Tumultuous Uproar

A cruising boat with a racing problem...

Eye See Dub

17 December 2021
Russ Whitford
Just anchored to the sound of a steel band playing Caribbean music. There are palm trees on the beach, the sun is setting. For the first time, I'm having my traditional anchor beer (rum and tonic today) in the cockpit with no shirt and not freezing my ass off. Ahhhhh!

I have enjoyed this ambiance and life of decadence for over six years. I'm not quite in the tropics. I'm on the ICW, Intercoastal Waterway in Ft. Pierce, Florida.

The ICW is an amazing waterway that can take a boater from New York City to Miami without ever going out on the ocean. Most boats have trouble around New Jersey but the ICW is THE route from the Chesapeake Bay on south. There limits though. Mast height on fixed bridges can't exceed 65 feet. And draft of the boat is severely limited if over six feet.

Uproar has an air draft (mast height) of 60 feet, no problem. But our keel nudges the bottom at anything under eight feet. Ouch!

When we departed the US six years ago, we were going to sail from Norfolk, VA straight to the Bahamas. But weather wasn't quite right so we “did” three days on the ICW down to Beaufort, NC. That stretch of the ICW could accommodate our eight foot draft. Norm on a strange, ferro-cement boat said, “Oh, you will drag bottom at mile marker 45 but just keep plowing, you will get through.” I don't recall touching at mile mark 45 but we were on our toes.

Six years later, we found ourselves back in Beaufort, NC, a lovely and fun place. Due to the Italian Consulate sitting on our passports, we could not sail directly to the Caribbean as planned. Lisa was not interested in the East Coast sailing and drove back to WI. I decided to keep pushing south. I'm sure Lisa will join me when she runs out of firewood.

My first passages south were out on the ocean. No way am I going to get stuck on the bottom in the “ditch.” The weather was mostly OK for offshore passages but I did have one stinker from Wrightsville Beach to Charleston, SC. Uproar is quite used to adverse weather and we took it in stride. Once we sailed to the Florida/Georgia boarder, it looked like the ICW was going to work for us.

I made the decision to continue south on the ICW for several reasons.

1. I was towing the dinghy. Lisa and I normally put the dinghy on deck when sailing offshore. But this is difficult for me to do alone. Rough ocean conditions can actually flip and destroy a dinghy.
2. Weather wasn't that great for offshore passages. Not a problem on the ICW.
3. There are few, safe inlets from the ocean to harbors on the northern, Florida coast. If things sucked, I would have to sail a long way to the next, safe inlet.

This past week I have popped that cherry. I have sailed (motored) 250 miles on the ditch. The ICW was laid out by the Army Corps of Engineers. They chose routes where the water between the barrier islands and mainland were deep enough. And they dredged areas where natural rivers weren't adequate.

How would I navigate this maze of waterways in a boat totally unsuitable for these shallow paths? Bot 423 to the rescue. I found a Facebook group, Bob 423. Bob has been traveling the ICW for years. He must have some sophisticated sonar on his trawler or something magic I don't know about. But Bob has graciously plotted the deep channel through the ICW. My charts show the ICW route but Bob has refined this to the best possible, deep channels. It is an easy download to put the Bob Tracks on my chart plotter. I followed the blue, dotted line like my life depended on it! Well, Uproar depended on it.

Now, I'm anchored in Ft Pierce and it sure feels like I have arrived in the tropics. I was enjoying my anchor rum and observed a guy rowing his dinghy out to his small boat, anchored next to me. I dinghied over and invited Devin to join me for a duck dinner. Yes, I have a duck roasting in the oven. Nothing smells better!

How does the 250 miles I have done on the ICW compare to the 33,000 miles Lisa and I have sailed in the past six years? Well, different.

Offshore, even when I'm alone, It is pretty easy to sail. You just set the autopilot, make sure the sails are set right. Look out for other boats, watch radar and AIS (ship warning system). If you don't hit anything, you are doing just fine! Yes, you have to take the weather as it comes, there is no options, no way to duck somewhere safe. But sailboats are meant to take a lot more punishment than sailors. And it is sailing, not motoring.

I often make passages over 60 miles at night. Sure, leaving at the butt crack of dawn will enable me to make a passage before dark. But I hate to enter a harbor at night or even dusk. Leaving in the afternoon, sailing through the night ensures I arrive in daylight. Night passages are magic with the stars or bright moon.

Instead, the ICW is just motoring. I had to make my way south so it became a daily task. Make coffee, check weather, emails and Facebook. I would check the engine oil, hoist anchor and get underway. I have to concentrate the entire time to be sure I am exactly on the blue line shown on my chart plotter. But the scenery is interesting. It varies from natural marshes and mangroves full of aquatic birds to a dredged ditch with million-dollar houses shoulder-to-shoulder. There's always something to see.

Dolphins are everywhere, even in the tiniest creek. The water must be clean although it is river colored. People fish everywhere. There are crab pots lining the outside of the channel. That's another reason to concentrate on the blue line. Wrapping a crab pot line on the propeller is no fun to fix in the murky, cold water. Last Saturday on the stretch through Jacksonville to St. Augustine, I swear 500 powerboats passed me in both directions. Everyone smiling and waving, having a great time. Florida has a lot of boats!

It was something to get used to. I have enjoyed my week on the ICW but wouldn't want to make it my cruising ground. But there are thousands of boats who just make the migration north and south along the ditch following the good weather. That is the extent of their life afloat, year after year, and they love it. The cities are interesting to visit. Supplies, groceries, restaurants and everything easy about life on land are always within reach.

Devin rowed over for dinner. He is 31 yo, Army vet who served in Afghanistan and did relief work in Haiti. He sailed some as a kid and recently bought an old Columbia 31 foot boat. Someone once said, “Never sail a boat smaller than your age.”

Devin approved of the Pinot Noir served with the duck and we had a nice chat over dinner. He sailed out the Ft. Pierce inlet to the ocean today and got the crap kicked out of him. The Coast Guard was on the radio all day with small craft warnings. Devin decided to return to Ft. Pierce but the tidal current was running strongly out. His engine overheated trying to motor against it. He had to sail around for six hours until the tide turned. We discussed his overheating problem and I believe found a solution.

He is going to stash or sell his boat and help a family on a large catamaran sail to the Caribbean. Then, play it by ear. Way to go, Devin!

He reminded me of my other friend Devin. Devin and Liz Taylor, Moosetracks, became close friends when we arrived in Carriacou in the Caribbean. I'll never forget giving Devin a last, tearful hug in Martinique just before we sailed west to Venezuela. “Devin, you bastard you!” He said, “Russ, you will make new friends.” I had to, Devin died suddenly of heart failure a few years later. Now I have a new Devin friend.
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Vessel Name: Tumultuous Uproar
Vessel Make/Model: Beneteau 42s7
Hailing Port: Milwaukee, WI
Crew: Russ Whitford & Lisa Alberte plus Sophie our Jack Russell Terrier
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