Changes on the Intracoastal Waterway

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Some old hands at ICW cruising look at what’s different, and offer some tips to “newbies”

We have now made 5-1/2 round trips on the Intracoastal Waterway between the Florida Keys and Chesapeake Bay, the first being a decade ago. We still remember the awe and wonder we enjoyed on that first trip. We also remember the anxiety and anticipation of the unknown.

Since that first trip, we have seen many, many changes — some positive, many not so. It was during our most recent trip south that we really had the opportunity to ponder those changes and how they affected our perception of the waterway.

It seems there is an article each month in almost every boating publication that covers some part of this marine equivalent to an interstate highway.

The ICW officially begins at mile marker zero in Norfolk, but for many the journey begins much further north, usually somewhere in the Chesapeake or even as far as Maine. The trip to mile marker zero can be as exciting or as daunting as the waterway itself. Offshore or near offshore conditions are not uncommon, and the boat and crew need to be prepared.

Two things we noticed almost immediately on our run down the Chesapeake last year were that the traffic was heavier and the anchorages were more crowded. The first day out we counted more than 25 boats within our immediate vicinity, all heading the same direction. We remembered that first day when we had long stretches of water alone and had the only boat in many of the anchorages.

Big brother

One sure sign of the changes in our society is the constant and vigilant presence of our military and law enforcement. From the Annapolis area to Norfolk, Va., we were within sight of a naval vessel at all times. After we entered the Norfolk area near the Naval yards the patrols and security were everywhere. Any vessel that strayed to the shipyard side of the channel was immediately intercepted by a security boat. Their approach was no nonsense. Their command was for you to move to the other side of the channel immediately or be arrested.

We were buzzed by fighter jets on the Pamlico Sound. The Marines at Camp Lejeune were practicing exercises day and night.

We did anchor in Mile Hammock Bay in Camp Lejeune with no problem. As a matter of fact, we and the 25 other boats anchored there felt very safe and secure.

The main ship channel in Miami was closed to boat traffic whenever a cruise ship was in port, and the Coast Guard escorted most large vessels in and out of ports. Coast Guard and local law enforcement are constantly posted in all major ports we passed through.

Follow the leader

It seems to have become acceptable for some “newbies” to hook up with what we dubbed the waterway “gurus.” These are fine old salts that have probably made the trip several times and take inexperienced crews under their wing.

The gurus plan out the trips each day, decide how far and at what speed their little groups should travel, pick the evening anchorage and troubleshoot problems aboard any of their charges’ vessels. After a morning briefing, the group heads out with the guru at the lead, making all contact with bridge tenders for the group and making sure everyone stays together.

It made for interesting entertainment when two or more groups converged at a narrow part of the waterway and at bridges. And it was a little confusing as to which guru was directing which group. When we accidentally mixed in on occasion it was always made clear: “They are not with us.”

One of the sadder changes we noticed was the loss of camaraderie we had known over the years. With the forming of the “groups” it seems that other boats and crews are considered outsiders, and socializing outside the “group” is not a good idea.

It may just be that with so many new cruisers, the mindset and attitudes of living ashore remain and the cruising mentality has not yet taken hold. We can only hope.

Fortunately, there are still a few of the old-time snowbirds making the trip, so we continue to meet up with old friends along the way.

Touching bottom

Shoaling of the waterway was a problem even on that first trip south. Some areas are still dredged, but many others are not. Playing the tides and staying perfectly in the channel is sometimes the only way a deep-draft vessel can use the waterway. Many times we “farmed the bottom” mid-channel at mid-tide. We often observed vessels running from channel marker to channel marker. We also observed some of those vessels running aground.

A commercial tug captain once told us to pretend we were a tug pushing an 80-foot barge when we transited the narrow channels. He suggested that dredging was done to accommodate the commercial traffic and not the pleasure boats. By imitating what a tug and barge would do, we would always find the deeper water. It worked just as he had told us.

Meetings have been held up and down the East Coast to discuss the impact to local communities and the boating public in general. Each year the problem areas seem to increase. As funds are diverted to security and other issues, the dredging of the waterway becomes less a priority.

