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Running The Ditch

To some boaters, the intracoastal waterway, or ICW as it is often called, may seem like a rather difficult place to cruise. They may have even heard of it referred to as "the Ditch," which naturally brings to mind something not easily navigated. The truth is, cruising this sheltered, protected route should present no more problems than cruising any other body of water, as long as you use good judgment, can read a chart and have a properly equipped boat.

Although the entire Intracoastal Waterway runs from just north of Boston, Massachusetts, to Brownsville, Texas, the part of the waterway that most boaters use for south and north trips starts at Norfolk, Virginia, at Mile 0, and ends at Miami at Mile 1,095.

The project depths of the Waterway in this stretch are: 12 feet from Norfolk, to Fort Pierce, Florida, and 10 feet from Fort Pierce to Miami.

No fewer than 130 bridges span the ICW, and 85 of them are opening bridges that will have to be opened for most pleasure boats. Many of these are restricted; that is, they open only at certain times during the day. The fixed bridges have clearances ranging from 56 to 65 feet.

At Great Bridge, Virginia, 11.5 miles south of Mile 0, you'll have to negotiate a lock. The lock lifts boats into the non-tidal waters ahead, but it presents no problem because the lift is slight and there is no turbulence. Proceed into the lock only when the signal lights at the entrance are green, and follow the directions of the lock tender when tying up.

About 4 miles north of Great Bridge, you can opt to take an alternate route through the Dismal Swamp Canal. Once through the 25.9-mile-long canal, you'll enter the Pasquotank River, which takes you to where you join the Waterway again in Albemarle Sound. The canal has a lock at each end. Each lock usually has four openings a day, about two-and-a-half hours apart. The controlling depth in the canal is 6 feet.

In dry years, the canal may be closed. To find out the status and the hours the locks open, call the Dismal Swamp Canal Visitor Center at 252.771.8333.

The ICW goes through many miles of desolate sections without any sign of civilization on shore, but there are plenty of places to put in on the water. On average, a marina or an anchorage is situated within every 20 to 25 miles, so finding a place to stay or refuel isn't a problem. In the busy seasons-spring and fall-it's best to make marina reservations a day or two ahead, especially in southern Florida. Reserving space in other areas where several marinas are located isn't absolutely necessary, but in places where there are only one or two marinas, a reservation assures you of a berth.

The ICW waters are tidal, except for the nearly 200-mile-long stretch of non-tidal waters that runs from Great Bridge, Virginia, to just above Morehead City, North Carolina. In the Carolinas and Georgia, especially, you'll have to be aware of the tides and the swift currents that accompany them. Tides with a range of 8 to 9 feet and the swiftest currents occur in Georgia. Currents can greatly affect the time it takes to travel from one point to another, and they must be taken into consideration when anchoring and docking, as well as when approaching bridges that must open for your vessel.

In some areas of the Waterway, catching a favorable current might save time and fuel, especially in the Cape Fear River, where the current can be as much as 3 knots on the ebb. But in the Carolinas and Georgia, you won't be able to calculate with much accuracy the direction of the current in any given time period. In the course of a day's run, whether you have a slow boat or a fast one, you'll pass so many inlets from the ocean that the currents will switch from favorable to unfavorable several times. These currents tend to cancel one another out, and you can usually cover a normal day's run for your boat.

You can travel the Waterway in any season, but spring and fall provide the most clement weather. The summers are hot and humid. It isn't too cold in the winter, typically, and only the freak storm brings ice or snow.

Winds are not often a problem, except from mid-December to mid- February, when they can pipe up to gale force frequently on any part of the Waterway. January has the most days with winds of high velocities. In Florida, a unique pattern of winter winds begins with a norther-a wind that blows out of the northwest at velocities of 40 to 60 knots. Once it starts, the wind slowly shifts into the northeast quadrant, then into the eastsoutheast quadrant, and finally into the southern quadrant. With each shift, the wind diminishes until it becomes just a light breeze from the south. When the wind again reaches the northwest, the whole sequence begins again. The complete cycle takes about three or four days, and prudent skippers plan their runs accordingly.

It's not sensible to try to cruise the Waterway (or anyplace else for that matter) without charts, so purchase either the NOAA small craft charts or a chart book. If you traverse the entire distance, you'll need 10 of the smallcraft charts, which cost $17 each. The chart books cover the entire distance and are somewhat less expensive. Although charts are available at outlets in Norfolk and other places in the Hampton Roads vicinity and along the ICW, it's best to have all the ones you need before you go. It's possible that some of the outlets along the way could be out of the charts you want.

As to other equipment, a VHF radio is surely necessary. You'll need it to communicate with bridge tenders, the Coast Guard and other vessels, and to receive weather reports.

Your boat should also be equipped with a corrected compass and a depth sounder. The compass will be needed along most of the ICW, except in the places where it runs through narrow land cuts. You'll also have to rely on it when you're under way in fog and other reduced-visibility conditions.

Pay close attention to the depth sounder to keep your boat in the center of the channel. This is especially important in the non-tidal waters, because if you should go aground, you can't count on a rising tide to float you off.

Navigating the ICW is no different than navigating any body of water, except that it requires a bit more attention because of the numerous aids to navigation and the relatively narrow channels in some places. Running the ICW at night, however, can be tricky and should be avoided if possible. If you must travel at night, be sure you have a powerful spotlight aboard. Although critical junctions, bends and curves are usually marked with lighted aids to navigation, you'll need the spotlight to pick up the reflective markings on unlighted aids. A spotlight is also useful for illuminating the land on either side of the channel and sweeping the channel for debris.

Narrow land cuts in populated areas along the ICW are usually no-wake zones. Be sure you reduce your speed in these places. No-wake zones are in place to prevent erosion and also damage to docks and boats tied to them. Additionally, in Florida, signs warn boaters to go slow because of the presence of federally protected manatees. Marine police patrol many of these zones.

The Waterway abounds with wildlife. Along with the many types of birds that regularly inhabit it, in Albemarle Sound you may see huge flocks of swans late in the year on the way to their winter refuges nearby. On shore, you may see deer, raccoons and muskrats-even bear. In the southern reaches of the ICW, it's not uncommon to see alligators, snakes and dolphins, and you may be fortunate enough to see some tarpons and manatees.

The vegetation gradually changes from that of a temperate climatic zone to subtropical, so you will see holly, sweet gum, magnolia and cypress trees in the northern section that give way to live oaks draped with Spanish moss, palmettos, palms and mangroves in the south.

A cruise along the ICW is also a cruise through history. Many of the ports along the way, such as Norfolk; Wilmington, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and St. Augustine, Florida, figured prominently in the history of the United States. These cities contain a wealth of visitor attractions, even if you're not interested in history.

In short, a cruise on the ICW is not only a protected way to cruise south or north, but also a fascinating voyage that takes you to interesting places and provides all sorts of things to see along the way.