Sailing the Intracoastal Waterway

A delivery captain and cruising sailor spills his guts about diversifying the Intracoastal Waterway experience, countering disturbing cruising trends, and spending more time actually sailing

September 1, 2004


When the sun goes down on North Carolina?s big sounds, you?ll want your wooly hat, some extra layers of clothing, and the promise of a mug-up below to ward off the autumn chill. Jon Eisberg

For many U.S. East Coast sailors, a trip south on the 1,090-mile Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) might mark the beginning of their first extended cruise, at the very least their first real departure from the familiar comfort of home waters. In many respects, the protected waters that constitute most of the Ditch are the perfect classroom in which to learn the rudiments of Cruising 101.

Nevertheless, the southbound seminar, while often tending toward the monotonous, can quickly penalize a moment’s inattention with a sharp rap on a helmsman’s knuckles. It’s supremely difficult to get into any real trouble on the ICW, but one can quickly find oneself in a bit of grief or a lot of embarrassment.

The most unfortunate consequence of a first-timer’s sojourn south, however, is the likelihood that much of the trip will be done under power. Sailors can spend hour after hour, day after day, on boating’s “dark side” and, as a result, pick up some nasty, noisy, and expensive habits. Numerous cruising guides provide, statute mile by statute mile (for the ICW is measured in inland increments), the nuts and bolts of such a passage, so my aim here is to inspire cruisers to diversify their experience and maximize the likelihood of some quality sailing.


Most cruisers begin their inland treks at Mile Zero, at Portsmouth, Virginia. Unfortunately, the curse of the first 20 miles of the Ditch is the nine bridges, each with its own opening schedule. Unless one is under way from Mile Zero well before first light, the better part of a day will be required to cover this distance. You can save lots of time by running to Great Bridge, Virginia, at about Mile 12, in the evening or early morning–if you’re accustomed to piloting in twilight.

To Sea or Not to Sea
The first 50 miles, to Coinjock, North Carolina, can seem like a forced march. The push to make the next bridge opening is constant and ever at odds with the necessity to reduce speed to allow the never-ending flow of powerboats to perform a courteous pass. And by the first day’s end, you may begin to think that courtesy is all but gone from the world.

An alternative for cruisers homing in on Norfolk–especially those sailing offshore of the Delmarva Peninsula–is to bypass the first 170 miles of the ICW altogether by continuing past the Chesapeake Bay entrance to Oregon Inlet, at the north end of Hatteras Island. Timed with the passage of a moderate cold front, this route offers marvelous sailing down the Outer Banks, after which it leads into Pamlico Sound, behind Cape Hatteras.


The key to this passage is to arrive at Oregon Inlet before the breeze moves from northwest to northeast, in which quadrant a sizable swell begins to run in from the east. This inlet is not to be taken lightly, even in settled weather, and I don’t recommend this route to those unfamiliar with running inlets of the sort found between Montauk and Norfolk.

The Perfect Pass
Over the years, animosity between sailors and powerboaters has increased, and as freeway drivers doing 50 in the passing lane heighten the road-rage quotient, cruising sailors must often share the blame for many of the tensions that ensue on the ICW. If you expect to be passed by a faster vessel in a courteous manner, you simply must throttle back to idle speed, thus permitting the overtaking vessel to do the same.

Though I’m a sailor on my own time, I mostly deliver sportfishing boats or fast motoryachts. My idea of a perfect pass is to first signal my intention to the slower vessel with a horn signal (one short blast if passing to starboard; two short blasts if to port). If the slower vessel accepts the faster boat’s plan, then it sounds the same signal. I think that VHF communications are often unnecessary and, in most cases, overused, and a 20-plus-knot closing speed often precludes effective dialog.


I maintain my running speed until within a couple of boat lengths of the vessel being overtaken, then sharply throttle down to idle, which instantly flattens the wake. The slower boat, by then at idle, permits me to pass close aboard and maintains idle speed until my quarter wave has crossed his bow. Then we’re both again off to the races. When executed properly, this entire maneuver can be done in 45 seconds, with no hard feelings from either party, and the overtaken boat has sacrificed but a few boat lengths of distance made good.

