How to fit a 64’4″ rig under a 64′ bridge


We’re never going down the Intracoastal Waterway, I said. We’re too tall for the ICW, I said. Totem’s rig is about 68’ over the water, when everything is attached. The ICW is sprinkled with bridges; many of them open, quite a few do not. The controlling height over water for those fixed bridges is 65’ (and, there’s a 64’er in there just for fun). Totem doesn’t fit, but that’s fine, we’d rather sail offshore anyway. Besides being more fun than motoring, it’s faster. We’d get to Charleston in two and a half days going offshore; motoring down the ICW takes a multiple of that.

…And then we headed down the ICW anyway, motoring about 185 miles from Norfolk, VA to Beaufort, NC.

Why? Because we made that fatal error in cruising: we had a schedule. Only one week to get from Norfolk (where Niall sat for the SAT on Saturday Dec. 3) to Charleston, SC (where he was due to take the ACT exam the following Saturday). For non-US readers, these exams are THE two standardized tests that high school students take for college/university applications. One week of time to make what should be a two-and-a-half-day offshore passage. No problem, right? Well, big problem if the forecast isn’t right. And it wasn’t. So with a gloomy weather outlook and the SATs over, we strategized how to squeeze our 68’ tall boat under 65’ bridges. Oh, that 64’ bridge that doesn’t fit the mold. Dangit!


Stripping all instruments from the mast to prepare included Maretron weather station, windex (wind direction indicator), anchor light, and VHF antenna. The windex was brought down; the rest were taped up aloft. We filled all of Totem’s fuel tanks, water tanks and jerry cans to add ballast; then we measured, carefully, once again. Final height over water: 64’4″. When it came time to go under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge, we’d induce heel. And no, you can’t wait for the tide to go down. Water levels in that part of the ICW aren’t influenced by the moon, but by the weather. Wind from the south or storm systems can elevate levels, but there’s no tide to help us underneath.

More than a few people shared this video of a boat with forced heel in order to fit under a bridge. I swore we’d never do something like that to our Totem. Thanks to the 64′ air draft at Wilkerson, and our 64’4″, well… we were going to induce heel, too. When will the lesson stick that I should never say never?

Changes in plans bring silver linings. An extra couple of days in Norfolk meant finally meeting a friend in person. Always fun to bring out the weapons ceremonial cultural tools from PNG as props behind sea stories.


We were treated to a fabulous raclette dinner (and a trip to Costco!) with the French-American family of a blog reader that has their own plans to go voyaging with kids someday.


Departure from Norfolk was a gray drizzly morning. On the first day motoring “the ditch” had fifteen bridges and a set of locks to pass through.


In company are two boats: our old friend Bill on Solstice (we’ve crossed two oceans together!) and the new-to-cruising Gromit crew. Mike, Brittany and their three girls (blogging here) bought the boat circumnavigated by a Canadian family that we met back in Malaysia. It’s slightly surreal to see Gromit again! Good company, but we had to leapfrog them the first day to get Niall to his exams on time, via rental car from Beaufort, NC.

It was a slow slog of bascule bridges, trestle bridges, fixed bridges…lots of rain, and not much traffic.


Most of the bridges have a gauge so you can judge the available height based on the water level. Some are easier to read than others. At least we know this one is well over the 64’4″ we need!


Besides being rainy, it’s cold. 30s overnight, 40s in the daytime. The channel dredged to depth that accommodates Totem’s 6′ draft is narrow, requiring constant attention at the helm. And because the old question of time and money has delayed replacing the dodger sides, the helm is exposed to the elements. Jamie is a champ: I kept him company and took the wheel now and then, but he did 99% of the three and a half days of motoring to Beaufort in less than comfortable conditions. At least on a few stretches the headsail gave a nice pull.


The scenery is beautiful. I’ve heard people love this aspect of the ICW; of course,they mainly travel when it’s at least 20 degrees warmer and there are still leaves on the trees. I hadn’t given the it much thought since the route was written off as “not what we were doing” in my head. Absorbing the landscape of the inner banks was a gift.




Long stretches held no signs of civilization; at other times, the intimacy of homes along the waterfront, where you can almost hear the TV flashing through a back window, felt uncomfortably close. And then there were the hidden gems, like this mysterious camper (Airstream?) overgrown with vines, or the hint of a classic car under cover in a back yard.



We anchored in the water north of the Alligator-Pungo channel: turns out, military jets come here to play.



Quiet evenings at anchor made for fun family time. The kids decided we were due to start holiday decorating, and so we did.



What else did we do? Niall logging many hours daily on ACT practice tests and study guides. The girls did a lot of reading. There were a few rounds of Hamilton sing-a-longs. Ah, who am I kidding… that’s a nightly event currently (thank you Cindy!).



The glassy anchorage at Alligator-Pungo was a perfect spot to finalize preparation for inducing heel to fit under the 64′ Wilkerson bridge the next day. We estimated we should have at least 6 degrees, and more was better. Talk about the PERFECT example of real-life trigonometry, just in time for our exam-cramming kid! Meanwhile, going aloft again, Jamie added a pigstick to the mast. PVC pipe, about 3″ diameter and 3′ long, facing forward. On a dead slow approach, if the stick hits the bridge — we bail out. If it passes under, no problem. All the jerry cans and a 50 gallon bladder tank filled with water were strapped on the starboard side deck.

As we got close to the bridge, further heel was induced. Additional weight at the end of the boom, swung out starboard, would further increase our angle of heel. First, our 18hp Tohatsu was tied on. Then, the spare anchor, a 70 lb CQR. This came with Totem: it’s the first time we’ve used it. Next, a couple of full jerry cans, and a heavy bag of rigging hardware.


