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For boaters, few passages have the allure of the famed Intracoastal Waterway. Called the ICW, the Inland Waterway, or simply the “Ditch,” the Intracoastal provides one of the finest inland boating experiences in the world.

With generally protected water, ease of navigation, and breadth of services, the ICW is simply a great place to boat. Whether you just want a quick outing or plan to boat the entire thing, the ICW is certainly an inviting destination for boaters of all experience and skill levels.

What is the Intracoastal Waterway?

Answering that question is perhaps harder than learning to tie all of those boating knots. Officially, the Intracoastal Waterway starts at the Annisquam River north of Boston and runs down the East Coast and across the Gulf of Mexico coastline to Brownsville, Texas.

But what most people mean (including the authors of cruising guides and chartbooks) when they refer to the ICW is the section between Norfolk, Virginia, and Miami, Florida. In fact, Norfolk Harbor marks Mile Zero (0) of the ICW, while Miami’s final market is Mile 1,095.0.

What to Expect

The ICW from Norfolk to Miami is generally a protected inside passage. Many Beacon readers’ home ports are on larger open bodies of water in the Northeast, the Great Lakes, and along the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, the idea of cruising some narrow, shallow, and busy channel with lots of opening bridges can be a bit disconcerting. It doesn’t help that the chartbooks reveal places like the Dismal Swamp, Mosquito Lagoon, Alligator River, and Cape Fear River.

But boaters need not fear the ICW. It’s generally no more narrow, shallow, or busy than other boating areas and, once there, boaters usually find ideal conditions. As for the bridges, there are only 85 opening bridges between Norfolk and Miami, with many of them concentrated in South Florida.

Other concerns include: a lack of overnight facilities and services; tidal changes and currents; and bad weather. On average, boaters find a marina or anchorage every 25 miles or less, making planning easy. There are definitely tidal changes (up to nine feet in spots), as well as some strong currents, but they typically are something that a skilled and strong hand at the helm can handle.

These good cruising conditions are enhanced by a climate that ranges from temperate to subtropical. Of course, it can get quite hot in the summer and cool in the winter, but the ICW is enjoyable year-round. When bad weather does approach, it’s usually easy to find a place to run to for shelter.

Given all of this, boaters will encounter no more problems than they would on any other body of water. As with boating everywhere, good judgement, the ability to read a chart, and a properly equipped boat are all prerequisites.

Planning a Trip

As with any cruise, advance planning is the key to an enjoyable and safe passage. Along with this introduction and coverage in the next two issues, advance reading is well rewarded.

One of the best cruising guides to the ICW is The Intracoastal Waterway, Norfolk to Miami: A Cockpit Cruising Handbook, by Jan and Bill Moeller. Published by International Marine (800/262-4729), this comprehensive book covers virtually everything you need to know before and during time on the ICW. Along with interesting and helpful introductory material, the book proceeds in detail from Norfolk to Miami.

But the Moellers’ excellent book doesn’t replace the need for charts. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes “strip charts” for the entire ICW, but most boaters find them unwieldy to use in the cockpit. One better option is The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk to Miami. Edited by John and Leslie Kettlewell and also published by International Marine, this book as reproductions of all the NOAA charts, as well as other helpful charts and information. In addition, International Marine’s Tide Tables and Tidal Current Tables are highly recommended.

Once on the ICW, proper planning is still in order. Though overnight and refueling facilities are frequent, there are a few long stretches. The longest run without facilities is from Isle of Hope to Jekyll Island in Georgia (93.7 miles). The second longest stretch is from Alligator River Bridge to Upper Dowry Creek in North Carolina (48.8 miles). But with these longer runs and others, there are often facilities just one or more miles off the ICW proper. Even if you’re in a sailboat, most of the ICW will need to be cruised under power.

During the busier spring and fall periods, it probably doesn’t hurt to call ahead for a marina reservation (especially in South Florida). The Moellers’ guide and a chartbook can help you plan the best refueling and overnight options.

With 130 bridges crossing the ICW, you’ll see lots of bridges along the way. As mentioned, as mentioned, 85 of them need to be opened for most boats. Most of the bridges anywhere north of South Florida are opened as you approach. Once in South Florida (there are 40 opening bridges in the last 130 miles), many of the bridges have restricted hours that limit when and how often they’ll open. Again, a chartbook is crucial.

Along the way, boaters will enjoy long passages without seeing any other boat traffic. In other areas, interesting historical towns like Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Beaufort, Savannah, and St. Augustine await curious boaters.

This introduction provides just a basic preview of the Intracoastal Waterway. Before setting out on the ICW, buy the book and chartbook mentioned above and look for more details in upcoming issues.