Doing the Ditch

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The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, sometimes referred to as “the ditch”, is made up of rivers, bays, sounds, inlets, and manmade canals stretching north-south from Norfolk, VA to the Florida Keys.  The waterway is used by commercial barges, small cruise lines, commercial fishing vessels, as well as pleasure boats.

Navigating the channels requires attention to the charts. The ICW is marked with numbered red triangular day markers with a small yellow triangle and green square daymarkers with a yellow square.  Basically, heading south, we keep “red right returning” – red markers to our starboard and green to port-side.  As long as we check the marker numbers against our charts, and make sure they have the Intracoastal mark (yellow triangles and squares) we’ll stay in the channel.

Recently, we joined the new era of sailing when we purchased a chart plotter (a gps with electronic charts). It’s much easier to follow the highlighted route on the chart plotter, but we still follow along the old way, as well.  I was thankful for the old faithful paper chart when the route disappeared suddenly from the chart plotter just as we reached some very “skinny” water.  I presume “it” didn’t want to be responsible in this area of heavy shifting and shoaling.  Some areas are narrow and shallow and, often, we find ourselves, well, navigating with the depth sounder.  When we hit 8 feet of water we go to port or starboard in search of deeper water.  Providence draws just under 6 feet, but by the time our depth sounder reads 6 feet, we are already aground.  The good thing is our new yanmar can back us up off those shoals, whereas our old engine took some doing.

Here, we were leaving a small river where we had pulled off the channel to anchor for the night.  We kept the flashing green marker to port and turned around the red marker (visible only by its triangular shape in this early morning light).

This little river was busy with shrimpers during the night.  I heard one approaching and got up to be sure they could see us.  His spot-light nearly blinded me, but as it passed by, I made this photo.  They work hard on those boats.

It’s best to navigate the ditch in day light. Many barges use it at night and its safer to be out of their way. Our days began at day break and we anchored 8 to 10 hours later, making 50 to 60 miles.  There are lots of bridges to go under and that can add time.  Many are now 65 feet high, making it easy.  For others, swing and lift bridges, we radio the bridge tender to ask for an opening.  Sometimes they open “on request” but, often, at pre-scheduled times so street traffic is not too disrupted.  This means waiting as much as one hour.  If there is no current this is easy enough.

A tugboat pushing a barge has right of way.  We pull aside to let it pass through the bridge opening first.

There are often people fishing under the bridges.

All along the way there is plenty to see.

A wild horse on Cumberland Island.