Passage to Florida, Part One (Norfolk, VA to Wrightsville Beach, NC)
20 March 2023 •
Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, Bahamas
by Richard Cordovano • Raining
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW) was Victory’s watery highway from Virginia to the anchorage in Florida we used as the jumping off point for our Gulf Stream crossing to the Bahamas. Parts of the ICW are arrow-straight, man-made links between natural features, while other parts are meandering paths through marshes or swamps. There are sparsely populated sections, with lots of wildlife: dolphins, herons, manatees, and pelicans, to name just a few species. In other places, the banks are lined with opulent waterfront houses, often with private docks including lifts to raise their boats out of the water to avoid growth on their bottoms and ICW “mustache” stains at their waterlines.
The ICW serves up more navigational challenges than one might think. A lot of water moves through it, in some places flowing first one way then the other in tidal cycles, and in other places driven solely by the wind. The tidal currents can be strong enough to boost or hamper the speed of a slow moving sailboat and are often laden with sediment, making shoaling a real issue, especially for a sailboat with its deep draft (depth of the boat below the waterline). The larger bodies of water along the way are shallow enough that wind against current can push up steep, choppy waves. There are countless bridges. Some have fixed spans high enough for a sailboat with a not-too-tall mast to pass under, while others are much lower drawbridges and swing bridges that open only at scheduled times upon request via VHF radio. Barges, dredges, and other commercial traffic ply the waterway and must be given a wide berth, even when the channel is narrow. Fast moving motor boats generate big wakes that rock and roll sailboats.
November 6, 2022 was the first day of our more than 1,000 mile passage to Florida via the ICW. We soon passed Mile 0 at Hospital Point in Norfolk, VA. At a fork at Mile 7.3 we chose the more direct Virginia Cut Route instead of the more scenic Dismal Swamp Route. The swamp sounded intriguing, except that our buddy boat Santiago’s six and a half foot draft is too deep for that option. In fact, even Victory’s modest five foot draft might have bumped on a few sunken logs if we’d gone that way.
At Mile 11.3, Victory motored into the chamber of her first lock ever. The gates closed. Monica and I tended bow and stern lines looped around massive cleats on the chamber wall above us, shortening them to keep Victory snug to the wall as the swirling waters lifted her a few feet. Then the exit gate slowly opened and we continued on a little further to tie up for the night at the free dock between the Great Bridge Lock and the Great Bridge Bridge at Mile 12.0.
The plan was to cover forty nautical miles the next day to reach an anchorage deep enough for Santiago. We would leave at first light to ensure that we arrived at the anchorage with plenty of daylight left, despite the rapidly shortening days and Victory’s slow pace when motoring (Santiago has a much more powerful engine). However, by morning we learned that a subtropical storm named Nicole had formed in the Caribbean and was likely to become the season’s eighth hurricane over the next few days. Where Nicole’s landfall on the U.S. East Coast would happen was of course uncertain, and we were reluctant to head south to meet her. We decided to stay put and await further developments.
Nicole muscled up to hurricane strength in the Bahamas. She went ashore in the United States at Vero Beach, FL, then made an appearance in the Gulf of Mexico before making another landfall northwest of Cedar Key, FL. The weakening storm then headed north over land through the southern states and rolled over us as heavy rainfall on November 11 on its way north to peter out in New England.
With Nicole relegated to the meteorological history books, we untied our lines and requested an opening of the double bascule Great Bridge Bridge at 0600 on November 12. The first miles on the other side of bridge were in the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal. The banks were thick with trees right to the water’s edge, with some of the trunks rising directly out of the murky brown water. Although this canal was wider and deeper than the one through the Dismal Swamp, there were still stumps on the margins and the occasional floating log to contend with. Bird sightings were plentiful, including several glimpses of bald eagles.
As we made our way through the canal, we passed under a tall fixed bridge with plenty of clearance for our masts (Mile 13.0), a rail bridge that is open except when a train is crossing the canal (Mile 13.9), a single pivot swing bridge that responds to requests for opening on the hour and the half hour and is closed during rush hours (Mile 15.3), and a double pivot swing bridge with the same opening restrictions (Mile 20.2). At the latter bridge, the Virginia Cut transitioned into a meandering path through a series of creeks and rivers, then it funneled through another canal past the famous marina/restaurant at Coinjock (we didn’t stop), finally depositing us in the North River near ICW Mile 60, just before that river dumps into Albemarle Sound.
Albemarle Sound is a large but shallow body of water in North Carolina’s Outer Banks where anything but the mildest of winds whips up steep, choppy waves. Because of this, we decided to wait for a northerly wind to go south across the Albemarle, preferably a light one, so we could ride waves downwind instead of having to bash our way through fifteen miles or so of vicious chop. Victory and Santiago consequently spent two nights paused in what struck me as a particularly bleak and lonely anchorage.
Our North River sojourn was where that we got our first taste of what fall and winter in the ICW was going to be like for us - it was bitterly cold at night in Victory’s unheated cabin! Monica and I often wore long underwear to bed and covered ourselves in layer after layer of blankets.
