Doing the Ditch, Part II

Beaufort, South Carolina, to Stuart, Florida. Read Part I here.

Doing the Ditch, Part II

In our May issue, George Sass Sr. reported on the first half of his journey down the Intracoastal Waterway — from Annapolis, Maryland, to Beaufort, South Carolina — aboard a Corvette 340 (“Doing the Ditch, Part I”). Fair weather, a fine boat and many scenic stops along the way provided an adventure that was only regrettable for its quick pace in the race against winter. The second half of the trip would not prove as easy.

With new crew, I departed Beaufort in early December during unseasonably cold weather. Daytime temperatures were in the low 30s, so we wanted to get south as quickly as possible. But the next 450 miles would present new challenges — there were reports of three- to five-foot depths in the middle of some channels at low tide.

Although the Corvette draws only 3 feet 3 inches, we kissed the bottom after wandering a couple of feet out of the channel near Mile 555 on our way to Isle of Hope, Georgia. Luckily we were running only 7 knots, and we bounced back into deeper water without incident. Exiting the narrow Fields Cut and entering the Savannah River, we saw only one foot under our keel at midtide in the middle of the channel. Soon after, we heard a call for a towing service from a sailboat that had run aground in the same spot.

We arrived at the friendly Isle of Hope Marina (www.iohmarina.com) in late afternoon and queued up for fuel — this is the only fuel stop for the next 90 miles. Isle of Hope is a convenient base from which to explore Savannah, because a city bus stops near the marina. Proving that Southern hospitality really exists, the owner of the marina drove us to an excellent restaurant nearby, and the restaurant's hostess drove us back.

A meeting of other cruisers heading south convened at sunrise to discuss getting through Hell Gate, the narrow cut between the Vernon and Ogeechee Rivers, notorious for its shoaling and fast current. The trick here is to approach it at a mid and rising tide and to keep an eye on the markers behind you, staying lined up in the channel and not letting the strong, sideways current push you onto the shoals.

Our next challenge, 50 miles south, was Little Mud River, a five-mile stretch of curves and bends that hasn’t been dredged in years because of budgets and environmental issues. There are reports of three-foot areas, and while our timing for Hell Gate was spot on, we now needed to slow down and wait for a rising tide. Luckily for us, a Fleming 55 with its 5-foot draft was directly ahead of us, and we eagerly followed in its wake. After making it through, the captain told us he had about six inches under his keel in spots.

After this 90-mile touch-and-go run from Isle of Hope, we took a short detour off the ICW to the city of Brunswick, Georgia. We arrived on “First Friday,” a monthly event when shops and restaurants stay open late promoting the revival of this historic “Gateway to the Golden Isles.”

Our biggest challenges were not all behind us, and we had a dockside meeting the next morning with fellow cruisers to discuss navigating past Cumberland Island. We were warned not to follow our charts between markers 58A and 63, since the magenta line showing the route was on the wrong side of the marks and the small island shown didn’t exist. Instead we were advised to strictly follow the marks and to watch for uncharted, temporary ones. Sure enough, as our depth dropped to five feet at nearly high tide, we saw small red nun A-1 in the middle of the narrow channel. Keeping it to starboard, we crept through this confusing maze, safely reaching deep water in Cumberland Sound.

Our reward for this stressful leg was reaching Florida and discovering the charm of Fernandina Beach. After tying up behind two cruise ships at Fernandina Harbor Marina (www.fhmarina.com), which protected us from the 30-knot blasts of cold, arctic air, we set out to explore downtown wrapped in our winter coats. Good restaurants, unique shops and historic buildings are an attraction to boaters and vacationers alike, since the luxurious resorts of Amelia Island are nearby.

Before reaching our final destination in Stuart, we made overnight stops in St. Augustine, New Smyrna Beach and Melbourne. Christmas lights and holiday activities in downtown St. Augustine were especially festive, and as always, it proved to be a favorite stopover. I hadn’t been to New Smyrna Beach since I was a young boy, and I am happy to say it still has its small-town charm.

The second leg of the ICW is definitely more challenging than the first, and it’s clear that parts of this priceless waterway are endangered because of limited dredging funds. Until the Feds can catch up to the shoaling, one must be extra cautious, passing through the trouble spots during mid to high tide.

Mostly, though, this is a trip worth taking at a more leisurely pace than our delivery schedule allowed. I discovered a number of towns and anchorages that I hadn’t been to before and that I’d like to spend more time exploring. Hmm ... perhaps the folks at Corvette need their 340 back in Annapolis this summer. I can’t think of a better boat for making this trip.

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