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Sea Savvy - Making your way down the ICW

ICW SPECIAL PART I -- Where to stop, what to see and some expert advice from a veteran cruiser of the Intracoastal Waterway

Editor’s note:

This is the first of a special three-part series on transiting the ICW 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 first installment takes you to the South Carolina border. Click below to read Part II or Part III.

PART II -- From wildlife to city life along the ICW

PART III -- From Old South to ‘cowboy alley’


The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a continuously evolving sensory overload that takes you from Chesapeake Bay all the way to Key West. Its rivers, creeks, sounds and cuts flow through deep forest, vast marshes, resorts, cities and sandy dunes of ocean beaches. Its waters may be clear tropical blue, swamp red or mud brown. Its time warps from prehistoric swamps to the shuttle launches of the Kennedy Space Center. It’s one of the finest cruising areas in the world, for boats both large and small.

We’ve been making the trip for more than 20 years, and we enjoy it every time. Come with us to see what it’s like. We’ll be heading south, running ahead of the approaching winter, following the geese. There are other beautiful passages that are referred to as the “ICW,” such as those along the New Jersey and Gulf Coasts. We’ll save those for another cruise.

A rich beginning

We begin with the “world’s greatest harbor,” Hampton Roads. Nuclear submarines, gigantic aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and many other ships of the U.S. Navy are based in neighboring Norfolk, Va. The Wisconsin, largest battleship built by the Navy, lies berthed at the National Maritime Center (Nauticus). Tall ships visit, in striking juxtaposition to the modern gray warriors and merchant ships from around the world.

The ICW has convenient mile markers posted every five miles in many areas, and is measured in statute, rather than nautical, miles. Most reference works locate points of interest by the mile at which they appear. To truly experience the ICW we make stops along the way, even as we start. The official beginning is at Mile Zero in the Elizabeth River flowing between Norfolk and Portsmouth, Va. But within a few miles are the attractions of Virginia’s historic triangle of Williamsburg/Jamestown, Yorktown and Hampton Roads.

Established in 1607, Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement on this continent. Capt. John Smith used it as a base for his fabled explorations. The village and log fort are reconstructed near the historical site.

Bridges There are many bridges on the ICW. Some remain closed for morning and evening rush hour traffic, some open on a schedule, still others open on request. It’s important to get updated bridge opening schedules from the various guidebooks. Keep in mind that even these aren’t always accurate because changes are frequent. Bridge-hailing VHF channels are 13 in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. South Carolina and Florida use 09. Always notify the bridge tender that you wish to come through, even if an opening is scheduled or the bridge is already opening for boats ahead of you. Some bridges have restricted visibility from the bridge house. The horn signal if needed for an opening is one long and one short. If you have questions call and ask, but remember that channel 13 is a one-watt channel with short range. Most of the restricted bridges open for commercial and government traffic. Usually you can go through with them. Fixed-bridge vertical clearance along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is supposed to be 65 feet at mean high water, but some have a little less. The Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami is the notable exception, with only 56 feet of vertical clearance. Most bridges have tide boards on their fenders showing approximate clearances. Some boards state that the clearance shown is at the center — others that it is minimum clearance — and some state how much to add for center vertical clearance. Lastly, requesting an unnecessary opening can lead to a fine. Boaters are required to lower antennas and outriggers if needed for clearance.

We board the replica ships Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, and go down into the tiny dark spaces below deck. It’s difficult to imagine crossing the Atlantic crowded into these quarters. Nearby Colonial Williamsburg has both period buildings authentically rebuilt and original structures such as the church where Patrick Henry proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death.” At Yorktown, Cornwallis surrendered to the former colonies. Visit, or call Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center at (888) 593-4682 for information.

