We have a 5' draft and are reading news articles concerning the problems with the ICW and how the commercial companies were saying they at least a grounding a day with barges.
I've talked with a couple of loopers here at this Marina who said they had issues on the ICW.
Being concerned about "a couple" compared to the thousands who take it each year tells me that you're over thinking this. What are their reasons? Masts too high? Draft too deep? They just hated the motoring they had to do? The ICW isn't for everyone for all sorts of reasons. Some prefer sailing more than motoring so they travel on the outside. Others hate waiting around for bridges to open. Some don't like to deal with the large power boats in narrow channels.
I was trying to find the article I read that talked about Commercial traffic that had to bypass the ICW and go into open waters because the ICW was so shallow. I was trying to find it because I know that some "know it all" is going to want to argue and say there is nothing wrong with the ICW.
They don't dredge it, if you get caught on the ICW at low tide you'll be laying on your side for 6 hours waiting for it to come back up, the channels are poorly marked or not marked at all in areas.......
Don't compare the needs of commercial vessels to recreational boats. Again: over thinking. Some commercial vessels need deep channels. In the Chesapeake the commercial channels are at least 45 feet deep. If those channels went away, sure the commercial traffic would stop but it wouldn't impact any recreational boat, most of which don't consistently sail within the channels anyway.
And if you find yourself grounded, what's the problem waiting for the tide? Happens all the time.
There is tons of support for boaters traveling the ICW and the The Loop. Local knowledge, flotillas of people who go together to help newbies on their first trip, radio nets, etc.
I understand that you're trying to get as much information as possible before sticking your toe in, I'm the same way. I'm sure that I don't "know it all" but I've sailed part of the ICW and have friends who take it every year and I think I "know enough" to say that before you talk yourself into a lather, I would suggest that you try researching the folks who are out there and happily experiencing the bi-annual commute with no problems that can't be overcome. Don't just pay attention to the negatives without proper context.
St. Augustine is a popular stop for snow birds and has an extremely strong support system for assistance, local knowledge, etc.
St Augustine Cruiser's Net
Mark Doyle and his wife are a great ICW resource. They sell cruising guides to the ICW
and on my trip provided a lot of helpful information to us concerning inlets, marinas, etc. We had their book open in the cockpit and received almost daily emails from them as they were following our trip up the coast.
If you Google "Wally Moran ICW", he has all sorts of support for new ICW cruisers. One of his videos:
And his ICW blog: LiveBloggin' the ICW