PxPixel
Friends and Low Places on the Intracoastal Waterway - Sail Magazine

Friends and Low Places on the Intracoastal Waterway

Author:
Publish date:
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

Josie-helm-2

Chartering the U.S. and Spanish Virgins

Flying into Tortola in the British Virgin Islands one December morning, three months after Hurricane Irma, I felt like a war correspondent dispatched to the battlefront rather than a sailing magazine writer on an assignment to go cruising.As my LIAT plane descended toward Beef ...read more

Crew-North-27M004

Weather Gear for Inshore Sailing

Just because you’re not planning on braving the Southern Ocean this summer doesn’t mean that you won’t have some dicey days out on the water. If you haven’t got the right gear, a little rain or humidity can make things miserable. As with all safety equipment, “it’s always better ...read more

atlantic-cup-trailer

2018 Atlantic Cup Video Mini-Series

Atlantic Cup 2018: TrailerThis past spring, SAIL magazine was on-hand to document the 2018 Atlantic Cup, a two-week-long Class 40 regatta spanning the U.S. East Coast and one of the toughest events in all of North America. The preview above will give you a taste of the four-video ...read more

3DiNordac_webheader

3Di NORDAC: One Year In

One year ago this month, North Sails launched a cruising revolution with the introduction of 3Di NORDAC. The product promised to deliver a better cruising experience for a market that had not seen true product innovation in over 60 years. Today we’re celebrating the team that ...read more

HB96k_EP

Sea Eagle’s HB96 inflatable SUP

What SUP?Dinghies and kayaks are all very well, but there’s nothing like a stand-up paddleboard for exploring interesting new shorelines while giving you a good workout. Sea Eagle’s HB96 inflatable SUP makes a fine addition to your boat’s armory of anchorage toys, either on its ...read more

DSC_0031-43

Charting the USVI and Spanish Virgins

When my friends and I booked a one-way bareboat charter with Sail Caribe, starting in the U.S. Virgin Islands and finishing in Puerto Rico, we were a little nervous about what we would find in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria—even seven months later.When our plane ...read more

SailRepairKit

Know How: Sail Repair Kit

Despite your best efforts, there will inevitably be times when your sail gets damaged while at sea and needs to be repaired. First, no matter what the job, you will need to do a quick damage assessment, a task that requires a flat wooden surface, sharp scissors and a helping ...read more

01-061018ROAC-8149

Coming of Age at the Atlantic Cup

Midway through the final race of the inshore portion of the 2018 Atlantic Cup, the three boats in the lead—Mike Dreese’s Toothface 2, Mike Hennessy’s Dragon and Oakcliff Racing, representing the Long Island Sound-based sailing school of the same name—suddenly broke free from the ...read more

01_silken_2018-03-08-0052

North U’s Regatta Experience Program

“Want to check the keel?” North U Coach Geoff Becker calls to me from back by the transom. We’ve just suffered our worst finish in the regatta and are absolutely flying on our way back to shore, spinnaker up and heeling at an angle that feels like maybe we’re tempting fate. ...read more