There’s no time like November to head south on the East Coast. Cool, dry, bug-less weather, uncluttered anchorages, and a dearth of summer tourists make for an unforgettable ride down the Intracoastal Waterway.
Responding to a friend’s text request for crew I dropped what I was doing and hitched a ride up I-95 to Charleston to jump aboard Mark Sheldon’s 1976 Tartan cruising ketch, Gingernut, which he had re-launched after an extensive refit in Gloucester, Mass. Mark is a lifetime sailor and USCG veteran who had gone all in, selling his residence and moving aboard, intent on an open-ended cruise through the Bahamas and beyond.
After a hearty lunch at the City Marina where we traded tall tales of the sailing life we jumped in the dingy to motor out and received a reminder that no matter how experienced and skilled you are, the ocean will humble you whenever it can: The painter slipped off the bow, wrapped around the prop and left us to drift with the ebb on the Ashley River until we grabbed hold of a friendly boater’s hull and bummed a sharp knife.
Appropriately chastened, we boarded Gingernut and prepped for departure. Mark pointed at the name on the hull. “It’s slang for a feisty red-headed woman.” He said with a wry smile. He showed me around and it was clear that the boat was a great source of pride for him as he personally did most of the renovations while on a mooring, or careened against the wharf.
And the centerpiece of his efforts was literally that, a center cockpit wheelhouse that he added with all new electronics, hydraulic autopilot that tracks like a dream, and something I’ve never used before: a circular clear view screen in the windshield that would soon come in very handy.
I made the case to go offshore and make it back to my Florida home forthwith but was overruled by Mark. “This,” he stated peremptorily, “is a cruise, not a delivery.” Oh-oh, better cancel those appointments I had for Thursday and Friday.
The old diesel chugged complacently, pushing us through the gentle low country of South Carolina at 6-7 knots. The scenery was sublime, there was so much to see; it’s easy to forget that this is a freeway, not a walk in the woods. Vessels are coming at you holus-bolus and some of them aren’t paying attention. Depending on the tide and wind, some parts of the ICW have razor-thin margins of safety, and bear close watch at all times.
And no matter where you are, you’re always approaching the next bascule bridge; Florida alone has 68 of them, many with restricted opening schedules. Any boat with more than nine-feet of air draft must be prepared to standby until the next scheduled opening.
The swing bridge at Lady’s Island opens on the half-hour and we waited amongst several boats for a tug and double-wide barge to squeeze through. The bridge tender recognized the delay and graciously held the open position for us little boats to squirt through.
Effective VHF radio communication is paramount on the ICW. There are specific rules of the road that everyone must know and follow—the primary one being to stay away from tugs, barges, and ships because they’re big and restricted in their ability to maneuver. At one point we passed a dredging tug that was making a sharp turn. It was over 100-yards long and resembled a train; you can be sure we gave that thing an extra wide berth.
And it’s not only tugs. Cutting into the fuscous waters of the Savannah River we were hailed on the radio: “Green-hulled sailboat entering the river from the north, this is the upbound container ship to your port. We ask that you standby while we transit your position before you cross.” Ahead of us there was nothing, but looking hard to left I gasped when I saw the leviathan approach our path and pass a down bound ship with similar cargo of automobiles. Despite steering for the wake Gingernut rocked hard and sent unseen items crashing below in the saloon.
Gingernut is a work in progress, she still has no working fridge or shower, and so at mile 583 we pulled into Thunderbolt Marina for ice, showers, and Wi-Fi and met dockmaster Josh, who was super-friendly and helpful. At the fuel dock we met the crews of Sea Squirrel and Frui Vita, two of the boats participating in the Sail to the Sun Rally, an annual flotilla of snowbirds who gather in Virginia and make their way to Miami. It was super-tempting to stay the night for laundry, brews and bonhomie at the nearby Wyld Dock Bar, but the Bahamas beckoned and we were off with the still favorable tide.
Breakfast at Tiffanys: I start my watch just as Audrey Hepburn’s “Moon River” drifts by to starboard. It is not, as she sang, “wider than a mile,” but it was a great song and a nice place to anchor. The skies darken and threaten rain. Turning into Hell Gate at mile 601 I’m reminded why it got that name, very narrow, very shoal—I slow down and nervously watch the depth sounder till we’re back in deep water.
Cold rain pelts the deck and that usually means slickers on sailors, but the wheelhouse is warm, dry, and very easy to get accustomed to. The clear view screen whirls away and does an excellent job wiping the raindrops away, its only drawback being that it’s small. The navigational aids start blinking about 6pm; we run out of day and drop anchor in Birthday Creek as a norther, with 25-knot winds blows all night and wraps the anchor line around the keel.
Before I joined him on this cruise, Mark had asked if I was a good cook; I’m not, and I knew what that meant: great travelling and lousy eating. We took turns in the galley preparing various réchauffés, anything that would keep us fed, but you can only eat out of cans for so long before your appetite flags.
