The Intracoastal Waterway

The Intracoastal Waterway

IMG_0334There’s been a few times since starting our adventure that we’ve wished for less of it… of adventure, that is. We longed for a little boredom, perhaps some monotony. Then we entered the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) …

We have had some “big” adrenaline situations since we started out, like grounding, and our 1st overnight sail, but also, in our first month, not a day seemed to go by without a small dose of adrenaline, and this has been true even on the ICW. The dinghy’s tow line getting caught in the propeller was good for a little excitement. So was the alarming discovery, far out on a large sound, that our bilge pumps weren’t functioning when water suddenly rose above our floorboards. That’s one way to wash all the canned goods down there! We’ve been jolted awake in the middle of the night by our keel nudging the bottom (soft, muddy, giving bottoms) and we’ve been  jolted while already awake when our keel rammed bottom (solid, unforgiving bottom). We joked about the crisis-of-the-day that seemed inherent in cruising. We must be getting more experienced, or lucky, though, as the frequency of these kinds of mini-crises has greatly diminished. As we were saying, a lack of upper case Adventure is just fine with us.  That brings us to the ICW.

This inland waterway officially runs from Norfolk, Virginia, and travels 1100 miles, all the way to Miami, Florida. It’s a welcome route, especially at this time of year, in that it provides a somewhat protected path off the Atlantic. We eagerly looked forward to that protection. Near the start, there are 2 choices, which shortly after reconvene.   One route, the Great Dismal Swamp, was closed. Clean-up from Hurricane Matthew’s fury was still underway. This oxymoronically titled route is much less travelled, and with overhanging trees lining the way, sounds the more scenic of the 2.  Disappointed, we headed to port and took the Chesapeake Albermarle route, our only available option.

IMG_9717We’re managing about 40 miles on a good day, getting underway around 9 am, and setting anchor just before dark at about 5pm. If you do the math, you can see that we could pretty much walk at that pace! Some days, the winds and currents have conspired against us, causing us to crawl along at less than 3 knots/hour.  When it’s an enjoyable stretch, that’s a perfect speed to absorb it all; when it’s less than enjoyable, it can feel like Chinese water torture. We have had a handful of full-on sailing stretches that have felt glorious, and look forward to opportunities for more, but for the most part, Ariose is forced to be a motor boat.

Some call the ICW “The Ditch”. Its fans do so with affection, but there are others who do not intend to be complimentary with the nickname.  Parts are interesting and you could even say enchanting, and there are many navigational challenges to keep us on our toes.  At the same time, there are stretches that we have found, well, downright boring.  We had longed for some tedium, but parts of the ICW offer a bit more than we had asked for.  Where do we weigh in on the thumbs-up versus thumbs-down on The Ditch debate? First, we’ll share a selection of photos to let you form your opinion.


We’ll start at the beginning, at “mile 0” in Norfolk, Virginia, where we entered on Dec 10th, through North Carolina, to our arrival at “mile 535” on New Year’s Eve at Beaufort, South Carolina.  Clicking on the first photo in each gallery opens it up allowing you to then scroll through. To exit, just click the “x” at the top left.


Well, actually, we’ll start in Portsmouth, a lovely town steeped in history, just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk.  This was the first time we felt we could slow our race against winter, and stay put for a couple days, not because we were forced to by repairs nor by fatigue, just because we wanted to!


What is the actual waterway like? We really had little idea what to expect, and looking at coastal maps, we found it hard to imagine how it would be possible to travel over 1000 miles without the Atlantic’s help. The ICW is quite a mix: some meandering rivers and creeks, some straight cut canals, some large bodies of open water. Much of it, since it is a major transportation route, passes through urban areas. Here’s a glimpse:


The ICW isn’t all urban by any means (thank goodness!!). Everytime we entered the more natural sections, our pleasure in travelling it got a boost.


Since the US east coast is essentially slips of land interlaced by waterways, and these slips are densely populated, bridges are a necessity. For us, they have served as milestones, and at times, ego-boosters.

IMG_0526In plotting our course each day, we pay special attention to bridge specs and schedules.  Some are fixed, and many of those have a height of 65 feet, plenty for Ariose’s 35 foot mast to pass under. On those that we need to open, timing is important if we don’t want to have to have delays, or worse, get trapped for the night on the wrong side of the bridge.

