Changes On The ICW

We have now made more than a dozen round trips on the ICW between the Florida Keys and the Chesapeake, the first being almost two decades ago. Since that first trip, we have seen many, many changes. Some are positive and many not so. It was during this last trip that we really had the opportunity to ponder those changes and how they affected our perception of the waterway. We still remember the awe and wonder we enjoyed on that first trip. We also remember the anxiety and anticipation of the unknown. There is almost one article each month in almost every boating publication that covers some part of it. In this article I would like to reflect on those changes we have seen and experienced.



The ICW officially begins at mile marker zero in Norfolk, but for many, the journey begins much further north, usually somewhere in the Chesapeake or even as far as Maine. The trip to mile marker zero can be as exciting or as daunting as the waterway itself. Offshore or near offshore conditions are not uncommon and the boat and crew need to be prepared. Two things we noticed almost immediately on our run down the Chesapeake were that the traffic was going to be horrendous and the anchorages were going to be very crowded. The first day out we counted over twenty five boats within our immediate vicinity, all going the same direction. We remembered that first trip when we had long stretches of water alone and we were the only boat in many of the anchorages.

One sure sign of the changes in our society is the constant and vigilant presence of our military and law enforcement. From the Annapolis area to Norfolk, Virginia, we were within sight of a naval vessel at all times. After we entered the Norfolk area near the Naval yards the patrols and security were everywhere. Any vessel that strayed to the shipyard side of the channel was immediately intercepted by a security boat. Their approach was no nonsense. Their command was for you to move to the other side of the channel immediately or be arrested. We were buzzed at mast head level by fighter jets on the Pamlico Sound. The Marines at Camp LaJeune were practicing exercises day and night. We did anchor in Mile Hammock Bay in Camp Lajeune with no problem. As a matter of fact we and the twenty five other boats anchored there felt very safe and secure. The main ship channel in Miami was closed to boat traffic whenever a cruise ship was in port and the Coast Guard escorted most large vessels in and out of ports. Coast Guard and local law enforcement are constantly posted in all major ports we passed through.

It seems to have become acceptable for some newbie’s to hook up with what we dubbed the waterway Gurus. A fine old salt that had probably made the trip several times, or at least once, and taken some poor inexperienced crews under their wing. The Gurus planned out the trips each day, decided how far and at what speed their little groups should travel and where the anchorage for the evening would be. After communicating this information each morning, the group would then head out with the Guru at the lead, making all contact with bridge tenders for the group and making sure everyone was staying together. This made for interesting entertainment when two or more groups converged at a narrow part of the waterway and particularly at bridges. And it was a little confusing as to which Guru was directing which group. When we accidentally mixed in on occasion it was always made clear that “they are not with us”. It was also the Gurus responsibility to troubleshoot problems aboard any of their charges vessels as they presented themselves.

One of the sadder changes we noticed was the loss of camaraderie we had known over the years. With the forming of the “groups” it seemed that other boats and crews were considered outsiders and socializing outside the “group” was not a good idea. Fortunately there are still a few of the old time snow birds still making the trip that you still can meet up with old friends along the way. It may just be that with so many, many new cruisers, the mind set and attitudes of living ashore have not been shaken and the cruising mentality has just not yet taken hold. We can only hope.

Shoaling of the waterway has always been a problem, even on that first trip south. Some areas are still being dredged, but many others are not. Playing the tides and staying perfectly in the channel is sometimes the only way a deep draft vessel can use the waterway. Many times we “farmed the bottom” mid channel at mid tide. We often observed vessels running from channel marker to channel marker. We also observed some of those vessels running aground. A commercial tug Captain once told us to pretend we were a tug pushing an eighty foot barge when we transited the narrow channels. He suggested that dredging was done to accommodate the commercial traffic and not the pleasure boats. By imitating what a tug and barge would do, we would always find the deeper water. It worked just as he had told us. Meetings are currently being scheduled up and down the east coast to discuss the impact to local communities and the boating public in general. There is talk about closing parts of the waterway. We feel this would be devastating. Each year the problem in some areas is increasing. As funds are diverted to more security and other issues the dredging of the waterway becomes less and less a priority.

Another more serious change we have seen is a real lack of good common sense and seamanship. Perhaps this too is due to the increase in the number of first timers to this annual migration. Each day the VHF brought vessels chastising each other, and there is much use of unkind words and phrases that we could not publish in this article. The waterway was designed and built for all vessels small and large to use but there seems to be two opposing groups. There are those that can travel fairly fast (you know who you are) and those that can not travel very fast (you know who you are). These groups seem to have become diametrically opposed and unable to transit the same body of water without some colorful conversations. It appears more and more that one group has taken a delight in making the other group as uncomfortable as possible. The unfortunate consequences are that at some point someone will get seriously harmed. There are certain rules for preventing that situation but in many instances neither side seems interested in those rules. In the interest of informing those unfamiliar, the rules of overtaking state that if you can not safely pass another vessel, you do not pass. Common courtesy from the boats that can’t travel very fast (you know who you are) dictates that you slow as much as possible to allow boats that can go faster (you know who you are) to pass safely. Those boats that can travel faster (you know who you are) must slow to a safe speed and reduce their wake so as not to cause damage or injury on the other vessel. Here is the procedure we have used successfully over the years without any complaints. We always approach the slower vessel dead astern of them and slow down to match their speed. We then call the vessel ahead to let them know we are there, which side we will pass on and ask them to slow down so that we can pass. We then pass as close in to the slower vessel as can be done safely and then move directly in front as soon as it is safe to do so. Once we are in front of the vessel we have passed, we can increase speed and go on our way with little inconvenience or discomfort to the other crew. It is a very simple procedure, but one that many have not yet mastered. Why can’t we all just get along?

