The Mailbag

By Bernadette and Douglas Bernon
December 15, 2000
Lake Worth, Florida
28 36 N 80 03 W

Hearing from readers when we download our e-mail every week or two has become a grand treat in our cruising routines, and we look forward to it with great anticipation. To date we've received hundreds of notes from readers, which thrills us.

In St. Augustine a couple of days ago, we dinghied into the only place in town you can tie up your dink, the municipal docks, which extort $7 a day for the privilege. We hiked over to the public library, logged on for free (one of the wonderful services in most American public libraries today), and picked up the latest batch of missives. Thank you! We were overwhelmed by all the personal notes, the suggestions, and the comments, particularly after our log about Jason Stern. We really appreciate that so many of you took the time to write, and to tell us of your lives and your own cruising plans. We're thrilled to hear that so many of you are also on your countdown year or two before departing. Your kind words and encouragement mean the world to us. If our logs show you a bit of what the reality of the cruising life is like for us, that makes us very happy indeed.

We were particularly touched by the warm invitations from those of you living along the path of our travels on the ICW. Your generous offers of dinners and drinks and showers and laundry and dockage and cars have been fantastically generous.

A friend of ours, Bob Gallagher, who's worked on our boat with us and knows the true level of our mechanical skills, looked at our on-line logs for the first time a few weeks ago. His comment? "I was so relieved to see that you guys weren't trying to give anybody any advice." Well, okay. Although most of your mail was personal in nature, a few of you had questions for us, and — risking a long sigh from Bob — we decided to take the opportunity to answer several of those questions in this week's column. We hope that anyone who has more or better information on any of these subjects will share them on the Cruising World Bulletin Board.

Photo of peanuts Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia are peanut country.

Peter L. wrote that he's doing the waterway next year on his new Beneteau 44, and asked if we had any suggestions for him. Well, that's a tall order, but we have a few modest ideas that might prove useful. First, we suggest you get the latest editions of the following three books: the Waterway Guide (for the regions you will travel), The Intracoastal Waterway — A Cockpit Cruising Handbook (Jan and Bill Moeller), and Anchorages Along the ICW (Skipper Bob). Each has a lot to offer, especially if your boat has a six-foot draft, as ours does; anchorages of sufficient depth are not as common as you might hope. We wish we'd used John Kettlewell's chart book of the ICW, rather than the larger-format Chart Kit, which is a little unwieldy. Many ICW veterans we met had switched to the Kettlewell book, as it's a great size to handle in the cockpit. We enjoyed the waterway from Norfolk, Virginia, to Beaufort, North Carolina, where it winds through lovely natural vistas that narrow enough to bird-watch, and then that open up into vast rivers and brisk sailing — a wonderful balance. Beaufort is a lovely little town to hang out in for a day or two to regroup, get mail, provision, use the free car at the Mariner's Museum and just poke around. Beaufort also is a great place from which to jump out to St. Marys inlet (three nights offshore). We tired of waiting for a weather window at Beaufort that would allow us to sail outside, so we stayed in the waterway to Southport, North Carolina, and hopped out from there to St. Marys, a terrific two-day run of 300 miles. St Marys, on the border between Georgia and Florida, is huge and clearly marked, and takes you into either Fernandina to the south (don't stop in Fernandina, the stench from the factories is nauseating) or the magnificent anchorage at Cumberland Island, to the north, where it's worth spending as many nights as tickle your fancy. The island is part of the national park system. The beaches are white and long; there are great hiking trails and the woods are filled with zillions of armadillos and lots of wild horses. From there, make tracks to St. Augustine — a city full of lovely old Spanish architecture, good shopping, and fun restaurants. You can go outside from the cut, but everyone suggests this is done only with some up-to-date shoal and buoy knowledge — obtainable via VHF from the Coast Guard or TowBoatUS or locals.

The magenta line on the NOAA charts indicates the ICW route. On this typical NOAA chart of the waterway, as the line passes the St. Augustine inlet, note that it appears to cut across a shoal area. This is an error. Do not follow this line; the red buoys are part of the ICW buoyage system, indicate a constantly shifting shoal, and should be honored. Go around them, or you'll go aground.

Photo of the magenta line on the NOAA chart The magenta line on the NOAA charts indicates the ICW route. On this typical NOAA chart of the waterway, as the line passes the St. Augustine inlet, note that it appears to cut across a shoal area. This is an error. Do not follow this line; the red buoys are part of the ICW buoyage system, indicate a constantly shifting shoal, and should be honored. Go around them, or you'll go aground.

From St. Augustine, run south or head down a little farther inside and go out again at Cape Canaveral. We were surprised by how few inlets along the ICW are clear and deep enough to use confidently without up-to-date local information; shoaling is a major factor for keelboats trying to get in or out of the waterway. The biggest piece of advice we can offer you, however, is to do the ICW earlier in the season than we did, say mid-September. We left it too late and, as you know if you've been suffering through our columns over the past month, we got hammered by a tight procession of arctic cold fronts — not all that uncommon at the end of November and into December. One last word on the ICW: Be sure to get towing insurance before you go. As careful as you might be to stay within the channel markers, the waterway shoals naturally and needs to be dredged constantly, so going aground is not a rare event. Most times, you can just back off the mud, but if you ever need a tow from one of the professional towing services, the cost is exorbitant. We met a couple who had just paid $1,000 to be towed off the hard, mostly because the towing service had to come rescue them from such a great distance, and they charge by the hour. We have TowBoatUS insurance (about $100 a year), and we're happy with them. We've never needed to use their towing service (touch wood), but all the cruisers call them on the VHF before using any of the inlets, or before entering such shallow channels as Beaufort, and the BoatUS folks are more than happy to tell you where any new shoaling may have occurred. They are real pros, and extremely helpful to cruisers who require the latest skinny anywhere along the waterway, whether you use their insurance or not.