Then, we added the kids. Probably should have put PFDs on. Please don’t judge.


We estimate we had 500 lbs on the boom, in addition to an extra 700 lbs on the starboard side deck. To top it all off, Jamie opened a through hull and we flooded the bilge with another 40 gallons or so of swamp water. At Wilkerson, the water gauge read a about 63’11”.


Hooo boy. Boom OUT, heel ON!


The pigstick test worked: a sigh of relief as it passing under the last of the girders.


Yeah yeah yeah yeah! A very happy family.


Jamie’s comment: size doesn’t matter. Trig does.

A few resources were especially helpful down the Norfolk to Beaufort, NC, path for the ICW:

I made a document that outlined our progress by hazard (and, what we’d do about each hazard). Inputs to these: Active Captain, the Salty Southeast Cruisers’ Net, and the ICW cruisers guide. Water levels at Neuse as a proxy for what we might see at Wilkerson. It’s amazing what details are in the USCG notice to mariners and US Army Corp of Engineers sites for updates on dredging and mark placement. The human factor is always the best, and in true cruiser tradition, the best came from a roundup of “ICW doulas” who were a big help with our last-minute decision to go down the ditch instead of making an offshore passage. My friend Judy Hildebrand, a delivery skipper who has driven boats (including Totem’s sisterships) up and down the ICW many many times. Nicola, Suzanne, and many more members of the awesome ICW subgroup from Women Who Sail.

It was beautiful if chilly trip. I’d like to think that was “roll credits!” but… well, never say never. Looks like we’ll start down the ICW again, leaving from Beaufort tomorrow…

Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem... already sporting an ICW moustache!
Thanks Suzanne for our picture of Totem… already sporting an ICW moustache!

30 Responses

  1. So so so cold….Jeeeez Jaime must have been bricking a bit on approach….I know I would have been! It must be so different traveling the ICW then what you’re used to normally.



  2. Hey B, thanks for the awesome photos! My heart would have been in my throat, too with that water gauge height! So, so glad you made it and hoping the next couple days are as successful!!

    Judy ?

  3. Would love to wave as you cruise by our home in Palm Coast FL on the ICW. Been following your journey silently for years, thanks for sharing all of your great adventures.

  4. Thank you for sharing. WOW, the photos look really interesting! Consistently the very best of everything about cruising!

  5. Am full of gratitude that your amazing skills are seeing you through,and that you are sharing an experience few of us will. Safe journey. Merry Christmas!

  6. Great story of doing the impossible, in spite of knowing you would make it I was anxious all the way through. Sometimes a deadline adds an ingredient unexpectedly flavoring the routine. I’m happy it tasted good!

  7. Figuring out how to do the (seemingly) impossible on a boat is a good part of the adventure & education. Squeezing under doubtful bridges however is a step higher in the “adventure” department. Great pictures!

  8. Behan,
    Thia is Johnny Ratclifffe, my wife and I met you at the A. boat show (from NC). Glad you made it down, I’ve traveled the ICW many times, and I can honestly say its better in cold weather, little to no bugs. Anyway, I wonder if its possible for you to help me get in contact with Judy Hildebrand. I’m in the process of getting proper certification in order to be a delivery skipper and no one outside of delivery skippers seem to know exactly what is needed. I understand if you are relucant to do that though. Anyhow, beyond that, safe travels and Happy Holidays!

  9. A most interesting read. I have never heard of heeling like that before. What a cool trick. I assume one could just use bags filled with water, but that boom trick is very neat.

    Thanks as always.

  10. Hi there Totem’ers.
    Have just started following you, virtually via your wonderful blog and literally, down the ICW. My partner Tim & I, novices at this cruising stuff, are pursuing a long-held dream to sail away to the Caribbean. We left Lake Ontario late November (a much later departure than planned – awoke to frozen lines and a blanket of snow in the 1st week!)) and are now in the ICW racing from winter. Reassuring to know there are other hardy souls out there braving the cold.
    Enjoyed reading about your brilliant sneaking under strategies. We’re grateful that our vessel, Ariose’s petite 35′ mast allowed us easy passage. Looking forward to gleaning more wisdom from your wealth of experiences.
    Hope the exams went well, and fair winds for your next leg.

  11. Great job guys, that’s impressive! We’ve been under some tight bridges on Sea Glass, but never ones that were equal to or below our max. mast height. Hope Niall did well on the ACT and SAT and loving the photos. Great pics! 😀

    One more thing, its looks COLD up there. Hopefully some warmth & sunshine from down here in Mexico can drift up to you guys!



  12. A very practical homeschool trig lesson proved in real life! Our mast is 59′ so all ICW bridges are in play except for the crazy 56′ one between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Many urban legends exist about how the builder transposed the digits from 65′ to 56′. In any case I think you’d need too steep a healing angle to get under that one!

    Safe travels!

  13. Geez! that looked both hairy and a little fun (for the kids)!

    You keep bitching about the cold, and yet there is Niall with no socks on! lol

    Congratulations on your Wilerson Bridge pass thru. I have to admit; I have never heard the term ‘pig stick’ before, but will hope for a situation I may use it. Pig stick, too funny.

    ……i recall sitting on the boom with Heather one summer in the Mystic river to help get us off a sand barge.

    Jamie – Your Stonington trig. teacher would be so proud.

  14. Great blog post. I remember sitting on the boom as a kid trying to get a friend’s boat under an ICW bridge. After we cleared, we noticed the fittings on the end of the boom where the topping lift connected had started to deform!!! 🙂

    Hope you continue to have a nice journey south and we hope to cross paths in the Caribbean!

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