Rules of the road

Another more serious change we see is a real lack of good common sense and seamanship. Perhaps this, too, is due to the increase in the number of first-timers to this annual migration.

Each day the VHF brought the sound of skippers chastising each other, and there is much use of unkind (and unpublishable) words and phrases. The waterway was designed and built for all vessels small and large to use, but there seems to be two opposing groups. There are those that can travel fairly fast and those that cannot travel fast. These groups seem to have become diametrically opposed and unable to transit the same body of water without some colorful conversations. It appears more and more that one group takes delight in making the other as uncomfortable as possible. As a consequence, someone will inevitably be harmed.

There are certain rules for preventing that scenario, but in many instances neither side seems interested in those rules. Common sense dictates that if you cannot safely pass another vessel, you do not pass. Common courtesy from the slower boats dictates that they slow as much as possible to allow faster boats to pass safely. Those faster boats must slow to a safe speed and reduce their wake so as not to cause damage or injury to the other vessel.

Here is the procedure we have used successfully over the years without any complaints. We always approach the slower vessel dead astern of them and slow down to match their speed. We then call the vessel ahead to let them know we are there, which side we will pass on and ask them to slow down so that we can pass. We then pass as close in to the slower vessel as can be done safely and then move directly in front as soon as it is safe to do so. Once in front of the vessel we passed, we increase speed and go on our way with little inconvenience or discomfort to the other crew. It is a very simple procedure, but one that many have not mastered.

I can’t mention the VHF without noting how many of our trucker friends seem to have made the conversion to boating. The daily chatter on the radio is full of folks wanting to know what their friend’s “20” is, and if he “has his ears on.” To our brethren from the highway we say welcome. We are sure you will bring your professionalism with you to the water.

Cruisers welcome?

We have favorite anchorages and towns along the waterway, and notice the biggest changes here. Ten years ago we could travel for long stretches without seeing any signs of civilization. At times, it even caused a little anxiety in that we worried about having a serious breakdown with no help close by.

After this last trip, we fear the time is not too far off that the waterway will be totally developed from one end to the other. Even now there are few miles of unspoiled areas. And it seems many of our favorite towns have discovered the potential income from visiting boaters. Large anchorage areas such as Annapolis, Charleston, Vero Beach and Marathon, to name a few, have set mooring buoys and are now charging cruisers. The city of St. Augustine is considering installing a mooring field in the entire anchorage area.

We understand some of the reasoning behind this — another case of a few spoiling it for the many. A number of our favorite towns along the way are now off our must-stop list because there are so many derelict boats anchored that there is only room for a few cruisers, and the unattended boats are a safety hazard in bad weather. These poorly maintained, sometimes abandoned vessels become a burden on the local government when they sink or become navigation hazards. With the increase in the number of boats making the trek each year, this makes finding decent anchoring spots in these towns almost impossible.

Off the beaten path

Not all the news is negative. There is still enough area out there that peace and solitude can still be found. Cruisers just need to study the charts and look for places other than those written up in the guides. Many cruisers rush north or south and miss the great places off the beaten path.

Small towns on the Pamlico Sound and Neuse River that many bypass still remind us of what cruising these areas was like a decade ago. Towns like Great Bridge, Va., still have free dockage and most conveniences are nearby. Elizabeth City, N.C., still welcomes cruisers with a free town dock. St. Mary’s, Ga., has discovered the economic benefit of the cruising community. They have completely rebuilt the waterfront area, making it very attractive to the boater. Yet few have discovered it. We have found anchorages some days by just making a right or left turn at the end of the day and dropping the hook close in to shore, just off the waterway.

Before you go

Timing your trip so that you are not traveling during the peak part of the season can much improve your experience, as can following the rules of the road and maintaining a sense of humor. Nothing makes the trip more enjoyable than having your boat properly prepared and the crew well educated for what they will encounter along the way.

Read magazine articles and cruising guides. Study the charts well in advance. Remain flexible and open. Safety and good seamanship are important on the ICW, the ocean, or sailing in your local waters.

Slow down and smell the fish fries. Make the journey as much a part of your experience as the destination. Give your fellow travelers a wave along the way, and dinghy over at the anchorage to say, ‘Hi.’ We have made many friends for life just practicing these simple courtesies.