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Rethinking a Waterway at 8 Knots


The crew on a comfortable cruise from Beaufort, North Carolina, to the Chesapeake Bay ponders new policies to keep one of America’s national marine treasures, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, working and thriving.

Entering the Dismal Swamp on the ICW. (Photo: Michelle Lotker)

We’d just about run out of descriptors for heavy rain events by the time we dropped anchor on Day One in Pungo Creek near Belhaven on the North Carolina segment of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. But as the hook took hold, Indicator swung into the wind, giving us a view to the west and an eyeful of yet another (pick one) — thunder boomer, cloudburst, scupper-washer — that appeared to have us in its jagged, flashing cross hairs. Battened down, yet again, we marveled at the amount of water the sky can dump in 10 minutes. Once the squall had blown through, a stunning rainbow grew out of the ICW channel we’d navigated an hour earlier, arced a full 180-degrees, and put the pot of gold squarely at the entrance to the Alligator-Pungo Canal, anointing our route north for Day Two.

Our skipper, Dr. Linwood Pendleton, tended to a few pre-dinner maintenance chores on his liveaboard Marine Trader 38, as Craig Tyler, his mate for this ICW excursion, brought out the $60 guitar he’d bought in a North Carolina pawnshop to save travel-wear on a favorite six-string left back home in California. He played his first song on the foredeck; it was “Route 66.” How did this southern California sailor and veteran South Pacific voyager know that out here we call the ICW “The Boater’s Route 66”? He didn’t. Chalk that up to simple serendipity. But Tyler warmed to the notion, and after “Hotel California” and a few more ’70s staples, we started getting loose with the lyrics of his opening number, trying to see how many ways we could adapt its signature phrase — “Get your kicks on Route 66” — to our current adventure.

On Route 66, Take a Fix

Craig Tyler working on a sketch underway. (Photo: Michelle Lotker)

Indicator had left its slip at Pivers Island Marina in Beaufort, hardby Duke University’s Marine Science Laboratory where Pendleton has his office, last July 12. A social scientist by trade, Pendleton has degrees in biology, ecology, public administration, and environmental economics, and joined the university’s Nicolas Institute as director of Ocean and Coastal Programs last year. More to the point for this undertaking, he’s a lifelong boater with a cruising resume that includes the Chesapeake Bay and Down East Maine as well as southern California’s ocean waters and the Caribbean. Since returning to the East Coast — he grew up in Virginia’s Tidewater country — Pendleton has turned his attention to the iconic ICW in an effort to help the recreational boaters, commercial mariners, and waterway communities that depend upon it, and the federal and state agencies that have a stake in it, “rethink” its operation, maintenance, and especially its management funding. To stimulate his own thinking and get a “sea level perspective,” he’d planned a weeklong trip aboard Indicator, from Mile 202 at Beaufort to “Quick Flashing Red 36,” the buoy marking Mile Zero in the Elizabeth River at Norfolk.

For volunteer crew he’d drafted Craig Tyler, a fellow liveaboard from his days in Ventura, California, and an accomplished Los Angeles illustrator; Michelle Lotker, a Duke grad on vacation from her job with a Miami environmental consulting firm, to serve as documentarian for the trip; and one stowaway scribe, yours truly. Pendleton had dubbed it the East Coast Ocean Policy Expedition and even had tee shirts made for us with a logo Tyler had designed.

The cruise would take us from the barrier island environment of Beaufort and the Bogue Banks, with the open ocean just beyond, to the natural estuaries and tidal rivers linked by man-made land cuts and through the open sounds of Pamlico and Albemarle to the historic Dismal Swamp Canal. Ultimately Indicator would emerge in one of the world’s largest naval and maritime port complexes, Norfolk and Hampton Roads, Virginia.

“The purpose of the trip is to get out on the waterway and actually see the challenges that policy makers face,” Pendleton had explained as Indicator passed Mile Marker 200.8 at Beaufort Junction. “I hear a lot of locals say, ‘You can’t use the Intracoastal Waterway,’ so I want to see if this is real, or if people are just talking about isolated experiences. I don’t think you can speak credibly about managing the waterway without spending time on it. When you’re at the helm, it’s a completely different story.” With that, he’d nudged the throttle up to Indicator’s optimum 8-knot cruising speed, and our voyage of discovery had gotten underway.

