Passage Debrief: Norfolk, VA to Charleston, SC
November 4, 2022 to November 8, 2022
Crew: Captain Forrest and Jim P.
Jim P., a former student and new owner of a Hunter 45, arrived in Little Creek, VA VA to help sail the boat to our next destination, Charleston, SC. We spent a couple days prepping the boat for the next passage, troubleshooting a few issues and provisioning. Our original passage plan was to go out and around Cape Hatteras which would take about 36 hours to get to Beaufort, NC, our first stop. From there we would sail direct to Charleston from Beaufort, staying about 30 miles off the coast. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t want to cooperate, with winds forecasted to be 10 to 20 knots from the East for the next few days. This would not only force us to be sailing upwind for the first leg to Cape Hatteras but would also be against the Gulfstream current, causing a potentially dangerous sea-state.
Instead, we decided to take the Intracoastal Waterway, commonly known as the ICW, a network of rivers and canals that allows you to sail and motor from Norfolk, VA all the way down to the Florida Keys without ever having to sail offshore. Our plan was to follow the ICW to avoid going outside around Cape Hatteras and exit at Beaufort, NC where we would have a straightforward coastal cruise direct to Charleston.
In order to safely navigate the ICW a vessel must have an air draft (mast height) of less than 65 feet in order to clear a multitude of bridges and a draft less than 7 feet to avoid running aground. Luckily for us, Serenity, has an air draft of 61 feet and only draws 5 feet 6 inches. The only problem that concerned us was our lack of a functioning depth finder. Although Serenity was a brand new boat, it turned out that the unit itself was defective out of the factory. We didn't have time to order and receive a new transducer so we decided to go for it making sure to pay extra attention to our charts and the aids to navigation marking the channels.
We took off at first light the next morning and began motoring to the start of the Intracoastal which begins right in downtown Norfolk. We had originally chosen to stage at Little Creek Marina for its proximity to the mouth of the Chesapeake and ease of departure for a passage around Cape Hatteras. Now that we were doing the ICW, starting from Little Creek added an extra 18 miles to our first day putting us a little behind schedule. As we motored towards Norfolk, we entered the famous Hampton Roads channel passing Norfolk Naval Base, the largest naval base in the world, on our port side. We had to pay close attention as we negotiated our way past plenty of naval and commercial traffic.
A close pass with one of the largest container ships in the world!
On the way to the first ICW drawbridge we briefly stopped at Top Rack Marina to pick up some spare oil and coolant ensuring we were prepared for extended motoring down through the ICW. The manager and the Top Rack team were extremely helpful, with the manager even making an extra trip to find us the right coolant. If I were to do the ICW again I would definitely plan to spend the night before at Top Rack Marina. It’s only a mile away from the first drawbridge and even has its own fuel dock making topping off fuel before departing a breeze.
After waiting for a couple of drawbridges to open, we got to the Great Bridge Lock just in time for the 12:30 pm scheduled opening. We shared the lock with 4 or 5 other sailboats and a cabin cruiser as we waited for the water level to rise about a foot and a half. After passing through the locks and stopping for another couple of drawbridges we were on our way. The last 30 or so miles of the day were bridge-free and we reached Coinjock, a funky little canal town and marina around sunset. While you can park along the wharf for a reasonable fee we decided to continue on to an anchorage in North River.
It took all of our focus motoring for about an hour after dark since the ICW is narrow and shallow on both sides. Not only that but almost all of the day marks and other aids to Navigation are unlit but Jim did a great job with the spotlight identifying them. We went slow and were able to safely navigate to our anchorage and boy were we glad to be there. It was a beautiful, still night and other than being a bit buggy our anchorage was delightful.
Departing the next day at first light
Jim and I departed first light the next day motor-sailing down the Ablemarle Sound. As we approached the Crocodile River, we learned a valuable lesson in reading all the notes on the chart. While on the chart itself, it appears that you can safely sail straight down the center of the channel, the notes on Navionics and the local notice to mariners describe significant shoaling in the middle where numerous boats have run aground. We chose to honor the primary channel off to the West side and didn’t have any issue. The nice drawbridge operator even times the bridge opening perfectly for us where we didn’t even have to slow down!
