I'll bet the last time you drove down the East Coast of the US to Florida, the extent of what you can remember is that every intersection in every state looked exactly alike. Fast food joints, gas stations and Motel 6s or 8s have turned each corner and almost every mile into an identical blur. High-speed freeways and tacky billboards have taken away all of the romance of traveling to new areas these days. If you're ready for a unique and special change from all that, the Intracoastal Waterway is the route for you! Get ready to slow down and enjoy the trip.
I wonder if back in 1654, when men first dreamt of connecting these natural inland waterways with canals for the purposes of commerce, they knew just how happy they would make thousands of cruising sailors over the years to come? Nowhere else in the world will you find a continuous stretch of protected water that winds its way through such incredibly diverse landscapes while offering the traveler so intimate a glimpse of history.
The Intracoastal Waterway, usually just called the ICW, covers the area between Norfolk, VA and Key West, FL. In fact, Norfolk is deemed mile 0, and as you travel the 1,243 miles south, chart books and guidebooks reference your position by the mile. There are even physical "mile markers" stuck near the shore that you'll see some places. What began as a project many years ago to promote safe passage for commercial vessels has today become a virtual blue highway for sailors.
|"Sailors who take the time to travel the ICW find that a special magic unfolds as they travel at a new pace of life."|
Sailors who take the time to travel the ICW find that a special magic unfolds as they travel at a new pace in life—sailboat speed. And as you amble south, prepare to lose yourself in a whole new mindset. Winding rivers, beautiful Carolina sounds and Georgia marshlands stretch as far as the eye can see. Florida attractions never hawked on any billboard will fill your senses. And the wildlife, well, it's simply unsurpassed.
In this two-part article, we'll give you an idea of what to expect on a trip down the ICW, what's needed to plan your trip, as well as some practical suggestions to make your experience more enjoyable. Here in Part One, we'll cover the type of traffic you'll encounter, the ins and outs of anchoring and docking, plus information about water depths, bridges, and locks.
Traffic Once underway on the ICW, you'll find that you're sharing the water with an array of different boats. The commercial traffic you encounter will be an occasional tug and barge carrying chemicals, or maybe a load of timber. US Coast Guard workboats are commonly seen maintaining the aids to navigation along the way. Casino boats, tour boats or commercial fishermen heading to or from a nearby inlet round out the fleet. If you meet commercial traffic in a narrow stretch of the ICW and are unsure of their intentions, a quick call on VHF Channel 16 or 13 will help you coordinate a safe encounter.
The volume of traffic on the ICW peaks in the spring during the months of April and May, then again in the fall months of October and November. These are the months of seasonal migration during which thousands of boats travel to and from various winter destinations. For new cruisers, the first experience of being part of this seasonal migration is very exciting and quite eye-opening. New friendships are easily made along the way through the automatic kinship cruising sailors feel with each other. You'll find yourself continually running into the same boats time and time again at fuel stops, anchorages, and marinas. Happy-hour gatherings and the sharing of information soon become a way of life. Veteran cruisers often return to the ICW year after year just to be part of the pure fun and comradeship that accompanies those who transit this route.
And once in awhile the weekend recreational boat traffic of jet skis and motor boats builds up and reminds you that there are people still working the rest of the week. You'll usually get lots of envious stares and friendly waves as you travel through their home waters.
The addition of a high-frequency radio to your boat's equipment can enhance your adventure on the ICW. There are both SSB and Ham radio "cruiser nets" in the morning during which cruisers share information with one another and stay in touch. The Ham net is at 7:45 a.m. (Eastern Time) on 7.268 MHz lower sideband, and the SSB net is at 8:30 a.m. (Eastern Time) on 8.152 MHz upper sideband.
Anchorages and Docking Budget-minded sailors will be thrilled to hear that it is possible to find safe, interesting and free anchorages the entire length of the ICW. Lots of cruisers have traveled the ICW for years and never paid a single cent in dockage fees. But saving money isn't the only reason to anchor out. The anchorages along the ICW vary greatly from one area to the next. One night you may find yourself in a beautiful remote spot being entertained for hours by an alligator stalking a shore bird for his supper. The next night you'll enjoy the twinkling lights of a quaint waterfront town while live music drifts lazily across the waters from a local watering hole. Then, sometimes you're forced to anchor in less desirable spots where you're surrounded by brightly lit condominiums and the drone of heavy traffic from a nearby road. Fortunately, the beautiful spots are far more prevalent than the latter.
In choosing your anchor spot for the night you'll find lots of help from the various guidebooks written about the ICW. The shallower your draft, the more options you will have. We sometimes find that cruisers rely too heavily on guidebooks and forget to look at their own charts and use common sense. More than once we have arrived at an anchorage recommended by a guidebook only to find it crowded with boats. Then when we check the chart, we find that there is a perfectly suitable place just around the corner, but because it's not listed in the guidebook, it's totally empty. We've never been unable to find a spot with room to anchor for the night on the ICW.
There are many cruisers along the ICW who prefer to tie up each night, and some who just like to treat themselves every once in awhile. For these folks there are a large number of marinas along the entire route, most which are well listed in the various guidebooks. Transient dockage fees down the ICW range from as low as $1.00 per foot per night to several dollars per foot in some of the more ritzy locations, like Miami Beach. During the busiest travel months, it's wise to call ahead by phone or VHF to reserve a slip for the night. Some marinas fill up quickly.
|"Those who choose to anchor out will have no problem finding shore access by dinghy along the ICW."|
With so many towns and numerous marinas dotting the shores of the ICW, taking care of domestic needs, like grocery shopping, doing laundry and getting propane or water, is never a problem. You'll find some marinas even offer a courtesy car so you can easily take care of your shore-side chores. Those who choose to anchor out all the time will have no problem finding shore access by dinghy along the ICW. Occasionally you may find that a small fee is required to tie up your dinghy in some parts.
