Cruising the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW)
from Virginia to Florida is a bucket list dream for many cruisers. While the prospect of making the trip of more than 1,000 nautical miles may seem daunting, it needn’t be intimidating. Essentially it is just a series of day trips, and each year thousands of cruisers make the run. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind to make planning and executing this trip easier.
If it helps, and it may not, you can think about navigating the ICW as a four-dimensional chess game. You monitor your boat east and west along the X axis while also monitoring your position north and south on the Y axis. You will have to deal with the Z axis, height, as well. You’ll need high water to transit shallow spots, and you may need low water levels to pass under certain bridges. The fourth dimension is time. In addition to managing your time in order to cross shoal areas with enough water depth, you must manage your approach to restricted bridges not only based on water height but also to ensure your passage is compatible with their opening schedule.
Traveling south in late fall, daylight lasts only 10 hours. To optimize the time, most cruisers have the lines in at “crack of dawn” (COD) and plan to be off the water with an hour or two of daylight left. This allows them to travel between 40 and 70 nautical miles each day. At that pace, completing the ICW would take three to four weeks, provided you do not stop. But that would be a grave mistake. There are so many interesting towns and villages on the way and several beautiful anchorages off the beaten path. Allow yourself time to enjoy the trip. Slow down. Slow down some more. You’ll be glad you did.
There are four components to successfully piloting the ICW: navigation, tides and currents, provisioning your boat, and the all-important weather.
Coastal piloting and navigating has never been easier. Chartplotters, tablets, electronic features such as AIS, and nearconstsant access to the internet makes it far easier to move your boat along the coast. The following tools and protocols are essential to planning and executing this voyage safely.
While you can make the trip with paper charts, electronic charts are far easier to update. There are few places more dynamic than the section of the ICW through the Carolinas and Georgia, and you must have the latest charts in order to
safely navigate this stretch. The USCG frequently moves navigation aids and NOAA updates the charts. In the ICW there are many areas where the marks are moved by the USCG as needed. It is easy to misread the navigation aids, particularly when they are not where you expect them to be.
Today’s tablets can serve as fully functioning chartplotters. Navionics’ Sonar Charts have proven to be very useful to us. These charts have updated depth readings from crowd sourced data collection.
The magenta line is not intended to be used as a chartplotter route! If you follow it as though it were, you will run aground.
Be sure your depth finder is checked and calibrated. In some places, this trip is a game of inches.
Time to Waypoint (TTW)
Many chartplotters have this functionality. The “Auto Route” function in Navionics is very easy to use. The TTW will allow you to manage your approach to a bridge, lock, or a shoal spot so that you arrive at the desired time and spend minimal time circling in front of a bridge.
Whether you choose an online cruising guide or a print guide, cruising guides are written by other cruisers who have gone before. Guides generally reference the towns, bridges, and other sites by
Isle of Hope, Georgia; a pristine location with an excellent marina near Savannah.