Andrew S. asked about the powerboat operators on the ICW. Overall, we've been happy with the politeness on the waterway, and the skill of the powerboaters. Almost all cruising powerboats slow down so that their wakes don't severely buffet slower-moving sailboats. Most passing boats hail each other on the VHF radio to relay their intentions, and exchange pleasantries. One day, in Beaufort, we met Jon Eisberg, a professional photographer — if you follow auto racing, you've seen his magnificent work – and a professional delivery skipper. He was single-handedly taking a brand-new Sabreline 42 power cruiser to Key West, introduced himself to us on the dock, and said he'd been reading "The Log Of Ithaka" on the CW website. One thing led to another, and the next thing we knew we were having dinner together and Jon was sharing his wisdom with us about the rest of the voyage south. Jon is a sailor and a powerboater, and an active participant on the Cruising World Bulletin Board. His advice was useful, and his generosity of spirit is typical among the boaters going south, whether they're operating sailboats or powerboats.

Leonard M. wrote to ask us about our autopilot, which we wrote about a few weeks back. "Your boat seems big for an Autohelm 4000," he commented. "Shouldn't you have a larger unit?" Absolutely. But that's the unit Ithaka came with. Raytheon does recommend a larger unit for a boat as heavy as ours (23,000 pounds), but we've had great results with the simple and sturdy wheel-mounted 4000. It works beautifully in light-to-moderate conditions, under sail and power. Beyond that, and for passagemaking, we use our Monitor wind vane. These two pieces of equipment make a great balance for us.

Somehow, we seemed to get under Geoffrey Z.'s skin. He wrote, "If it took you a week to get from Norfolk to Beaufort, you will never make it to Florida, let alone the Bahamas or Cuba. Second, if you tie up at a marina every night you will get to know the wrong crowd — real cruisers live on the hook." Well, first, speed isn't our only goal. Second, in our lifetimes of cruising, we've spent, in total, seven nights in a marina, and all of them have been this month. We're not sure what you mean by "the wrong people." We've met fabulous people from all walks of life and on all kinds of boats, in anchorages and marinas alike. Mostly the folks we met who were stopping in marinas did so because of snowstorms and gale-force winds. For us, safety and comfort were an easy call. Sorry we disappoint you.

Photo of the Globalstar hand-held phone The Globalstar hand-held phone works in normal cell-phone mode, or satellite mode. Reception of signal in either mode, and voice clarity, is excellent.

Jim J., who's cruising aboard his Bristol 43.9 Esconditas, wrote to ask about which wireless telephone service we used, and told us of some trouble he was having with the popular AT&T One Rate (which is one monthly fee based on a selected number of minutes, with no roaming or long distance charges). Jim says AT&T abruptly cancelled his contract after three months because he was using "too much roaming." We know several cruisers (including ourselves) who use AT&T One Rate, who purchase the maximum number of minutes per month, and who have had no such problems. In our experience with AT&T One Rate, however, we've found a different challenge: Signal reception has been poor or spotty in almost all the remote areas we've been cruising since we got the service this summer. This has been very frustrating. On the other hand, we also had Verizon service from an old contract with roaming charges (yikes!) that has now mercifully run out. The Verizon service seemed to offer better reception.

On a related subject, for those of you who may be considering a satellite phone, we have a new Globalstar phone aboard Ithaka (provided to us on temporary loan from the company). This is one cool machine and one amazing service. About the size of an ear of corn, it works as a cell phone (with competitive Verizon service fees) and it can switch to satellite mode (rates are by the minute) with the simple raising of an alternate antenna. The reception up and down the East Coast and offshore has been flawless in either mode. Regardless of where we've been, the Globalstar phone was always ready to go with a strong signal. We've used the phone from as far as 50 miles off shore, called all over the world, including South Africa, and we've had perfect reception. The system operates via low-earth-orbit satellites, so there is absolutely no annoying delay in conversation. Also — a big advantage — there is nothing to install onboard; the phone is self-contained and ready to go. It can be charged in either a 110-volt outlet or in a 12-volt cigarette lighter plug. Other than the steep per-minute charge when in satellite mode, this is the perfect cruisers' phone, and we highly recommend it for its dependability. We also will be testing it from the Caribbean islands and Cuba, and we'll let you know how it works from there. So far, it looks like this is the phone to beat.

Susan G., who sounds from her note like a professional web designer, wrote to ask if we'd like to share how we built "The Log Of Ithaka" website while we were on the go. Susan, we're flattered and flabbergasted that you'd think we could pull off such a Herculean task, when the fact of the matter is that it's all we can do to put one foot in front of the other most days. The webmaster behind the scenes of "The Log Of Ithaka" and, in fact, the whole Cruising World and Sailing World website is Jeff Roy, a talented man who keeps many plates spinning at the same time. Jeff takes our story every week, and our digital photos, and captions — which we e-mail to him in his office in Newport from wherever we are. He works his magic, and the log materializes every Friday morning. Jeff makes us look good in the process, and for that we're extremely grateful.

Again, many thanks for the mail. We hope our path crosses yours out here soon.