Exhibits at the Newport News (Va.) Mariner’s Museum include ancient canoes, the salvaged turret of the ironclad Monitor, the helm section of the U.S. submarine Narwhal, and the 38-foot Herreshoff sloop Dilemma, built in 1891. It won every race and inspired the design of the 1967 America’s Cup defender Intrepid. A Chris-Craft exhibit includes the 1929 38-foot Simokon, as well as Chris-Craft boatbuilding archives from 1932 to 1980.

Our favorite area marina, centrally located for exploring the area, is Bluewater Yachting Center in Hampton, (757) 723-6774, (Yacht Yard East). Other good marinas include Waterside in Norfolk (a few blocks from Nauticus) — (757) 625-3625,— and, across the river in Portsmouth, Ocean Marine Yacht Center — (757) 399-2920,— and Tidewater Yacht Agency — (888) 390-0080,

Moving on from Mile Zero

We find Mile Zero of the ICW at Red “36” in the Elizabeth River, sharing the channels with container ships, tankers, freighters, passenger liners, warships, and tugs and huge barges. Five bridges stagger traffic within a few miles south of Mile Zero, then the waterway suddenly quiets, passing by homes with green lawns and trees.

Just south of Norfolk, we’re confronted by the gates of the Great Bridge Lock. It’s the only one on the ICW, and it takes us from the salt water of the ocean to reddish swampy waters of another world. It’s just before Mile 12. On the south side of the locks, after passing about a mile through the city of Chesapeake, we find ourselves among cypress knees and tall ancient trees of the Virginia Cut.

Many take a bypass close to Mile 7 and go through the Dismal Swamp Canal, with its two locks. The Dismal Swamp is one of several that were once part of vast swamp of the Pleistocene era. The world grows darker and quieter as trees reach out above us over the water, and we feel that little has changed since then. Occasionally the water level is too low for navigation in this canal, but notices are issued. At the end, Elizabeth City, N.C., welcomes us with its renowned hospitality. Not only is there a free tie-up, the “Rose Buddies” bring flowers to the ladies on board. This tradition began years ago and is a famous and notable example of the hospitality along much of the ICW.

In the Virginia Cut, the cypress and pines soon thin and we’re winding through low marsh that gradually opens into a small portion of shallow Currituck Sound, giving us our first glimpse of majestic inland seas to come. Here, we’ll leave Virginia and enter North Carolina, following the markers carefully. On our last trip through, in May, we generally found deeper water toward the red side; each year, some of the ICW channels change. We leave Currituck Sound at its southern end and enter another cut through solid land, passing the sleepy village of Coinjock, N.C., with two marinas, each with a restaurant and fuel at usually good prices: Coinjock Marina, (252) 453-3271,; and Midway Marina, (252) 453-3625,

The narrow cut widens into a creek, and dense forest yields to open marsh — a sign we begin to recognize as signifying yet another change. This time it’s our full-blown introduction to the magnificent sounds of North Carolina.

The sounds of North Carolina

Reaching brazenly into the often-wild ocean, a narrow strip of sand rounds out to Cape Hatteras. It’s called the Outer Banks. To its east, the Graveyard of the Atlantic hides shoals extending far out to sea. This is a place where weather is made, not forecast.

Shifting sands conceal bones of countless ships and men, sometimes exposing them after big storms. Small settlements dot the islands and dunes that form the Outer Banks. On one, Roanoke Island, the first English settlement in North America was established by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1586. The settlement mysteriously disappeared and has ever since been known as “the lost colony.”

Pirates ducked in and out the treacherous inlets breaching the Outer Banks. At Ocracoke, the notorious Blackbeard was beheaded, and it’s said that his grizzly head was posted overlooking the harbor back in Hampton.

On the inland side, more than a thousand square miles of broad, shallow sea spreads between dunes and forest, all scarcely populated, all of unblemished beauty. These are the North Carolina sounds of Currituck, Albemarle, Roanoke, Croatan, Pamlico and Core. The protection of the Outer Banks is illusory. Mighty storms frequently breach the strip, taking away highway and home, and pouring the ocean into the sounds. And the sounds themselves can become dangerous. High winds, in conjunction with shallow waters, create very close, steep waves that can be treacherous. In more than 50 years of boating — much of it in the ocean — the closest I ever came to sinking in a severe storm was in Albemarle Sound in 1980, in a 47-foot motorsailer.

