Sunday, November 24, 2013

Learning to Navigate: ICW Travel

Getting around our home waters took some small amount of navigational skills, but it only scratched the surface of preparing us for this travel in unknown waters.  Even with Bruce's decades of experience and my years, we find that we are dealing with new situations every day, some anticipated or expected, and others not.  We are basically building on our prior knowledge and applying it to our new life as vagabonds.

Under normal conditions, we have settled into a system that seems to work for us.  

Talking to the Lock as we approach
VHF:  We have become very comfortable talking to the other boats on the ICW.  I was a little shy at first, but the informal chatter on channel 13, where the tows hang out, has me jumping right in there with them.  Even when we aren’t engaging in conversation, we’re constantly monitoring (scanning) and it has been a great help to know what’s going on up ahead and what is coming to get us.  Without VHF there would be no way to contact the bridges and locks.  You can NOT navigate the ICW without VHF.  It is the one tool that is absolutely necessary.

Paper Charts:  We have an old chart kit with great views on paper that we’re keeping on deck for reference.  Some of the information has changed, but not much and nothing significant.  Whomever owned the chart book before us, did some cruising on the GIWW and graciously highlighted the troublesome spots and the anchorages.  It’s been neat to follow along and see what is different now from when the chart book was published in 1988.

Chart Plotter:  We go from the old to the newer… the Raymarine chart plotter.  While it wouldn’t be our first choice of brand and it’s not a new piece of equipment… it came with the boat and it’s what we have.  We wanted to use it for a while before we go potentially spending unnecessary dollars on a whole new system.  If this works, we’ll use it!  

We are becoming more familiar with the look of it, which is what our main problem with it was in the beginning.  It seems to be pretty accurate and keeps up well.   We are having a bit of trouble still with our autopilot so since they work together, it isn’t optimal yet, but we’ll get that worked out.  

Navigational Apps:  From newer to newest… we go to the iPad.  It has been such a valuable asset as a navigational tool, I can’t imagine doing this without it.  I have a couple of apps that I’m using daily and a few others that I check now and then for a different view.  

The main app we use is called Charts and Tides: US Gulf  The look of the app is similar to the chart plotter so they go together nicely.  It has Active Captain, which I’m LOVING! so there is lots of information in it to help us decide where to stop and where the hazards are.  It has a measurement tool and waypoints and is very simple to use.  This app only has the Gulf so we will be in the market for a new app covering the Bahamas and the East Coast, once we reach Florida.  I think we've decided on the Garmin app with purchase of those pertinent charts.

We are also using an app called Simple Charts.  This app displays our position on a raster chart so we get all the benefits of a paper chart in an app.  It also has a measurement tool and waypoints, plus some other things I don’t use.  The only bad thing, well two bad things are: 1.  the speed display is inaccurate.  It reads slow.  2. it goes off if you don’t continually touch the screen.  It won’t stay on and just follow along with you.  It is nice when we need to know a mile marker or the names of the waterways and towns around us.

The third app we use is called MotionX GPS HD.  I use it to document our track, distance, speed.  I record the daily track and save it.  I’m using it solely for documentation purposes.  And it’s nice to know our elapsed time and average speeds too, for fun. 

AIS:  We would be lost without our AIS!  It was kind of a last minute purchase after reading that so many other Cruisers enjoyed having them… well that is an understatement!  AIS really makes navigating the commercial waterways SO much less stressful than I imagine it would be without it.  We can hail the tows by name, to which they warmly respond… They can see us and hail US by name when they need to… It is just such an invaluable tool.  Perhaps those who say that ICW travel is “too stressful” didn’t have AIS.  

Now we come to the adverse conditions:  

Bruce on Fog Watch
FOG:  When we left the Mermentau River and encountered a dense fog, we had to make a choice… turn back and wait for the fog to lift, or continue on with the navigational aids at our disposal…  We decided to wing it!  We lit up the (heretofore unused) Radar and AIS, and those, along with the VHF got us through the fog and back on track.  

Our previous attempts at using the Radar that came with Dos Libras had been a disappointment.  The normally high winds and choppy Bay back home had made the Radar seem sporadic and unreliable with the erratic movements of the boat.  It was just more trouble than it was worth to try to decipher what we were seeing on the screen.  

This time, in the calm waters and light winds of the Louisiana ICW… it was a whole new story.  We could clearly see where the banks were and barges, and small boats alike, showed up definitively.  Plus it was kind of cool!

