Category Archives: A-ICW Overview

East Coast ICW Overview

Sanctuary and crew have made the southbound and northbound migrations from the Chesapeake Bay to Florida for the last 10 years.  Our Home Port is near Baltimore, MD.  From Baltimore to Punta Gorda, FL, via the Atlantic ICW (A-ICW, or just “ICW”) and the Okeechobee Waterway (OWW) is 1400 miles.  From Baltimore to Miami, FL, is 1200 miles.  Punta Gorda is almost 600 miles west of Baltimore, in the western part of the Eastern Time Zone.  Punta Gorda has about an hour more daylight than Baltimore in December-March, almost all of that in the evening.

We generally depart southbound from Baltimore around the 25th of October.  Many boaters have insurance restrictions and can’t move south of the Chesapeake Bay – or perhaps Cape Hatteras – until the 1st of November, sometimes as late as the 15th of November.  In 2012, we got a late start southbound because of Hurricane Sandy.  Weather along the ICW in November is often comfortable “Indian Summer,” but it can be quite chilly.  Daytime average temperatures have highs in the high 60s, nighttime lows in the high 40s. Following the passage of Sandy, it was cold and cloudy all the way from Baltimore to Cocoa Beach.  We had frost in Brunswick, GA; not average at all for that time of year.

After the time changes from DST back to EST, sunrise will be around 07h00 local and sunset will be around 17h30 – 18h00 local. Thus, cruisers will have 11 hours of daylight to allocate to travel. DO NOT TRAVEL THE ICW IN THE DARK. There are both marina and anchorage choices in most areas.  In 2013, budget $1.75/ft/day for marinas, and $15 additional for electric, as a nominal planning average.  Some marinas will be lower, some higher.  Cruisers who can anchor, and like anchoring, will encounter just a few areas where it’s inconvenient or space isn’t readily available.

Sanctuary’s average speed-over-ground is 7.3 knots, or 8.4 SttM.  We travel on average between 50 – 70 miles per day, so 8 – 10 hours. Some people prefer less. On average, the travel time required for Sanctuary to transit between Pasadena, MD, and Punta Gorda, FL, is 20 travel days. Add to that some rest days and weather delays for an average elapsed calendar time of 25 – 28 days.

Sanctuary is a diesel fueled boat with a cruising range of 500-600 statute miles or better.  The best-price fuel stops in recent years have been:

  • Top Rack Marina, Elizabeth River, Norfolk;
  • sometimes one of the marinas in Swansboro, NC;
  • New River Marina, New River Inlet, NC;
  • Myrtle Beach Yacht Club and Osprey Marina, both in Northern SC;
  • Two-Way Fish Camp, Brunswick, GA, and,
  • Brunswick Landing Marina, East River, Brunswick, GA.

The Carolinas and Georgia generally have better fuel prices than Florida because of state sales tax policy.  Northbound (not southbound), Fernandina Beach, FL, is almost competitive with Ocean Petroleum (Brunswick, GA), because Florida waives sales taxes on fuel for boats leaving the state. That is useful in the spring, but does not work in the fall.

From a navigation perspective, with just a couple of exceptions, the most shallow and tricky waters along the East Coast ICW are south of Georgetown, SC, throughout Georgia and north Florida.  In these waters, cruisers will have to deal with a combination of shoal waters and high tidal ranges. Both changing currents and low tides are concerns requiring forethought and planning. In many of these waters – Hell Gate, GA, Little Mud River, GA, Jekyll Creek, GA, Cumberland Dividings, GA, Amelia River, FL, many others – the actual navigation channel is deceptively narrow and irregular when viewed in comparison to the wide shore-to-shore appearance of the overall watercourse.  Plan carefully for tidal range, and regardless of tide, be diligent about staying in the channel.

Lateral markers along the ICW, and particularly in the southeast, mark shoal water (shallow water), not channel “edges.”  Red and green channel markers (lateral marks) are found most commonly in one of two forms.  Some markers – the majority – are mounted on posts/pilings; some are in the form of floating buoys. In general, stay well away from markers mounted on permanent posts, and stay relatively nearby to floating markers.  Markers on posts will sometimes be found on dry land at low tide.  Floating markers are used in areas that change frequently.  They generally are found at the edges of safe water.  In areas where they are placed, slow your speed-over-ground and proceed carefully.  In places like Brown’s Inlet (Camp Lejeune, NC), Shallot’s Inlet and Lockwood’s Folly, NC, the Ashepoo-Coosaw cutoff (Coosaw River junction, SC) and Hell Gate (StM 600, GA) don’t travel any faster than you’d want to make contact with the sandy bottom.

