Navigating The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway

Written by Chuck Baier
Written by Captain Chuck Baier

We are often asked how difficult it is to travel long distances on the Intracoastal Waterway in a boat. What size boat is ideal for doing the waterway? What equipment is needed? How long will it take? How many miles can be covered in a day? What will it cost? There really are no easy answers and there are no right or wrong answers. It’s almost like asking, “How long is a piece of string?” We have done the Atlantic ICW so many times now that we have lost count. We have also done a couple of transits of the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway and have a few ideas on what it takes and what works for us.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a series of rivers, sounds, creeks, bays and manmade canals that stretch some 1,200 miles from Norfolk, Virginia to Key West, Florida. The waterways, for the most part, are sheltered and easily navigable by boats small and large. We have seen kayakers, sailboats, small cruise ships and replicas of Christopher Columbus’ ships. Sailboats with mast heights of 65 feet or less and drafts of 6 feet or less can comfortably do the waterway. There are a couple of exceptions for the 65-foot rule, primarily the Julia Tuttle Bridge in Miami, and a couple of others that were supposed to be 65 feet, but in reality are only 64 feet. Many stretches along the waterway are also not maintained, especially in Georgia, so vessel draft will play a role in how well the transit goes.

What size boat is needed will depend on the comfort level of the crew. Some may need a large vessel with all of the comforts found in their homes, while others are quite happy by doing little more than camping out on a boat. When we sold our Mariner 40 ketch, Sea Trek, we considered boats in many size ranges. Our finally decision was to buy the smallest boat we felt comfortable living on rather than the largest boat we could afford. For us, this was a good decision. It keeps our cost of cruising down so we can cruise longer. It’s easier for one or both of us to handle and we have been able to explore many, many more places than we could with a larger boat and deeper draft. Each boat owner will have to decide for themselves. Any reasonably equipped vessel will have no problem transiting the ICW. There are a few pieces of equipment that are important to making a successful ICW cruise. For us, the depth sounder is number one. Everyone that has ever done the ICW has run aground at one time or another. Channels often shift or silt in, and the constantly shifting bottom conditions make it important to know how much water is under your keel. Another required item for us is the VHF radio. With the advent of cell phones today, some would say that aren’t as important as they once were. But get into trouble in an area where there is no cell phone service, I know it’s hard to believe, and the VHF will be your safety line. Also, it is important to have a VHF to communicate with other vessels.

There are many boaters that will argue that a good chartplotter is at the top of the list. We do use ours extensively and it is a primary piece of equipment on our boat. But we have done the waterway many times with nothing more than a good current set of paper charts, and we still carry them with us today. For us, even as many times as we have done the ICW, we never leave on a cruise without the most up-to-date set of charts. That includes paper charts as well as the charts on our plotter. We know the route, we know the best places to stop, and, of course, we know where the best anchorages are. But conditions can change from one year to the next and sometimes from one month to the next. On our first trip south, we had only a depth sounder, VHF, handheld GPS, compass and a set of paper charts. It was one of the best cruises in memory. If you have been reading this blog, you have a good idea of how Beach House is now equipped. Our autopilot has become a favorite crewmember, and we often use our radar on almost a daily basis, especially during the summer. The radar is used more to track storm cells and do anchor watch when the weather turns bad in the middle of the night than for any other use. Equipping the boat is one of those very personal decisions. It’s not necessary to have all of the latest toys to have a very enjoyable cruise on the ICW.

Probably the number one question we get is, how long will it take? Our answer is always the same, that depends. The trip can be done in about 4 weeks if everything is perfect. The first limiting factor is the number of miles a particular boat can do in daylight hours. It’s foolish, in our opinion, to travel the ICW at night. At times we find it a bit nerve wracking during the day. We so often see boaters that have done the ICW for many years rush from Norfolk to their destinations, usually in Florida, and miss some the the most fascinating and interesting cursing grounds that can be found anywhere. Stops along the ICW can range from quaint fishing villages to major metropolitan areas and just about everything in between. The hundreds and hundreds of solitary anchorages along the way are some of the greatest stress relievers we know. For Beach House and crew, the ICW is the destination. The number of side trips off the ICW can provide months of ideal cruising. The Outer Banks of North Carolina, small towns like Elizabeth City, New Bern, Washington, Georgetown and many more offer unparallelled hospitality and are filled with history.

During our transits we use a 50 mile per day average. Of course that’s only an average – some days are 70 or 80 miles and others might only be 5 miles. The ICW is best done at a leisurely pace with a general plan that is open to change. Each evening we sit down with our preferred guide and charts to decide where we want to be the next day. It’s also a good idea to review the stretch of waterway for any problem spots that might be found along the way. We have written a previous post on some ideas for a typical 50 day average. A couple of good resources for notices to mariners along the ICW are my own navigational notices on the Marinalife website and Cruisers Net by my good friend Claiborne Young. It’s our practice to make notes on our charts and in our guides on what we might expect out of the ordinary.

We secure the boat each day, just as we would if we are going offshore. It’s very unfortunate, but all too often we have been passed by vessels both large and small that have no regard or consideration for others on the water. These boats throwing off large wakes as they pass can cause things in the boat to fly off the counters and can cause damage as well as injury to the crew. In some cases it’s a lack of skill and knowledge and in other cases it’s obviously intentional. This is very unfortunate but is part of the experience that must be prepared for and considered. In our 20+ years of traveling along the Intracoastal Waterway, we have seen what appears to us to be more and more of this lack of consideration and seamanship and wrote about our observations in a previous post. The recognized proper way to pass is to approach the vessel from astern, slow down to match their speed, pass slowly close in on one side or another, and resume speed only after fully passing. But this concept seems to be unknown to many. The two vessels should be in communication on the VHF as all of this takes place. And of course the vessel being passed should slow enough so that the vessel doing the passing can indeed slow down enough not to make a big wake.