Much of the sounds’ waters are too shallow for all but smaller boats, but marked channels allow larger vessels careful passage to the Outer Banks and its villages, such as Manteo and Ocracoke. Strong winds can blow water out of as well as into these sounds, and aids to navigation often are spaced far apart. Despite the potential difficulties, the sounds are a fantastic place to explore, and large sportfishing fleets run some of the inlets to offshore fishing grounds.

Albemarle Sound and more

If the weather is bad, we drop the hook in the relatively open anchorages in the North River, before we cross Albemarle Sound. The huge mooring off the mouth of Broad Creek is for large tugs and barges. They don’t cross if the wind is too high. They’re not only concerned about the buildup of waves, but also because the ICW’s entrance to the sound from the North and Alligator rivers on the south side is choked with shoals. You must negotiate the channel precisely. And those who do cross in bad weather may find their passage blocked on the southern side by the Alligator River Bridge, which shuts down when winds exceed 35 knots. This lonely river seems to pick up every stray gust for a hundred miles around, funneling it into oft-

surprising fury. Alligator River Marina — (252) 796-0333 — in a basin at the western end of the bridge on its north side, provides a snug haven.

Usually the biggest problem making the 15-mile run across the Albemarle is avoiding crab pot floats. Leaving the ICW channel and heading east introduces us to the vast, lonely and beautiful waters behind the Outer Banks. A westerly heading takes us to isolated anchorages up in the sound and to the aforementioned town of Elizabeth City, at the southern end of the Dismal Swamp Canal. Today, however, we follow the ICW.

Alligator River

Heading south down the Alligator, we see the bridge and a cell phone tower fading behind, leaving only swampy forest ashore. We’re heading into one of the most unpopulated areas of the ICW. Soon most signs of civilization are gone, save for the aids to navigation and an occasional boat. Many anchor at the southern end of the Alligator before entering the next cut. There’s a risk of snagging a log on your anchor in any such area, but the utter isolation and beauty are worth it.

Once, a large bear swam in front of our boat as we motored through the Alligator Pungo Canal, 20 miles of wilderness. Low forests of cypress and pine crowd the banks, and stumps and roots reach out from the sides to snag boats drifting too far from the middle of the narrow cut. Passing another boat here can cause great problems unless done slowly and carefully.

The Alligator Pungo Canal finally opens into the wide Pungo River, meandering through Carolina countryside. We relax a bit with steering, although, as always, it’s important to keep in the channel and keep watch. The aids to navigation here can be a bit confusing because we’ve become accustomed to red to starboard and green to port as we head south in the ICW channels. Suddenly the scheme is reversed, as the ICW navigational aids also are the river aids, and we’re headed out the river. We’ll see this in many places. ICW aids have an orange reflective symbol so we can tell if a river aid also is used for the ICW.

We pass the waterfront village of Belhaven, where many stop to anchor or tie up. The Pungo empties into the even wider Pamlico River, where once again we’re tempted to head out into the broad expanses of a sound, this time the Pamlico. Instead, the ICW ducks into another small cut featuring the lonely Hobucken Coast Guard station and a shrimp boat dock. After the short cut, broad waters beckon again, taking us to vast Pamlico Sound.

Rounding the shoals of Maw Point, we head up into the broad Neuse River. Upriver we see the popular small harbor at Oriental to starboard. Our course now takes us into protected Adams Creek across from Oriental, and quiet anchorages amid marsh and forest. We’ve entered the gateway to a very special part of the ICW.

Beaufort and Morehead City

Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, met its fate in the shoals off Beaufort Inlet. Recently, divers discovered what is believed to be the remnants. (We’ll see many of their recovered artifacts at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, This inlet now is maintained for large commercial and military vessels and a Coast Guard station. Boats bound for or returning from offshore passages to the Bahamas or the Caribbean often use it as their U.S. portal.

