NAV­I­GAT­ING the ICW’S Highs and LOWS

Cruising World - - Front Page - Wally Mo­ran has 30 ICW pas­sages un­der his keel and brings up to 20 boats and new cruisers south with him ev­ery fall in the Sail to the Sun ICW Rally (

Brad and Terri Geddes were head­ing south with the Sail to the Sun ICW Rally in their Jean­neau 44DS, Re­flec­tions II. Leav­ing Hamp­ton, Vir­ginia, they were on the In­tra­coastal Water­way just past Nor­folk along with 18 other boats. Things were go­ing well un­til, with a sud­den bang, their boat stopped dead in the wa­ter. Their mast had hit the Ch­e­sa­peake Ex­press­way bridge. But how? Why? The tide boards at the bridge showed the clear­ance to be 63 feet 5 inches, and their spar was less than that.

It turned out their mast height, which the yard had told them was 62 feet 6 inches, was ac­tu­ally 64 feet, and that didn’t count the Win­dex, trans­duc­ers and VHF an­tenna, all of which added another foot. For­tu­nately, their gear wasn’t dam­aged, but Brad’s re­laxed at­ti­tude was to­taled. Their care­free trip now be­came a con­stant vigil for the next bridge, the chal­lenge be­ing to clear it safely. Low Bridges At any given sail­ing sem­i­nar, I typ­i­cally get ques­tions about depths and prob­lem ar­eas on the ICW and how to deal with them. That’s a valid con­cern, but boats of up to an 8-foot draft can han­dle the

ICW with­out un­due dif­fi­culty, pro­vided they watch the tide. Just as an ex­am­ple, Amer­i­can

Star, a 100-pas­sen­ger cruise ship draw­ing 8 feet, runs the ICW reg­u­larly. Its two ma­jor routes are be­tween Bal­ti­more, Mary­land, and Charleston, South Carolina; and Charleston and Jack­sonville, Florida. Its se­cret? It plays the tides.

Re­ally, th­ese days, in­stead of depths be­ing the prob­lem, mast-height is­sues are cur­rently a big­ger chal­lenge for ICW cruisers. In pre­vi­ous ral­lies, this had not been an is­sue. Of course, those events didn’t fol­low Hur­ri­cane Matthew, which hit the area in Oc­to­ber 2016 and dumped im­mense quan­ti­ties of wa­ter into the ICW, rais­ing the wa­ter lev­els for weeks to fol­low. Even the lu­nar tides had an im­pact, with the full moon ex­ac­er­bat­ing the prob­lem.

Fol­low­ing Matthew, sev­eral ar­eas of the ICW were closed for days as storm waters filled with de­bris poured into the water­way. Clear­ance heights of 62 and 63 feet were ob­served at the So­cas­tee Bridge and other lo­ca­tions in South Carolina. Th­ese bridges are sup­posed to have 65-foot clear­ance at high tide. Southbound cruisers were trapped in mari­nas, un­able to pro­ceed un­til the waters re­ceded.

More than a month af­ter Matthew, and on much broader bod­ies of wa­ter, such as the Wac­ca­maw River just north of Ge­orge­town, South Carolina, prob­lems per­sisted. The Lafayette bridge’s clear­ance was in­ad­e­quate at high tide for three of the rally boats. They turned back to spend the night at a ma­rina they had just passed to wait on the morn­ing’s lower wa­ter.

VHF con­ver­sa­tions be­tween cruisers all along the ICW fo­cused on ob­served bridge clear­ances. One woman as­sured us her spouse would climb the mast to de­ter­mine the ac­tual amount they cleared by, and ra­dio the re­sults back to the rest of the rally fleet. That suit­ably im­pressed us, and even more so when her re­port came in — they’d cleared with mere inches to spare.

The dif­fi­cul­ties ex­pe­ri­enced were the re­sult of the hur­ri­cane, of course, but the les­son is that con­di­tions are al­ways in flux along the ICW. Not­with­stand­ing Matthew, there re­main prob­lems with bridge clear­ance in a num­ber of lo­ca­tions along the water­way.

That’s be­cause the foun­da­tions of sev­eral ICW high­way bridges have sunk since be­ing built. Engi­neers re­fer to this as soil com­paction. Ac­cord­ing to a civil en­gi­neer I con­tacted, any bridge built on a sandy base will even­tu­ally sink to some ex­tent. This is due to vi­bra­tion caused by wind and ve­hic­u­lar traf­fic.

Vi­bra­tion causes the soil be­side and un­der the sup­port col­umns to shift and move mi­cro­scop­i­cally. Over time, the pil­ings shift lower. You can see this by wig­gling your foot in the sand on a beach: Your foot starts to dig it­self in. The same thing hap­pens with a bridge pil­ing, it just takes years be­fore you see the re­sults. This com­ports with my ex­pe­ri­ence, as when I started cruis­ing 15 years ago, I don’t re­call any 64-foot bridges on the ICW.

