The Inside Scoop on the ICW

By Tom Neale, 1/1/2005

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Rivers, creeks, sounds, and cuts uniquely wind from Norfolk to Miami. One leads to another and yet another, and they all lead you through more than a thousand miles of some of the prettiest and most historical regions of the U.S. east coast. Most of this course runs very close to the Atlantic, giving opportunities to glimpse the ocean while safely inside, or to even venture outside if you wish.

But it also takes you through swamps dating back to the Pleistocene era and forest where bear and deer swim across the channel. The experience continuously broadens as you savor wild coastal marshes, barrier islands with lonely beaches, quaint villages, thriving cities, wilderness preserves, and finally white sands and clear waters beckoning to the Caribbean.

We’re speaking of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. It begins at Mile 0 between Norfolk and Portsmouth, VA. Mile 1090 finds you in Miami. Most refer to this stretch as the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway), as will we. Other intracoastal waterways, including those along the coasts of New Jersey, western Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, also offer beauty and ease of cruising. But we’ll save those for another time.

A Cruise For All Seasons
Boaters use the ICW all times of the year, often for short trips on one portion or another. For example, Norfolk boaters might use part of it in the summer to access the beaches and fishing of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Georgia boaters might use part of it anytime for a vacation to the historical city of St. Augustine. Miami boaters might use it to experience the fabulous Christmas Boat Parade in Ft. Lauderdale. However, those making the full cruise usually prefer fall and spring. Each year, the “snowbird” fleet migrates south in the fall, returning in the spring.

Special Navigational Issues
Although the ICW can be safe and easy, extra care is sometimes needed. Below we mention only a few examples. It is very important to use updated guidebooks and paper charts. We also use electronic charts with our GPS chart plotter. We’ve found that C-Map, for example, with its multi-layered database, is helpful with information not only about the channels but also about areas outside of the waters covered by the strip charts. We use all three types of resources. Conditions can change rapidly. Always be alert, listen for U.S. Coast Guard broadcast Notice to Mariners, and don’t rely on a single source of information.

Depths
Depths are supposed to be a minimum of 12 feet to Ft. Pierce (mile 965), and 10 feet from there to Miami (mile 1089). With recent budget cuts, many areas are considerably shallower but, as I write this, boats of 6.5-foot draft and careful skippers are having little problem getting through to Miami. You can continue inside all the way to Key West, but the channels have less water.

Dredging and Other Traffic
Dredging operations have been common in the past. It is critically important that they resume full-scale soon. Many areas shoal rapidly. The ICW is vital for commercial traffic, saving money and offering environmentally friendly shipping. When you encounter a dredge working, call it on the VHF (usually they stand by on 16 and 13) and ask directions for getting around.

Tugs, barges, and other large commercial traffic will generally need right of way because of their limited maneuverability. Follow the Inland Rules. It helps to stand by on VHF 13 as well as 16. Channel 13 is generally used by these vessels and you can hear about them before you meet them.

Aids to Navigation
When going south, red ICW markers are on the starboard side with even numbers, and green markers are on the port. In some areas, the ICW channel will share markers with an inlet or river channel, resulting in a variation of this scheme and confusion unless you are alert. But all ICW markers, whether shared or not, have a small reflective yellow/orange triangle for the red side and a small square of the same color for the green side of the ICW channel. Examples of areas of shared markers (and reversed colors) include the Pungo River, Cape Fear River, Bay River, Winyah Bay, Beaufort River, and Cumberland Sound. In some areas of strong current and narrow channels there may be range markers which should be carefully followed.

Tides and Currents
Tidal range can vary from 0 to 9 feet. It decreases from about 2.5 feet in the tidal tributaries in lower Virginia to 0 feet in the Neuse River area of North Carolina, after which it increases to over 4 feet in southern North Carolina and 8-9 feet in southern South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. It diminishes to around 0 feet in the Indian River, and then increases to over 2 feet at Ft. Lauderdale/Miami. In some areas, such as the Albemarle Sound (NC) and the Indian River (FL), periods of relatively high winds can affect depths. In areas of great tidal range the currents are much swifter. They must always be taken into consideration, especially where you are passing channels from ocean inlets, deep creeks or rivers.

Inlets
Many inlets to the ocean are shallow and local knowledge is needed for safe passage. However a great feature of the ICW is that some inlets are deep, easy, and provide the opportunity to travel in the ocean when the weather is good. Examples of normally good inlets include Beaufort NC, Masonboro, NC, Cape Fear, NC, Winyah Bay, SC, Charleston, SC, Savannah River, GA, St. Simons Sound, GA, St. Marys, GA, St. John’s River, FL, Cape Canaveral, FL, Ft. Pierce, FL, Lake Worth, FL, Port Everglades, FL, and Government Cut, FL.

Never take an inlet for granted, particularly the shallower ones such as Masonboro and others not mentioned. Anytime there is strong onshore wind or swell, an otherwise safe inlet could be dangerous. A strong ebb current running against onshore wind or swell may produce treacherous standing waves across the channel. Some inlets, such as that at Ft. Pierce, can be particularly rough in these conditions. Whenever you plan a jaunt outside, consider not only the weather and tides at the inlet you’re exiting, but also what is forecast for the inlet where you plan to re-enter. Also consider bailout inlets should conditions unexpectedly change. Unless you’re experienced at it, coming into inlets at night isn’t a good idea.

Bridges
Bridge failures across ICW channels cause many problems. While some are “high rise” with a theoretical vertical clearance of 65 feet (with the exception of the 56-foot Julia Tuttle Bridge just north of Miami), many must be opened, depending on the boat’s height. Know your vertical height (outriggers must be lowered) and check the guidebooks and tide boards usually on the bridge fenders which give current bridge vertical clearance. Opening bridges frequently break or are closed for maintenance. A delay in getting through can cause problems for waterway travelers that range from inconvenience to danger (as when a boat is hindered from making a safe port in bad weather, is forced to go into the ocean, or is forced to stay out in difficult channels at night).

