Bound south on the ICW? Read this first!

Story and photos by Bill Hezlep
For Points East

Today, from north to south, and then west – from Boston to the Rio Grande – the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is composed of eight noncontiguous, relatively protected segments linked by open-water routes. I say “relatively protected” because most of the segments contain large bodies of generally shallow but open water such as Buzzards Bay, Long Island Sound, Chesapeake Bay, Albemarle Sound and Mississippi Sound which, under the right (or wrong) weather conditions, can be extremely rough.
But first some background.

In the Rivers and Harbors Act of March 3, 1909, Congress defined and called for the creation of a “continuous waterway, inland where practicable, from Boston, Massachusetts…to Point Isabel, Texas, and thence to the Rio Grande.” By the time Congress defined and called for the creation of an Intracoastal Waterway, it was already well underway.

The State of Massachusetts had accepted August Belmont’s plans for a canal across Cape Cod in 1907. When the Act was passed, in 1909, a vessel entering the east end of Long Island Sound could travel south to Beaufort, N.C., without venturing out into the ocean. Then, after a coastal run to Winyah Bay (Georgetown, S.C.), that vessel could continue south on protected inside waterways to the St. Johns River, Fla. On Florida’s east coast, south of the St. Johns, the Florida East Coast Canal Company was nearing completion of a navigable inside waterway connecting the St. Johns River and Jacksonville with Biscayne Bay and Miami.

In the Gulf of Mexico – both on peninsular Florida’s west coast and along the upper Gulf Coast, from St. Marks to south Texas – segments of what would become the Intracoastal Waterway were planned, surveyed, under construction, or already in use. And, in the name of drainage and land reclamation, a canal across Florida was in progress.

In June 1949, the segment of the waterway linking Corpus Christi, Texas to the Port of Brownsville, just a short distance from the Rio Grande and Mexico, was opened. In January 1967, the Florida Gulf Coast Waterway linking Fort Myers and the Caloosahatchee River with the Anclote River and Tarpon Springs was opened. With these openings the Intracoastal Waterway existed in its current form.

Since 1967, sections of the waterway have been widened, deepened and rerouted and locks, floodgates and other navigational structures have been built, rebuilt or modified. But no significant extensions or additions have received Congressional authorization, or even serious consideration.

Today, in 2017, from Boston to the Cape Cod Canal is an open-water run of approximately 61 nautical miles. Most of this is exposed to the North Atlantic and/or the full fetch of Cape Cod Bay in winds from southeast through north to northwest. The trip can be broken up by stopping in Scituate, Plymouth, Provincetown, or a number of the other harbors along the shore of Cape Cod Bay

ICW segment 1:
The Cape Cod Canal links Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay. Buzzards Bay is sheltered by Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands, but is open to the southwest.
Across the open waters of Rhode Island Sound and Block Island Sound, to the entrance to Long Island Sound, is a run of approximately 45 nautical miles. It is exposed to the North Atlantic in winds from north of east to south-southwest. The trip can be broken at Newport or any of the other harbors in Narragansett Bay, at Point Judith, or at the Great Salt Pond on Block Island.

ICW segment 2:
This route transits Long Island Sound through one of the three northern entrances to Long Island Sound – Fishers Island Sound, The Race, or Plum Gut – and continues on through Hell Gate, the East River, and the sprawling New York/New Jersey harbor complex to Lower Bay and Sandy Hook, N.J.
Between Sandy Hook, N.J. and the Manasquan Inlet, all boats travelling the coast must take a short, 25-mile Atlantic Ocean cruise.

ICW segment 3:
This is from Manasquan Inlet to the jetties at the Delaware Bay end of the Cape May Canal, via the 118 statute-mile-long, convoluted, low-bridge-bedeviled, and often-shoal inside route behind the New Jersey coastal barrier islands. Mileage on the New Jersey inside route is measured north to south: Mile Mark 0 is between the outer ends of the Manasquan Inlet jetties and Mile Mark 118 (117.7) is between the outer ends of the jetties at the west, Delaware Bay end of the Cape May Canal.

Because of fixed bridges and often-thin water, vessels with an air draft (height) of more than 35 feet cannot use the New Jersey inside route, and vessels with a draft of more than five feet rarely try to use it. These vessels must keep an eye on the weather and make the 114 nautical-mile Atlantic Ocean run down the New Jersey shore from Sandy Hook to the Cold Springs (Cape May) Inlet, or the longer run to the mouth of Delaware Bay.

ICW segment 4:
This is the leg from the west end of the Cape May Canal to Norfolk, Va., via Delaware Bay; the sea-level, big-ship Chesapeake and Delaware Canal; and the Chesapeake Bay.
From the Delaware Bay end of the Cape May Canal to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is approximately 51 nautical miles (58.7 statute miles). Like Buzzards Bay, Delaware Bay is funnel shaped and has a strong tide. A 15- to 20-knot wind against the tide, particularly the ebb tide, creates rough conditions.

The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, connecting the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays, extends 17.7 statute miles, from the canal traffic-control light at Reedy Point, in Delaware, to the west traffic control light at Old Town Point Wharf on the Elk River, in Maryland. The canal was officially opened on Oct. 18, 1829, and after repeatedly being enlarged, reached its present 450-foot width by 35-foot depth in the late 1960s and early 70s.

The Chesapeake Bay from Havre de Grace, Md., at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, to the Virginia Capes at the bay’s mouth, is approximately 166 nautical miles long (199 statute miles) and oriented almost exactly north-south. The bay is the drowned valley of the Susquehanna River, and it is the largest estuary in the United States.

