Southbound with the Snowbirds

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 Follow the tea-colored road. Photo courtesy of Hampton Public Piers

Follow the tea-colored road. Photo courtesy of Hampton Public Piers

Cruising guide authors Mark and Diana Doyle, co-leaders of the upcoming SAIL Magazine Snowbird Rally, take us on an eight-part tour of the Intracoastal Waterway. In their first installment, they begin in Hampton Roads and transit Virginia Cut (Route 1) to the sounds of North Carolina.

“It’s always best to start at the beginning…”

Heeding the sage advice that Glinda the Good Witch had for Dorothy, we’ll start at the beginning. And although we won’t have yellow bricks to guide us, tannin-rich inland waters will lead us southward in this series to the warm emerald waters of Florida.
The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) welcomes all but the tallest and deepest vessels. With Cape Hatteras known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” only the most seaworthy sailboats with experienced offshore crews pass up the ICW’s generous offer of a protected inland passage from Virginia to North Carolina. If your rig stands less than 65ft, and you draw less than 6ft 6in, then the ICW welcomes you.

Perhaps you’re heading south this year on your MacGregor 26—but in a few years you’ll trade up to a Cambria 46. That was the range on last year’s SAIL Snowbird Rally. With drafts of 4ft to 6ft 6in and mast heights ranging from 35ft to 64ft, each boat had a different cruising speed, piloting requirements and budget. Although Diana and I currently cruise in a power catamaran to survey for our guides (2ft 6in draft, 10 knots and 18ft bridge clearance—any questions?), we’ve snowbirded south on the ICW in all kinds of boats, including a Catalina 30, Vagabond 47 and a PDQ 36 sailing catamaran. It all works!

Dinner and a show, Art Deco style

Dinner and a show, Art Deco style. Photos courtesy of Commodore Theatre

Unfortunately, some of the ugly rumors are true, the worst one being that sailors won’t be sailing very much. On the ICW think of yourself as a powerboat with a bridge clearance problem. If a trawler motors 100 percent of the time, on the ICW, a sailboat’s diesel chugs about 90 percent of the time. It’s not that the Intracoastal Waterway is a 1,000-mile canal—please, never call it “the ditch”—but as anyone who has migrated the ICW knows, the likelihood of the wind gods delivering in your favor day-over-day is, well, about 10 percent. So on that sunny blustery day beating across Albemarle Sound or reaching down the Neuse or Indian Rivers, you should doubly-bask in the sun and silence, with only the sound of the water running down the hull or the occasional flap of canvas.

In this series, we’ll share some of our favorite stops from Hampton, Virginia, to Key West and the Dry Tortugas. We’re known as the frugal cruising guys, so, of course, we’ll highlight reliable and scenic anchorages; free, safe and welcoming town docks and walls; convenient commercial moorings; and cruiser-friendly good-value marinas—that’s our thing.

So let’s start at the beginning, in Hampton Roads, by featuring two marinas, two free docks and one anchorage.

Hampton Public Piers

Technically Hampton is before the start of the ICW, but southbound boats all need to stage somewhere at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay before “leaving civilization,” and frankly, who would want to miss it? The small city of Hampton describes itself as “an urban waterfront village.” It bustles with sailing activity each fall as the home of the Hampton Snowbird Rendezvous, the jumping-off point for the Salty Dawg Rally and the start of the SAIL Magazine Snowbird Rally.

The city marina, Hampton Public Piers (Statute Mile—STM—11.2—037°01.48N 76°20.45W), is a top-notch facility right along Hampton’s tourism waterfront. It’s only $1.25/foot per night if you take advantage of its BoatUS discount—and the fourth night is free. Snowbird Rally participants will get additional discounts, of course—such as on dockage and bottom cleaning—and freebies such as admission to the three-day Hampton Snowbird Rendezvous, along with kick-off seminars, safety inspections and parties.

The free wall in Great Bridge is a cruising community landmark

The free wall in Great Bridge is a cruising community landmark. Photo by Mark Doyle

For those who prefer to anchor, Hampton South Anchorage (37°01.40N 76°20.44W) has 360-degree protection and is located just off the public pier’s free dinghy dock.

Hampton has excellent access to groceries, canvas work, marine parts, services and anything else you might need before heading down the ICW. The marina provides courtesy bikes to access the two nearby supermarkets, and there is an on-site Enterprise rental car office. A commercial chandlery, I. Cooper’s, is only two blocks away. The restaurant district, Queens Way, where you can enjoy a beautiful evening stroll along a historic street lined with colorful pubs and upscale grills, is also only two blocks away.

High Street Landing

Just south of “Mile 0,” and the start of the ICW, High Street Landing (STM 0.9—36°50.12N 76°17.81W) is excellent—and free—overnight tie-up in the Norfolk-Portsmouth area. Although officially posted as a two-hour mooring, this basin is regularly used overnight by cruising boats. The local gendarmes (the police station is only one block away) turn a blind eye for a night or two in the interests of tourism. Depths are generous, at about 13ft during our most recent survey, and the basin can accommodate beamy multihulls.

