The Food Lover's Guide To The Intracoastal Waterway

By Lori Ross

Snowbird season is upon us. For many boaters, that means an annual pilgrimage south on the Intracoastal Waterway. An ICW veteran gives us the skinny on some great stops.

My first trip on the ICW was in April 1985, when my husband Jim and I delivered our "new to us" Beneteau 35 sailboat from Fort Lauderdale to our home on the Magothy River in the Chesapeake Bay. We made an ocean run from Florida to the Outer Banks, and entered the ICW at Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina. As we cruised through pretty towns, I silently thanked our forefathers for linking the natural inlets to provide a navigable route along the Eastern Seaboard, avoiding many of the hazards and discomforts of the open sea. I'd been seasick for most of the ocean voyage and all but kissed the ground when we stepped ashore at Morehead City.

Since then, I've made more than a dozen whole or partial cruises along the ICW, both in sail and powerboats. We love the throwback easy rhythm of the waterway and find ourselves laughing and talking about memories of other travels, and planning new cruises. For the record, if I were to live my life over, I'd come back as a food writer or restaurateur, so I thought I'd share some of our favorite places along the route from the Chesapeake Bay to Miami, which tend to be great places to enjoy wonderful, mouthwatering local specialties.

The Crabs Of Chesapeake Bay

Solomons Island, Maryland, sits on the Patuxent River and often has been a welcome relief for us on our way to and from Norfolk. In 2002, I was turning 50 and when Jim asked what I wanted for my birthday, I asked if we could take our boat down the ICW to Miami for the winter. Although we both still worked full time, we had lots of vacation built up and thought we'd enjoy using it on the boat. The trip didn't exactly start without incident. Early on, we lost the teak swim platform on our 1988 Grand Banks 42 trawler to a wet, steep bay chop and chilly 40-knot winds. We pulled into Zahniser's Marina to regroup for the night and had a cozy home-style meal of delicious soft crabs and a throat-warming cognac at the Dry Dock Restaurant, after which all was right with the world again. It's since become a favorite refuge. Zahniser's is an easy walk to downtown restaurants, antique shops, and clothing and jewelry stores, and it has a great ship's store and yard. Visit the Calvert Marine Museum, where Bubble and Squeak, a pair of river otters, live, and visit the Drum Point and Cove Point lighthouses while you're there.

The Dismal Swamp & Northern Neck

have a special place in my heart for the Tides Inn in Irvington, Virginia, and we often stop at the marina for a night or two. Jim and I met when he was my instructor at the sailing school there in 1981. We were married a year later. It's a pretty resort with a golf course, spa, and nice restaurants, and they make the best mint julep I've ever tasted. Nearby trips are available to historic Williamsburg and Urbanna, an artists' hub with antiques and fun restaurants.

Photo of sailing on Dismal Swamp Canal in VirginiaSouthbound on the Dismal Swamp Canal in November, these sailboats, part of a caravan of five cruising yachts, are treated to a touch of Virginia's spectacular fall foliage. (Photo: Natalie Kendrach)

Photo of a bridge on the Intracoastal Waterway

From there we can easily make Norfolk or Portsmouth, where we stock up for the trip down the ditch. Assuming you're not traveling via the Dismal Swamp Canal route (which is often closed, so call before you go), the ICW narrows here, and cruisers will begin to see some of the same boats traveling north or south. It's difficult in some parts to pass, so you often travel in convoy and are waiting for bridge or lock openings together. The farther you travel down the ICW, the more people you get to know, as you often go to the same marinas, see each other at the same restaurants, and eventually start chatting and exchanging recommendations. That's one of the best parts of the ICW. The other big thrill here is to pass a tug and barge going in the opposite direction, though the close proximity in a confined space can be a glute-clenching experience!

Albemarle To North Carolina

Coinjock Marina over the North Carolina border is usually our next stop. Midway Marina and Motel with Crabbie's Restaurant is on the west side, but the restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesday. Both get busy with the snowbirds in October/November and April/May, but they always have fuel and water, usually a pumpout system that works, and a good restaurant.

After the 14-mile-long crossing of the shallow and sometimes sloppy Albemarle Sound, you enter the Alligator River (watch for bald eagles here!). If you're at a day's end, or the Alligator River Swing Bridge can't open because of high winds, you'll probably stay at the Alligator River Marina known as Miss Wanda's. It's a no-frills place (in fact, it's a gas station and truck stop that happens to have a marina) in a well-protected harbor and offers the only fuel between Coinjock and Belhaven. It's also got an inexpensive menu of fried chicken, seafood, sandwiches, and excellent fried okra.

