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As detailed in part I, 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.

In the last issue, we provided a general overview of the ICW, which runs 1,095 miles from Norfolk, Virginia, to Miami, Florida. In this issue, we provide more detailed information about the passage from Norfolk to the Florida state line (the third part will cover the extensive Florida portion).

The ICW from Virginia to the Florida state line is about 715 miles. Boaters will pass through varied boating conditions, several climatic zones, and centuries of history. It’s an ideal way to see the Southeast U.S. by boat.

Mile Zero of the ICW is located in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, with the Elizabeth River serving as the entry point. The area on the river between Norfolk and Portsmouth is punctuated by huge naval ships and submarines, making for some busy boating before heading into the quiet Intracoastal. This is the place to finalize any preparations or provisioning.

The ICW begins in earnest at Buoy “36” and the journey to Florida is underway. The first of 85 bridges between Norfolk and Miami is at Mile 2.6 and two more follow within a mile. The first and third ones are huge railroad bridges that dwarf most pleasure crafts. As with most bridges until South Florida, they typically lift promptly.

At Mile 7.2, there are two options to get to Albemarle Sound: the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal (72.8 miles, typically called the “Virginia Cut”) and the Dismal Swamp Canal route (75.8 miles, or 72.7 miles using a shortcut). Most boaters choose the first option, in that the Dismal Swamp Canal often has limited passage due to low water. Assuming you take the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal route, the interesting Great Bridge Lock is at Mile 11.5, with a locktender helping boaters with lines and making their way through the lock. This lock is a tidal guard that lifts boaters into nontidal waters (there are no tides of significance until almost 200 miles later near Morehead City, North Carolina).

The North Carolina state line is at Mile 33.9, with passages through Currituck Sound and the North River into Albemarle Sound (into which the Dismal Swamp Canal route also feeds). Lighted markers guide boaters across the sometimes shallow and windy Albemarle Sound from Mile 65 to Mile 79.1.

Albemarle Sounds feeds into the Alligator River and Alligator River-Pungo River Canal, which runs down to Mile 126.6. Further passages to Mile 191.5 along the Pungo River, Pamlico River, Goose Creek, Bay River, Neuse River, Adams Creek, and Myrtle Grove Sound all provide generally quiet boating and lots of nature. In windy weather, however, the Neuse can be just as bad as Albemarle Sound.

This pretty part of southern North Carolina can include easy visits to the interesting towns of Beaufort (several channels around Mile 200) and Morehead City (Mile 203.7). From here to the Florida border, boaters encounter an ever-changing (and -increasing) series of tidal changes, currents, tropically green water, and live oaks.

The run from the Morehead City area to Swansboro (Mile 227.6) makes for scenic boating. Further south, Camp Lejeune (Mile 235.4) may delay passage when there is firing at their artillery range (usually less than an hour delay). From Mile 246 to the South Carolina state line at Mile 340.8, possible stops include Wrightsville Beach, historic Wilmington (13.5 miles off the ICW), and several spots along the pretty Cape Fear River (strong currents possible).

The South Carolina portion of the ICW includes stunning stretches along the Little River (Mile 342) and the Waccamaw River (Mile 375.3), as well as the fascinating city of Charleston around Mile 465. South of Charleston, true Carolina lowcountry boating awaits, with beautiful marshlands, rivers, and creeks, as well as interesting towns like Beaufort around Mile 435.

The Georgia state line and Savannah await around Mile 575. The marinas at Thunderbolt or Isle of Hope make for ideal boating bases to explore Savannah. The 140-mile run down to the Florida state line features more quiet and scenic boating, with highlights including possible sidetrips to Brunswick and one or more of the outlying islands off the coast of southeast Georgia (like Jekyll Island). The ICW enters Florida around Mile 715, with more ICW adventures awaiting.


As stated in the last issue, 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). 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 has 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.

Next Issue: Florida on the Intracoastal

Upcoming Issues: The Great Lakes