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Breaking through the ice

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image After sailing through a thin layer of ice covering the waterway outside of Southport, North Carolina, my arrival in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, while only 60 miles away, felt like a different world. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Part of an Observer News feature series

By Mitch Traphagen


The layer of ice covering the waterway offered no resistance, except in my mind. When I left Southport, North Carolina, the temperature hovered in the low 20s and me timbers were shivering as I made my way out of the open expanse of the Cape Fear River into the narrow confines of the Intracoastal Waterway. I hoped that the close proximity of land would offer some warmth. Instead I found ice.


My fiberglass boat, while heavily built, is not an icebreaker, but the ice was so thin that there was little risk as I ran through it. Psychologically, however, it had a tremendous impact. Near the border of South Carolina, I was sailing in ice. I first cursed my bad luck at picking a year of record cold weather to make this voyage and then counted my blessings I hadn’t managed to sink or otherwise kill myself yet.

On my last night in North Carolina, the setting sun gave the horizon a beautiful pink and red glow. I fervently hoped the adage, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” would hold true. Although I spent much more time than I ever imagined in North Carolina, I was sad when it came time to leave. Some of the nicest, most caring people I’ve ever met have entered my life thanks to my time in this state. But the cold wind threatened to impede upon my warm feelings here. The ice on the waterway provided a stark reminder that it was time to hurry home.

I am alone again. After a week-long break for Christmas, I returned to the boat and felt like I was starting from scratch. Previously, I was in a “move-mode” — it was easy to travel during the day and get up early the next morning to moving again at first light. Leaving Southport, the boat felt foreign and the water foreboding but by the time I crossed into South Carolina and tied up in Myrtle Beach the natural rhythms of life aboard again felt second nature.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has made it easy for almost anyone to conn a boat down the ICW. Except for a few larger bodies of water, the trip generally consists of following red and green markers and avoiding the numerous shallow spots. Traveling south, the red triangle shaped markers are kept to my starboard (right) side and the green square markers are kept to my port (left). Except when they aren’t. When the ICW merges with ship channels and larger rivers, the markers may change sides. Anticipating the potential for confusion, the Corps of Engineers came up with a solution by using little yellow stickers on all markers pertaining to the ICW. For the most part, the red triangle-shaped markers have yellow triangle-shaped stickers, the green square-shaped markers have little yellow square-shaped stickers. When the markers change in ship channels, the stickers remain the same to let boaters know they are still following the ICW. In such cases, the green markers would have yellow triangle stickers, the red markers yellow squares. Confused yet?

More often than not, the real confusion comes in the form of how to approach each marker. While the waterway itself is relatively easy and a true marvel of engineering, there are numerous leaps of faith involved in making the voyage. Foremost is that reality rarely appears as it does on the nautical charts. From the deck of the boat, a marker may appear to be almost on land at a hairpin curve — do you keep driving towards it with the faith that enough water is available and the next charted marker is truly around the as-of-yet unseen curve? And among the thousands of markers along the ICW there are directions to stay close to some and avoid others. Most markers are in deep water but some are high and dry at low tide. Keeping track of them all is akin to herding cats.  It is one part experience, one part an ability to read the water, a million parts of just plain luck.

Bridges present another leap of faith. Bridge tenders don’t want to keep cars or boats waiting any longer than necessary. To have a bridge open, you have to call the bridge tender via a marine VHF radio and you don’t want to call too early or too late. In the hundreds of miles I’ve traveled down the ICW, I’ve never had a bad experience with a bridge but I still get nervous approaching them. With bridges that open on hourly schedules, they will tell you when the next opening will occur and you try to time your arrival appropriately. With bridges that open “on demand,” they’ll generally just tell you to keep coming and they will get you through. It takes time and distance to stop a moving 18,000-pound sailboat and it is nerve-wracking to see cars rushing over the bridge as it gets larger and larger upon approaching it. Yet in every case, the bridge tenders got me through as promised.

