Sitting in the salon having my morning coffee, I heard a knock from outside and saw the owner of a nearby trawler standing on the dock, charts in hand, eager to talk with me. He’d heard I was headed south and was wondering what I knew about Georgia’s Hell Gate, an increasingly tricky spot to get through on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).
Other ICW travelers soon joined us as the sun rose on Georgia’s Isle of Hope Marina. Double-checking tide tables and sharing local knowledge had become a necessity during this trip, especially in Georgia, where the Feds’ dredging hasn’t kept up with the constant shoaling.
I hadn’t traveled “The Ditch” since 2003 and was eager to know if the rumors about severe shoaling were true. My boat for this 1,200-mile trip from Annapolis, Maryland, to Stuart, Florida, was ideal. The twin-engine Corvette 340 cruises at 18 knots and draws only 3 feet 3 inches, and her props and shafts are protected by a keel.
The builder of this new model, who also builds Fleming Yachts, asked me to deliver it for Florida’s winter boat shows and to provide feedback about its performance and design details before they ramped up production. I can’t think of a more thorough sea trial than a two-week journey down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
Part One: Annapolis to Beaufort, South Carolina
The trip began in early November with a 150-mile, nonstop run down the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis to Portsmouth, Virginia. Joining me for the first leg was my boating buddy from Canada, Pat Horvat, who was eager to leave Alberta’s minus 20 degree weather behind him. Cruising at 18 knots we arrived at the Tidewater Marina in Portsmouth in 8ø hours. At this speed the Corvette’s Cummins 330s burn 23 gallons per hour.
A boardwalk with planned green space lines the restored Portsmouth waterfront, which is across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk’s popular Nauticus museum and the USS Wisconsin battleship. During rush hour a paddle-wheel ferry delivers commuters to Norfolk’s bustling business section.
Since I’d run the Virginia Cut before, we decided to try the alternative route, the Dismal Swamp, which cuts through a wildlife refuge on its way to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It was a weekday morning, so we had to plan for the restricted opening of the nearby Gilmerton Bridge as well as Deep Creek Lock, the first of two easy-to-transit locks along the route. Although we were only 55 miles from Elizabeth City, the speed limit between locks meant we would be pushing it to get there before dark.
The scenery was spectacular, but we kept our eyes ahead of us, since half- submerged tree branches and logs threatened our props. Using extreme caution and running at 6 knots didn’t prevent the repeated bumps and bangs from rattling our nerves. No wonder sailboats and displacement trawlers with protected running gear tend to favor this route.