Three days on the ICW

Miles 0 to 136: Norfolk, VA to Belhaven, NC

The origin of the ICW in Norfolk is about as urban and industrial as a place can be. Tall buildings, commercial activities of all sorts, trains, planes, heavy industry and shipbuilding. By the afternoon on the first day we left all of that behind.

I couldn’t tell what they were working on. But clearly it required cranes.

That is a really big crane. With a little crane on top.
There were several patrol boats around this guy so I was hesitant to take a photo. Probably shouldn’t have worried — the former USS Sam Rayburn (SSBN 635) was retired from service in 1989. She was used for many years as a training ship for nuclear engineers in South Carolina and was recently towed back to Norfolk.

On the first day we passed through 13 bridges (auto and rail) and one lock. The bridges were all different. About half of the bridges required some sort of movement (lifting or swinging) to allow a tall sailboat to pass through. Some bridges operate on a fixed schedule, others open on request. Railroad bridges generally remain open and passable until a train approaches.

Odd as it may seem, I don’t actually know the height of Andante’s mast. I’ve measured and figured in several different ways but am only really confident to +/- 1 foot. My best guess is that the tip of the VHF antenna that sticks up above the masthead is 61 feet above the waterline. Most fixed-height ICW bridges have 65′ clearance above mean high water so we should be fine — but this can vary a bit with wind and extreme tides. Bridge pilings generally have markers that show the current air draft and based on these I know we’ve successfully passed through bridges as low as 63.5′ on this trip. That’s low enough for me.

Lift bridge for cars, bascule bridge for trains.

Shortly after leaving the Norfolk area boats have to choose whether to follow the (straighter, deeper) Virginia Cut or detour into the winding, shallow, more wild Dismal Swamp Canal. I’d like to seem them both at some point — but Andante’s draft is not a good match for the Swamp route.

The turn to the Dismal Swamp Canal

Just a little further along the route the Great Bridge Lock was an interesting experience. Once an hour about 10 boats are loaded into the lock chamber and secured to the walls. Then the gates are closed and the water level allowed to rise — on this day the change was only about a foot. Then everyone filters out and loiters while waiting for the adjacent bridge to open.

Entering the Great Bridge lock
Secured to the wall and ready to go.
Loitering while waiting for the bridge to open. Most (but not all) of the helmspeople were skilled at controlling their vessels in tight quarters with wind and current. By the end of the day everyone had accumulated several hours of experience.
Out of the lock and through the Great Bridge bridge.
Clearly we need a boat sticker

Soon after leaving the tidy little town of Great Bridge we settled into a landscape that was far less manicured and far more monotonous. Swampy land, scraggly trees, and ever-present stumps and submerged logs along the banks. We tried to stay in the center of the channel all the time to avoid bumping anything. Even with GPS I would not want to transit these narrow channels at night — too many barely-visible obstacles to be avoided.

Partially-submerged stumps and logs along the banks of the canal

The first night we found a spot to anchor just outside the channel in a bend south of the Pungo Ferry Bridge about two miles north of the NC border. Later that evening I checked Maps to see what was nearby: Lots of nature, not many people.

The second day out we pressed on through northern North Carolina crossing Albemarle Sound (under sail) and the Alligator River. We spent the night in a small cove just north of the Alligator River – Pungo River canal, near the 100 (statute) mile mark on the ICW.

Mile marker 100 near the southern extent of the Alligator River

The Alligator River – Pungo River canal was apparently the final piece of dredging required to complete the 1090 mile Atlantic ICW. While it may be a feat of civil engineering, it is not a particularly exciting or photogenic passage. It is long, straight, and mostly featureless for 20+ miles until reaching the Pungo River.

The AR-PR Canal. Reminded me of those never-ending long hallways in bad dreams.

Tonight we are anchored in Belhaven, NC near ICW mile marker 136. Its been a cold and wet and windy day and more stormy weather is anticipated. As always, tomorrow’s movement will depend on tomorrow’s weather. If it looks messy (and cold rain is forecast) we may just stay here for a while.

A faithful reader of this blog asked about how I stay warm. Andante does not have a heater. Perhaps a diesel heater will be a project for next year. For now I have warm clothes, a sleeping bag, and a limited supply of refrigerated chocolate chip cookie dough and cinnamon rolls. The oven is a pretty effective cabin heater so I’ve taken to baking in the evenings to make the cabin more comfortable. The engine’s residual heat also helps. I don’t yet have a solution to cold mornings other than coffee and getting active as quickly as possible.

My solution to heating the cabin. Smells good too

The final countdown

Packing. Lots of Packing.

Over the past few months our little dinghy has shuttled hundreds of pounds of parts and tools and building materials out to Andante on her summer mooring in Red Brook Harbor. I’ve worked on plenty of invasive, messy projects this summer that left a wake of bits and pieces about the boat. In addition to updating her sailing hardware I’ve completed many engine, electrical and plumbing tasks. But this week the focus shifted to preparing to depart Massachusetts in the narrow window between the end of hurricane season and the arrival of colder weather. Last week the emphasis was on removing all the excess materials and tools left over from my various projects. This week its been all about provisioning for the next month or two. That means lots of fuel and water, lots of spare parts, clothes for a variety of conditions and lots and lots of food.

Load after load of food, clothes, and spare parts.

Andante can swallow an enormous amount of gear in her myriad lockers and drawers – and also in the double-secret cubbyholes hidden inside her lockers and drawers. Storage capacity is a wonderful thing and I’m not complaining. But I really need to develop a foolproof inventory system that allows one to find things again after they’ve been carefully stowed. I’m working on a searchable Excel spreadsheet that documents the contents of every single storage locker and cubby. Some sort of database app might be a future improvement.

I really enjoy cooking and am looking forward to spending lots of time trying new things in the galley this winter. Andante is equipped with a great 3-burner stove with oven and a large freezer and refrigerator. We have an appointment next week at Cool Boats in Mystic, CT to have her 12v refrigeration system upgraded – so for the first few days of the trip I will have no refrigeration. Until then fresh food storage will be limited to a minimally-insulated bag filled with ice cubes for just the critical cold items (eggs, butter, cheese, cream). For the next few days I’ll be eating more canned foods and ramen than fresh fish and veggies.

The weather is looking good for a departure this weekend. At some point I hope to add a live tracking functionality to this site.