For many, many years, official NOAA charts of the Atlantic ICW have shown a “Magenta Line.”  That Magenta line gets it’s name from the color of the line as printed on the charts (well duh!).  Do not assume that line shows the best route or deepest water through any particular area!  It does not.  Every year in our travels, we see new and inexperienced boaters aground on the ICW.  They have assumed – incorrectly – that the magenta line shows the deepest water.  That Magenta line only shows the general route of the ICW.  There are many places where following that line will take the unwary boater out of the navigation channel and place the boat aground.  Local shoaling can and does cause the actual navigation channel to move around.  ALWAYS, ALWAYS…   HONOR THE MARKERS IN THE WATER.

Cruisers planning to cross Florida via Lake Okeechobee should keep track of lake depth conditions. In the early fall of 2013, lake water level was extraordinarily high, and water was being dumped by the US Army Corps of Engineers (“USACE,” sometimes “COE”). In the spring, often, water levels can be very low, and can present a problem for deep draft boats.

Excellent online cruising resources include:

Both the Cruiersnet and Waterway Guide sites are heavily populated with advertising graphics that make them slow and hard to use, especially when cruising with tethered cell phones or broadband air cards.  Both WWG and SSECN have smart phone apps that duplicate website informatin and are very useful on small-format devices.

Navigation charts are absolutely necessary.  We carry both paper and electronic navigation charts.  We rely primarily on the electronic charts, but would not be without paper versions.  Electronic charting systems have three principal alternatives.  First is a made-for-purpose marine chartplotter.  Second is a laptop running navigation software with navigation charts.  Third is a tablet PC/smartphone running one or more charting apps.  We have all three, and have posted some thoughts in this article.

The navigation equipment we find most useful includes:

  • depth sounder,
  • VHF,
  • chart plotter,
  • Radar, and
  • AIS-Receiver.

Boat equipment we most depend upon includes:

We subscribe to DirecTV from New York City, and use an azimuth-tracking antenna which we find quite adequate.  Our Internet connectivity is via 3G/4G “unlimited” Verizon Wireless broadband card.  ATT also has broadband service.  Broadband service coverage is pretty complete along the ICW.  There are some weak coverage areas in coastal Georgia, but even that has improved in recent years. Cruisers must have a way to keep track of marine weather. We have a satellite-based weather radio system from WxWorx.  The fall is generally peaceful, but we hate – and respect – thunderstorms when we’re on the water.  An excellent source of free weather information is Marv Market’s Marv’s Weather Service.  Custom weather forecasting and trip routing is available for a modest fee from Chris Parker.

For A-ICW first-timers, significant Points-of-Interest (POIs) include:

  • Norfolk/Portsmouth, VA,
  • Elizabeth City, NC,
  • Morehead City/Beaufort, NC,
  • Charleston, SC,
  • Beaufort, SC,
  • Savannah, GA,
  • Fernandina Beach, FL and
  • St. Augustine, FL.

There are major cities in Florida every 25 – 30 miles along the ICW, and all offer a-little-something for cruisers. Everyone will have their own preferences.

All cruisers should consider joining a Cruising Club, like Marine Trawler Owner’s Association.  The MTOA has an excellent and active Port Captain program and an extensive network of Port Captains.  As you travel, use the MTOA Website to identify nearby Port Captains and call them for general assistance, ideas on where to stay/what to see, dockage help, maintenance emergencies, and virtually any kind of support you may need.

Cruising conditions along the route vary greatly, from protected creeks and streams to “big water,” and from narrow, shallow and shoal waters to wide ‘n easy. The Chesapeake Bay is “big water,” and “deep” by ICW standards. The Albemarle Sound is, for example, a large, shallow body of water that lies east/west, which can blow up fast into a very nasty short period chop.  The Neuse River (NC) has a definite personality. Rather than go into all of that detail here, let me direct the reader to the region-specific posts here on our website.  These articles are intended for those with little or no prior East Coast or ICW cruising experience. They are generally organized by state and cruising area, and will be a useful introduction to what one can expect.

For a preview or our favorite stops on the A-ICW, see our related post on this site.

We wish you safe travels!