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The Frugal Mariner
Saltwater Suzi and Cap'n Larry's "Boating on a Budget" 
How to's, Information, Education & Fun Stuff about Boats, Sailboats, and Cruising

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Intra-Coastal Waterway Tips

And why we like the ICW

How to Run the Intra-Coastal Waterway…
Without running aground

First, we would like to clear up a misconception. The ICW is not as shallow as many would have you believe.  We see tugboats pushing barges pretty much everywhere on the ICW.  Barges on the ICW, when fully loaded can draw up to 9 or 10 feet.  While a few years ago there were reports that the Army Corps of Engineers was under funded and not able to dredge everywhere, these problems have, for the most part, been cleared up.  If a tug and barge can make it, your boat can make it, unless your boat draws as much or more than a barge.  Most sailboats draw only 4 to 6 feet; a few a little more than that.

There are four things you need to learn to navigate the ICW without running aground.


You must not, under almost all circumstances, come to a mark and immediately make a sharp turn toward the next mark. Tugboats pushing barges don’t do that - they cannot do that.  They make long gradual, curving turns.  And you’ll find out that that is where the channel is.  Look at the magenta line on your charts - and it shows you clearly that long gradual turns will keep you in the channel.

On that same issue, don’t play ‘tag’ with the marks.  Long straight runs, such as in the Bogue Sound, with alternating red and green marks spaced hundreds of yards apart usually have the deepest portion of the channel straight down the middle.  And the channel is wider than it appears as you look miles down its length.  But we still see boats passing the marks with just a few feet between them and each mark, probably in shallowest portion of the channel. 

Often, too, you will see crab pot floats as much as ten feet from a mark, and many mariners think, “Look at those lunatics, putting their floats right in the middle of the channel.”  They are not putting their floats in the middle of the channel.  Many boats have cutters on their props which will cut the float from the crab pot.  If they lose the float, they lose the pot.  Crabbers aren’t stupid - they don’t want to lose their equipment just to annoy you.  If you stay in the channel, you will avoid the crab pot floats.


Know that there is only one perfectly accurate chart.
Its scale is 1” = 1”.  You will see it clearly if you look beyond the sides of your boat. 

Any scale smaller than that is a representation, and not necessarily an accurate representation.  Shoals drift and marks get moved.  But your paper or electronic chart is not automatically updated.   We have seen many boats religiously following the magenta line on their chart plotters, some at high speeds, come to an abrupt and sometimes serious stop as they pass on the wrong side of a recently moved mark. 

Use the magenta line as an indicator of the general direction that the channel takes - but don’t follow it as if you were on a railroad track.


Use your depth sounder alarm.

It is unlikely that you will be able to maintain a constant vigil and keep yourself directly in the center of the channel for the entire length of the ICW.  Occasionally, you will lose your concentration.  You’ll be watching an eagle, or an alligator, or a bikini, or a dolphin, or another bikini and you’ll drift off course. 

Here’s the solution:  set your depth sounder alarm for about a foot and a half below your keel.  When the alarm sounds, immediately back off on your throttle and put your transmission in neutral. Make this a rule and a habit for anyone who mans the helm.  Do this and if you do run aground, it will be gentle and you’ll usually be able to back off easily.  Most of the time, when you drift off, the buzzing of your alarm will alert you, and after getting the boat into neutral (your first response) you can then steer back on course. 

Now, sometimes, this alarm can get annoying.  Our alarm picks up bubbles from the prop wash of other boats, or sometimes from mud stirred up from the very large and powerful props of tugboats.  Try not to let it bother you so much that you turn it off and forget to turn it back on.  I’m sure you’ll agree that this irritant is much less annoying than running aground.


Study your charts and make notes of anything to which you need to pay special attention. 

For instance, there are many places where the red side and the green side suddenly (and sometimes inexplicably) change places. 

When traveling south on the ICW, the red is usually on the right.  However, when you near an inlet, for instance, the marks may suddenly change from red on the right to green on the right.  (ICW marks have a small yellow square inset on the green marks and a small yellow triangle inset on the red marks. If the inlet shares marks with the ICW and the marks are reversed, you will see the insets reversed, that is, the yellow triangle will be on the green marks, and the yellow square will be on the red marks.)

Note the inset box below where we have indicated where the marks change sides.  We have seen more than one boat aground because the helmsman was not aware of the sudden change.  Most places, it is obvious, some, it is not.

