ICW SPECIAL PART III -- The last leg of our journey down the ICW wends its way through the history and personalities of Florida
This is the last of a special three-part series on transiting the Intracoastal Waterway from Mile Zero in Norfolk, Va., to Key West. Soundings technical editor Tom Neale and his wife, Mel, have made the journey for 21 years (42 full trips), the last six aboard their Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. This third and final installment takes you to through Florida. It is not to be used for navigation. Always consult the latest charts and guides, and use prudent seamanship. Click below to read Part I, or Part II.
Florida begins for us where the sea rises and falls 7 feet as it breathes through creeks and rivers and marshes. The land is still of the Old South, and Spanish moss drapes live oak. But that is to change. Our course will take us among primordial mangroves, giant bustling monoliths of concrete and steel, and then a hushed world of small islands and coral reef whispering of the Caribbean.
The East Coast Florida ICW runs more than 420 miles, usually only a short distance from the ocean and separated by a stretch of land in places so thin you can walk across. It is much defined by its history.
Mermaids and gold
Ponce de Leon discovered Florida on Easter Sunday 1513 while looking for a mysterious island named Bimini and the Fountain of Youth. He named the land after the Spanish word for “flowery.” The Spaniards fought viciously to keep this stretch of sand and reef, swamp and plain. Huge galleons lumbered up the coast, slow-moving and laden with gold. They foundered in storms and were ravaged by pirates, leaving their bones salted with doubloons and bars, slowly crusting over in that way the sea has of holding her secrets. Spain’s strength waned, hastened by the “Protestant Wind” off England, which doomed their great armada. Threats came from all sides, including the Seminoles, fighting desperately to have one last home.
As years passed, pirates and smugglers, farmers and cowboys lived and worked, never dreaming that the land of their toil would become almost synonymous with “vacation.” Eventually people of wealth and vision began to dream and build railroads, hotels and towns. A new, and perhaps final, breed of conqueror brought the full floods of civilization.
The northern border of eastern Florida, the St. Marys River, runs from the legendary Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia, finally flowing past an old brick fort that overlooks its union with the sea and guards the ancient town of Fernandina Beach. It’s a “Southern” town with rich Spanish flavor. Eight flags have flown here over the years, including those of pirates. A broad (sometimes rough) anchorage and several marinas help us enjoy the town’s charm and celebrate our arrival.
For the record, we left Norfolk, Va., 715 miles ago.
Heading south, the ICW traces through marshes, and soon the SouthAmeliaRiver, with an elusive and shallow channel, empties into shoal-plagued Nassau Sound, its name subtly beckoning us southward. We round a bend in Sisters Creek, and the great St. Johns River engulfs the ICW channel. Only a few miles to the east it joins the Atlantic with an easy and deep inlet and its Coast Guard station.
A cruise up the St. Johns could last for months. The river rushes back and forth with sometimes as much as 3 knots of current near its mouth, but it soon turns to parallel the coast and stretches southward for more than 200 miles. In the upper reaches beyond the tide, it actually flows to the north.
Today we pass on southward but not without remembering a bit of the past. Just upriver reconstructed FortCaroline stands on a high bluff. In 1562 Jean Ribauld, seeking a safe haven for the French Huguenots, chose this site. But a short time later Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, jealously guarding his king’s claims for “glory, God and gold,” killed almost 140 of the French in a surprise attack.
It is said that the Spaniards left a note on a tree saying that the people had been killed not because they were French, but because they were heretics. A few years later, when a French fleet overwhelmed and killed much of the Spanish contingent that had remained there, they reportedly left a note saying that the Spanish were killed not because they were Catholic, but because they were murderers.
Wake of the Conquistadors
After the St. Johns, we pass west of Jacksonville Beach, with several marinas. The waterway then quickly straightens, following dredged cuts past residences and low marsh, a sleepy prelude to the beautiful TolomatoRiver. The incoming tide clears muddy waters, a sign we’re nearing an inlet. This time it’s St. Augustine Inlet, shallow and shifting but allowing passage in good conditions to commercial fishing vessels and yachts.
Menendez sailed through this inlet in 1565 to found the first permanent European settlement on the North American continent. A huge and ancient fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, looms on the shore ahead. Its cannon ports control every approach, protecting the city.