Our next stop is the marina at Belhaven on Pantego Creek. It has really nice bathrooms, free laundry facilities, fuel, and water, and is dog-friendly. It's also easy walking to a pharmacy, coffee shops, hardware store, and several good restaurants, one of which, Spoon River Artworks and Market, is terrific. With its own wine store next door (buy wine here before ordering dinner to save money), the menu is delightful, reasonably priced, and local. The menu changes seasonally, so don't miss this little treasure.

In 2011, as Jim and I pulled in to the Oriental Marina and Inn, a thunderstorm hit that trapped us at the Tiki Bar for the night. It wasn't so terrible. We toasted and matched faces with the boat names of cruisers we'd seen regularly since Great Bridge, Virginia, and all had dinner together at the Toucan Grill, enjoying ribs, seafood, and pasta. The marina has fuel, pumpout, water, a laundry (to dry out damp clothes), and is just steps away from a pleasant little main street, with grocery stores, a pharmacy, marine stores, some arts-and-crafts galleries, and a dozen restaurants and coffee shops. Leaving Oriental, we follow the Neuse River to Adams Creek where we get to navigate using ranges and enter the very narrow Adams Creek Canal. There we've seen deer, eagles, and other wildlife on the approach to Morehead City and Beaufort (pronounced "Bew-fert").

We often stop in Beaufort's Town Creek Marina because it's so convenient to fine dining (I told you, I love food) and window-shopping. When you arrive, the marina gives you wooden tokens for drinks at the Dockhouse Restaurant attached, but on the water are several other good restaurants: The Boardwalk Café for breakfast and lunch, and the Dockhouse and Queen Anne's Revenge for lunch. But it's dinner where Beaufort really shines. The Beaufort Grocery with its farm-to-table fare and Aqua with small plates and wine-flight tastings are our favorites. Stroll over to Ibis on Front Street for upscale clothing, and to Jarrett Bay Boathouse for boating clothes and supplies. There are artisan jewelers, arts-and-crafts stores, and several gourmet shops, too.

Photo of sunset on the ICWSunset on the ICW.

On our most recent visit last fall, we were helping friends take their power cat from Maryland to Southport, North Carolina, and stopped for a couple of nights in Beaufort. There we happened upon a delightful farmers market. It runs April to December every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. just a few blocks from the waterfront, under spreading live oak trees. They've got everything from fresh produce to flowers, grass-fed chickens, jam, jelly, honey, eggs, and handmade soap and laundry detergent. We bought so much we could hardly carry it back to the boat.

Scenic Charleston & South Carolina

While Myrtle Beach offers cruisers lots of marinas, we usually press on to the Waccamaw River, one of the most scenic parts of the ICW, with wooded banks, deep water, wildflowers, moss-draped trees, and turtles sunning themselves alongside water birds. Once you leave the Waccamaw River, travel almost 50 miles through straight-dredged cuts of marshland to Charleston, one of the most beautiful cities on the ICW, and probably the whole U.S. It's also one of the most challenging to dock in, thanks to strong currents and tides. I had my own experience of that during our 2007 trip, when a four-knot current caught me and I temporarily lost control of the boat. After bouncing off several pilings, fending off other boat bows, and pulling out one of our own bow stanchions, we finally got back under control. Luckily, the only damage done was to our own boat, and my ego.

Given these challenges, reserving a spot at Charleston City Marina's mega dock, a beautiful facility with easy docking, all the amenities you need, and walking distance to the city, is to be recommended. Nearby is a great restaurant called The Variety Store, offering delicious she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, and blackened tuna as part of its large menu. Charleston has many great restaurants. Treat yourself to one of these: Hall's Chop House, SNOB (Slightly North of Broad), High Cotton, and Magnolia. Also tour Fort Sumter and go to the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum.