Morehead City and Beaufort, both brushed by the ICW, lie just inside the inlet. These busy towns have thrived for hundreds of years as seafaring communities. They’re much closer to the Gulf Stream than the rest of the continent at these latitudes. Weather is strange, with thunderstorms seeming to come from the wrong directions and unexpected warmth from the Gulf Stream in the winter. The smell of the ocean is in the air; sand dunes and beaches protect the towns.

Beaufort has several marinas, all friendly and helpful. Our favorite is Beaufort Docks — (252) 728-2503 — on Front Street, in the heart of this historic, beautiful old seafaring village. Across the channel you can see wild horses grazing on the dunes. The marina has floating docks for yachts of all sizes, with fuel available in most slips, free Wi-Fi for customers, a fleet of courtesy vehicles, and up to 100-amp service in single and three-phase. There is strong current here, but we’ve found dock personnel to be exceptionally helpful.

Our marina choice in Morehead City is the Morehead City Yacht Basin — (252) 726-6862, — snug up in a current-free basin and within walking distance of much of the commercial and yacht services and some 20 restaurants, some very fine. It has a courtesy car and high-speed fueling for large yachts. This marina has just been completely rebuilt, but its past includes visits from Ernest Hemingway, who came up in his boat for the great fishing offshore.

Kissing the ocean

South of these sister cities the ICW takes a fairly straight course, heading down the North Carolina coast, and this course brings an exciting new element to the trip.

Before, we were rounding bends in woods and swamps and crossing sounds. We were inland from the ocean. Now we’re in Bogue Sound, long and wide with a narrow channel. Looking ahead we see open water in the direction we’re going. To port, a narrow strand of sand runs between us and the ocean. With some exceptions, it’s going to be with us much of the way down the coast, sometimes-lonely beach and dune, sometimes heavily populated. We now really feel like we’re gaining southern latitudes. But we’re surprised when we look at the compass; we’re traveling more westerly than southerly. We’re recovering much of that easterly distance we traveled while following the coast’s bold thrust out into the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The air smells salty, and we sense the newness of the trip.

Soon tall dunes rise ahead, and the water flowing toward us is much clearer. We’re approaching the first of several spectacular instances where the ICW kisses the ocean as it crosses the channel of an inlet. Some of these inlets are deep enough to go out; though most are not unless we have local knowledge and a small boat. But we can look out many of them and see the ocean. It’s always beautiful, with beach and surf and gulls wheeling in the whitecaps offshore. Sometimes it’s enticing; sometimes it’s raging, and we’re glad we’re inside the ICW. The first is Bogue Inlet. The dunes bordering its shores and the ICW are formed partly from the winds and partly from the dredging necessary to keep the ICW from shoaling as ocean waters rush in and out.

We continue for miles through quiet marsh and woods, the ocean always just across the dunes. Suddenly, we hear thunder, though it doesn’t sound exactly like thunder. Mysteriously it dawns upon us. It’s cannon fire — large cannons.

Up ahead the ICW passes through a Camp LeJeune military firing range. Lookouts in watchtowers make sure no one gets in harm’s way. Patrol boats stop us, and we wait with other boats as shells whistle over the dredged stretch to our south. In less than an hour the firing stops, and they let us through. Signs on shore warn to not land — there may be live ordinance. I think that’s one sign I’m going to obey.

Next we pass the basin of Mile Hammock Bay. A few anchored cruising boats are sharing it with amphibious vehicles splashing into the water. Helos and fighter jets roar overhead. But soon the high dunes of New River Inlet loom like sentinels as we carefully find and follow the channel, and the ICW returns to normal. A fuel stop at New River Marina — (910) 327-2106 nets inexpensive diesel.