On Route 66, Learn The Tricks

The Indicator tied up on day three at the “Harbor of Hospitality” in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. (Photo: Michelle Lotker)

As we passed through Core Creek toward our first land cut, Pendleton put the cruise in context. The expedition, he explained in true academic style, “is a ‘practicum’ leading-up to a two-day meeting about the waterway” that he’d convene in Washington, D.C., at the end of the month. Called a “policy lab” in those circles, it will engage government agency officials with commercial and recreational users, environmental scientists, economists, and others who have either a stake in the waterway or informed opinion to contribute to “rethinking” its funding, operation, and future. It’s the first of three such policy discussions about the waterway that Pendleton planned to convene at the request of Congressman Mike McIntyre (Dem., NC), an advocate for the entire Atlantic ICW as co-chair of the Congressional Waterway Caucus.

“By its directive, the Army Corps is only allowed to consider commercial traffic and cargo tonnage,” Pendleton explained. “If you only get credit for them,” he said, pointing to a tug and tow far astern, “and not for recreational boating activity, you lower the economic value of the entire waterway, and then you can’t justify the costs of dredging to keep it open.”

Indicator passed the Jarrett Bay Marine Industrial Park and the cluster of marinas and marine businesses catering to cruisers on the east shore of Core Creek. “It’s really a Catch-22,” Pendleton said. “The waterway shoals but the feds cut the dredging budget to save money,” he adds. “So the barges have to load light to get over the shallow spots, or worse, lose cargo to more costly road or rail transport. Commercial tonnage declines further, making it even harder to justify the federal expense of dredging.” All the while, recreational boat traffic seems to increase; some 16,000 “snowbirds” use the waterway each spring and fall for their migrations, according to Rep. McIntyre, while the amount of local small-boat traffic that depends on short sections of it must be far larger but remains uncounted.

On Route 66, Snap Some Pics

Army Corp of Engineers performing cleanup. (Photo: Michelle Lotker)

Entering the Neuse River from Adams Creek, Lotker had her still and video cameras going. It was evident by all the small trawlers that shrimping season was on, and a bit farther along a sailboat race was in progress to the north, marking Oriental, the state’s sailing capital. Seafood and sailing, two important uses of the waterway that don’t count for dredging dollars, but surely such small craft don’t need the 12-foot channel that the Army Corps is authorized to maintain from Norfolk to the Florida border anyway?

“That may be true but it’s a question of value,” the economist in our skipper observed. “You don’t need a 12-foot channel to get the average sport-fishing boat through these waters, but if you have it, you can get all kinds of boats in here and that makes the waterway more valuable. It’s the bigger boats that spend more money in most cases.”

Turning north, Indicator entered a land cut to the Pamlico River, passing the U.S. Coast Guard station at Hobucken, North Carolina — which has access to both rivers and their sounds, thanks to this section of the waterway — then across the Pamlico and up the Pungo River to our overnight anchorage near Mile 136. After a swim and dinner, the conversation turned back to policy.

“To me ‘rethinking’ means thinking of the waterway less as a ditch and more as part of the existing estuary that we have now and remembering that people depend upon it,” Pendleton explained. “So we need to think about managing it and paying for it locally as well as federally. When it was all about interstate cargo, it made sense to pay for it with federal dollars. But a lot of the traffic we’ve seen is intrastate and local, and the states need to step up to help maintain it. For decades we’ve thought about how we can get the sediment out of the channel. And I’m thinking, how can we manage the ecosystem to keep the sediments from getting in the channel in the first place?”

On Route 66, Just Four Hicks

Bald eagle on a tree. (Photo: Michelle Lotker)

Morning came early on Day Two but so did more T-storms, and some great photos for Lotker. Two squalls passed before we weighed anchor, and headed into the 21-mile Pungo River-Alligator River Canal. This is wild country. Two national wildlife refuges border parts of the canal and after the third bald eagle, I began to keep a tally. The canal cuts through the low, swampy land like an anchor rode in a stiff blow. In the loblolly pines and gum trees, and the thickets of persimmon and myrtle all along its banks, wood thrushes put “tweeting” to its original purpose and seem to be passing a message up the line: “Boat on the way, sing! Boat on the way, sing!”

Tyler joined me on the foredeck. “If you want to get back to nature and see what this planet’s all about besides cities and concrete, this is pretty amazing,” he said. “I’ve traveled all over the world and I’ve felt as isolated here as in the jungles of Costa Rica. This could be a river in Africa, but it’s not; it’s right here. And it astounds me that there aren’t more boats out enjoying this.”