And well they might, because just 21 years after Menendez erected an earlier fort, Sir Francis Drake burned and looted the settlement. After other British and pirate attacks, the Spanish began building this fort. They used “coquina,” a soft natural mixture of broken shell and coral that was not only hard and durable, but also spongy when hit by cannon balls. For around 150 years the fort repelled all attackers. In the 1800s it imprisoned Osceola and Coacoochee, courageous leaders of American Indians as they resisted constant incursions into their lands. Today, as we pass under its walls and through the Bridge of Lions, we imagine the ghosts of its past battles. We walk its damp passages and see drawings on the walls by the soldiers of those times.
The Bridge of Lions, guarded at both ends by huge statues of the beasts for which it was named, is a fitting introduction to St. Augustine, a town predominated by Spanish architecture and culture. Restaurants, guided tours and museums await within a few blocks. The Old Market and Plaza de la Constitution reconstruct the central market of former Spanish times, and the Cathedral of St. Augustine stands on the site of the oldest Roman Catholic parish in the United States. The historical grounds of FlaglerCollege occupy the great hotel built by Henry Flagler, one of the leading architects of Florida’s development.
We can anchor in the open river off the town, but holding is questionable. Several marinas make better options. Our favorite is Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor — (800) 345-9269, www.camacheeisland.com — with first-class facilities protected in a current-free basin, several yachtsman’s lounges with Internet access, and laundry facilities, shops, Kingfisher Grill, two loaner cars, and a full-service yard tucked out of the way in a corner. Other marinas include The Conch House in Salt Run — (800) 940-6256, www.conch-house.com — the St. Augustine Municipal Marina in the historical district — (904) 825-1026, www.ci.st-augustine.fl.us — and Oyster Creek Marina up the San SebastianRiver — (904) 827-0520.
Two rivers share St. Augustine Inlet. We’ve come on the Tolomato, and now the Matanzas takes us farther south. After winding through its marsh for 15 miles, we see the high sand dunes of Matanzas Inlet. Shifting shoals plague the waterway passage across. Nearby, we see the weathered remains of FortMatanzas, which has stood alone in the marshes of RattlesnakeIsland for more than 300 years. We’re amazed at the toughness of the Spaniards who lived within its walls in the mosquito and snake-infested wilderness.
Matanzas means, “place of slaughter.” After Menendez conquered and killed the French Huguenots at FortCaroline, he learned that Jean Ribauld’s fleet had perished in a storm off this inlet and that survivors were encamped ashore. He marched down from St. Augustine to find about 300 souls. With only around 50 men in his force, he convinced the French to surrender, promising fair treatment. The “fair treatment” consisted of a meal and then execution of all but the few who claimed to be Roman Catholic. A few days later, he found more survivors, including Ribauld, a little farther south. He induced 120 to surrender with the same type of promises, and the same fulfillment.
The changes begin
Around Mile 819 we notice the western shore breaking into small spoil islands with a shallow expanse to their west. Soon a bay opens as we approach Daytona Beach, famed for hard-packed auto-racing beaches but also with marinas and boating facilities, including Caribbean Jack’s — (386) 523-3000, www.caribbeanjacks.com — Halifax Harbor Marina — (800) 343-2899, www.halifaxharbor.net — and Daytona Marina and Boat Works — (386) 252-6421, www.daytonamarina.com. We anchor in a deep pocket just off the ICW but well out of the channel, and properly lit at night. Wakes from passing boats make it hard to sleep.
After the dense civilization around Daytona Beach, the stream of the waterway again enters islands and mangroves. Ponce de Leon Inlet, just ahead, has caused shoals to build to marshes, and soon its four branches intersect the waterway like a hand of the sea reaching inland. The inlet is used regularly by local commercial and sportfishing boats as well as yachts, despite its strong currents and shifting, shallow channel.
In the past we’ve taken 6 feet of draft through with no difficulty, but we’d only do so in very calm seas. A Coast Guard station watches here. As the dredged cut of the waterway enters the Indian River North, we see NewSmyrnaBeach. It has a limited anchorage and a few small marinas, but we press on for a much quieter anchorage.