The North River anchorage is also where the crews of Victory and Santiago adopted the initially self-deprecating moniker “Fetch Ketchers” (fetch catchers). Both vessels are “ketch-rigged” with a mainmast forward and a smaller mizzenmast aft, and “fetch” is the open water distance over which waves can build - less fetch is better for a safe and peaceful night. Tucked in to a sweeping curve of land near the end of the river, we were well protected from the southerly winds the first night and most of the following day, but as night fell on the second day, the winds reversed and came out of the north at a rambunctious clip. At this point, we should have lifted up our anchors and backtracked up the river to hide behind Buck Island. We did not. We stayed near the river’s end instead, our boats bucking like rodeo mustangs as wind-driven waves rolled down several miles of open water. Victory even dragged a bit. Fetch Ketchers indeed! Much greater focus on “protection” was one of the gifts of the ICW to Victory’s crew, to later be honed into a supremely useful tool in the Bahamas. As our cruising coaches, circumnavigators Jamie and Behan Gifford on s/v Totem say, “misery is optional.”
The wind ramped down a little by the morning of November 14, and was still at our backs, so we pushed on into the Albemarle. As usual, we got started at first light. It was a bit rough, but tolerable. By late afternoon we had both crossed the Sound and run south down the Alligator River to where it takes a sharp turn to the west into the Alligator-Pungo Canal near Mile 101. We didn’t see any alligators, but the Alligator River is notorious for snagging anchors with underwater obstructions, so we rigged an anchor trip line, a first for us. We didn’t need it when it came time to weigh anchor, but we were glad to have it, just in case.
On November 15 we slipped through the Alligator-Pungo Canal into the Pungo River, and stopped for fuel and water at a marina at Belhaven, NC at Mile 135. The plan was to fill our tanks and then anchor in the harbor, but the channel to the fuel dock was narrow and barely deep enough for Santiago, and after some challenging maneuvers with wind blowing her on to the dock, she ended up on the opposite side of the dock from Victory, where untying her lines would let the wind blow her quickly off into the shallows and a rocky jetty. No matter, we decided to stay the night to wait for a forecasted wind shift that would allow Santiago to safely escape.
This happily meant that we were able to take proper showers for the first time in two weeks. Although Victory has both an indoor shower and a cockpit shower, we generally prefer to use the water in our three thirty five gallon water tanks for drinking, cooking, washing dishes, and basic “spit baths”, rather than showering. Plus, we were able to take a complimentary golf cart ride into town for the twin luxuries of a restaurant dinner and some convenience store ice cream! It is my habit to carry ice cream spoons whenever we go ashore.
First thing the next morning, on November 16, after the wind shifted to blow Santiago onto the dock instead of the rocks, Santiago’s captain worked out an ingenious series of warping operations to extricate his vessel. Warping a boat is the art of moving it by pulling on strategically placed dock lines tied at various angles to dock cleats and pilings. Under Captain Shawn’s direction, the crews of Santiago and Victory slowly but surely walked Santiago to safety. Victory’s captain was impressed!
With Santiago free and clear, Victory released her own grip on the fuel dock and the two boats relocated to the head of the harbor, where we dropped our hooks to wait for favorable winds for traversing two more large expanses of open water: Pamlico Sound and the Neuse River. After a one day wait we set out early on November 17. By evening, we had run down the rest of the Pungo River, crossed Pamlico Sound, and continued on down the Neuse River past the point where it turns to the west. We spent the night of the 17th at anchor in the South River, a Neuse River tributary. I am absolutely tickled to report, pun intended, that this South River anchorage was the polar opposite of the North River anchorage we were in earlier! Seriously, the river banks were wooded with tall, old-growth trees broken only by a venerable, peaceful-looking abandoned town and cemetery and were incredibly inviting. We did not take the time to inflate our dinghy Defeat to go ashore, and I regret it.
On November 18, we sailed west on the Neuse River past Oriental, NC, then turned south again to pass through lovely Adams Creek, the Adams Creek Canal, and the Newport River. We continued past Beaufort, NC, to anchor off Sugar Loaf Island in a narrow strip of water near the the port of Morehead City, NC at Mile 205.1. This was a gritty place to stop and a real change of scene - we had not been in such an industrial area since leaving Norfolk, VA.
Our next anchorage, Mile Hammock Bay, at Mile 244.5, was on the fringe of Camp LeJeune. We were now in a world of endless, rippling expanses of marsh grass peppered with signs warning us of the presence of the off limits military base. The anchorage itself had been dredged out of the marsh for military use and to my eye had a rather unnatural shape. There was a narrow neck of water perpendicular to the ICW that culminated in a wider section, carved out as a large rectangle. The basin, in combination with the narrow entrance, gave me the impression of a sort of squared off goblet. We spent the night of November 19 in this deeper water haven in the otherwise shallow marsh.
The next day, November 20, we crossed the fast flowing New River, timing our passage to be fairly close to slack water to take some of the edge off the tidal currents. As we approached the river we slowed down to let a massive container ship go past upstream. This threw our timing off a bit, and I worried that Victory’s modest Perkins 4.108 diesel engine might struggle to get us across the increasing tidal flood, but the current was still far from its peak and Victory chugged across the river like a champ.
After we crossed the New River, we continued in parallel with the coast of North Carolina for the rest of the day, finally reaching the Wrightsville Beach anchorage at Mile 283.2. The very busy anchorage at Wrightsville Beach is separated from the North Atlantic by a thin strip of land and the adjacent Wrightsville Beach Inlet is wide and short and easily navigated. It is a major stepping off point for boats leaving the ICW to continue south offshore with the challenges of Cape Hatteras safely bypassed. I confess that the clean, salty smell of the open ocean tempted me mightily, but the plan was to stick to the ICW. Accordingly, we squeezed into the chock full of boats anchorage with two main goals: celebrate Thanksgiving with some pomp and ceremony, and wait for the wind to blow down instead of up the Cape Fear River. As Nike of Untie the Lines / White Spot Pirates, one of our earliest YouTube sailing channel influences says: “more about that, next time!”