by Lorraine Eaton
In downtown Norfolk, behind the battleship Wisconsin, a curious stretch of sidewalk beckons. Park benches line one side; the Elizabeth River fronts the other. In between, a swirly, twirly swath of magenta and mauve stretches from end to end.
No marker explains its significance, but sailors know it symbolizes the “magenta line,” a maddening, magical aid to navigation that on nautical charts marks the route of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway – a highway of sorts that runs from Boston to Key West, Florida. Think Interstate 95, but for boats.
Gaze across the river toward Portsmouth and you’ll see the reason for the location of the magenta sidewalk, a red buoy that marks Mile 0 of the southern stretch of the waterway.
Spring is one of the busiest times along the Intracoastal as snowbirds float northward after wintering in Florida, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands and beyond. In the fall, traffic reverses as a charm bracelet of sailboats, trawlers and yachts point south along swampy canals, coastal inlets, rivers, sounds, creeks and bays.
A couple of years ago, I struck a line from my bucket list and made the trip down and up “the ditch” aboard my sailing catamaran Watch This! The voyage from Norfolk to Fort Lauderdale took 25 days. The slow pace, while at times excruciatingly dull, allowed me to fully absorb the beauty of the southern Atlantic Seaboard and to muse at the waterway’s history. The length of the trip ensures that drama ensues.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway dates to post-Revolutionary War times when a contiguous inland route for shipping and national security was first proposed. The final segment, a 22-mile canal from near the North Carolina-South Carolina border, was finished in 1936.
Traveling south from Portsmouth, our industrial waterfront eventually gives way to a tea-colored alley flanked by cypress trees, their roots eerily exposed. It’s a stretch notorious for submerged hazards— and a great thud against the port hull of Watch This! resulted in an expensive haul out and repair in Fort Lauderdale.
Once, on the Alligator River in North Carolina at dusk in near gale-force winds, the boat’s pontoons disappeared into 5-foot swells, emerging to smash walls of water against the salon windows like a car wash. I prayed that the bridge tender would open the span so we could dock safely at a marina just on the other side. Thankfully, she did. Another time, somewhere near the Everglades, a fouled prop meant putting on a swim mask, clenching a knife in my teeth and diving under to free the debris.
Following that magenta line on a computer screen at the helm can also be a challenge with glaring sun, tide, current and wakes from passing vessels to contend with. Sometimes, right in the middle, it’s just not that deep. There’s a saying that if you haven’t run aground on the Intracoastal, you haven’t been on it.
But the magical moments remain most memorable. Like the first night at anchor, alone on a mirrored refuge at Tuckahoe Point. I sat on the stern, cracking open a cache of oysters — a bon voyage gift from friends — tossing shells and watching the circular ripples, tinged orange from the sunset, drifting toward the shore. Or the serendipity of docking at a marina in Beaufort, South Carolina, to find a national wooden-boat-building championship under way. Or jawing with shrimpers at a hardscrabble marina in McClellanville, South Carolina, or spotting Stiltsville, a national historical landmark on the edge of Florida’s Biscayne Bay.
For the next few weeks, local marinas and anchorages will fill with northbound transients spending a night or two. They’re easily spotted at restaurants and bars; look for out-of-season suntans and faded topsiders. Sailors love to talk to strangers, so say hi. Better yet, buy one a beer. No doubt they’ll have tales of their own to tell.