When a powerboat operator has neither the inclination toward courtesy nor the skill to demonstrate it, you can minimize the effect of a rogue wake by turning away from the wake and throwing a hip check with your own boat’s quarter by beginning to cut sharply across the wake, then deliberately putting the boat broadside at just the right moment. In most boats of at least moderate displacement, this results in little more than the overtaken boat bobbing up and down, with a minimum degree of rolling.

Approaching Currituck Sound, you’ll encounter a typical characteristic of the Ditch: the narrow, dredged channel crossing a broad, shallow bay. When navigating these tedious sections bordered by a hard-edged channel, keep glancing aft to ensure that you’re still centered between markers ahead and astern.


South of Morehead City, the need for 360-degree vigilance is increased by the effects of river and tidal currents, and throughout South Carolina and Georgia, you shouldn’t hesitate to use the provided range markers. Always resist the temptation to cut corners or even pass navigational aids closely; generally, you should split the difference between markers and view the channel in a bigger picture than that defined by a single nav aid. Farther south, in the meandering river sections of the low country, you’ll constantly be reminded of a lesson from eighth-grade Earth Science: The deepest water is usually found on the outside of the bends.

Off the Magenta Line
South of Coinjock, at Mile 65, the North Landing River broadens into a 15-mile shot across Albemarle Sound, perhaps the most notorious stretch of open water on the ICW. Albemarle and its neighbor, Pamlico, offer lengthy fetches coupled with shallow depths that can produce a nasty chop. In moderate conditions, however, they can also offer some of the finest sailing available on the trip inside. Upon entering Albemarle, if the weather appears favorable, seriously consider departing from the famed “magenta line” (which delineates the ICW route) and heading southeast to the alternate route through Pamlico Sound.

If your boat’s mast height is greater than 45 feet, this choice will require you to pass north over the top of Roanoke Island, then down the narrow dredged channel toward Oregon Inlet. Manteo is a charming stop, though the skinny water of the town’s Shallowbag Bay may prove challenging for boats with drafts greater than five feet. Much of this route will have a wild, remote feel to it, and you’ll be keeping company with commercial and sport fishermen.

Farther south, the Outer Banks village of Ocracoke is a true gem, with a landlocked harbor that literally surrounds the cruiser with its natural embrace. The touristy bustle of summer has faded by the time most snowbirds arrive here, but the ocean-water temperature often remains in the 70s F well into the fall. At this time of year, Ocracoke lends itself to kicking back for a day or two, though lingering there during an approaching cold front has its risk. The upwind slog west to the Neuse River is tough in a fresh northwest breeze, so wait a day or two until it veers to the north or northeast, and I guarantee you’ll log a day to remember.

If you remain on the ICW across Albemarle Sound, a couple of minor bridge cautions are in order. The Alligator River Highway swing bridge, near Mile 84, isn’t required to open in winds above 25 mph, so you can get held up there. Because of snags, cruisers in this region must anchor carefully, and the prudent sailor will rig a trip line in case of a tangle. And for those with masts approaching the ICW maximum clearance of 65 feet, the Wilkerson bridge (near Mile 125, at the western end of the Alligator River-Pungo River Canal) has slightly more than 64 feet at normal water level.

Whatever the chosen route, everyone seems to gather again at Beaufort, probably the purest sailors town on the ICW. Approaching the Beaufort/Morehead City area, you begin to sense that you’ve finally made real progress south. There’s likely to be a welcoming committee of dolphins, the vegetation is more tropical, and voices are really beginning to drawl.

Jeb Brearey, long-time dockmaster of the Beaufort Town Docks, swears that cruisers aren’t enjoying themselves as much as they used to. They now seem to travel in packs, and their VHF radios and cell phones have become more vital to them than their depth sounders. No doubt Jeb never ceases to be amused by the sight of a new arrival’s jaw dropping when informed that Beaufort doesn’t have an Internet café.

To a very real extent, the ICW is increasingly defining how many East Coast sailors are going off cruising. Most of the ICW boats I see are better performers under power than under sail. Maximizing a cruising boat for 1,000 miles of motoring cramps its sailing style and fortifies habits that sailors carry well beyond the ICW. Many ICW boats have decks awash in gear that inhibits on-deck movement; monstrous S.U.V.-dinghies swing from arch/davit configurations that appear to defy gravity. To actually sail some of these vessels would barely be worth the effort.

