Cruisers Head Down the ICW with the SAIL Snowbird Rally - Sail Magazine

Cruisers Head Down the ICW with the SAIL Snowbird Rally

Author:
Publish date:
“Now where’s that bridge...” Steve Spracher keeps a solitary lookout aboard his Lagoon 38

“Now where’s that bridge...” Steve Spracher keeps a solitary lookout aboard his Lagoon 38

As far as fleets go, the collection of boats that greeted me as I motored into Hampton, Virginia, in late October was as varied as they come: sloops, cutters, catamarans, a trawler and even a trailer-sailer, all geared up and ready for an adventure. I had brought our Norlin 34, Ostara, down from Boston’s North Shore to join 20 other boats in SAIL’s second Snowbird Rally down the Intracoastal Waterway.

Always one to be fashionably late, ours was the last boat to arrive in Hampton for the rally start. I was waved into a slip at the Hampton public pier by a smiling Tom Hale, co-leader, along with On The Water Chartguides authors Mark and Diana Doyle, of the 2015 Snowbird rally.

The get-to-know-you dockside drinks party that afternoon was my first chance to get acquainted with the other rally participants. They looked a happy enough bunch, for sure; who wouldn’t be, heading south away from a northern winter? Ahead of us lay 800 miles of the ICW, and for all but a few of this diverse group it would be the first transit of this legendary waterway. Mine, too, so I was glad to have the Doyles’ expert guidance.

Tom Drew and wife Carolyn, southbound on their Catalina 36 Providence

Tom Drew and wife Carolyn, southbound on their Catalina 36 Providence

The point of the ICW rally is to transform what can be a long, lonely slog into a shared—and guided—adventure, a cruise-in-company down a beautiful waterway that’s all the more enjoyable if you’re absolved from the weight of mile-by-mile planning. Regular briefings would advise us how to deal with the next lot of opening bridges, tricky shoal areas, locks and whatever else we might encounter. We would congregate at a number of designated marinas and towns along the way, where red carpets would be rolled out and there would be food, cocktails and the congenial company of our fellow sailors. We’d be in constant contact via VHF. We would not get our hands held, but a helping hand would be there whenever it was needed. If we had engine or systems woes, former ABYC VP Tom Hale was on hand to provide on-point troubleshooting and the use of his Port Supply card. What could possibly go wrong?

All smiles: Dwayne and Janet Boettcher on Foreign Affair

All smiles: Dwayne and Janet Boettcher on Foreign Affair

The Atlantic Intracoastal is an intriguing mixture of narrow tidal rivers and cuts and wide-open bodies of water, festooned with fixed and opening bridges with the odd lock thrown in just for the hell of it. I had already unwillingly traversed a couple hundred miles of it by entering the Delaware Bay at Cape May, transiting the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and then slogging down the Chesapeake Bay to Hampton. In front of us lay another 800 statute miles—you go by these rather than nautical miles on the ICW, which caused me some angst to begin with—through five states before we reached our final stop, St Augustine in Florida. (For a full itinerary, go to icw.sailmagazine.com/rally).

The Doyles had carefully scheduled the route to leave some wiggle room for bad weather and keep long motoring days to a minimum, while allowing for time to explore the appealing destinations en route. They had planned parties at marinas and festivities in conjunction with local tourism authorities. They had also cultivated a network of “harbor hosts,” local cruisers and Seven Seas Cruising Association members who would befriend the rallyers during the stopovers and help them out with transportation, sightseeing and so on. It was a masterpiece of logistical planning, and, amazingly considering a bunch of sailors were involved, it all held together.

