Cruising the ICW, Part Two - SailNet Community
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Cruising the ICW, Part Two

In the second part of their series on cruising the ICW, Sue & Larry offer tips on planning your trip as well as some of the highlights along this waterway. To review Transiting the ICW, Part I, click here.

Coastal Florida's white pelicans are just some of the abundant wildlife to be seen along the ICW.

Sailors who are fortunate enough to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway soon fall into whatever rhythm a combination of their boat speed and mindsets will allow. The speed of the average cruising boat usually settles in between five and six knots, so you can quite easily cover 40 to 50 miles per day. If you are so inclined, you can do more by getting up early and running until dark. When we want to make good time, we find that if we raise the anchor and get moving before we drink our coffee, eat our breakfast, and listen to the radio nets, we have much easier days and usually have the boat anchored early in the evening to enjoy a beautiful sunset.

But at the other extreme of the scheduling spectrum you'll often find yourself in such a beautiful spot that you might decide to stay for several days to go out exploring or fishing in your dinghy. The ICW has a lot to offer and it's best experienced at a leisurely pace. We recommend that you make it part of your cruise, not just a route to another destination.

Now, to navigate the ICW, all you really need is a basic set of navigation tools. A chart, parallel rules, dividers, a guide book, tide tables, a good pair of binoculars, a depth sounder, and a VHF radio is all that's required.

The majority of channel markers on the ICW are visible from one to the next with the naked eye; nonetheless, it often helps to have binoculars on board.

On most stretches of the waterway you can spot the next channel marker up ahead with the naked eye. On our last trip south aboard Serengeti, we didn't even turn on our GPS. We could have used it in the larger sounds of the Carolinas and Georgia where the channel markers are spread apart, but instead, we just sailed by the compass.

Since you'll need charts for quite a large area, your best bet is to buy the Maptech chart kits. Two chart kits will guide you all the way from Norfolk, VA, to Key West, FL. By using these instead of individual charts, you'll know that you have every chart you need and in a convenient bound book. To learn about the area you're sailing through and what facilities are available, it's helpful to have a cruising guide for each state or region. A well-considered cruising guide will provide information about marinas, bridges, restaurants, and grocery stores, plus information about different anchorages.

"You'll often find yourself anchoring in just six to 10 feet of water."
You'll often find yourself anchoring in just six to 10 feet of water. For this reason, it's very important to have current tidal information. We always carry a current issue of Reeds Nautical Almanac–North American East Coast. This reference book provides us with the up-to-date information about tides and currents for the whole East Coast, plus it's filled with all sorts of other helpful information from the description of inlets to useful radio frequencies.

Some sailors cruising the ICW will take along a road map for the Eastern US. When used along with a chart, the maps can help put into perspective exactly where in the heck you are, and often make a trip more interesting for both experienced sailors and guests.

Aids to navigation along the ICW are about as good as it gets. If one is missing or damaged, it's usually reported immediately to the Coast Guard by a helpful boater. A notice to mariners is then put out by the Coast Guard over the VHF radio. Once in a while you'll come to an area where the channels go in more than one direction. A quick and easy way to determine which is the ICW, and which is not, is that all ICW markers have reflective yellow triangles on the red markers and yellow squares on the green markers.

As with other regions, anchorages along the ICW can get crowded, so it's advisable to have a backup plan for each stopover.

For many sailors, maintaining contact with family and friends back home while traveling the ICW is an imperative, and luckily this has never been easier than it is today. That's because taking a cell phone on your trip or having access to e-mail is more affordable today than ever. If you plan to use shoreside pay phones, prepaid calling cards are convenient, since there's no bill to pay once you're back home. These items are widely available at extremely competitive rates.

Post offices in the many towns and cities along the ICW will accept mail forwarded to you marked "General Delivery, Hold for s/v boatname," along with the local post office address. And we've found that most marinas are more than accommodating in receiving packages and holding them for you even if you aren't a guest there.

We're often asked what our favorite parts of the ICW are. There are so many completely different and interesting facets to this waterway that it's difficult to narrow it down. It's really a combination of the fascinating, individual historical cities, the allures of nature, and the constantly changing scenery that makes this trip unique. Not wanting to miss anything, we frequently find it difficult to tear our eyes away from our surroundings.

"This little town offers free docks to cruisers, and greets every boat personally with a rose for the women on board."
As you begin a trip down the ICW from Norfolk, you are immediately treated to the awesome sight of hundreds of US naval ships that line the shores of this historic port. If you choose the Dismal Swamp route south, you're rewarded at the other end with the warmest welcome possible in Elizabeth City, NC. This little town offers free docks to cruisers, greets every boat personally with a rose for the women on board, and puts on a complimentary wine and cheese party each night that there's five or more boats in town.

You also won't want to miss a stop in Beaufort, NC (pronounced bow-fort). In this cruiser-friendly town you'll find a beautiful and interesting waterfront to explore. The local Maritime Museum offers complimentary cars to cruisers who need to run errands like locating spare parts or restocking the galley. The anchorage here presents you with the unique opportunity to sight wild horses grazing on the surrounding barrier islands.