Soon, we’re embraced again by tangled mangroves and tiny islands with expanses of water holding back the infringements of humanity. The channel enters the still waters of Mosquito Lagoon. A very narrow ridge of sand stretches more than 15 miles, separating this lagoon from the Atlantic. Highway A1A runs down the stretch, but we don’t see it. A swamp of small mangrove islands chokes the northern end with mazes of narrow passages, elusively twisting between them. From time to time small flat-bottomed boats dart in and out.
Most of this lagoon is beyond our reach because the waters are shallow, with uncharted shoals sometimes a foot or less beneath the surface. Despite the ocean waves so close, depths in here don’t respond to the tides, only to wind shifts. With our 5 feet of draft, we poke carefully into deeper pockets out of the channel and anchor for the night, swallowed in the lagoon. Yachts and tugs on the ICW pass like phantoms from another time, their wakes radiating out to find us. Far to the south, the low shore lies misty and obscure. Behind it, often wavering in the heat, huge towers rise from a land foreign to this place. From these towers the shuttles and rockets fly.
As we approach the southern end of the lagoon, the ICW channel takes a hard turn to starboard to pass through the short HauloverCanal. We’re engulfed by casuarinas, palms, mangroves and foliage. Signs admonish to slow for manatees, and herons proudly stalk the shores. The canal is like a time/ space gate, and Florida cruising will change significantly on the other side.
We exit the canal and blink in surprise at the wide expanse of the Indian River, well more than 100 miles long. This north-south river hides from the sea behind a wide bustling strip of land. The far northern end begins in shallows well above our ICW entrance, but for miles southward the river remains deep enough for easy and relaxed cruising. Around 5 miles at its widest, it averages 3 miles wide. Towns large and small scatter its length, though in a few places civilization recedes from view. There are no tides except at the very southern end, but strong winds can change the depths.
Shallow areas, many from dredged ICW material, keep us in the channel in most areas, but they also give us beautiful little spoil islands where we can anchor. Less than 15 miles from HauloverCanal the deep water broadens east of the channel in a wide pocket with reported depths of mostly 6 to 7 feet, if you avoid the shallow spoil areas. The gigantic VehicleAssemblyBuilding and other structures of the KennedySpaceCenter loom to the east. This is a great place to watch the spectacular launches. We listen to the ham radio net at around 7:45 a.m. on 7.268 MHz LSB. If there’s a launch scheduled they’ll tell about it. Fleets of cruising boats anchor off Titusville, Cocoa, and in the Banana River, which joins the Indian River on its eastern shore and runs back northward up toward Cape Canaveral.
There are many marinas along the river, for sightseeing and provisioning. Titusville, Cocoa and Melbourne are close to the space center and not far from the Orlando area theme parks. We’re surprised as we tour the high-tech space center, for it’s surrounded by the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge with more than 5,000 alligators, many manatees, armadillos, sea turtles, bald eagles and other species.
In the southern reaches below Melbourne we’ll find many more small mangrove islands, some with beaches. Finally they become so thick that wilderness seems to have reclaimed this part of Florida. We imagine that it was like this in 1715 when desperate survivors scrambled onto the beach just to the east. Twelve Spanish treasure ships, heavily laden, had sailed into a hurricane and gone down, with all the gold. Remnants of the wrecks remain now under the waters. Today, large homes peek through the trees and then Vero Beach emerges behind some of the islands. Vero Beach Municipal Marina — (772) 231-2819, www.covb.org — rents moorings with nice facilities ashore.
After the Indian River leaves Vero it becomes shallower, although still wide. We notice that it’s becoming tidal, and for the first time since Mosquito Lagoon we see the water becoming clearer, with the influx of the ocean. We’re approaching Fort Pierce, with its marinas, commercial docks, anchorage and deep, jettied inlet at Mile 965. It can get exceptionally rough with an outgoing tide and onshore wind, but we often come into this inlet when returning from the Abacos, fresh from a fast ride up the Gulf Stream. Our favorite marina here is the Fort Pierce City Marina — (800) 619-1780, www.fortpiercecitymarina.com — in the heart of the revitalized town.
