The Great Loop – America (The ICW): 1

Mariah II Branches Out – Part 1 of 3

(You can listen to this via podcast here)

Watching the skyscrapers shrink as we drop our mooring in New York, we focus on the next part of our adventure in  America and we and look back with wonder.

Hiding from Hurricanes

After a month in Puerto Rico recouping the coffers and with the hurricane season looming, decisions were upon us. Do we head south to Venezuela and pirates, or north to New York and muggers? Our hearts held hope of exploring inland. But it is a miracle we are here at all.  Pessimistic sailing friends thought the Intracoastal Waterways of America a boring option.

What it is?

The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) facilitates navigation along the eastern seaboard of the United States. It’s made up of natural river channels, estuaries, bays protected by barrier islands and man-made canals. Not many people know about the ICW, I think Americans are trying to keep it a secret to avoid attracting too many frightful foreigners.

The Intracoastal Waterway of America

The Advent

With butterflies bouncing around in our stomachs in tune with the ocean waves, we catch the Gulf Stream and scoot up the east coast to West Palm Beach, Florida. As land rapidly approaches, we proudly haul the Stars and Stripes flag; our tired smiles hiding our doubts. Was the 1,000 mile trip worth it? Have we done the right thing bringing a sailboat to waters saturated by motorboats? We soon learned, things rapidly change; from the mayhem of a busy inlet, brimming with weekend anglers breaking free from domestic-city to a peaceful and well-sheltered anchorage.


Carting a keel through shallow waters is not ideal as shoaling is common. However, wind-assisted propulsion and a steady speed leave most boats in our wake as far as diesel consumption is concerned. But running aground is a problem. We become proficient at hauling aloft all sail and hanging off the side to lift Mariah’s keel when we ran aground. Our most frightening grounding occurred near a starboard marker on a bank of mud, with the racing current stealing more depth by the minute. “The Frodo’s” came to our rescue. We passed them a halyard from our mast and they almost pulled us horizontal to free us from the sucking mud.

Meandering through Georgia

The waterway winds itself around the towns of Georgia. Tacking becomes constant and our engine is called upon. Each night we point Mariah into a side channel that snakes away from the main waterway and we feel like the first to explore these untouched estuaries that are teeming with life. Unfortunately, that life includes tenacious flies with an insatiable hunger. Mercifully, at dusk they fade away and we are left to enjoy the wondrous wildlife. Dolphins spurt by grinning at us; manatees rise, blink, and are silently gone. Alongside uninhabited islands, alligators ruffle the silky surface and snatch at unwary birds. Never have we witnessed such bountiful life.

The Intracoastal Waterway

Anchoring agony

In the beginning, finding an anchor spot is easy. Throughout the murky waters of Georgia, we begin to have great difficulties in deciding and agreeing on where to anchor. We have comprehensive charts, but off-channel the depths are dubious. We have travelled far without a pilot book. Now, after two arguments over where to anchor we decide it is prudent to purchase a good pilot book, this saves us a fortune in post-argument drinks.

The Carolinas

Puttering along the litter-free waterways to the Carolina’s, we are enjoying sharing our thrilling adventures with our Dutch friends, Natasja and Dennis on the SV Frodo.  Dennis is an angler and nightly he finds a small fishing harbour for anchoring. This is not a bad idea. The locals love us to sample their fresh shrimp, and supply us with ice and water. Generous lifts to the supermarket and chandlery are simply America’s way. Coupled with their fine southern drawl, this place captures our imagination and we expect to see Deputy Dawg swagger around the corner at any moment.

Frodo and Mariah Anchored together
Frodo and Mariah Anchored together

Communal tick-picking

Den and ‘Tash (fondly known as the Mighty Frodos) keep strictly to budget and keep us in line too. Visiting protected islands via “the back door” – where wild horses roam amongst the armadillos – is their specialty. With no jetty to tie to we haul the dinghy through the ankle-deep mud, so thick you could sun-dry it for ballast. A fresh water hand-pump thoughtfully installed amongst the gracious trees gives us all utter relief after our five-hour hike through dense vegetation. With like-minded sailors, friendships are fast and firm, for we are travellers there is no time to gradually develop relationships. Washing naked on an island, picking tics off our soggy flesh and sharing soap is considered normal.

'Tash and Noel washing after our walk
‘Tash and Noel washing after our walk

Mile munching to new adventures

Different wants and needs and a life of goodbyes dictates that we sadly say farewell to the Frodos. Onboard Mariah, we start to munch through the miles, as we do it’s a feast for our eyes. The houses challenge each other along the banks between the rolling hills, resplendent trees hide the frolicking deer, and I relish the vivid arrangements of colours that I thought were unique to England. The constant flow of welcoming people is tidal in every port and they reveal a new adventure. We could turn West at New York and go through Canada’s Great Lakes to Chicago, pick up the famous Mississippi and adjacent rivers and reach the Gulf of Mexico. This route is called The Great Loop. The ICW is just one small part of this incredible journey. It is a continuous waterway circumnavigating the eastern portion of North America, covering over 6,000 miles, over 100 locks, and many low bridges.

