You’ll never believe what we saw on the ICW

Story and photos by Rick Klepfer
For Points East

We have traveled up and down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway a number of times now, and we have always found the experience to be rewarding. We’ve also found the ICW to have unexpected twists and revelations. Traveling, as we have been, through the backyards of the eastern seaboard, we have been privy to many things that we had never considered in our previous experiences.

feature-1510Not to be ignored is the ever-unfolding story that nature is telling, behind our everyday cloud of “culture.” Human activity has placed a burden upon the natural world, and the reaction of the flora, fauna, and the earth itself is something that we should all take note of, and factor into, our daily movements on this planet.

In our observations from the wheelhouse of our diminutive trawler, there is much to think about. Such contemplation includes how we conduct our lives, and how we react with other humans and with the rest of the inhabitants of this little chunk of rock that is swinging around a minor star in a D-grade solar system.

A lot of the things that we have seen are emblematic of the humor of the American people; more than a few are cause for concern, or even alarm. Let us take you through some of our more memorable experiences along the Waterway.

One of the first things that one notices when making one’s way from Maine to Florida is the vast number of second or third homes along the shore. We had been bashing our way northward, after weathering tropical storm Ana in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., when we took refuge in a little creek just south of Moorhead City. The entrance to this creek was obscure, and by the picture shown by our charts, possibly impossible to enter. But we were tired and just recovering from anxious days spent at anchor while Ana tried her best to wreck us.

We could have continued on for a few miles to where we could have anchored between a little island at Moorhead and the mainland, but experience had shown us that this was a poor anchorage full of semi-derelict boats. So we chose to stop early and to find a secure place to set the hook.

While the entrance to this creek was skinny, narrow and twisting, it proved to be a lovely place to ride out just about anything. As we entered the inner sanctum of the creek, we found that its shores were lined with well-kept houses, most with substantial boats tethered to their docks. What an idyllic spot, we thought, as we ate our dinner and sipped a few glasses of merlot. How contented these people must be to have found a bit of heaven such as this.

But, as night fell and we looked at the empty bottom of our bottle, we came to realize a sad truth; nobody lived here. We came to understand that we were in a place that is not unfamiliar in our culture: a community of ticked boxes. By that, we mean that there is a component of our culture that has been burdened with wealth to the point where they need, as citizens of this class, to possess all of the touchstones of that wealth: the big house, the weekend house, the yacht, the airplane, the ski resort condo, and so on; each a mere tick of the box that the rest of the society would love to have.

How sad. We have spent all of our lives feeling lucky to have one home to call our own – even if it were in joint-ownership with the bank. Here, we could see people whose weekend homes were far in excess of what we could ever have dreamed of for our primary residence, and they held them in such little regard.

Another huge awakening for us was the overbearing presence of the military on our route up and down the East Coast; you don’t see much of this from the highway. The military tends to keep a low profile on the roadside; they put up some chain-link fence and a guard shack or two, and nobody stops to think what may lie beyond.

But the Waterway is a different matter; the military needs a lot of space and riparian territory to train for whatever they train for. Few areas of the Waterway are truly devoid of military activity; after all, the Waterway itself is a military or security installation. Perhaps Norfolk/Newport News is the epitome of this ethic; here you sail by row after row of gargantuan military vessels, each with its retinue of machine-gun-laden small craft with flashing blue lights, daring you to cross their arbitrary line in the waters.

In Camp Lejeune, N.C., the military advises water travelers that the Waterway may be closed at any time, so that they can shoot God-knows-what across it. There is an anchorage right in the middle of the camp; folks who anchor there do so with the understanding that the military might ask them to up-anchor and move on at any time, day or night.

We were anchored in there one Halloween night. The air was full of clattering helicopters, and the banks of the lagoon were lined with camo-clad troops, all awaiting their turn to board the little, unlighted boats that zipped in and out at all hours of the night. In the midst of this serious, country-protecting bluster, our neighbor, in a mid-sized recreational trawler, inflated a huge, illuminated pumpkin. The juxtaposition of this lighthearted fun against the backdrop of uber-military seriousness was a moment to savor.

Another close encounter with the military machine was at peaceful Cumberland Island, Ga., where wild horses cropped sea grass along deserted beaches. After a few days spent hiking this wonderful natural area, we departed, only to find that we were in company with a monstrous Trident submarine. The security around this major military asset was something to see: A few millions of taxpayer dollars spent in shifting a behemoth a few miles downstream.

