Low Bridges & High Water on the ICW

Anchors Aweigh Cropped.jpg

I’ve gotta finish the southbound delivery story.

We never made it to Stuart. After our brief offshore jump from Cape Fear, NC to Jacksonville, Florida, Dad, Tom & I spent three uneventful days motoring down the ICW. The days were boring, but satisfyingly uneventful. 

We met my dad’s old friend David in New Smyrna Beach. The timing worked out such that we motored into town just before sunset. I found a free city dock in front of one of the city buildings just north of the A1A fixed bridge. We maneuvered the boat against a strong NE wind and southbound current, crabbing sideways onto the dock. Like driving a spaceship. 

David is relatively newly retired and lives in a camper about 15 miles south in Oak Hill, right on the ICW. He fishes. A LOT. His wife Francine is French-Canadian, and was up in Quebec tending to her mom, who has a winter home in New Smyrna. I have a long history with the Ertels. Dave & Francine traveled on their Pearson 365 ‘Second Wind’ in company with us aboard ‘Sojourner’, our family’s Allied Princess 36’ ketch, when we cruised in the Bahamas when I was 9. They were my parent’s most adventurous friends, and they also didn’t have kids - each summer they’d work hard back in Reading, PA running their catering business, ‘Real Pit BBQ’. Dave & Francine had an old pink Cadillac limousine, so when a customer ordered a whole pig, they’d deliver it, sirens blaring, in the Caddy, serving it on a stretcher. When Mia & I returned to the USA the week after our wedding in Sweden in 2011, they catered our USA-reception, Caddy & all. Mia & I borrowed their commercial kitchen to cook most of the sides ourselves. 

In their off-season, during winter, they’d travel. Once riding mountain bikes and camping through Costa Rica. Again in New Zealand, where they bought an old camper van and drove around the South Island, exploring and sleeping in the van. In fact I met them there too, on my first trip Down Under, in 2004. We met in Queenstown and I slept in a tent they had adjacent to the van. We watched the Eagles lose the Super Bowl to the Patriots that year in a Queenstown bar. I had taken along a Hugh Douglas #53 jersey - after the loss, I took it off, stuffed it in the pocket of my cargo shorts and reminded myself that I was in New Zealand and that American football wasn’t nearly as important as it used to be for me. 

So Dad called David once it became clear we’d wind up in New Smyrna. David drove down to the boat, having a hard time finding us cause he still has a flip phone. He had to stop and ask directions several times. He made it, and with cold beer to boot. I have a soft spot for Dave & Francine - Francine was one of my mom’s closest friends, and she has the same energy in her that my mom had. It’s always bittersweet meeting Francine - she reminds me so much of my mom, which makes me happy. And yet, sad, of course, that mom’s not there…

David had a car, so drove us down the up & coming Main Street, where we had dinner at ‘Yellow Dog Eats’. Tom bought a trucker hat and Dad got some Christmas gifts. I had a superfood salad with smoked salmon and some red wine. Then we went grocery shopping.

Next day we headed south again, clearing all the fixed bridges despite the abnormally high tides. Once onto the Indian River, there is truly nowhere to stop. The wind continued blowing hard from the NE, so the typical anchorages just off the ICW channel in 6-8’ of water were wholly unprotected, and the few small marinas that dot the mainland side were too shallow for our 6’ draft to get into. We ducked out of the channel near green buoy #65, in a little hole of 6-10’ of water and dropped anchor in an exposed spot around Mile Marker 935. There had to have been 2-3 miles of fetch, and the NE’ly was kicking up a mean little chop that made for a noisy night. Tom, Dad & I watched ‘Green Room’ on the boat’s TV. We could barely discern the dialog - the TV’s speakers were shot, and the rain & wind in the rigging drowned out the rest.

Next day was the last day on the water. We got an early start, weighing anchor before sunrise and chugging on down the line. After ten miles or so, we turned back. Remember way back in North Carolina, the day we went offshore? There was a fixed bridge showing less than 63’ that day, so we had to wait for the tide to go down before very cautiously proceeding down the channel. Same thing happened just south of St. Augustine. We made it both times then, but at the Wabasso Bridge just north of Vero Beach, our luck ran out. The air draft showed less than 62’, the tides changing only by a few inches according to NOAA. I made a call to a local marina whose caretaker Bob said the tides have been higher than normal for a while, what with the Super Moon that week, and wouldn’t recede measurably until December 4! Add to that the strong NE’ly, which tends to blow water into those parts, and we were stuck.

Time was up for me. This was a Thursday, and I had a flight to catch back to Sweden on Monday. We had a LONG drive north ahead of us too - we’d brought along my dad’s life raft from ‘Sojourner’, and the only way to get it home was by car. So we motored back 25 miles to the north and found a cozy little marina on the ocean side of Melbourne and left ‘Meri’ there. The owner would be back in two weeks or so, and could scout the air draft at the bridge then by car, or simply go offshore a little bit farther north at Canaveral and get south from there, in good weather. 

The trip was pretty unsatisfying for the three of us. I’ve never NOT gotten a boat to it’s destination before. I’ve left 3 boats where they sat after they failed inspection (one WAY down south in the Panama Canal; another in Bermuda). But we were well & truly stuck, and it wound up being much more efficient for the owner to make the last 60 miles later on, than pay us to wait out the weather and/or the tide in Melbourne, so in the end I think everyone was happy. 

Just not quite satisfied. But that’s sailing.

I wonder when they’re going to have to change the height restrictions on the ICW? Sea level rise is absolutely a real thing, and we didn’t see a single bridge that actually showed the full, advertised 65’ of vertical clearance since leaving Norfolk. Part of it was due to the Super Moon, but most of the locals we spoke to in Melbourne said it’s been high all year, and I read reports on Active Captain as old as 2011 that stated that the Wabasso Bridge was showing low clearances back then.