A Day in The Life on The ICW

Sundance at anchor in Georgia

00:00 – 04:00: Wake with mild panic every hour or so to make sure the anchor isn’t dragging. Despite the fact that we routinely set two anchor alarms and the fact that we haven’t dragged anchor anywhere in years, we still can’t escape some mild anchoring anxiety. Probably better than becoming complacent. The prospect of us dragging up onto a beach, or our neighbors dragging into us sends a chill down the spine. Every switch of the current, or change in wind direction, warrants some observation.

05:00 – 07:00: The alarm goes off and Chris gets up to start the pre-prepared coffee without turning on a light. Alex and Bill continue to sleep while Chris works on various writing projects sitting up in his bunk with laptop on lap and coffee at his side.

07:00 – 07:30: Sunrise comes late on the ICW in the fall. This route takes us quite far west in the Eastern Time Zone. The days are getting shorter and the clocks don’t turn back until you’re nearly in Miami. (The flip side of course is that sunsets are later too.) Chris drags Bill out of bed in the dark (he loves to sleep in) and rows him ashore for his morning walk as the sun rises. While that’s happening, Alex wakes and prepares the boat to get under way. We sleep on the settees in the salon and every morning Alex puts our bedding away and converts the space back into a sitting area.

The Salon in it’s mid-day configuration.

Next, the garden needs to be stowed. The plants are not unanimously popular aboard the boat, but they are with us nonetheless. To keep them from crashing around the boat while we’re sailing, Alex puts them into the sink in the head for safekeeping before we get going. (Smart to brush your teeth before this happens.)

The Garden

We have 14 opening hatches on the boat. All of them have screens and we like to sleep with them open while at anchor for the ventilation in warm weather. When underway, we sail with them all closed 100% of the time to be sure to keep salt out of the cabin. This task of closing and dogging down all of these hatches is also on Alex’s morning to do list.

07:30: Pull up the anchor and get underway. Checklist:

  • Dinghy oars stowed
  • Swim ladder stowed
  • Anchor light switched off
  • Engine room check: Dripless shaft packing dry, no fluids under the engine, engine oil on its mark, engine coolant on its mark, no signs of obvious distress.
  • Navigational electronics switched on
  • Anchor wash-down pump switched on
  • Start engine

Chris goes to the bow to pull up the anchor with the electric anchor windlass while squirting the mud off the chain with the wash-down hose. Back in the cockpit, Alex is at the helm to get us off in the right direction once the anchor is no longer holding us in place. Bill is usually overseeing us from his favorite spot under the dodger in the forward corner of the cockpit, making sure we don’t mess anything up.

08:00: Alex finally gets to have her first cup of coffee as she prepares breakfast. We enjoy that meal in the cockpit while underway.

09:00: Before you know it, we’re at our first bridge. 130 bridges span the ICW between Norfolk and Miami. Some are fixed bridges with a 65′ clearance above the water that we can pass under easily with our 51′ air draft. Others are draw-bridges that we need opened before we can pass thru. Some open on demand, others open on a schedule. Some on the hour, others on the hour and half hour, others at 15 minutes after and before the hour. Some have exclusions for periods of rush hour car traffic. Some won’t open in high wind. All of them have human operators who we communicate with via VHF radio. Alex is our onboard radio operator and schedule coordinator. At one point between Hobe Sound and Ft. Lauderdale, she had 29 bridges open for us in a single day!

Alex is our radio operator and bridge coordinator.

10:00 Keep trucking ’til the next bridge. The ICW route from Norfolk to Miami covers 1089 statute miles mostly just inland from, and mostly just parallel to, the ocean. The Army Corps of Engineers built the route to protect commercial traffic against attack from German U-boats, back when that was a concern. The route is still maintained and in use today. It mostly consists of natural bays, sounds, and rivers that have been connected by man-made canals to form a continuous shipping route. Anyone can use some or all of this waterway as much as they want free of charge.

