In the Ditch -
October 17, 2003
David didn't want to get up Monday morning. It might have had something to do with how busy we were the day before. On Sunday, we had given a noon presentation at the Annapolis US Sailboat show as part of the Cruising World seminar series; that evening Eileen performed at the Eastport Clipper tavern, just across Spa Creek from the show. Playing back-to-back events had involved much schlepping of sound equipment and at least one emergency trip to the boat to retrieve replacement slides for the ones that jammed in the carousel during our pre-concert equipment check. And, of course, it was necessary to celebrate the final performance at the Clipper with a beer or two (or three ... ).
Eileen was very understanding. "We've gotta get out of here," she announced. "The rental car is due back in three hours, we have to pick up some provisions beforehand, we should do an e-mail session at the harbourmaster's office while we still have internet access, and, by the way, we have less than three weeks to get to Florida. What are you doing still in bed?"
David moaned. "It's Thanksgiving today in Canada. Can't we just spend the day giving thanks?"
Eileen prevailed; the groceries were bought (including a chicken and pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dinner), the car returned, and e-mail sent. Then friends came by to say goodbye; first Marilyn and Brooke who had organized Eileen's Women Aboard concert two weeks ago, and then Nancy and Burger who had put together the Seven Seas Cruising Association gathering we had attended on Saturday. It was after four in the afternoon before we were motoring out of Back Creek and leaving Annapolis. Given the late hour, we stopped short of Chesapeake Bay and ducked into Lake Ogleton for the night. Eileen roasted the chicken perfectly (our oven is too small for a turkey) and we gave thanks we were finally on our way south.
Eileen didn't want to get up the next morning. It might have had something to do with the fact it was still dark out when David turned on the VHF weather forecast. "It's too cold," she whimpered and burrowed further under our down-filled comforter.
David was very understanding. "We've gotta get out of here," he announced. "There's a cold front coming through this evening; by late this afternoon we're going to have 20 knots of wind on the nose. If we leave now, we might make it to Solomons before it gets too rough."
Eileen consoled herself. "At least I'll get to try out the new foul weather gear I bought at the boat show. I knew it was worth depleting our life savings for it."
We're not alone in our rush to go south. As we described in last week's entry ("Chesapeake Convocation"), boats have been milling about in the Chesapeake for weeks now, waiting for hurricane season to end. Many boaters start heading towards tropical paradise once the Annapolis sailboat show is over, figuring the threat of a hurricane will have expired by the time they get there. We had plenty of company once we got out into the Bay.
East coast cruisers are blessed with two southbound alternatives: taking the "ditch" or going "outside". The "ditch", officially known as the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), is a relatively sheltered chain of canals, rivers, and sounds stretching almost 1100 miles from Norfolk to Miami. "Outside" is anything beyond the immediate coast, whether you're headed for Florida, the Bahamas or the Caribbean. We've travelled both routes. Let's look a little closer at the pros and cons of taking the ditch.
You begin the ICW by leaving Chesapeake Bay at Hampton Roads and following the Elizabeth River into the port of Norfolk. There's a wake prone anchorage at Mile Zero just south of Hospital Point. It's not the most charming spot unless you enjoy watching the passage of colossal naval ships and massive barges, so we often anchor across Hampton Roads in Hampton on (you guessed it) the Hampton River. There's room for a few boats in front of Hampton's municipal marina, where there are showers available for a nominal charge and a courtesy phone line for connecting to the internet.
The big advantage of the ICW (and the reason it was built) is that, aside from a few exposed stretches like Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, it's protected water. It's highly unlikely you'll encounter a rogue wave in the ditch, only the wakes of speeding sports fishermen. The big disadvantage of the ICW is that it's tediously long. Large pieces of it meander back and forth as one serpentine creek connects with another via a section of canal. Sailboaters must rely on their auxiliary engines most of the time. There are only a few open areas suitable for sailing. And then there's the problem of running out of water. If you pay attention to your chart and all of the markers and ranges, you'll be okay. If you're like us and find yourself sometimes concentrating on such things as a solution to global warming or what's for dinner instead of the chart and navigational aids, you'll run aground. Fortunately, most of the waterway bottom is mud (the aptly named "Rock Pile" in South Carolina being a notable exception).
Your first day on the waterway will acquaint you with a couple of other reasons some people don't like this route. Going through Norfolk, you'll encounter a gazillion low bridges (okay, about seven), some which open on demand and some which open on schedule. If you happen to radio a bridge tender who speaks a particularly thick version of waterman English, it's not always possible to determine if the bridge will open soon, will open in an hour, or will never open. You'll also encounter some amazingly large tugs and barges; life becomes very interesting when, upon rounding a bend, you find yourself between two barges going in opposite directions. The tug captains tend to speak the same indecipherable waterman language, so you're never quite sure whether or not they've decided your boat is about to become a large fender.
What does the ditch have going for it other than sheltered water? Lots. The route goes by many picturesque historic towns and cities: Elizabeth City, Beaufort (North Carolina), Georgetown, Charleston, Beaufort (South Carolina), Savannah, and St. Augustine, to name a few. If you have the time, there's no better way of catching a slice of American history. There's much in terms of natural beauty as well. The Dismal Swamp (NOT aptly named) at the northern end and Cumberland Island in southern Georgia are two of our favourite spots. All along the ICW, you'll be rewarded with countless bird and wildlife sightings. Ospreys are everywhere and deer are not uncommon; once, we even experienced an attempted boarding by a five foot long rattlesnake (Eileen did not fully appreciate this unique encounter).
For the cruiser who isn't in a hurry and hasn't visited this part of the world before, we'd highly recommend the ditch. And if the delayed bridge openings and the wake from ignorant sports fishermen really bother you (as they might when you reach central Florida), you can always leave and go outside. More on that next week.