Bonnie and Jim Miller sailed their Newfoundland-registered Victoire yacht ‘Vagrant Sea’ from the Queen City Yacht Club in Toronto via the ICW to the Bahamas
How to Get to the ICW without Worrying Yourself to Death, or Myths You Should Ignore When Preparing to Sail South
Myth: Having your mast lifted at Oswego is a bad idea: We found the service at the marina to be prompt and efficient. We stripped the sails and did all the preparatory work quickly once we arrived – something we have always done ourselves for mast-lift, and which the marina requires you to do – and had the mast sitting on deck within two hours of arrival in Oswego.
We re-stepped the mast at Castleton-on-Hudson, a do-it-yourself operation. We were in company with several other boats doing the same thing and had enough people with experience handling masts and operating a gin pole to make this a reasonable approach. If you normally put your own mast in, you should have no problem doing so here, though you have to watch out for the wakes.
Myth: Going though the locks of the New York State Canal system is hard on your boat and your nerves: Not a bit. We enjoyed the experience and found the lock-keepers to be friendly and competent. The first lock is a tiny one and helps reassure you that this will not be a daunting process. Position a crewmember at the bow and another at the stern, each wearing gloves (which will get very dirty) and holding a boathook . Lines are provided for your use at each dock, but we kept lines in place at either end of the boat, just in case. Keep two or three sturdy fenders in place on one side, with a fender board (a 2 x 4 works fine) outside of them. You do need to pay attention to the position of your vessel as the water level rises or falls, but be sure to enjoy the flower beds at each lock – they are all different. The NY State Canals have an official web page, with detailed maps, marina listings and other helpful information.
Myth: New York City is too expensive and/or dangerous for cruisers to visit: The 79th Street Boat Basin, right on the Hudson River, rents moorings for $10 a night. A few boats were also anchored in the basin when we visited, but the currents are very strong and we thought the cost made a mooring the best choice. This city-operated marina has 24-hour security and is located on the upper west side of Manhattan, one of the nicest neighbourhoods in NYC. You can walk or take the subway to all the sites and there are great restaurants and grocery stores nearby.
Myth: Great Lakes sailors will have trouble with tides and currents once they hit saltwater: We spent a night on the (free) dock at Waterford, on the Hudson River, at the end of the Erie Canal system. On one of the other boats docked with us was a guy who had just had a software package shipped to him for calculating tides and currents. During the evening, word was passed around the dock that, according to Bill’s computer, the tide was changing at 7:30 a.m. the next morning and we had all better be ready to take the necessary action. I was ready to set the alarm clock so we could make sure we were up and ready to either leave or adjust our lines as the water level changed. Then we remembered a few things: 1) There was one more lock between us and the main river, so tide was not going to reach us, 2) Even if it could, we were on floating docks and our lines would be just fine. We had a good laugh and resumed happy hour.
It’s easy to get caught up in exaggerated concern about tides and currents. Most of our sailing experience has been in ocean waters, so we are comfortable with tidal change. If you aren’t, have an ocean sailor take a little while to show you how to set up your dock lines, but it’s not something that will be a constant problem (besides, you can always anchor). We are still a bit skeptical about the need to arrange our schedule around currents and have seldom bothered to take them into consideration when planning passages along the ICW.
Myth: The New Jersey shore is always a nightmare; you have to do it as an overnight trip: Wrong both ways. We left the 79th Street Basin in NYC early on a morning with light wind conditions and motor-sailed straight to Manasquan Inlet (Point Pleasant). From Manasquan we had another daysail to Atlantic City, then waited out a blow for a few days before going to Cape May. If you prefer a long run, more power to you, but it’s not obligatory.
Myth: A boat with 6-foot draft (ours) can expect to go aground regularly in the Chesapeake Bay: Not our experience — we waited for the ICW before getting real practice in grounding. 🙂 It took a while to get used to water depths of 12 feet, but we stayed calm most days and had no real trouble with shoal water in our five weeks in the bay. Anyway, the bottom is nice and soft
Myth: “You’re leaving it a bit late.” We were told so often that our post-Labour Day departure from Toronto was too late, it became Vagrant Sea’s watchword. If anything on board was not perfect, it was because we had left too late! Of course, along the way we met boats which had left a month after us, and, guess what? They still reached their destination and had a good time getting there. Our first objective was the Annapolis Boat Show, Thanksgiving weekend, which brings up another tale —
Myth: To get a good spot in one of the Annapolis anchorages, be there a week before the boat show: Most boats we met along the way took between three and six weeks to travel between the Great Lakes and Annapolis. We wanted to see as much of the Chesapeake prior to the show as possible and just decided not to worry about where we would anchor. As planned, we entered Spa Creek the day before the start of the show, found a place immediately and had a great stay.
Myth: You don’t need a dinghy: This was one of the weirder pieces of folklore; folks we met along the way had been advised by friends who had taken boats south that they would probably never use their dinghy. They arranged to have the dink shipped to their destination in the Carolinas, their new home. Too late, they realized these friends had been on delivery trips with compressed schedules and large budgets. Unless you intend to spend every night in a marina and do no exploring whatever, you’ll be lost without a dinghy.
Myth: Expect to spend many sleepless nights worrying about your anchor: Oops, sorry, this one is true, but only because I’m an inveterate worrier. Jim sleeps very well, and we have not had any real problem. We got ourselves a CQR at the upper end of what was recommended for a boat of our size and 200 feet of all-chain rode. Like several others we met, we started off thinking we would keep the chain for the Caribbean, but soon decided the extra security we felt it gave us was worth the hassle of hauling all that weight every day. Certainly, it was worth it for me, since I’m not the one who retrieves the ground tackle. We seldom anchored before this trip and we have been tested in some very stiff winds and currents and come through with flying colours.
Myth: In the Chesapeake you’ll sail in some very harsh conditions: Not us. The rough sailing was there for the taking, but we passed on the opportunity. We soon discovered that the NOAA weather forecast always underestimated the wind and wave conditions. We were in no hurry, and had already had enough bad days on the water to know we didn’t enjoy getting tossed around needlessly, so we formed our own Wimps’ Rules. We didn’t venture out if the forecast mentioned wind =/>20 knots or seas >2 feet. We waited an extra day after a period of sustained high winds for seas to settle if we would be sailing into those seas, or if the wind direction had reversed. We don’t sail in the rain and after two or three long days we reward ourselves with a lay day.
Fair winds and snug harbours,
Bonnie James – Vagrant Sea