Inlets along the ICW (above) can experience a lot of incoming and outgoing traffic, especially on weekends. Throw in some current, swell and meandering shoals, and it becomes imperative for skippers to remain vigilant at all times, even for locals.
Boaters in the United States are fortunate to have good inland navigable waterways along much of the East and Gulf coasts. The most popular and most heavily used of these waterways is the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (more commonly referred to as the ICW, or “The Ditch”) with its official beginning in Norfolk, Virginia, and terminus near Florida’s Plantation Key south of Miami.
Originally intended for, and still used for, light commercial traffic, the ICW is a favorite route for boaters migrating north and south in the spring and fall. The natural beauty and historic coastal villages draw many to seek refuge from the weather, or to fulfill a dream.
For all of its popularity and attraction, though, the ICW has meandering channels and shifting sands that can be a challenge to navigate. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is charged with maintaining the depths and condition of the ICW, while the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for the placement and maintenance of aids to navigation. Unfortunately, both are at the mercy of Mother Nature’s weather and Congress’ funding.
Boating in any area for the first time is done most safely by gaining as much local knowledge as possible. Boaters navigating along the ICW for the first time typically look for this knowledge in cruising guides and on boating forums. Today’s paper and electronic charts show much of the ICW accurately, but variations and inaccuracies inevitably exist. The well-known “magenta line” representing the ICW on navigation charts is at best just that: a representation.
Information about areas prone to shoaling has always been shared among boaters, but historically, there was not an efficient format for sharing on a predictable basis. Several years ago, crowdsourcing apps began to let boaters post current conditions. Soon after, that crowdsourced information could be overlaid on electronic charts by way of apps. This access to changing conditions as they exist has allowed countless boaters to navigate the ICW with less fear of running aground.
Adding to the crowdsourced information, another level of detail is now easily available: The Army Corps of Engineers maintains dredging survey reports as a guide for areas needing maintenance. Thanks to continued innovation, these reports are now available on some electronic charts. A boater can create a route to navigate around shoals with unprecedented accuracy; some crowdsourcing experts even take the next step to create routes for others, who can transfer the route into a chartplotter.
The ICW also passes by numerous inlets. In nice weather, many boaters would like to use these inlets, but the navigation buoys are not typically marked on charts, thanks to their constant relocation to accommodate shifting shoals. Local boaters usually stay familiar with changing conditions, so viewing an Army Corps of Engineers dredge survey along with calling a local towboat company can make things easier. Boaters can safely enjoy a run outside in calm weather, with the confidence that they can return to the ICW through the next inlet.
For years, the sound advice when traveling the ICW was to look outside, be sure to keep your boat in the visual center of the waterway, and not follow your navigation app or chartplotter too closely. While this is still good advice, the detailed information available today allows navigation apps to offer a much more accurate route to follow.
If information is power, then boaters navigating along the ICW should feel more empowered today than ever.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.