One well-known prob­lem bridge is Wilk­er­son Bridge, just north of Bel­haven, North Carolina, at the south end of the Al­li­ga­tor-pungo Canal. This bridge has only 64 feet of clear­ance at high tide. To get by it safely, check out NOAA’S Hy­dro­logic Prediction web­site (wa­ in­dex.php?wfo=mhx). NOAA’S

One prob­lem well-known­bridge is Wilk­er­son Bridge, just north of Bel­haven, NC, which has only 64 feet of clear­ance at high tide.

on­line charts are avail­able all along the coast and give a graph­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the state of the tide at each tidal sta­tion.

In Day­tona, Florida, the south­ern­most bridge’s clear­ance rarely shows more than 64 feet, and there is less than 6 inches of tide. How­ever, the bridge tide boards show what is termed “low steel,” which is the low­est clear­ance of the bridge at its outer edges. In the center of the bridge, there is 65 feet of clear­ance.

This was made clear to two of my 2015 rally par­tic­i­pants, Chris and Fiona Cook, who felt they were trapped at this bridge by their mast height. Af­ter a two-hour wait with no dis­cernible change, Chris spoke to a nearby ma­rina man­ager who as­sured him he had ad­e­quate clear­ance. They then pro­ceeded with no prob­lems by stay­ing in the mid­dle of the chan­nel.

Clear­ance So­lu­tions

So how did Brad and Terri Geddes deal with their prob­lem as they ap­proached bridges with in­ad­e­quate clear­ance for their Jean­neau 44DS?

Re­turn­ing to At­lantic Yacht Basin, in Great Bridge, Vir­ginia, Brad headed up the rig, where he re­moved all the gear from the top of the mast and turned the VHF an­tenna upside down. This brought his clear­ance down to just his mast height of 64 feet.

This wasn’t quite enough for some bridges, how­ever, so at the Pungo Ferry bridge, in North Carolina, they en­listed four husky col­lege kids who were out fish­ing to sit at the end of their turned-out boom and on the rail of the boat. Two more men from the rally group took to bo­sun’s chairs hung from hal­yards. The re­sul­tant heel was enough to clear the bridge.

Far­ther south, one of the smaller rally boats took Brad’s hal­yard and heeled Re­flec­tions

II over as they went through another low bridge. And at many bridges, Brad’s care­ful tim­ing was such that he was able to sim­ply pass through. Given that tides in­crease as you go south — to 9 feet in Ge­or­gia — the like­li­hood of com­ing to a bridge with in­ad­e­quate clear­ance be­comes much less. (In cen­tral Florida, how­ever, where there are fewer in­lets, tides on the ICW can be quite min­i­mal.)

Bridges aren’t the only height is­sue, how­ever. The power lines across the en­trance to Boot Key Har­bor in Marathon, Florida, are at 65 feet, as Brad and Sandy Fisher, rally par­tic­i­pants on

Doc’s Or­ders, dis­cov­ered. They an­chored out­side and waited for low tide be­fore en­ter­ing.

Brad is now con­sid­er­ing tak­ing a hack­saw to his tootall frac­tional rig be­fore go­ing back north. He spoke with Fort Laud­erdale-based rig­ger Paul Hite about short­en­ing the mast by 2 feet. Ac­cord­ing to Hite, this is not as un­com­mon a so­lu­tion to the prob­lem as one might think. He has short­ened sev­eral masts.

Paul grinds off the alu­minum cap at the head of the mast, cuts the mast and roller furling to the de­sired length, re­in­stalls the furling, hal­yards and wiring, and welds the plate back on. Not count­ing the welder and any cut­ting re­quired for the sails, it was a $3,000 fix for Brad, who’s quite con­tent to pay that for the peace of mind he’ll get in ex­change.

Other so­lu­tions to the bridge-height is­sue in­clude re­mov­ing the mast and ship­ping it south. This was the choice for Sail to the Sun ral­liers Frank and Mary Grace Stitch on their Foun­taine Pa­jot Helia 44 cata­ma­ran with its 72-foot mast. The ICW was a bucket-list trip, and re­mov­ing the mast was the only way they could ac­com­plish it.

You might be think­ing, why not just go off­shore and avoid the bridges? For some that’s fine, but not ev­ery­one wants to do a mul­ti­day off­shore trip. At other times, weather is­sues make go­ing off­shore a bad choice, as any­one who has got­ten caught out in a late­fall norther can at­test. And al­though it’s hard to believe for those ask­ing, some peo­ple re­ally do en­joy the ICW and all it has to of­fer. Tide boards show­ing 64 feet of clear­ance — or less — dur­ing high tide are not un­com­mon.

Given that tides in­crease as you go south, the like­li­hood of com­ing to a bridge with in­ad­e­quate clear­ance be­comes much less.

Sev­eral boats par­tic­i­pat­ing in the 2016 Sail to the Sun ICW rally found bridge heights to be more of a con­cern than the water­way’s no­to­ri­ous shoal­ing.

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