Our first 60 days on the ICW: Some lessons learned

It’s currently below freezing with wind gusts above 40mph here in the Sunshine State of Florida. This ‘bomb cyclone’ that forced us to seek refuge in the warmth of Mary Jo (our 27 foot Albin pocket trawler), also gave us an opportunity to update our blog to share some of the key lessons we learned over our first 60 days cruising down the Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW) from Virginia to Florida.

• Prepare for your trip, but at some point, just go!

Taking a diesel maintenance course and joining boating associations like the MTOA to attend seminars and events to meet and learn from other boaters have been invaluable. Getting the boat ready for heavy use (so far, we have ran over 200 hours, about 4 seasons for an average boater) and to make it a pleasant home is important. However, it’s easy to spend too much time and money in trying to get ready. You will never be completely done, so at some point, you just need to go. You will be working on the boat all along your adventure, and each day, you’ll learn something new, so don’t delay. Just go before it’s too late.

• Never have a schedule!

Every experienced cruiser we met warned us about having a schedule. We heard it several times, but it wasn’t until we experienced the stress of having to be somewhere by a specific time did we actually undersand what it meant. If you intend to be somewhere by a specific day, give yourself several extra days for weather and boat issues, and if you really can not miss it, have a Plan B, like getting there by land, for example, if needed.

• Marinas (Slips, fuel and pump outs)

We were lucky to have our boat docked on a floating dock behind our house in Virginia. Unfortunately, it didn’t really give us a lot of experience pulling into a slip with other boats around or having to tie knots around fixed docks. Fortunately, all the marinas so far have had floating docks, but we expect more fixed docks as we continue.

When going to a marina, we found it very helpful to find out as much detail as you need to effectively dock your boat. Where exactly is the slip? Can you use google earth to see it before you get there? Will it be to your port or starboard? Will you be able to pull in or have to back into it? Port or starboard tie up? Will there be wind or current to deal with? If you need fuel or a pump out, do that first, then walk over to see your slip if you can. It will make docking much easier. Oh, most Cruisers tip the dockhand $5 for helping you dock your boat in the slip and / or the fuel dock or a pumpout.

• If staying at a marina, the monthly slip is the way to go.

Anchoring is an awesome experience. We had intended to anchor out 4-5 Days, then stay at marinas 2-3 Days a week. However, we soon learned that transient slip rates by the day can get very expensive fast. Consider getting a slip for the month. You’ll save a lot, but more importantly, you’ll to get to know the area, meet fellow cruisers and with less time travelling, more time enjoying what you enjoy doing.

• Maintenance isn’t bad; repairs can be demoralizing.

Checking your engine before you run each day is a must, and at first, it can be very intimidating. But soon, you get into a routine and everything becomes so simple….unless you find something broken that needs to be repaired. For us, it seemed like it was a constant battle, finding one problem after another. Each repair or maintenance work that needed to be done, wasn’t really a big deal. However, having so many issues come up, all within the first few weeks has been very demoralizing. We have been lucky to have been able to do most of the work ourselves so time delay and costs involved in having mechanics schedule the work, hasn’t really been too much of an issue. We have had nights when we couldn’t sleep or mornings waking up with that sinking feeling (not literally), worried in anticipation of what might break next.

We have an old boat with an old engine. Most of the engine parts were rebuilt or replaced by the previous owner. Fortunately, the problems we’ve had so far have been on the parts that weren’t rebuilt or replaced, worn out due to age and recent heavy use, or something we broke in the process of fixing something else. Cruisers often call this the “shake down cruise”. Apparently, even boaters with brand new engines on brand new boats experience issues. To cruisers the phrase “It’s a boat” sums up the feeling that on boats, something always needs to be done.

On the bright side, we are now experienced to troubleshoot and fix problems relating to fuel fIlters, alternators, coolant hose leaks, fuel tank leaks, fuel hose leaks, glow plug solenoid failure, starter failure, water pump failure, shaft log cracks, oil pressure alarm sensor failure, oil pressure sending unit failure and stuffing box leaks. To be honest, we never even knew what these things were before we started planning for this trip, so we’ve learned a lot! And of course, now we have the confidence that if any of these parts break down again, it won’t be a big deal at all to fix!

• Solar panels

We cruised from the Maryland/Virginia line on the Chesapeake Bay through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and most of Georgia and didn’t realize that our alternator was broken. It wasn’t until a rainy and cloudy week when we noticed the alternator wasn’t charging our batteries properly because our solar panels were doing the job! We have since replaced our alternator, but being able to cruise such distance on a mix of solar and shore power (when at marinas) was awesome!

• WiFi: non-existent at most docks; consider the Verizon Plan, no contract

We use our iPads to watch movies on Netflix and Amazon, surf the internet and listen to music, just like we do when we are at home. In addition, we also use our iPads for navigation and planning for our anchorages (or marinas) and our route. We have found Verizon’s unlimited plans for data to be the best for us. There’s no contract if you have your own device, so when we get back home, we can change or cancel our plans and turn our home WiFi back on.

