The "Live-Anywhere" Boat - The Trip South, Part II, Norfolk to Charleston
Updated December 17, 2008

We stayed in Norfolk an extra day, taking advantage of the internet access at the marina and doing a little shopping. The weather outside the harbor was clearly not so good; it was windy and evidently quite foggy. We could hear tugs and ships saying uncharacteristically, "Is that you by the 32 buoy?" In the marina we met a boat (a 60' Sparkman & Stephens steel ketch) skippered by a Maine man, from Eagle Island (but not "ours," the one in Penobscot Bay). They had been unable to round Cape Hatteras in the heavy seas and strong winds and so retreated to Norfolk to regroup.

Monday evening we went out for dinner and watched a little of the football. The game (Texans vs. Jaguars) was not exciting enough, however, to overcome our early bedtime habits, and we left before the end of the first half.

The next day gale warnings were still up, but the Intracoastal Waterway is so protected we didn't care and set off just after daylight.
The marina was pretty tight and tricky to manueuver in, but Barbara performed beautifully, spinning around like a top and dodging some other pretty expensive hardware, and by 7:30 we were southbound up the Elizabeth River.

There was not as much naval traffic in Norfolk as the last time we passed through, but there was still a lot going on. We had to wait briefly for some of the several drawbridges south of Norfolk, but we had a piece of luck at the North Landing Bridge; we would have had to wait for an opening at the top of the next hour (45 min), but the bridge made an unscheduled opening for the tug Lisa Moran, pushing an empty barge, which had followed us ever since the Great Bridge Lock.

Bulkers Unloading in Norfolk
By 2:45 we were at the little town of Coinjock, which doesn't seem to be near anything, where we took on a little fuel at a reasonable price. We spent the night anchored behind Camden Point, just before the North River opens into Albemarle Sound. It was a very peaceful place, with no chop at all and just a little light breeze.
The next day we set off early, crossed a very quiet Albemarle Sound, and ran up the Alligator River. We had read reports of boats running aground at the entrance to the river, but we just followed the markers and had no trouble. The shores of the river are mainly cypress swamp,

The Tug Gold Coast Pushing a Fuel Barge South of Norfolk
and after we went through the swing bridge we saw no sign of people except for several fighter jets overhead, reminding us that this part of the South is very much military territory.

The commercial traffic that is very much a part of the waterway north of Albemarle Sound had pretty well disappeared at this point, and we saw no one but an occasional fishing boat, although we did hear the radio chatter of a couple of sailboats a little ahead of us.

The Swing Bridge in the Alligator River, Closing after we Went Through /

Cypress Swamps Along the Alligator River

There is not much difference between land and water in these parts, which is somewhat unnerving for a Maine man. The Alligator River winds its way through swamps and cypress trees with nothing more than a foot above water level.

The Intracoastal Waterway is a place where it is easy to lose all sense of direction. It zigzags around following rivers and excavated cuts joining them, and the charts all show only strips. Sure, they do all have proper compass roses, but North could be in any direction, as the charts are laid out with the long axis following the waterway. In the same way, places only have any identity along this "ditch"; any connection with a larger geography takes a lot of effort to establish. In this case we left the Alligator River and its cypress swamps at some point and went through a canal to the Pungo River.

The name "Pungo" got me thinking; in addition to the river there is a "Pungo ferry" on the North River and a "Machipongo Inlet" on the Virginia coast north of Norfolk. I googled a little and found that there was a small Indian tribe called Machapunga that inhabited the area -- maybe 100 people according to a 1701 record -- and centered on a lake south of the canal joining the Alligator and Pungo rivers. Seems as though the tribe must have been quite a bit larger once, though, since the places bearing these names are quite far apart.

After joining the Pungo River, we worked our way into a little creek on the north side of the river, where we stayed at a small family-run marina in Dowry Creek (another name that certainly has an interesting history) that we thoroughly enjoyed. It is the sort of place one could happily spend some time, but we were in a hurry to get further south (there was frost on the wharf the next morning) and we pushed on. The ICW at this point runs down the Pungo River, crosses the Pamlico River, and runs by way of a couple of creeks and an excavated section through the village of Hobucken to the
Shrimpers Tied up in Hobucken
Neuse River. The Waterway Guide calls the Neuse "some of the meanest water on the ICW," and it was choppy, but nothing to compare to Casco Bay in a good summer south-westerly.

Hobucken must be etymologically equivalent to Hoboken, the city on New York Harbor in New Jersey, and nearby is a town called Vandermere -- there must be (or have been) a significant Dutch presence in the area. As usual, we know too little of the history of the places we travel through.

After a dozen or so miles of the Neuse we turned into a little creek that again quickly became an excavated canal and arrived eventually at the town of Beaufort, after waiting a while for a drawbridge to open on its schedule, not ours. There are 2 Beauforts on the ICW; this one, in North Carolina, is pronounced "bo-f'rt," while the one in South Carolina is pronounced "Bew-fort." Sometimes it is necessary to know such arcane facts. The marina in Beaufort was crowded with 40- to 60-foot sport fishermen (one from Orleans, Mass.), some of them very fancy indeed.

The evening we arrived we had a couple of drinks (on the marina!) at a bar on the docks, then went out to dinner for a change at "No-Name Pizza," which was really very good and actually deserved a name, in our opinion.

The next morning the sport fishermen were all gone, off to the "office" (the fishing grounds outside Beaufort Inlet) with their charter customers, and Barbara took advantage of a loaner car from the marina to do a shopping. We didn't get away until after 10, but it didn't make much difference; we had

Sunset in Beaufort
to wait for two drawbridges, and then we had to anchor for almost an hour. The ICW runs by and through Camp Lejeune and it seems that the Marines have an artillery range whose impact/target area is on the outer island between the ICW and the water, while they actually fire from the shore side. A Navy picket boat was very polite but also very firm about everyone waiting for a break in the firing. We finally got through at 3:00 and anchored just before dark in a small excavated bay that the Marine Corps uses as a harbor. With us, bunched up by the wait, were boats called: Crackerjack, Humdinger, Buterfluge, and Wanderlust. As we were settling down and getting ready for supper the Navy picket boats came in and were hauled out by their waiting trailers. Once that activity was over, it was a very peaceful night.
Barbara at the Marina in Beaufort

Here the ICW winds along between the mainland proper and barrier islands, sometimes in narrow passages like rivers and sometimes dredged channels thorough wider sounds. We went through several drawbridges (all requiring a wait because there is a good deal of traffic between the mainland and the islands) and by different kinds of waterside communities ranging from fishing villages to high-end developments. It is a little like driving on Rt. 1 except that you have to keep one eye on the depthsounder.
Dudleys Island -- Typical of This Stretch of the ICW

Wrightsville Beach is said to be a resort center and the North Carolina sailing capital, and it certainly does have plenty of marinas, although we saw mostly sport fishermen rather than sailboats. While we waited for the Wrightsville drawbridge, idling in the middle of the stream, several pairs of porpoises decided we looked like fun and repeatedly dove and swam under us, to reappear on the other side and repeat the process. Maybe there were fish hiding in our shadow?
Wrightsville -- Not the Low-Rent District
Wrightsville Wharves have LONG Walkways
At Wrightsville Beach we decided we were tired of drawbridges and of constant attention to the depth sounder, and we knew from the cruising guides that some particularly difficult (read "shallow") areas were just ahead, so we decided to go out through the Masonboro Inlet and run offshore for a while.

This proved to be a not terribly good decision, as our goal, the Cape Fear River, required rounding Cape Fear itself, with some 8 miles of the Frying Pan Shoals extending to the southward. But we persevered and by 4:15 we were slipping through the Frying Pan Slue, a gap in the shoal.

As we ran up the Cape Fear river, a big-ship channel with lighted buoys all along it, we were hailed by the pilot of a tanker coming down the river who asked us to cross over to the green (left) side of the channel so he would have an easier time taking the sharp right-hand turn in the channel at that point. The tanker slid by well clear of us, a huge bulk in the dark.