Frank and Carol Schubauer and shipmate Mollie on their Beneteau 33, Hakuna Matata

Frank and Carol Schubauer and shipmate Mollie on their Beneteau 33, Hakuna Matata

I was struck by the fact that while I can contemplate an open-water passage of several hundred miles with equinamity, the prospect of entering the confined waters of the ICW caused me no little anxiety. At the same time, I had always been intrigued by descriptions and photos of the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, so on the rally’s first morning, when Mark gave me the choice between accompanying the fleet through the Canal or taking the Virginia Cut route favored by deeper-draft vessels, it was the Dismal Swamp for me, and damn the torpedoes. After all, at least one other rally boat drew 6ft, which is the canal’s controlling depth.

Kirk Nilles and Melba Covert have sailed and trailered their McGregor 26 all over

Kirk Nilles and Melba Covert have sailed and trailered their McGregor 26 all over

Although we touched bottom many times along the 22-mile canal (as did other boats that drew less than us), it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed. Maples, cypress, gum trees and juniper crowded the banks and branches reached out toward our masthead gear as we tried to keep bang in the middle, tracking down the strip of sky reflected between the treetops in the inky, tannin-infused water. Our steady 5.5 knot speed slowed by half a knot from time to time as the keel dug a fresh furrow through the soft bottom. Late that afternoon it became clear we wouldn’t reach the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center before dark, so we tied up to a handy government dock—ignoring the “Strictly No Mooring” sign—fired up the grill, opened a bottle of cabernet and enjoyed an eerily quiet (though freezing cold) night. It was almost surreal to think that just a few days earlier I had been on the receiving end of a thorough butt-kicking on the offshore delivery from New England. Next day, the presentation at the welcome center by lock-keeper/bridge tender Robert Peek was a real highlight of the trip.

My part in this ICW adventure came to end in Oriental, where I laid Ostara up for the winter. Meanwhile, I‘d enjoyed getting to know the rally folks during the Dismal Swamp, Dowry Creek and Oriental stopovers. Like most congregations of sailors, they were a thoroughly nice bunch with varying degrees of experience, enjoying their latest adventure. For some, the trip down the ICW was the first step in a new liveaboard lifestyle; for others, just one leg of an extended sabbatical or vacation.

There was an interesting cross-section of boats, too; Gil and Charlene Gelineau’s Bristol 45 Ithaka was the biggest, and, with her 64ft air draft, tempting fate with the ICW’s 65ft bridge clearances. At the other end of the spectrum was Il Nostro Sogno, Kirk Nilles’s and Melba Covert’s MacGregor 26, a very well-travelled boat whose exploits you’ll read about in a future issue of SAIL. In between, many of America’s past and present boatbuilders were represented; Tartan, Catalina, Caliber, Gemini, Pacific Seacraft, Island Packet, Hunter, Passport, Freedom. In a sign of the times, a quarter of the fleet was comprised of catamarans. Retired public defender Steve Spracher, single-handing his Lagoon 38 Southern Cross, was the most seasoned sailor on the rally. Steve is a veteran of some hardcore bluewater sailing and several open-water rallies, including the World ARC; a gregarious fellow for a solo sailor, he just happens to love the social side of the rally experience. It’s a great way to not just meet people, but to form lasting friendships through shared experiences.

The group displays new electronic flares, a gift from Sirius

The group displays new electronic flares, a gift from Sirius

And yet, there’s more to this rallying game: Donna Schlachmann and Rob Becker, who sailed their Hunter 38 Kinship south from New Hampshire in company with the Gelineaus on Ithaka, joined up at the last minute after a hard few weeks of cruising south: “We feel incredibly lucky to have fallen in with this lot at Hampton … The chance to have others help make decisions, give advice and provide a high level of ICW expertise was just what we needed at that time,” Donna says.

“It’s an overworn phrase, but the rally is the gift that keeps on giving. We continually use the knowledge imparted, we know better what questions to ask ourselves, and we know where to look for answers. Our leaders were top-notch and we just feel plain lucky to have shared some of the ICW with them.”

