Sailing Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway – Norfolk, VA to Miami, FL

Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway
Paradise Sailing 2012/2013 – Map of Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a 1100-mile (1800km) waterway along the east coast of the USA and consisting of some beautiful natural inlets, salt-water river mouths, numerous bays, wide sounds and many man-made canals.

Sailing away from winter, numerous cold fronts, strong winds and nasty rain we were able to make this route in 45 days including days spent in marinas close to a fan heater.

Let me try to divide this long route in several parts as they are indeed very different when it comes to bio-diversity, scenery, landscapes and climate.

Virginia (Norfolk to Coinjock)

Cruising days: 2 | 40 NM – 72 km

The ICW officially begins in Norfolk, VA just across from downtown area and it is usually referred as mile “zero”. If heading South you can take one of the two man made canals. The first, Virginia Cut is relatively modern and passes through Chesapeake City, VA. It has one lock and several bascal and swing bridges along the way. The other choice, the Dismal Swamp CanalVirginia ICW, which we didn’t take is quite old, narrow and a bit shallow but according to several people it has beautiful scenery teeming with wildlife. Since we were late, leaving NYC in mid November and having bad cold fronts every other day there was no other point but to move fast. We spent a peaceful night at the free dock in Chesapeake City and continued south with the first light to Coinjock in North Carolina. Navigating through this area brought back nice memories of the Erie Canal and the warm summer days that were far behind us.

North Carolina (Coinjock to St James)

Cruising days: 8 | 254 NM – 457 km

The first association to marina in Coinjock is a dog having a terrible infestation with parasites scratching his butt all the time. Poor thing!
The canal where both marinas are located is relatively deep but narrow. If you decide to spend a night here you may find yourself freaking out in the middleNorth Carolina ICW of the night when a tug is slowly passing through, just as I did. Just south of this place we ran aground so bad that it took us almost two hours to break free. Can’t say we haven’t been warned! Navigating through this area (both sides of Albemarle sound) is a challenge. Make sure you are inside of a marked channel!
For me personally, the North Carolina was by far the most challenging part of this trip! However, this part of the United States is beautiful, the second best after far north of Wisconsin (the Door County). Even though it was late fall, colors were still amazing and cedar forests the most impressive. This place, the eastern part of the entire state is still wild, peaceful and while full of the US history still waiting to be discovered. Further south and closer to Beaufort and Morehead City it becomes more developed and from there the scenery is not as impressive as it was before. However, the marina in Morehead City (Portside Marina) was probably one of the best we encountered on this trip! We stayed there for almost a week waiting for another cold front to pass.

There is a nice tip which I’ve been told and would like to share here. When navigating south from Morehead City make sure you are in the channel not just by observing markers ahead of you but the ones behind you as well. It is wide here and the wind can easily push your boat off the channel where it can be very, very shallow. Looking behind can help you to stay inside of the channel.
By the time we were crossing the Cape Fear River Bay I became more experienced with the tides and able to make better passage plans avoiding shallow areas and travelling much faster then before ( meaning that 8 knots was not a warp speed anymore ). Another great place to relax is the St. James marina just north of the South Carolina border. Gated community with attached marina has all amenities needed for a fair price!

South Carolina (Little River to Wright River)

Cruising days: 8 | 220 NM – 395 km

It may seem that South Carolina is nothing but the rivers? Well, on this passage this was the place where I have seen the most beautiful, wide and wild ones. Navigating the ICW in SC means you’ll be most of the time on one of the numerous river mouths or man-made canals which interconnects them. If you pay attention to the tides navigating this area is South Carolina ICWeasy and fun. Places like Georgetown or Charleston will take you many centuries before our time. Walking down through the narrow streets of Charleston is fun and its Maritime Center is the second best marina we stayed in on this trip. Charleston looks Spanish in many ways, old houses with numerous balconies attached to and open gated hallways reveals old times. History full of strange parties, rum, sleazy captains and their sailors, treasure hunts, pirates, conflicts and ladies selling good time.

