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Suggestions for Sailing from NYC to Hilton Head, SC

These excellent suggestions and advice to William Wertz concerning a voyage from New York to Hilton Head come from SSECN Team Member, Curtis Hoff, an experienced sailor and also designer of the new SSECN mobile app. I’m sure William will be grateful for your advice as well.

NEW CRUISERS TO THE SOUTH: My wife and I are sailing from NYC to Hilton Head. We are interested in gaining some local knowledge if you are willing to share. Should we sail outside or ICW? We are thinking of going out side just below Cape Fear. Also would love to hear about good anchorages or marinas to spend the night at. We have a 36′ Catalina, fin keep 5.5′. Please share any thoughts you have.
William Wertz

Hi William,
Going outside or the ICW is both about personal preference and weather. If the weather is good, we tend to run outside more than the ICW anymore. We have traveled the ICW one way or the other 12 times now so we have experienced almost every stretch both outside and via the ICW.

I’ll focus my comments on from Beaufort south, since you don’t have any options but offshore from NYC to Norfolk and then probably the ICW until Beaufort. An option is to go up the Delaware and down Chesapeake Bay, but we only do that if the weather requires it. You can also run outside around the Outer Banks, but I don’t know many people that do and suspect you are not considering it.

In certain places we try to be outside since the ICW can be painful – particularly from Beaufort to Masonboro due to the bridge schedules. South of Hilton Head there are places where we try to be outside due to depth issues, but you don’t need be concerned about those. There are some places north of Hilton Head where we prefer not to transit at dead low tide – around McClellanville and south of Georgetown are two.

Two resources you should consider:
1. The Salty Southeast Cruisers Net App – available on the iOS App Store.
2. Bob Sherer (Bob423) publishes a good book entitled “2015 ICW Cruising Guide: A guide to navigating the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway with charts of over 140 hazard areas and their safe navigation along … trips from New York to Key West”. (See /150181) It is available via Amazon with both paperback and Kindle versions.

Note that sometimes the distance to get outside and back in actually results in more distance than traveling the ICW so this can be a negative of going outside. Additionally, if the weather is not carefully considered you may find yourself running an inlet in less than favorable conditions. On the plus side we find traveling outside to be more relaxing and enjoyable especially on very calm days.

Here are the stretches we like to go outside if the weather permits (distances are approximate):
• Beaufort Inlet to Masonboro Inlet, 65 NM open ocean, anchorage / dockage near just inside inlet
• Cape Fear Inlet to Little River, 30 NM open ocean
• Little River to Georgetown, 40 NM open ocean (note Georgetown is 15 NM from inlet)
• Georgetown to Charleston 44 NM open ocean (Charleston 10 NM from ocean)
• Charleston to Port Royal Sound/Hilton Head, 55 NM open ocean (Hilton Head is 10NM from open ocean)

All of these inlets are pretty easy in any seas we consider traveling outside. For reference we are a 55 ft motor yacht with stabilizers, cruise at 9 kts and we look for predicted 3-4 ft max seas. If the morning seas are within this range but picking up we will still consider outside if we are entering an ‘all weather’ such as Cape Fear, etc.

There are many nice towns along the way with good marinas. We don’t anchor much since we have a dog and dropping our tender from the upper deck daily gets tiresome. Towns we particularly enjoy are:
• Oriental, NC, stay at Oriental Marina and Inn
• Beaufort, NC, stay at Homer Smith Docks and Marina
• Georgetown, SC, stay at Harborwalk Marina
• Charleston, SC, stay at Charleston City Marina

There are many other interesting towns along the way that you may want to consider, depending on how far you want to travel any given day. Next week we are heading up to Wilmington on our way north for the first time and cruisers we talk to say it is well worth the distance up the river. This is another town you may want to visit. Stay at Port City Marina.
Curtis Hoff
SSECN Team Member

Comments from the Cruisers' Net Community (5)

  1. mike -  October 1, 2017 - 11:07 pm

    Folks, same question as above but with a mast of 70′. Unless it’s opens, we dont fit under any ‘standard’ (65′) bridge.

  2. Ray Kurlak -  May 27, 2016 - 5:42 pm

    All of the above comments are well considered and helpful. But, unless you’re in a hurry on your first trip, I’d suggest going down to Cape May and then going up the Delaware Bay (with the current) to the C&D Canal and then coming down the Chesapeake Bay. There are great stops on the Chesapeake including Baltimore Harbor, Annapolis, St. Michael’s, Solomon Island, and Hampton to name a few. Then taking the ICW from Norfolk to Beaufort (NC) with stops in Belhaven and/or Oriental is a nice trip. Recommend offshore from Beaufort (NC) to Masonboro Inlet then ICW to Southport or Bald Head Island. Jump out again from Bald Head Island to the Little River Inlet and stop overnight at Bare Foot Landing in North Myrtle Beach. Take ICW via Waccamaw River (beautiful) to Georgetown and then go offshore to Charleston. After that follow routes as recommended by others but consider stops as travel time permits at Beaufort (SC), Thunderbolt near Savannah, Jekyll Island and Fernandina Beach in Florida. Good luck & safe travels.

