glasses were clinking, and the world felt safe and warm.

The Miami skyline: in its own way as dramatic as any island landfall.