From Beaufort, we decided to try to follow the Inter Coastal Waterway until Norfolk. I have to admit we were a bit nervous about it, because every single American we spoke to has a story to tell about running aground. Keep in mind, we draw 2.20 (7 foot something), while most Americans have a draft of 1.50 m (5 feet) or under. The whole northern part of the ICW should be dredged to at least 10 feet so we should be fine, right?
Our friends Max and Toon onboard Anne Marie were one day ahead of us and confirmed that we should have no problem with the depth. They had run aground once and had some pointers on where to pay extra attention. To be on the safe side, we stayed right behind Bora Bora in the tricky areas. Ben and Nicki’s boat is equipped with a forward facing sonar, basically seeing ahead in the murky water. Can’t go wrong now, right?
Day 1: Beaufort – Neuse River
Following inland waters is something completely new to us, so it was a very exciting first day. The first channel was narrow and lined with big houses. One house even had a helicopter in the back yard.. We saw loads of big birds (I think they were hawks). They nest on the channel markers, and almost every marker has a nest with eggs or baby birds now! It was a bit exhausting to follow the narrow channel, where we had to stay exactly in the middle. Normally we just let the hydrovane or autopilot steer the boat, but now we had to be at the helm at all times and there was little room for error. We rotated every hour, and my hour was always the longest hour ever. It was also very hot, especially the days with no wind..
Day 2: Sailing up the Pamlico River
The second day we followed a wider river instead of a channel, but we still had to keep a close watch because there were crab pots everywhere. We don’t want to sail over a crab pot, because it can get stuck in our propellor. There was wind and there was enough space, so we decided to hoist the sails! Bora Bora took a shortcut across a shallow bank which we were too afraid to pass where we had to steer east for a couple of miles before heading northwest, but we sail much faster so we caught up with them anyway. We saw heaps of dolphins, even some baby dolphins!
That evening, we dropped the hook in a big sheltered bay next to Belhaven. This was also a sleepy little town like Beaufort, with a couple of restaurants and bars. The locals extremely friendly and kept offering us rides and rounds of beer. “Are you SURE you don’t want me to drive you to a supermarket right now?” We were not complaining.
Day 3: Squalls and mosquitos on the Alligator River
We continued our route on Alligator River, where the ICW gets narrow and shallow again. We had to fire up the engines.. In the afternoon, conditions deteriorated really fast and we had an angry looking front approaching us. The wind changed direction and dropped a couple of degrees in temperature, and we saw rain and thunder approaching fast. We decided to stop for a moment and dropped anchor just outside the navigation channel. We enjoyed a short break, cooked food and by the time our dinner was eaten we could continue towards a more sheltered bay. The bay was so sheltered that the mosquitos had taken over and we spent the evening locked up inside on the right side of the mosquito net. We saw and heard hundreds of little bugs buzzing on the other side..! We were also surprised to find dozens of little shrimp in our toilet, which we flush with the river water. I can only guess what happens to them once they end up in our black water ‘holding’ tank (monster shrimp!).
Day 4: Sailing towards Elisabeth City
We got lucky with the weather once again and were able to sail most of the next day towards Elisabeth City. The route took us out of Alligator River into the Albamarle Sound, a bigger water but full of crab pots. Once again, we had to take a detour where Bora Bora could cut across a shorter route, but we still beat them to the free dock. Elisabeth City welcomes boaters on one of their many free slips, and even provides free water to fill up your water tanks!
Whenever new boats arrive, a local boater organises free sundowners and fly swatters as a welcome. Whilst we were docked there, a stream of interested locals would walk past and ask all about our journey, offer us rides, advice, phone numbers and even invited us over for dinner. We were a bit overwhelmed, until we figured out that we really needed to do laundry. I packed two big laundry bags and waited next to the boat to see what would happen. And really, it didn’t even take a minute for someone to offer to drive me to a laundromat. I even got his number, so I could call him whenever I was finished!
In the evening we were invited over to a family which is planning to set sail soon as well (soon as in ‘two years ago’). They are building a catamaran in a shed their backyard and wanted to hear all about our journey over some pizza. We got to walk around on the building site, and it was incredible to think that this huge boat (they always look huge on the hard) will one day sail towards South America!
Day 5: Dismal Swamp or Virginia Cut?
After two nights in Elisabeth City, we had a difficult decision to make: are we taking the Dismal Swamp route or the Virginia Cut? Both end in Norfolk, both would take us about 2 days, just the Dismal Swamp seemed a bit more interesting, challenging (because of the depth) and was a slightly shorter route. We had decided and reconsidered about 20 times the last few days, but finally decided to take the Virginia Cut. We don’t want to run aground, especially not somewhere it’s so narrow you can’t even turn your boat around!
We said goodbye to Bora Bora (for now) and sailed back along the Albamarle Sound towards the Virginia Cut. The great advantage of this route was that we could sail a lot more than through the Swamp. After a long day on the water, we arrived in Pungo. We tied up next to a Norwegian boat on an old ferry dock and had yet another free and secure spot for the night.
Day 6: Getting really lucky with a big barge
The last big excitement of the ICW was the only lock on the Virginia Cut, which only opens every hour. We arrived just a few minutes late for the opening and had to wait until the next opening on the whole hour. We tied up Scehawk, had an early lunch and watched a big barge almost drift into the bridge before the lock. Then it started backing up, inching closer and closer towards us! This enormous boat put its engine in full reverse, putting so much water into motion that Scehawk almost popped her fenders. There was nothing we could do, because the force of the water pushed the boat into the pontoon. We couldn’t even untie and get out of the way. We called the bridge master and begged him to open up so the barge could pass instead of drift into us. They didn’t respond, but luckily it was 11.00 o’clock, time to open up anyway. We got lucky by a couple of metres! We needed the rest of the day to recover.
We arrived in Norfolk early in the afternoon and were happy to tie up after ‘Mile 0’ of the ICW. It was an amazing experience and we are proud not to have run aground once! We can safely say that this part of the ICW is more than doable for boats with a deep draft like ours. We were very relieved that we decided to take the Virginia Cut for the last part, as Ben & Nicky on Bora Bora encountered some very shallow areas. They also got tangled up in a tree with their masts and hit the bottom a couple of times. That wouldn’t have been much fun for Scehawk (and us)!