In this region, a boat that drafts five feet will not have significant water depth problems on the A-ICW between Florida and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. As with all waterways, the captain must maintain a careful visual lookout.
Careful watch-keeping and disciplined concentration on the boat and the waterway is important in these waters. The often narrow channels are not the place to manage email, monitor the performance trends of personal investments, or handle business matters by cellphone. We frequently read posts from boaters who have “gone aground” while in mid-channel, and while on or closely near following the charted ICW “magenta line.” No matter where you might be on the ICW, do not assume the magenta line correctly portrays the best route or the deepest water. The charted “magenta line” is at best only a guide to the general direction of the recommended route. It is a good guide, but it is not perfect and is not suitable for piloting a boat. As the waterway changes, markers are added, relocated and removed. Printed charts cannot and do not keep up with local changes to the actual waterway route. Even the most current version of a chart can be years out-of-date. It is therefore essential for helmsmen to maintain a careful watch. The wise captain will also monitor daily US Coast Guard “Marine Safety and Information Broadcasts” for up-to-date information on missing or off-station markers and other hazards, but the general “rule” is, markers in the water always take precedence over charts.
There are some spots in this region that do require particular attention and careful planning, most especially in the time periods that bracket low tide, and certainly during periods of celestial low tides. These spots include, South-to-North:
- Cumberland Dividings, MM 704.2
- Jekyll Creek, MM 684.5
- Little Mud River, MM 653.0
- Creighton Narrows, MM 640.0
- Hell Gate, MM 601.9
- Elba Island, MM 576.0
- Fields Cut, MM 573.3
- Ashpoo-Coosaw Cut, MM516.2
- Fenwick Island Cut, MM 512.7
- Watts Cut, 504.2
I do not recommend that first-timers to this region go offshore for the purpose of avoiding these shallow areas. That advice may seem counter-intuitive, but I’d suggest first timers follow the A-ICW to have the opportunity to see and appreciate the “Low Country.” Sanctuary and crew have navigated these waters at least 15 times, northbound and southbound; it’s always different, with lots to see. And the truth is, the offshore alternatives are not necessarily easier, safer or more comfortable. The piloting and navigation issues are just “different.”
Georgia ICW and offshore routes from Jacksonville to Doboy Sound
Sanctuary has traveled offshore upon occasion. Northbound, an easy outside run for slow trawlers is from St. Simons Island to Doboy Sound. A long day in a trawler is from the crossroads of the ICW and the St. John River in Jacksonville, FL, to the Duplin River on Doboy Sound, GA. A go-fast boat could easily run from Jacksonville or St. Simons Island to Tybee Roads (Savannah River). However, qualitatively, every outside run looks like any/every other outside run. If your interest is in quickly getting to a destination, or if you have transited the ICW many times and are trying to stay ahead of the approach of unfavorable weather, then an offshore run might be a fine choice. But if you’re touring, and you want to see and learn about the countryside, or your interest is in the journey, that objective will be best accomplished by running inside on the ICW.
Seasonal hours-of-daylight can affect travel options in this region. In the spring, morning twilight will start at 06h00, and sundown will be around 19h30. In the late fall, after the time changes back to standard time, morning twilight will start at 07h00, and sundown will be around 17h00. Travel in the fall will necessarily be foreshortened. Do not travel these waters at night unless you are very, very familiar with the area.
We aboard Sanctuary are trawler people – a slow trawler at that – so we plan our travels around an average speed-over-ground (SOG) of 8.2 StM/hr. For us, the optimum timing choice for a Northbound departure from Fernandina Beach, FL, is when the tide is rising and the immediate next high tide will occur around 07h00 at Fernandina Beach. With this timing, we do sometimes encounter foul currents, but we don’t worry about unfavorable water depths. Northbound, the high tide will be approximately 42 minutes later each day, so as we proceed north through the Low Country, we will have high water during the mid-day hours of our planned travel. Fair and foul currents alternate throughout the day regardless. When low tides occur at mid-day, that can result in concerns over shallow water, shortened travel days and anxiety along the way.
