Motor-sailing the ICW: 8 lessons in 24 hours

in Intracoastal Waterway / Life at Sea / Sailing the World
intracoastal waterway great dismal swamp

We may not be in the Caribbean, but I am starting to have fun again. Which is good because I didn’t want to follow up a post called “Sailing Sucks” with one called “Sailing the ICW: The Great Dismal Journey,” or something equally miserable.

tasha hacker great dismal swamp

Navigating the Great Dismal Swamp.

Luckily, having gotten through the Great Dismal Swamp yesterday and to our free dock in Elizabeth City, North Carolina (the reputed “Harbor of Hospitality” which lives up to its name), we woke up this morning to sunshine, fair winds and calm seas. Okay, it’s still not bikini weather, or even 1-layer-of-clothing weather, but it will do.

And I can say that in the last 24 hours I learned a small number of new things, including:

1. Locks are kind of amazing.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to go through the Panama Canal (though we may do it one day), but going through the humble Deep Creek Lock was definitely cause for excitement… and a little graffiti.

ryan horsnail deep creek lockdeep creek lock

2. Auto-pilot is awesome. But I wish it would let me change course by half a degree.

Motoring through the extremely narrow and mostly straight Great Dismal Swamp for hours by hand would have been annoying, so having an autopilot was certainly appreciated. But our autopilot couldn’t keep us on a perfectly straight course. We had to keep adding and subtracting one degree every 3 minutes to keep from running into the shallows. I know, I know, I should be thankful to have an autopilot at all. #firstworldproblems

3. Motoring in a straight line for 6 hours is boring.

The Great Dismal Swamp was interesting for about the first hour, and mainly because it looked like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. But each hour following, the lack of wildlife and unchanging view of swamp trees got less and less interesting, though it still remained weird.

great dismal swamp nc va

4. Cruisers are a breed of folk all their own.

Having run into a fair few experienced cruisers now, and having never known they existed before, I am starting to see how this life offers a community the way any other lifestyle choice does. I always thought sailors were loners, but it turns out a lot of cruisers move around in groups, or make plans to meet up in the same places. And the further south we go, the more we keep running into the same boats. We also keep running into sailors who know other sailors we know.

My guess is that, as a cruiser, if you were to announce to your cruising friends that you were going to give up your sailboat to buy a house with a big lawn, garden and satellite dish, it would be just as shocking as if you announced to your suburban neighbors that you were going to give up your two-car garage, good school district and landscaped yard to buy a boat and sail off into the horizon. It’s just another way people have chosen to live, and they surround themselves with people who live similar lives. Who knew?!

5. Battery banks and amps will inevitably come up in conversation.

We went out for drinks and fried food in Elizabeth City with our British boat neighbors, Martin & Bridget on Shin Dera, and while I grilled Bridget about their washing machine on board (how is that possible?!), I overheard Ryan grilling Martin about their battery bank. It was a moment for gender stereotyping, yes, but I’ve noticed that any time we meet a new cruiser, one of the stock questions Ryan asks is how much battery power they have. And I’ve noted that the cruisers we meet always have a lot more battery power than we do. I’m starting to see now that Ryan covets bigger batteries at sea the way he coveted a bigger television on land.

6. Getting off the boat to sweat out my cabin fever makes me a more tolerable person to be around.

Elizabeth City is so hospitable to cruisers that not only do they meet arriving cruisers with a wine and cheese reception each night, but they’ve collaborated with their local gym, The Fitness Warehouse, to offer hot showers for $5, and a gym workout plus shower for only $10. We took full advantage of this opportunity and the world is a better place for it. Ryan and I can now exist on the same boat more easily for a few more days.

7. The cold weather brings out the CRAZY in our cats.

We went to sleep in 30-degree temperatures, bundled up in our thermal underwear, trying to ignore the wrestling match going on in the salon. I swear I heard clanking cooking utensils, as though Charlie and Celia were smacking each other over the heads with frying pans like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. And then, throughout the night, Charlie expressed her discontent by climbing onto our heads, then jumping on our chests, then running to the foot of the bed, then running back and jumping on our heads again. And when I would try to pet and soothe her, she would leap up and run to her food dish as though she thought 2 am was a good time to be fed. This pattern repeated itself all night until 7 am when we finally got out of bed, at which point the cats ran to where we were trying to sleep and promptly passed out in a serene slumber for 4 hours. I wondered if this was some kind of cruel justice for not having children.

8. Sailing (rather than motoring) is actually fun.

This morning, after we departed Elizabeth City, I had the rare opportunity of being completely alone at the helm while Ryan worked at his computer down in the cabin, trying to stay warm.

Prior to this trip, Ryan and I have always sailed together, or together with friends on board, so even if I was at the helm, he was always nearby to either correct my mistakes or tell me what to do when I had no idea. And therefore I never really learned how to decide myself what to do with the sails. And I never really built the confidence to make any important decisions as a captain.