No modern cruising accoutrement stifles the urge to unfurl a sail more than the full-cockpit enclosure. This represents a major first step toward motorboating and the inevitable dulling of the senses of sailors, whose ears are attuned to wind and wave. Sometimes, the faintest sound of the break of a quarter wave moving slightly farther forward is the first and only hint that a displacement hull is straying into shallow water, yet our quest to isolate ourselves from the very elements we claim to revel in dims this essential awareness.

Very few cruising boats plying the ICW appear to be nimble enough to deal with the ever-changing demands of a lengthy coastal cruise. Beaufort Inlet affords sailors their first opportunity to truly cruise–to go “off-road” for a spell under sail. There’s no shortage of delightful daysails or single overnights to be had between North Carolina’s Cape Lookout and the Florida Keys, but having to rearrange bicycles or jerricans lashed on deck will inhibit the decision to jump outside at a moment’s notice.

Geographically, the Eastern Seaboard south of Hatteras is a happy commingling of nearly ideal physical features and a sailor’s natural attraction to warmer waters. In the wake of autumn’s cold fronts, which march through with predictable regularity, the perfect curvature of barrier islands between Beaufort and Masonboro inlets can provide a long day of closehauled to downwind sailing in 25 to 30 knots in virtually flat water. And you’ll be closer to the beach than the magenta line that snakes along behind the dunes. Some of my best days offshore have come in the Gulf Stream-blue waters of Onslow Bay, where I’ve sailed secure in the knowledge that a straightforward, well-marked inlet awaits me at day’s end. The inside passage from Morehead City to Wrightsville Beach–with three restricted bridge openings, the firing range at Camp Lejeune spanning the channel, and shoaling behind the myriad inlets–is one of the more frustrating on the Ditch.

I-95 or Route 66
Leaving Beaufort, snowbirds have the opportunity to decide whether or not the ICW will be their I-95 or their Route 66. Viewing the ICW as an interstate leads to running in packs, anchoring only in guidebook-endorsed spots, and succumbing to KOA Kampground Kruising. The alternative is to view the path south as a two-lane road with interesting detours. The sublime surprise of each new day and what it might bring can quickly erase the monotony of running 10 hours a day, day after day, under power.

One ICW trouble spot these days is the passage behind North Carolina’s Lockwoods Folly Inlet. Last winter, the U.S. Coast Guard restricted commercial traffic in the area to at or near high tide and advised mariners that the low-water channel depth was only three feet. As of early summer, the situation appeared less dire (see Jon Eisberg’s sidebar to this story, “Captain Jon’s Murderers’ Row.”). Yet cruising sailors can easily bypass Lockwoods Folly with a delightful 30-mile run outside, which is possible in all but the most unusual weather.

You can depart from the Cape Fear River (the shortcut through the Western Bar Channel is precisely as charted), sailing close to the beach in any breeze from northwest to northeast, and return to the ICW via the Little River Inlet. Even in a strong northeast blow, the seas will remain light for most of the ride before a swell finally begins to bend around Frying Pan Shoals. But beware: Shoal water exists offshore just east of the Little River fairway between the jetties, so proceed to the sea buoy before turning in.

If the weather favors the 120-mile run outside from Cape Fear to Charleston, South Carolina, this can be an easy overnighter. However, two hazards here require careful chart work and planning. The rhumb line from Cape Fear Entrance to the Charleston racon buoy passes dangerously close to Cape Romain Shoal. The waters off Cape Romain are lonely, with virtually no lights visible at night along a featureless low coast that’s barely discernable on even the clearest days. And this confusion of breaking seas several miles offshore is marked only by a solitary, unlit nun buoy.

The large-vessel entrances of Winyah Bay and Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Fernandina and Mayport, Florida, all share a dangerous feature for inbound sailors at night or in dirty weather. The rock jetties at these inlets can become completely submerged at high tides and in heavy seas; sailors approaching these entrances must know their precise positions at all times.

Why the ends of these obstructions have never been marked with more distinctive nav aids, such as strobes, remains a mystery to me. Even after the loss of the 34-foot sailboat Morning Dew on the Charleston jetty in 1997 (see “Coast Guard Learns Costly Lessons,” Shoreline, July 2001), mariners still must discern which flashing red among a long line of slightly varying flashing intervals is the one abeam of the jetty’s end.

