Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Norfolk and ICW Day 1

posted by Ardys

Still gray and occasional drizzle, but it’s 70 F so we’re not complaining.  It’s November, for goodness sake. In Duluth, we’d be wearing winter coats.  We crossed the Norfolk Harbor entrance (right over the tunnel where all those cars have been disappearing on the bridge) and motored on down the Newport News Channel and Hampton Roads.  Norfolk Naval Base is an imposing sight from the water—warships of various sizes, an aircraft carrier or 
two, an enormous white Hospital ship and yet more warships.  Initially I thought that naval ships were all on our left, but as we went farther into the city center of Norfolk, it was very obvious that the business of the Navy occupies both sides of the curvy channel; some boats in a state of repair, a few looking too far gone to be recovered.  Wow!  All I can say is “Boo-yah, Go Navy.”  This was a fascinating ride for the 10 miles from our anchorage to the Statute Mile Marker 1, (STM 1), the beginning of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).

Before I explain what the ICW is all about, I have to say that the question most frequently asked of us in Annapolis as we were preparing to depart was, “Are you going in or out?”  We met one rather new sailor in Annapolis who confessed to us that he didn’t know what that meant when first asked so he punted and said, “I haven’t decided.”  He did already know that you never want it to be too obvious that your nautical knowledge may be lacking.  Unless, you are really floundering, and then just ask the question straight out, case in point, “how the hell do you back your boat into that tiny slip like that?”  But I digress.  Each fall, a long caravan of sailboats and power boats make the trip from the cooler climate of the northern Eastern seacoast down to warmer points south.  To them, “in” means “inside the ICW” and “out” means “sailing off coast”  in the Atlantic.

Until a few years ago, I’d never even heard of the ICW.  And when I did, I can’t say as I had a desire to go there.  If you take the ICW the entire way from Norfolk at STM 1 to Miami at approximately STM 1100, you will have slogged your way down a narrow channel for yes, 1100 miles!  Very little if any sailing on the ICW because one has to stay within the channel which at times is as narrow as 60’ wide.  The ICW cleverly follows all the rivers and bays that are generally going in the right direction (north/south) and connects the gaps between them with a man-made ditch.  A lot of sailors refer to the ICW as “the ditch.”  Many stretches of the ICW are actually beautiful with wetlands and wildlife or interesting shoreside development.  But 1100 miles of traveling at most, 7 knots (~8 mph) and you can see how this might not be the most pleasant experience.  

 The alternative to the ICW, of course, is a shorter and much more direct route, but involves going offshore and requires one to wait for good weather windows.  Many people do go offshore.  They might go with a crew of 4 or 6 people and then they could sail from say, Norfolk all the way to the Caribbean, for example.  There are sailboat rallies each fall that do just that.  One is called “The 1500” and the other is “The Salty Dawg.”  We might actually do one of those rallies next year, but for now, we chose the ditch.  Other people hop offshore for just portions of the journey south and they might do that with only a crew of two, like we will when we get to Georgia. 

So, we were at last in the ICW.  STM 1.  By the way, on inland waterways, we use statute miles as measurement, so a mile on a lake or bay or river is the same as a mile on land (except for the water, of course).  For the most part, there are 3 fairly simple rules in the ICW:  1)  Stay in the channel   Going south, we keep the red triangles on our Right, and the Green squares on our Left.  This will continue until the channel directs us that the “colors reverse.”  2)  Make sure the bridges are high enough before going under.  With tides and currents and occasional heavy weather, water level changes, and 3)  Play nicely.  We are sharing this narrow channel with power boats, tow boats, barges, etc.  Faster boats are supposed to hail us so we know they’re behind, and ask permission to pass “on our port or starboard”.  They don’t always do that.  But one radio transmission I heard on Ch 16  was, “I’m a little tender.  Please take it slow.”  Chuckling ensued in our cockpit on NORTHERN STAR. 


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