Yogi Berra said it all. I spend an inordinate amount of time studying our charts. When I’m not looking at the charts, I’m flipping through the Reeds Tide Tables. I take way too much pleasure in calculating when we’ll arrive at various skinny spots and drive Blair crazy with reminders that “at this time of day, we should be hugging the green quarter of the ICW buoy lines”. None of this sort of rumination is necessary when we sail outside the ICW, but when we’re doing the ditch, I can’t help myself.
We stayed two nights at the Charleston Harbour Resort and Marina. It’s an easy place to spend time; close to the Yorktown aircraft carrier museum, a free water taxi ride across the harbour from downtown Charleston and a beautiful resort with golf course, swimming pool and acres and acres of beautifully manicured grounds in which to stretch our legs. Sunday morning though, we left the marina early enough to catch the first opening of the Ben Sawyer Bridge at 9 am to head up the ICW into a stretch of South Carolina we had not seen before. On our way south in the fall, we’d taken advantage of good winds to sail from Cape Fear on the ocean side of things all the way south to Charleston and so had missed most of South Carolina ditch country. This time, the winds were not cooperating and to keep that northward momentum, we opted to motor/sail up the ICW through this section.
The tide ranges, although smaller than in Georgia, still required a measure of caution and we moved cautiously through the ICW just north of Charleston at low tide, trying to make miles yet arrive at the shallow spots at high tide.
Itâ€™s pretty unpopulated country on this stretch of the ICW; just miles and miles of empty marsh and tall grasslands, some abandoned rice fields and a gazillion ospreys. This stretch makes us chaff over the sameness of the ICW and for most of the morning, we groused about the constant North winds that require us to stay on the â€œinsideâ€.
The primo spot on the South Carolina section of the ICW is the Waccamaw River. Just when youâ€™ve had enough of that boring sameness, you enter the Waccamaw River. It starts just north of Georgetown and here the ICW ditchiness spreads its wings into a wide open, honest-to-goodness river where we caught a great wind and sailed northwards at 7 knots even on an opposing current. The sun was starting to set when we finally hauled in the sail and headed up the Thoroughfare Creek to anchor; reluctant because we were making wonderful time with beautiful scenery and for the first time all day were not anxiously watching our depth meter for shallow spots.
The next day, we pulled our anchor up at 6:30 am so as to transit both Shalotte Inlet and Lockwoods Folly Inlet close to high tide. There was a mist rising from the Waccamaw River for the first few hours as we ghosted past small towns and marinas on our way north. On both sides of the river the Bald Cypress and Tupelo Gum trees grow out of the swamp without regard to being underwater. We cruised past abandoned rice fields and through private land – strange places with board fences strung across the tributaries that ran into the Waccamaw River. They obviously wanted no innocent trespassers exploring up these little creeks.
We thought weâ€™d seen just about everything but around Myrtle Beach, that Canadian winter golf mecca, we passed under an aerial gondola that moves golfers and their clubs over the ICW from one hole to the next. Weâ€™re getting into a more populated area now; one with golf courses, gated communities and upscale marinas.
The ICW in this area is quite shoaled now, especially in the areas that transit the minor inlets leading out to the ocean. The shape and depth of these inlets are in a constant state of flux, moving northward, moving southward. The Army Corps of Engineers, that maintain the ICW, are constantly moving the red and green buoys so as to mark the safe path through the inlets but it’s a tapdance and the steps keep changing. The only way to know what to expect is to consult the various websites setup by cruisers to help other cruisers make their way north. These websites post comments from boats who are ahead of us by a few short days. All comment that the waterway is shallower than when theyâ€™d done the trip south last November. The worst area flagged is Lockwoods Folly, a name that conjures up all sorts of mistakes made. We passed through Lockwoods Folly Inlet one hour before high tide and saw 8 feet on our depth sounder. This is an area of 4-5 foot tidal range so weâ€™re glad that weâ€™ve crossed this stretch when we did.
The last day on the water before we reached Cape Fear was cold. We had the doghouse up most of the day and were still cold. Taking turns at the wheel, wearing most of our warm clothes and trying to get some warm inside with cups of tea and hot chocolate, we decide to forgo anchoring that night and take a slip at South Harbour Village Marina so we could plug in and have hot showers. At the prospect of steady North winds of 25-30 knots, we stay three nights. This is a nice marina with scrupulously clean bathrooms, helpful and friendly dock hands and an excellent on-site restaurant, so not a hardship.
While Blair posted our position report, I made tracks for the shower and stood in the hottest water I could bear for at least 20 minutes. Once I finished, Blair did the same and reported back to me that he thinks he has used up the last of their hot water; this is a big facility (155 boats) so you get a full measure of how cold we were to have used up all their hot water. That night, we had an excellent meal at Josephs, their on-site restaurant, and when we returned to Strathspey, the Espar heater went on and stayed on for three days.
In the face of early morning temperatures of 8°C, we happily stayed at dock, rented a car and drove up the Cape Fear River to Wilmington, a small town with a big history. It was one of the last ports to fall to the Union forces during the Civil War and General Robert E Lee said it all when he wrote “We must have Wilmington, if we are to stay the course of this conflict”. We spent a goodly amount of time in the Cape Fear Museum soaking up some of this southern history and had an excellent lunch at Catch, a new seafood restaurant piloted by an award-winning chef. The historic center of Wilmington was busy that day with a pretty extensive film crew and all their equipment spread from one end of Market Street to the other. They were filming a vampire movie onsite and although we joined a big crowd of rubberneckers, we didn’t recognize any of the grade B actors sure to be in this film.
If we’d arrived here one week earlier, we’d have been in the middle of the 61st Annual North Carolina Azalea Festival, held here in Wilmington every year. Despite the unseasonably cold weather we’ve been getting, it is definitely spring here. Charleston was heady with the scent of honeysuckle last weekend and Wilmington was pretty in pink with almost every lawn sporting at least one azalea bush. Blair and I are in our element here because our rental car has a GPS which talks to us in a well-modulated female voice, indicating where we need to turn and even better, if we take a wrong turn, she simply recalculates a new route for us without scolding us for going off the rails.