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Thinking About Heading South? Part Two: Enjoying the ICW.

by Mark and Diana Doyle

This is the second part of a two-part series on the Intracoastal Waterway, excerpted from the ICW guide, Managing the Waterway. Part 1 addressed the two main navigational concerns of many first-time ICW travelers: aids to navigation and bridges. This second part describes some of the colorful sights and stories of the ICW and some ICW-specific cruising tips excerpted from the guide’s 266 interpretive vignettes and 77 tips.

Cruisers are naturally curious folk. Their wanderlust fuels their curiosity for new experiences, drawing them from the security of their land homes. For most cruisers, the reward of a moving vessel is the daily excitement of new places, scenery, activities, and acquaintances. Your vessel is your magic carpet!

Why simply transit signposts and mileposts along the ICW when there is so much more? It's the legends and sites between these mileposts that make the Intracoastal Waterway one of the richest inland passages in the world. Here are a small sample of state-by-state vignettes on some of the ICW's flora, fauna, history, and folklore, and some tips to make your transit safer and more comfortable.

"Mile Zero" R36, Courtesy of Mark Doyle


Why the Army Corps?

Government floating aid R36, known to boaters as "Mile Zero," welcomes you to the unofficial start of the ICW. All mileage, from here to Key West, is measured from this location off Hospital Point in Portsmouth, Va (although Norfolk probably claims it as well!).

Today the Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the ICW, but it wasn’t always this way. In the 1800s the Waterway was owned by an assortment of for-profit private companies. The federal government would deed rights to a company to dig a land cut between two natural bodies of water and the company would attempt to recoup its investment through tolls. Many of the early portions of the Waterway were hand dug by slave labor.

But this system didn’t fare well. The private companies discovered that profits were poor. Over time, they failed to honor their maintenance obligations. So in the early 1900s the U.S. government began to nationalize the Waterway, re-claiming rights from private holdings. With slave labor no longer an option, the federal government turned this huge project over to the Army Corps, the only government agency with the engineering skills and shovel-power for the job. During that isolationist era of American history, national security was not much of a concern. Entire sections of the Waterway remained incomplete and there was a backlog of maintenance work on existing sections. Of course, national security became paramount within a couple of decades. With U-boats prowling the Atlantic seaboard, a reliable inland passage became a priority. Emergency Public Works funds during the 1930s pushed the completion of the remaining sections of a federal waterway.

TIP: A current Vessel Safety Check reduces boardings by the USCG. To find the examiner nearest you, call the USCG Info Line at 800/368-5647, visit, or locate the closest U.S. Power Squadron at

"Mile Zero" at Hospital Point, Portsmouth; Courtesy of City of

Norfolk and Portsmouth

If you are tired of anchors, as in ground tackle, and are ready for anchors, as in malls, Waterside Marina is purported to be the only marina on the Intracoastal Waterway within two blocks of a Nordstrom-caliber mall.

And thanks to the Elizabeth River ferry, events and services on both sides of the river are accessible from all Norfolk and Portsmouth marinas and anchorages. The ferry operates seven days a week, crosses twice an hour, takes bicycles, and is only $1.50 (75¢ for seniors)). The ferry stops at three locations: Waterside Marina in Norfolk, and North Landing and High Street Landing in Portsmouth. In Norfolk, the Norfolk Electric Transit (NET) runs a free circuit of the downtown area every few minutes. Additionally, there is a public dinghy dock at Waterside Marina.

Festivals are a near-monthly occurrence in Portsmouth and Norfolk. Southbound in the fall you can attend the Caribbean Festival (late-August), the Seafood Sampler (mid-September), the Mile Marker Zero Rendezvous (September), or the Virginia Wine Fest (mid-October). Northbound in the spring don’t miss the Virginia Beer Festival (mid-May), Harborfest (mid-June), the Cajun Food Fest (late-June), and the Cock Island Race (late-June).The Portside/Old Harbor Market which previously had open-air restaurants is closed. The bandstand remains and hosts summer concerts. The new nTelos Pavilion in Harbor Center also has large open-air concerts. You can also visit Norfolk Naval Base and Air Station, responsible for doubling the population of Norfolk during World War II. For fascinating insights into naval architecture and the science of battleships, tour the Battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin or visit Nauticus, the National Maritime Center.

