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The indescribable allure of the Intracoastal

“I’d love to take that trip down the ICW. I’d love to see it, if just one time.”

You'll have to share the water with commercial traffic in some parts of the ICW.

We’ve heard so many people say that. We’ve done the trip, in whole or in part, more times than I can remember. Each has been special in its own way.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a series of winding rivers, creeks, cuts and sounds taking you from a beginning that you choose to an end that isn’t really. It’s a destination in its own right, and for us it’s a way of life, passing through a beautiful part of our country and connecting with family and old friends. Here now is an account of our most recent trip north. It was a good trip. We’ll begin in St. Augustine, Fla., where our daughters, sons-in-law and two grandchildren live.

We left at very first light because we like to. The world is very special then, and it’s usually a good time to go out an inlet easterly, where the sun comes from. It’s important to see all of the aids to navigation, other vessels and shoals. With the sun in your eyes, you often can’t. But just before it breaks free of the horizon the light is usually good to see what you need to. Also, the breeze has often waned with the darkness. You know it’ll probably fill in later, but you like to get out that inlet first because inlets in a breeze can be pretty uncomfortable, particularly if the tide is running out.

So why are we going out an inlet when we’re doing an ICW trip? Because we also love to be in the ocean, and one of the really cool things about the ICW is that it often gives you that choice, among many others. When you go “outside” you’re missing parts of the ICW, but if the weather is good you can make more time and have a more relaxed trip, laying back, keeping watch and letting the autopilot steer. But good inlets have grown rare on the Atlantic ICW. Many beautiful passages out, between dunes and shoals, have now shoaled.

When you go out you always need to have a plan and a place for getting back into the safety of the ICW should weather turn. With fewer inlets, not only are there fewer opportunities to escape to the ocean, but there also are fewer opportunities to get back in. St. Augustine is a good place to go out when heading north because there are three good inlets ahead. The St. Johns is about 30 nautical miles up, St. Marys about 50 and St. Simons about 80 by the time you get back inside. And there are even more farther north if you have the speed.

As we headed out St. Augustine Inlet, we passed a huge dredging operation to starboard — always a welcome sight.

Even though the evening winds had blown from near calm to light southwesterly, there was still a southeasterly roll from earlier days of strong winds. Our sails dampened it, and we cleared the sea buoy and set a northerly course for breakfast.

This trip was going to be under the fullest moon in years, meaning not only extra highs, but also extra lows. So we were happy to be offshore. In the far background of VHF clutter, we could hear boats inside anxiously calling bridges, arranging overtakings and asking those ahead whether they’d found the deep water. But as we reached the ocean waters off Georgia and looked ashore, we were filled with regret. Such is the nature of ICW travel. We were missing one of our favorite stops, Cumberland Island, the southernmost barrier island of Georgia.

We returned to the ICW at St. Simons Inlet. It’s a “big ship” inlet for Brunswick, Ga., and slants out southeasterly, making it ideal for re-entry when heading north. Ocean waves leap on the nearby shoals as you head in. There’s a marina on St. Simons Island and several anchorages. But we needed to keep on trucking.

We had wanted to stay out overnight to enjoy the huge moon, but I disagreed with the weather forecasters, thinking that conditions would deteriorate for a northerly passage. Usually I’m right on these calls. This time I was wrong. I was beginning to realize it about 6 p.m. as we passed Doboy Sound. We wanted to get back out. Besides, the horseflies were drawing gallons of blood — ours. In past days, the inlet here has been doable. But lately we’d heard we should avoid it.

I started calling out for local knowledge on the VHF, seeing commercial shrimp boats in the sound. They would know. Finally a good ol’ boy came back and said he ran it all the time and was coming in as we spoke. He asked me my draft and said I’d have no problem. I thanked him, and as we left the creek through the marsh and rounded out into the sound, I looked out the inlet for the shrimper. I saw him. And then I didn’t. And then I did. The seas were obviously roaring into those shoals and humping up so that the shrimper appeared and disappeared between the waves. “Uh, uh,” we said, “no way,” and we headed on north into Georgia. We had a favorite anchorage in mind.

The Crescent River is one of many in Georgia with protected waters and good holding bottom, surrounded by marshy wilderness.

