Breaking Out Of the ICW

By Douglas Bernon
December 8, 2000
32 02.931 N 81 12.910 W

Sunday, December 3, 2000: Here is a vow. This will be my last cold rant, the final flog of a chilling refrain. It's snowing right now here at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, and Ithaka has a frosty sheen. Unless the Second Coming takes places on the dock immediately adjacent to us, I can't think of a single reason to poke my head out the hatch. Instead, I'm worshipping at the altar of our electric plug-it-in-at-the-dock heater.

Photo of Ithaka adorned with ice Ithaka adorned with ice.

The best anchorage at Wrightsville is just behind a teeny sliver of sand dune that's the only bit of earth between a boat and Europe, and NOAA is calling for all kinds of grief after midnight. It was just too cold for the likes of me to be at anchor, swinging in the 40-knot winds predicted for tonight. That's why we opted to pay about a billion dollars and tie up at a marina, so we could plug in the little furnace while hoping the ice age would recede. The cold has destroyed my mood, and sucked the joviality right out of my marrow. Bernadette has her Patagonia ski gloves on, and says she just keeps pretending she's on the slopes in Kitzb├╝hel. But I don't even like skiing, so for me there's not much to be happy about.

Yesterday, fewer than 50 miles north of us, there was a six-inch snowfall. The locals say it never gets this cold, but that's what all locals say everywhere. Once, back in the early '70s, I was in Atlanta during a two-day, knock-down ice storm, and that's what locals told me then, too. Nobody tells the truth about sex or weather.

There's a low-pressure system stalled off the coast, eventually set to move east, to be followed by an arctic high. These conditions may combine to give us the northerly winds we'd like before we head offshore, or "outside" in ICW parlance. We didn't have a good weather window to go outside from Beaufort, as we'd hoped for a few days back. If we don't go outside here at Wrightsville, our next option is Southport. If that doesn't work out, then we'll be stuck in the waterway for several more days until we reach Charleston.

We're anxious to make some mileage south, but here's the dilemma: With these frigid temperatures, the nights offshore will be absolutely brutal, and there are no ideal stops between here and Charleston in daylight for two nights. We'd be committed. Can we handle it, or will we freeze to death?

Photo of North Carolina on the ICW A bit of North Carolina on the ICW .

NOAA makes our decision for us. They say we're getting more gale-force winds tomorrow. As beautiful as the ICW is in spots, sometimes it's also monotonous, and it requires a constant buoy- and depth-focused vigilance. But motoring beats freezing, I guess, so we'll keep plugging along until the weather gives us some relief, even though, at 5 knots, this is like walking to Florida.

One of my only forms of amusement, as Bernadette reads a book and as I sit at the chart table and stare glumly at the wind speed climbing to 28, is listening to the VHF and eavesdropping on the conversations of all the other cruisers here who, like us, are late in heading south and who, like me, are also listening in on everybody else. The VHF radio is a magical link, one of the glues that connects a floating community. It was through channel 16 that we met Tom and Stephany Parsley on Si Amigo a week or so back, at Tuckahoe Point, a nasty little anchorage just off the main channel of the ICW where our two boats tucked in for the night to avoid the brunt of more gale-force winds. Si Amigo, their Pearson 36, dragged that night in the high winds, and they hailed us on the VHF. We put on all our deck lights so they had something to steer back to in the fierce wind and rain and blackness, and then we commiserated with them after their ordeal was over. That night, we all sat up until the winds died down, just past three, each boat keeping an anchor watch, keeping an eye on each other, and talking on the radio. It's not like we could do much actually to help each other, but the sense of community, of shared task and challenge, is a powerful bond, and it lifts the spirit. Since then, Si Amigo and Ithaka have made about the same number of miles a day, and when we pass each other here and there, we wave and chat awhile.

A couple of days after Tuckahoe, when Bernadette and I missed a marker and climbed a mudhill well outside any resemblance to an ICW channel, Tom and Stephany hovered in the channel and stood by, as a friendly sportfisherman with a big engine kindly pulled us and our bruised egos back to deeper water. Several days later, in Beaufort, we finally met the Parsleys in person for the first time and had dinner together. Bernadette said it was like a blind date. She should know, I guess; that's how the two of us met 11 years ago.

Photo of Stephany and Tom Parsley Stephany and Tom Parsley from Si Amigo.

Tom and Stephany turned out to be grand and helpful people who've gone out of their way to share their considerable knowledge and good humor with us. Retired from their working lives in Arizona, they're living aboard full time now and making their third trip south to the Bahamas. Far more courageous than we, with only a propane camping heater, they're anchored out tonight. I spoke with Stephany several minutes ago. She said she'd chosen not to shower today for fear her hair would turn to ice and shatter.

VHF radio is like an old-time, small-town, party line in which anybody can listen in. The sum of the conversations are an aural tapestry of the ever-changing community as boats stay or leave, and others arrive. Most folks just leave the radio on, tuned to channel 16, which is reserved for emergencies and for making initial contact with other boats. The customary procedure is to hail another vessel on channel 16, then mutually agree to switch to a channel that's not reserved for official business. Once your radio is on and tuned to 16, you hear not only those calls coming your way, but all those being made to others as well. When two people make contact and agree to switch to channel 71, for example, everyone else can as well. Silent snooping is a much favored pastime.

Judging from what I can gather on the VHF, as the temperatures have dropped severely over the past couple of days apparently I'm not the only one who's become irritable and unpleasant. There's been a corresponding diminution in radio enthusiasm. The bravado types have gone from macho swagger-speak about the football games they've been watching on cable, to general grousing about the cold. Even the usually irrepressible VHF users, the terminally perky who chat about all the neat things they've been doing and cooking onboard, have started to sound discouraged. One of the singlehanders, a centerpiece of the VHF banter, and a man everyone seems to consult about the weather, just announced that he's pulling up his anchor in the dark at 6:30 tomorrow morning and that he's going to try to motor 80 miles before he puts his head on a pillow tomorrow night. "T'hell with this," he said. "It's 34 degrees INSIDE my cabin. I'm too damn cold to sit anymore. I'm outta here."

Such declarations cause a sea change in the VHF cabal, and suddenly all around us there's discussion of an exodus tomorrow for Southport, 40 miles south on the waterway. No one can head offshore in this, but everyone wants to move a few more miles south at least, just to keep morale up. We're going, too.