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Snow Goose Migrates South

Welcome to Part 2 of our three-part series about Onne and Tenley van der Wal’s ICW voyage on the 36-foot trawler Onne, a marine photographer, spent two years refitting. Complications hit during that time when Tenley was diagnosed and treated for cancer. Deciding to recover aboard, the couple head out with high hopes.

Numerous colorful buoy's tied to a Mystic Shores sign.

Photo: Onne Van Der Wal

Just 10 days after Tenley’s last round of chemotherapy for breast cancer, on October 7, 2022, we pointed Goose south – longing to break away to new destinations and leave this exhausting 15-month cancer ordeal behind us. Tenley was tired. But even with everything going on, she said, “It’s a perfect time to go. Let’s get out of here.”

Leaving Narragansett Bay, we first headed down the coast to Mystic Seaport, then Branford, Connecticut, and the Safe Harbor Capri in Port Washington. Goose felt good. I’d already spent two years refitting and testing everything. During the summers, we’d had shakedown mini-cruises to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cuttyhunk, Block Island, and I’d gotten to know the boat inside out. This was very important to me, especially knowing I was responsible for taking care of my wife and keeping things low-stress. If it’s my own ass on the line, eh, whatever, but not when it’s about Tenley. Not now.

The first eye-opener of the trip was New York City. We came through Hell Gate of the East River and just flowed down along the city we’d both visited a hundred times, but never by boat. What a magical way to see the United Nations, Chrysler Building, South Street Seaport, and all those amazing boats, bridges, ferries, the hustle and the bustle – and then the lady herself, the Statue of Liberty.

We tucked Goose in at Liberty Landing in Jersey City for three nights, and brought out our folding bikes, which were easy to stow aboard. Tenley loved touring around by bike much more than walking. Riding around Jersey City and Hoboken, we stopped to watch an expat from Argentina land a beefy striped bass. We stood quietly at Empty Sky, the haunting 9/11 Memorial in Jersey City. One night we went into the city to meet friends for steak frites at Raoul’s in Soho, then went back to Goose and watched a full moon rise over the Financial District. This was only our first leg, and we both loved it.

A number of skyscrapers illuminated by a full moon at night.

From the charming ports of Connecticut, to the bright lights of New York City, Leg 1 was full of wonders. The view from Goose tucked in her marina across from Manhattan. Photo: Onne Van Der Wal

Tenley left the boat for a bit to tie up some loose ends at home. I was joined by an old friend, and we continued poking down the coast. Barnegat Inlet, Stone Harbor, Cape May in New Jersey. Chesapeake City, Maryland. Then Annapolis, where, on the 20th of October, Tenley rejoined, and we rode our bikes around admiring the colonial architecture and ate sushi at Joss. What a lovely town, Annapolis, one I’ve been to many times for work. But this time felt very different, being on this adventure, at this point in our lives. 

We steamed off for St. Michael’s and visited the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, with its impressive collection of classic purpose-built wooden boats, then visited Oxford, a fairly well-known stop for ICW travelers. It was here I got to see Foto, the wood chase boat that the revered photographer Morris Rosenfeld and his son used to shoot their famous black-and-white yachting images in the early 1900s.

There were more of these little discoveries as Tenley and I explored together. We stopped at the island of Tangier, which is slowly getting swallowed by sea level rise, and met watermen who could be from another age. Their accent is so unique, like an Irishman whose mouth is too big for his tongue, and their friendliness made up for anything lost in translation. 

We spoke to a waterman who fished oysters and crabs. His first boat had cost him $10,000, he said, and his commercial fishing license $25. Now the license costs $25,000. He said a word that sounded like “crayarbs” and said they bring more at the market than they used to, but not enough to keep up with the price of life. “Mote-ole” which I think meant motor oil, “used to cost 30 cents a gallon. Now it’s $12. Ain’t nobody works the water no more. Cost too much to get in it.” 

In my job as a marine photographer, I hadn’t spent much time just talking to folks in the places I was hired to go. I’d come in, look for the most dramatic imagery, take loads of photos of the boat or regatta I was hired to capture, fly over in a helicopter shooting pictures, then head out. Cruising is completely different. It’s all about the people and going slowly.

Senior adult male wearing a tan hat, dark blue jacket and pants standing at the front of a vessel on open waters.