By canal’s end and our anchorage off Tuckahoe Point at Mile 104, the score stood at: Boats, 5; Bald Eagles, 18; and only one tugboat. Indicator dropped anchor by 1430 so that the team could catch up on homework, expedition style. With five computers aboard and Internet access via a cell phone router, Lotker edited and archived her photos, video, and audio records of the trip for posting to the expedition website. Pendleton caught up on his e-mail and wrote a few trip blogs, also posted to the site. Tyler put a refreshingly low-tech Number 2 pencil to use on a sheet of real drawing paper to continue his series of expedition illustrations, working from a photo sent from Lotker’s laptop to his.

Meanwhile, the tug Jennie E, with empty barge, passed southbound followed by two Brazilian-flagged private boats headed north. Later, a Canadian sloop with a couple aboard anchored behind us for the night. After a dinner of marinated quail breast, done to a turn by the skipper on the rail-mounted barbie, with cucumber salad and white wine — the red wine went with last night’s buffalo burgers and mango salad — the conversation turned back to the trip, and the practical boater in Pendleton came through.

“We’ve gone 100 miles and one thing we’ve learned is that shoaling is not an isolated problem,” he said. “We’ve encountered it the whole trip and we’ve been clearly right in the channel; it’s not spotty.” Indeed; we saw another boat nearly run aground, twice. “Numerous times today we found that if you get out of the channel, just a little bit, it goes from 12-feet to 10 to 8 to 6 really fast,” he added. “It’s the 6-foot depth that keeps pushing in and it’s a battle to keep that maximum depth. I think that winning it, or at least part of winning it, is a matter of keeping those sediments away.”

On Route 66, Take Some Licks

East Coast Ocean Policy Expedition T-Shirt. (Photo: Michelle Lotker)

The second half of the expedition proved as interesting as the first, but without the thunder squalls. Leaving Tuckahoe Anchorage at 0700, Indicator had a pleasant, uneventful 24-mile transit to the mouth of the Alligator River. Uneventful, that is, until…

From Dozier’s Waterway Guide, 2011 edition: “Long Shoal Point is aptly named and seems to get longer with each passing year. Favor the east side of the channel between flashing green ‘7’ and green daybeacon ‘9.’ Do not follow the magenta line…” Indicator’s chartplotter did, and she hit bottom with a sobering but non-damaging bump. Waterway Guide continues: “This re-marked channel at the Alligator River entrance is still confusing, even to veteran ICW travelers …”

Were we ICW veterans? Perhaps not yet. But mile by 8-knot mile, Indicator moved us closer to “knowing” this waterway, as we crossed wide Albemarle Sound in blistering heat, and ran up the Pasquotank River to Elizabeth City, known by cruisers worldwide as “The Harbor of Hospitality”; as we wended our way up the primeval-looking river beyond, and were lost in our thoughts during the two days we explored the historic, slave-dug Dismal Swamp Canal. Finally, we made our homeward passage to Hampton Roads, leaving the sinewy waterway in our wake. Veterans or not, with our new sea-level perspective on the ICW, we’d gathered up its treasured qualities, most being impossible to measure with depth sounders or dredging dollars, and done our best to add to the mix of The Boaters’ Route 66.

Where Is The “ICW” Anyway?

South Mills Lock, southern entrance to the Dismal Canal. (Photo: Michelle Lotker)

The magenta line on nautical charts labeled “Intracoastal Waterway” starts at the Annisquam River, 26 miles northeast of Boston and meanders down the Eastern Seaboard, looking for protected water before ducking into the Elizabeth River at Norfolk, Virginia. From there it traces the route outlined in this article, and after Beaufort, North Carolina, continues on south, wrapping around Florida (or cutting across the state via Lake Okeechobee, if you prefer) to turn north along the Gulf of Mexico to the Florida Panhandle where it then heads west, all the way to Brownsville, Texas. The shorthand name, “ICW,” can apply to any and all of it.

Officially, though, the “Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway,” so designated by Congress in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1939, extends from Norfolk to near the Georgia-Florida border. From there into Florida and down to Miami, Congress gave it the rather utilitarian name, Intracoastal Waterway, adding to nomenclature confusion in the boating community. Other sections have their own official designations but for the purposes of public policy discussion, not to mention annual funding battles, the two sections, comprising the 1,205 miles from “Quick Flashing Red 36” in Virginia’s Elizabeth River to the mouth of the Miami River, go by the name Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, or AIWW.

For more information about this important segment of “The Magenta Line,” visit the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association website:

Ryck Lydecker

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine