Winter on the Intracoastal Waterway: The Big Bays

Defining the Intracoastal Waterway

Depending on who you listen to, the Intracoastal Waterway might run from the Canadian Border to Miami, or from New York’s Hudson River to Texas, or from Norfolk, VA to the Florida Keys.

But however you describe its ends, the ICW is not a nice, straight canal, but a series of vaguely linked bodies of water, including large natural bays like The Gulf of Maine, and tiny, hand dug channels like Elliott Cut, just south of Charleston.

For our purposes, the ICW includes Cape Cod Bay, Long Island Sound and the New Jersey Coast. But with our aim of escaping harsh winter weather, it really started in earnest at Cape May Canal where it heads more inland into Delaware and Chesapeake Bays.

Delaware and Chesapeake Bays
December  28, 2013  to January 10, 2014

After years of boating in the Northwest, where the water is deep right up to the rocky shore, and in the Northeast, where rocks jut out of deep channels, the shallows, mud bottoms and marshy shores of Delaware and Chesapeake Bays were a culture shock for us.

We took the Cape May Canal out to the bay, where we found the shallow water quite rough, with the wind blowing against us. But once we turned north, running along, but not in, the main shipping lane, the ride became much more comfortable.

The Delaware is another busy shipping route, but at this time of year we saw few vessels of any kind there or on the Chesapeake. Instead of dodging ships, we spent our days ogling small light houses that looked more like bon bons or chocolate truffles than hazard markers and looking for water deep enough for our keel.

The shallow marshy shores of these big bays meant marinas and anchorages were few and far between. We had to plan our short days carefully to find suitable places to stop before sunset. The first night we made it to Cohansey River, which winds four miles through the marsh to a tiny town that sits two miles from the edge of the bay. Yes, you read that right.

The next morning we left the river in gray, pre-dawn light, headed for the C and D canal, where the rain began to fall in earnest.

We entered the Chesapeake very excited to finally be on the body of water that we thought would be our cruising grounds for the next few months. We’d take a trip up the Potomac! We’d do Annapolis! We’d take a side trip inland to Tennessee to see our son!

The Shifting Realities of Cruising

I’d scoped out a potential anchorage for us at Bohemia River, just past where the canal empties into the Chesapeake. But the entry proved too shallow and we got to feel what it’s like to run Sunshine’s keel through the mud. Spooky. Tom turned around and got us out of there fast and we headed for the next possible anchorage – Sassafras River.

Unfortunately, before we made it there, fog fell on us. We couldn’t see an eighth of a mile. We had to use Navionics on my phone to locate the buoys that marked the shipping lane and the channel into the river. Once inside the half mile wide river we couldn’t see the banks but just trusted that the satellites would keep functioning and keep us off the shore until we could get to the anchorage. When the fog finally lifted an hour later we found we’d dropped the hook in a gorgeous spot. Plus the name – Sassafras – was so southern. We felt like we’d accomplished our main goal of getting “south.”

We sailed to Annapolis with a spanking wind pushing us at over eight knots. There’s no anchoring in the harbor so we took a mooring for the night. I talked to a guy on the city dock who suggested we have dinner at Davis’, a salty, sailor’s pub. That was good advice. Not only were the crab cakes yummy, but the next day we moved over to a dock on the recommendation of sailors we met at Davis’ and also visited a great marine consignment store, Bacon Sails and Marine Supplies which we learned about there.

Heading for Solomon’s Island, MD on a sunny New Year’s Day, Tom noticed the jib stay was fraying. He took down the jib and secured the broken end. We pulled in to a fuel dock and found no one working on the holiday. At the restaurant next door, Stoney’s Kingfisher, we asked about fueling hours and ended up being invited to stay at the restaurant’s dock. We thought it would only be for a day or two while we got the jib stay repaired. But as soon as Tom ordered the new stay from nearby Zahniser’s, winter storm Hercules moved in. Between ice storms and waiting for the repair, we were frozen to Stoney’s dock for eight days. This was not what we’d bargained for.

After the ice was gone Tom picked up the new jib stay and set about installing it. I hauled him up the mast in 26 degrees to attach the upper end of the stay. He could barely move his opposable thumbs to use the necessary tools. Brought him down again and he went to install the lower end.

