We officially made it to the end (or start) of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), a 1,100-mile route from Key West, FL to Norfolk, VA that comprises almost every type of waterway (canals, locks, bays, sounds, rivers), except the ocean. Also called “The Ditch,” the ICW provides a protected path for boaters to travel up and down the coast without having to venture out to sea. It is like the equivalent of I-95--everyone is generally on the same path, you can pull off to spend the night, get fuel, a bite to eat, or explore a town, and you often see familiar faces as you travel up or down the coast. People are traveling for all different reasons--some are on vacation, some travel to come back north after a winter in the Bahamas, and some are simply moving a boat from one place to another.
We are now in the Chesapeake, where there are countless ways to make your way up north-- whether it’s crisscrossing the bay to visit small and large towns (and islands) or taking side trips to Washington, DC or exploring the bay’s tributaries and coves. But before we jump into what we’ve been up to on the Chesapeake, here are some of our reflections from traveling the ICW. (Photo courtesy World Cruising Wiki)
Our Favorite Spots (in order of location)
New Smyrna Beach, FL (Marina)
Just south of Daytona Beach, we spent 3 nights in New Smyrna, a beach town that seemed to have everything--from a night out on the town to an afternoon walk around shops and restaurants to a sunny day on the beach. The beaches were clean, the marina staff friendly, miles of mangroves to explore, and had some very fun restaurants (including a hot dog boat).
Cumberland Island, GA (Anchorage)
As we posted earlier, the island’s untouched beaches, history, and incredible trees make this island a must-do. Even if you are not cruising the ICW this great spot is still accessible to you can stay a night at the Greyfield Inn.
McClellanville, SC (Marina)
We docked at Leland Oil Company, a tiny marina (only space for about 6 boats) right down from where the local shrimping boats come through and sell their shrimp at the local market. Fresh seafood and a perfect area to stroll through the tiny town.
Waccamaw River, SC (Anchorage)
After cruising through endless marshland, what seemed like out of the blue we started to wind through a forest, complete with pine trees, chirping birds, and quiet waters. After enjoying the evening with our friends on Dragonfly at anchor, we woke up to chirping birds, cool air, and smooth waters.
Dismal Swamp, NC/VA
Narrow and shallow in parts, the Dismal Swamp is a 22-mile canal that winds through North Carolina and Virginia. The swamp has 2 locks that only open 3 times a day, so often cruisers will spend the night tied up at one of the few docks along the canal to wait for a morning lock opening. We docked for the night and set up a mini campsite with father and son loopers, Long Gone, sharing whiskey and food around our tiny portable Solo campfire stove.
Most nerve-racking part: Port St. Lucie and Myrtle Beach on the weekends
(We don't have pictures because we were paying attention to driving...)
While you're never at a standstill like on the DC beltway, traffic is never fun. When traveling through popular boating areas on the weekend, we are constantly dodging wakes from other boats that go much faster than us, while often navigating close channels that can have unforgiving bottoms if you run aground. Not to mention, when dodging one boat’s wake in North Carolina on a Saturday, our engine stalled and we had to quickly get it started again to avoid boat traffic. (We’re ok and adjusted our engine’s idle RPM and the problem hasn’t happened again).
Fried chicken at Leon’s in Charleston and seafood pasta and roasted garlic at The Garlic in New Smyrna.
Most helpful resources
Bob's Tracks Facebook group
We shared previously we use Bob’s Tracks, a track that goes through all the way through the ICW, mapped out by Bob Sherer, who uses real time info, government charts to help you avoid shallow spots. But there is also a very active facebook group of people currently cruising the ICW where you can often get real time comments and advice on tricky parts or other relevant news happening on the ICW.
We generally use Navionics, (like the google maps of boating), but we bit the bullet and bought AquaMaps, which pulls government info and provides more detail on depths in tricky parts on the waterways. Depths are also color-coded, so seeing a lot of red on a map (means it is shallow) makes it easier to notice trouble spots to avoid.
Most memorable marinas
This is a tiny marina in Belhaven, NC, with room for only about 6-10 boats. While it wasn’t a glitzy marina by any means, every part of the marina was thought out--and could be a case study in "small touches and thinking with the customer in mind can really make a difference, no matter what size or type of organization you are running." Like: towels in the bathrooms for showers, free laundry, grill, green space to hang or take your dog, putting green, decorated and clean bathrooms, and even a volleyball net. It’s a place that is hard to forget.
Charleston's Safe Harbor
On the opposite end, Charleston’s Safe Harbor marina was huge (deckhands rode around in golfcarts). We got placed on the “Mega Dock” full of mega yachts--the ones with full crews and the owner is likely some secret billionaire. The marina ran an impressive operation and fun to walk the docks and see the variety of boats and boaters all stopped to spend some time in Charleston.
As we sit here writing this in Annapolis on a cold and rainy day, next to the choppy Chesapeake Bay, with a long boat project list ahead of us, we are in fond memories of the narrow, changing waterways of the ICW. But we are embracing all the good food and beauty the Bay has to offer and family and friends close by we are lucky to see.