The trip out of Myrtle Beach was uneventful, which on the ICW means that it was the best possible of all days. The temperatures climbed into the 50s, a dramatic change from what I had experienced in the prior days and weeks. I stopped for the night near the small community of Georgetown, a cruiser’s dream with shops and restaurants lining the waterfront, all within easy walking distance. More than just the weather changes while traveling south, the culture also changes. In places like Georgetown, the local Piggly Wiggly grocery stores offer rides to cruisers that need to provision, and people on the streets smile and greet strangers as though they were old friends.

lastsunrise2010The last morning of 2010 dawned beautifully. I motored into Winyah Bay out of Georgetown just as the sun peeked over the eastern horizon and within minutes, my world was bathed in brilliant blue and orange, colors so deep and intense they felt alive. Dolphins swam alongside the boat and I wished them a Happy New Year. If they could talk, I’m certain they would have replied, “Ha! Ha!  We’re dolphins! We don’t wear wristwatches because we don’t care about the date or time! To us, every single day is a Happy New Year!”

Despite lacking the wrists to wear watches, ducks appeared to care very much about the date. Into the desolate and narrow canals, land cuts, and streams that would take me to Charleston, I encountered numerous small boats elaborately camouflaged using the same grass that stretched to the horizon in the lowlands of South Carolina. Even their enormous outboards were camouflaged. The only ducks I saw, however, were the plastic variety set out by the hunters. All of the live ducks appeared safely ensconced in the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge further south. Apparently the ducks knew it was hunting season and they knew exactly where they could and could not be hunted.

Despite the beautiful surroundings, the passage out of Georgetown was one of  the most stressful days I’ve yet encountered on this voyage. For most of this leg, the ICW was a channel cut through the marsh grass. It was haunting in its desolation and beautiful at the same time. But the water was shallow and so narrow that lining up range markers, two signs spaced apart that need to be visually in line to ensure the boat is centered in the channel, were required to avoiding running aground. Frequently, I would watch as my depth sounder indicated that I had only inches of water beneath my keel. Sometimes, the sounder would just blank out, an indication that I was plowing through some of the thin and fine mud, known as pluff mud. My solution to that problem was a simple one:  I simply stopped looking at the depth sounder.  

Another part of the stress was simply emotional. As I sailed southward, I was missing yet another holiday, New Year’s, with my wife. More importantly, I was missing her birthday for the first time since we had met. I had planned to anchor that night in a remote, small creek in an endless sea of grass just north of Charleston. The desolation, I thought, would give me the opportunity to re-evaluate my priorities; to come to grips with the decision to make this voyage in light of the costs of missing life events that I will never get back.

As I approached my turn for the anchorage, my cell phone rang. It was Michelle, suggesting I pull into a marina in the city a few miles further down the waterway. I wanted to feel sorry for myself so I declined, telling her I would spend New Year’s Eve and her birthday in the quiet desolation of remote anchorage. Then she said that she was in a car, driving towards Charleston. A few hours later, I happily pulled into the Isle of Palms Marina to await her arrival.

We spent New Year’s Day exploring the incredible city of Charleston. I have encountered many places I’ve loved on this journey but Charleston is a city to which I plan to return someday. It is a miniature and more genteel version of New York City; it is New Orleans with dignity. The city is touristy, but it also has a life and pulse that every city wants, but few actually possess. Michelle and I enjoyed the sights, sounds and tastes of Charleston all while avoiding the fact that she would soon be driving home and I would sail off alone into the Atlantic Ocean for the 32-hour passage that would take me to Florida.

On the day Michelle was to leave, she hemmed and hawed. “I know you can do this alone,” she said. “But it would be easier with two of us.”

From Cape Cod to Charleston, I’ve sailed much of it alone, including an overnight passage from New Jersey to Delaware. Alone on the ocean at night is somewhat frightening and tiring; but it is also an almost religious experience. Priorities and one’s place in the world become clear — I am but a speck on the ocean and in the world and my significance is not what I sometimes lead myself to believe. It is an opportunity to reset perspective.

It is easier, and much more pleasant, to make such a passage with two people on board. With both of us, an otherwise grueling and sleepless trip becomes a memorable and shared experience. But this passage will involve cold temperatures in leaving on the tail of one storm and rushing to arrive in Florida before the next hits. As much as I would love for her to be here and to experience the beauty I’ve encountered, I also want to spare her the discomfort I know awaits out on the North Atlantic Ocean in January.

This journey has taken me through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. At long last I am just an overnight sail from Florida, from home.

Will we sail home together? To borrow from Kurt Russell’s character in the 1992 movie Captain Ron, the answer is, “Uh! Nobody knows! The best way to find out is to get her out on the ocean, Kitty. If anything’s going to happen, it’s gonna happen out there.”


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