ICW or Offshore

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From the Capt'n - (finally).

Inside or outside - the Ditch or Offshore - that is the question. 
There are advantages and disadvantages to both.




bulletNot usually affected by weather.
bulletMany opportunities to stop, either at a marina or to just drop the hook.
bulletSlow, usually 30-40 miles/day.
bulletConstant attention required by helmsman.
bulletMotoring almost all the time .
bulletTiming bridge & lock openings.
bulletNight sailing not an option.


bulletA chance to actually use the sails.
bulletFaster, usually around 120 miles/day.
bulletAutopilot (Otto) does most of the work.
bulletLimited opportunities to stop.
bulletVery much affected by weather.
bulletUsually a long way from a harbor to the sea buoy.

Traveling the ICW

The  Intra Coastal Waterway, aka The Ditch, provides a relaxing way to cruise, with much to see and many opportunities to stop. You can just drop the hook or pick up a slip at some small town and spend the night at rest. This is really not an option, since you can’t travel on the ICW at night.

The ICW winds its way through rivers, canals, bays and behind barrier islands so it is usually not affected by weather. The main problem is that it requires almost constant attention by the helmsman to stay in the channel and/or find the next marker. In some cases the channel is very narrow, bordered by 1 or 2 foot shallows, making it imperative to stay in the channel. In other cases the ICW crosses a large bay and the markers may be several miles apart requiring the helmsman to steer a compass course or program a waypoint into the GPS. Either case requires almost constant attention.

Lift, swing, and pontoon bridges add to the excitement (or frustration) of using the ICW.  Many of these bridges must be opened for you to go through. Most have schedules and restrictions for opening. Some do not open at all during rush hour periods, some open every half hour or every twenty minutes and some open on demand.

Most of these bridges are quite old, so it not that unusual to find one that is temporarily out of commission. We hit one just before the lock going into the Mississippi. We were told it would be in operation again by 3:00PM. That would have totally screwed up our schedule for the bridge openings after crossing the Mississippi into Lake Ponchartrain. This was critical because once  across the river and into the Industrial Canal there is no place to stop for the night. We decided to take a chance and slowly make our way to the bridge; luckily it was operating much sooner than anticipated and we barely made the rush hour restrictions on the last bridge into the lake. The last morning while in Charleston we heard that the Lighthouse Bridge across Wappoo Creek would be out of commission till 3:00PM. This bridge is at the end of a narrow canal just before the ICW enters the Ashley River and Charleston Harbor. Anybody coming up the creek at that time was really ‘up the creek’ since there is not enough room to hang around and wait for the bridge to be fixed. (Sailboats don’t stay put real well unless attached to something.)

Traveling Offshore

Going offshore is a way to cover a lot of miles in a shorter time because there is no need to stop at night. In fact, there usually is no place to stop at night. In a way it is relaxing in that there are long straight stretches, 50 to 100 miles or more, which are handled by the autopilot. This provides time for everyone on board to read, nap, eat, nap, do crossword puzzles, nap, etc. Scenery, other than ‘water, water, everywhere’, is of course nonexistent. The ‘nap’ part is important because someone has to be on watch all night and even when off watch, the sleeping conditions are usually not ideal. We have been doing one watch till midnight and then tried two or three hour shifts till morning. This is OK for one or two nights but could get to be a real drag for longer periods.

It is also important to pick a good weather window since the ocean can get real nasty in a hurry and it is usually a long way between places to go in and find a harbor. The weather is also important since it determines whether you sail or motor. So far we have found that the marine weather forecasts, other than predicting major fronts, are about as (in)accurate as the local TV weather person. Trying to determine ahead of time if the wind will be favorable for sailing is a waste of time. The only way to find out is to go out there and see which way it really is blowing, (or not).

So the choice is: do you want to enjoy the scenery and motor, or do want to get somewhere in a hurry and maybe get to use the sails.


Three Cool Bridges


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