At Wrightsville Beach, to our south, there’s a place to anchor (questionable holding in some areas), many marinas, a Coast Guard station and easy access to beaches, as well as restaurants and shops.

Going north in settled weather, we often head out the jettied Masonboro Inlet at Wrightsville Beach for an uninterrupted ocean trip up the coast to Beaufort Inlet. We don’t do this heading south because we’d have to go far out and around Frying Pan Shoals off Cape Fear. Faster boats often do. It’s nice to know that we have the freedom to make an ocean trip almost anytime we want to, as long as the weather, sea and inlets are good.

The Cape Fear region

Cape Fear was named by Italian explorer Giovanni Da Verrazzano in 1524. Its Frying Pan Shoals claw 35 miles out into the Atlantic. If we stop at the Bald Head Island Marina — (910) 457-7380, — where the river enters the sea, we can walk out on the beach and look out over the shoals, watching the currents and waves crashing and leaping around it far offshore, seemingly from all directions.

But we don’t have to worry about the shoals: We’re going to pass behind the cape. The 12-mile cut through the marshes from Wrightsville Beach to Carolina Beach is straight and easy, with marinas and an anchorage at the end. To the east is the ocean, across the strand. To the west, across a narrow strip of mainland, is the mighty Cape Fear River. The short but swift Snows Cut connects the dredged ICW channel to that river.

The ICW turns downstream, heading toward the ocean. Before we do that, we take a diversion and head up to Wilmington, a gem of Southern culture. The waterfront has been renewed, with restaurants and shops in historic warehouses and other old buildings. You can tie up in town along the river, but we prefer to stay in the protected basin of the Wilmington Marine Center: (910) 395-5055,

The river continues past the city, with many shoals and snags, into a landscape amazingly tropical in nature. As we head up we’ll see a mighty apparition from the past, looming surrealistically over the trees. The battleship North Carolina is now a museum, and we explore her from the bridge to the engine rooms. She was the first U.S. warship to arrive in Pearl Harbor after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack and the most-decorated battleship of World War II. When we were aboard in 1995 we saw alligators swimming around her bow.

Heading back downriver and picking up the ICW again, we stop at Southport. The town, to me, represents many special places and good people on the waterway. It’s so typical of a Southern waterfront town that several movies have been filmed here. We first pulled into the Southport basin in 1992, exhausted after a long day and looking for an inexpensive dock. A funky building with a big porch over the water boasted “Provision Company,” painted on the roof. Some people were standing around drinking beer.

“Hey, do you know where we can tie up?” I yelled across the water.

“Yeah, man. Right here,” the guy said.

“How much will it cost?”

“Nothing, if you’ll let us buy you a beer.”

We stopped. They bought us a beer. We bought a lot more and made friends. We were the first boat to stop at the new establishment. If there is space, you can dock there if you have dinner, sitting out on the porch, looking at your boat and watching others moving on the waterway.

Onward to South Carolina

Southport is the southernmost port in North Carolina. The trip down the strand to South Carolina is punctuated by two inlet crossings and one of the strangest bridges you’ll ever see. The inlets are Lockwoods Folly — Mr. Lockwood built a large boat upriver and never could get it through the shoals to the ocean — and Shallotte. Both crossings are prone to serious shoaling, require careful navigation, and are spectacularly beautiful as we pass only a few hundred yards from the surf.

And the bridge? Well, it sometimes runs aground. It floats on pontoons, just before the South Carolina border. On each hour, the operator starts an engine that pulls the bridge open with a cable. When the cable splashes down into the water, we can go through. On some low tides, it gets stuck in the mud, and we have to drop the anchor and hang out a while. But that’s OK. We’re living a lot larger than those people in the cars rushing across with no care about the tide. And we know that soon we’ll be in the incredibly varied regions of South Carolina, undeniable testimony to the fact that we’re picking up those storied southern latitudes.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer.

Click below to read Part II or Part III.

PART II -- From wildlife to city life along the ICW

PART III -- From Old South to ‘cowboy alley’