More choices, more decisions

Another stage of decision-making is upon us. People think we live a carefree life of going where the wind takes us. Alas, “life” issues such as money, seasons, and visas are perpetually knocking around in our heads demanding attention. Despite most people saying “it is too late”, we decide to do it. The Great Lakes freeze in winter, we need to traverse them by September. Knee deep in books we research the routes and mast stepping requirements. For us, the new adventure beckoned, for friends it just confirmed their doubts about our sanity.

A peek at Chesapeake

The famous Chesapeake gifted us a full moon and clear skies, and we keep sailing on to Washington DC. To reach the capital we turned west into the Potomac River. The city is 400 miles out of our way, but it is an opportunity we just cannot miss. The wide expanse is all ours; unexpectedly it is lined with emerald greens of woodlands, with just a splash of imposing dwellings.

Washington DC’s heart

Entering Washington DC by boat is chock-full of adrenaline rushes. We daren’t breath as we skim under a 46-foot bridge, as we both muttered, “Can you remember, is the height of our mast 48 ft or 45?  The fun continued with the constant landing aircraft just 100 metres off our bow. Then there’s the thrill of anchoring right in the heart of the city, walking distance to the Smithsonian Museums and magnificent monuments. We coincide our stay for the July 4th celebrations, with ear-splitting, dramatic fireworks that we watch from our prime seats, in our cockpit, on the river.  Too soon, we have to move on. We decide to ignore the advice of our nagging neighbour stating that we should not to bother with New York.

The Potomac
The Potomac

Natty, nutty New York

With the autumn of July approaching, it’s time to move. The three-day sail to New York is balm for our sightseeing weary souls. The black nights heighten other senses, as the breeze picks up the sweet perfume of flora, carrying it blindly along. The deep throaty calls of the dawn chorus hidden by the fresh, heavy mist makes us feel alive, in a new world. The bonus of calm seas as we traverse the only “outside” stretch makes the trip a memorable gift. Not quite believing we are here, we enter the mayhem of the wildest city in the world. The Statue of Liberty welcomes us while we weave, dodge, and dive around every conceivable boat out to play. The East River runs alongside Manhattan Island, enabling us to view the Empire State Building, the canyon streets, and the Brooklyn Bridge while on board. We find a mooring upstream in the Hudson River for $US30 a night; not bad for living in the heart of New York.  Time’s square is a long walk or a short tube ride away, where we rubberneck around the streets and stare at the shows that are projected on to the sides of buildings, our heads spin as the images seem to fly at us from every angle. Treating ourselves to a theatre show, the Empire State Building, and the strangely peaceful site of Ground Zero, these are the most remarkable days of our trip.

The exhilaration of entering New York
The exhilaration of entering New York

The show must go on

At dusk before leaving, we sit on board, watching eagles sweep by, clutching writhing fish in their talons. We feel like we have discovered America’s hidden secret, viewing the city lights flickering along the unmistakable coast. We discuss the “Phantom of the Opera”, which blew our minds. It turns our conversation to the next part of the magic, of this theatre show that is our lives. A trip up the Hudson, the DIY mast stepping, the Great Lakes, autumn golds and adventures via boat – inland.

The ICW has perfect places to tie up and enjoy the unique lights of dusk
The ICW has perfect places to tie up and enjoy the unique lights of dusk

More Information (2005)


  • American visa
  • Charts (mostly in book form)
  • Reliable engine
  • A depth-sounder that is easily read from the cockpit
  • Binoculars
  • A good outboard
  • VHF for calling low bridges to open (most are on request)

Intracoastal Waterways Statistics for Mariah II (West Palm Beach to New York)

States encountered                              10

Total miles covered                            1,816 statute miles

Days to complete trip                          90 days (including sight seeing/rest days)

Fuel consumed                                    477 litres (average price, 41 cents per litre)

Marina over night stays                      3

Moorings – over night stay                 9

Locks traversed                                   2

Times aground*                                  4


Costs (in US dollars)

Charts and guides**                           $300

Fuel                                                   $194

Marina fees***                                   $90

Mooring fees                                     $150 ($30 in New York, $10 elsewhere)

US Cruising Licence                           $20

US Visas                                             $195 (for us both)


*One requiring assistance; a couple of easy offs and a bump.  No damage done.

** Look for secondhand chart books and pilots at marinas.

*** Not including electricity, this is one of the least expensive.

Daily runs varied from 20 miles a day to 120 miles a day (over-nighters)

Speed varied from 3.5 knots (against tides) to 6 knots

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