Navigating the narrow channels along the 1,200 miles of waterway requires a certain amount of skill and concentration. Many open sounds, and especially near inlets, will have a side-setting current that can quickly push the boat out of the channel and into very shallow water. Under these conditions, the helmsperson needs to not only look ahead, but watch behind to see if the boat is being pushed out of the channel. Many intersections can become very confusing, as side channel markers can be very similar to the ICW markers. All ICW markers will have a reflective yellow triangle or square on them. If the marker in the channel doesn’t have the triangle or square, the boat is no longer in the ICW. Since red and green markers can be on either side, depending on where you travel or whether north or south bound, it’s easier to remember that the triangles will always be on the mainland side and the squares will always be on the ocean side. Going south, the triangles will always be on the starboard side and the reverse going north. Once used to seeing them, it will be easy to remember. A good pair of binoculars are a must for picking out markers. There are many other signs and posts along the waterway so at times it can become confusing. We will go slow or even stop the boat if we are not sure of our exact position. Avoid the temptation to run from one channel marker to the next. To often the marker can sit in very shallow water, and by running right up to the marker, the boat may run aground. Find the center of the channel and try to stay there. There may be times when one side or the other may contain deeper water, and this is where study and research keeps the boat moving.

Running aground is bound to happen sooner or later. In most cases it’s just an inconvenience, but at times help is required. Unless the boat has exposed props and rudders, there should be little to no damage to the boat. Most of the bottom along the ICW is soft mud and sand. Sometimes the skipper can maneuver back into deeper water and sometimes it means waiting for the tide to come in and float the boat off. Other times, running aground at high tide might mean a tow to get moving again. There have been a couple of times when that annoying wake from another boat actually bounced us off the bottom and allowed just enough space to throttle off the shallows as the wake picked us up. If all else fails, a subscription to Towboat US or Sea Tow will be the only option. These subscriptions can also save lots of money in the event of a mechanical breakdown and the need for a tow. These types of tows should never be performed by untrained boaters.

The other most prevalent delay will be due to weather. Just recently, we were transiting a narrow stretch of the waterway and encountered a violent thunderstorm with wind on our beam in the 40 to 50 knot range, lightning, thunder and blinding rain that blanked out the channel markers and any other boats around us. Sometimes there is deep enough water to move out of the channel and wait it out. In those conditions, we have found it best to move out of the channel and point the bow into the wind. The engine is turning over just enough to keep the boat stationary in the wind and seas. Other times we can see the storm coming in advance on our radar and find a spot to drop anchor and wait it out. Other times we have had to just keep moving as slowly as possible, and using our chartplotter and whatever visibility we have, ride it out. These are some of the most scary times we have had on the water, but it’s inevitable, and preparation and practice will see you through. The first time will be terrifying, but once you have survived that first time, it gives you the confidence to stay calm and get through the next time. And staying calm is the key, knowing the boat can handle it as long as the skipper can too. There are times when it’s just best to stay where you are for a day or two and let the bad weather pass. There will also be times when it will be best to be in a safe harbor well before the weather arrives. Forecasts are available from any number of sources, including the VHF and online. A few things we have come to learn over the years is that the forecasts will almost always be wrong. The best planning will be to expect the bad weather to arrive sooner that is forecast and the wind strengths will almost always be 5 knots stronger than forecast. The wind direction will also almost always come from the worst direction and not necessarily be from the direction forecast. If you plan your cruise using these rules, it will be a safer, more comfortable cruise.

Bridges are one of our least favorite parts of transiting the ICW. The good news is that many of the bridges over the waterway have been replaced by highrise 65-foot bridges. But there are still many that may require an opening depending on the air draft of the vessel, both power and sail. Having the most current bridge schedules for the 1,200 miles of waterway is a must. Timing an arrival at a bridge just prior to opening times will keep you moving. Arriving at some bridges even a minute late may mean waiting up to an hour for the next opening. Some bridge tenders are accommodating, while other rule their fiefdom with an iron hand. Their openings and closing are set in stone and there are no exceptions. We have had tenders refuse to open the bridge even though we had arrived before the scheduled opening. Be early, but not too early. Construction, special events and even emergency vehicles can affect whether or not a bridge opens on time. During the busy season when the “snowbirds” are migrating south on their boats, it can get very congested at the bridges. When the spans go up, everyone tries to get through at the same time. The bridges are narrow and very often have strong currents running under them. Be patient, take your time and don’t get caught up in the frenzy and all will go well. Sometimes the difficult part is waiting for the bridge to open, sitting in a narrow channel with a dozen other boats and the wind is howling and the current is pushing you down on the bridge. It’s all part of the adventure.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway can be a fascinating adventure and we have never seen it the same way twice. The possibilities are endless and the ICW can offer a lifetime of cruising destinations. A good vessel, well-equipped, and a prudent crew will make for a lifetime of memories. The important points to remember are to stay safe and enjoy. If you have a favorite story about your ICW trip, share it with us.

Chuck Baier has been an active boater and cruiser for 50 years and has been a certified marine service technician for over 30 years. Chuck is a freelance writer and has written for every major boating publication over the past 18 years and is currently the publisher and owner of Beach House Publications, which produces ‘The Great Book Of Anchorage’ series. Chuck also provides Navigation Notices for MarinaLife. 


If you have additional questions for Chuck Baier, please email him