Tuesday, May 29, 2012

That ICW Look

This boat shapes a perfect bow wave through tannin-stained water in South Carolina.

The first spring after we’d moved to Annapolis and moved aboard our sailboat, we went to a marina party welcoming home the returning snowbirds.  And I was thinking, “Wow, someday, that will be ME.  Someday I’LL be one of those travelers!”  One guest said to one of the returnees, with a knowing smile, “I see you took the ‘inside’ route. You and your boat have that ICW look.”  In my naiveté, I wondered what “that look” was all about.  Was it weariness from their long journey?  Some kind of nautical nonchalance?   Did they look like an “old salt” or ancient mariner?  Someday, will I have that flair too?

Fast-forward ten years, and we know that wasn’t an unmitigated compliment.

You see them arriving in Annapolis around this time of year, boats that have spent the winter in Florida or the Bahamas returning for the summer, or passing through on their way to cruising grounds farther north in Canada or New England.  Their decks may be cluttered with jerry cans for fuel and water, and they will invariably have a dinghy of some kind.  That’s how you can recognize them as cruising boats, nine times out of ten.  If they came up by the “inside” or ICW (IntraCoastal Waterway) route as opposed to going the “outside” or ocean route, they will also likely have a telltale brownish stain on the bow, jokingly referred to as an ICW moustache. 

It’s not a sign of laziness or poor maintenance on their parts.  The grungy look is due to the water in the middle of the waterway that goes through cypress swamps.  The water in these areas, while not polluted, is naturally a clear deep brown color, like tea.  (That’s not even a coincidence, the same acids, called tannins, that give tea and coffee their brown color, are present in this water.  And far from being polluted, the water was highly prized in old sailing days.  When stored in barrels for long ocean passages, fresh-looking clear water would all too quickly grow foul.  The tannin acids, on the other hand, delayed the growth of algae and slime, so the funny brown water lasted longer. While funky looking, the water is perfectly safe to drink.  (I’m told; I didn’t try it!)

So where does the moustache come from?  When a boat moves through the water, the bow makes a wave and water curls up along the front of the hull.  Keeping that white plastic in contact with dark water for hundreds of miles leaves a stain just like coffee in a white mug.

There are many conversations and much advice about how to get rid of that brown stain, waxes and cleaning products, and natural solutions like vinegar or lemon juice, published in cruising magazines and websites and discussed at cruiser parties.  We have what we believe is the best low-maintenance solution ever invented for this problem.  Our whole boat is a light tan color, very close to the same shade as the stain.  No worries!

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Thanx to my friend Chris R. for inspiring this post.

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