SOUTHBOUND LUNACY: Down Chesapeake Bay and Through the ICW

Phil & John

For many years now my semi-regular aquatic flights from winter have involved offshore passages from New England to the West Indies by way of Bermuda. This year, however, what with new Lunacy already ensconced in Annapolis in the aftermath of her appearance in the boat show in October, I thought I would try an even older trick. It has been more than 20 years since I took a boat down Chesapeake Bay in the fall, and thence down the ICW from Norfolk to Beaufort, North Carolina. So though I had no clear idea of where I might end up, I did have some dusty memories to guide me en route.

Setting out from a too-tight slip up Spa Creek on the first Tuesday in November I had two crew aboard to keep me company: Phil Cavanaugh, who appeared many times on old Lunacy in transits to and cruises among the West Indies, and John Madden (no, NOT the football coach), who once sailed with me doublehanded from Bermuda to New Hampshire, with an old Lister diesel engine that would not run. In the photo up top you can see the pair of them–Phil on the left, John on the right–resolutely hunting for nav aids during our journey down the big bay.

We spent in all four days on the Chesapeake, and at the end of the first day anchored coincidentally off Tilghman Island, on the eastern shore, where my very first Chesapeake-ICW transit started back in the fall of 1993, with Nim Marsh (formerly of National Fisherman and Cruising World, among others, and now editor-in-chief of Points East magazine) aboard his charming little Bristol 29 Breakaway. I had strong memories of a boatyard there, from which we’d launched Breakaway many years earlier, but none of the open roadstead off Dogwood Harbor, where we anchored Lunacy not long before sunset in the uncomfortable brew of a mounting northerly breeze, driving drizzly rain, and a gathering short chop.

It seemed a long night that one, with an urgent pitching motion and rumbly sound effects from a restless anchor chain to keep me company in the forward berth.

The following days were variations on this theme. Cold rain and north wind. Except for our last day on the bay, when we had bright sunshine and much more north wind, enough for the National Weather Service to post a gale warning.

John steering

John steering the boat between rain squalls on day 2 of our journey. This took us to the mouth of the Potomac River, where we entered an ancillary river mouth, the Coan, and anchored for the night up an even more ancillary creek called simply the Glebe. This was quiet and calm and offered great protection from the generally tumultuous conditions


The hapless skipper, attempting to strategize

Myself w/cigar

The skipper again, ruminating with a cigar after day 3, which saw us anchoring for the night in Fishing Bay, off the mouth of the Piankatank River. This spot (coincidentally again) is just across from Gywnn Island, where Nim and I spent a night in ’93 and where I met for the first time Tom Neale, his wife Mel, and their two girls, Melanie and Carolyn, aboard their boat Chez Nous

Phil under dodger

Phil hunkers down under the hard dodger in the middle of day 4, which saw us running off under just a reefed headsail before 30+ knots of north wind

John in Norfolk

The gratifying conclusion of our voyage down the Chesapeake. John steers us past an array of warships in Norfolk at the end of day 4

We ended our fourth day tied to a dock across from Norfolk at the Tidewater Yacht Marina in Portsmouth, Virginia, just a hundred yards or so south of Mile Marker Zero on the ICW. Tied up just across from us was Tempus Fugit, a new Chris White MastFoil-rigged Atlantic catamaran, whose owners, Ray and Mary Whalen, shared with us two critical nuggets of information: a) Café Europa is the best place to eat out in Portsmouth; and b) the Alligator River Bridge, some distance down the ICW in North Carolina, would in two days be closed to boat traffic for a week due to maintenance work.

Ray and Mary certainly were right about Café Europa. John had to leave us the following morning to endure jury duty in New York City, and his last-night meal with us at the Europa was, I am sure, among the finest an itinerant crew member might expect to enjoy anywhere in the world. As for the Alligator River Bridge–a swing bridge I could see on my charts, with just 14 feet of vertical clearance when closed–I figured we would get through it in time, if nothing went wrong between here and there. Alternatively, there was a long detour we could run through the outer reaches of Pamlico Sound that seemed both inconvenient and heroic, particularly for a 47-foot sailboat.

There was another question that now began roiling about in my mind: Lunacy’s air draft. It is common knowledge that fixed bridges on the ICW have a minimum high-water vertical clearance of 65 feet, and I knew Lunacy’s mast, with appendages, is very close to that. I had queried the builder, Boréal, at some length about this and their conclusion was that Lunacy’s total height was most likely 64 feet, 11 inches. Which left me, theoretically, with just 1 inch to play with.

Our first day running the Ditch out of Portsmouth was heartening in several respects. First, we hit the various potentially untimely obstacles, several opening bridges and the one canal lock at Great Bridge, in a very timely manner and spent almost no time twiddling our thumbs waiting around for things to happen. Second, the many days of hard north wind had greatly lowered water levels in the ICW in Virginia, by two feet at least, so we fit under the several fixed bridges we met with no problem. Third, I had forgotten how interesting the ICW can be.