The other challenge is current. Much of the ICW is affected by tidal currents, and in the narrows under bridges, it can be especially strong. The first time we encountered anything more than just a small boost in speed  was unnerving to say the least. We were pushed toward a still closed bridge. Gunning reverse felt like we were in neutral and there was not enough space to turn around. On that one, I had the pleasure of being at the helm. Tim closed his eyes to avoid seeing the carnage as I, without any other option, maneouvred through the narrow sliver of daylight of a still-opening bridge.  It felt like I was an unwilling competitor in a game of chicken. From that point on, we didn’t care how annoying we were to the road traffic. We hovered far out until the bridge was fully open before proceeding toward it.

Some bridges also have “rules”, although we weren’t sure if they were official or  were made up at the whim of the operator. One didn’t permit passage under sail (even though we had our motor running to ensure steerage). This operator neglected to advise us of this, and instead, watched us tack back and forth for 30 minutes after the scheduled opening until it was too dark to pass through and find a safe anchorage, then advised us he didn’t open because of our sails.

Most operators, though, were friendly and prompt, and it sure does feel affirming to have an authoritative voice on the radio address you as “captain”!  At Christmas and New Years, we would even step out of the usually formal communication protocol to exchange best wishes.




It’s strange travelling with nautical charts as our primary guide. They are sparse on details beyond the immediate concerns of boaters, so provide very little information as to what’s ashore. We suddenly happen upon some communities, and as far as our chart is concerned, we know nothing more than there is a distinctive church spire or visible tower there.  We’re left with just waterfront glimpses of another cluster of homes or businesses. Others towns and cities we choose out of necessity, to move on through. We’re getting surprised reactions from some when they learn we didn’t stop at  Myrtle Beach or Charleston or any of the very many other notable destinations along the way. The ICW is a highway of sorts, connecting a string of American enclaves. If we even had a quick stop at each, we’d run out of time and money before we reach the Bahamas of beyond. The ICW is for us, a means to our end.

IMG_0826That’s not to say that we haven’t made some stops along the way and have acquainted ourselves with some spots, like Portsmouth VA, which we’ve already shared a bit about. In all the towns and cities we have stopped in so far, what has stood out for us has been their strong sense of history. This is where Europeans, for better and for worse, first made their mark It’s where many of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars’ major encounters took place. It’s also where every stop lays claim to the biggest or oldest or most notable something or other.

Oriental, North Carolina,  and Georgetown and Beaufort, South Carolina are three that we have particularly enjoyed.



Getting from point A to B on the ICW is not straightforward.  We were a little intimidated with what we had read and heard that navigating the waterway can be quite a test.




A definite highlight has been the wildlife along the ICW.  Here’s just a glimpse of the prolific birdlife along the ICW – we’ll share more in an upcoming post.



We’ve enjoyed some low-key celebration of special days along our 1st 500 miles of the ICW.


So, that’s our virtual tour of the northern portion of the ICW. Are you thumbs up or down on The Ditch? We pretty much flip-flop our opinion on a daily and sometimes hourly, basis.  If you’ve followed our whereabouts, you’ll know our actions speak louder than words. Once we reached Beaufort, SC, we jumped at the next weather window that allowed us to head back out on the Atlantic and with relief, skipped over the entire state of Georgia’s ICW. We gratefully landed in Florida. This was an overnight sail that put a smile on our faces!


PS – Our favourite sailing magazine, one that a good friend got us hooked on (thanks, Fred!), has published an article written by Shirley in its current issue. If you’re interested, check out Good Old Boat.



  • KC

    January 14, 2017 at 21:07 Reply

    Was wondering where you were now. I keep looking at maps, and weather, and imagining where you’d be and where you’d have to hide out when the weather turned bad.

    Those ducks are just domestic ducks gone wild. When they mate with Mallards you get the so-called “skunk ducks” with strange patches of white. Tim, you may remember one of our profs used to say best thing you could do with a skunk duck was kill it before its genes polluted more of the wild population. Can’t remember who that was now.

    • admin

      January 15, 2017 at 09:19 Reply

      Hi Kevan, those ducks are not what I was expecting to see. Those are’Oh Macdonald’ ducks I said to Shirley. Wild ducks seem pretty skittish down here – it’s hard to get very close. Then I glanced over to shore and saw someone feeding them…ah ha!

  • Carol Boehringer

    January 14, 2017 at 21:22 Reply

    Hi Shirley I was just saying to Frank that I have not heard from you and Tim. I’m happy and relieved to have heard the ding on my phone and the email was from you. I am envious and yet find my self waiting patiently to hear from you. Can’t wait to hear from you again. Take care.