I liked getting up early, making coffee, shoving off by 8 a.m., and letting Tenley have some time to herself. We motored about five hours during the day, so we’d have no stress and arrive with time to explore. Photo: Onne Van Der Wal

Panoramic view from the front of a white vessel facing the back while speeding on open waters at sunset.

It took a while for us to find our sweet spot; Goose was most fuel-efficient at 7.5 knots. Photo: Onne Van Der Wal

Watching for a weather window

I’m not a big fan of storms and waves. I’ve done enough of those for one lifetime during my offshore racing years. I’m a very fair-weather boater now. The flatter, the calmer, the better. And it was very much my mission to keep Tenley happy and comfortable. I used the SailFlow weather service, and it gave us a good solid week where I could start watching something and start thinking if this does materialize, where will we be? Will we be close to a safe anchorage or harbor if there were a storm? I’d say, “It’s Monday today. By Wednesday we need to be tucked in somewhere. It’s going to blow Friday, Saturday, maybe Sunday. Monday we can move on again.” It was all about avoiding trouble. I think more than anything, why borrow trouble? There’s enough trouble in life.

Still cruising the Chesapeake, we docked at Onancock, which we were told means “a foggy place” in Algonquin. A village of about 1,000 people, Onancock sits on a peninsula that juts down from Maryland but is part of Virginia. We explored the shops and galleries, our favorite being that of Danny Doughty, who paints big, bright scenes of his youth on the Eastern Shore where, as a white boy, he was raised in a protective community of African American women.

We were giving ourselves up to the voyage. If we wanted donuts, Tenley would just go in search of the best glazed in Virginia, and afterward we’d cycle 14 miles through the woods and quiet country lanes, through fields of soybeans. When I’d first brought up the idea of this voyage, she hadn’t been all that keen. But as we floated deeper into the South, she dove into the history of the Revolutionary and Civil war eras, and loved engaging with the people we were meeting. She said the rhythms of the boat and the travel calmed her.

This was 2022. There was an election happening. We were unplugged from it all and liked it that way. After her cancer scare, we just didn’t need any more stress or bad news. On Snow Goose there’s a steering station up high on the flybridge. We spent hours sitting up there, staring down the winding ICW, enjoying the fresh air under a bimini, and just watching the birds, the marshes, towns, and bridges.

A number of white sheds and a large blue one on an empty dock with overcast skies.

Charming Tangier is slowly being swallowed by sea-level rise. Photo: Onne Van Der Wal

Large mural in Annapolis Maryland featuring a man holding a large American Flag.

The beautiful colonial town of Annapolis, also home to the U.S. Naval Academy. Photo: Onne Van Der Wal

Goose keeps giving

Tenley loved going slowly, and the simplicity of it all. Only the important things matter on a boat. Our food. Making sure our transportation was working. The weather. She did yoga on deck, read, and reflected.

I loved the trawler for shooting. We cruised through the Great Dismal Swamp, which was anything but dismal. It’s a straight shot, a canal flanked by forest – narrow, shallow, and beautiful. We were relaxed and noticing all the little details, all the crisp colors. I’d wake up early with the sunrise, and in my skivvies crawl out from my down comforter and stand on deck and shoot. People must have thought, who the hell is this idiot standing there in his tighty whities? I didn’t care. The light’s beautiful, and I wasn’t going to miss it. And I got scenes like the mist in the morning with ducks or herons. What a dream to sleep on location, wake up and shoot wherever and whenever I liked.

We visited Elizabeth City, cruised across Albemarle Sound, then entered the Alligator River with flat water, no breeze, cool clouds – very comfy. We anchored at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in about 8 feet of water, then got lucky with the weather and crossed backrivers to the great little town of Belhaven. At Swansboro, Tenley left the boat to check on our gallery business at home and for some medical checkups. That night, I devoured a great fish dinner at The Boro, walked around admiring the Christmas lights, and happened upon a children’s performance of “The Nutcracker” on a gazebo in the middle of town. I fell asleep on the boat a happy man.

An old friend from Jamestown arrived the next day and we headed out – Wrightsville Beach, then Safe Harbor Marina in Southport for an excellent shrimp and grits dinner at Mr. P’s Bistro, then a sublime anchorage in winding Waccamaw River. It’s hard to describe the leafy beauty of the place. We met Donnie, who owned Bulls Bay Seafood, and a woman named Kim who told us how she raised spat, the young oysters.

