With most boat shows cancelled, except for the Ft Lauderdale International Boat Show in late October, there are safety concerns about the annual migration of cruisers to reach warm weather down south. In South Carolina, winter temperatures remain above frost levels so one can be considerably more comfortable than those who stay up north. Even though the past few winters have not been bad in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states, it is still appealing to be in sunny Florida during the winter, or Charleston, or Hilton Head, or so many other popular winter havens.

Most cruisers with boats that fit under the 65-foot bridge limitation along the ICW will choose that route to avoid being offshore. The ICW also offers many interesting places to stop for fuel, water, and food. The 1,100 miles between Norfolk and Key Biscayne are a grand tour of diversity in culture, cuisine, and people. It should be on every cruiser’s bucket list, at least once. And its contrast to West Coast boating is a draw for many Northwest cruisers. I have done it many times, and each trip has been a different and enjoyable experience.

(Seen below: A fun stop is the wonderful town of Beaufort, North Carolina which has great shopping, restaurants, and the NC Maritime Watercraft Center.)

Cruising By Boat To Beaufort NC

With Covid-19 still very much a factor, should one go south this year, or stay home? Six months ago, I would not consider it safe to make this trip. We lived in a chaotic world and the safest choice was to isolate at home. If you did get sick, you were near your doctor and known medical facilities.

But I feel differently today, as states continue to ease restrictions, allowing retail businesses to open, and restaurants, and some level of social gatherings based on continued monitoring of local data. There are still limits to seating capacity, but things are moving again as the numbers continue to go down.

Let’s consider the choice to go, say a couple on their cruising sailboat or trawler.

Being on a boat can be safe if everyone stays aboard. If the crew isn’t family, as long as everyone has completed a 14-day quarantine period, one can feel confident the trip begins free of the virus. However, once the boat stops for fuel, crew go off to buy groceries or eat ashore, some level of risk is introduced. Having said that, I believe this trip is doable for those who remain situationally aware, wash their hands regularly, and remain flexible to adjust their plans based on conditions they encounter.

(Seen below: Several yachts heading south that are tied up waiting to enter the Great Bridge Lock in Chesapeake, Virginia.)

boats waiting at the lock near chesapeake

Most marine facilities, fuel docks, and marinas are now open for business, and welcome transient cruisers heading south. The few that are closed, such as Southport Marina in North Carolina, were damaged by Hurricane Isaias.

There is a useful resource that uses a model created to provide the latest information in the aftermath of hurricanes. It is a joint project of the Waterway Guide, AGLCA, and DOCKWA. It is a directory of marina facilities, and presents each marina’s current situation, for the entire length of the ICW. Check out www.waterwayguide.com/covid-19-reports

Another helpful source of information, and which has daily activity, is the Facebook group, ICW Cruising Guide by Bob423. It is a closed group, but it is easy to join. It has many discussion threads about doing the trip this year, and details from people on the ICW. It is a wonderful example of what can be done with a social media platform.

(Seen below: A sign from the US Army Corps of Engineers along the Atlantic ICW shows the distance to various ports.)

Sign on the Atlantic ICW

Depending on your health, and other factors, such as age, heart, or any respiratory conditions, it is a personal decision to go or not to go.

Again, the most obvious reason to go south is to pursue warmer climate during the winter months, and to stay on a boat big enough to live on for an extended period. Living in a marina for several weeks or months is also a great way to check out an area, as we have discussed in a previous article. (Read: A Boater's 3-to-5 Year Plan)

So, if the draw of a winter down south is strong, and you feel confident you can minimize risk by following common sense practices before and during the trip, then it is my opinion that it is reasonable to make the trip this year.

Wear a mask whenever you dock the boat or stop for fuel. Always wear a mask when you go ashore, except when seated for a meal. You will be traveling for weeks or months and meet hundreds of people who are all dealing with the coronavirus differently. Some wear masks, some do not. Some take safety precautions seriously, others do not.

When planning a day on the ICW, whether it is a run of 40 or 70+ miles, make it a point to check ahead for stops that offer outside dining facilities if you plan to go ashore for a meal. Inside dining in restaurants with inadequate ventilation are some of the riskiest places to get infected. Stay away.

A recent study by Johns Hopkins (reported September 12th), provides hard evidence to better understand the risks about behavior. What is most meaningful to me is that the study used real world data from people rather than statistical models.

(Seen below: Nimbus makes a safe, well-built cruising boat perfect for the ICW. The 405 Flybridge below offers a great place to drive and enjoy the view.)

nimbus boats 405 flybridge

One proven factor is frequency. If one occasionally goes to the grocery store, say once or twice a week, there is significantly less risk than people who shop every day or so at the same store. The differences in risk are measurable, based on actual data.

The other relevant factor coming out of the Johns Hopkins study is that people who practice strict outdoor social distancing have only a 10-percent chance of becoming infected over those who don’t, and people who frequent inside dining, enclosed malls, and public transportation are four times more likely to get infected with the virus.

That is powerful information and blends perfectly into our planning for this trip.

There are lovely places to eat outdoors in such places as Beaufort, South Carolina. If you would rather eat aboard, most restaurants now offer online ordering with pickup service, some even deliver. Use online resources, such as www.tripadvisor.com, to identify potential restaurants for onsite dining. The website has filters for “Restaurants taking safety measures,” and even better, “Outdoor Seating.” Patio dining is preferred.