We were heading for the marina at Southport, enclosed in a protecting basin just off the river; we turned in there just after 7:00, and by 7:20 we were alongside and secured.

The next day (Dec 7) we spent in Southport, wandering around the little town and doing chores on the boat.

The Surf City Drawbridge Opening for Us
We found Southport a pretty little town, the first we had seen with a real southern character, with live oaks along the streets, many of them festooned with Spanish moss.

On this sleepy Sundy morning it looked and felt very peaceful. It is really almost the prototype of an American small town, even to the water tower on the main street.

The next day we set off at first light, back down the Cape Fear River channel to the ocean and southwest to Little River Inlet, where we would rejoin the ICW, bypassing the dreaded Lockwoods Folly and Shallottes Inlet, which are real problem areas on the ICW.

A Street in Southport
There is lots of scare talk and warnings about inlets in the cruising guides, and sometimes the Coast Guard moves the buoys in response to changes in the sand banks, but in this case we just followed the buoys (with an eye on the depth sounder) and we were through the inlet and back on the ICW by 11:45, and running down behind the resort town of Myrtle Beach. Here there was continuous development along the waterway and the dimensions of the housing boom became really obvious. We heard at a marina that there were 3,500 condo units unsold in Myrtle Beach, a staggering number that underlines the depth of the crash of the housing bubble.
Condo Development in Myrtle Beach
At the Socastee Bridge we had to wait because a couple of schoolbusses were due. We are used to schoolbus delays on land, but this was the first time we had been delayed by busses while on the water. Once the busses were past, the swing bridge opened quickly enough and we were through.

Nearby, a larger fixed bridge is being built (we had heard warnings about the construction disrupting traffic on the ICW) and we spotted this useful-looking little workboat in attendance. The new bridge is no guarantee that there will be fewer drawbridges, however -- in one place there is a fixed high-level bridge with a swing bridge right next to it!

Capt. Sam, a Useful little Pushboat
The bridge tenders in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida all operate on VHF channel 9 instead of 13 like the rest of the world. This means that one is always switching from 13 (the ship-to-ship channel) to 9 to talk to a bridge, then back to 13, instead of just sitting on 16 and 13 as one normally does.

This section of the ICW apparently had some granite outcroppings in its way and the Army Corps of Engineers simply blasted the cut through them. So far, so good, but unfortunately the areas between the outcrops have eroded, giving the illusion of a wider stream. If you don't stay in the middle, however, the under water edges of the original cut will do their worst, and this would be a real problem with the unprotected wheels of the average "trawler;" the area is known as the "Rockpile."

Some of this cut is pretty nice, though, with real woods along the sides. There is nowhere to anchor in this stretch of canal, but we had read of a nice marina in Myrtle Beach, and by 3:00 in the afternoon we were turning aside into the cut leading to Osprey Marina. This turned out to be a really quiet and pleasant place; I can't imagine any weather conditions that would threaten a boat there. The marina is in an excavated lagoon off the ICW -- the track on the chart shows us going off into the land because the cut is later than the chart survey.

We laid over a day here and took advantage of the time to do some laundry (our washer/dryer is still not hooked up -- I must speak to the person responsible) and to do a little maintenance. In addition to the normal attention that a floating eco-system of this complexity requires, things sometimes crop up. This time it was that the autopilot compass suddenly started giving us obviously incorrect readings. Some email correspondence with the maker (ComNav) gave us a good idea where to look for the problem and we isolated it to the Heading Rate Stabilzer, so we took that out and sent it to them for repair; it's good that

Rocky Edges of the ICW
their support service is very quick and reponsive!

We are not great fans of "marina life," but this was a marina to vie with the peaceful anchorages we have known. In all the marinas in the South we have visited we have seen boats hailing from northern ports, and we understand that people bring their boats down and simply leave them as an alternative to hauling out in boatyards (and perhaps extending the season a little on either end). For that purpose, this would be a good place -- nothing much could bother a boat here. As a plus, we met a lobster-catcher from Swan's Island and his wife; they had become hooked on cruising south in the winter.
Getting turned around in the morning and out the cut again was a bit tight, but Barbara is getting used to moving in and out of tight marinas and managed it beautifully. In very short order we were sliding down the Waccamaw river.

