Nigel North
Sun 26 May 2013 14:21





Not really knowing how this trip up the Intracoastal  Waterway (ICW) was all going to go, Skipper was up and at it before dawn getting PW ready for its first inland waterways adventure.  Six lines coiled ready for throwing,  bow anchor unlashed ready for immediate deployment,  lightweight kedge anchor hanging on the pushpit at the stern in case of engine failure, and a load of chipolata sausages and bacon pre cooked ready in case of hunger, on the basis that you couldn’t take your eye off the road for long.   The ICW boasts a load of bridges nearly all of which give 65’ clearance – more than  enough for PW’s 47’ 1” mainmast.  A few bridges were 55’.  All the rest are either lifting bridges, or swivelling, or some other way of getting them out of the way, and they  open either to schedules -  usually every half hour  -  or on request.  So a VHF radio is a must, as you have to ask the bridgekeeper to open up.  If  you just sit there waiting for the scheduled opening without calling, it probably won’t open, as I witnessed just prior to arrival at my first.

Heavy American drawl: ‘Awkward Bridge this is Big Macho Man,  you gonna be opening for the 1115 schedool?’  (It was 1120)

‘Big Macho Man this is Awkward Bridge, the next opening will be 1145’.  Click. 

Long pause…

Irritated voice:  ‘I’ve been a waitin here fifteen minutes RIGHT BY your bridge!’  

‘Big Macho Man, I didn’t hear you make a call.  I’m not a psychic..’  Click.


Parker Bridge was to be our (PW and me) first, just round the corner from the anchorage at Lake Worth, and it opened at  :15min and  :45 min past the hour.  So I would up anchor at 0655 to catch the quarter past opening. 

The anchor, when it finally did release, brought with it 20kg of glutinous black  mud.  Well you can’t just hoik all that on board and leave it,  so I go aft and dig out the long handled brush from the lazarette, nearly fall in wetting it and start work.  It has little effect.  Right, so anchor back in the water and try that.  Getting better.  But it all takes a good five minutes and now I’m rushing, which I don’t want.  Rounding the corner I make my call.   ‘Parker Bridge this is the sailing vessel Pinball Wizard northbound, requesting an opening’. 

‘Pinball Wizard,  if you’re here at 0715 we’ll be open’.  Note the ‘if’,  the inference being it wont be open if we’re not. They mean it!   We just made it, and as just as the old chest filled with pride we ran aground.   Stopping 8 tons of boat doing 5 kts with sand is very exciting.    

 Now, the next  bridge was just over a mile away, and opened 15 minutes later – if you’re there.  So, we had to make a good 4 knots to make it, but we were late going through Parker so…get on down!  But you can’t just roar off at full speed as much of these waterways are ‘ NO WAKE!’  To make sure you can read, they are patrolled by river Police and the Coastguard with heavy fines for the illiterate.  We just made the PGA Bridge, with a squeaky voice running it. She sounded mean.  Phew!

After the corner by Lake Worth, the ICW turns due North dead straight for a couple of miles so I could relax a bit and take in the scenery whilst the autopilot did the work.    Either side attractive waterfront properties lined the route as you might expect being just north of Palm Beach, and the Waterway is pleasantly wide, unlike our canals back home.


I had half an hour to get to the next one -  Donald Ross Bridge -  2.5nm away.  Therefore 5 kts speed over the ground should do it and it worked out perfectly. Getting the hang of this mental DR – Alfie would be proud of me.  So far so good!  I was beginning to get cocky..

A mile or so further on I thought I saw something in the water ahead.  Manatee!  I REALLY wanted to see one of these gentle prehistoric beasts.  Seacows they call them.   But it wasn’t.  It was, unbelievably, two dolphin on their holidays, like me taking a break from the ocean.   I had slowed down anyway as the next bridge – Indiantown Road bridge -  needed 6.5 knots to make it at least,  too fast in a no wake zone.  Anyway, I’m in no rush and settled for a later opening giving me an hour to do 3.3 nm.  So let me think….one hour to do 3.3nm, oh yes!  Must be 3.3 kts I need!   Keep it simple stupid.    So I get there with time to spare and just sort of stop well short and drift in the light airs. Presently a  powerful motorboat comes roaring up the other way, wow he’ll catch it. Being a friendly sort of chap I wave at the driver who really was dressed like a Boy Scout , and the State Law Enforcement Officer, to give him his due, after ensuring no one was watching,  waved back self-consciously.  I’ll swear he mouthed ‘Goddam Limeys’.   Mind you, everyone seeing the Blue Ensign on the back thinks I’m an Australian.  Brits have a red flag, right? 