When using tools on deck I like to tie them to a cleat or stanchion, just in case. Likewise bits and pieces. Unfortunately, some bits and pieces don’t have a convenient tying point and you just have to keep a close eye on them. You can see where this is going, right? Long story short, a very important part went, bloop, over the side and into the murk beneath the pier.

The cursing and swearing make getting into the wetsuit much easier and raise the blood temperature enough that jumping into 41 degree water feels almost good. It took a bit, but the item was recovered, a good thing too, since ordering a new one would have kept us in Solomons for another week.

We got one more surprise while at Stoney’s. Starting out from New England we’d had two goals in mind:
1. To get to someplace warmer than Boston
2. To find a place where we could dock the boat for a couple of months and do some work on her

The original plan identified that place as Chesapeake, VA. at the southern end of the Chesapeake, where our son’s friend had a condo with an available slip. But now we got bad news. Nicole had learned from her HOA, that no one was allowed to sleep aboard a boat at the dock.

What now? All we knew for sure was that we’d stop in Portsmouth, where Jeremy and Tiffany had lived when they first moved from Seattle to VA. We’d visited them once and enjoyed the historic town and were looking forward to seeing it again.

Candid Camera in Portsmouth, Y’all

Tied up at Portsmouth’s public basin where you can stay a couple of days for free and walked up into town, rejoicing at being in the south  and high-fiving for achieving our initial goal.

Portsmouth looked great, The Coffee Shoppe was still there and the economy appeared to be doing well.

Looking for dinner, we stumbled on the Commodore Theater, which was showing Saving Mr. Banks. A couple passing said, “Have y’all been here before?” and told us it was a dinner theater, that the food was good.

Hearing that y’all, made us giddy. We bought tickets for $7 each and had dinner for less than we used to pay for popcorn and a soda in Hingham. Inside, the waiter greeted us with “Are y’all the folks off the boat?” We were mystified how he knew that, but we had a blast and didn’t give it another thought.

The next morning though, when we headed up to The Coffee Shoppe for caffeine, things got a little weird. A guy on a bike rode up to us, said “Morning. Do y’all know there’s a marine supply store just up the street?” and handed us a card for Mile Marker 0.

Moments later we walked into the Coffee Shoppe and an old fellow said hello and told us he had a picture for us. It turned out to be of the Thomas Lawson sailing into Hampton Roads, the opening from Chesapeake Bay to the Atlantic. That was the ship that brought Manjiro to New Bedford, a story I’d written for Tidal Life only a few weeks before. At this point I was beginning to hear the Twilight Zone theme music.

Somewhere above the public dock there must be a harbor cam. I resolved to be on my best behavior when on deck, and try not to do anything stupid.

Two Kinds of Football and a Tornado

Did a minimal cleaning, trying to dry the swampy conditions that result from winter on the Intracoastal Waterway. Leaving the salon hatch open a crack for ventilation, we headed out to find a place to watch soccer. We ended up at a great sports bar owned by former Green Bay Packer, Roger Brown. The sky outside got black, and the wind started to swirl and the rain started to dump. While a tornado threatened to fill our boat with water, Barcelona won, then the Patriots lost to the Broncos, teeing up Seattle for the Superbowl.

We couldn’t stop eating Roger Brown’s excellent food. The she crab soup was delicious, and the fried green tomatoes were spectacular. Tom had an oyster po’boy that, while not quite New Orleans, was very good and later an apple cobbler big enough to swallow New York City. By the time we left, at 8 or so, the place was completely packed. Though Portsmouth was not the place we were looking for long term, it was heartening to see a favorite town doing so well.

Next Installment: Winter on the Intracoastal: Swamps & Canals

Read previous posts about the Escape from New England

Narragansett Bay

Warren RI to Point Judith RI

Long Island Sound

Christmas Cruise: Point Judith to Westbrook

Christmas Cruise: Westbrook to Stamford

Christmas Cruise: Stamford to Mamaroneck

Christmas Cruise: Mamaroneck, NY to Jersey City, NJ

New Jersey Coast

Christmas Cruise: Jersey City to Manasquan

Chutes and Ladders in Atlantic City

Red Nun 2CM I think I love you

The ICW

Winter on the Intracoastal: Swamps & Canals

Winter on the Intracoastal: Creeks & Rivers

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