A white vessel with a yellow canoe pulling a small white motorized raft.

We poked off the snowbird track in South Carolina to a side branch of the Waccamaw River and had the place to ourselves. Below: A holiday performance of “The Nutcracker” in Swansboro, and a basket of native blue crabs. Photo: Onne Van Der Wal

It was a cold, frosty 32 degrees at night. I shot in the mornings, and the scenery we passed was magnificent. Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Watermelon Creek. Ben Sawyer Bridge. Spanish moss and wide marshes, pelicans and dolphins. And then Charleston, where I spent time visiting one of my dearest friends, Dan Dickison, a truly wonderful old mate. I now treasure that time with him, as he died very recently … of cancer.

Tenley rejoined and we were moving again at our perfect pace, with the tide and the birds and the wind bending the marsh grass. Even the place names fell into an intoxicating rhythm: Ashepoo River, Mosquito Creek, Stono River, George Flats, and Bennett’s Point with its shrimp shack.

In Beaufort, South Carolina, the day before Thanksgiving, we threw our line to a friendly fellow named Mike on the dock. Turns out he was also a Grand Banks owner, so we talked and he offered to show us around, then invited us to his house for dinner. His wife, Patricia, was the first woman to land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier, and then she’d flown the left seat on the 767s to Europe for Delta. As an aeronautical geek, I was enthralled with her stories.

Tenley and I rode our bikes around Bluffton, enjoying the simple architecture of small homes, galleries, and shops, and ate tangy oysters and firm, fresh-caught shrimp at Toomers. We toured the Bluffton Oyster Company. I wanted to shoot, but the workers were Gullah and believe that photographs steal from their soul, so I let my memory keep my image.

Three white vessels docked with overcast skies.

Cruising through the colorful marshlands and marsh canals of Georgia was a surreal experience, offering so many spectacular places to drop a hook. Photo: Onne Van Der Wal

Reunion with family

At the Safe Harbor Bahia Bleu Marina near Savannah, Tenley and I locked up the boat and flew back to Rhode Island to see our children for the holidays and attend a family wedding in Germany. I found myself dreaming of getting back to Goose, to the peace and quiet, to the smell of varnish and oil, and to the cozy home feel of our forepeak cabin.

When we set out again, it was with a different anticipation. There was an excitement building; we were getting close to the end of this chapter and the beginning of the next. The anchorages and miles began adding up: Sunbury to Darien, Georgia, and smoked chicken brisket and shrimp at Skipper’s Fish Camp; then the General’s Cut to Cumberland Island; St. Mary’s to Pine Island, Florida, mile marker 765, day number 59 aboard. Super peaceful, birds galore, and 66-degree afternoons. Then St. Augustine with its huge white fort; then Daytona Beach, and Titusville; then Melbourne and Eau Gallie, where we anchored off the public library, went ashore, had mahi and Caesar salad at Squid Lips, and ice cream at Eau Gallie Creamery.

We were inching closer to leaving the American coast and crossing over to the Bahamas. On day 71, West Palm Beach was the end of the ICW for us. We both look back now and remember the whole trip down the East Coast as magical. We’ll always remember the towns and people, waking up in the midst of a backchannel somewhere, the Spanish moss dripping from live oaks, and birds and frogs conducting their dawn chorus. It hadn’t been a “delivery” down the ICW so much as a slow exploratory adventure of the ICW and its surrounding towns, side rivers, and tributaries while heading south.

I loved living on board with Tenley. Loved cooking our meals on board. It’s every guy’s dream to find somebody who wants to explore, and I had that. Tenley hadn’t grown up with boating like I did, but she was the best shipmate I could imagine. I never dreamed she’d be such a dedicated first mate on board and always be so happy to help – everything from cooking a great meal to standing watch to exploring ashore to having a swim.

Tenley was about to become even more important to me after we crossed the Gulf Stream and began island-hopping through the blue Bahamas. That’s when a storm would hit our lives, the biggest storm either of us had never seen coming, and it had nothing at all to do with the weather.


Read Part 1, “Cooking the Goose,” to learn more about Onne’s many refit projects to get Snow Goose ready for the ICW adventure.

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Jeff Hull

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Jeff Hull is a journalist and novelist who lives in Missoula, Montana, a long way from the sea. His writing has appeared in Sailing World, Cruising World, Sailing, Yachting, and many other publications.