Why we prefer the ICW

For some, it may be tedious having to stay alert, constantly referring to charts. 

Running down the coast outside, though, may also be tedious.  Someone needs to be on watch 24 hours a day.  Sometimes unexpected weather comes up and you can get beat up a bit.  And there isn’t much scenery.  And very few bikinis. 

Personally, we prefer the inside route.  It’s much more scenic. (see below)

We get to visit very interesting waterfront communities both large and small. And we get to sleep all night, every night. 

On the weekends, when a thousand other boaters are wrinkling the surface of what we feel is our water, we’re holed up anchored on some creek cooking something on the grill and sipping some drink we’ve just invented. (We'd share them with you, but after drinking them, we can never remember the recipes.)

Or if the weather is going to be bad, we just leave the anchor down and read a good book; play games; have long conversations and solve all of the world’s problems.

We can take our time and meet new people.  We usually anchor each night, and often get in the dinghy and go to another boat sharing the anchorage and invite the folks on board for wine and cheese in the cockpit while watching the sunset.  We’ve made many lasting friendships that way. 

Some of our favorite places to visit:

Elizabeth City, NC
-  free party for the cruisers every night!  (Monday through Friday if there are at least 4 boats at the FREE docks!  At the party every lady crew member receives a rose compliments of a group of locals who call themselves the Rose Buddies.

1.  Dismal Swamp Route - After you’ve passed through the lock on the Pasquatank River until the entrance to the Albemarle Sound. 

2. As you exit the Alligator Pungo Canal until you are on the south side of the Pamlico River.

3. ~Mile 162:  As you leave the cut past Hobucken on the Bay River. As you turn south west on the Neuse River they change back to red on right.

4. ~Mile 299: Entering the Cape Fear River until you turn to starboard on the ICW near Southport.

5. Entering Winyah Bay when exiting the Waccamaw River until you enter the Esterville-Minim Creek Canal.

6. South of Mile 540 where Beaufort River passes Parris Island - Port Royal Sound until you turn after G27 to head to Hilton Head.

7. King’s Bay - Cumberland Island Georgia after Red 78 an Green 79 you turn to port and the marks switch.  Return to Red on right as you turn south - starboard into Fernandino.
Places where the Marks Change from Red on Right to Green on Right (while heading South.)
Print and keep by your Nav station

Places to get groceries on the ICW

Free Docks on the ICW

Elizabeth City, NC
- Free wine and cheese party for the cruisers every night if there are at least four boats at the docks.

Oriental, NC   -
There are only two spots - so drop your anchor lightly and move in quickly when a space becomes available.  There are lots of ex-cruisers who retired to Oriental and often they'll come down and chat with the cruisers tied up at the City Dock.  Good times.  If you can't get a spot at the City Dock, there is a free dinghy dock.

Wrightsville Beach
- free dinghy docks; anchor out - lots of space and lots of space at the dock.  Restaurants, beach, and touristy stores all within walking distance. 

Southport, NC  - Provision Company - with green awnings  (
but you have to buy a meal) - Try their conch fritters.  Lots of fun - kind of quirky.  Be careful pulling in and out.  The current is fierce.

Beaufort, SC - free dinghy dock at the city marina, and free dinghy dock on Factory Creek on the north side of the opening bridge.   Make sure you sink your anchor deeply before leaving the boat - the current is strong in both directions.

Cumberland Island
- free dinghy dock.  A must see stop - spend the day exploring the island.

Where to get fuel on the ICW

For current information on Fuel Prices, anchorages, shoaling reports and much more please consult the very excellent
Salty Southeast CruisersNet

You will want to bookmark this site!

Other interesting Reading about the ICW

Transiting the ICW by Sue and Larry (names are only coincidental - not us.)  On sailnet.


A word of caution for those of you who have not encountered stiff currents in your travels.  There are many places on the waterway where the currents are strong,  Usually, though, these currents are either working for you or against you and will either increase your speed or decrease you speed.  You will see many navigation marks putting out sizable wakes, some of them, for instance on the Cape Fear River might look like you could tie up to them and water ski.  Try to time your transits of waters such as these to have the current more in your favor.  You'll save lots of time and lots of fuel.

