ICW by the Numbers

Everyone fears the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway the first time they attempt it. I know I did. I’d heard so many stories—about shoals, rough water, tricky inlets, narrow channels, aggressive tugboats. Today, though, having made 20 trips along the ICW, the biggest danger I face is that I enjoy it so much I run the risk of coming late to the islands.

That said, it helps to know what you’re doing. My first trip south was a nerve-wracking one that included a stretch where it took me 12 days to cover the 120 miles from Annapolis to Norfolk—in mid-December, no less. Not good.

A couple of trips later, at Georgetown in the Exumas, I asked a group of fellow cruisers what tips and tricks they would have liked to have known prior to setting out on the ICW. Here’s a distillation of their advice:

1 Take your time

First and foremost, take the time to appreciate the journey. Don’t rush. Plan on spending a day or two at a marina every week or so. You’ll have laundry to do, probably some sort of boat repair to cope with, and the slower pace will do you a world of good.

You’ll also want to explore the many fascinating aspects of this coast—its geography, history, culture and people. Don’t give that up in your rush to get to the sun. The thermometer should not be your most important navigational instrument.

2 Acquire Bridge Sense

In parts of the ICW, you will lose several hours a day if you miss scheduled bridge openings. For sailboats incapable of maintaining 6 knots under power (like mine) or when the tide is strongly against you, this is a common scenario. You end up spending up to an hour circling in front of a bridge with a half-dozen fellow boaters, all fuming over the lost time and simultaneously fretting about keeping clear.

To avoid this, you should first recognize that you can only go so fast. If you need to do 6.2 knots to make an opening and you can only do 5.8, you aren’t going to make it. So plan to catch the following opening and slow down to a speed that brings you there with five to 10 minutes to spare. You’ll save fuel while lowering your aggravation quotient.

How do you manage such exquisite timing? Actually, it’s easy. Put the cursor on your chartplotter on the next bridge and hit the “Go To” button. If your plotter is like mine, it will display your ETA. Adjust your speed to arrive on schedule.

It takes some practice to get this right on the more circuitous segments of the ICW, and you need to factor in any currents that may slow you down or speed you up along the way. (You might want to aim for 20 minutes ahead of an opening, knowing that by the time you arrive your cushion will have been eaten up by the realities of the ICW.) But it’s more than worth the effort. I almost never find myself circling in front of a bridge anymore, and generally arrive in time to join the back of the fleet filing through with almost no waiting.

3 Know Your Tides

As you get farther south into South Carolina and Georgia, the tidal ranges increase to as much as 9 feet. This necessitates caution both when anchoring and when transiting such shallows as Jekyll Creek or Little Mud River. Both of these are known problem areas, with Little Mud shoaling to about 4 feet at MLW.

There are two ways to avoid this problem. You can go offshore at Sapelo Sound, Georgia, coming back in at Brunswick, then offshore again and back in at St. Mary’s, both about 25-mile detours. Or you can plan to arrive at these shoal areas about three hours before high water, so you’ll have lots of water underneath your keel. This way even deep-draft boats can avail themselves of the ICW’s protection without losing time waiting on weather.

I can’t count the number of self-anointed “experts” I’ve met who advise timing your passages to the current. However, there are too many inlets for this to be feasible. Although you might gain on one stretch, in most situations you’ll lose on the other side of the inlet. And why would you wait four hours for a favorable tide, losing 16 to 25 miles of distance, to gain 1-2 knots for, at most, six hours? You do the math.

Still, there are some places, such as Cape Fear, where timing the tide is a viable approach. Coming south, you want to enter the Cape Fear River about an hour after the tide starts ebbing at Southport. If your chartplotter is like mine, you’ll have a current function that tells you the actual current at specific locations. It’s a big help. Using this technique, you’ll zip down Cape Fear River at 6 or 7 knots instead of 2 or 3, saving fuel in the process. Coming north, use the same technique, leaving Southport an hour after the flood starts there.

Passing through Snow’s Cut, a distance of 1.5 miles, the current will be against you if you’ve timed Cape Fear correctly. That’s OK. The current in Snow’s Cut is determined by the Carolina Beach inlet. A similar approach will get you through other high-current areas, such as Winyah Bay, with ease.

4 Do Your Homework

Anyone who cannot do the ICW without a chartplotter or GPS shouldn’t be on the water in the first place, as it’s almost entirely line of sight. In terms of printed aids there are two that are indispensable: The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook, by John and Leslie Kettlewell; and its companion guide by Jan and Bill Moeller, The Intracoastal Waterway: Norfolk to Miami, now edited by Kettlewell.

The chartbook is a spiral-bound book and includes almost all the information you might need, including bridge times, suggested anchorages, inlets and other relevant information (although it doesn’t include areas that are miles off the ICW, as do some other larger chartbooks). The companion guide serves as a nice complement to the chartbook and provides additional information on distances, bridge locations, anchorages and marinas.

If you want a cruising guide, I recommend Waterway Guide’s Atlantic ICW book. The large-scale chartlets make every harbor easier to negotiate, and the text does a good job covering the available services and attractions on land. If you can’t afford the three books required to get from the Chesapeake to Florida, check out eBay or Amazon for an older edition.

5 Fly the Emergency White Things

Many cruisers on the ICW only hoist their sails when the engine quits. But there are lots of passages on the ICW where you can easily sail.

Albemarle Sound, Bogue Sound, the Neuse River, Pungo River, most of the inlets, Indian River in Florida—the list is long and, with a little determination, it can be made longer still. There is so little wave action that the sailing is generally flat and fast, so you make good time and have fun doing it.

Another reason for setting sail is to assist your engine. Motorsailing will often give you the extra oomph you need to overcome the current and make that bridge you’re just minutes short of reaching in time. You’ll also substantially reduce your fuel consumption as well as the wear and tear on your engine. I typically get about 10 miles to the gallon with a two-cylinder Yanmar on a 34-foot boat.

You need more reasons to set sail? In the more crowded sections of the ICW, powerboats seem to slow down for boats with sails up, while blowing by those that are simply motoring. I’ll ‘fess up here: sometimes, even when there’s no wind, I’ll raise the main for that reason alone.
One more reason? It just feels good. It’s another way to make the ICW a pleasure and not a purgatory. Enjoy your trip south.


Top photo courtesy of britannica.com

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