The Outside Tradeoff
The tradeoff for jumping outside is the risk of missing something of interest inside–like the scenic ride down South Carolina’s Waccamaw River, the closest thing to a jungle cruise on the ICW. The timing of this leg, which is preceded by a tedious and narrow land cut passing behind Myrtle Beach, can be greatly enhanced by catching the strong ebb running out of Winyah Bay. Georgetown is a favorite stop among cruisers and an example of a friendly, rejuvenated community that relishes its proximity to the ICW.

Most everyone stops for a while in Charleston to savor the charms of this wonderful city. Cruiser-friendly, convenient, and strategically located, Charleston is an ideal layover, whether you wish to relax, accomplish a boat-related project, or simply get away from the boat for a while.

Sailing offshore from Charleston to the Florida border will take a major bite out of the number of ICW miles required to move south. The inside passage through the South Carolina low country involves much meandering and backtracking. Weather permitting, I always run outside and bypass this snake path.

But if you like inland wandering, this stretch offers opportunities to sail, and the route through much of Georgia has the remote flavor of a drive through the desert. Its monotony is offset by the dramatic transformation of the landscape between low and high tide and the knowledge that here remains one of the last unspoiled stretches along the Eastern Seaboard. Just before you enter Florida, Cumberland Island, the southernmost of Georgia’s barrier islands, presents a marvelous opportunity to experience this landscape intimately. Cumberland is near the top of my list of ICW favorites. Beauty, mystery, and peace will surround those who explore her dunes and broad beaches or stroll beneath her live-oak canopy on age-old paths.

Once south of Hatteras, there are many offshore-leg/ICW-sightseeing combinations to consider. The following entrances are reasonably reliable in settled conditions: North Carolina’s Beaufort, Masonboro, and Cape Fear River; South Carolina’s Winyah Bay, Charleston Harbor Entrance, South Edisto River, and Port Royal and Calibogue sounds; Georgia’s Savannah River, Sapelo, Doboy, and St. Simons sounds, and St. Marys River Entrance; and Florida’s St. Johns River Entrance and the inlets at St. Augustine, Ponce Inlet, Port Canaveral, Fort Pierce, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. Steve Dodge’s recently published Inlet Chartbook: Southeastern United States ($20; 2002; White Sound Press, www. is an excellent resource for anyone considering using inlets in which buoyage is uncharted.

The coastline south of Charleston forms the great crescent that eventually runs southeast toward Canaveral, so navigating and running inlets requires more care and forethought. Unlike farther north, where much of the coast trends along an east/west axis, the farther south one sails, the more of a lee shore this coast becomes in the aftermath of a frontal passage.

The breeze appears to swing more rapidly from northwest to northeast down here, and the resulting onshore swell is magnified by the shallow shelf waters extending well offshore. When the wind opposes powerful currents flowing out of the sounds and inlets, an entrance such as St. Marys can become a gauntlet of dangerous standing waves and tide rips. Caught out in deteriorating conditions, the prudent seaman should attempt to run these entrances on a high flood tide.

Mile 965 finds you at Fort Pierce, and that should be enough ICW for even the most devout motorsailor. You didn’t come to Latitude 27 to endure the endless waits for bridge openings in the shadowy canyons between high-rises or the VHF pestering from condo commanders complaining of your eight-inch wake from 18 stories above. So now it’s time to take the left-lane exit at Fort Pierce Inlet and seek the inshore countercurrent spinning south off the Gulf Stream. This is the time to see how the new gennaker looks against the towering tropical cumulus and to once again feel your boat lifted by a wave not manufactured by a passing motoryacht.

The Atlantic Intracoastal has probably delivered more sailors to the waters of their dreams than any other waterway on Earth. Cruisers from around the world marvel at this singular creation of nature and mankind, which I’ve had the pleasure of cruising for nearly 30 years. It’s no surprise, then, that autumn is my favorite season–when I fall in love all over again with a special part of America and the endless realm of possibility that cruising represents.

Jon Eisberg logged his 200th ICW trip in the fall of 2003. He makes his living photographing Grand Prix and Indy auto-racing events and delivering boats the length of the Eastern Seaboard. His free time is reserved for projects and escapes aboard his Allied Chance 30-30, Chancy.


More Uncategorized