We had a pleasant rest of the day motoring through “The Ditch”, a perfectly straight 20 nautical mile long, narrow canal between the Alligator and Pungo rivers. We even were able to sail for a bit when the Pungo River opened up! Jim and I found a small nook to anchor in at sunset and enjoyed another relaxing night on the ICW.
A sunset sail and some Pink Floyd to end the day
Our third and final day on the ICW was fairly uneventful as we motored through some narrow canals and a small shrimp fishing operation.
We saw some traffic buildup as we neared Beaufort and had to navigate some tricky channels with shoaling on both sides. On the bright side, we were joined by several pods of dolphins as we transited through. After battling a 2 to 3 knot tidal current and weaving our way around what seemed like hundreds of small motor boats all fishing, we pulled into the fuel dock at Morehead city.
Checking the weather throughout the day, we saw forecasts describing a gale developing followed by possible tropical weather in the Charleston area about 36 to 48 hours out. Rather than spending the night in Beaufort/Morehead city as we had planned we decided to depart Morehead city immediately. The sail to Charleston was approximately 200 nautical miles and, planning conservatively, we estimated it to take us around 33 hours. The wind was going to strengthen to 25 to 30 knots from the North East, directly behind us, which was at the top end of what we felt our comfortable and safe conditions would be. As we found out later on, the gale was the beginnings of then Tropical Storm Nicole, which would later briefly strengthen to a Hurricane. It was a race.
As we left Beaufort, there was a moderate residual swell but almost no wind. We motor-sailed with main up overnight and the next day, deploying the jib from time to time when the wind built. We reached the entrance to Charleston at about 8pm, about two hours after sunset.
Although there was a full moon providing some light and well lit buoys, it was spooky navigating through the entrance at high tide as the breakwater was completely submerged and invisible to us. Navigating through the maze of Charleston Harbor was fairly difficult as the range and buoy lights all bled into the lights of the Charleston shoreline making it hard to see which lights were relevant to us. This was compounded by the fact that there were several commercial vessels getting underway
to beat the gale and some that were anchored waiting for departure. Because Serenity was so new it didn't have a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) assigned to it yet resulting in our Automatic Identification System (AIS) being nonfunctional. This made it much harder to tell the status of the commercial vessels and we had to keep a close eye on their lights and the horizon behind them to see if they were underway and a potential collision risk.
The breakwater and entrance to Charleston Harbor
After a tense hour or so, we finally made it to our intended anchorage off to the side of the Ashley River. It took us 30 frustrating minutes to anchor in an acceptable position as there were numerous crab pots in the small anchorage. Not only that, we had to anticipate the boat swinging 180 degrees overnight as the 2.5kt ebb tide transitioned to a 1.5kt flood tide in the opposite direction. Finally we set the anchor and anchor alarm, had a quick dinner and went to bed.
A 2.5kt ebb tide can be seen flowing under our stern and forcing Serenity to sit almost perpendicular to its anchor line
We woke up the next morning to a beautiful clear day with dolphins swimming around and underneath the boat. The wind was strengthening from the North but we were in a well protected anchorage. We waited until the next slack tide at 2pm and then motored over to Safe Harbor Charleston City where we had a spot reserved for the next few days. After a tight docking maneuver (the marina thought they left 60 feet for us, but it was more like 50 feet) we were in! Jim’s wife Maria was even able to meet us on the dock and catch our lines! After catching up for a bit, (Maria had been a former student of mine as well) Jim and Maria left for their hotel. All that was left to do was to double up the lines, secure the boat and settle in to await the arrival of Tropical Storm Nicole.
Jim and Forrest happy to be in Charleston!
Total Time: Five Days
Hours Underway: 50 Hours
Total Distance: 469.43 Nautical Miles
Average Speed: 7.5 Knots