Our First Time Cruising Down the East Coast (NC to FL): Top 3 Lessons Learned

This cruising season proved very different for Phillip and me.  For our first nine years cruising, when we headed out for offshore voyages, Phillip and I, aboard Plaintiff’s Rest, had always left out of our home port of Pensacola, FL and either shot straight across the Gulf of Mexico down to the Keys (or straight to Cuba in 2016!) or dotted our way down the west coast stopping at some of our favorite ports along the way: Port St. Joe, Apalachicola, Tarpon Springs, St. Petersburg, Venice, etc. before ending at Key West/Stock Island and eventually the Bahamas.  When we weren’t traveling south, Phillip and I usually spent our weekends at local anchorages around Pensacola Bay: Ft. McRee (our favorite), Little and Big Sabine, Red Fish Point, and sometimes over to Ingram’s Bayou and the Wharf for longer in-shore cruises.  This year, however, we started our cruising season very far from home—in Annapolis, MD—and cruised, for the first time, down the east coast of the U.S.  It was no more sleepy, Forgotten Coast towns. We were in the big shipping lanes, making the same trek all the east-coasters do on their way down to palm trees and margaritas.

What did we learn along the way?

  1. The anchorages are far smaller and more crowded;
  2. The tides play a much bigger role in navigating inlets, docking, even anchoring; and
  3. The diversity of cities, restaurants, and history to explore makes it all well worth it.

Lesson One: Smaller, Crowded Anchorages

Phillip and I (and likely many other Pensacola cruisers) just didn’t know how good we had it in Pensacola.  Aside from Ft. McRee on a Blue Angels weekend, there would often only be 3-4 boats in a spacious, good-holding anchorage during the week, maybe 10-15 boats on a typical weekend.  We’d have our pick of locations within the anchorage and typically throw out 125 feet of chain no matter the weather, simply because we could.  Why not, right?  Boy, those times were grand.  This year, those times were gone.

Sailing down the east coast in late-October into November is not a lonely jaunt, I will say that.  You’ll have lots of company.  Every other cruiser who is hopping down toward the islands is often making the same stops you are.  Which means you’re all looking for similar weather windows and often moving (and landing) at the same time.  These are the stops we made along the way (and we found them typical for many cruisers headed down the east coast). 

When Phillip and I and UbiQ rounded Hatteras and pulled into our first anchorage after the Chesapeake—Beaufort, NC—we knew immediately space was a thing of the past.  There were 15 other boats jammed up on the east side of the river with us. 

We could only put out about 75 feet of chain in 15-ish feet of water (a ratio that is much lower than our usual, but required) to ensure a safe swing radius.  Then a three-day blow came through Beaufort that had us all twirling and dancing.  The new Hylas 54 from the Annapolis Boat Show came in the evening we arrived and had to re-anchor several times before he found a spot he could squeak into, but that made everyone around him a bit uncomfortable.  “At least I know he has good insurance,” Phillip joked.  Unfortunately, it was not the typical, spacious setting we are used to on anchor.  Any time we were sitting below and saw a mast move by our port light, Phillip and I both would jump up and look about to make sure we weren’t getting too close to anyone.  I often spent my work days aboard sitting in the cockpit or up on the galley counter simply so I could see out at all times to make sure we weren’t getting too close to anyone, or that anyone wasn’t getting too close to us.  It wasn’t exactly peaceful. 

Wrightsville Beach was bigger and better, but the anchorage by the Yorktown in Charleston was a little tight and required us to re-anchor and move after we started swinging too close to a boat that had anchored there before us.  (P.S. That is boat code: if you dropped last and the boats get close, YOU have to weigh anchor and move.)  Thankfully, we had Cumberland Island all to ourselves (I don’t believe many people stop there, although it was one of our absolute favorites – more on that little gem later on the blog).  But, in Lake Worth (West Palm) and Lake Sylvia in Ft. Lauderdale?  We could see what our anchor neighbors were having for dinner each night.  We could hear their morning chats over coffee.  We knew their backgammon score.  It was … tight.  I didn’t like that at all about east coast anchorages, but it was just our new reality.  We had numerous near-misses, many mandatory re-anchorings (some at night), and even an unfortunate collision (with an unmanned boat) in West Palm (more on that later, too, with several important lessons learned). 

What was worse?  The boats all seemed to have a mind of their own.  In Pensacola, we were used to anchoring in “somewhat tight” anchorages—on occasion—but it was much easier to gauge space and a safe swing radius when all the boats fell back on their anchor in the same manner and all swung together—like a well-synchronized dance—in the same fashion when the tide or wind shifted.  But, when they don’t?  When one boat can ride all the way up its 75 feet of chain while yours pulls back all the way on its?  When the guy next to you has his bow pointed at your hip, and the gal behind him has her stern into the wind?  The anchorage turns to chaos. 