Charleston and Beaufort, SC (pronounced bew-fort), Savannah, GA, Fernandina Beach and St. Augustine, FL, are all frequent several day stopping venues for cruisers who can't get enough of the distinctive southern flavor and slow pace these beautiful historical towns offer.

Another popular stopover—partially because of its free dockage for cruisers—is Barefoot Landing in Myrtle Beach, SC. This huge, but attractive, shopping and dining complex is located right on the ICW. The developers were nice enough to include a large dock and offer it free to boaters passing through for overnight stays. The free stay usually ends up costing you a bundle in bargains you just couldn't pass up on shore.

Winding rivers and spectacular sunsets are some of the highlights of the more remote areas along the ICW.

The winding rivers and graceful marshlands of Georgia present one of the most pleasing experiences for cruisers. You'll see birds in numbers and varieties that you never thought possible. The sunsets and sunrises can revitalize your soul, and with surroundings like these you'll soon forget that there is any civilized world out there.

In these waters, dolphins greet you and playfully tag along for a while. They'll leap in front of your boat and emerge alongside with mischievous grins on their faces. You'll frequently see deer grazing by the shoreline at dawn or dusk. Every now and then, you may spot one swimming across the water to reach a neighboring shore. Alligators and manatees are a thrill to see in the flesh, and wild horses are even more numerous in areas of Georgia than back in Beaufort, NC.

But nothing you've seen before will prepare you for the sights you'll come across in southern Florida. Every time you think you have just seen the largest, most incredible house ever, another one even more opulent appears around the corner. You're definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The same goes for the yachts in this area. A congregation such as this is hardly surpassed elsewhere in the world.

Weather and temperature swings can sometimes be dramatic while cruising the length of the ICW. A variety of clothing from bathing suits to warm fleece jackets and good rain gear is required. Special attention to protection from the sun, wind, and rain will make the trip considerably more pleasant. We found that having a good bimini or dodger was essential, and the addition of side curtains can offer a welcome retreat from the elements.

Sue follows her own advice by fashioning a comfortable seat for those long stints at the helm while underway.
For such long spells at the helm, it helps to set up your cockpit to include comfortable seating. The ideal helmsman's seat will allow you to see markers and traffic ahead and anything that's behind, without having to frequently stand up to look around. A good back rest and cushioned seat will let you enjoy the long days spent seated with little moving about.

We also recommend that cruisers on the ICW invest in a good pair of binoculars. These will be put to constant use identifying channel markers, catching the glory of nature up close, or just reading the name on an interesting looking boat ahead of you.

Sailing or motor sailing is possible for many stretches of the ICW. You'll find, however, that much of the time you'll rely upon the iron genny as the sole means of propulsion. Before you leave, analyze your boat's range under motor. It might be wise to increase the fuel capacity. Most cruisers simply lash jerry cans of diesel on deck. The fewer fuel stops you have to make, the more enjoyable the trip will be.

The ICW is a one-of-a- kind gem for the cruising sailor. Its protected waters allow a boat to travel safely for hundreds of miles with little concern for the weather. That alone would make this route special, but it has more to offer than just protection. It's the remoteness, the history, the nature, and the friendly people you meet along the way. This combination embodies the true spirit of the ICW.

You may have time to enjoy just a short portion of it, or be lucky enough to go the whole route. Many sailors combine this route of ultimate protection with offshore passages down the coast. No matter how you plan to cruise the ICW, you'll find something unique and interesting with every turn of the bend.

Referencing the ICW

Of course every trip you make can be enhanced by a little information in advance, so here's a list of guidebooks, reference books, and chart books that you'll find useful for cruising the ICW:

The Intracoastal Waterway, Norfolk to Miami: A Cockpit Cruising Handbook by Jan & Bill Moeller

The Intracoastal Waterway Chart Book—Norfolk to Miami edited by John & Leslie Kettlewell

Cruising Guide to Eastern Florida by Claiborne S. Young

Cruising Guide to South Carolina & Georgia by Claiborne S. Young

Anchorages Along the Intracoastal Waterway by Skipper Bob

Marinas Along the Intracoastal Waterway by Skipper Bob

Intracoastal Waterway Facilities Guide by Offshore Communications

Reed's Nautical Almanac—North American East Coast by Thomas Reed Publications. (This is a yearly publication)

ICW anchorages on line from Tom Dove

ICW webpage
Bridge Names by Mile Marker with opening schedules.

Intracoastal Waterway – Norfolk to Jacksonville, Maptech Chart Kit No. 6

Florida's East Coast and the Keys, Maptech Chart Kit No. 7

Suggested Reading:

Transiting the ICW, Part One by Sue & Larry

Anchoring on the ICW by Sue & Larry

Negotiating Bridges by Michelle Potter


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