There is a prejudice among offshore sailors that running the ICW must be boring. And, indeed, in the objective sense piloting a sailboat under power from mark to mark through a maze of creeks, canals, opening bridges, and river mouths might seem tedious. In the subjective sense, however, it is anything but. The experience, the scenery, and the weather (as always) are all quite various, and your mind at all times is acutely focused on the task at hand.

Given Heartening Factor No. 1, referenced above, we had no trouble reaching Coinjock, just over the border in North Carolina, before the end of our first day on the ICW. This put us within an easy day’s journey of the Alligator River Bridge and so greatly eased our minds. During a casual conversation with a delivery skipper on a northbound boat, however, our minds again became uneased, as he advised there is a bridge, the Wilkerson Bridge so-called, at the end of the Alligator-Pungo Canal (some distance past the Alligator River Bridge), with a vertical clearance of just 64 feet.

I studied my charts with some intensity and saw they were in conflict. My two electronic charts stated the Wilkerson Bridge has a vertical clearance of 65 feet. My paper chart meanwhile, which was quite old and had been given me by a friend many years ago, also had the number as 65, but this had been crossed out, and 64 had been written by hand.

Great Bridge lock

Phil handles lines as we transit the canal lock at Great Bridge. It was cool, but not cold, and certainly not rainy


One of several bald eagles we spotted. The very first bald eagle I ever saw in my entire life was when I ran the ICW in 1993 with Nim on Breakaway. I’ve seen them in several other places since then, but in my mind the ICW is where they all come from

Midway at Coinjock

Tied up at the Midway Marina & Motel in Coinjock, North Carolina, on the west side of the short canal that runs between Coinjock Bay and the North River. Contrary to what the large Mobil sign suggests, the Midway no longer sells fuel. Also the restaurant there is closed, and the entire place is for sale

Alligator River Bridge

Approaching the Alligator River Bridge on the afternoon of day 2 of our ICW transit. That’s Tempus Fugit directly in front of us

Alligator River sunrise

After anchoring for the night in the Alligator River off Deep Point with a group of other transient boats we enjoyed this splendiferous sunrise the following a.m.

Tempus Fugit

Tempus Fugit coming to life during the same sunrise

Wilkerson Bridge

Approaching the Wilkerson Bridge

The end of day two on the ICW found us anchored in the Alligator River, safely past the now-closed-to-traffic bridge of the same name, but it occurred to me in the middle of that night we would be stuck here if we could not get past the Wilkerson Bridge the following day. Studying the chart in the morning I saw there would be nothing serendipitous about this. The surrounding terrain was unremittingly desolate and swamp-like, so much so it seemed inadvisable to so much as set foot on shore. There were no facilities anywhere in this stretch of the route, no handy escape route to Pamlico Sound, and the only prospect of a diversionary cruise would be up a small estuary called Milltail Creek.

Amazingly, I was already familiar with this body of water. Nim, inspired by the writings of Claiborne Young, an early ICW cruising guide author, wanted badly during our ’93 cruise to explore the creek on Breakaway, though it was not charted. There was, according to Claiborne, a bar with a bit over four feet of water over it blocking the creek entrance, but after that there was, supposedly, deep water for a good long ways. Our putative goal would be an abandoned village, Buffalo City, well up the creek, the population of which had once thrived making moonshine but ultimately died of yellow fever many decades previously.

We barely managed to nurse Breakaway, with her four feet of draft, over the bar at the entrance. She bumped on the bottom once, dug a short furrow through the mud, then broke free and kept moving forward. As promised there was no problem with draft after this, but after creeping a mile or more up the creek we caught Breakaway’s rig in a thick tangle of overhanging trees and were forced to retreat. As such, I doubted that Lunacy, with her much taller rig, would fare any better here.

Soon after hoisting anchor in the color-thick sunrise we were motoring up the Alligator-Pungo Canal, and my eyes were stuck like magnets on the black verge of its banks. There are no lunar tides here, and the only factor affecting water level now was the wind. The water to the north had been quite low, but here it was less so. Maybe it was down a foot at most, I guessed as I studied the drowned tree stumps on shore.

In the end it was all we needed. We motored under the Wilkerson Bridge as slowly as we dared, marveling as always at how it never seems you will fit, no matter how tall the bridge is. Lunacy’s VHF antennae clicked harmlessly against the last of the girders underneath, and then we were through.

At the end of that day, in the spirit of my past venture with Nim up Milltail Creek, we went gunkholing about the shoal reaches of creeks just south of the dredged canal that runs through the tiny hamlet of Hobucken, with its miniscule Coast Guard station and busy fishing dock. We first ran aground in less than 3 feet of water in one tiny un-named estuary where the chart showed 6 feet and fortunately were able to back right off again. We next tried a larger body of water, one with a name, Bear Creek, and after winding some distance up a twisting unmarked channel came to anchor in 7 feet of water in perfect shelter and quietude.