(Seen below: Beaufort, SC is a wonderfully quaint town with several restaurants with outdoor dining patios.)

boating near beaufort sc 

Take advantage of online shopping and curbside delivery, some to the marina. Reducing the risks whenever possible is the best strategy for staying safe.

Boats that are self-sufficient can spend a good part of the trip anchored out. That is the safest way to travel, staying together on the boat, away from contact with others. Even a raft of a few boats is safe if everyone stays aboard their boat or maintains social distance.

Stock up with masks and hand disinfectant for the trip. Those single-use masks were not manufactured for extended use, and ear straps tend to come apart at the most inopportune times.

I would provision the boat differently than in previous years, when I really looked forward to eating ashore as I traveled through our diverse country. Local cuisine is one of the highlights of the trip for me. One year we had a theme to determine who served the best shrimp and grits, which turned out to be a tie between Fishy Fishy in Southport, and the Driftaway Café within walking distance from Isle of Hope Marina in Savannah.

This year I would provision as much food and consumables before I left, rather than planning to stop every few days to resupply as I work my way south. The Johns Hopkins study validates that it is best to reduce the number of shopping trips.

(Read: Provisioning Your Yacht - Alaska Edition and Provisioning Your Yacht - Bahamas & Caribbean)

In addition, what happens if you are forced by some circumstance to self-quarantine for 14 days on the boat? Rather than approaching this possibility like an item in the abandon ship bag, never likely to be needed, do not fall into a trap of just buying 42 cans of Spam to serve that function in an emergency. You will be distressed enough stuck on your boat, let alone eating boring food, so show some creative imagination and stock food ingredients that will make cooking fun and produce great meals. You will have the time to cook, after all.

(Seeb Below: Youtube is a treasure chest of good cruising videos. This is a timelapse video from user Technomadia going from Miami to Jacksonville.)

All the guidelines say to wash your hands before returning to your boat. When I think about that, I realize I wash my hands after filling my water tank, handling dock lines, refueling, and after pumping out my holding tank. Handling anything on the outside of the boat usually leaves my hands slimy, so I wash my hands before I start the engines to get under way. So, it is not a big stretch to include hand washing after paying for overnight dockage in the office, or any other activity conducted off the boat.

The goal is to keep the virus out of the boat, as it is your escape pod, the “bubble” that keeps you safe.

I hope I have made a good case for making this trip south as safe as possible, while still allowing it to be the adventure it is.

Now for some other useful comments about traveling the ICW.

Covid-19 or not, avoid turning the trip into a delivery. Many of these small towns, and certainly all the larger cities, have much to see and do, and will certainly fill an afternoon of walking the streets and window shopping. To the extent that you feel comfortable, these retailers are all looking for your business so most will go out of their way to make shopping in their stores safe. It is healthy to get off the boat, after all, while maintaining social distancing. Successful cruising is about keeping a balance.

One experienced couple told me they travel for two days, then take a day off. It keeps them feeling fresh and out of that delivery mindset where one quickly forgets where they have just been. What day is it and where did we stay last night? That is not fun. If you are paid to deliver the boat, that is one thing. The rest of us are pleasure boating.

For sailboats, this relaxed approach is harder to embrace, especially if the cruisers are coming down from Canada or New England. It will take a month or more to get to Florida, running at five knots for eight to ten hours each day. That is tiring day after day. One year I took my boat to Florida and came upon a sailor driving his sailboat at five knots approaching the Rock Pile in Myrtle Beach. He was alone in the middle of the channel, and he must have been in a coma from long days of travel down from Montreal (his hailing port). He was not listening to the radio or checking his six, so I hit my very loud Kahlenberg horns to get his attention so he would move over, and I could safely pass on his port side. I must have sounded like a big commercial tug, as he jumped at the blast from these horns. I felt sorry for the guy as he still had such a long way to go to reach Florida, if that was his destination.

Such slow-speed, long-day travel is quite different from a Downeast cruiser that cruises at 15 knots. Without a flybridge, it can clear most bridges, so an eight-hour day gets the crew well over 100 miles down the waterway, even considering no wake zones and other obstacles to speed. And there will be times when speed is not possible. Traffic bottlenecks waiting for bridge openings, manatee zones, even getting stuck behind a small cruise ship running a series of narrow ranges in Georgia.

(Seen below: The downeast-style Legacy Yachts 36 offers high-quality construction, excellent performance, and comfortable cruising accommodations.)

legancy yachts 36 

Another couple I know leaves as early as possible, always before 0700, and run at cruising speed all morning. They plan to stop for the day a little after noon in the early afternoon, which gives them plenty of time to refuel, wash the boat and enjoy the marina and town, and take a nap. A six-hour run at 25 knots eats up miles. They also try to learn about upcoming festivals or local celebrations that might coincide with their schedule, and they often plan their travel to enjoy these events. That may not be as relevant today with so many group gatherings cancelled.

I planned to list my favorites places to stop along the ICW when heading south, but it is hard to trim the list down, and you need to find your own favorites. Each trip is so different, the weather and waterway conditions are never the same, and the boats and people we meet create unplanned stops and may include traveling in the company of other boats.

Even though my description of doing this trip in 2020 may sound like an exercise in traveling isolation, I can tell you with confidence you will meet some great people, no matter how much you stay in your cruising bubble. It is just the nature of cruising.

And that aspect of cruising will never change, pandemic or not.

Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles by Bill Parlatore: