The Ditch

The deadline for this column being April 15 it’s hard not to associate it with taxes, particularly the federal kind that are much in the news these days as the Obama administration does its best to spend its way out of our current recession/depression.

A newspaper headline in Morehead City, N.C., announced that that community would be the recipient of several hundred thousand federal stimulus dollars to build new slips along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) for transient boats. “Transients” are big business at Morehead, as snowbirds from Maine and other chilly places pass by, southbound in the fall, northbound in the spring, in their sailboats, trawlers and more elaborate vessels, all exploring the Atlantic ICW (and spending their money in the waterfront towns) as it meanders its way between Norfolk, Va. and Key West, Fla.

Over the past two months I’ve been working my way north along the Intracoastal Waterway from Florida to Maryland, and the idea of spending federal tax dollars to build some new town-owned slips at Morehead City doesn’t seem far-fetched.

The Intracoastal Waterway is an engineering marvel. Portions of it go back to the earliest days of the Republic, when workers, including slaves, dug canals connecting the Chesapeake and Albemarle watersheds, Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, and Florida’s Indian River with the marshy waters between it and that state’s barrier islands.

Most of the ICW, however, dates from the 1920s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was authorized by U.S. Congress to create a navigable waterway down the East Coast, and officially the waterway (although the miles aren’t actually counted north of Norfolk, VA) extends to the north end of the Cape Cod Canal and even into the Gulf of Maine. The idea, of course, was to provide a sheltered route for water-borne commerce, all the way down the East Coast. Large sections of the waterway, particularly in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, see considerable commercial traffic today.

As I said, it’s an engineering marvel, and anyone who questions the expenditure of federal dollars this way ought to see it firsthand. End to end, the ICW’s often narrow channel is delineated by markers, usually on tall poles-the water’s pretty shallow for most of the ICW’s length-set at distances determined by someone with eyes just like mine. Before I pass a marker I often can’t see the next one; just after I pass it the next one comes into view, virtually without fail. The markers are numbered, either red triangles (to starboard going south, port going north) or green squares (marking the opposite side of the channel). There are exceptions to these rules and you have to pay attention, of course: channels coming in from the ocean at the various “inlets” along the way are set in the customary red-right-returning manner no matter which way you’re headed on the ICW. Look at a chart; you’ll get the idea.

The Corps is charged with keeping the channel dredged, and with a few exceptions that are widely discussed along the ICW’s length it has done a good job. Dredging, as it is everywhere, is accomplished through a combination of dragline scooping from barges where the bottom’s muddy, and “suction dredging” when sand is pumped from one place to another. Everyone runs aground sooner or later (for most of the ICW’s length the depth is less than 10 feet) but if you watch your depth sounder and don’t pass a marker on the wrong side, your chances of running aground are less than you’d think. Of course if your boat draws nine or ten feet you can have a problem.

The ICW is crossed by bridges, most of them 65 feet high these days to accommodate sailboats, but there are still lots of older “bascule” or “swing” bridges that must be opened for boats with masts or high superstructures. A lot of these bridges operate on schedules that oblige boaters to wait until the top of the hour or sometimes longer; some simply open on demand; a few are problematical – like swing bridges that don’t open when the wind’s blowing over 30 knots-or when there’s construction underway.

Heading home this spring from my southern trip, I’ve just completed 400 miles on the ICW between Charleston, SC, and Norfolk, VA. I did it alone on my own boat, averaging 50 miles per day, stopping each night, for nine days. It was tiring and sometimes hard on the eyes and back (standing at the wheel for eight hours a day takes its toll) but I made it, thanks largely to the skill with which the Corps of Engineers built and has maintained the ICW. And there was a real bonus-for wildlife as well as me-in the design and placement of those channel markers.

A rough calculation tells me there are approximately 12 markers (sometimes more) for every five miles of waterway. Do the math: that’s about 2,400 markers covering 1,000 miles. On just about every one of those markers this spring, there was an osprey nest, sticks protruding in all directions, with a pair of birds sitting on their eggs or rearing their chicks. Conservatively, that’s well over 2,000 nests. The birds seem unafraid for the most part: even when my boat passed within a few feet, the nesting moms and dads stuck to their business. Picture-taking opportunities abounded; I got many chances to see these resilient birds (remember when DDT nearly wiped them out?) close up; all the while I thanked the Corps of Engineers for designing their markers to be such great nest platforms.

I remember thinking, as I passed nest number 300 (give or take) a while back, that the Corps is to ospreys on the ICW what clearcuts are to moose in the North Woods. Man’s capable of making a mess of things in some places, I admit, but in these two cases the animals have done pretty well.

Best expenditure of my tax dollars that I can think of!

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront. This past winter he worked on his post-retirement transition by leaving his snow shovel at home and sailing down the East Coast in the general direction of warmer weather.