Where the hell is that anchor?" After an hour of playing find-a-fuel-dock in South Carolina's lowland marsh, I hear my engine take its last gulp of gas, cough, and die. This is trouble.
Now we're drifting out to sea on a swift current as I wrestle seat cushions and dig around in lockers looking for the second anchor. Like in the old Ty-D-Bol commercial, we're being flushed -- out the inlet. Meanwhile Bill is doing some burrowing himself, clearly searching for something crucial. Last night, my buddy Bill and I celebrated his first 500 miles on the ICW with a couple of T-bones and a bottle of Jack. Now we're suffering -- our bow anchor isn't holding, Bill's hidden the second anchor under his sea bag, and I can't raise help on the VHF. Another 10 minutes goes by and it feels like days under the searing sun. Sweat and salt sting my eyes as the backup anchor drags and finally sticks, and thankfully, the VHF crackles to life. "Bohicket Marina, please switch to 68." Whew...help is on the way. Deep breath. Nothing to do now but wait. I turn to impart the good news to my apprentice cruising companion and find him lounging on the aft bench in the sun, halfway through his all-important find. "Hair of the dog," he offers with a grin.
Good ol' Bill. Our current dilemma not withstanding, he'd have been a sucker to miss this voyage: a five-day cruise-of-a-lifetime north from Miami to Norfolk, Virginia, on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, a.k.a., the Ditch. One where I'll prove to Bill -- whose only sea time has been on the Staten Island ferry -- that anyone can be a cruiser.
On our 1,090-mile adventure we'll be going fast and traveling light, with days spent in a cushy cockpit and nights in homey hotels. I call it sport cruising. The best part? It's a surprisingly inexpensive escape.
The other best part is that we're cruising in a jet -- a Yamaha SX230 High Output. For Bill it's nonthreatening and fun. And on the ICW, it's small enough to fit under any bridge and squeeze past the inevitable barge traffic or southbound snowbirds, fast enough to make time, shallow enough to skirt shoals, and maneuverable enough for any greenhorn, which fits Bill to a T.
So Boating is at it again, doing what we do best -- turning charts into living, breathing, laughing journeys of possibility. Proving that even Bill -- and you -- can become a long-distance cruiser. Welcome aboard.
Of Manatees and Men
God is on our side as we put Miami on our stern. Father Will, boatyard guru/priest (you only find guys like him in Florida), sees us off with a wave and a prayer. "Turn left at the first green marker," he instructs.
That's all there is to it. Keep the green on the right and the red on the left. The ICW is marked so it's "red, right, return" going south. Bill figures that the guy who laid it out must have lived in south Florida. It's easy -- even the markers are different and sequentially numbered. A cinch, especially for the novice cruiser.
Of course, we have all the navigational gear you could need. The Garmin GPSmap 545s is set with an ICW card, so all we do is match the little boat icon to the magenta line that represents the Waterway and go. Plus, I've come armed with two essentials: the Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook, an inexpensive lap-size flip book of paper charts, and the Waterway Guide, which explains every twist and turn and service along the way.
South Florida along the inside route is the playground of the wonderfully wealthy. Stately white and pink mansions sport putting green lawns and mega-yachts berthed out back. And man, how the superrich love their sea cows. There's hardly a stretch of water from Miami to Daytona that isn't a Go Slow zone. Not good for making time, and I think of risking it anyway. "But, officer, it's a jet. Can't hurt no manatee with this boat." But a speeding ticket doesn't look good on an expense report.
Too bad, because idle speed in a jet is tricky. The best method is to set one motor at about 5000 rpm and let the other idle. This throws up a considerable wake, but it's essential for maintaining control, especially around the many bridges that usually have a strong current running. It's that or weaving like a drunk on a long walk home. An analogy that Bill immediately understands.
There's something about a good marina that lifts the spirits. Sunset finds us at one in Ft. Pierce with an on-site fish shack purring Bob Marley through the salt thick air. Life is good. Our onboard provisions -- two bags of Doritos -- have left us on the verge of cannibalism. We grab stools next to a salt who must be one of Father Will's disciples, order Red Stripes, and start bitching about the slow-wake zones when Father Murray gives us the Good News: "Slow-wake zones don't apply to boats in the channel." Amen!
Under the Surface
The next morning, as eight-ish becomes late-ish, we head out into the misnamed Indian River. Being four miles wide, it's more of a bay, and we're chasing along its 120-mile length when bam! The boat stops short and my head bashes into the console.
It isn't a life-threatening injury. Bill shrugs and guesses correctly: "I think we hit something." The only casualty is a flip-flop that floats away while Bill gets in knee-deep water (love those shallow jets) to free the boat from the bottom.
Back on the liquid highway, I'm giving Bill an in-depth explanation of the fine art of looking at the markers astern as well as ahead as a guide to staying in the channel.
The rest of the day is the ICW at its best. It's all mystery, beauty, and peace wrapped in perfect weather. Miles and miles of lush greens, glassy water, and sandy banks. I'm willing to pack in my life up north and cruise down here forever. It's that good! Until I start thinking about topping off the fuel tank, which is now between half and one quarter.