• Provisioning

We spent over $800 on food and 6 cases of beer at Walmart before we left home. So far, we found that the beer was a good idea, but the 5 bins of packaged and canned food, might be a little over kill on the ICW. until we get to the Bahamas. With a little planning you can get to a grocery or farmers market pretty easily by walking, public transport or for a few bucks, with Uber. It is also very easy to rent a car and do a big Walmart trip if needed. Fortunately, for a little boat, we have a ton of storage (the benefit of having a trawler!). But, if space is limited, plan to have essentials on the boat, then supplement by weekly trips to get veggies, fresh meat, bread, etc.

• There’s never enough time!

We planned to catch up on projects while underway. We have hundreds of hours of video from our previous trips but never had time to go through them or edit. So why not work on them as we run for 6 – 8 hours on the boat? We didn’t want to!

There’s so much to see along the way down the ICW. If we worked on a project while the other was driving, we would be looking down and might miss out on enjoying a sunny day, seeing the marshes, a Creek, a boat, a house, a dolphin, or a pelican, an egret, a manatee, a cormorant, a sunset….

• The cruising culture

We have travelled a lot over the years and have never encountered a group of people like those in the cruising community: New acquaintances who invite you over for cocktails or a meal or a ride to the local grocery store. Neighbors who would go out of their way to take you on a tour of the area, jump into the engine box to help you figure out what’s going on or find a candle for an impromptu birthday celebration. Fellow boaters we met along the way later hosted dinners or a get together for us as we made it down to their home port. The other day, we met a former cruiser while shopping at a local grocery store. As soon she found out we were Cruisers, she immediately offered to give us a ride back to the boat because she knows what it’s like.

It’s not just Cruisers. It’s also the mechanics such as Al’s Mobile Service in Palm Coast Fl or Steve at Zimmerman’s in Southport, SC who have each spent 45 mins – an hour looking over the boat and giving us guidance and help, all for free. Last, but not least, it’s people like Brian at American Diesel who has already spent hours on the phone with us trying to help us identify a replacement part, or to just be that calming voice on the other line when we needed it, who truly have made these last 60 days so touching.

The jury is still out….we are not sure if this lifestyle is for us full time, but it is our life today, and it’s sunny and getting warmer out, so time to go out and enjoy today!

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25 thoughts on “Our first 60 days on the ICW: Some lessons learned

  1. Such a great recap of those early lessons. We’re on our third trip down the ICW (in a sailboat) and enjoying seeing the U.S. close up. We’re on such a slow schedule we’re currently in Myrtle Beach hoping the ice is thin enough tomorrow so we can get moving south again.

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  2. Mary and Joe Whalen

    Thank you for sharing. We will be planning a trip down the ICW within the next couple of years from Maine. We have a 35′ Albin “Time for Two” . Your comments fueled our desire to get it done.

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  3. Tom Nolin, Stuart, Fl. former 40 NSC owner

    Sounds like you two are enjoying your time! A learning experiance for sure! My wife and I would be back at full time cruising if 1, we didn’t have to work and 2, we had an endless supply of $$$!!!
    It’s sooooo relaxing when all goes right….and fortunately all we had was scheduled maintenance to tend too. Just curious ….about how many do average in a day? We tried not to go over 45 or so….with the exception of going on the outside from NYC to Atlantic City, from AC to Ocean City ,MD and from OC to Norfolk. A few times we didn’t do much more 20-25 miles.
    Great reading ! Keep the updates coming!

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    1. Hi Tom! We are really lucky to have a small, efficient boat. Much cheaper to stay at marinas on a 27 foot boat and have only used about 150 gallons of fuel from Va to Florida. We ran 12 hour days our first week to make it to a scheduled event. It was really nice anchoring all the time, but it meant early morning engine checks daily and a shock on Mary Jo! Since then, we swore not to have schedules anymore and like you, discovered, that 30-40 miles (7 hours) is the most we want to do. Our last 3 stops were each less than 10 miles, actually! 😜

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      1. Tom Nolin, Stuart, Fl. former 40 NSC owner

        Awesome!! We stayed at a marina each night….though that was not our plan. Not familiar with the tides….we realized that 6-8 foot tide swings were everywhere! Many mornings we would take off and not far down the river we would see boats, anchored, on the hard, waiting for high tide. My wife and I decided that if we were to have a good nights rest…. we needed to be tided to a dock of some sort! A bit more expensive for sure….but worth a good nights rest!
        Our longest and most brutal day was from Ocean City to Norfolk…..Stayed in OC for 5 days waiting for Tropical Storm Sean to pass….the day we left they were predicting 3-5′ seas….which were better then the 8′-12′ seas the previous days. Unfortunately we had 5′ if not 7′ seas down to Norfolk . Waves crashing over our flybridge!!! Fuel consumpyion was outrageous! Our new 32′ flat screen was smashed….pictures off the wall and broken…glasses broken….as my wife said…a trip from Hell!!! But from Norfolk south….a wonderful, relaxing, beautiful trip…..and would do it again in a heartbeat!!
        Where are you now? Cold front coming thru this weekend….dipping back into the low 70’s….

