ICW Tips from a Seasoned Captain

Written by Ben Cashen
Written by Captain Ben Cashen

Ben Cashen, Dockmaster at Wayfarer Marine in Camden, Maine and a delivery captain in the off-season, recently crewed on a boat from Baltimore, Md. to West Palm Beach, Fl. Here are some of the things he learned on his trip down the ICW.

1. Before cruising into unfamiliar waters, it’s crucial to have a local electronics shop update your chart-plotter software.

2. Bring along the latest paper charts. Our outdated charts had the same information that was on our outdated GPS charts—a dangerous combo.

3. Have a complete maintenance check done on your vessel prior to leaving on your trip.

4. The Internet is a wealth of information, both before and during the trip. Marinalife offers ICW cruise itinerariesand they will even book your legs.

5. Make sure you have an extra spotlight. Our one light quit during the last six hours of the trip—having an extra one would  have prevented a few minor groundings on an otherwise uneventful trip. It’s easy to miss a mark in the ICW at night.

6. Purchase a laser tape measure from your local hardware store. If you’ve got some questionable bridge heights, use the tape measure to shoot the distance from the bow up to the bridge—if you know your maximum height above deck, you should  be able to do some quick math to figure out if you’ll make it under the bridge. The height boards on bridges don’t always tell the truth.

7. Conventional wisdom says you can’t run the ICW at night, but that’s not true. Some sections are a bit sketchier than others, but if you’re prudent and pay attention night cruising is doable, fun, and challenging.

8. If you have a friend with a night-vision scope, borrow it.We had one onboard and it turned difficult decisions into easy ones.

9. Don’t always follow the leader. Depending upon the speed of your boat, some days you may get stuck behind another  vessel. You might think you have it easy as you kick back and just follow the guy in front of you—until he misses a mark  and leads you into the mud too.

10. Be nice to the bridge tenders. During our final hours coming into West Palm Beach we had to clear three bridges, all of  which opened on different schedules.We missed a bridge opening by just a few minutes. This could have screwed up our  timing on the rest of the openings, but the bridge tender was kind enough to open the bridge just for us—he knew from our  conversation with the previous bridge tender that we’d had a long night, so he did us a favor. The last bridge tender helped  us out this way too.

11. Be a good ICW Samaritan. If you see boaters behaving weirdly or erratically, give them a hail on the VHF. You could  save somebody from danger—trust me, they will be grateful.

These are some of the many things I learned—or relearned—during this past trip.There seems to be a negative feeling  about the ICW among boaters, that it’s too difficult and challenging. But isn’t that the point? The ICW is a unique piece of  Americana, it’s the liquid version of Route 66, with quirky little stops along the way. It has its own culture. In fact it’s a great piece of American History—the entire thing was Thomas Jefferson’s idea, and much of the section known as the Dismal Swamp Route was built upon George Washington’s property. You can’t get closer to history than that.