Not to worry, though, because Bill assured me the last time we passed a gas dock that, according to the electronic chart, there's another marina a little ways ahead. When we finally reach the marina, I'm dismayed to find that it isn't the type that sells fuel. An easy mistake, I assure my friend. Best to use the information in the Waterway Guide, which is updated annually, unlike the chartplotter's data.
The next fuel dock is only five miles away in St. Augustine. No problem. But I'm concerned when we take on 44 gallons, and it's a 50-gallon tank. Better watch that gauge.
A Rainy Night in Georgia
Flashing red "34" is to port as we cross Cumberland Sound near the Florida-Georgia border, when suddenly the weather gods seek revenge for the fine skies they've granted thus far. "Time for you to take the helm," says Bill. At least he's learning the lingo.
The rains come in a torrent. It's biblical. Tucking behind the windscreen is useless. I tell Bill that the best tactic is to get out of the channel, put the hook down and the top up, and wait it out. Which isn't long. We perform a lot of work for a 10-minute downpour, but it's better than running blind.
The names of the places we pass are like candy in my mouth -- Buttermilk Sound, Little Mud River, Rockdedundy Island, and Old Teakettle Creek. Bill takes a safe line, using the range markers without slowing, cutting no corners, giving markers a wide berth. He's in a rhythm and I can tell from his stupid grin that he's diggin' it.
Our groove is interrupted only when overtaking another northbound boat. We don't want the Stink Eye from any sailor types, so I give Bill the 411 on passing. Throttle down to idle behind the boat you're overtaking so you have a flat wake when you pass. Keep to idle speed until your quarter wave crosses the bow of the other boat. Then hit it.
We pass the snailbote like silk and make Savannah around dusk as a mist comes down to the horizon and a chill claims its own peculiar edge. We call it a day because another storm is following like a hellhound. I won't get bitten twice.
Can You Hear It Now?
We're off Beaufort, South Carolina, which is pronounced bew-fort. The one in North Carolina is bo-fort. Go figure.
The early sun burns off the mist and a panorama of undisturbed water surrounds us. Bill's at the helm, skimming over glass, and the jet feels like it's flying. I ask him about our speed. "How fast are we going?" Bill looks at the speedo, shrugs, and tells me to check the GPS. The speed is okay, 38 mph, but I should know something is wrong.
You're familiar with the Zen phenomenon of becoming hypersensitive to any change in the sound your boat makes during a long trip? A new frequency, an off-key pitch, anything like that can nag at the mind until dealt with. Well, this one is a sustained buzzing that I hear over the engines. I let it go for about 45 minutes, which is when I peek over the side to discover the bilge pump has been running nonstop.
To his credit, Bill, being a visual sort, points to a stream of water coming from under the console. "That doesn't look right," he offers. I concur. So I take a look behind the console, where I discover water spraying all over the electrical connection thanks to a raw-water line that was at one time attached to (you guessed it) the speedometer.
Ahh! Duct tape to the rescue. Electronics wiped down, bilge pump off, problem solved. Lesson learned: Fix it when you hear it.
We're good to go. For a few miles, anyway...
Saved From the Sea -- Sort of
For the first time I take advantage of the swim platform, dangling my feet into the bathtub-warm water. A family of porpoise frolic nearby. The views here are breathtaking, and we find ourselves staring in awe at the mighty splendor spreading in every direction. Too bad we didn't choose to stop here.
The boys from Bohicket Marina are on their way with a five-gallon can of fuel, but for now I'm happy to sit and ponder the trouble with gas gauges.
Ours insists there's still a quarter of a tank when, in truth, it's empty. The fuel gauges on most small boats are woefully inaccurate. One problem is that tanks often taper toward the bottom, which makes the sender's internal float (which is designed for a rectangular tank) think there's a lot more left. Or the float just gets hung up or out of whack from all the bouncing.
"We should have noticed," I lecture Bill, "that the gauge was off back in St. Augustine." But it's my fault. Even though my instincts were right to top off above the one-quarter mark, I should have been monitoring fuel consumption along the way.
The gas arrives, and we're underway again. For laughs I let Bill navigate; the boy must learn. An hour later, we're aground. Standing next to the jet on the mud flat, I see what happened. Bill cut a corner. He missed a buoy and went to one out of sequence. Which led to a brief tutorial on the art of "counting markers." It's simple: As you pass them, keep track of the numbers. They're in order. If you pass "16" and you're heading for "20," you're in trouble.
We're underway yet again, bouncing off things and enjoying the Yamaha's resilience for the next two days, when Bill begins to talk about a strange phenomenon.
He's learning a hard lesson. That there's a point near the end of any pilgrimage when time seems to step up a notch and pass all too quickly. The inevitable return to normal existence accelerates like a bullet train and the mind refocuses and adjusts to the imminent banality of everyday life -- the price for daring to go away in the first place. But right here, right now, lost among the beautiful curving rivers of the Inside Passage, time stands still, if only for a moment. The only cure is to do it again.