If High Street Landing is full, the nearby basin at North Landing (STM 0.7—36°50.30N 76°17.78W) is another option. Neither basin offers electricity, but North Landing has a free pumpout and a freshwater spigot. High Street tends to be more popular, though, with regular morning gatherings of cruisers over coffee. Both basins are within Portsmouth’s Olde Towne district of restaurants and shops, a beautifully restored neighborhood that’s well worth a visit. From either location, don’t miss taking in a movie at the Commodore Theatre just up High Street, a luxuriously restored 1945 Art Deco style theater presenting first-run films amid pub fare.

High Street Landing: A perfectly sheltered, and free, keyhole basin

High Street Landing: A perfectly sheltered, and free, keyhole basin. Photo by Joe Ender

Great Bridge Docks

The community of Great Bridge is a very popular stop, either at one of the free walls (limited stay) or Atlantic Yacht Basin.
Great Bridge now offers two courtesy docks. Between Great Bridge Lock and Great Bridge Bridge (no, this is not a typo) lies a courtesy dock at the canal-side park (STM 12.0—36°43.28N 76°14.50W). Officially there is a 24-hour limit, but it is seldom enforced, especially for provisioning or to wait out bad weather. The depths are good (10ft) in a freshwater canal with no lunar tide. The only amenity at this fun cruising community landmark is a portable toilet. The docks have no fresh water or electricity.
Another option is the recently-opened courtesy dock in Battlefield Historic Park (STM 12.2—36°43.24N 76°14.28W), just east of the Great Bridge Bridge (which opens hourly). The park is new, a work in progress, but has dog-friendly walking trails, landscaped gardens and interpretive displays on The Battle of Great Bridge (gbbattlefield.org). Grabbing a mooring for the night is currently free, but there may be a fee in the future when the visitor center is completed or when amenities such as water and electricity are added.

No matter where you stay, the community of Great Bridge is outstanding for its access to services along adjacent Battlefield Boulevard. A supermarket, hardware store, laundromat, thrift shops, medical offices and many restaurants are all within walking distance. If your stay carries over to Saturday morning, look for the farmers market along the southeast side of the lock. Because of this community’s agricultural heritage, this is a real-deal farmers market, with farm flatbeds loaded with inexpensive fresh local produce.

Atlantic Yacht Basin

If you prefer a longer stay, need work done, or must fuel up (you’re a power boat now, remember?), Atlantic Yacht Basin is our pick for Virginia Cut (STM 12.4—36°43.19N 76°14.18W). AYB is a full-service facility charging only $1/foot per night, with a long easy-on/easy-off face dock and 24-hour fuel service. Southbound, AYB’s location lets you clear the hourly Great Bridge Bridge, ready to depart in the wee hours of the morning without worrying about the restricted bridge opening.

The marina, in addition to first-rate repairs, offers fire-breathing Wi-Fi, pump-out, laundry and an extensive parts department. Of course, you have the same short-walk access to Great Bridge’s services and farmers’ market, without the worry of tie-up time limits. Located in a non-tidal protected freshwater basin that kills saltwater bottom growth, Atlantic Yacht Basin is also a good place to remember if you need to store your boat for travel or family emergencies.

Broad Creek Anchorage

Broad Creek, on the north side of Albemarle Sound (STM 61.2—36°12.28N 75°57.78W), is one of our favorite anchorages. It’s an excellent choice when heading southbound to stage for an early morning Albemarle crossing. If the sailing gods are smiling, you’ll be able to comfortably close-reach for a couple hours before the Albemarle’s infamously square waves kick up.

We consider Broad Creek to be the best pre-Albemarle anchorage—better than the various Buck Island anchorages, which are popular because of their proximity to the ICW. Broad Creek has superior protection, depths of about 10ft, room for several boats and is lovely with the surrounding marsh and low woods.

What deters many boaters is that the anchorage lies over two miles from the ICW and the creek is a bit difficult to sight until you’re near its entrance. We can’t solve the first part, only assure you that it’s worth it. But we can remedy the second: Leave the ICW at R164 and proceed westerly to our approach waypoint (36°12.16N 75°57.00W). From there you can head northwesterly up Broad Creek. The entrance will be clearly visible once you’re lined up on the creek mouth. There is neither shore access nor any services, but anchor here on the new moon and you’ll grow dizzy counting stars with this stunning big-sky night view.

“Of Course, People Do Go Both Ways…”

Those are just a handful of highlights for Virginia’s Route 1. With the ICW offering two routes southbound, Virginia Cut and Dismal Swamp, like the Scarecrow advised, you will need to choose which tack to take.

Last year three of our SAIL Snowbird Rally boats opted for Virginia Cut because of draft and rig considerations. But the remainder of the fleet visited the Dismal Swamp Canal. In our next installment, we’ll explore Dismal Swamp’s Route 2, so you can make that choice for yourself.

Mark and Diana Doyle manage On the Water ChartGuides Foundation, offering “almost free” cruising and anchoring guides for the Intracoastal Waterway. Visit them at onthewaterchartguides.org for frequent ICW updates.

Read ICW Snowbird Rally: Dismal Swamp Canal

Read Planning, Preparation and Practice on a Long Coastal Cruise

Want to join us for the 2015 Snowbird Rally? Sign up at icw.sailmagazine.com

August 2015

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