  3. George Barr -  May 27, 2016 - 1:57 pm

    I think there is plenty of good advice above, but as a sailor who has done the ICW & offshore jumps a number of times, I’d tell you to stay inside pretty much the whole way down for the first time since it will all be new to you and there’s plenty to see and do along the way. On the way back north you can make some coastal hops with the prevailing S winds a lot easier. So… from NYC I would head out to stage in Sandy Hook & make sure the Jersey Coast weather was favorable before turning the corner south. You can do Jersey in 3 hops of about 50 miles each….going in Manasquan, Atlantic City and Cape May. Head up the Delaware Bay in one LONG day and take a marina slip in Chesapeake City in the C&D Canal. Head on down the Chesapeake. If this is a FALL trip plan…then hang out at the Annapolis boat show and follow the hoards heading south in October after the show …otherwise explore the Bay a bit as you work your way south roughly 150 miles to Norfolk for the start of the ICW. You can probably make around 50 miles a day under power in the ICW and there WILL NOT be much opportunity to sail…you’ll be lucky to get 2-3 days of actual sailing along the way. So plan for a marina or anchorage each 50 miles or so unless you really are gonna push hard or need to jump off shore to save time. THIS site is invaluable for dealing with shoaling reports & other navigational issues and for cruiser reports on marinas. Try Active Captain as well for other current reports that are crowd sourced.
    IMO…you can jump offshore for 30-40 mile runs if you just want to get the sails up…but you won’t save any time over the ICW that way since the long ins and outs from the sea buoys to the major inlets cost hours of time.
    If you are prepared to stay OUT for 2-3 nites you can make a lot of time and miles saved offshore…but you are the best judge if you are ready for that.
    My favorite tips for the Waterway:
    1. Take a marina slip in Thunderbolt GA on the waterway…and the public bus will bring you into wonderful Savannah in about 20 minutes. Not to be missed.
    2. At the Florida GA border on the Georgia side there is a place called Cumberland Island which is totally protected and only accessible by boat. Anchor there and take the dinghy into the Ranger dock….it is simply an amazing place that you will need to allocate at least a full day to.
    3. On the way back north…depart from Oriental NC and head down the Neuse River to the Pamlico Sound where you can head north SAILING and also stop at Ocracoke Island and RoanokeIsland/Manteo on the way back up into Albemarle sound and the ICW. Saves 17 miles and you get to see 2 great places….weather permitting. Otherwise stay on the ICW.

  4. Sam Scudder -  May 27, 2016 - 1:53 pm

    William, Curtis gives good advice, but let me just add a little. You may have heard of some people coming from the north and coming inside south of Norfolk at Oregon Inlet NC. Due to shoaling, that is no longer feasible. Don’t consider going around Hatteras on the outside either. There the Labrador Current and the Gulf stream meet and you don’t want to be there as there are no escape ports. This area is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic for a reason. So come inside at Norfolk, enjoy your trip through North Carolina all the way down to Beaufort, NC. Note that Curtis was also speaking of Beaufort, NC, not Beaufort, SC.

    Beaufort, NC is my home port and I have a similar vessel as you. Going south, I prefer to go outside at Beaufort, NC, go around Cape Fear straight to Charleston. If you are not comfortable going outside around Cape Fear, just come in a Masonboro Inlet near Wilmington, then it is just a few hours down the ICW to the Cape Fear inlet and Southport, NC. In our boats, Beaufort, NC to Charleston is is about a 33 hour run. Note that going into Charleston Harbor (you will like Charleston, and it is a wonderful place to explore) you must time your approach with an ingoing tide. Otherwise, you will make very little progress against the tide and it will take you FOREVER to get into the Harbor. By going outside for this stretch, you bypass the areas of shoaling in lower NC and avoid the rock ledges (that eat sailboat keels) on the ICW through Myrtle Beach. Also, while scenic, the meandering Waccamaw river gets tiresome as you travel five miles for every two miles made south.

    South of Charleston, the ICW meanders even more, but the towns of Georgetown and Beaufort, SC that you will encounter may make it worth the trip down this section of ICW. Or it is just a short hop outside from Charleston (again, make sure you are going with the tide. It is not fun to dodge the freighters when you cannot make any headway.) to Hilton Head.

    You did not say when you plan to make the trip, but if it is during the summer, this whole discussion may be moot as the prevailing wind on the outside will be from the southwest, right on your nose. This would not be a fun way to travel, so your only real option may be to head down the ICW the entire way.

    • mike -  October 1, 2017 - 11:10 pm

      Hi, thank you for your earlier post on NYC to SC route. We have 70′ mast and dont fit under any ‘standard’ (65′) bridge. Everyone tells me the only way is outside all the way. I’d love to get our take on it. Thanks in advance,


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