An 8-boat raft-up in Lake Silvia, Ft. Lauderdale

This unnerving phenomenon opened our eyes to the next important lesson we learned while coming down the east coast.

Lesson Two: Dangerous, Dictating Tides

In Pensacola, we never rarely even thought about the tide.  There was always enough depth to navigate any channel or cut that was required and travel to any anchorage we wanted to go to.  While we could sometimes feel the current when swimming or paddling, whether the tide was going in or out never entered our minds when anchoring.  It simply didn’t matter.  And, although we were aware of the slight current when docking, it was always out shadowed by the wind and we never envisioned a time when we would need to plan to dock or de-dock only at slack tide.  It was also a rare day where we had to plan an offshore voyage specifically to arrive at an inlet not simply in daylight, but at a specific hour to ensure entry with an incoming tide (St. Augustine requires this).

Much like spacious, deep anchorages, such gayeties became a thing of our past.  In certain marinas along the way (Charleston and St. Augustine come to mind), the currents are so swift and powerful, the dockmaster will not allow you to come in when it is not slack tide.  They accomplish this by not telling you your slip number until close to slack tide to ensure you make a safe entry.  Leaving at slack tide is also highly encouraged, but with help freely offered from one, if not two, dockhands upon both entry and exit.  And, their precautions proved sound, particularly in Charleston, where the currents run 90-degrees to the slips, swift as a river, and are powerful enough to push boats around like toys. 

Although we didn’t stay at many marinas on our way down, it wasn’t simply to avoid the treacherous dockings.  This year, cruising on our Outbound 46, we have the luxury of living aboard a wonderfully self-sustained boat.  But, we also found the marinas were crowded as hell!  Many were booked for months.  “Try us in March” they would tell us over the phone … in November.  There were several times when we would have liked to have had a slip so we could wash the boat thoroughly and enjoy some AC and other step-off-into-downtown amenities.  But, the answer was “no.”  We simply could not get a slip because the east coast is so crowded.  Everyone is marching south in the same direction at the same time.  Booked-solid marinas took some getting used to. 

However, the tides and swift currents proved our worst enemy not at docks, but on anchor.  I still can’t get my head fully wrapped around it, but each boat responds differently to the pull of the current.  Some hull shapes (full keels in particular) are gripped and dictated by it, while others (often catamarans) did not see as much impact, particularly when the wind is a stronger force.  But, when the wind and tides opposed each other, the anchorage would look like a handful of boats had been dropped from the sky, each laying a different way.  Some cock-eyed, some laid side-ways to the wind, while others marched way up the entire length of their chain (UbiQ did this often), which was an odd sight. 

This unsettling reality made it sometimes impossible to determine, when an incoming boat dropped their hook near you, if they were “too close.”  Neither of us could answer that question without knowing what would happen a few hours down the road when the conditions changed.  Phillip and I quickly fell into the habit of dinghying around and dropping off our boat cards to all neighboring boats and telling them to call us if things in the anchorage got “funky”—a practice that proved invaluable later on (and helped us make many new friends, although that is startlingly easy to do out here). 

Many times we held a boat off while the owner weighed anchor and tried to find a safer place (some times that owner was us).  Many times we saw boats cinched together in an unintentional raft-up (not the best way to make a new friend).  Many times we saw owners pay out chain, or pull up chain, trying to avoid contact with another boat, often with the intended result being the exact opposite thing that happened.  Many owners kept fenders out all the time—a practice we first snickered at initially, thinking they had forgot to stow them, but then adopted ourselves for two purposes: 1) to hopefully prevent damage if contact is made; and 2) to remind everyone around that contact is often, if not always, possible.  We also now keep the dinghy down and ready to be maneuvered and wedged in as needed as a big-ass mobile fender anytime things got funky in the anchorage and contact seemed possible.  We avoided many unwanted contacts by wedging our (or another’s) dinghy between UbiQ and an approaching boat.

After an unfortunate encounter in West Palm—that resulted in multiple boat-to-boat contacts and gave UbiQ her first real cruising scars (bummer, but it happens)—Phillip and I decided the tight tidal funk of the anchorages was the most unfortunate aspect of cruising down the east coast.  Never in all our nine years of cruising had we had a collision while on anchor.  Then, in the matter of a few months, we had experienced many more than we would ever have liked, several resulting in scratches, gouges, and other damage, albeit fully repairable.  Even when there was no contact, we often had less peaceful evenings and nights aboard because we were constantly worried about other boats, popping up topside often during dinner, movies, midnight even, just to make sure everything was okay out there.  And, the worst part, was the only answer you could give was “for now, I guess.”  It was stressful.

