I was asked recently to comment on our “favorite places” to visit as we cruised along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Following was our response. There are many more places we also stop, but these are the “highlights” we think will also appeal to others.
As a reminder, the ICW is measured in Statute Miles, not Nautical Miles. Statute miles are 5280 feet, what we all know and love in a car as miles, with speed measured in miles per hour. Nautical miles are longer than Statute miles; the conversion factor is 1.1508, so 5280 x 1.15 = 6076 feet (rounded).
Below in this text, I use the following abbreviations:
MM – mile marker
StM – Statute mile (vs Nautical Mile)
Portsmouth, VA: Located immediately south of the Chesapeake Bay, this is an excellent place to rest and relax after transiting the Bay, particularly if the weather has had the Bay “a bit disturbed.” Portsmouth is at MM0 – the start of – the Atlantic ICW. Southbound, Norfolk is to Port and Portsmouth is to STBD. There is an anchorage known as “Hospital Point” at MM0, but dinghy docks are scarce for those who’d want to go ashore. Waterside Marina is a good marina stop in Norfolk, VA. It’s located within walking distance to the USS Wisconsin, a WWII Battleship museum. One quarter mile south of MM0 are Tidewater Marina and Ocean Marine on the Portsmouth side. There are also two first-come, first-served public basins on the Portsmouth side where cruisers can tie up free; there are no services. These spaces fill up fast if bad weather is forecast or in progress for the lower Chesapeake Bay, as they are great places to wait on weather. Storm tides here will come over the docks, so you may get your feet wet. From the High Street basin, it’s an easy walk to the museum Light Ship Portsmouth. There are two small but nice museums surrounding that basin. Along high street, there are several mostly “bar food” restaurants; our particular favorite is the German Biergarten, about a 6 block walk.
Elizabeth City, NC, and the “Albemarle Loop:” Elizabeth City at MM 51 on the Dismal Swamp ICW Route is the “anchor town” of the ICW southbound from Norfolk/Portsmouth. Elizabeth City has a marvelous small museum dedicated to the maritime and economic history of the region. The Elizabeth City Public Wharf is the “Harbor of Hospitality.” Docks are free, albeit without services. This is a favorite stop for us to relax and refresh.
South lies the Albemarle sound, a shallow body of water where the “deep water” range is 12′ – 18′. These waters are home to many crab fishermen; crab pot floats are to be found virtually throughout the sound. The sound lies geographically East-West, and the prevailing winds are from the West and Southwest. Winds greater than 15 kts can raise uncomfortable beam seas for North-South crossings. Winds greater that 20 kts can produce uncomfortable chop in all directions.
While not technically part of the ICW, the Albemarle “loop” is centered around the two ICW Routes between Norfolk/Portsmouth and the southbound ICW at the Alligator River in North Carolina. The “Albemarle Loop” is a cruising route that touches some wonderful and oft-overlooked venues. On the Crystal Coast, the towns of Manteo and Ocracoke are excellent stops. On the Western Albemarle, the towns of Edenton and Plymouth are delightful. The history of the Albemarle dates to the earliest English colonists. At Matteo, visit the Lost Colony Plantation. At Edenton, visit the revolutionary period Chowan County Courthouse, St. Paul’s Church, learn of the “Tea Party” that the ladies of Edenton hosted, and visit many local historical sites.
Here is a link to information on the Albemarle Loop: http://albemarleloop.com.
Beaufort, NC: This is a vintage seaport town just East of Morehead City, MM204; it’s a very pleasant, laid-back, “chillaxin'” place with a small but well done Maritime Museum, many shoppes and some nice local restaurants. Stay at the Beaufort City Docks. This marina is pricy for a municipal marina, but convenient for walking access to town. For those who might enjoy a short off-shore (maybe 10 miles) jaunt, depart the Beaufort Inlet and head out the the bight at the Cape Lookout National Seashore. It is a large, well protected anchorage, with dinghy access to the beach for campfires and swimming. The bight itself is well protected from ocean winds and sea states, but the trip out and back can be too much for some if the wind offshore is up. Plan accordingly.
Charleston, SC: magnificent old southern city with many points-of-interest and fine restaurants. Our visit strategy is to immediately take a tour bus around the city that is new to us. We look for a tour company that has same-day on-and-off privileges. (We do this every time we arrive somewhere we’ve not been before, including Canada). We take the entire tour circuit first, then go back to places that we think we’d like to know more about.
In Charleston, MM465, our preferred marina is the Charleston Maritime Center, located on the Cooper River, on the north side of the city, on the Cooper River. The CMC basin can be choppy in heavy weather, but we feel the relative convenience of the location is offsetting. We suggest advance reservations, as this is a popular marina with a relatively small capacity for transient visitors.
At Charleston, start the city tour at the downtown Welcome Center. Or, take a tour boat to Fort Sumpter. There is a nice aquarium near the Ft. Sumpter ferry docks. There is a water taxi from the Charleston Maritime Center that goes back and forth to Patriot Point, which is where the USS Yorktown museum ship is located. There is a large Harris-Teeter grocery about two city blocks from the Maritime Center.
There are several architecture tours and many weekly and seasonal activities for visitors.
Beaufort, SC: from the Beaufort Downtown Marina, take a carriage tour through the historic ante-bellum homes in the area. Our preferred marina stop here is Port Royal Landing Marina. From the docks, it’s a long walk to shore, but the hospitality at PRL is like no other. Beaufort’s downtown is friendly with many shoppes and good small town restaurant options. Rent a car here and visit the nearby Gullah Geechee historical and cultural corridor, the Penn School (founded in 1862) and Fort Fremont.