For the most up-to-date information on the known areas of concern (hazards) along the route from Fernandina Beach, FL, to Myrtle Beach, SC, there are three resources which we suggest all cruisers should utilize. We recommend a tablet PC with an app that allows you to view Active Captain data (http://www.activecaptain.com) in real time. One popular solution for that is an iPad with Garmin’s Bluechart Mobile app or the iNavX app. As you move along, hazard markers will show you information on areas-of-concern in real time. For daily navigation, route planning and personal preparation, I recommend consulting Claiborne Young’s Salty Southeast Cruiser’s Net (SSECN) web site (http://www.cruisersnet.net) and the Skipper Bob/Waterway Guide web site (http://www.waterwayguide.com). There is a lot of overlap between these web-based resources, but there are often pearls on one that are not – at that time – available on the others, so I recommend referring to all three.
For charts, we use and prefer the Maptech paper chartkit books. This area is covered by the Regions for “Florida, East Coast and Keys,” and “Norfolk to Florida.” Even if you have electronic charts aboard, we recommend having paper charts on hand, too.
Relative to fixed dayboards and markers on the A-ICW, the “rule” is to stay away from them; that is, do not cut too close to them. “Take your half out of the middle.” These markers generally mark areas of shoal water, and some of them are actually dry at low tide. Do not get too close to them. Floating markers generally mark the edge of safe water, so it’s OK to get closer to them, but be cautious. The A-ICW marking system is standardized; red markers are always to the inland side of the waterway, and green markers are always on the seaward side. Therefore, Northbound, ICW red markers will be on your left. At inlets and on bigger rivers, especially where there is commercial traffic, this scheme often reverts to the COLREGS system (red-right-returning), so make sure you can identify the yellow reflective A-ICW stickers on markers in harbor and river areas, and be alert to the arrangement of lateral markers. If you confuse the COLREGS scheme with the A-ICW scheme, that can lead to a meeting of the close and personal nature with a local Tow BoatUS or SeaTow captain.
If going offshore, plan offshore route choices very carefully. The “rule” for crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas is, no wind component from the north. Running off the Georgia and South Carolina coast, the rule is, no wind component from the south. Most of the coastal offshore run is in a northeasterly-southwesterly direction. Any Southerly wind component will combine with onshore ocean swells to produce beam seas along the shallow offshore shelf waters. These seas will be short period and choppy. Also, make sure your route clears the many shoal areas of the offshore shelf. In some places, you’ll have to be 10 miles offshore to be clear of shoal waters. In nasty seas, near-shore water is more calm than farther out, but stay very alert and look well ahead (several miles) to be sure you’ll have safe water in your planned route when you get there. Avoid finding yourself deep into a blind pocket (think: “box canyon”) in a shoal.
Doboy Sound and Sapelo Sound inlets are both fine for use by recreational boats. They are routinely used by commercial shrimpers and local fishermen. They are both well marked, although at Sapelo, the markers are quite widely spaced. If you use Sapelo Inlet, find and identify the markers and make sure to honor them. There is a significant onshore/offshore current at all SE inlets due to the high tidal ranges in the region. Tidal currents probably won’t affect a go-fast boat much, but it’s a factor for trawlers.
The 40 ~ 50 miles north of Charleston again requires concentration and disciplined watch-keeping. The A-ICW from Charleston Harbor to Isle of Palms, SC, is very shallow at low tide. A good strategy for us is to stay just north of Mt. Pleasant, like Isle of Palms, or to anchor at Inlet Creek or Dewees Creek, and then depart northbound at or just after an early morning (06h00) low tide. If you do that, you’ll have a fair current all the way to Myrtle Beach. Even with a fair current, we can’t make it from Isle of Palms to Myrtle Beach in one day, but we can easily make it from Isle of Palms to Bucksport or Osprey Marina.
Historic Fernandina Beach, FL
Over the years, we aboard Sanctuary have developed some preferences for places to overnight. Much of what we do in this area depends on the specific timing or our transit and the local current and forecast weather. We very much like Fernandina Beach, which is an historic and welcoming city that has easy access from the marina/mooring field and several nice restaurants.