But, the good news?  Even this unfortunate element of east coast cruising cannot and did not out shadow the extreme pleasantries and eccentricities only the historic, diverse east coast can provide, prompting Phillip and I—time and again—to highly recommend cruising the east coast despite the crowds and occasionally uncomfortable tides.  Why?

Lesson Three: A Diverse, Unparalleled Collection of History, Food, Art, and Entertainment

Given the crowded anchorages, the wicked currents and challenging inlets, and the occasional boat-to-boat contacts, would we cruise the east coast again?  The answer is absolutely!  In fact, we will be doing it this very summer as we make our way, this time, up the east coast to the northeast area (New York or Rhode Island perhaps) for hurricane season.  Phillip and I were awed and enamored by the history and culture we experienced all along the east coast. 

  • Beaufort, NC—with its quirky bars and sea glass and soap shops;
  • Wrightsville Beach—with its mesmerizing display of daily surfers of all skill levels;
  • Charleston, SC—with its impressive, stick-with-you history and horse carriage tours;
  • Cumberland Island—with the mind-boggling Dungeness estate, history, and wild horses;
  • St. Augustine—the second oldest settlement in the U.S. (Pensacola folks get it); 
  • West Palm Beach—with its monstrous sand sculptures and nightly light show;
  • Ft. Lauderdale—all the little canals, mega mansions, and the daily dock show at Raw Bar;
  • Miami (South Beach)—with restaurants of every ethnicity, Muscle Beach, bikinis, hair gel, and outstanding kitesurfing;
  • Marathon—with its tight cruiser community, memorable margaritas, and entertaining morning net;
  • all the way down to the funky, live-music and Bourbon-Street-vibe of Key West. 

Phillip and I went on many tours that taught me so much I hadn’t really soaked up about the history of our young country and our inspiring, bloody battles for independence from British rule.  We perused old forts, churches, apothecaries, and graveyards.  We took trains, trolleys, and carriages through these grand cities.  We gorged ourselves at a full gambit of eateries, ranging from food carts to five-star dining rooms.  We didn’t say ‘no’ to a single distillery tour (particularly those that included tastings : ) and even bought several hand-made tonics and sour mixes that elevated our cocktails to entirely new levels.  We watched plays at local theatres and absorbed gallery after gallery of eclectic art. 

We ate too much.  We drank too much.  We walked blisters into our feet.  We went through two pairs of flip-flops each.  We dinghied down canals, under bridges, and up to public parks and tied to trees.  And, we would do it all over again.  Every stop was new, which brought its own challenges and unknowns, but also its own fresh feeling of exploration.  Local intel proved invaluable, and necessary just about everywhere.  It was fun meeting new fellow cruisers, making friends, and getting that intel and then turning around and passing it onto the next incoming newcomer.  These anchorages and cities are well-cruised by many and have a wealth of experiences and new adventures to offer. 

While the crowded, tight anchorages do pose their own potential threat, they also make it incredibly easy to make new friends and meet fellow cruisers.  I guarantee you will not be lonely cruising the east coast.  It’s quite popular.  And, Phillip and I now know why.  It was very different from the more isolated, sleepy Florida west-coast cruising we were used to on our Niagara—with its large, spacious anchorages and sugar-white, unpopulated beaches.  But the dozen, diverse cities we were able to experience and explore along the way outweighed the challenges for us.  Phillip and I learned while we love pristine beaches and remote islands, we also love (maybe just a bit more) the bustle and culture of cities, their bars, restaurants, and live music, the laughter and shouts of people, and (my God) the food and wine.  This cruising season has been a dizzying, delightful new experience.  One, we would be happy to repeat.  East Coast, we’ll be back.  Next up on the blog, we will share our three favorite, unique stops on the way down.  Uncovered island gems and sweetly-kept secret anchorages await.  Stay tuned!

3 thoughts on “Our First Time Cruising Down the East Coast (NC to FL): Top 3 Lessons Learned

  • Annie: Super stories. Thanks. Takes me way back. I send these links to my clients who are planning to do the ICW. Better than a cruising guide. You provide the best color commentary.
    Thanks, Norm

    • Wow, no pressure! I’m kidding. I’m glad I could paint the scene for some. We’ve definitely loved cruising the east coast. Up in New England cruising the Long Island Sound now. It’s just exquisite! So much more to share.

      • I will look for you around Newport. I’m in Jamestown for work some days.
        Where have you been? What did you like best? Tarpaulin Cove? Hadley? So many places.
        Our part of the Cape is shallow but if you’re here and want a hot shower and laundry…
        617 678 4286
        Norm
        Harwich

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