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Winding your way through the ICW

ICW1Traveling the Intracoastal Waterway isn't like driving down I-95. It requires a good boat, thorough knowledge of seamanship, mastery of boat-handling skills, careful planning and the right tools. Below are a few tips to help you begin preparing for this trip. There's much more to learn before you begin your own ICW cruise, but these points should give you a good start.

  • People navigate the ICW in boats that are fast, slow, large and small. But there are many large areas of open water along the route, so the boat should be sound and big enough to handle occasional high seas and chop. You'll have to respond to changes in depth, channels and challenges much quicker in a faster boat than in a slower boat, but in any boat it'll be necessary to pay close attention to navigation at all times.
  • The ICW constantly changes - that means scenery, channels and issues. Plan your passages, but be prepared for the unexpected.
    Click here to watch Tom share his ICW highlights.
    A bridge that must open for you could break down for hours or days. A shoal can build into a channel where the chart indicates good water. High winds can make open areas too rough for safety.
  • Never rely on only one navigational tool. We love our Standard Horizon CP300i WAAS GPS/chart plotter with C-MAP Max cartography, but we also have updated paper charts, recent Army Corps of Engineers surveys, and guidebooks. Study your day's run before you begin. Remember, even the most current resources may not show the most recent shoal. The "magenta line" on ICW charts normally indicates the channel, but sometimes it is in the wrong place because of recent shoaling or changes in aids to navigation.
  • Always use prudent seamanship and common sense in determining your course. Before entering confusing areas, slow down and study them with binoculars or naked eyes and compare what you see with your charts. We find the Steiner 7x50 Commander XP binoculars with range-ICW2bearing compass to be very helpful.
  • Don't take as gospel any one guidebook. It's best to have several for different perspectives. Don't rely too heavily on reports from boaters whose experience levels are unknown to you. Quite frequently a boater - with the best intentions - will pass along incorrect information simply because he doesn't have the experience to understand what's really going on. For example, many times we've read reports of shoaling in the middle of the channel, when depth in the middle of the channel was fine. The reporter just didn't know where the middle of the channel was. Also, reports of "good anchorages" may be inaccurate because of recent shoaling, because your boat is too big or because of developments ashore, such as new docks. Always watch your depth finder. If it shows you're in less water than the chart indicates, it is very likely that you're in the wrong place and headed for trouble - even though you have enough water to float your boat at the moment.IWC4
  • You'll find it helpful to sign up for our East Coast Alerts, e-mailed at no charge, or you can click here to find them online. These are summaries of selected published Notices to Mariners from the Coast Guard and other agencies, as well as news and recent observations.
  • Soon BoatU.S. will have available a two-DVD package that we've filmed while cruising the ICW and other East Coast areas. It shows the excitement and beauty of the trip and gives "how-to" tips. Click here for more.
Related story: Shoal going on the ICW
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