It was Sunday when we walked Charleston’s downtown. Church time. Lots of well dressed people and their kids, tourists, cameras taking shots, people posing, others catching architectural details, guides telling stories about its previous times and the shining Sun. It was warm again. Finally, we left cold behind us. I remembered that we were talking how it is going to be warmer every day from now on. I liked that. I had enough of cold.
Later that night I went on a short bike ride to buy some motor oil. I have that thing, to check out the other side of the same place. Parts of the town where it is not touristy and well organized. And I’ll tell you. It is rough! Possibly dangerous in the north part of Charleston. Like when we were partying in Brooklyn few years ago and ended up lost in bad part of it. Scary!
Another thing related to South Carolina are dolphins. I have never seen a wild dolphin before! Well, I have seen hundreds of them by now. One night we anchored at one of the rivers. We were alone there and at some point in the middle of the night I heard a sound like someone is swimming by the boat, breathing and splashing. I jumped from the bed like “raising steam” and saw nothing. The sound was still out there. I guess just another dolphin? Sleeping? Amazing creatures!

Georgia (Savannah to North River)

Cruising days: 2 | 111 NM – 200 km

I’ll always remember Georgia by the tides. In this area the tidal differences are as much as 9 ft. That can be great and dangerous in the same time! You can easily run aground in some places and in just few hours Georgia ICWbe in 7 or 8 ft of water. The same applies to anchoring here! My advise to any fellow sailor reading these lines is to be extremely careful and pay attention to tide tables! However it is great when you have tidal current working for you. Your boat will fly!
Visiting the city of Savannah was fun. Lots of history here as well! South from the city is the place with a funny name, Thunderbolt!

It took us not longer than 2 days to navigate an interesting swampy areas of southeast Georgia most of the time accompanied by group of dolphins. There are numerous of places to anchor and be alone which in the pitch black nights is excellent for star gazing.

Florida ( Fernandina Beach to Miami)

Cruising days: 15 | 330 NM – 590 km

We arrived in Fernandina Beach on Dec. 31st and anchored just across from the downtown along with many other boaters. We encountered some before, many were far away from their home and flying flags other than Canada or US. This was the first night on our ICW trip to sleep with cabin doors wide open and not to be cold. In the next couple of days we realized we are in boat friendly place! Large number of local motorFlorida ICW boaters rushing to their favorite fishing spots. Fancy yachts. For a stranger, like myself the entire state may seem like a giant nautical exhibition.
I was hopeful to see a rocket launch when we were passing the Star City (Tutusville) but schedule was not on my side. All I’ve seen was the famous NASA launch square building in the distance which is for sale btw?!
In Stuart we met Paul again, the guy who navigated with us from Canajoharie back on the Erie canal to NYC. His dog, Scamper now looks fat and tired.

Day by day we stayed in all those places I have seen in films before. Places like Cocoa Beach, Boca Raton or Palm Beach enjoying beautiful weather and nice beaches along the way. Miami looks big and the city’s skyline is almost as impressive as the NYC, although many of those residential high rises were empty due to high rent. It may seem strange but nobody speaks English here? Spanish only? Miami is a bike friendly city. Its downtown metro-line loop makes you feel like you are in Sci-Fi film from the mid 80’s.

From here we went further South to the Keys. More details about this passage in some other post. Thanks for reading!

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2 Replies to “Sailing Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway – Norfolk, VA to Miami, FL”

  1. We want to sail from Virginia to Beaufort NC by the waterway with a swam 38 with a draft of 6’8” and we would like if will be possible to do it with this draft, appreciated, Rudy.

    1. Generally you should be fine. However there is a famous sandbar just passed Coinjock where we got stuck for a few hours (and with 5ft draft). Ask locals and use Active Captain for updates. Safe voyage!

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