    • admin

      January 15, 2017 at 14:10 Reply

      We are slipping in our intention to get posts out weekly, but I think that’s a good sign of the “new & improved” Shirley. So, glad you’re enjoying following along, but no need to be concerned. Consider no news as good news, or at least news that we are in lazy mode or don’t have internet access.
      Bet you and Frank are counting the weeks to ice break-up and launching your summer boating adventures!

  • Nancy

    January 14, 2017 at 21:29 Reply

    You’re almost there!!! If weather permits, I’d be tempted to attempt the ocean rather than the ICW…it sounds like a lot of work and not fun stuff – listen to me, as if I’d have the gumption to attack it! The mystery ducks look like American Pekin ducks. So excited to hear about your crossing…is there a nautical term for “break a leg”?

  • Kevin Kroeker

    January 14, 2017 at 22:11 Reply

    I’m loving it!

    Is it rude if I call you Salty Dogs? ‘Cause you’re fast becoming experienced old hands at this!

    • admin

      January 15, 2017 at 09:04 Reply

      I think that I would blush knowing how little we know compared with so many who have lived on the water since they were young. The learning curve is steep but we’re still hanging on!

    • admin

      January 15, 2017 at 13:12 Reply

      Just wanted to share how much we’re enjoying your blog too, Kevin. Love the spirit of adventure you’re sharing, and your encouragement to others to join in.

  • Kevin Kroeker

    January 14, 2017 at 22:19 Reply

    Congratulations on your article in Good Old Boat!

    Living the dream indeed!

    • admin

      January 15, 2017 at 08:58 Reply

      Thanks Kevin. We really enjoyed your article in Canadian Biker too…loved the descriptions of the landscape and how you experienced it!

  • Glen & Christine Morrison

    January 15, 2017 at 14:30 Reply

    I have to say thank you for all the detail and many photographs of your journey this far! It’s delightful – not sure I would be up to all the challenges!

    Glad you enjoyed Christmas, New Year’s Eve and birthdays in your special ways!! Good for you! I too would appreciate the beauty around me! :)

    Wishing you a wonderful 2017!

    Love Big Sis Christine

    • admin

      January 15, 2017 at 20:49 Reply

      Thanks Christine! Glad that you enjoy following along. It does take a fair bit of effort to assemble everything, but, it’s nice recalling the events and having the record at the end of it. It’s so easy for everything to just become a blur as we travel. We often find ourselves trying to recall where we were a couple nights before only to draw a blank; we find we have to be hypervigilant in recalling the details. And, I always find the challenges to be the most interesting part of the experience and the ones that you remember the most. They’re also, the ones that you learn the most from, for sure! On that note, stay tuned for even more challenges to come!

  • Deb Pultz

    January 15, 2017 at 18:44 Reply

    Glad to see your post Shirley, as i have been thinking about you! I sent you an email, but later noticed it was stuck in the outbox. Anyway congrats on your article, i always said you were an awesome writer! Looks like you are getting much closer to the weather you so desire! Have fun, miss you, and miss our chats!! Take care xo.

  • Fred Ciraco

    January 15, 2017 at 21:31 Reply

    Great to hear from you Shirley. Happy that you are now enjoying the journey and you are getting experience at dealing with adversity. Keep up the great progress Captain Jones.

    • admin

      January 16, 2017 at 16:24 Reply

      Thanks, Fred. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy much of the earlier part of the journey but managing the journey is sure getting easier!! (I’m touching the toenail, ie wood, as I type that).
      Hope you’re having a good January. Getting ready to have a new grandbaby in your arms?

      • Fred Ciraco

        January 18, 2017 at 14:02 Reply

        Thanks Shirley, she is ready to hatch any time now. Safe travels.

  • Christine toppi

    January 16, 2017 at 06:38 Reply

    Good to hear from you captain and captainette! I look forward to posts and joining you virtually on your adventure. I was telling dale about it and I think he is a bit envious as I am. Enjoy and eagerly waiting for your next issue. Congratulations on your article Shirley.

    • admin

      January 16, 2017 at 16:31 Reply

      Thanks so much, Christine. We’re still pinching ourselves as we can hardly believe we have pulled this off. Envy? There are times, when it’s Tim and I who are feeling envious of you and others enjoying the comforts and ease of home. If you’re looking to ease your envy, though, a read of our Nights/Rites post will likely do the trick!
      Hope you’re also having s fantastic start to your new year!

  • Maurice Poulin

    January 18, 2017 at 15:04 Reply

    Another great update. Keep them coming!

    • admin

      January 24, 2017 at 09:56 Reply

      Thanks, Maurice. Will do.

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