Tom's Steiner Commander XP binoculars get plenty of use every day.

We traveled till near dark to get there but knew that from that anchorage we should be able to easily make South Carolina the next day, avoiding rush-hour closings of the Skidaway Narrows and Causton Bluff bridges and getting through some of the shallow areas with enough tide.

We had anchored in that creek for a storm once, and the anchor bit incredibly well, holding all night in gusts of more than 40 mph. Next morning, it wouldn’t come up. We worked and worked, using the engine and windlass, until finally the chain began to come in. The CQR had a seemingly endless length of inch-thick old steel cable looped over it. As the gusts hit us, we dragged beam to the wind heading for the shore. I couldn’t begin to lift the cable off the hook, but finally it slid off just in time. On this trip, we anchored in a different spot.

The night was quiet, the moon bigger, its draw on the waters stronger. The only problem was the millions of gnats trying to squeeze through the porthole screens. Most had died by the morning, the black spots scattered about the deck. But more were swarming, so I wore shoes, socks, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to pull up the anchor — not typical attire, but it beats bugs.

We finished Georgia that day as planned. Its creeks and dredged cuts twist and turn, so you feel as if you’re running in circles. Tides run about 7 to 8 feet, and the currents, like those of northern Florida and southern South Carolina, are ferocious. The sounds you must cross are full of shoals ripped by the currents, and they can be very choppy. From most, you can look out and see the ocean.

The ICW route in St. Andrew Sound actually takes you out into the ocean. On a strong easterly the seas tower up, leaping on the shoals that are only a few feet from your course and a few inches down. Some years ago here, the sand swallowed an entire shrimp boat that went aground. Hell Gate, south of Savannah, is a dredged cut through the marsh that shoals so rapidly that we’ve seen its floating aids to navigation lying on their sides on exposed banks.

Little Mud River is notoriously shallow, but it’s not tricky. You just go through at higher water. If you go through at low, you simply float off later. This trip, we had no trouble with either. And we were rewarded, as always, with the fact that most of Georgia is indescribably beautiful wilderness. And here I’ll stop using the word “indescribable” because so much of the ICW is like that.

Passing through Thunderbolt, near Savannah, we spied the Hatteras LRC of a friend, Sam Meyer, who is a Savannah pilot. He was just ahead of us. Of course, we hailed him with a friendly hello. Such is the way of ICW travel. You make new friends, and you enjoy seeing them again — if only their sterns. Sam is a local expert, so we asked him about Fields Cut, a dredged canal between the powerful Savannah River and the Wright River in South Carolina. There are often shoaling problems at the ends. Sam told us “where the water is.” Obviously that wasn’t where we were when we hit a shoal at the south end. The tide that day was about 2 feet below mean low, and little mud creatures were breathing air where they never had before.

When I figure I might hit a relatively soft hump, I slow down but keep up just enough way to have my wake follow me and, hopefully, lift me over. The plan worked this time, and we barely lost a moment. Soon we were passing through Calibogue Sound, inside Hilton Head Island. Harbour Town Marina, where we’ve had many a pleasant stay, beckoned with its famous red and white lighthouse, but we headed on toward Port Royal Sound, with another great inlet.

Evening found us in South Carolina, anchored off the Beaufort Yacht Club. Sue Holt Hamilton and her husband, Larry, are members. I met Sue years ago when she was marketing director for Beneteau. They saw our boat and got on the VHF to tell us there was a big party going on. We were too exhausted to do join them, but it was great to hear from them. Besides, I figured I’d better not be ashore when I did what I was planning to do later that evening.

I firmly believe that every time you howl at a full moon you add a month to your life. And it makes you feel good. I’ve been doing this a long time in anchorages and offshore. One of the prettiest nights offshore that we remember was a full moon off South Carolina. You could hear guys on shrimp boats howling all over that part of the Atlantic. So I wasn’t feeling too shy about it, but I figured it would be harder to arrest me out at anchor if someone thought I was a werewolf or something. And this was the “super-moon” — at its closest perigee in many years. We studied it for a long time with our Steiner Commander XP binocs and saw features I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. At 11:30, when it was closest, I did the honors.

The next morning we were again under way at first light.

Bridge openings are a part of daily life on the ICW.

Trouble ahead wouldn’t be shallows but bridges. The Ladies Island Bridge at Beaufort has some very long rush-hour restrictions and a lot of other restrictions from time to time, so we were anxious to clear that bridge as soon as we could. On this morning, the bridge tender was very helpful. One down and two more to go — at Charleston.

Elliott Cut at the south end of Wappoo Creek, which brings you to Charleston Harbor, runs straight and very narrow through rocky, steep banks. The current can be more than 4 knots. If it’s pushing a displacement boat, as Chez Nous is, it can pretty much have its way with you. The only way to stay in control is to use a heavy throttle. That’s hard to do when there are a dozen or more little outboards sitting in the middle of the channel, waiting for their turn at the nearby trailer ramp, their operators clueless about navigational issues. To make matters worse, the Wappoo Creek Bridge opens only on the hour and half hour — not even that in rush hour — and the area on both sides doesn’t have enough room to allow larger single-screw boats to maneuver well.

So if there is a fair tide, you have to carefully time your approach to get there on time for the opening, though not before. On past occasions, we’ve experienced bridge operators there who were apparently not cognizant of these serious navigational issues. This operator was very helpful, and all went well.

It was great to see Charleston again, if only from its harbor. We were bound for a favorite anchorage near the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, a very special area in the beautiful Lowcountry. But first we had to pass through the Ben Sawyer Bridge north of Charleston. We remember when Hurricane Hugo picked it up, turned it and dumped one end into the ICW, closing it for a very long time.

In the middle of this wilderness area is Awendaw Creek, where if you carefully work your way in you can see out across the shallows to the ocean. Before you reach Winyah Bay — with a deep ocean inlet — rivers and creeks offer miles of beautiful marsh speckled with small tree-covered islands, good holding and no visible civilization. We chose one and relished the quiet evening. Our plan for the next day was to steam through another of our favorite areas. Usually we anchor there, in the Waccamaw River, but we wanted to go farther in the good weather while still enjoying the swampy shores sliding alongside.

The joy of gliding through the swamp soon gave way to another dredged cut through what had once been a beautiful part of South Carolina but is now miles and miles of, in my personal opinion, “ditch/waterfront” garish monster mansions, stripped earth and hastily constructed bridges. At the end is the notorious “Rock Pile,” the last section of the ICW that was “built.” It was blasted through rock to the west of the North Myrtle Beach area.

An exceptionally narrow channel, with hard rock protruding out toward the edge of the deep water and visible only at low tide, makes this another place to dread. We always call out ahead on VHF channels 16 and 13 for any concerned traffic because neither we nor many other boats have room to turn around or pass in that stretch. On this day we had no trouble, and soon the ICW widened into the pleasant and friendly area of North Myrtle Beach, Little River Inlet and a long stretch of North Carolina and South Carolina where the ICW courses through miles of open marsh just in from the Atlantic.

You can see the ocean, looking out the broad, sandy expanses, as you pass the shallow ICW crossings of the Shallotte and Lockwood Folly inlets. The story goes that Mr. Lockwood long ago built a small ship up inside the inlet but then couldn’t get it out to open water because of the shoaling that occurred during the building.

After a long day of dealing with the Rock Pile and those inlets, we like to stop in the Southport area and see old friends. This trip, short on time, we stopped at South Harbour Village Marina with two restaurants, easy docking and easy fueling.

We left early again the next morning.

A spectacular sunrise, the start of another day on the ICW.

By this part of the trip we begin to anticipate Albemarle Sound, even though it’s about 230 miles ahead. It’s only about 14 miles across, and one would think it wouldn’t be much of an issue. One would be wrong. With its shallow waters, wide open spaces and its location in the world — separated only by the Outer Banks from the Graveyard of the Atlantic — it can become treacherously rough. In 1980, we almost lost our 47-foot motorsailer in that sound.