So this morning, while Ryan was engrossed and out of the way, I decided to take on the sails myself, without asking for help. And because Ryan wasn’t there to unknowingly interfere with my learning process, I actually learned some new things about Hideaway and grew to enjoy the experience of sailing itself, as opposed to sailing just to get somewhere.

It was wonderful. And liberating. With 18 knots of wind behind me, and the motor shut down, I finally figured out why people like sailing. It’s exhilarating to make a boat go somewhere under the sheer power of the wind and your control over the sails. Any mistake I made was immediately evident, and I could then fiddle with the sails to see if I could make the boat go faster, or smoother. And by the time my watch was up, and Ryan came up into the cockpit, I could ask him real questions that I needed the answers to about how the sails worked and what I could have done to go faster. I felt incredibly empowered and, for the first time, a little competent.

So, if I could make a plea to all you experienced sailors out there: if you are the more competent sailor in your partnership and your partner is reluctant to take the reins and make decisions themselves, I would highly recommend leaving your partner alone at the helm. And often. Make an excuse to go read, take a nap, or anything that gets you out of the cockpit. In doing this, you’ll encourage your partner to experiment on their own with what makes a boat sail well or not, the way you probably learned yourself. It will empower your partner and it will make you a happier sailor to know your partner is learning to be just as competent as you are.

I’ve always felt like the clumsy, bumbling crew on board our boat and have preferred to stay out Ryan’s way because of it. But I’ve never liked the feeling of not knowing what he knew, though I didn’t know how to learn what he’d learned. Now, I know. He just needs to leave me alone at the helm more. And, actually, long trips in cold weather make this possible – who knew the cold could be a good thing?!

If I do happen to fall head over heels in love with sailing one of these days (and not just traveling by boat), it will be because it offers me a challenge and a steep learning curve.

And I’d be a fool not to grab the opportunity to learn something new about sailing…and myself.

Elizabeth City, NC - Alligator River, NC

Elizabeth City, NC – Alligator River, NC

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  • Mid-Life Cruising! November 9, 2012, 4:14 pm

    Great post! Glad things are slowly starting to get a little warmer, and congrats on sailing on your own! I’ve been at the helm and have played with the “wheel” and its effects on the sail but I haven’t dared tried to touch the winch or adjust the sails! I totally agree that it’s something we all should do and I can’t wait to become more empowered myself.

    Isn’t it funny that once we become involved in a “click” we realize how many others are also in the same thing and have chosen it as a way of life? We realized that years ago when we were into motorcycles. So many ways of life out there. Enjoy your weekend … I’m sure you will!

    • Tasha November 9, 2012, 4:18 pm

      It is totally crazy and interesting! We were at the Burning Man festival this summer and we met tons of people who reminded me of cruisers, though they mainly travel in their RVs to festivals around the country. Very similar lifestyle… just on land!

  • Deana November 11, 2012, 2:56 pm

    I really enjoyed your post. We have been cruising for a couple of years now and we love the lifestyle. Just wait ’till you get to the islands, it’s fantastic and you meet the most awesome people! You will also experience some wonderful things. What a life this is! Enjoy!

    • Tasha November 11, 2012, 7:25 pm

      Hey Deanna!
      Thanks so much for reading…I am pretty excited to get somewhere warm where I can enjoy the sun and good company! It is quite a life! I’m also very impressed with your fishing skills (had a look at your lovely blog) – we’ll need to work on that…if we cross paths maybe you can give us some pointers! Happy cruising!

      • Deana November 12, 2012, 7:17 am

        Are you planning to spend this winter in the Bahamas? We spent several months in the Exumas and we loved every minute of it. It was a great way to ease into the cruising lifestyle. Plus, after you cross the Gulf Stream, you will get your first big crossing under your belt. I hope we do get to meet someday. Keep up the blog, I really like your writing style and your prespective.

        • Tasha November 12, 2012, 9:47 am

          Hey Deanna,
          We are planning to spend this winter in the Bahamas and we’re really excited to get there. We don’t have plans beyond that, but they will form in time…we keep hearing the Exumas are wonderful so we’ll have to check them out. I also enjoy your blog and learning from what you’ve done, so thanks for the encouragement! I hope to run into you guys somewhere warm!

  • Pat and Joan Allen March 8, 2013, 11:11 pm

    Hi: Friend of mine introduced me to your blog. Glad you are on your way. We hope to follow in your wake soon. When you can go find a small dingy, like a Sunfish or something, and go sailing. You will learn a lot and you will learn to love sailing. Spend a weekend taking the ASA 101 class, and more if you can.

    • Tasha March 11, 2013, 11:03 am

      Thanks for reading, Pat and Joan! I will get plenty of sailing training come June – I’ll be training for Clipper Round the World in England. 🙂

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