We follow the ICW down to a broad shallow inlet, near Mile 987, where the St. Lucie River meets the sea at the “Crossroads.” We cross it carefully, eyeing the shoals. If we head west up the river we can go all the way across the state to the Gulf of Mexico.
Continuing south, we sense more change. The trees grow close, the mangroves more obvious. Our route takes us through PeckLake, with subtropical woods on its western side and an ocean beach behind a tiny strip of sand on the east. Some anchor in the shallow waters east of the channel to walk across to the Atlantic. Five miles farther south, the mangroves open into Hobe Sound. Huge estates grace the eastern shore; a wildlife refuge protects the western side. We anchor for the night on the western side to enjoy one of the last wooded coves of the trip. Tomorrow we’ll cross a magic line.
We sense it by feeling the wind, watching the color of the sea, and looking at the sky — the tropical sky. We’re leaving behind the Florida where frost can still bite. This change overwhelms us at Jupiter Inlet with its famous 146-foot red Jupiter Lighthouse. The incoming tide runs clear in the ICW as we draw near, and it is deep turquoise blue. The Gulf Stream is sometimes within a quarter-mile of the shore.
Condo canyons, blue waters
Quickly we’re enveloped in another long narrow cut with tropical foliage and expensive homes. Civilization takes a much firmer hold of the waterway, with buildings, roads, marinas and parks. Then the narrow canal-like cut opens into the broad waters of Lake Worth. We’re confronted with a profusion of marinas, anchorages, yachts, island freighters, a tropical park on PeanutIsland, and a deep-water inlet with a sea buoy only around 55 nautical miles from Grand BahamaIsland. The strip of land separating Lake Worth from the Atlantic is the famed Palm Beach.
Usually we go out the inlet here and come back in at Fort Lauderdale or Miami. Today we’ll stay in the ICW; it’s a sight you should see, if only once. South of Lake Worth, the Florida ICW plunges into a condo canyon, crossed by bridge after bridge and bordered by the cement and steel of condos, marinas, skyscrapers, hotels, motels and houses. Wall-to-wall opulence stretches all the way to Miami. We’re entering the land of the Gold Coast, although I call parts of it “cowboy alley.” Megayachts and long, slender go-fast boats cruise past, a few of the latter throwing huge wakes as they run past signs that decree top speed not to exceed 30 mph, with wakes limited to inches.
The sign on a Fort Lauderdale bridge proclaims: “Yachting Capital of the World.” Known also as the “Venice of America,” its canals seem as numerous as streets. BrowardCounty has 300 miles of navigable waterway with more than 42,000 registered boats. Many think of the city as a fabulous resort. I think of it also as the best place to get things done for my boat. Marine shops and retailers range from huge conglomerates to individual contractors who come to the boat. They say, “If you can’t find it in Fort Lauderdale, it doesn’t exist.”
The types of services range from “can do” specialty machine shops to Bluewater Books and Charts — (800) 942-2583, www.bluewaterweb.com — internationally known for its collection of cartography (in all media), books and informed advice as to what you need. Rental cars are relatively inexpensive and make it easy to shop for good deals. The annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show (Oct. 27 to 31 this year) is known as the largest in-water show in the world. The strong Marine Industries Association of South Florida — (800) 262-8001, www.miasf.org — based in the city, is a good source of information for boaters.
Marinas line the waterfront, and many homes with backyard docks rent slips. The two miles of ICW between the Las Olas Bridge at Mile 1064 and the Southeast 17th Street Causeway Bridge at Mile 1065.9 are called the Miracle Mile, with huge mansions and resort marinas. Jamie Hart, the city’s supervisor of marine facilities, works hard to help boaters find places along the crowded waterfront.
The city operates three marinas — (800) 358-3625, www.fortlauderdale.gov — generally at rates more reasonable than some of the private resort marinas. The Las Olas Marina — (954) 828-7200 — at the Las Olas Bridge on the ICW is only two blocks away from the beach and many oceanfront restaurants. A small mooring field south of the bridge is operated by the city. The city’s two marinas up the New River are Cooley’s Landing — (954) 828-4626 — and New River Downtown — (954) 828-5423 — where you lay alongside and watch the spectacular daily parade of yachts and tour boats, such as the three-deck “Jungle Queen.” These facilities are close to the cultural center of Fort Lauderdale, which includes BrowardCountyPerformingArtsCenter, the Museum of Discovery and Science, the HistoricalSocietyMuseum, an Imax Theater, and the tree-shaded Las Olas Boulevard, with its internationally known shops and restaurants.
