Cruising America's 'Big Ditch'

As an inland passage it's neither fish nor (water) fowl, although the Intracoastal Waterway is home to many varieties of both. Partly natural and partly manmade, it runs for hundreds of miles along alternately salty, brackish, and fresh waters in hundreds of connecting rivers, sounds, bays, deepened streams, canals, and dredged ditches just inside and roughly parallel to the Atlantic coast of the United States.

The man-made portion, known as the 'Big Ditch," begins at Norfolk, Va., and runs south to the Florida Keys. North of Norfolk the Intracoastal, or Inland Waterway, as it is most commonly called, is mostly a convenient concept for the sheltered course a craft would naturally chart. The route is through the Chesapeake Bay, across to Delaware Bay, a loop south to pick up the passage northward just inside New Jersey's coastline, and then via Long Island, Block Island, and Nantucket Sounds to the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts. The whole is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers and policed by the Coast Guard.

Indians used the inland waters of the Atlantic seaboard for centuries, but not until 1940 did the federal government essentially complete the all-weather passage. Establishment of such a project was necessary for commercial barges navigating north and south along the length of the coast and for operators of small craft seeking security from the treacheries of open-sea travel, especially around North Carolina's infamous Cape Hatteras. For travelers who wish to see the unique cross section of environments -- famous cities, small historic towns, a variety of uninhabited wilderness -- through which the Inland Waterway cuts, American Cruise Lines offers opportunities for happy discoveries.

The pre-sail scene for the two-week cruise from Savannah, Ga., to Annapolis, Md., on the Independence is more friendly, less organized, than on larger ships. Since she holds only 80 passengers, departure is made as soon as all are aboard.We pull away from the Savannah River bluff where General Oglethorpe and his band of colonists first pitched their tents in 1733, and shortly thereafter laid out the city, which today has an appealing atmosphere of tradition, historic architecture, and subtropical Southern charm.

Almost immediately the river banks flatten out into a level landscape that carries the eye far across salt marshes to the horizon. Along the calm waters of the exaggerated curves of the oxbows of the Savannah River, wildlife is plentiful. Pelicans hardly pause between dives for fish. Literally, the land here belongs to nature; it is part of the Savannah and the Tybee National Wildlife Refuges. At some point, the ship passes from the Savannah River, which is the border between Georgia and South Carolina, into Inland Waterway waters.

Shortly, we sight Harbour Town on Hilton Head, the prototype of island developments. After a launch excursion ashore, cruise passengers are ready to satisfy their curiosity concerning food.

Cuisine is American, with efforts made to serve local specialties. Tonight that includes fresh fish and a variety of "greens," a catch-all Southern vegetable term. The single-seating meals are served family style. There are no set table assignments, which provides an opportunity to get to know many fellow passengers during meals.

The next morning we proceed to Beaufort, S.C., a town of 14,000 over which six flags have flown: Spanish, French, English, Scottish, American, and Confederate. Formally founded in 1713, the town has many magnificent houses now restored to their pre-boll weevil days of successful cotton commerce splendor. A Southern atmosphere is conveyed by semishuttered windows, hammocks hanging on wide verandas, and lush vegetation: wonderfully scented wisteria, azaleas, towering Victorian tea roses, oleanders, magnolias measuring 60 feet, and massive-limbed live oaks even larger. Spanish moss is draped on everything, including the town's telephone wires.

A storm with severe winds raged the next morning and meant a postponement of our departure for Charleston, S.C. Traveling the Inland Waterway requires a certain flexibility in the schedule to allow for such events. As a result, these cruises have some of the flavor of unexpected adventure found on freighters.

Evening entertainment is left to the resources of passengers, be it browsing in the ship's library, TV in the lounge, a bridge game. Since the ship is moored each night, an after-dinner walk ashore is a pleasant possibility. Many retire early so as to be enthusiastic about arising to see us set sail, usually just after daybreak. The Independence follows a daylight schedule. Scenery is never missed because of traveling in the dark.

The port of call is the historic city of Charleston.As her schoolchildren are carefully taught, Charleston is the place where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean. She boasts three centuries of cultural and architectural tradition, the best of which comes from the era of post-Revolutionary War, great-plantation prosperity. The Charleston waterfront, famous for its beauty, includes the East Battery with its sea wall walk, and the South Battery with its classic row of handsome white houses and pillared porches purposely positioned to catch the sea breezes. Palmetto palms stand like sentinels along the driveways; gardens are enclosed by ornate cast iron railings.

In the next day's "dawn's early light" the Independence passes Fort Sumter, at which was fired the shot that started the War Between the States, known in Yankee latitudes as the Civil War. Although they have been thoroughly enjoyable to visit, especially so with the effortless ease of arriving by water that is a luxurious characteristic of cruises, it is nice to leave the cities behind.

The exotic flora of the subtropical South give way to the more gentle beauty of white dogwood and pink azaleas growing wild in the woods. There is enormous variety in the textures and tones of this terrain. Sun sparkles on the water surfaces of the swamps, sea marshes, and tidal inlets. Low-flying flocks of laughing gulls and high-flying formations heading north accompany us. Our slow motion past the landscape augments the feeling of timelessness in the surroundings.

Overnight moorings are made in pleasant backwaters. In Bucksport, S.C., a waterway watering hole 13 miles from the nearest town, a five-mile walk inland along the single road in the region reveals wooden shacks, revival churches, and fields of growing greens. At Wrightsville Beach, N.C., are comfortably shabby summer cottages and an opportunity to walk on the sand dunes seen all day along the horizon. Belhaven, N.C., is yet another small, friendly typical riverfront town. Its pride seems to be a museum of amazingly mundane memorabilia which we are encouraged to visit.

Some passengers have followed the course of the Independence closely on the ship's navigational charts. Today we run into one reason that such careful maneuvering of the Inland Waterway is necessary and why dredging is a continual process.A full moon has produced an exceptionally low tide. That, in combination with shifts in the sand shoals during a recent storm, has caused us to run aground -- gently, however, since we've been warned of the danger by a barge master ahead. Fortunately, the tide is incoming and we wait only a few minutes before floating free again.

The last stretch of the man-made section of the Inland Waterway is through the Pungo and Alligator Rivers, up the P&A Canal, under the distinctive bridge slung low and long across albemarle Sound, whose shallow but wide waters make it the most unpredictable place in the entire waterway. Today, it is as calm as it is ever liable to be. Once through the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal and the 600-foot Great Bridge lock, designed to prevent the exchange of salt and fresh water, we sweep into Norfolk, Va., with its naval yards, which have been filled with ships since 1767.

A sail across the broad Hampton Roads shipping channel and over the 6,860 -foot tunnel part of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge -- an engineering marvel that was completed in 1957 -- brings us to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, the beginning of the "natural" Intracoastal Waterway which winds its way north to Massachusetts.

The Chesapeake is an inland sea, 200 miles long and up to 30 miles wide. It's a water world where fishermen are called "watermen," most commerce is carried on by ship, and everyone's favorite forms of recreation seem associated in some way with the bay.

We moor at Yorktown, Va., where, in 1781, the British under Cornwallis surrendered to the American forces, ending British rule in America. Later, we cross the Chesapeake, finding it strange to be out of sight of shore after days in the closely confined channel of the Inland Waterway. We watch waterfowl at play and watermen at work. At Oxford, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we enjoy the quiet charm of one Maryland's earliest settlements. Proclaimed a port of entry in 1694, once active in the exportation of tobacco, Oxford has only recreational craft in its harbor today.

Consolation for the fact that the cruise is over is that we debark at attractive Annapolis. With a long and glorious history, she is active and alive today because of the United States Naval Academy and many yachting activities.

Schedules of Inland Waterway cruises, which go north from Savannah in spring and south from Annapolis as far as Florida in the fall, aboard the Independence and her slightly smaller sister ship, American Eagle, are available from American Cruise Lines, Haddam, CT 06438; or call its toll-free telephone number, 1-800-243-6755. The cost for the 14-day cruise is $1,722 for a single cabin; $1 ,386 per person for a double; and $1,176 per person for the ship's one triple.

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