I can’t mention the VHF without noting how many of our trucker friends seem to have made the conversion to boating. The chatter on the radio daily is full of folks wanting to know what their friends “20” is and if so and so “has their ears on”. To our brethren from the highway we say welcome. We are sure you will bring your professionalism with you to the water. That’s a big 10/4 good buddy.

We have many favorite anchorages and towns along the waterway and noticed the biggest changes here. Ten years ago we could travel for very long stretches without seeing any signs of civilization. It even caused a little anxiety in that we worried that if we had a serious breakdown, help was not close by. Many small towns brought welcome packages to the new boats that arrived each day. After this last trip we fear the time is not too far off that the waterway will be totally developed from one end to the other. Even now there are very few miles of unspoiled areas. It seems that many of our favorite towns have discovered the potential income from visiting boaters. Large anchorage areas such as Annapolis, Charleston, Vero Beach, and Marathon, to name a few, have set mooring buoys and are now charging cruisers. The City of St. Augustine is currently considering installing a mooring field in the entire anchorage area. We do understand some of the reasoning behind this. It is another case of a few spoiling it for the many. A number of our favorite towns along the way are off our must stop list because there are so many derelict boats anchored that there is only room for a few cruisers and the unattended boats are a safety hazard in bad weather. These poorly maintained, sometimes abandoned vessels become a burden on the local government when they sink or become navigational hazards. With the increase in the number of boats making the trek each year, this makes finding decent anchoring spots in these towns almost impossible.

Not all the news is negative. There is still enough area out there that peace and solitude can still be found. You just need to study the charts and look for places other than those written up in the guides. Many cruisers rush North or South and miss the great places off the beaten path. Small towns on the Pamlico Sound and Neuse River that many bypass still remind us of what cruising these areas was like that decade ago. Towns like Great Bridge Virginia still have free dockage and most conveniences are nearby. Elizabeth City still welcomes cruisers with a free town dock. St. Mary’s, Georgia has discovered the economic benefit of the cruising community. They have completely rebuilt the waterfront area making it very attractive to the boater. Yet few have discovered it. We have found anchorages some days by just making a right or left turn at the end of the day and dropping the hook close in to shore, just off the waterway. We do as much offshore running as weather will permit. We have to chuckle as we sail along the coast and listen to the shouts on the VHF from those inside. The numbers of bridges that have been replaced by 65’ spans since that first trip are increasing. Although care should be taken if your vessel has a tall rig. It seems some engineers have lost their tape measures and bridge height is not as advertised. Timing your trip so that you are not traveling during the peak part of the season can much improve your experience as well as following the rules of the road and maintaining a sense of humor. Nothing makes the trip more enjoyable than having your boat properly prepared and the crew well educated for what they will encounter along the way. Read the articles, cruising guides, and study the charts well in advance. And even then remain flexible and open. Safety and good seamanship are important on the ICW, the ocean, or sailing in your local waters.

Slow down and smell the fish fry’s. Make the entire ICW as much a part of your destination as where you plan to spend the winter months. Give your fellow travelers a wave along the way and dinghy over at the anchorage and say hi. We have made many friends for life just practicing these simple courtesies.

2 comments:

  1. Great post! Although I'm not a cruiser, I have the heart for it. My daughter is currently a Dock Master in Key West. I live vicariously through her. Her very first crew job on a boat delivery was from Annapolis to the Bahamas, 65'sailboat. She learned about the ICW on that trip. She spent many nights and many miles riding in the bow or on the bow sprint with a flash light looking for sand bars and fighting bugs in the dark. Being from Small Town Texas her thought was this is just like driving down a back road in the middle of the night with out any head lights... "WHY are we doing this? No one else is..." She learned some boaters (or people who think they are boaters) don't always use common sense.

    You wrote: "It may just be that with so many, many new cruisers, the mind set and attitudes of living ashore have not been shaken and the cruising mentality has just not yet taken hold." Let's hope so... maybe it's just a maturity thing and once they learn the manners they'll change.

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  2. Excellently written and I really like your comments on the increasing rudeness, out in the ICW. Our ICW experience has been East Coast of Florida, from Fernandina to Elliot Key.

    There was an intention to go to the MTOA gathering, we had even started to plan a trip to Punta Gorda. But in honor of the crowds that will be traveling on the ICW, we decided to do the St Johns river, instead. Always wanted to do this and April is a wonderful time to be in North Florida.

    Good luck on your new trawler, we really love ours!

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