Savannah & The Georgia Marshlands

One of the funniest experiences we had was in 2002 leaving Thunderbolt, south of Savannah. The boat was running about 8-9 knots in an open waterway, and every few minutes we could hear something flapping. Jim was driving and asked me to check that the canvas was zipped and snapped down in the flybridge enclosure. I did, but the flapping continued. Fearing the wind was going to rip the canvas apart, I walked around searching again for the problem. Nothing. Jim, irritated, asked me to check yet again, and I, just as irritated, replied that I just had. Then I happened to glance alongside the boat and saw a school of 12 dolphins riding our bow wave, jumping, diving, and yes, slapping the water as they landed. Jim and I had to laugh at our own contrariness.

Photo of Savannah's waterfront with the Talamage Bridge in the backgroundStrolls along the Savannah waterfront. (Photo: SavannahVisit.com)

Photo of wild horses on Cumberland IslandWatching wild horses on Cumberland Island, Georgia feed in the marshy grass. (Photo: National Park Service)

On To Sunny Florida

Our first stops in the Sunshine State are usually Jacksonville or St. Augustine, followed by Daytona and the Space Coast. There are very nice, convenient marinas all along the ICW in these areas, but call ahead to make sure you get a space, particularly during snowbird season. For some reason the number of bridges and occasionally uncooperative tenders seems to increase as you head further south. Getting through the openings can be a challenge, especially when the bridge tenders are reluctant to help determine whether there's clearance for your boat. With a larger boat, it's worth planning on shorter days of travel, booking marinas ahead, and having a backup plan. That wasn't something we knew in 2002 when we approached Fort Lauderdale during the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show in early November. We started looking for dockage in North Palm Beach, some 50-plus miles away, and found nothing until we stopped at a gas dock to fill up (in the dark, I might add) far south of Fort Lauderdale. The kind gas dock owners delayed their closing and let us spend the night at their dock, as long as we left by 6 a.m.

We docked at Miami Bayside the next day and flew home to work for several weeks. A month later on my birthday and our 20th wedding anniversary, we flew back to celebrate on the boat. The flight was delayed several hours and we didn't get to the boat until after all the restaurants and local stores had closed. The long-awaited birthday and anniversary celebrations turned into a meal of crackers and boxed macaroni and cheese, with aging Girl Scout cookies for dessert. But we accompanied it with a bottle of vintage Bordeaux from the year of our marriage that we'd brought down on the boat, and toasted ourselves on the flybridge under a canopy of stars and a gorgeous full moon in balmy Miami. It was just one more great memory of cruising the ICW. 

Lori Ross is a marketing and PR executive, and a food writer for various magazines. She and her husband have owned several boats. They currently own a Fleming 55.

— Published: October/November 2014


Good To Know

Bridge Etiquette

Know the name of the bridge before you arrive and always communicate with the bridge tender. Try to time your arrival at bridges with scheduled openings, so you don't have to sit and circle with lots of other boats. It can get crowded while boats are waiting for the bridge, and you may need to contend with strong currents. Pick a spot fairly close, but not too close, to the bridge, and try to hold your position by facing into the current and using the throttle at the same speed as it's moving. Boats with the current get to pass under the bridge first after it's fully opened.

Communicating

Channel 13 is for navigational use between vessels. It is on this channel that large vessels in close proximity announce their intentions to one another, and it's also the primary channel used at bridges and locks. Use this channel to announce your arrival to a bridge or lock tender, or to communicate with a nearby ship or other large vessel. You do not need to call on Channel 16 first; Channel 13 serves both as a hailing and working channel. Transmission power on this channel is restricted to 1 watt, so be sure to switch your radio to low power.

Channels 6 and 22A are also important to pleasure boaters. Channel 6 is reserved for inter-ship safety use, primarily during search-and-rescue operations. Channel 22A is reserved for communications with the Coast Guard. By the way, it's illegal to contact the Coast Guard for a radio check. Call TowBoatUS instead.

 

Tug Talk

When navigating the narrow channels of the ICW, tugs and barges will signal their intentions using sound signals. Under inland rules, which apply in most of the ICW, you need to respond with the same signal, and use the signals yourself when approaching other vessels to let them know what you are going to do. Here's what the barge's horn is telling you:

  • One short blast: "I intend to leave you on my port side."
  • Two short blasts: "I intend to leave you on my starboard side."
  • Three short blasts: "I am operating astern propulsion."
  • Five short blasts: Doubt or danger signal if the signal has not been understood or the proposed action may not be safe.

To be comfortable with the inland rules and understand how they differ from the international regulations, carry a copy of the rules for navigation aboard and brush up on them before you go by visiting the U.S. Coast Guard's Navigation Center.

 

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