We were approaching Jupiter Inlet – where the ICW accesses the sea – which is a big Z bend for the ICW.   The approach is quite disconcerting as all you can see ahead is a massive and clearly impenetrable bridge that you’d be lucky to get a dinghy through, but the Waterway turns right in the nick of time and ahead appears the grand sounding Federal Highway Bridge, which opens on request, the book said.  I requested politely, and was told to keep on coming, up went the bridge, no worries.  Round the next corner lay another – Jupiter Highway Br – also by request.  As I rounded the corner I made the call and promptly ran aground in the silt brought in by the Inlet.  We stopped dead. 

‘PINBALL WIZARD if you want the bridge to open you’d better GET UP HERE!’ 

‘Doing my best’ I said lamely, in full reverse.  ‘Ran aground’.  What the hell, he knew that.  People must always be running aground here.  Just fun to hustle right?   I would too!


There were no more bridges for another 8 nm as we headed north along the  rural Jupiter Sound with Jupiter Island on the right between us and the sea.  Then  Jupiter Sound becomes Hobe Sound with the Hobe Bridge to contend with, but we  went straight through, although managing to run aground twice more along the way.  But by now I had calmed down about it, as it was just sand or mud and hopefully harmless, unlike the Bahamian Bank.  But little did I know it was about to get worse.  Much worse.


The next major event was to be the St Lucie River which meanders eastwards from the huge shallow Okeechobee Lake to the sea, exiting at the St Lucie Inlet, and crossing the  ICW.  This is called ‘the Crossroads’ and is an extensive area of flat water, most of which is very shallow.  It is also very busy.  It was at the Crossroads that I had to turn westbound up the St Lucie River, then on to the St Lucie Canal to take us to Indiantown – 20 nm inland and close to  Lake Okeechobee .   Kevin the Kanadian had said of this area that it was ‘a bit dodgy’ and warned of a shoal area (shallow) right at the start of the river passage.    So I was very careful indeed not to cut corners and to position the boat smack in the middle of the marked channel.   I think we got about 50 yards before going aground.  Big time.  And the more I tried to get out of it, the shallower it got. 


‘HI CAPTAIN’ bellowed the skipper of the bright red TowBoatUS motor vessel now orbiting PW.

‘Can I be of assistance?’  

‘Naah’ I replied stubbornly.  I got into this mess, I’ll get us out I was thinking.

He didn’t give up. 

‘Are you a BoatUS member Captain? 


I then got the sales talk for joining. 

‘You know if we tow you out and you’re not a member its $260 an hour, minimum one hour, plus this, plus that’…my mind trailed off and tried to concentrate of getting out of here…’but if you join its $160 for a whole year and on…and on…’  Reversing wasn’t doing any good,  we were getting shallower if anything.  I tried ‘wagging’ the keel by going ahead and turning full lock to full lock.  This helped. 

He was still there.  ‘If I were you Captain, I’d go to anchor and wait for high tide.  High tide’s at 6’.   ‘Oh‘ I said. ‘According to my chartplotter its 1430,’  as PW finally started freeing off.  He shook his head.  ‘Nope.  Definitely 6.  That’s wrong’.   He showed me where to anchor – just off the very busy Inlet, swept by wake constantly.  I told him I’d try again around 5 pm, and this time he gave me an offer.  ‘If you get stuck, I’ll get you off for $100 cash’.   ‘Ok’ I said.   

 ‘ Start in the middle then keep close to the north of the channel, its deeper there’ he revealed. 


Later, sitting rather self consciously just off the mainstream at anchor as powerboats screamed past staring, as I pondered what to do, it occurred to me that this information he’d given me about the best channel might be wrong – deliberately.  Maybe he needs the business.   I got all my books out and read everything again, and found what I was looking for.  It too advised staying close to the northern edge of the channel to get over a sandbar in the entrance.  That’s where I got stuck.  Then I read that the tidal range was only one foot anyway, and hardly worth waiting for.  After nearly an hour of being battered by wake I decided to go now whilst the tide was on the flood, and see if I could get past.  Another six inches of tide would not get me through where I got stuck anyway, so it had to routeing.   I stuck a detailed route in the chartplotter based on this information and uphauled the Rocna.   


