Friends and Low Places on the Intracoastal Waterway

Author:
Updated:
Original:
The moment of truth: Lunacy approaches the Wilkerson Bridge

The moment of truth: Lunacy approaches the Wilkerson Bridge

This past fall, for the first time in more than 20 years, I took a boat down the “Ditch,” following the Intracoastal Waterway from Norfolk, Virginia, to Beaufort, North Carolina. In a sense it was my very first time, as I was the skipper instead of crew, so I was more aware of the challenges involved. Most of these involve draft, but I wasn’t too worried about that, as Lunacy, my Boréal 47, can float in just 3ft of water with her centerboard up. What did have me worried was vertical clearance, as Lunacy’s air draft is 64ft 11in, just 1in under the standard 65ft clearance for fixed bridges on the ICW.

One thing I had forgotten is how much fun driving the Ditch can be. In the objective sense, piloting your boat under power from mark to mark through a maze of creeks, canals, opening bridges and river mouths might seem tedious. In the subjective sense, though, it is anything but. The experience, the scenery and weather are all quite various, your mind at all times sharply focused.

I had also forgotten about the great sense of community on the ICW. It literally forms a kind of grapevine, as information is passed up and down the route from boat to boat, just like those tunneling prisoners whispering back and forth to each other up and down the line in my favorite WWII flick, The Great Escape.

My first tidbit of hand-me-down data came on a dock in Portsmouth, Virginia, right at Mile Zero, when the skipper of the catamaran tied up across from us casually mentioned he’d just heard that in two days the Alligator River Bridge would be closed to boat traffic for an entire week due to maintenance work.

Studying my charts, I concluded that if nothing went wrong we’d be through this low swing bridge before it shut down. If something did go wrong, there was also a long detour through Pamlico Sound that would save us waiting a week for the bridge to reopen. And indeed, during our first day in the Ditch we hit the many opening bridges and the one canal lock with no delays, and were tied to a dock in Coinjock, an easy day short of the Alligator River, well before sundown.

That same evening, however, I picked up another casual fact from a northbound boat. The Wilkerson Bridge, a fixed span on the Alligator-Pungo Canal, had a clearance of 64ft rather than 65. I studied my charts again and saw they were in conflict. The electronic ones showed a clearance of 65ft, but an old paper chart, given to me by a friend many years earlier, had a handwritten notation, where 65 was crossed out and 64 written in.

The next day we plunged onward. Water levels in the Ditch so far had been very low, thanks to days of a hard north wind, so I figured the Wilkerson Bridge wouldn’t be a problem, and that afternoon we cleared the Alligator River Bridge and anchored off Deep Point, just two miles short of the Alligator-Pungo Canal. Still, during the night I could not sleep, as it occurred to me that if we failed to squeeze under the Wilkerson Bridge we might be stuck, for a week at least, between two impassable bridges.

Come morning, I studied the charts again through a gorgeous blood-red sunrise. If we were caught in this trap there’d be no exit through Pamlico Sound. The only prospect of a diverting cruise was up Milltail Creek, where a buddy and I once caught our mast in overhanging trees, this aboard a Bristol 29, during my very first ICW transit. If we couldn’t clear Wilkerson we’d be trapped, just like my heroes in The Great Escape.

As we made our way down the Alligator-Pungo Canal, not long after that beautiful sunrise, I studied the shoreline and saw the water was not nearly low as before. Finally, at the end of the canal, the Wilkerson Bridge loomed ahead of us. The height board at the bridge base showed a clearance of 65ft, more or less, as I drove through as slowly as I could.

I heard my radio antennae clicking under the bridge girders, saw them quivering as they scraped by, and then we were through, with all the warmth and light of the South suddenly lying open before us. 

Read Known Trouble Spots Along the ICW

Follow the ICW Facebook page HERE!

February 2018

Related

e60aa842-1c3c-41da-b0ba-dfd7678479e4

The New York Yacht Club Submits a Protocol Alteration with its America’s Cup Challenge

The New York Yacht Club (NYYC) has submitted a challenge for the 37th America’s Cup to the current Defender, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS) in Auckland, New Zealand. The challenge was accompanied by a draft protocol for the regatta, which would see the Cup take ...read more

01-LEAD-CCA-Antarctica2-01

Cruising: Honoring Remarkable Ocean Voyages and Seamanship

The Cruising Club of America, an organization of about 1,300 offshore sailors, has been honoring remarkable ocean voyages and seamanship with an array of prestigious awards for nearly 100 years. The club’s highest honor, the Blue Water Medal, has recognized renowned and ...read more

2.4mR's racing at the 2018 Clagett Regatta-US Para Sailing Championships credit Clagett Regatta-Andes Visual

Host for 2021 U.S. Para Sailing Championships Announced

The 2021 U.S. Para Sailing Championships will be hosted by The Clagett Regatta at Sail Newport, in Newport, R.I. on August, 24-29, 2021, according to a joint announcement from the host and US Sailing. "We have had a very long working relationship with US Sailing and look forward ...read more

Reflections-photo-CMerwarth

Cruising: Reflections of an Old Salt

I am 90 years old, dwindling in mind and body and fear living too long. Twenty years have passed since I last weighed anchor. Still, when a Carolina blue sky is polka-dotted with billowing cumulus clouds and the wind blows fair, I sorely miss raising sail and setting forth. I ...read more

DSC_0145

Waterlines: Solo Sailing

In spite of the fact I came to the sport of sailing alone and untutored, in a boat I acquired on my own, I never really aspired to become a solo sailor. It just sort of happened. All these years later, I still never explicitly plan to sail anywhere alone. I’m always happy to ...read more

01a-DJI_0398

Racing The M32 Class

This year the M32 celebrates its 10th birthday. Swedish Olympic bronze medalist Göran Marström and Kåre Ljung designed the M32 in 2011 as the latest addition to an already impressive portfolio that includes the Tornado, M5 A-Class, M20 catamaran and the Extreme 40. Two years ...read more

01-LEAD-23274-Coastal-Oilskins-GSP

Know how: Cleats, Clutches and Jammers

Since the invention of rope, there has also been a need to belay or secure it. Every sailboat has rope on board so, unless you own a superyacht with captive reels or winches, you’re going to have to find a way to make it fast. (As a side note—and before you reach for your ...read more

9e4d8714-2a8e-4e79-b8f6-c9786aaec4d0

Antigua Sailing Week Announces Women’s Mentorship Program

In partnership with the Antigua and Barbuda Marine Association, Antigua Sailing Week is launching a mentorship program to encourage women and girls to join the sport of sailing. President of Antigua Sailing Week, Alison Sly-Adams says, “When we devised the program, we looked at ...read more