If space allows, it's lots of fun to have folding bikes onboard. They allow you to explore new towns in greater depth and can be useful for hauling groceries back to the dock. Lots of cruisers use folding handcarts or knapsacks. There are also plenty of towns where bikes aren't needed as shops are within easy walking distance.
Water Depths The controlling minimum water depth in the ICW is 12 feet for most of the route. Often it's deeper, but occasionally you'll find stretches that carry only seven or eight feet of water. These are well marked on the chart, and fortunately they're the exception rather than the rule.
Just a few miles into a trip south on the ICW, you have the option of choosing the Dismal Swamp route through northern North Carolina. Although the chart shows a controlling depth of nine feet, this is outdated information. This route often carries six feet or less, and is greatly affected by rainfall. Check the current depths with the Army Corps of Engineers or with the lock tender before taking this route.
We think that it's important to acknowledge in advance that in all but the shallowest of draft vessels you are probably going to bump bottom occasionally if you cruise the ICW. Running aground is usually a result of not paying attention to the well-marked channel or getting too close to one side or the other. In our current boat Serengeti, which draws six and a half feet, we have no problem running this inland waterway. OK, maybe we bumped a couple of times when not paying attention because we were enjoying the scenery too much, but when we have found ourselves aground, we've always been able to reverse course, re-orient ourselves with the channel and proceed.
Bridges and Locks An important part transiting the ICW involves the passing under or through many bridges. Both fixed and opening bridges need to be approached with certain knowledge and a modicum of respect. The fixed high-rise bridges on the Waterway are designed to provide a free vertical clearance of 65 feet. The actual bridge clearance however can differ from its design and from what's shown on your chart. Tides, wind, and even rainfall can all affect the actual clearance of a fixed bridge. It's common to see bridge clearance gauges that indicate less than the intended 65 feet. Boats with tall masts need to approach high-rise bridges carefully and proceed underneath only after confirming that the rig will fit.
Cruisers with mast heights between 63 and 65 feet are faced with a dilemma: Do you continue down the ICW approaching each bridge with trepidation, or turn around and sail offshore for the rest of your trip? Neither is a great option. If you find yourself in this crowd, you'll will need to confirm each bridge at arrival, occasionally wait for low tide, and sometimes be forced to either heel the boat to one side, or turn around and backtrack to the next offshore inlet.
Our mast on Serengeti extends 60 feet above the water. This places the tip of our VHF antenna at 63 feet. We've never touched our antenna on any bridge structure, but we do know of several taller-masted boats that have sheared off their masthead tri-colors on the underside of bridges. How's that for a close shave? Our experience tells us that all masts shorter than 63 feet will not pose a problem on the ICW. Take notice that the Julia Tuttle Causeway bridge in Miami somehow ended up with only 56 feet of clearance. A mistaken inversion of numbers, perhaps? Who knows? But boats with masts taller than 56 feet must go out the inlet at Fort Lauderdale and re-join the ICW at the Miami inlet.
|"Experience tells us that all masts shorter than 63 feet will not pose a problem on the ICW."|
The opening bridges on the ICW are almost as varied as the route itself. You'll encounter swing bridges, bascule bridges, and lift bridges. Some of the bridges, like the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine, FL, are literal works of art. Others are just boring steel structures performing a function without any reward or tangential beauty.
Many bridges open "On Demand", or "On Request" as bridge tenders prefer to say, but quite a few have restricted opening schedules. In metropolitan areas, high-traffic bridges often have restricted openings, or stay closed for several hours to accommodate morning and afternoon rush hour traffic. Other bridges along the route may open only on the hour and half-hour, every 20 minutes, or sometimes every 15 minutes.
Obviously, knowing the name and opening schedule of an upcoming bridge is extremely important for your trip to run smoothly. As bridge names are not always posted on bridges, nor are they always found on your chart, make sure the guidebook you select includes information about all opening bridges. In addition to our guidebooks, we keep a handy waterproof sheet with us in the cockpit that lists the names and opening schedules of all ICW bridges by mile marker.
The VHF frequency to use for requesting a bridge opening is either Channel 13 or 9 depending upon the state. Most bridge tenders prefer that you request your opening when you are within a quarter mile of the bridge. Openings can be requested by horn, but that's seldom seen today, and is pretty hard on your ears if it's repeated over and over again.
State highway departments like to build shorter rather than longer bridges whenever possible to save money. As a result, bridges are often positioned at the narrowest point for a given body of water. The positioning of these bridges sometimes results in exciting times for us boaters, as these areas of constricted water can carry swift currents and sometimes strong and gusty winds. These combinations require a diligent hand on the tiller or wheel when approaching both fixed and opening bridges. A dangerous situation can quickly unfold approaching a bridge in a narrow cut with a following current. With this in mind, it's important to closely note other boat traffic in and around a bridge, and closely monitor your radio as you approach. You may need to yield to another boat that needs room or find that you need additional pace yourself to safely maneuver within the channel.
There are very few locks on the ICW. If you take the main (eastern) route south, there is a single lock at Great Bridge, VA which is easily entered and only takes a few minutes of lock time before it's done. If you choose the route through the Dismal Swamp, there is a lock at each end of the canal. All of these locks are simple and straightforward with no swirling or rushing waters to worry about. And these locks can be a great place to chat a little face to face with other boats heading the same way.
Sue & Larry's second installment about sailing on the ICW will appear in early February, 2002.
Anchoring on the ICW by Sue & Larry
Rounding Cape Hatteras by John Kretschmer
Sailing Inshore of Offshore by SailNet
Buying Guide: Chartplotters