Everyone else was charging past  as I slowly chugged along the edge of that channel at 2 knots.  Gradually it got deeper until we were in 3-4 metres.  Whoopee!!!  Good ole Pinball! I had really been doubting whether PW could get up the St Lucie, but now hope returned.


We had now left the ICW – which continued northwards along Indian River just inside the coast – and were motoring up the ‘Okeechobee Waterway’, which followed the inverted U shape of the St Lucie River around the town of Stuart, then into the St Lucie Canal.  The river is really an estuary half a mile wide, increasing to a mile for the top of the ‘U’, with a dredged channel  marked by occasional red or green posts.  

Just before the river turns south again there are three bridges – the huge Roosevelt Br with 65’ clearance,  an opening railway br, and the Dixie Highway Br also opening, all in the space of a few hundred yards.   It was just before here that I again encountered a pair of dolphin.  

The railway bridge is only closed when it needs to be, and it was, but after a 5 minute wait it opened followed by the Dixie Br at my request.  You need both open as they are very close to each other. 

Now we were heading south down the South Fork of the river,  all of which is very shallow but ok inside the marked channel.   That is, until we came to a very narrow part of the channel marked by posts either side about 100 yards apart.  We stuck.  The depth guage was showing 1.0 metre even though we were in the centre of the channel, and reduced to 0.9m as we struggled to get out again – PW needs 1.2m on the gauge. 

Reversing was just making it worse.  Once again I tried ‘wagging’ the keel, but it took 30 minutes to break free and backtrack to slightly deeper water.  Wow, this was serious.  I really didn’t think we were going to make it past this really shallow bit, clearly undredged for some time.   I considered replanning to find a marina downstream of this bit.   Not easy now, with no wifi, but there were a few small looking marinas along the banks but none of them had any boats hauled out.   

I decided to give it another try, this time hugging (toss a coin) the green post (kept to port here).  Approaching at very  slow speed so as not to ramp PW up onto any shallow bits,  the depth guage once again read 1.0…but we were still moving.  Just.  Then 1.1.   1.0   1.1 Still moving.  Come ON PW!  You can do it! 


And that’s how we slid upstream back into a little deeper water.  There were to be no more groundings. 


A mile after this we entered the broad, deep St Lucie Canal and relaxed – no more silting up to deal with – and passing increasingly opulent properties either side, arrived finally at the St Lucie Lock basin.  It was 6pm,  we’d done 35nm since 7am with no stops other than waiting for a bridge. 

Enough!  I would anchor here for the night and do the final 12nm to the marina tomorrow.

‘St Lucie Lock, this is the sailing vessel Pinball Wizard, northbound’. 

‘Pinball Wizard’ , St Lucie Lock,  enter on a green light’.  And with that a large gush of water erupted from the lower gate as he started  to empty the 250’ lock for us.  Oh NO!  

‘This is Pinball Wizard. NEGATIVE!!  We just want to stay here tonight and continue first thing tomorrow, over’. 

The gushing stopped. 

‘Ok, anchor on the north side’.  30 minutes later he was on his way home, and I was left in peace at the bottom.   No tides here, no current to talk of,  just a few yards from the bank.  Dinner!  Later a motorboat joined me and dropped anchor too. 


0700 next day, another beautiful day,  and both our boats are up anchored and ready.  A guy on a skiff was expertly throwing a weighted net to catch a manatee to keep it out of harms way.  He didn't succeed in catching it.   I called first on VHF #13  and were given the same instructions as before. 

Its funny this, but I had quite often ‘done’ a lock or two singlehanded whilst on the Navy’s ‘Pussers Rum’ narrowboat, and others,  when H had had enough of locking up and down.  She didn’t like to steer.   But they were small locks compared to this, and there was room for a third boat ahead of me when the Lockmaster called for me to  stop, so I was OK about it.  Stout ropes  dropped on deck saving me the trouble of using mine, and we were soon on the way up, with the other boat immediately behind.   I took some pics,  my love of locks being undiminished, and finished up with a pic of the boat behind. 

The girl on the foredeck shouted something at me. 

‘WHAT?’  I said, cupping an ear.  Too much engine noise. 

‘Took one of you too’ she said, louder. 

I suppose PW must have looked  a bit out of place with its solar panels sticking out, wind generator, danbuoy, and MOB recovery kit in this world of  3 storey powerboats.