Pat Murphy pilots Ostara around yet another tight bend

Pat Murphy pilots Ostara around yet another tight bend

The Snowbird Rally wound up with SAIL’s Sailing South seminar in St. Augustine, which drew more than 100 cruisers to enjoy presentations on sailing to Cuba, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas—which represented the spread of the rally alumnis’ aspirations. Some went east, others south; as one adventure ended, others began.

map_ICW

The Route

After Hampton, the rally left Virginia and entered North Carolina via the Dismal Swamp Canal. The fleet spent two nights at Elizabeth City, then crossed the Albemarle Sound and Alligator River to Dowry Creek Marina at Belhaven. Next port of call was Oriental, and after that Spooners Creek Marina in Beaufort, followed by Southport Marina in Southport.

In South Carolina, the rally stopped over at Osprey Marina in Myrtle Beach, Charleston Harbor Marina in Charleston, and finally the Downtown Marina in Beaufort.

In Georgia, the first stopover was in Savannah Bend Marina in Thunderbolt, outside Savannah. The next was at Golden Isles Marina on St. Simons Island, followed by Lang’s Marina in St. Marys on Cumberland Island. On the Georgia/Florida border, Fernandina Beach Marina was the last stopover before the rally wound up in St. Augustine.

EXPERIENCE THE ICW WITH SAIL

We’ll be announcing details of the 2016 Snowbird Rally in the next month or so. The third Secrets of the ICW seminar will take place on Sunday, October 9, in Annapolis. Keep an eye on icw.sailmagazine.com for sign-up information.

March 2016

Related

SWTR005_SWJK022

MPX Pro Offshore Jacket

Heavy Duty JacketMusto’s new MPX Pro Offshore Jacket features the same waterproof, breathable three-layer Gore-Tex fabric as its predecessors, but weighs 15 percent less. Changes to the hood make it easier to adjust and the fleece-lined collar and hood pod provide both warmth and ...read more

2018-BestBoatNominees

Best Boats Nominees 2019

As we approach the upcoming fall boat shows, perhaps the best word to describe the boatbuilding industry’s latest crop of new designs is “consolidation.” Specifically, in recent months we’ve seen a number of innovations introduced in years past continue to work their way up and ...read more

9781472947666

Book Review: The Atlantic Crossing Guide

Jane Russell & the RCC Pilotage FoundationIf you have a yen for sailing across the Pond to explore the delights of Northern Europe or the Mediterranean, you’d best do some homework first. There’s no better primer than this weighty tome, now in its 7th edition. It’s crammed with ...read more

shutterstock_63705382

Raytech Gelbox Line

Well GelledEvery so often you run across a product you never knew you needed, and then you wonder why it took so long for someone to come up with it. Thus it is with the Gelbox line from Raytech. These reuseable plastic boxes for low-voltage connectors are filled with gel, so ...read more

shutterstock_295810247

Cruising: Nova Scotia’s Bras d’Or Lake

I have rarely had a cruise that wasn’t different from my expectations, and my Nova Scotia travels have borne that out. For my friend and shipmate, Steve White, and me, our 2017 trip to Cape Breton Island and the Bras d’Or Lake on One Timer, my Sabre 362, was a much anticipated ...read more

ElanGT5-a

Boat Review: Elan GT5

Aboard many modern yachts, it can be hard to remember exactly what boat you’re on until your eye happens to light upon a logo. However, this is most definitely not the case with the Elan GT5, a performance cruiser with a look all its own and style to burn.Design & ...read more

01-Lead-P1060210

Handheld VHF Radios

For many sailors, cell phones have become their primary means of both ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communication. Even the Coast Guard will often ask for a cell number after it receives a distress call. None of this, however, makes a VHF radio any less important—and this goes ...read more

Seascape24

Boat Review: Seascape 24

Since its inception in 2008, Slovenian builder Seascape, founded by a pair of Mini Transat sailors, has focused solely on creating boats that are both simple and loads of fun to sail. With their 18-footer and then a 27-footer they succeeded in putting out a pair of trailerable ...read more