Peter Nielsen brings you this guide to cruising the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), or as it is more widely known, ‘The Ditch’
Perhaps you’ve cruised the Caribbean and fancy heading up the east coast of the United States to sample the fine cruising grounds of the Chesapeake Bay or New England. Or perhaps you’re a Canadian sailor itching to escape the brutal northern winter. Either way, you will become acquainted with the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).
The ICW – or ‘The Ditch’, as it is affectionately known by many – stretches 1,088 miles (statute, not nautical) from Mile Marker 1 in Norfolk, Virginia, to its end point in Key West. It is part of a 3,000-mile series of interconnected waterways that can take you all the way from Virginia to Texas.
On the east coast, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a busy highway in the autumn and spring. The snowbirds flock south in the fall, gathering on the Chesapeake to head south after the Annapolis Boat Show in October and get to Florida as the hurricane season ends in late November. In the spring, there’s a procession of boats heading back to the Chesapeake or downeast to Maine.
American sailors have something of a love-hate relationship with the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. On the one hand they deplore the need to motor the best part of 1,000 miles when they could be sailing; on the other, they welcome the many opportunities to duck into shelter from threatening weather. The majority of cruisers taking the offshore option will, for instance, happily nip into the ICW to avoid rounding the notorious Cape Hatteras.
Before I actually went down the ICW for the first time, I did not think of it as a cruising destination in its own right. ‘The Ditch’ sounded far from appealing to this deepwater sailor. Yet over the course of three forays down various parts of the waterway, I began to enjoy it for its own sake. Yes, you will be plugging along under power for many miles, but you will also pass through some beautiful scenery and visit parts of the country that typical tourists would never get to see.
Sailing the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway
You’ll also get to sail some, notably on the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, though there are many other places where you can unroll the genoa to get a break from the engine. My favourite parts are the northern section, from Norfolk, Virginia, down to Beaufort, North Carolina, and farther south to Charleston, South Carolina.
On my first excursion I motored slowly down the historic, 22-mile-long Dismal Swamp Canal, dug by slave labour in the late 18th century as a trade route. Its inky black water, infused with tannin from the swamp vegetation, left a brown moustache on our bow. Our spreaders grazed overhanging branches and our 6ft 3in keel bounced over the shallows.
It was a unique experience, followed by a gorgeous cruise along a winding tree-lined river to a welcoming town called Belhaven, where we tied up to the free dock and a friendly local drove us to the supermarket. From there, we set sail at first light in a solid blow, bouncing across a choppy Albemarle Sound, and made 80 miles before dark. Such are the contrasts of the ICW.
There are some pretty towns and cities that warrant a few days’ exploration, for anyone not in delivery mode. Some are famous, some you’ve likely not heard of.
In Norfolk, Virginia, you can marvel at the sight of a good chunk of the US Navy lined up almost gunwale to gunwale along the riverbank; deceptively sleepy Oriental, North Carolina, is home to two good boatyards; while the two Beauforts, ‘Bowfort’ in North Carolina and ‘Bewfort’ in South Carolina, are charming stopovers.
Charleston, also in South Carolina, is an almost mandatory stop, as is Savannah in Georgia. Many cruisers get as far as St Augustine and decide to stop there for a spell. To me, it’s the best town on Florida’s east coast.
As you motor farther south, things get busy. Above the Keys, the Florida coast lacks the charm of the Carolinas or Georgia, and so does the ICW. It’s here that, if there’s a northerly component to the wind, the temptation to hop outside (but stay west of the Gulf Stream) and make some fast miles away from bridges and currents becomes overpowering.
Sure, there are a couple of nice towns to stop at for a while – Vero Beach and Stuart, for example, and it would be a shame to steam past Cape Canaveral without a tour of the space centre – but generally speaking it’s a dull run, and the farther south you go, the more congested the waterway becomes.
Down around Fort Pierce, a good many sailing crews split off and head across to the Bahamas, while others head down as far as Fort Lauderdale. However, I’d recommend going outside well before you get too far south, or at least do not travel on a weekend; as it’s here that the boat traffic gets hellish.
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway can become chockablock with all manner of overpowered and under-piloted watercraft, a celebration of horsepower and inebriation, all zooming around willy-nilly. I stayed in the waterway a little too long last year, and being trapped in tight quarters amid so many powerboats was downright frightening at times.
There’s a bridge with only 56ft clearance just before you get to Miami, so most sailing boats have to go into the Atlantic at Fort Lauderdale and back into Miami at Government Cut.
For many, Miami marks the end of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway; it’s an easy staging point for the Bahamas. The ICW continues down to the Florida Keys and then up and around the Gulf of Mexico, but most east coast cruisers, and most foreign vessels, either break off and head towards the western Caribbean, or go to the Bahamas and perhaps south to the Eastern Caribbean.
One of the first things the bluewater sailor will notice about the ICW is the sheer number of bridges. There are some 160 between Hampton and Miami. Most of them are fixed bridges, all built to a vertical clearance of 65ft (20m) above the high-water mark. Supposedly built to that height, anyway.
Mind the gap
During my foray down part of the Florida ICW on a catamaran with a 63ft (19.2m) air draught, we lost the masthead wind transducer on one bridge and nervously watched the VHF antenna scraping the underneath of several more. This is nerve-wracking if you have some current with you and are effectively committed, watching the height boards at the centre span and hoping they aren’t lying.