12 miles to go.  The canal is beautiful.  Herons stalk the shallows, heads high.   Fishermen move silently in skiffs at very slow speeds.   They are not using their outboards, but  specially adapted bolt on electric motors on the bow - where one of the two occupants sits in a proper chair fishing out front.  Clever!  The same form of propulsion that Abes demonstrated on his little coracle back home.  Perfect for fishermen, they are almost silent.

3 knots.

I could go a lot faster, but 3 knots was perfect.   Why go faster?  I asked myself why I wasn’t going faster and the answer was I didn’t want to arrive.  For then the adventure would be over, for now at least, and I didn’t want it to be over, not just yet anyway.

So, 3 knots.   

Its surprising just how quickly you get somewhere when you don’t really want to.   I’d stretched a 2 hour journey into four but it was still too quick. 

Under the bridge, they said to call the marina.

No answer. 

Try again.  No answer.  Well it is Sunday..

Suddenly the VHF comes to life and I respond.   ‘ Pinball Wizard...requesting a refuel first then a slip.  I’m two days early’.    Another boat – a fifty footer - coming up fast behind me, joins in.

‘Am I to understand that I am to wait now until Pinball Wizard has taken fuel first?’  

‘That would be helpful’ the marina replies.   50 footer sulks.   He would have cut in front given half a chance, but we just pipped him to the post.  Tough luck mate!


So that was that. 


We took the fuel  – it takes  a long time as I have to use a funnel, which will not have pleased the 50 footer – and then very carefully nosed into the next slip to HOPE, with no sign of Kevin and Velma.   INDIANTOWN MARINA was to prove a very friendly, easy going and pleasant location to see out the hurricane season, with fish that leap 2' out of the water, various turtles including the fast moving softshell turtle, and its very own 10' alligator that suns itself right opposite the boats. I have yet to see a Manatee.  The hope is that being 20 miles inland, if a hurricane were to hit here it would have lost some of its power over the land.  Neither would there be a huge tidal ‘surge’ – usually far more devastating than the wind damage – as this is a canal.  If the level increased it would not affect boats laid up much. 

Fingers crossed! 


So, this blog is suspended until 3 October 2013 when it will burst back into life.  Writing it, far from being a chore, has become increasingly important to me – I have no idea why.  That anybody bothers to read it is a constant source of amazement to me,  but to those that have, thankyou.  Your encouragement is very much appreciated.  Now look forward very much to hanging out with family and friends this summer.  See ya!










1.       Six months at sea since relaunching PW in CHAGUARAMAS, Trinidad, almost exactly.

2.       COUNTRIES VISITED:   12


                              BEQUIA,  St Vincent and the Grenadines

                              ST LUCIA




                              SINT MAARTEN

                              BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS

                              US VIRGIN ISLANDS

                              TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS

                              BAHAMAS:    EXUMAS

                                                       NEW PROVIDENCE ISLAND

                                                      BIMINI ISLANDS

                              FLORIDA USA


3.      CREW this season:   Big bro STUART ,  KRISHA, REBECCA , ALI, ABES and NICK.    A HUGE thankyou to each of you for making this journey  so much more pleasurable and memorable – you were the best bit by far. 


4.      DISTANCE SAILED FROM TRINIDAD:  2014 nm  Average speed 4.9 kts.

         TOTAL DISTANCE SAILED FROM UK:                7390 nm  Average speed 5.0 kts.



         WORST:            PROVO, TURKS and CAICOS; 


6.      WHAT BROKE:   Ipod,  laptop (hardrive), No2 Genoa (split seam), No1 Genoa (snapped boltrope),  forestay reefing foil (separated section),  fridge (lack of coolant), cooker oven  door, windvane steering rudder (snapped),  heads piping (replaced), cabin fan (loose wire), 

7.      HIGH’s:  Beach hopping on St Johns.  Setting off for new destinations.  Crew arrivals. Wink

8.      LOWs:    Paying ripoff fees (Turks & Caicos,  Bahamas);  Hitting the Trash Bin; Frown

9.      SCARIEST MOMENT:  Finding a lot of water in the bilgeYell

10.      FUNNIEST MOMENT:  Crew trying to start the outboard.  Sealed

11.       BEST BITS:  Sunsets at anchor.  Breakfasts in the sun.  Swimming in 29deg off the boat.  Having time to think.  Having crew. Cool

12.       WORST BITS:   Decommissioning PW at the end. Cry