On this trip, we knew a cold front was sweeping across the continent, racing us to the Albemarle. The tide was with us up the Cape Fear River, a very nice plus. Then came many more miles of pretty marsh, with the ocean just a few hundred feet away. The Wrightsville Beach Bridge introduces a stretch with four bridges that cause problems because of their timed openings, which for many boats often means long delays, waiting in narrow, shallow channels, sometimes with wind and tide pushing toward the bridge or shoals. To make matters worse, a Marine Corps firing range crossing the ICW sometimes goes hot, and boats must wait. Further, there aren’t many marinas and anchorages in the stretch. If we can, we go offshore through Masonboro Inlet at Wrightsville Beach, coming in at Beaufort Inlet. It makes a much nicer trip. But on this day the wind was wrong and the weather unstable, so we remained inside. We were lucky, though, because the tug Evelyn Doris — pushing a huge, unwieldy barge — got a commercial opening at Wrightsville Beach, and we followed her through, setting us up to reach the other bridges in a timely manner.

With this good luck at the bridges, we were able to reach another favorite stop, the Beaufort/Morehead City area, where we like to tie up at the Morehead City Yacht Basin. We enjoy seeing our old friends John and Sonda Warrington at Beaufort, where John is president of Beaufort Yacht Sales. But with an eye toward the Albemarle, we maxed out the daylight and anchored in Adams Creek, where we’d been run over by a tornado the year before. This, with any luck, would put us close enough to squeak across the sound before the end of the next day.

By midmorning of the next day, NOAA was warning of severe thunderstorms in the late afternoon. Although the first part of the day was easy running in the broad Neuse, Pamlico and Pungo rivers, we worried about getting hit by a whiteout in the narrow 25-mile cut connecting the Alligator and Pungo. The wilderness shores are lined with killer stumps. Once we saw a bear swimming across in front of us. This is not a place where we want to deal with hard rain, fog or darkness. But radar showed the powerful line several hours to the west of us as we approached the southern end of the cut, so we plunged in. A good, familiar anchorage waited at the northern end, but we don’t like to stop there in severe weather because it’s so desolate. If something happens, help has to come a very long distance.

At the northern end of the 20-mile run down the Alligator River lies a much appreciated marina of refuge, with easy fuel at competitive prices, a restaurant and friendly folks. It’s immediately north of the Alligator River Bridge — an important bridge to get behind you because it’s very old and crosses the wide mouth of the Alligator just before it opens into Albemarle Sound. It won’t open for boats when the wind reaches 35 knots. After the long day of stressing about whether we could safely cross the sound before the storms hit, we felt good to tie up in the protected basin of the Alligator River Marina, fill the fuel tank, plug in and securely ride out the blow. As you’ve noticed, usually we anchor out, but good marinas play an important role on the ICW.

It was still blowing out of the northwest the next morning, but the air had cleared, and we knew the wind would be decreasing.

By early afternoon it was low enough for a comfortable trip, and we crossed the Albemarle to another favorite wilderness anchorage in the broad North River. From here we knew our beloved Chesapeake Bay was within reach the next day, with a bit of luck.

Again, we needed luck because of the many timed bridges and the Great Bridge Lock. You never know when a bridge is going to break down and be unable to open — sometimes for days. Between our anchorage and the Bay lay five opening highway bridges and three railroad bridges that sometimes close, blocking the waterway for hours for mystery trains that never show up. But luck was with us, and we got through them all in a timely manner.

The Atlantic ICW officially ends with Mile Zero at Portsmouth, Va. From here you pass through the Elizabeth River, with its miles of commercial docks and ships and many of the mightiest warships of the Navy. At the end of the river waits Hampton Roads, where the Merrimac and the Monitor slugged it out in the world’s first battle of ironclads, and huge ships from all over the world are moored.

Before we head out to the Bay, we like to stop at the Hampton Yacht Club. We’ve been members since the ’70s, and it’s great to see old friends. This night when we rolled in, ready for our first dinner of Chesapeake Bay crab cakes, we found Duncan and Dianna Garnet — I used to practice law with (against) him in the early ’70s — and Chris and Judy Hall. Chris sold Mel and me a Tartan 27, our first Chez Nous, in 1969.

We’re in our fourth Chez Nous, and Chris still is president of Bluewater Yacht Sales and the huge Bluewater Yachting Center. The ICW once again has connected places and friends and times, through a world less traveled.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.