Rethinking A Waterway
At 8 Knots

By Ryck Lydecker
Published: April/May 2011

The crew on a comfortable cruise from Beaufort, North Carolina, to the Chesapeake Bay ponders new policies to keep one of America's national marine treasures, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, working and thriving.

We'd just about run out of descriptors for heavy rain events by the time we dropped anchor on Day One in Pungo Creek near Belhaven on the North Carolina segment of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. But as the hook took hold, Indicator swung into the wind, giving us a view to the west and an eyeful of yet another (pick one) — thunder boomer, cloudburst, scupper-washer — that appeared to have us in its jagged, flashing cross hairs. Battened down, yet again, we marveled at the amount of water the sky can dump in 10 minutes. Once the squall had blown through, a stunning rainbow grew out of the ICW channel we'd navigated an hour earlier, arced a full 180-degrees, and put the pot of gold squarely at the entrance to the Alligator-Pungo Canal, anointing our route north for Day Two.

Photo of entering the Dismal Swamp on the ICW Photo: Michelle Lotker

Our skipper, Dr. Linwood Pendleton, tended to a few pre-dinner maintenance chores on his liveaboard Marine Trader 38, as Craig Tyler, his mate for this ICW excursion, brought out the $60 guitar he'd bought in a North Carolina pawnshop to save travel-wear on a favorite six-string left back home in California. He played his first song on the foredeck; it was "Route 66." How did this southern California sailor and veteran South Pacific voyager know that out here we call the ICW "The Boater's Route 66"? He didn't. Chalk that up to simple serendipity. But Tyler warmed to the notion, and after "Hotel California" and a few more '70s staples, we started getting loose with the lyrics of his opening number, trying to see how many ways we could adapt its signature phrase — "Get your kicks on Route 66" — to our current adventure.

Take A Fix, On Route 66

Indicator had left its slip at Pivers Island Marina in Beaufort, hardby Duke University's Marine Science Laboratory where Pendleton has his office, last July 12. A social scientist by trade, Pendleton has degrees in biology, ecology, public administration, and environmental economics, and joined the university's Nicolas Institute as director of Ocean and Coastal Programs last year. More to the point for this undertaking, he's a lifelong boater with a cruising resume that includes the Chesapeake Bay and Down East Maine as well as southern California's ocean waters and the Caribbean. Since returning to the East Coast — he grew up in Virginia's Tidewater country — Pendleton has turned his attention to the iconic ICW in an effort to help the recreational boaters, commercial mariners, and waterway communities that depend upon it, and the federal and state agencies that have a stake in it, "rethink" its operation, maintenance, and especially its management funding. To stimulate his own thinking and get a "sea level perspective," he'd planned a weeklong trip aboard Indicator, from Mile 202 at Beaufort to "Quick Flashing Red 36," the buoy marking Mile Zero in the Elizabeth River at Norfolk.

For volunteer crew he'd drafted Craig Tyler, a fellow liveaboard from his days in Ventura, California, and an accomplished Los Angeles illustrator; Michelle Lotker, a Duke grad on vacation from her job with a Miami environmental consulting firm, to serve as documentarian for the trip; and one stowaway scribe, yours truly. Pendleton had dubbed it the East Coast Ocean Policy Expedition and even had tee shirts made for us with a logo Tyler had designed.

Photo of Craig Tyler working aboard
Photo: Michelle Lotker
Craig Tyler working on a sketch underway.

The cruise would take us from the barrier island environment of Beaufort and the Bogue Banks, with the open ocean just beyond, to the natural estuaries and tidal rivers linked by man-made land cuts and through the open sounds of Pamlico and Albemarle to the historic Dismal Swamp Canal. Ultimately Indicator would emerge in one of the world's largest naval and maritime port complexes, Norfolk and Hampton Roads, Virginia.

"The purpose of the trip is to get out on the waterway and actually see the challenges that policy makers face," Pendleton had explained as Indicator passed Mile Marker 200.8 at Beaufort Junction. "I hear a lot of locals say, 'You can't use the Intracoastal Waterway,' so I want to see if this is real, or if people are just talking about isolated experiences. I don't think you can speak credibly about managing the waterway without spending time on it. When you're at the helm, it's a completely different story." With that, he'd nudged the throttle up to Indicator's optimum 8-knot cruising speed, and our voyage of discovery had gotten underway.

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Where Is The "ICW" Anyway?

The magenta line on nautical charts labeled "Intracoastal Waterway" starts at the Annisquam River, 26 miles northeast of Boston and meanders down the Eastern Seaboard, looking for protected water before ducking into the Elizabeth River at Norfolk, Virginia. From there it traces the route outlined in this article, and after Beaufort, North Carolina, continues on south, wrapping around Florida (or cutting across the state via Lake Okeechobee, if you prefer) to turn north along the Gulf of Mexico to the Florida Panhandle where it then heads west, all the way to Brownsville, Texas. The shorthand name, "ICW," can apply to any and all of it.

Officially, though, the "Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway," so designated by Congress in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1939, extends from Norfolk to near the Georgia-Florida border. From there into Florida and down to Miami, Congress gave it the rather utilitarian name, Intracoastal Waterway, adding to nomenclature confusion in the boating community. Other sections have their own official designations but for the purposes of public policy discussion, not to mention annual funding battles, the two sections, comprising the 1,205 miles from "Quick Flashing Red 36" in Virginia's Elizabeth River to the mouth of the Miami River, go by the name Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, or AIWW.

For more information about this important segment of "The Magenta Line," visit the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association website:


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