In addition, many bridges do not open on demand. Fortunately, most bridge operators are courteous, helpful, and professional, but there always seems to be a few at the opposite end (as there are boaters). Consult an updated guidebook as to bridge schedules, which change frequently. Listen to the regular local broadcast Notice to Mariners for bridge information. These are usually in the morning and evening, are announced on VHF Ch. 16 and broadcast on Ch. 22A. Stand by on Ch. 16 always so that you’ll hear about unexpected problems. Bridge tenders monitor Ch. 13 except those in Florida and South Carolina who stand by on Ch. 9.

Proper Overtaking
Overtaking in the often-narrow channels, if done properly, seldom causes problems. If done improperly, it can cause damage to boats and people. A normally “safe” slow speed in a narrow channel with steep walls can cause a dangerous wake. The overtaking boat should signal his intentions (or communicate on the VHF). The overtaken boat should acknowledge, slow down to minimum steerage speed and move over to make room. The overtaking boat should slow down when just aft the stern of the boat being overtaken and proceed around at the slowest speed possible to pass. The boat being overtaken should maintain course as the other passes, but both should stand by on VHF to communicate in the event of changes in the channel walls or obstructions ahead. The overtaken boat should turn into the overtaking boat’s wake and fall in behind when it has safely passed, so that the overtaking boat can quickly resume speed without problem.

Anchorages
We frequently make the trip from Norfolk to south Florida anchoring every night. Various guidebooks are full of information about good spots. But beware that some one else’s “good” spot may be bad for you because of your draft, size, or swinging characteristics. Also, an inexperienced skipper’s report of a “good” anchorage can be misleading. For example, in an area of great tidal range, the boat may swing up and down the channel as the current reverses when there is no wind. On another night, if there is beam wind, the boat may swing out and around and into a previously unnoticed shallow bank close to the “good” spot. As you find yourself lying there on your side the next morning, you’ll be wondering why the other guy had such a good time.

A Few Favorite Stops
The ICW is a smorgasbord of the very finest of cruising: great marinas, excellent restaurants, wilderness anchorages—take your pick at any time. You seldom need to worry about finding help, supplies, fuel, tourism fixes, or marina breaks. However you’ll have a more convenient trip if you stock for groceries and other supplies for the planned duration. As always, never get too low on fuel or water. Following are a few of our favorite stops. I could go on forever here.

Virginia — Linger in the Hampton Roads area before you begin the trip. A tie up at, for example, Bluewater Yachting Center in Hampton, VA puts you within easy reach of Virginia’s historic triangle of Williamsburg/Jamestown, Yorktown, and Hampton Roads.
North Carolina — Beaufort has marinas, limited anchorage, and nearby beaches. At Beaufort Town Docks in the heart of this old seafaring village, you can see wild horses on a barrier island across the channel. Elizabeth City (reach it by taking the very worthwhile diversion of the Dismal Swamp Canal) has limited free tie-ups and “Rose Buddies” who bring visitors flowers, and welcome. The Southport/Wilmington/Bald Head Island area has quaint villages, Bald Head Island Marina from which you can access great beaches, and Wilmington Marine Center for protected access to the charming historical city of Wilmington.

South Carolina — Charleston, with marinas and limited anchorage, is famous for its culture, history, and restaurants. You’ll pass Fort Sumpter where the first shots of the War Between the States were fired.

Georgia — Cumberland Island has anchorages and a wilderness preserve, including oft-deserted beaches, at its southern end. You’ll share the trails with wild horses, wild turkeys, armadillo, and other creatures.

Florida — St. Augustine is the oldest permanent European settlement in the U.S. Its fort, Spanish architecture, shops and restaurants make a fascinating stop. We love Camachee Cove Marina here, with its enclosed basin, two lounges, Internet access, two loaner cars, accommodations for megayachts to small boats, and yacht yard (off to the side).

Ft. Lauderdale, called the Yachting Capital of the World, has 300 miles of navigable waterway with over 42,000 registered boats and 109,000 people working full time in the marine industry. Its importance to boaters extends far beyond its tourism aspects. By researching the many businesses offering boating goods and services, you can get anything you need for good prices. Anchorage is limited and marinas are often full, but Jamie Hart, the city’s Supervisor of Marine Facilities, takes an active role in helping boaters find a place. The city operates three marinas (800-FTL-DOCK), with more reasonable rates than those of some of the more expensive private facilities.

Put it down, today, on your life’s calendar. Promise to do yourself the favor of traveling at least a part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. When you come, hopefully we’ll see you out here.

Representative Resource Materials for a Trip on the AIWW
  • All in the Same Boat by Tom Neale, International Marine/McGraw Hill
  • Cruising Guide to North Carolina, Cruising Guide to South Carolina and Georgia, Cruising Guide to Eastern Florida by Claiborne S. Young, Watermark Publishing
  • Embassy Guides, Atlantic Coast and Florida, Maptech
  • The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook, Norfolk to Miami by John and Leslie Kettlewell, International Marine/McGraw Hill
  • Intracoastal Waterway, Norfolk to Miami by Jan and Bill Moeller
  • Maptech Chart Kits, Regions 6 and 7, Maptech
  • Anchorages Along the Intracoastal Waterway and Marinas Along the Intracoastal Waterway by Skipper Bob
  • Waterway Guide, Mid Atlantic and Southern Editions, York Associates, LLC. Updates annually and on www.waterwayguide.com.
  • The Georgia Coast by Nancy Schwalbe Zydler and Tom Zydler, Seaworthy Publications

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale