More Lessons From the ICW

By Tom Neale, 12/8/2011


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We've just finished a trip of almost two weeks down the coast from the Chesapeake area. While we prefer to do our traveling outside in the ocean, this time of the year the weather is often too bad. Many of the inlets we formerly used are now clogged with sand therefore many of the good inlets are now too far apart. Some have had the aids to navigation removed, because the shoals develop and shift so rapidly. We're not a fast boat so our opportunities to hop out in the morning and get back inside in the evening for a restful night at anchor are very limited. We've spent plenty of nights at sea, but we don't like to this time of year because of the cold. So all of our trip was inside, in the ICW. This meant that we got to experience, once again, the best and the worst of fellow waterway denizens.

A line of boats behind Chez Nous at Great Bridge.
One thing that impressed us was that bridge tenders seemed to be more courteous and helpful this year. They have to deal with irate motorists, regulations (many of which haven't been adequately explained to them), and the needs of boaters who may suffer serious safety hazards should a bridge not open when it's supposed to. Far too many bridges will open only at certain times, and if a boat isn't there on time it may have to wait an hour or more for the next opening. Sometimes this means it's impossible for a boat to be there on time because a previous bridge made them wait. Many boaters don't know, and apparently some bridge tenders don't know, that as a rule bridge tenders are granted discretion to hold an opening a few minutes (usually no more than 10) if it's needed. This can work both ways for boaters. You may need that delay so that you can make the bridge, but if you're already holding in place for the opening and if it's delayed 10 minutes you may not be able to make it to the next timed bridge down the ICW. But either way, boaters and bridges need to communicate.

If you're at a bridge wanting an opening and you know there are several other boats close behind but perhaps around a bend and can't be seen, it's usually a good idea to tell the bridge tender so that he can get the group through on one opening. But if you've raced to the bridge to get through on schedule so that you can avoid a two hour delay down the way at a timed bridge, it isn't fair to be forced to suffer this consequence because someone is blithely straggling along back there under sail. The whole deal can be very difficult. But we noticed this year that boaters and bridge tenders seemed to get along better. It was nice to see for a change.

We did notice what seemed to be more of a problem in one area of boat to bridge communications. This occurs when a slowly approaching boat is holding up a flock of boats waiting for an opening, and it isn't standing by on the VHF as the bridge tender and other boats try to reach him to see when, if ever, he's going to make it to the bridge and to determine whether it's appropriate to hold the opening for him. On the east coast, bridges stand by on either 09 or 13 VHF, depending on the state. Boats are required by law to be standing by on 16 (whether it shatters their tranquility or not) and should also stand by on 13 using another VHF. This is because commercial traffic such as tugs, dredges and large freighters use this. (We've found that scanning multiple stations doesn't work very well because often a quick terse transmission of extreme importance will be clipped or missed altogether.) In the vicinity of a bridge boats should stand by on the bridge frequency (as well as 16) so that you know what's going on at the bridge. For example, there may be emergency vehicles enroute which will delay the opening or the bridge may be broken. Standing by on the VHF not only adds to convenience but it also adds to safety.

Tom’s Tips About ICW Traveling

1. Some boaters start out with the concept that it's going to be something like going south on I 95. This is a recipe for disaster.

2. Navigating on the ICW requires constant attention. It is seldom a relaxing experience. At times it can be fairly relaxing, as when you're in a wide deep empty river or sound, but this isn't the norm.

3. Use more than one resource. We use paper charts and two chart plotters as well as guide books.

Click Here for More Tips

While communications at bridges seemed to generally go well, at least in our experiences this year, we noticed some rather sparse communication efforts in another common situation. This involves overtaking. Obviously some boats are faster than others. A 7 knot boat, for example, shouldn't have to run all day at, say, 4 knots because a boat ahead only runs at 4 knots. Much of the ICW is very narrow, with winding channels and steep banks on the sides of the channel. So if there is to be an overtaking, communications are normally very important. The boat being overtaken often can't maintain course and speed without running aground (because the channel changes) or because water depth may decrease. The boat overtaking needs a little cooperation from the slower boat. Often it is helpful for both parties to agree via VHF for the slower boat to slow down, so that the pass can be more quickly accomplished before the next bend or further narrowing. Often it's easier for both if the boat being overtaken will agree through communications to move over a little bit. And often the slower boat will want to agree to slow to dead slow so that the overtaking boat can pass as slowly as possible. This is helpful to the slower boat because it results in less wake and, again gets the process over with more quickly.

In many cases, we've seen a slower boat fail to answer the radio call of the faster boat and fail to slow down, forcing the faster boat to pass at a speed sufficient to get past. This speed often is the worst speed for generating large wake. All it takes is a little communication to work all this out to the safety and satisfaction of both boats. But when the slower boat doesn't respond to the radio call, the only recourse left for the larger boat is to, (following the rules of the road and proceeding with full regard to safety and prudent navigation) give the proper horn signal. But this only tells the slower boat which side he's going to come around. Of course it also notifies the slower boat that an overtaking on a certain side is requested, and gives the slower boat a chance to disagree, but this isn't helpful if the slower boat simply doesn't communicate in any way.

Sometimes I think that problems such as these are due in part, not to rude boaters, but simply to the fact that it's a first trip and it's so much fun and so pleasurable that the boater just doesn't realize he's got to follow certain procedures, not as a burden, but as an aid to his having even more fun.

We've enjoyed doing the trip for more years than I care to count. It's been gratifying over the years to see more boaters also come to enjoy this experience. But as its gotten more and more crowded out here, it's become even more crucial that we all understand the rules, understand the dynamics of running boats, and appreciate the importance of simple courtesy.



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