11:00 Stop for fuel. We carry 33 gallons of diesel and burn the stuff at an average rate or .72 gallons per hour. This gives us about 46 hours of run time for a range of about 275 miles at 6 knots of speed. We usually cover approximately 50 miles per day when working to clock miles on our way south (or north). In some areas, especially South Georgia, the fuel docks are spaced over 100 miles apart. We try not to run too low on fuel. A conservative schedule has us topping off the fuel tank every third or fourth day. The ICW is not a great place to run our water maker, so we usually take on water at the fuel dock too. Two full tanks of water will last us about 6 days. We just have to make sure to put the fuel in the fuel tank and the water in the water tank when at the filling station. In Coinjock, NC we (ahem, we??) may have mixed the two up and it took us about a month to properly sort out the collateral damage. If anyone wants a deep dive, we are now complete experts on how to get diesel, and the taste and smell of diesel, out of your drinking water. Happy to share details with anyone who’s interested in learning more about this fascinating subject. After a blind taste test, our water tanks are once again both cleared for use. That was right up there on the list of top ten stupidest things I’ve ever done in my life…

“Wait, I thought Sundance was a sailboat. Don’t you turn the engine off and sail her?” You ask. Yes, we do! But on the ICW, opportunities for good sailing are infrequent. The route is protected from the weather which has it’s advantages, but it also means the wind is usually light and that makes for slow going under sail. Also, the route is often narrow which makes for difficult upwind sailing. We did have three great, rip-roaring sails this year on The Ditch. They were pure joy. When we get going under sail, the boat will go a fair bit faster than she will under motor. More importantly, the silence of sailing is such a relief from the drone of the engine. You could sail the whole way from Norfolk to Miami, and people have done it. 30 years ago when I made this trip on my Tartan 30, we sailed a lot more than we did this time. Primarily because I couldn’t afford the fuel. You have to have a lot of patience tho. With a lot of time spent going nowhere while waiting for wind, I would expect average progress under sail alone to drop to around 10 miles a day. That would make for a 109 day trip. Most sailboats decide to motor 90% of the time and get there in less than 30 days of travel instead.

12:00 Keep trucking. And watch for the shallow bits. In theory the ICW is 12 feet deep. Plenty of water to run our 4.5′ draft sailboat down. But shoaling happens, especially after storms. The Army Corps dredges constantly, but it’s a game of whack-a-mole that they can’t quite keep up with. As a result, shallow spots that we could run aground on are all over the route. There are navigational aids along the way, both floating buoys and fixed day markers, but they are not nearly adequately positioned to keep us out of trouble. Back when I made this trip 30 years ago, GPS was in its infancy. Displays were digital only and there was no chart-plotter to show where you were on a chart. Avoiding the shallow spots was educated guess work and we came to a sudden stop in the shifting mud and sand bottom with great regularity. Since then, the dredging hasn’t changed much, but the navigational electronics on most boats such as ours has improved dramatically. We use four different cartographies to plan and execute our daily runs: Government issued paper charts for planning the evening before. A Navionics app on an iPhone, also for planning the evening before. A Navionics Sonar chart cartography chip displayed on our chart plotter at the helm while underway, and an AquaMaps cartography app displayed on an iPhone at the helm while under way. The cool thing about these last two sources of intel is that they are crowd-sourced and get updated regularly. Volunteers and government survey teams submit data taken by sonar readings and it all gets aggregated in the cloud and then sent back to us at the helm in usable form to help guide us around the shallow spots. Now, you only run aground if you are absent minded. (Like happened to us once in Camp Lejune, NC when we were asleep at the wheel (again, we??)) Otherwise, anyone can easily avoid all the moving shallow spots and get down the ICW with ease. Just keep out of the dark red spots.

