Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Northward again, the Jersey ICW

from Cape May to anchorage near Ventnor City
Monday May 28th, Memorial Day

When you mention the New Jersey IntraCoastal Waterway (ICW), most cruisers either scowl and say it’s horrible (shallow, twisty, low narrow bridges, crowded with rude boat drivers) or they shrug and say they would never consider it (because of one or more of the above). On this one day of travel in the New Jersey ICW, we saw wildlife and beautiful nature scenes; we were helped greatly by a kind fisherman; and we also experienced most of the negatives too. It was a well-rounded day of cruising.

We joined a parade of boats, most of whom wanted to go faster than us, from the Cape May harbor to where the sea channel splits off from the ICW. At the meeting of the waters, we turned left & went under the highway bridge while the others headed between the jetties into the ocean. It was a calm day and it seemed like everybody wanted to spend their Memorial Day fishing. Some had good luck; we saw several people pulling in nice looking flounder.

Right after the Cape May bridge, a 25’ outboard fishing boat was blocking the channel. He was displeased at how close we passed to him and seemed unaware that other boats would have to squeeze between him and the marker or go aground. The other four fishermen in the boat gave us angry glances but went right on fishing. Business as usual.

After this, we had a long stretch of wilderness. The tide was falling, which meant the current was sometimes with us and sometimes against us. The NJ ICW channel snakes around through wetlands & shallow sounds, behind the heavily developed barrier islands. But often the high rise condos & summer rental McMansions were out of sight and certainly out of mind. A pleasant way to travel, and we even got some friendly waves from other boaters.

Running aground: not a big deal for us, usually. The Winnie W is built to travel on thin water, with 3 ½ foot draft & a fully protected propeller. We like to explore and we often bump a few times trying to see if we can get into little creeks & backwaters. One wouldn’t really think of the NJ-ICW as a “backwater” but we got slightly stuck a few times in Grassy Sound (just west of North Wildwood). A short time later, with an ebb current pushing us the wrong way, we got stuck hard aground where the Hereford Inlet sea channel meets the ICW behind Stone Harbor. The bottom must have been hard sand, and we hit with a solid ‘thump’ that stopped the boat short. Fortunately my policy is to run at idle any time we are in uncertain waters, and in fact I had been backing against the current just moments before. The shape of the sandbar & the current kept us pinned there and we needed to take extra measures if we didn’t want to spend the night.

The photo at right shows the spot this happened- if you've heard the rule "red right returning" that is nice & simple. but in this case the sea channel is to the left in the photo... the proper course is to make an "S" turn around the far side of the red marker (nun bouy #124) then left to right between the red & green.

We lowered the dinghy and prepared to kedge off. This means taking an anchor out into deeper water and using it to heave a boat off the shoal. Kathie was helping me lower the anchor into the stern of our dinghy so I could row it to the far side of the channel when two fishermen in a boat named the ‘Dennisville Princess’ came along. The captain stopped and pointed out where we had gone wrong, which I appreciated so that we weren’t doomed to get stuck a second time in the same spot. Seeing that we were about to kedge the boat off, he offered to take our anchor slightly upstream & across the channel for us. We quickly agreed and it took them very little time to drop the anchor in the perfect spot for us. We took a strain on the anchor rode, and our bow swung towards deep water. A little more winching and we were again floating free!

You can see shallow water doesn't bother Hank.

A few hours later, with the tide even lower, we were passing through a marshy estuary named Great Sound. No joke, the soundings on the chart are all less than 2, doesn’t sound so “great” to me! There was a straight line of channel markers but only a hint of an actual channel. We dragged our keel in the mud several times. Once during this passage, I actually left the boat stopped in the mud and rowed around in the dinghy, probing with a boat hook to find the deepest water so we could figure out where to go next! A greater misfortune befell two speedboats who got solidly stuck near us along this stretch (oddly enough, this happened as they zipped around us, steering *outside the channel* that we were stuck in!). Remembering the heroes of the ‘Dennisville Princess,’ we tried to pull one of them off but could not budge them. The people thanked us for our attempt and said they’d just wait for the tide to come back in.

And the tide did come back in, as it always does. As the water deepened, we relaxed and enjoyed our trip. We even got up to cruising speed again. The channel twisted & turned around the Great Egg estuary, with wide-open marshes and egrets stalking their lunches. Because we are in such close accord with nature, we had lunch ourselves and then set dinner to work in the crock pot.

The next section took us thru Ocean City. After our architectural tour at Cape May, we entertained each other by observing the different styles of the summer houses. Often the older, modest houses had the nicest docks & boats. In any event it was possible to see that the area had gone through several stages of development in different eras, from the fishing shacks of the 1930s to the summer cottages of the 1950s, side by side with the palatial rental units of the yuppie era.

Towards evening we anchored for the night in a natural basin just west of Ventnor City. During all these groundings and waiting for bridge openings, the pork roast simmering kept us cheerful with a promising aroma. Now we were finally ready to stop and relax. Dinner was as delicious we’d hoped! Now for a good night’s sleep, then more cruising tomorrow! The weather forecast is for calm seas in the Atlantic Ocean, so we will continue towards New York via the “outside route.” We’ve sampled the New Jersey ICW and this will give us more time with friends and family in the New York area and on the Erie Canal. This will also give us a reason to come back: to visit the shore areas that we couldn’t see this time!

Best wishes, Doug and Kathie

(last photo: 9th St Bridge at Great Egg Harbor, Ocean City)

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