Where you need to be cautious is when you encounter two currents opposing each other.  These are usually at river inlets and they will evidence themselves as a "boil."  You will see an area in front of you which looks like a field of standing waves if the water is not roiled up by wakes or wind driven waves.  When you enter the 'boil' your boat will suddenly turn 20 or 30 degrees.  Don't panic, just straigthen yourself out and continue.
A mistake we made and many others have made on the first trip down the ICW was to over-provision.  We had canned meat and vegetables enough to feed a small army.  There are many, many places with relatively easy access to grocery stores. 

It's not a bad idea to have a collapsible cart you can take to shore in the dinghy so you can carry the groceries back easily.  However, we have found that most grocery stores in small towns along the waterway are used to dealing with cruisers, and will provide, if you ask, a ride back to the local dinghy dock.  We usually ask at the service counter when we arrive, "Can you provide transportation back to our dinghy?   We'll get a weeks worth if you can.  Otherwise, we'll only be able to carry a couple of bags."  I do not remember ever being refused in small towns like Oriental, NC,  Elizabeth City, NC, Georgetown, SC.  In larger towns, there is often a relatively inexpensive bus. 

Refer to your cruising guide to the ICW for exact locations.  They are too numerous to mention all of them in this venue.  If you need a cruising guide for the Intracoastal Waterway, you can get yours here:
Beaufort, SC - also very picturesque.  Ante-bellum homes are numerous and well preserved.  Scenes from many movies were filmed here, including Forrest Gump, the Big Chill, The Prince of Tides, the Fugitive, GI Jane, The Great Santini, and more.  We think it's kind of fun walking through the town and trying to pick out homes that were in the various films.  You can get a tour guide that tells you where many of them are, but that takes the challenge out of it. 

If you can get a ride, see the lighthouse on Hunting Island.
Oriental, NC if you are lucky you can get a spot at the free city dock, if not there's a free dinghy dock.  There's room for two or three boats to anchor - or you can stay at the marina.  We missed Oriental on our last trip through and reported as such here to explain our lack of photograph.  Bob Arrington, of Oriental sent us this e-mail:

"I just discovered your website and like it very much  You said you were missing a photo of Oriental on your ICW page because you didn't stop there on your last trip, we missed you and thought we'd send a picture of our harbor for you. Make sure you stop and see us the next time you pass through. Ask anyone you see to introduce you to Happy and tell her Bob and Dori told you to stop, she'll make sure you have everything you need while in town. "

And here's the photo he sent (thank you, Bob):
Here's Kanau at the free dock in Elizabeth City, NC
There's an brand new, excellent museum right across the street from the free dock at Elizabeth City, NC
Many beautiful, old homes in Beaufort, NC
It's fascinating touring the old cemeteries and contemplating the lives of the folks with tombstones dating back centuries.
Wrightsville Beach, SC - a nice anchorage, a free dinghy dock and a short walk to the beach.
The Lighthouse on Hunting Island
A couple of the beautiful ante-bellum homes of Beaufort, SC
Spanish moss hangs from the live oaks
We can pretty much guarantee you will not see any scenes like these when you travel out on the ocean.
Charleston, SC is a city you do not want to miss -  take a carriage ride.  The bus is inexpensive - one ticket and you can ride all day with free transfers. 
In Charleston, you must take a carriage ride.
While the prices seem high, if you ask the artisans how long it takes to make them, they are making a very low hourly wage - and their baskets are beautiful - an art that is passed from one generation to the next.
The grand beauty of the architecture in Charleston would rival any in the world.
Beyond the beauty of the towns, small and large, on the ICW are some of the vistas which cannot be seen in any manner but from a boat.  The beauty of the Waccamaw cyprus swamps will take your breath away.  You will never see scenes like this on the outside path.
This is as far as we are going to take you with photos,  We want to let you discover some of the beauty for yourself.  What we have shown you so far should demonstrate why we prefer the inside.  If you still prefer the destination to the journey, that's all right, too.  It makes it less crowded on our waterway.