14:00 We see the ocean! Every now and then we come across an inlet where we can transit from the ICW out to the ocean and/or back in again. Many people who make the trip from Norfolk to Miami will venture out into the ocean in settled weather for much of their trip. The ocean route has its advantages. The sailing is better, the shallow spots are more well known, and the route is far more straight when compared to the serpentine inland ICW route. The ocean route also has its disadvantages. Its unprotected from bad weather and can be uncomfortable. The inlets are not evenly spaced and there may not be one where you want one. The inlets are not routinely navigable. In high winds and large seas, most are not safe to use. Getting off the ICW route and out to sea and then back in again takes time. When you add all these factors together, it usually only makes sense to go outside when you can run your boat for at least 36 hours straight in good weather. We can’t run our boat overnight at the moment because Bill, our elderly dog, needs to be walked every 12 hours. So for us, the outside route doesn’t make a lot of sense very often, if ever. We did give it a try twice this year for day trips along the Carolina coast. Both times, we got in hours after we would have on the inland route, and both times the sailing didn’t live up to expectations, and both times the inlets were dodgy. I must admit tho, it felt good to be at sea again those days even if the math didn’t make it feel like a win.

15:00: Only two more bridges to go. Sometimes Alex is at the wheel, But usually by now, Chris is at the helm and Alex is deep into dinner prep in the galley down below.

16:00: Drop anchor.

16:01: Serve arrival beverages for all.

17:00A: Dinner in the cockpit. We eat well and we eat early, because the bugs are no joke on the ICW..

A cockpit feast

17:00B: Or, if there is a town near by, we might instead go in for a meal ashore and/or attend to some laundry and food shopping.

Georgetown, SC

Sometimes we stay at a marina and can go grocery shopping with their loaner golf cart.

Captain of the grocery cart.

18:00: Row ashore for the evening dog walk at sunset. Always a joy.

Caution!: must avoid wild boar, snakes and alligators on this beach.

19:00 Screens are up and we’re down below. Reading most nights. Sometimes we play cards too. And one night a week, if we can find good cell service, we get our projector out and watch sailing videos on YouTube. Kind of geeky, I know, but we’re addicted.

21:00 – 00:00: Wake with mild panic to check the anchor.

The ICW is varied and magical

The history, culture and natural beauty is rich

The people we met will stay with us forever

But for us, the rhythm of the ICW life was the most powerful part of the journey

Like a marathon, the ICW keeps coming at you

The endurance factor is mesmerizing, and the daily rhythm is central to the experience

After lolly-gagging in the sublime joys of a New England Summer,

It felt good to mix things up and establish a pace.

Fun Facts:

Depart Norfolk: October 13

Arrive Ft. Lauderdale: November 7 ( We are 20 miles short of Miami waiting here for a few days while tropical storm Nicole burns thru.)

Engine hours used: 189.7

We spent two nights in Beaufort, SC for some R&R. Otherwise, like Sherman, we were on the march:

It wasn’t all quite as routine as I lead you to believe. We had a few longer days. And there were a few shorter days too. Like the day in Ft. Matanzas, FL where we decided to turn a perfectly good sailing day into an impromptu beach day. Worth it.

Now we provision and plan, because soon we will be off for The Bahamas, our next adventure.

Stay tuned.

12 thoughts on “A Day in The Life on The ICW

  1. Wow, had no idea about the realities of the ICW. I raise a glass of diesel to you for all the effort!

  2. Thanks for a fascinating look at your daily activities. Am happy to hear my sister is a bridge navigator

    1. We eat that meal too! Another one of Alex’s many responsibilities aboard and it’s always delicious. My favorite is this salad she makes with a hard boiled egg cut in thin slices with this clever little wire device plus tuna fish and capers and pickled onions and several other good things that I’m forgetting now. We eat well on the boat and it’s all Alex’s doing. It’s the 1950s in our marriage…

      1. Hi Chris, Alex and Bill,

        Just wanted to comment on the spot-on quality of this installment of your journey. I have made the ICW trip between Boston and South Florida around 25 times, but not for a very long time. Your article, and following your posts, has made me realize how lucky I was to have had the opportunity. I really miss it. I think you caught the essence of the experience when you stated:

        ” the rhythm of the ICW life was the most powerful part of the journey”

        Thanks for taking us with you and for your excellent writing.

        Ron Callahan

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