Savannah, GA: In Savannah, cruisers can stay on the Savannah River, in downtown Savannah, at either the municipal docks or at private marinas. The Savannah waterfront is very interesting, with its large riverwalk, wonderful park overlooking the River, and a mix of large shipping, commercial traffic and every kind of small-boat and pleasure craft. The tidal range here is about 8′ – 9′, and at low tide, boats are significantly below the adjacent public riverwalk, where pedestrians are fascinated by the boats and often look down at boats moored on the municipal dock. The downtown docks are in a “No Wake Zone,” so for the most part, wakes are not an issue. Throughout the season, there are events and activities along the riverwalk, and we’ve found it quite interesting and fun.
Alternatively, cruisers can stay at Thunderbolt or Isle of Hope. From both locations, city busses run to the downtown Savannah Welcome Center. My Admiral prefers the quiet and relative privacy of this alternative. In Thunderbolt, there are a couple of fun “pub food” restaurants and a fine marine chandlery caller River Supply.
In Savannah, there is a nice live stage theater within walking distance of the downtown waterfront (http://www.savannahtheatre.com). There are several architecture tours and many weekly and seasonal activities for visitors. From Savannah, boaters can rent a car to visit Bonaventure Cemetery (an amazing place, the film site for the movie, “Garden of Good and Evil”), Tybee Island (the Tybee Island Lighthouse and grounds are open to the public) and Fort Pulaski.
Fernandina Beach, FL: The downtown of this lovely small city is right at the foot of the docks at the Fernandina Harbor Marina. Take the tour to Civil War era Fort Clinch. Visit the house where the Pippi Longstocking movie was filmed. Visit Billy Burbank’s trawl net factory. The trawl net “factory” makes shrimp nets, but the modern history of this business is instructive to anyone interested in entrepreneurship. Burbank’s is open to the public for tours, and it’s a very interesting afternoon.
St. Augustine, FL: We prefer to stop at the St. Augustine City Marina. Tidal currents here are swift; boat handling skills and careful attention to the dockmaster’s instructions are essential. Wait for slack if unsure; caution is essential. The Catholic Cathedral Basilica would be of architectural interest to all. The Fortification overlooking the river – Castillo de San Marcos – is wonderful, and the docents that do the historical interpretation are excellent. There are many restaurants – ranging from fine dining to pub food – within walking distance of the St. Augustine City Marina. We particularly like the a1a Ale House. Rent a car or take a shuttle bus to the St. Augustine lighthouse, which is open to the public. Young’uns traveling with you would also enjoy the Alligator Farm.
Titusville, FL: Not really remarkable as a destination in itself, but the Titusville City Marina is an excellent place for boaters to stay in order to visit NASA at Cape Canaveral; the public areas and displays at Canaveral are excellent. It’s also a great place to watch a launch, if one is scheduled.
Comments on ICW cruising conditions:
For a more thorough discussion of cruising conditions, hints, tips, suggestions and warnings, please see our related article on the A-ICE on this website, here: https://gilwellbear.wordpress.com/category/cruising-practica/general-cruising/a-icw-overview/.
There are many areas of shallow water throughout the Southeast region. The very best resource for current data on low water (shoaling) and caution areas is available via http://www.activecaptain.com. Two other websites that all ICW travelers should know about are http://www.waterwayguide.com and http://www.cruisersnet.com. Waterway Guide publishes a series of excellent waterway guide books and maintains cruising information on their website and on tablet and smartphone apps. The “Salty Southeast Cruiser’s Net (SSECN) is really a boating group, founded by Claiborne Young. After Claiborne’s untimely loss, the group has continued in operation. The Cruiser’s Net website specializes on the US Southeast. SSECN has apps for both tablet and smartphones. There is some duplication of material between the WWG site and the SSECN site, but there is unique value to both. Both are excellent resources for fuel prices, marinas and anchorages. All three of these websites require users to register, but all three are free, and all are very useful to ICW boaters.
There are some generalizations that apply to the ICW between Georgetown, SC, to and through St. Augustine, FL. This entire stretch has high tidal ranges; from 5′ at St. Augustine to as much as 9′ in Savannah/Beaufort/Charleston. The high tidal ranges create swift tidal currents, and especially for first-timers, docking is easiest in the 1/2 hour before and after slack. In some of those areas, boats drawing more than 4′ will want to consider not traveling at low tide; especially celestial low tides. There are some well-known “trouble spots” in the region, including the Dahoo River at MM490/500, the Ashepoo-Coosaw Cutoff at MM 518, Fields Cut at MM573, Hell Gate at MM600, the Little Mud River at MM650, Jekyll Creek at MM680/685, and several spots on the Amelia River/South Amelia River below Fernandina Beach. There are some local knowledge bypasses around some shoal areas. In others, the only choice is to wait for the tide to provide deeper water. All of the cruising sites above can provide additional detail.
The US Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) is responsible for dredging the ICW. USACE is funded through state congressional delegations. In recent years, the money congress allocated to dredging has been diverted by these state delegations to “more pressing needs,” with the consequence that many areas of the ICW are shoaling. In fact, the ICW resource is slowly being lost… allowed to die, really… by congress. There is a not-for-profit organization called the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association that tries to improve the situation. The Executive Director is Brad Pickel at email@example.com.
Renting a car in any of the above venues greatly expands what a cruising visitor can see and do. Some, but not all, marinas have courtesy cars. Generally, courtesy cars can’t be used for long periods of time, but they are useful for re-provisioning and maintenance runs.