Then there are the opening bridges, which relieve you of height concerns but offer some challenges of their own. Some are bascule bridges, others have a span swinging sideways to open the path for water traffic, others have lifting spans. The latter are usually found in populated areas, or where topography precludes a fixed bridge.
Some will open on demand, the etiquette for which involves a call on Ch13 or Ch9 and a usually pleasant interaction with the bridgekeeper. Others open to a timetable, usually on the half hour. This leads to plenty of strategising, as you either hurry to get to the next bridge in time to avoid milling around with a bunch of other boats waiting for the next opening, or slow down so you don’t get there too soon. What’s more, many of the metropolitan bridges don’t open at all during morning and evening rush hours. Diligent study of bridge locations and timetables will ease your passage along the ICW.
The further south you get, the more bridges you will encounter, peaking in heavily populated southern Florida. The only three locks you’ll encounter are all in Virginia, and they’re easy enough to negotiate.
Depending on your draught, there are plenty of places to anchor for the night along the ICW, and no shortage of town docks and marinas, though these often fill up quickly from mid-October to December and April through May.
I’ve stayed for free, or nearly so, at docks in small but welcoming towns along the waterway, and enjoyed hot showers and restaurant meals
in marinas, but most of all I have enjoyed the many lovely anchorages I’ve discovered.
Often, an overnight stop is as easy as pulling a few boat lengths off the channel, depth permitting, and dropping the hook. The various guides to the ICW will point out the best spots. One October we pulled over to a tiny dock on the Dismal Swamp Canal and shivered in our blankets as the temperature dropped close to freezing on the stillest of nights; next day we were in shorts and T-shirts again.
Another time, just north of St Augustine in Florida, we sat on deck with gin and tonics and watched an hours-long lightning show play out in the clouds, happy not to be underneath it. And on one occasion, anchored in a cut leading out into the Atlantic, I paced the deck nervously as the wind pushed the boat one way and the current another, the anchor chain stretching bar-taut astern. In some places you may want to double up on your anchors, or drop a kellett from the bow to make sure your anchor chain doesn’t foul your keel or running gear.
I also recall sitting out a late November north-easterly in Beaufort, North Carolina, where the boat heeled in her berth to 50-knot gusts while we sat in a bar eating boiled oysters, feeling relieved to be in a marina.
Luckily, such blows are well forecast and there’s really no excuse for being caught out in one. They also remind you why you’re in the ICW instead of out at sea at that time of year.
During that same passage south, we left Morehead City, North Carolina, bound for Charleston, only to catch a forecast that made us duck back into the ICW at Wrightsville Beach. That night, snug at anchor, we listened to the wind howling in the rigging while 20 miles offshore, about where we’d have been, a new Beneteau 50 was dismasted and its crew rescued by helicopter.
Navigating the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway
Make no mistake, the ICW is shallow. The US Army Corps of Engineers tries to maintain the depth to 9ft (2.7m), but given the nature of the waterway, with its often strong currents, things aren’t always the way they’re supposed to be. I’ve run aground several times, but only once with any damage. On the other hand, some friends went the length of the waterway without a functioning depth sounder and never once touched bottom.
I used Navionics charts on my iPad on each of my ICW trips and never had any issues. Although some commercial traffic does run at night, it would be foolhardy for us sailors to do the same. It would be all too easy to misjudge a turn and end up with your keel stuck in the mud.
The navigation marks are all well kept, and follow American red-right-returning protocol, return being southbound on the east coast.
Channel markers can become confusing where channels from seaward intersect with the ICW, so there’s a simple system of reflective yellow squares and triangles superimposed on the nav aids; leave the triangles to starboard, the squares to port. If the nav aids don’t have the yellow marks, you’ve left the ICW.
Dealing with traffic
At least until you get to the chaos of south Florida, boat traffic on the waterway is easy enough to deal with. Faster boats wanting to pass should hail you via VHF. If you’re feeling generous you can slow down to let them pass faster, which is sensible, for you don’t know what’s coming your way around the next bend.
We sailors are slower than most other traffic, so we get passed often. Most powerboaters will slow down as they pass so as not to ‘wake’ you. There are some exceptions, notably big sport fishing boats with professional crews who delight in steaming past at full speed.
It can get crowded at bridges, so my advice is to hang back and let the nimbler powerboats go first.
Planning an Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway passage
There is lots of literature about the ICW, most of it hard pilotage advice, which is as it should be. If you want some entertaining reading, try The Boy, Me and the Cat, by Henry Plummer, a fun tale of a cruise up the ICW in a small catboat in 1912.
Otherwise, here are some useful books and websites:
The Intracoastal Waterway, Norfolk to Miami – The Complete Cockpit Cruising Guide, by Bill Moeller/John Kettlewell.
Waterway Guide Atlantic ICW, by Waterway Guide Media (updated annually).
2021 ICW Cruising Guide, by Bob423.
Many cruisers swear by Bob423’s frequently updated online guides and paperback books. Bob has travelled the ICW for many years and few know it better. His blog is at bobicw.blogspot.com
You’ll spend a lot of time obsessing about bridges and their opening times; the Waterway Guide website and Bob423’s blog are good sources of up-to-date info.
On my ICW excursions, I have exclusively used Navionics charts on iPad and phone, with C-Map charts on the plotter as a backup. I have been happy with the accuracy and functionality of the Navionics charts. Many cruisers also swear by Aquamaps.
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