the ICW

the ICW is what makes everybody say, “oh, that’s not so bad.” after they’ve already said, “you’re doing what!?” when we tell them about our trip south…  since i’ve had a couple of questions from loved ones about the ICW, i figured i’d go over it a bit here.  plus, i have some more learnin’ i could do :)

the ICW (also know as “the ditch”) is a free canal that provides a protected passage behind the atlantic coast.  in other words, instead of jumping out into the atlantic ocean, you can kinda’ hide out behind the land all the way down to florida.  i like hiding, i’m new at this.

this is part of the ICW. notice that the dottie route is inland, not in the ocean!

geocaching.com says:  “The Intracoastal Waterway is a 3,000-mile (4,800-km) waterway which runs for most of the length of the Eastern Seaboard along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. It’s unofficial northern terminus at the Manasquan River in New Jersey, where it connects with the Atlantic Ocean at the Manasquan Inlet, then around the Gulf of Mexico to Brownsville, Texas. Some lengths consist of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, and sounds; others are artificial canals. It provides a navigable route along its length without many of the hazards of travel on the open sea.”  thanks, that pretty much sums it up!

it’s mostly used by commercial light-draft vessels and pleasure crafts (like us).  you might see barges hauling petroleum, or a “snowbiird” heading south for the winter.  pretty much anyone who is unable (or uninterested) in long ocean passages will use the ICW.  there are numerous inlets that connect the ICW with the atlantic ocean and the gulf of mexico, so if there’s a perfect weather window and you wanna head out to the sea, you can.

it’s history is pretty rich and evolved which is why i’m not even gonna try to re-write it here ’cause i won’t do it justice, but wikipedia does an ok job.  i will tell you that the ICW is a great asset to cruisers, especially newbies who may not be ready to start their adventures on the ocean (read me).

however, as perfect as it may sound, it can be a pain in the keel (so i hear).  we are lucky enough to have ALL of our sailing experience on the beautiful chesapeake bay.  that makes us lucky for lots of reasons, but in terms of the ICW, we already know what it feels like to run aground :)  the ICW is notorious for being shallow and shifty which causes sailboats to run aground.  if you’re really new to sailing, like we were the first (and second) time we ran aground, running aground is when the bottom of your boat hits the ground.  it sucks and it’s scary and you can become pretty much helpless and at the mercy of a power boat (eek!) or boat us (get insurance people!).  i’ve read lots of stories about wriggling yourself off, or waiting for high tide, or using the dinghy to tilt ya over a bit, but all in all, it’s inconvenient and can cause damage to your vessel!  the bay and the ICW have muddy bottoms for the most part, so it’s much less scary but equally inconvenient.  but when the bottom is rock or coral, you can really do some damage!

anyway, this seems to be one of the biggest complaints about the ICW.  and since it is a sandy, muddy bottom, it shifts around a lot and the markers aren’t always accurate.  luckily, we have resources now like active captain and the waterway planner that helps to keep people up to date in real time.  the best advice i’ve heard so far about the ICW is “expect to run aground.”  ok, we will.

another thing that’s boo about the ICW is that there isn’t much room for sailing.  since it’s canal-like and shallow, it’s also pretty narrow.  again, we are lucky to have our sailing experience on the chesapeake bay.  sure, it’s shallow in some areas, but man do we have room to sail!  so we expect to run our motor a lot heading down the ICW which is obviously wear and tear.

a really cool thing about the ICW though, is boat towns!  i am super stoked to hit up all the little fishing towns along the way.  if you’ve already done the trip, please leave a comment and tell us about your favorite boat towns on the ICW.  we love quaint little towns and when they are on the water, all the better!  we’ve never been to, or explored beaufort, charleston, savannah, saint augustine and they are all on the ICW!  it could potentially take us 3 months to get down to florida because we plan on doing it kinda’ leisurely and seeing what we can see.  also, if any hurricanes come our way, we can hit up a marina and get hauled out, right?

lots of folks ask us if we are planning on visiting ocracoke on our way down.  even though it is my absolute DREAM to one day pull into silver lake harbor and drop our very own anchor right next to captain rob in the shadow of ocracoke light, we probably won’t do it until we are headed back north in may.  i’m afraid if we stop in ocracoke, we may not leave :)  just kidding, but it’s a little off the beaten path and located in the heart of “the graveyard of the atlantic” so i’d like a little practice before we visit our home away from home <3.

i hate rambling on and on without pics, but since we haven’t done it yet, i have nothing to share :(  but here is blog post by our friends from S/V Hideaway that is a very cool photo summary of their adventure on the ICW (they headed down from new york).  notice the cold weather gear (brrr…) the narrow water of the dismal swamp (eek!), and the dolphins (ahhhh…)

i think that wraps up my wrap up of the ICW.  i do hope that some or our cruising friends will leave us some comments about their favorite things to see on the ICW.  and for those of you who were a tinkle-bit worried about our great adventure on the high seas, do you feel better now?

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8 comments

  1. We thoroughly enjoyed our trips on the ICW. The first year we took it all the way down, even through Georgia. We never ran aground. There is plenty of up to date info available about current conditions. Tow Boat US and Sea Tow were also helpful, most of the time. Ocracoke is a great stop, just not Memorial Day weekend.. We had no problem getting in or out. Dismal Swamp is a great leg of the trip also. Robert. one of the lock keeper, may recognize your boat. We did use out Genny a lot on our trip down but the motor was on most of the time. Enjoy the trip, we don’t have a favorite town as they each are different.. .

  2. Definitely stop off in Beaufort, NC. Really cool little town with great character and an amazing sailing history. If for some reason you guys need help around there, my folks live in Morehead City (next to Beaufort) and could potentially be a resource.

      1. Whenever I’m back in MD, my brother and I drive by our old house in UP and look longingly. I think the new owners called the cops on us because of how creepy we seemed.

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