Finally we head south again, passing Port Everglades Inlet and the cruise liner docks to starboard, where guard boats ensure that we stay in the marked channel. In past years we’ve seen the QE2 and the Queen Mary here. We pass the DaniaCut-OffCanal, with small island freighters docked at the east end. The ICW between Fort Lauderdale and Miami has a few places to anchor, ample marinas, and too many bridges to count. The Julia Tuttle Causeway bridge at Mile 1087 in Miami has a reported fixed vertical clearance of only 56 feet.
The canyon widens, and upper Biscayne Bay opens to another fabled place. Whether you call it “Capital of the Caribbean,” “Casablanca West,” or “Havana North,” it’s still always Miami. It is business centers, hotels, Little Havana, Little Haiti, SoBe (SouthBeach), luxurious passenger liners, ragged island freighters, canals, islands and mansions.
The Miami River runs swift and narrow through a grand canyon of tall buildings, commercial docks and inner-city dangers — so narrow that the island freighters come in bow-first and go out stern-first as the tugs “bend” them through the bridges. We pass the western end of Government Cut with its large Coast Guard station. We see six cruise liners lined up at the piers, with special restrictions for protection. Marinas include Miami Beach Marina — (305) 673-6000, www.miamibeachmarina.com — and Miamarina at Bayside — (305) 579-6955, www.ci.miami.fl.us/marinas. We stay on the ICW, passing Coconut Grove and Dinner Key Marina — (305) 579-6980, www.ci.miami.fl.us/marinas — and enter Biscayne Bay as it opens southward to the Florida Keys.
The Florida Keys are another place and time, and we can’t wait to cruise there. The chain is like vertebrae bending southwesterly, fleshed out with myriad smaller islands and miles upon miles of small passages, anchorages, mangroves, islands, banks, wide open shallows and reefs. This part of the ICW is unlike everything we’ve experienced thus far.
Controlling depths are generally reported as 5 feet, but this is over fine white sand with shifting shoals, and 4 feet seems more realistic in places. We have fascinating options that depend on draft, weather, and where we want to hang out.
With good light, good guide books, good charts, good navigation and good luck we can spend a lifetime just poking in and out of islands, shoals and reefs in the Keys. Intriguing names on the charts entice us. There are such channels as Big Spanish, Mud Key and Cudjoe; keys like Boca Chica, Sugarloaf, Saddlebunch, Fat Deer, Half Moon, Butternut and Bottle; shoals named Turtlecrawl and Elbow Bank; and such sounds as Blackwater, Buttonwood and Lower Sugarloaf. When exploring, we watch above as well as below the water, and check the latest charts for heights of bridges and power cables. Voltage can arc even if the mast doesn’t touch the wire.
Clear waters, limestone islands, coral reefs, white sandy bottoms, and foliage are similar to parts of the Bahamas. We snorkel over beautiful reefs and even shipwrecks, taking advantage of park-maintained moorings. One of the more amazing sights, The “Christ of the Deep,” raises its arms toward the surface in a gesture of blessing. This 9-foot-tall bronze statue stands in around 25 feet of water in the JohnPennekampState Park off Key Largo. The statue is a duplicate of a bronze statue discovered near Genoa, Italy, in the Mediterranean.
Much of the Keys, including reef and bottom, is under the jurisdiction of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — (305) 743-2437, www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov. Reefs and underwater vegetation are protected by very strict laws and stiff fines. Even accidental groundings can net huge fines. Many maritime businesses have brochures and other information describing protected areas and the regulations.
