The ICW: A Sailor’s Paradise

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Elizabeth City Courtesy Dock

Elizabeth City Courtesy Dock

Yes, you read that right! The Intracoastal Waterway is indeed a sailor’s paradise. Last October we left Hampton VA as part of SAIL’s ICW Snowbird Rally, and didn’t refuel until we hit New Smyrna, Florida. That’s a long, long way and we made 80 percent of the journey under sail. Here’s how!

I was skippering a 43ft sail-training catamaran with a novice crew, and the ICW was a new experience for me. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was more fun than an amusement ride. We motored through the Virginia Cut, then immediately unrolled the genoa to take advantage of the cold, blustery northerly—25 knots from abaft the beam, c’mon, who wouldn’t sail?

We shot across the Coinjock doing 8 knots, scooted through the township, then anchored in the flats under a glorious sunset. What a great first day! And so it went. We sailed to Manteo, sailed to the mouth of the Alligator River, sailed to New Bern and back again. From Beaufort, we sailed outside and overnight to Wilmington Beach—heck, we sailed everywhere.

Yes, I know Snowbird Rally leader Mark Doyle has suggested the ICW is a motoring exercise, and it can be if you want it to be, but the waterway has a plethora of sailing opportunities; you just have to watch the apparent wind and get the sails up when it’s abaft 60 degrees.

We sailed under bridges with a spinnaker, around anchored boats and through residential developments in Florida, and not once did we run aground. The good news is, if you do touch bottom, you get a mulligan every time. Back up, turn around, find the channel and press on.

In short: yes, the ICW is challenging; yes, it’s demanding, but what a ride and what a learning experience. I’m joining this year’s Snowbird Rally and can’t wait for it to start. Nowhere else will you find the diversity, beauty, friendship, camaraderie and challenge that you will on a 6 week passage like this one.

ED NOTE: If you have a yen to sail the ICW but can’t take your own boat, Mark has a few spots left for various legs of the journey on his sail training cat—it’s a great way to learn how to sail a catamaran as well as join in the fun of the Snowbird Rally. Email him at

Sign up for SAIL's ICW Rally


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