Recently the Office of Coast Survey considered removing the infamous “magenta line” from future US charts. It had been in place since 1912 as the “recommended route” and was considered obsolete, in some cases actually leading boaters to shoal water. And collisions have occurred from helmsmen blindly following the line instead of using eyeball navigation. But after a public comment period it was clear that mariners overwhelmingly wanted to keep it on future NOAA charts
On a noon watch I learned first-hand what had motivated them to consider the removal. In Sapelo Sound near Blackbeard Island a very large power boat overtook us to starboard and drifted closer and closer until I could see what newspaper a young woman was reading in her cabin. “Hey captain!” I shouted into the radio, “should I put out my fenders?” The helmsman, unaware of his collision course, lurched away and accelerated off, mumbling something into the VHF. I guess we had been on his magenta line.
Gingernut enters the St. Simons River and we turn west into another one of the 1001 reasons why I love travel on the water: sunsets that make time stand still. The sky erupts into a roaring conflagration of almost every color in the spectrum. We approach the anchorage and I wave at Mark to slow down while I get some sensational shots. You see one here, hope you like it, but the Nikon Coolpix will never replace the human eye; you’ll have to come out here and see for yourself. What a view.
We glide on glass that perfectly reflects the fiery show; a wedge of pelicans silently float by. I hold my breath, the upper clouds fade to gray, then the lower; and swiftly it’s gone forever—there’ll never be another one like that. Time to get the anchor down.
The morning forecast calls for northeast winds of twenty-knots, gusting to thirty. We cross a feisty St. Simons Sound and enter the very shoal waters of Jekyll Isle within one-hour of low tide. We draw five-feet and the mud flats are close and wide. The depth sounder goes down, down, until it reads a horizontal line. We ghost along, grateful there is not another coat of paint on the hull, incredulous that we are still in motion. Up ahead there is another ketch sitting on the bottom at the Jekyll Island Club. From the dock the crew stares, expectant that we too will touch, but somehow we carry on just inches off the bottom and make it past the fixed bridge and into deeper water. Next time we wait till half tide rising!
St. Andrews Sound heaves into view and Mark, feeling frisky despite the forecast, decides to head outside for a sail. We are emboldened by a parade of pleasure craft heading in that direction, until we see at R32 that they all turn back toward the ICW. After an awkward moment we carry on and obtain yet another harsh lesson from King Neptune and Mr. Murphy.
The inlet is well marked but narrow, and we have to really goose the diesel to keep from drifting out of it. The waves are big and we crab to maintain course. At 10am I hand the helm over and head down for some breakfast—which I would not be eating that day as Gingernut repeatedly slammed down on the bottom, sending me and most everything on the shelves to the cabin sole. With alacrity I returned to the wheelhouse and Mark coolly asked me to take the helm and tack the boat over while he reset the sails and we headed back in. No argument from me. But Mr. Murphy was not done with us; as every sailor knows, when you do a lot of rocking, the engine may start a’ knocking. At 10:15 I heard the awful sound of the diesel struggle, sputter, fade, and die.
Now it was potentially a dangerous situation. Waves broke on the sandbanks to port and I concentrated on progressing safely, keeping the sails full. But I was upset that two experienced sailors had gone out into the ocean so poorly prepared. Truth is, we let our confidence lull us into a bad scene and we justly deserved this humble pie; I fault myself for not speaking up beforehand. The list of things we failed to do are too numerous to list and we’re both lucky we didn’t wind up on a sandbar.
But the little boat tracked well, we had a beam reach and I used the electronic chartplotter to line up the markers as Mark dived into the engine compartment to switch fuel tanks and bleed the filter. At R34 we jibed and made for the ICW and the lee of Little Cumberland Isle. At 10:45 the engine returned to life and we carried on.
The coastal marsh floats by as we push along on the current past the last of the sea isles: Kings Bay, St. Mary’s, Ft. Clinch and Fernandina. The sun is low and we drop anchor near G5 by the Kingsley Plantation, the best looking 200-year-old house in Florida, and slumber while the last of the norther blows itself out.
A beautiful autumn day greets us in the morning and we’re off early. Sisters Creek Bridge opens and the mighty St. Johns stretches out in front. Even in the daylight it’s hard to see the entry to the ICW on the other side. Pushing hard we make our way into Jacksonville Beach and the fuel dock at Beach Marine, where my family waits and I say farewell to Mark and wish him fair winds as he carries on to the Bahamas.
Bio: Robert Beringer is a Florida-based freelance marine journalist & photographer, and member of Boating Writers International. He learned to sail on the Great Lakes in a Hobie 16 and is the holder of a USCG 50-ton Master’s License, logging over 28,000-miles under sail. His articles regularly appear in Cruising World, Sail, Ocean Navigator, All at Sea and Blue Water Sailor. His first book, Waterpower! a collection of marine short stories, is available at Barnes & Noble.