        ENJOY!!!!

        Tom

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  4. Bobbi Clark

    I just ran across your posting. We were in Shelter Cove the same time you stopped overnight. I took a picture of your boat. We also have a 27ft Albin SC and I liked your setup. Our boat is also an older boat. We started out from western Florida and currently are still in Skull Creek HHI. The snow was not much fun on a boat. We are planning on heading south back down the ICW this weekend. Hope to see you sometime running the ditch.

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    1. December 3rd at Shelter Cove? We took a picture of your boat too! Was going to post on the Albin Forum, but just haven’t had a chance….small world! Yes, hope to see you on the ICW! Please keep in touch!

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  5. Ann Lacey

    Martina, love reading your blog posts! Glad to see you two doing well, and thank you for sharing your slice of heaven 🙂 For now, I have to live vicariously, but you two are certainly an inspiration!

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    1. Hi Ann, so great to hear from you! Yes, it’s certainly an experience…learning more each day. Today’s lesson: check the weather before drinking. Being hungover when the boat is rolling up and down due to weather is NOT fun! 😩

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  6. Bill and Cathy Conlyn

    3 boats ago she was a 27 Albin aft cabin, the last year of the beige colored boats. We cruised Baywacky all over the Chesapeake, but then went back to sail, we still have the Manta Clipper 34, one of three built. However Cathy said she could not cruise in Star Wars, so after working on boats all my adult life I said there was only one trawler for me, so we were lucky to have found Mari Jo a 49’ DeFever CMY in excellent condition ( with a stand up engine room ).
    We left Tracy’s Landing MD September 21 and are currently anchored by Chino Island near Ft Myers FL. This trip has been a blast. We ran the Mari Jo from the inside helm the whole way down the ICW and across Lake Okeechoobee and found my temporary helm chair to work superbly. We will be taking on passengers/friends for several upcoming legs shortly. I’m sure the fun will continue. I hope yours does too. Nice to here from someone with an Albin 27 making this trip and I like what was done to the open cockpit version.
    Happy cruising, Captain Bill

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    1. Hi Captain Bill. Sorry for the delay in responding. Yes, the sun finally came out, so we’ve been enjoying the beach! It sounds like you guys definitely know how to have fun! DeFevers are nice! Any chance you guys are MTOA members? If so, we will be at the Rendezvous in Ft Pierce this April….maybe we will see you there?

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  7. Jane Gammons

    I enjoyed your blog. We are MTOA Port Captains in N. Myrtle Beach.
    We have traveled the ICW three times on our upgraded 1973 Chris Craft
    28. Our trip was thwarted this year by a fire on the boat next to us in Harborgate
    Marina Dec. 30. We had planned to leave for FL in two weeks. The word came this week that our beloved boat is totaled due to heat that melted and warped the hull. Losing the loving craftsmanship that my husband rendered to transform the boat is heartwrenching.
    Now we are ready to take our Insurance settlement and reinvest in boating. (We were lucky to have a great survey that did us well in the settlement) There are many decissions to make. We need to move up footage wise to gain the amenities we had in place.
    I sit here in my home envious, on this rainy morning watching cruisers still heading south.
    You have made me homesick for the winter cruising life.
    I do agree about marinas, we found that a week or a month stay is the better rate. In some instances, we were given a rebate when we left before the month was up, but it was still cheaper than a weekly rate for three weeks.
    Our bikes take us on most of the errands.Having them in the way on the boat is made up by the flexibility they offer.
    Enjoy your adventure and if you travel back this way please be in touch. We are here to host, you and others who may read this entry.
    Will you be at the Trawlerfest in Stuart?
    Jane 252-675-3047 jane.gammons@gmail.com

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    1. Hi Jane, so sorry to hear about your boat! We have gotten attached to Mary Jo and could only imagine how you must have felt! No plans to be at trawlerfest, but definitely plan to be at the MTOA Rendezvous in April. Slips are sold out but if you come by car, we would love to meet you. Otherwise, we’ll be sure to say hello on our way back up. Thank you for being port captains…..knowing you are out there to help fellow MTOA members means so much to newbies like us!

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    1. Thanks Ronald! We enjoyed staying at the Marriott Hutchinson Island a lot! If you are local, maybe we’ll see you at the MTOA event next month. Be sure to say hello to the MTOA folks at the Trawlerfest booth for us!

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