Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Charleston to Beaufort SC, Details of the Waterways

I thought it might be interesting for me to describe in some detail the route between Charleston and Beaufort that weaves through the waterways. For me, navigating these inland channels is like hiking through varied terrain on land.

Our journey begins in Charleston Harbor where we cross the Ashley River to enter Wapoo Creek. We cross under the fixed James Island Expressway Bridge and make our way as slowly as we can towards the Wapoo Creek Highway Bridge so as to arrive for its first scheduled hourly opening of the day at 9:30. Wapoo Creek is highly developed, lined with nice homes and private docks, fairly busy with small boat traffic even on a weekday morning.

We arrive much too early, contact the bridge tender on VHF Channel 09 to let her know we're waitng and provide our boat name and home port, and then kill time by slowly motoring back the way we came, turning around and slowly motoring back. The bridge finally opens, a swing bridge where the moveable span rotates on a central pier to open up a gap for us to pass through. We let the bridge tender know we're clear, thank her and wish her a good day. She wishes us well in reply.

We continue along Wapoo Creek for about a mile to enter Elliot Cut, which leads us to the Stono River. Cuts are channels dredged to connect two adjoining waterways. We'll go through several more today.

Stono River is huge compared to Wapoo Creek, a quarter mile wide of water with a half mile of flat marshland on either side making it appear even wider. The current is running strong in the direction we want to go, the cold wind blowing against it and us, producing a light surface chop. The water is brown, the color of cola with a hint of reflected blue sky. We start off heading north, then turn west as we round the top of Johns Island, the river gradually narrowing as we go upstream, yet the marshland on either side continue to create a sense of spaciousness. We're concerned about clearance under the John F. Limehouse Bridge as it's high tide, but the air draft boards tell us we have 66 feet of clearance, about two feet greater than expected, plenty of room.

We continue on for a couple of hours, gradually turning southwest to enter Wadmalaw Sound and then the Wadmalaw River, wider and deeper than the Stono. It's hard to figure out which is a main river and which is a tributary around here- tides dominate over river flows, the current flowing in both directions twice each day. Without aids to navigation, it would be hard to pick out the route of the main channel, easy to run aground in the many shoals and vast shallows. 

The Wadmalaw leads to the North Edisto River which ultimately empties into the Atlantic Ocean, but we turn off to continue westward on the much smaller Dawho River. Here we cross under our third and last fixed bridge of the day, again with some concern as the cruising guide reports only 63 to 64 feet clearance at high tide, not the charted 65 feet. We figure on having 65 feet and are pleasantly surprised to see 66 feet showing on the boards.

We turn southwest again to leave the Dawho and enter Watts Cut, a canal that connects us to the South Edisto River. Now the current is against us but the wind is behind us, the water the color of coffee with milk as we motor southwards for an hour until we turn right into the narrow, short Fenwick Cut, a quarter mile long connector to the Ashepoo River. The currents are strong at the entrance and exit of the cut and we have to be cautious of the shoals at each end, not cutting any corners.

We turn right again as we leave Fenwick Cut to head northwest on the Ashepoo for about a mile to turn left and head southwest into an unnamed cut and then turn right to head northwest again for a short distance on Rock Creek and then turn into the Ashepoo Coosaw Cutoff.

The Ashepoo Coosaw Cutoff is the most nerve-wracking part of our journey. It's low tide by the time we get there, the cut is shallow and narrow. The chart notes "severe shoaling" and that the Corps of Engineers "has no future plans for dredging due to budget restrictions." It's a bit risky navigating at low tide but the lowest depths are charted at 5 feet, Intermezzo draws 4 feet and, worst case, we run aground on mud and wait for the incoming tide to float us off.

I watch the depth sounder closely, we have mostly 7 to 8 feet of water, but we run through patches where the display goes from 6.6 to 6 to 5.5 feet- at which point I slow the boat down to a crawl - 5 feet, 5.5, 6, 6.5 - and I gradually speed up as the depth increases until normal cruising speed with 8 feet. This slowing down and speeding up, always trying to stay in the deep part of the channel, "feeling" my way along the sides, continues for a mile until the exit into the Coosaw River appears. As we leave the cutoff, the depth sounder shows 9 feet but then decreases quickly- 7, 6, 5, now 4.5 feet. I'm worried that we're not going to make it out and the river current is starting to push us sideways, I can't afford to slow down too much and lose steerage. I decide to put some way on, figuring that if I do touch bottom, I might plough my way through the soft mud into deeper water. The depth sounder shows 4.2 feet but we never bump bottom and the depth increases quickly afterwards as we enter the river channel and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Now we are heading west along the Coosaw, the widest of all of today's rivers. We're motoring into the wind and the current, the bright sun low in the late afternoon sky, producing sparkles and glare on the water surface. It's cold, blustery and I'm tired of navigating all the twists, turns, shoals and bridges. But we still have quite a few miles to go before we turn into the Bull River and then another two miles to the mouth of Wimbee Creek where we will anchor for the night. Fortunately, all the remaining water to travel is wide, deep and the channel route obvious.

We drop anchor in Wimbee Creek, but the day's boating isn't quite over yet as the bottom of the creek is scrabbly with shells and rocks and the anchor bounces around a bit before setting. We back down hard on the anchor to make sure it's set, place a waypoint on the chartplotter so we can monitor our movements during the night. The wind is blowing pretty hard and the current will reverse itself during the night. 

Finally, the day is done, 49 twisty-turny, windy, chilly nautical miles traveled.

Time for a well-deserved rum drink.