We could have run from here to Beaufort in one long day, but I wanted to visit Oriental, about halfway between, a reputedly cruiser-friendly town I had never stopped at before. So we made the next day, the Tuesday after the one that took us out of Annapolis, a short one and pulled into a slip at the Oriental Marina & Inn in the early afternoon. This gave us time to explore the town, which is exceedingly small, but yes, very cruiser-friendly, do a bit of shopping, and also hob-nob with fellow sailors.

Oriental Marina

Lunacy, at left, tied up in Oriental. At right you see a Freedom sloop, Singlehanded, out of Annapolis. I had noticed it on AIS, heard it on the VHF radio, and when we passed the boat in the Alligator-Pungo Canal, I saw it was in fact manned by a couple. “Hey!” I shouted. “You’re not singlehanded. There are two of you!” And the male half of the equation held up his crippled right hand, laughing: “No, I am literally singlehanded!” Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to talk to them (Curt Barnard and Marni Fara) in Oriental, but subsequently found them on Facebook

SV Wisdom

I did get a chance to talk to Herb and Maddie Benavent, who were anchored out at Oriental aboard this boat, Wisdom, an old Morgan 45. They had been sailing around North Carolina outside on the big blue, got caught in some weather, and came into Pamlico Sound through Hatteras Inlet (which did evidently involve some bumping on the bottom). You can follow them at their website here

From Oriental on I was on my own, as Phil took off first thing Wednesday morning to fly back to Philadelphia, where he had just moved and so had a long to-do list to cope with. I had an uneventful last day on the ICW motoring down to Beaufort and from there moved first to Charleston and then on to Hilton Head in two short overnight offshore hops.

On both these mini-passages the wind continued to blow hard out of northerly quadrants, so I made very good time. In fact the wind blew harder than forecast, particularly on the run from Beaufort to Charleston. The forecast had been for northwesterlies veering to northeasterlies, just 10 knots or so through out, but in fact it got to blowing 25 or so and for a long while over 30. I got no sleep coping with it, and the next morning, as things just started to quiet down, I nearly ran down a couple of small beleaguered-looking fishing skiffs that had been out overnight expecting to have a quiet time of it. Neither of them were broadcasting AIS signals, but one did transmit a plaintive plea via VHF.

“Fucking NOAA! They should have put out a gale warning!”

To which one anonymous cynic replied: “This was a long way from a gale.”

Big house

One thing I noticed on the ICW south of Oriental is that houses on the shore, which had previously been uncommon and exceedingly modest, suddenly got bigger and much more numerous. Here is one of several recently built McMansions I passed


Playful kids on a boat that passed by me en route to Beaufort


What a surprise! This is Lucy2, Alpha catamaran hull number two, which I first met in Bermuda in November 2014, months after I abandoned hull number one, Be Good Too, 300 miles off the North Carolina in January of that same year. I don’t know what happened here, but I passed close by after Lucy2 was taken in tow by two boats off Morehead City, just across from Beaufort


Feral pony spotted in the Rachel Carson Reserve right behind where I picked up a mooring in Taylor Creek off Beaufort


Steve Dashew’s latest aluminum motor cruiser, Cochise, spotted on the town dock in Beaufort

Yorktown & friend

Speaking of metal boats, this is the carrier USS Yorktown (on the left) and a destroyer, USS Laffey, docked right next door to the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina, where I stayed in Charleston

The Mow

While in Charleston I visited an old family friend, Patricia C. (“the Mow”) Meinen, seen here pretending to drive Lunacy, per a directive from her son

To Hilton Head

Under sail from Charleston to Hilton Head

On arriving at Hilton Head, I stashed Lunacy in the Harbour Town Yacht Basin, which is part of the Sea Pines Resort on the south end of the island. Sorry, I have no pix of this, but you might be able to take a gander at Lunacy via the Harbour Town Lighthouse live web-cam. The plan now is to leave her there until I return with the whole family after Christmas.

More on that later, of course!


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2 Responses
  1. Neil

    We sympathize with your dilemma on bridge height. It is ridiculously difficult to get reliable info on such a simple issue. One solution we have used a couple of times is to send a teenager to the masthead. We once asked the coastguard in Miami for confirmation of a bridge height. Response we “stand by we are still waiting.

  2. John S

    Charlie. Sounds like a great trip. We keep our boat just a few miles up the Neuse River from Oriental. This is actually a great place for sailing. Seldom get ice here. Winters are not bad and not very long. Do. Street thinks Beaufort is the premier jump off for the Eastern Caribbean. Your Boreal 47 is such a great looking boat. I have coveted one for years.

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