The bay and its major tributaries have over 11,600 miles of shoreline, a water surface area of almost 4,500 square miles, and, below Tangier Island, the bay reaches a width of approximately 25 miles. The shores of the bay and its larger tributaries are home to our nation’s capital, three state captials, two large industrial ports, the world’s largest naval complex, and hundreds of historic ports, towns, plantations and battlefields.

ICW segment 5:
This takes boats south from Norfolk, Va., on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW) for 988 statute miles to the mouth of the St. Lucie River in Florida, if planning to cross Florida on the Okeechobee Waterway. It will be 1,095 statute miles if you continue on to Dinner Key in Miami.

South of Dinner Key, a 75-foot-wide by seven-foot-deep channel extends the Intracoastal Waterway along the north side of the Keys an additional 57.5 miles, to Cross Key Bank, in Florida Bay (AICW Mile 1,152.5). Vessels continuing on to Key West (AICW Mile 1,243.8) must use the Hawk Channel, on the Gulf Stream side of the Florida Keys. Mileage on the AICW is measured north to south, Mile Mark 0 is near the Elizabeth River buoy R “36” in Norfolk, Va.

If vessels that have taken the AICW to Miami or the Florida Keys want to continue west following the Intracoastal Waterway, they must either return north to the St. Lucie River and the Okeechobee Waterway, or run north across the shallow Florida Bank, and then up the west coast of Florida. This latter route will take them past the Everglades and the 10,000 Islands to either Coon Key Pass or the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, a route unprotected from the Gulf of Mexico.

ICW segment 6:
This takes vessels across Florida on the Okeechobee Waterway. The Okeechobee extends from the intersection of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and the St. Lucie River (AICW Mile 988) to the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, near the Gulf of Mexico and, depending on the route followed in Lake Okeechobee, is either 154 or 165 statute miles in length.

Mileage on the Okeechobee is measured east to west. Mile Mark 0 is at the intersection of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and the St. Lucie River. Mile 154 (or 165) is near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, at the intersection of the Okeechobee Waterway and the Florida Gulf Waterway.

ICW segment 7:
This leads cruisers north from the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River for 150 statute miles to the Anclote Keys and the mouth of the Anclote River via the beautiful but, in places, congested and shoal Florida Gulf Waterway. Mileage on the Florida Gulf Waterway is measured from south to north. Mile Mark 0 is at the west end of the Okeechobee Waterway, in the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. Mile Mark 150 is at the intersection of the Florida Gulf Waterway and the Anclote River channel.

Coasting vessels following the Intracoastal Waterway from Clearwater Pass (Inlet) – or from the northern end of the Florida Gulf Waterway, Tarpon Springs or Anclote Key – can make an approximately 145-nautical-mile run across open water to St. George Sound to St. George Sound and the east end of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, off the town of Carrabelle. The alternative is to spend two to four days following the shoreline – river to river, port to port – with no shelter from the Gulf of Mexico between stops.

ICW segment 8:
This extends west on the heavily commercial Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) for 1,058 statute miles. It runs from Carrabelle, Fla.; to Mobile Bay, Ala.; to New Orleans, La., across the Mississippi and on to Galveston, Texas. This section ends in the turning basin in the port of Brownsville, Texas.

Mileage on the GIWW is measured in statute miles east and west from Harvey Lock, one of the two locks that permit passage through the levee on the west bank of the Mississippi in New Orleans. The east end of the GIWW, Mile 376.2 EHL (east of Harvey Lock), is in the Carrabelle, Fla., harbor channel. And the west end, Mile 681.8 WHL (west of Harvey Lock), is in the turning basin at the head of the Port of Brownsville, Texas.

In 2012 the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was the third most heavily utilized commercial waterway in the United States: Only the main stems of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers carried more tonnage. In 2015 the GIWW was second in tonnage handled.

As it currently exists, the Intracoastal Waterway provides an at least partially sheltered navigation route along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States from the Port of Boston to the turning basin at the head of the Port of Brownsville, Texas. A journey along the waterway is a trip through the environment, geography and history of the East and Gulf coasts.

As the waterway winds along the coast from Boston and the deep, cold waters and rocky shores of New England, to the flat, hot, brown and seemingly endless Texas coast, it passes or runs directly through the United States’ largest city, its most densely populated areas, four of its five largest seaports, its colonial dawn, and its battlefields from the earliest colonial conflicts through the French and Indian Wars and the Revolutionary War, to the Civil War.

It is also a journey into the natural, less-than-natural, and changing environment of the coast. Two of the waterway’s segments are major big-ship canals – deep and broad, their banks stabilized with granite and floodlit at night – and another is a lake and some canals originally built for, and still primarily used for, drainage and flood control. But most of the waterway is composed of natural features – creeks, rivers, bays and sounds – linked by relatively short manmade canals and cuts.

The natural and almost natural sections are often remote, wild, and lovely places teeming with coastal wildlife. But in the less than natural areas – the cities, industrial areas, suburbs and coastal resorts – the water is too often a field of fast-food containers, plastic bottles, thrown away grocery bags, cigarette butts, and other detritus painted in the rainbow hues of a petrochemical sheen.

A cartographer, Bill’s infatuation with boats and the sea began in 1961 when, at 17, he went to sea on a Norwegian school ship. He met his wife Betty – aerospace engineer, mathematician, pilot and sailor – at an Annapolis sailing club in 1993. A year later, they left the Chesapeake on a cruise to the Bahamas, and they never returned to their former lives. They spend half the year cruising the East and Gulf coasts and the Bahamas aboard their Nauset 28, Nauset.