Between Fernandina and Savannah, we anchor along the ICW, often at the Frederica River at Fort Frederica (MM 665.7), the Duplin River (MM 649.3) or at Walburg Creek (MM 619.0). There are excellent marina choices in the Jekyll Island/Brunswick area. There is an excellent source of diesel fuel at Ocean Petroleum on the east shore of the East River, past the state seaport and the shrimp fleeting area.
We like Thunderbolt, GA, where there are several marina choices, a great local marine chandlery (River Marine Supply), and a couple of OK restaurants. From Thunderbolt, there is reasonably convenient Savannah city bus service for access to downtown Savannah.
Savannah River view from Savannah City Dock
In downtown Savannah, there is a good city dock facility right along the riverwalk. It is in a mostly-honored no-wake zone, and there is tug, barge and commercial ship traffic in that channel. The tidal range is 9 feet, +/-, and at low tide, the Admiral feels like she’s in a “fishbowl,” so she prefers T’bolt to Savannah.
Above Thunderbolt, depending on timing, we sometimes anchor at the Cooper River (MM 568.8), immediately above Ramshorn Creek. Or, there are several marinas in Calibogue Sound at Hilton Head Island.
Antebellum Beaufort, SC
We very much enjoy Beaufort, SC. Port Royal Landing Marina is a friendly and welcoming full-service marina. A mile north, holding is good in the anchorage (MM 536.3) off the Beaufort Downtown City Docks. Some cruising guides highlight the anchorage in Factory Creek, north of the Lady’s Island Swing Bridge, but it’s lined with businesses and homes, and even for our 36′ boat, I find it to be too narrow for my personal comfort. The town of Beaufort is an antebellum architecture delight. There is a carriage tour that is well worth the time, and there are several fair-to-good restaurant choices. Currents in the Beaufort River are significant, reaching 3 knots at max ebb and flood. I do not like the docking arrangements at the Downtown Marina docks, but the staff is very familiar with conditions there, and is able to help if you’re willing to listen to them. Nevertheless, we prefer to anchor here.
We occasionally anchor at Church Creek (MM 488.2), below Charleston.
We love Charleston. If we’re just passing through the area, we stay at St. Johns Yacht Harbor, immediately south of Elliott Cut. St. John is a welcoming and friendly full-service marina. In “downtown” Charleston (the “battery” area), we prefer the Charleston Maritime Center to all other local marinas, although the marina is exposed to harbor sea conditions and wakes from passing boats. CMC is a welcoming and friendly full service marina. It is located on the north shore of the Charleston battery, adjacent to the docks of the commercial seaport. It is within easy walking access to the city, a large Harris-Teeter grocery store, the state aquarium, the National Park Service tour to Ft. Sumter, and great downtown restaurants. We absolutely avoid the Charleston City Marina, located on the south shore of the Charleston battery near the Coast Guard Station. At that location, there is a generally ignored no-wake zone. The marina fairways are narrow and tight. River currents are very strong. We think that location is a recipe made for an insurance claim. Finally, depending on our circumstances, we sometimes anchor at Inlet Creek (MM 461.0) or Dewees Creek (MM 454.9) in the A-ICW above Charleston.
Many cruisers consider Georgetown a must-stop. The anchorage is crowded. The marina choices are adequate but not inspiring. It’s a “touristy” town, with couple of OK restaurants. We do recommend it, at least once.
We anchor at Butler Island (MM 396.0) or Bull Creek (MM 381.5), above Georgetown.
We quite like, and often stay at, Bucksport Plantation. Osprey Marina often offers excellent fuel prices.
Barefoot Landing is an enjoyable stop, at the foot of an outlet mall. There is often a great stage show at “America,” in the mall.
Governor’s Light, Myrtle Beach, SC
There are several marina options in the basin behind Governor’s Light at N. Myrtle Beach, including Myrtle Beach Yacht Club, where good fuel prices are the rule.
There are lots of options in this region for the cruising boater!