The ICW behind Myrtle Beach

Barbara at Osprey Marina
The Waccamaw River is one of the most beautiful areas of the ICW according to the guides, and in our experience as well. Mind you, if you come from Maine you do not travel the ICW looking for nice cruising grounds -- you have them at home in great plenty. Instead, the ICW is a road, mostly insulated from the winter storms that can make offshore travel problematic, but it does sometimes reward the traveler with areas like this.
Woods on the Waccamaw River

A Wide Spot on the Waccamaw River

An Incongrously Decorated Tour Boat

The Waccamaw River led us past Enterprise Landing, a timber port from which Frank Buck, for whom Bucksport, Maine was named, loaded huge amounts of yellow pine and cypress. Just down river is Bucksport, South Carolina!

Eventually we arrived at Georgetown, which we had hoped would be an attractive city, somewhat like a miniature Charleston, but although it had a few nice houses, it was a letdown and to boot we had to stay in an overpriced marina with no services.

Desolate Beauty
We left in the fog early the next morning and went on down the Waccamaw.

One nice thing happened in Georgetown harbor, however. As we were leaving we were hailed on the VHF by a sailboat we had passsed the day before; the owner asked about Barbara and commented on the small size of our wake. This allowed me to make my point (often reiterated) that I don't like to spend money just moving water around. In general, Barbara has been admired by knowledgable observers the whole trip.

Soon, however, we turned sharply left away from the river and were back in a series of creeks surrounded by salt marsh. We passed Mcclellanville, a tiny harbor filled with shrimpers, and wound through the "Yardley Wildlife Center State Sanctuary." In retrospect, we made a big mistake in not taking the shrimpers' channel out to the open ocean, because the creeks got shallower

Enterprise Landing, Once a Timber Port, Now a Struggling Development
and less well marked as we went along. On top of this, we had a few very heavy rain showers that cut the visibility to just about zero, so it was sometimes a question of moving back and forth across what we thought might be the channel, watching the depth sounder and trying to find the best water, wondering whether 8' would dwindle to 5'.

Nonetheless, we made it through, past the Isle of Palms into Charleston Harbor. Charleston Harbor is really the confluence of two (or three, depending on how you count) rivers, and the old town is the point between the rivers. Entering from the east, we went by the point and up the river on the west side (the Ashley River) where we found our old friends Jim and Barbara of the schooner Marguerite, with whom we spent two very pleasant evenings before they headed to St. Augustine and then out to the Bahamas.

Battery Point, Charleston
Charleston is a target-rich environment for a photographer. It has whole streets full of beautiful nicely-kept houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I have read that one reason it is so well preserved is that the area was relatively unprosperous during the period after the Civil War so there was no money to build new houses. Whatever the reason, the results are certainly spectacular.

Many of the houses have only a short frontage on the street and their longest dimension on the side; we noticed this, and it was explained to us that early laws had taxed houses according to the frontage on the street, so the wily burghers built their houses sideways, so to speak.

A Typical Street in the Old Part of Charleston

Some of these houses have what appears, to all intents and purposes, to be a front door, often complete with fanlights and elaborate moldings, but a door that does not open into the house, but only onto a porch running the whole depth of the house, often with columns and another porch above.

Charleston gave us a chance to play tourist for a couple of days and to get some laundry done More important, however, our visit gave us a chance to reconnect with our friends John and Beth whom we have known and enjoyed since John was CO of Naval Station Annapolis when I helped sail American Promise there. Beth was unfortunately down with the flu, but John gave us a tour of the city and a wonderful barbecue lunch in between grading exams (he now teaches history at The Citadel).

We enjoyed Charleston, and the anchorage was pleasant and sheltered, but Christmas was approaching and our schedule pushed us on; the next page will cover the trip from Charleston to Florida.

St. Michael's Church in Charleston - It Could be in New England!

A Charleston "Front" door

Charleston Ironwork Looking Like New Orleans

Part III