05 June 2010

A Beginner's Guide to the ICW

Kyle and Darcy compiled this so that others can learn from OUR mistakes and assumptions, without having to go through the trouble of making our rookie mistakes.  

Things You Need:
  • A boat. It seems obvious, doesn't it? But one of the most important things about this boat is the draft, because there will be times when a six foot draft isn't going anywhere if the tide is low. We're nearly five foot and we've made it through some tight situations where I wouldn't want to take a boat that draws six foot.
Ignoring the chart, we went where
there was deep water.  It looks
like we went over the island though.

  • Charts, and a grain of salt. They will often tell you where you can go and where you can't go, but they aren't the final authority on the matter.  We tried to anchor in the "fourteen foot" depths of the Daytona Beach area and never saw more than 8 foot (and then ran aground looking for these mythical deep waters). Especially in the past week or so, the charts haven't even really been guides, they've just been way off. At other times, however, low tide matches exactly what the chart says.  We've seen charts that have anchorages highlighted - that is very helpful if you don't want to spend money on marinas.
  • Waterway Guides! Muy importante. And definitely more than one! Something to tell you the name of the bridge and when it opens, what kind of holding/shelter you can find in which anchorage, and something to tell you when the markers have been moved or reversed. Even if they're a little dated, the info will probably still be useful. We really enjoy Skipper Bob, who tells us things like where the dinghy dock is, how much it costs, whether there are grocery stores nearby, etc. Since we never go to marinas (poor college students, remember?), this is pretty vital for us to know.
What We've Learned:
  • Your depth sounder is your new best friend. At some places, the chart will show a channel magically deep to the shores, but it is not. Kyle has learned how to "feel" for the channel via depth sounder. Darcy is not so good at that yet...
  • It is much cheaper to buy TowBoatUS or SeaTow insurance and not need it than to not get it and need it. I am talking about $1000 savings here. As this page shows, you'll be paying $250 per hour plus $20 per foot to be towed or ungrounded. Or, you just pay $150 at the beginning of your trip and stop worrying. Also I am discovering other perks likes $0.10 off per gallon of diesel.
  • In addition, you do not have to be a member of these services to call and ask for advice. We met some liveaboards in Georgetown who advised us that there was no way we could make it past Jekyll Island at low tide. Of course, we arrived at Jekyll Island at low tide. However, a quick radio chat with TowBoatUS let us know that the shallowest depths were six foot in the middle of the channel - things did get a little tight, but we made it through without issue.
  • Look over your route the night before. This is a lot like homework, but you're going to have to suck it up and just do it. If you fail to look over tomorrow's route and arrive at a bascule bridge at 7:05, only to discover that it doesn't open again until 9am because of morning commuters, you're going to be sorry.  If you look over your route the night before, you can decide whether to get going early or sleep in.
  • Avoid this marker at low tide!
  • Here's another reason to look over the route - tides. The NC ICW tides are mostly wind-driven, and really don't matter too much. When you start getting south, if you have a larger draft you are probably going to need the tidal schedule for the area you'll be passing through, and note that high tide on the coast could be an hour or three earlier than high tide on the ICW. Even if you have a shallow draft, this is still really good info to know. A good site to check for this is Saltwatertides. Another possibility is to know the tidal schedule at a major inlet or such body of water, and use your guidebook to calculate the offsets.
  • Speaking of tides, they apparently cause some pretty swift currents that reverse four times a day. We've had days against both current and wind where we were making only 2-3 knots. This is also something you want to pay close attention to when setting your anchor - when the current reverses, you need to be sure you're not going to drag, which might mean setting two anchors on occasion.

Helpful Hints to Know:
  • Seaclear II: A free, downloadable chartplotter for use on your laptop. We use it daily. Of course, our position is verified visually and recorded on paper charts frequently, but it's still a very nice tool to have. Downsides are the fact you can't see most laptop screens in the daylight, and of course electronic aids are always a possible place for failure. But did I mention it's free?
  • Giant wake!  And did he slow down?  No.
  • Weekends: when you're on permanent vacation, the weekends start to be a bane. Weekends are when all the little powerboats start buzzing around like mosquitoes. You think you're in a nice, peaceful anchorage making a pot of soup and suddenly the galley turns sideways because these powerboats will show you no mercy with their wakes. Ever. EVER!
  • Dolphins - they prowl around the boat, surfacing just underfoot trying to scare you and make you fall in so that they can maul you.  Sometimes you can see them coming, sometimes they come out of nowhere!  Occasionally manatees do the same.  I hear they're herbivores, but that doesn't mean they won't take a big chomp out of our dinghy.
Lastly, if anyone else has any more advice, put it in the comments.  It would be great to see what other people learned too!

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