Well, enough of the heavy cultural and military stuff. How about some silly, absurd stuff? For one thing there are old-timey pirates – lots of them – and they have ships. We see far more traditional-type pirate ships than we would think reasonable on every trip. Anchored in coves, lurking behind islands or bearing down upon us with cutlasses drawn and their cannon trained upon us, they are everywhere.

We can’t figure why pirating is so fascinating to the layman, but there is apparently big business in faux-pirating. We have even passed by pirate ships a’building. This generally consists of a large skiff with a phony, pirate superstructure built of plywood and superimposed upon the hapless host victim-vessel – usually propelled with a big outboard motor.

Speaking of pirates, in Tarpon Springs, Fla., we were accosted on every street-corner by strangers trying to get us out on a sponge boat, and asking a hefty fare for the privilege. When we explained that we had come by boat, and to take them up on their offer would be a sort of busman’s holiday, they invariably got testy. We did enjoy poking around this tail end of the Intracoastal Waterway and experiencing the quirky nature of the sponge industry.

Oh, and there is romance on the waterways: Consider this proposal of marriage, and then ponder the logistics of how the young suitor made his request known. Did he paddle her out in a canoe on a big-moon night? Or did he rumble up in his cigarette boat and text her? The possibilities are endless, but at least the guy is inventive and romantic and would be worth considering.

The farther south one sails, the more prevalent are derelict boats. Some thickly populated anchorages contain nothing but failed dreams in various stages of decomposition. Some states have gone to a lot of effort to rid their waterways of these sad vessels, but I suspect the legal ramifications of hauling someone’s boat off to the landfill are something to consider thoroughly.

We have seen boats up in the weeds, sunk at the dock, entrapped in overhanging tree branches, and boats that make themselves known only by a bit of mast with a ragged scrap of sunbaked sails sticking out of the waves. We can’t help but wonder how anyone could leave a boat to slowly crumble into the silt, but we suspect a lot of them are cases of dreams coming into conflict with reality.

Sailing is not all sunny days with a fair wind and a cold bottle of beer handed up through the companionway by your favorite shipmate. A few raw days at the helm in a cold rain, rolling to a beam sea, may alter your thinking. And when you get to the sunny south and butt up against a 72-hour anchoring limit, where ya gonna go?

One of our least favorite experiences with a derelict boat was at Hilton Head, S.C.,, where we met the “Zombie Boat.” This boat was firmly sunk, with her bow on the shore when we anchored at low tide. But when the tide came back in, the boat rose from the dead and began to stalk about the anchorage, perhaps in search of a companion to take down with her. We actually moved anchor at one point, but the Zombie crept ever closer, making sluggish pirouettes in the water around our boat. It was enough to give us the creeps.

We see a lot of wildlife along the Waterway. We have met deer swimming, locked through an Okeechobee lock with an alligator, and have even come across swimming iguanas. We are treated to dolphins jumping in our wake almost every day when south of Moorhead City; many of these show scars of old propeller wounds that imply that dolphins are willing to endure pain to partake in wake jumping.

We have never hit a dolphin, but manatees are a different deal; they move too slowly to get out of our way, and we often have to take the boat out of gear and coast slowly past the lazy, concentric ripples that indicate a manatee below. In other close encounters, we have come upon huge sunfish finning along at the surface in a most unfishlike manner.

Since we are boat nuts, we are always on the lookout for interesting or unusual boats, and we are rarely disappointed. We encounter a lot of wonderful classic boats, from the fantastic Aphrodite to the lovely Coastal Queen that plies the waterway from Newport south each year. And we frequently encounter boats that defy description – or sense, in some cases.

There is never a lack of interesting things to see on the Waterway, and being part of it all is one of the more enjoyable aspects of our inland passages. It is interesting to see how other people’s dreams work themselves into reality, and to wonder how they evolved from concept to completion. These features run the gamut from wonderful things that make you smile and consider something similar for ourselves, to the strange and ominous that give us a new perspective of our fellow countrymen. It is never boring.

Rick Klepfer has had a varied sailing career – some professionally, but mostly just for the fun of it. He worked on the Johnson Sea Link submersibles in the 1970s, and today, he and his wife Kay live aboard their trawler in the summers and when cruising. Rick has written for numerous periodicals, including “Sail,” “Maine Boats & Harbors,” “Messing About in Boats,” “The Caribbean Compass,” and “Chesapeake Bay Magazine.” He works as an architect as much is required to keep his vessels in running order. He can be reached at