The ICW passes “inside” for around 100 miles on the northwestern side of the Keys, but this route is exposed in many areas — often very shallow — and northwesterly winds of winter cold fronts or summer thunderstorms can make for rough going. Traveling inside we get a much better Keys experience. The seemingly permanent bank of cumulous clouds to the northwest builds from the shimmering heat of the fabled Everglades — another trip for another time. But we also can travel all or part of the length of the Keys on the deeper “outside” if we wish, in Hawk Channel. This is in open ocean except that it’s protected to the west and north (more so as we follow the curve of the Keys) by the island chain, and somewhat to the south and east by a barrier reef between the chain and the Atlantic.
We can’t just pass to and from Hawk Channel at will. From Key Largo south, the chain is tied by the bridges of “The Overseas Highway,” the longest being the Seven Mile Bridge beginning west of Vaca Key at around Mile 1195. Because of bridges and depths, only four main channels allow easy passage (except for small boats) from one side of the chain to the other. One is at CapeFlorida at Key Biscayne, off Mile 1096. In the shallows and reef just south of Cape Florida Channel we see remnants of “Stiltsville,” shacks built on sticks out in the wind and tide-swept expanse between the ocean and Biscayne Bay. Next are Channel Five at Long Key (Mile 1170), and Moser Channel just beyond Vaca and Boot keys (Mile 1195). These last two have fixed bridges with 65 feet of vertical clearance. Bahia Honda passage at Mile 1205 is deep enough, but it has a bridge with just 20 feet of vertical clearance.
Throughout this trip we’ve been using Maptech ChartKits, Regions 6 and 7. Navigational information has unfolded as we’ve turned the pages. Now we turn to pages covering large sections of the Keys and the entire chain to help us with our choices.
South of Vaca Key, most cruising boats must leave the “inside” for water deep enough to reach Key West down near Mile 1240. We can use the shallow and tricky Big Spanish Channel passing through the sand flat wilderness of FloridaBay to the Gulf of Mexico, or we can use Moser Channel to Hawk Channel.
Angelfish Creek gives us one compromise option. With our draft of 5 feet, we carefully get around 25 miles of inside ICW cruising from behind Key Biscayne down to the northern end of Key Largo. There we anchor near Pumpkin Key for a night or two, then go out Angelfish to Hawk Channel. We do this on an incoming tide to increase our comfort level as we pass over the rocky ledge reported at 5 feet at the eastern end. In 1984 we kissed it as we were jumping off from here to the Bahamas. Smaller creeks, some deep, wind off into mangroves. It’s hard to imagine that the exclusive Ocean Reef Club and all the bustle of Key Largo are so close.
We don’t remember the skeletons when we say “Key West” today. When Ponce de Leon landed here in 1513 he found human bones piled along the shores and called the island “Cayo Hueso” meaning “bone cay.”
The sea has brought many here. In 1912 Henry Flagler tried to tame Key West (and its sisters) with his railroad from the mainland. The sea sent an unmistakable message as a 1935 hurricane destroyed much of the railroad. Today, we see remnants next to the Overseas Highway, which was finished in 1938. We carry Les Standiford’s “Last Train to Paradise” aboard to tell us the fascinating story.
Key West has never been just another little town. In 1982 it seceded from the Union, planning to declare war on the United States, surrender and apply for foreign aid. The islanders proudly refer to their home as the “ConchRepublic” and the old-timers as “Conchs.”
While we could anchor or moor at Key West, we prefer a marina. Swift currents run through the harbor, which can develop roll, and holding isn’t ideal. Besides, we want to explore ashore. We visit the homes of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, and OldTown and BahamasVillage where houses with louvered wooden blinds, wide roofed porches, and cistern downspouts remind us of parts of the Bahamas. And we do the Duval Crawl. Duval Street is the tourist thoroughfare of the city. Bars, restaurants, shops and performers entice us in a hundred different ways with the frenzy of a great never-ending carnival.
But we don’t forget the sunset. It doesn’t “just happen” here. Each night it’s celebrated as though it were a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Musicians, jugglers, sword swallowers, revelers, bewildered first-timers and regular old-timers gather to party as the sun goes down. On the right night in the right spot we might see the green flash. Nearby, a land-bound buoy marks the southernmost point of the United States. We’ve come a long way down the ICW. We look out toward the Caribbean. This can be just the beginning of our odyssey.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings, and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer.
Click below to read Part I, or Part II.