Navigation by iPad Street Map View
UNCHARTED WATERWAYS:  We encountered more than one navigational problem on our side trip to Delcambre… The waterways leading to the town are literally uncharted.  At least, we didn’t have any kind of map showing them, outside of a crayon-like line drawing leading into the land on ONE of our iPad navigation apps.  For this, I actually used the iPad Street Map app with Google Earth view for street navigation.  

It’s basically a Google Earth view that follows along with us (as there are no streets here).  It shows the satellite view of the waterways.  

Compare this to the Google view above
I flipped back and forth between it and the one map that showed the crayon drawing going where we intended to go.  

Missing map tiles on all maps.
The unfortunate thing about navigating this way, was that the day we left, not only was it foggy, but some of the tiles were out and failed to show up on ANY of the apps I tried using.  I had to navigate by sight and radar on that morning.  Oh, and I had meager assistance in following the track from our trip into Delcambre.  

RAIN AND WIND:  Our next encounter with adverse conditions was during our Morgan City to Houma passage.  We were nearly there and expected a Norther' to hit later in the afternoon.  We were delayed a bit by some traffic, which only exacerbated the situation, along with an untimely bridge obstacle...

The Scenario

We were delayed at the bottom left curve 1 with multiple barges towing many loads going both ways around this curve and the stretch beyond.

Once we were going again, while we were on the straight part, the rain began to fall... It began to pound and blow gusting to 27 knots as we made it around curve 2 and we were navigating by radar with very limited visibility.

A barge requested to pass us on the one whistle (coming up on our right side from behind) as we entered the gentle curve 3, with several barges parked on the lower bank as we hugged the left side of the channel.  I pointed up into the wind to keep the boat from sliding into the tow as he passed on our Starboard side.

Coming around curve 4, it was time to hail the bridge to request an opening.  She didn't respond to any channel.  The barge passed and we turned back.

Finally the bridge answered and told us to come on, she would get it open.  We turned around again and headed for the bridge, still in rain and gusty winds.  We got a gust of 18 knots as our mast slid between the open ends of the bridge...

Bruce on deck preparing to dock
We continued on the short distance to our destination with lighter rain and moderating winds.  

While it wasn't how we had planned to spend our afternoon, it is what we got. That's Cruising.  We work with what we have and work together as a team to get the job done.  

We make decisions based upon the situation at the time.  No matter how much you put into planning, you deal with what this life throws your way.

How does the saying go?...  The difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude!  Well, I can tell you that it is true.  Although my knees were knocking together during each of the above scenarios, I felt stronger and more confident afterwards having made it through with just our wits and each other.  We're LEARNING...

THE FUTURE:  Before anyone goes throwing tomatoes at me about our use of electronic navigational aids (apps)... I KNOW !  I KNOW!!   "This is not for navigational use" and we should NOT rely solely upon these methods, yada yada yada.  I don't mean to sound flippant but understand that we are incorporating ALL of the navigational aids we have into a fluid and situation specific method of "whatever works".  

I understand that there has been some resistance in the boating community against relying upon electronic navigational aids.  But... these applications have continued to improve and with proper use, can be a HUGE help and comfort to the average boater out there.  Expecting EVERY boater to hold professional certification and navigate by the "old methods" is just unrealistic.  No hate mail please!

We are just getting started on this journey.  We learn something every day in the different situations that arise. We are traveling in the ICW and will encounter a whole new set of opportunities to learn once we get offshore and out of the US.  This is what makes Cruising so exciting for us!  In the end, each person who undertakes this very unique challenge, must make decisions for themselves, about how they go about the business of navigating the waterways.  There are risks in everything and this is our chosen path.  And we are loving it!


  1. I am with you all the way. I have spent days catching up with your trip, I my self have dad the trip a few times, I also use all the elec, goodies but together, I have to say that I still backup with charts, Keep up the great blog and I will be following in your tracks in early March or April. If you would like mine it is

    Looking forward to seeing more.

    1. Thanks for reading! I checked out your blog and added it to my list so get to posting! Looks like you've got a lot of work going on. We worked non-stop getting ready. Good luck on the Bimini. Rockport is sure a nice place to hang out! At this point, we may not leave Florida for the Bahamas until March or April so come on over!

    2. The best advice is to use ALL of the navigation tools available. One really nice thing about paper charts is that you can do long range plans easier with them. Their age is not so much as issue when electronic tools are used for the updates and all the other goodies. Glad you took our example and were able to get a chart kit. You go guys!

      Jim and Barbara, SV Phantom

    3. Yes we took your example, and Bruce is having a good time with the "old ways". Happy Thanksgiving you two! Hope you're doing something warm and fun!