Bridges on the Intra-Coastal Waterway

There are many bridges on the ICW.  You will want to consult your Cruising Guide daily to see what bridges you will encounter.  There are three major types of bridges you will encounter;
Fixed Bridges
   These generally have a height of 65 feet or more at mean high tide. Look at  your chart, your cruising guide, and the tide charts to make sure you will fit under each bridge as you come to it.  Currents can sometimes be particularly tricky at bridges.  Stay very alert as you approach and watch for indications of currents.  At the base on the right of each fixed bridge is a scale telling you what the current height of the bridge.  Do not argue with it or second guess it.  If it says 63 feet and your mast is 64 feet, something is going to break if you attempt to go through.  Make sure you know the height of your mast including any antennas and navigation lights.  Don't guess.  Measure.
    Sometimes it may be difficult as you are approaching a bridge to tell what span you are supposed to go under.  Most of the time there are protective structures built on both sides of the channel to protect the bridge supports.  This is, of course a dead giveaway, as are navigation buoys.  However, sometimes neither of these are there to help you, but there is always a light hanging down in the center of the span you are supposed to go under.  Of course, you'll most likely be going through in the daylight (leave night time travel on the ICW to the commercial boats) you can still easily see the light fixture.
Opening Bridges
    Some opening bridges are on a fixed schedule, others open on request.  You will see the phrase 'opens on demand.'  Please make no demands, make requests.  A few  bridge tenders are a bit surly.
    In either case you will need to radio the bridge to request an opening or to announce your intention that you will be passing under at the next scheduled opening, usually on VHF channel 9 or 13, depending on what state you are traveling through.  Consult your ICW Cruising Guide.  You will also need to know the correct name of the bridge.  Again, consult your guide and also your chart.   If you hail a bridge by the wrong name, they will not respond.
   Note:  there are sound signals used to communicate with bridge tenders.  A signal to request a drawbridge opening is one prolonged blast followed within three seconds by one short blast. If the bridge tender is able to open immediately he will respond with the same signal.  If he cannot, he will respond with five short blasts. That is the official ruling.  We do not recall ever hearing the sound signals used on a bridge, though we did have to use it once when the bridge tender's radio was not working. 
The best way is to call them on the VHF.   Always, always, communicate with the bridge tender.

    It's a good idea to try to time your arrival at bridges with scheduled openings so you don't have to sit and wait for a long time.  It tends to get a little crowded while waiting for a bridge.  It is particularly tricky when you need to contend with strong currents.  Often, you will see boats making large circles in front of the bridge trying to cope with the currents.  As other boats are added, the circle, more a long oval, gets larger.  To make matters worse, local boats are sometimes buzzing about.  We've watched boat after boat run aground in these situations.
   We have our own method of waiting for bridges.  We pick a spot relatively near the bridge, but not too close.  The distance varies with the crowd, the current and our comfort level.  We then head into the current and play with the throttle until we match the speed of the current and we just sit.  Sometimes we need to play with the helm by hand, but often we get into position and turn on the auto-helm and set almost as if we were anchored. 
    Depending on the direction of the current, we are, of course, either facing toward the bridge or away from it.  Protocol is that the boats with the current pass under the bridge first after the bridge is fully opened.  If the current is against us, we just continue to sit until the boats passing the other way are all through, then increase the throttle and head through.  If the current is with us and we have had to turn around to face the current, as the bridge starts to open we turn off the auto-helm, accelerate the throttle and turn the helm hard over.  We have done this often enough that we know how the boat will react with the current and we turn around almost in the same place.  (If you haven't done this, you may want to practice somewhere where there is a strong current but no bridge or other boat traffic.)   Timing is important in this maneuver.  You don't want to get turned all the way around until the bridge is fully opened.  Some bridges open very slowly so exercise judgment.
     Also, be aware that not all boaters know the procedure, and sometimes a boat will rocket through when he should wait on his side of the bridge until those on the other side who have the current with them have passed through. 
Opening Railroad Bridges
    Railroad bridges are normally open unless a train is approaching.  Most railroad bridges have no bridge tender.  (We don't know who opens them.)  Even if they do have a bridge tender he has no VHF radio and they do not communicate with boaters.  The only warning you may get is the train whistle, if you can hear it at distance and over the sound of your engine.
    So as you approach a railroad bridge keep a sharp eye.  Maybe even station a crew member on the foredeck as extra eyes and ears. 
    We have made many trips up and down the ICW so we have seen quite a few trains pass.  Twice we were surprised.  And it can be scary.  We've never heard of a collision between a boat and a railrad bridge - but we would be surprised if it has never happened. So be alert and be cautious.
The Harbor at Oriental, NC.  We've always enjoyed this community with a "Mayberry" flavor.  Walking to the post office is almost impossible - everyone offers you a ride.  If you can get a slip at the free dock, you'll be visited by the locals of an evening - many of them are former cruisers who love to swap sea-tales.
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The author is a good friend of ours and a fellow cruiser.  You should buy his book.
Anchoring guides for the ICW with excellent reviews.
Cruising Guide for the ICW - also with excellent reviews.