Portsmouth celebrated its 250th birthday in 2002 and its Olde Towne district is still rich with historical architecture. The city provides a narrated horse-drawn carriage tour or you can take a self-guided walking tour. At least three other museums are nearby: the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, the Portsmouth Lightship Museum, and the Children’s Museum. The Visit Hampton Roads website,, lists hours, fees, and other information for all museums and events in this area.

Elizabeth River Ferry

Norfolk Naval Base & Air Station

Nauticus, the National Maritime Center

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum


TIP: Keep a road atlas on board. It’s a great reference source for locating airports, major roads, hometowns of old and new friends, and as a map for rental car outings.



In North Carolina, the water changes to a dark rich brown color. Many boaters describe the color like strong tea, or coffee without milk. The tea or coffee analogy is a good one: the substance coloring the water, called tannin, is the same substance that makes tea and coffee brown. Tannin is naturally released from the roots and decaying leaves of cypress and juniper trees that line the North Carolina cuts. But tannin doesn’t make the water “dirty.” In fact, sailing ships sought out water with tannin because it wouldn’t spoil as quickly. Each ship had to store months of drinking water in dark, dank wooden barrels called scuttlebutts.

After months percolating in a scuttlebutt, freshwater becomes pond-like. The water, teeming with algae and bugs, was called “lively water.” So tannin, which increases the acidity of the water, kept the water a little less lively a little bit longer. But just like coffee or tea, tannin’s colored molecules create stubborn stains. For modern white fiberglass vessels, this means your boat will develop an ICW-moustache after a few weeks. Boats completing the ICW earn this distinctive bow stain.

TIP: Tannin is a stubborn stain. But it wipes off easily with household toilet bowl cleanser or Marykate On & Off Hull and Bottom Cleaner. A tiny amount is sufficient to remove the stain. And if the hull is freshly waxed, it will stain less!

R.E. Mayo Restrooms; Courtesy of Mark Doyle


Hobucken is a great place to stop and experience firsthand a working shrimp dock. The commercial facilities at R.E. Mayo welcome transient boaters and offer great protection. The area is wooded and quiet. It has all the character you’d expect from a site where the facilities are a wooden outhouse with a crescent moon on the door.

You may be unfamiliar with moon cutouts on outhouses, but they're there for a reason. In the days before electricity, the occupant needed a bit of light and ventilation. Obviously a big square cutout window won’t work for privacy on an outhouse. Supposedly there were originally two cutout symbols: a star for the men’s privy and a crescent moon for the women’s.

But even back then men didn’t clean their bathrooms. The men’s facilities quickly became dirty and in disrepair and soon everyone preferred the cleaner women’s privies. By the 1800s everyone was using the outhouses ventilated with the moon and the symbols had lost their gender meaning. And so today’s arrangement evolved: co-ed bathrooms cleaned by women.

TIP: To remove salt and calcium deposits in marine toilets with rubber (not leather) parts, once a month pour two cups of vinegar into the bowl. Pump just enough to get the vinegar into the mechanism and let stand, then pump 2-3 strokes every half-hour for the next couple of hours.


If You're on the Rocks, It's the Schist

The infamous “Rock Pile,” at STM 347 to STM 366 along Pine Island Cut, is actually fossiliferous limestone, not schist. But if you scrape your hull you won’t care what kind of rock it is. Instead, curse the engineers who chose this deep, rocky route for the cut.

When the Army Corps began work on Pine Island Cut in the early 1930s, they quickly discovered a problem. They had no trouble with the Pleistocene marine sands and clays, but then they hit Cretaceous limestone with marl pits. Needless to say, progress slowed. Cretaceous limestone, found at the lowest point of the Rock Pile, is 65 million to 144 million years old, formed at the end of the dinosaur age when modern mammals and flowering plants evolved. The good news about Cretaceous limestone is it’s loaded with interesting fossils. The bad news is it’s quite a challenge if you’re trying to dig a canal.

Private contractors were needed to blast the area before dredges could remove the spoils. As the rock became more and more of a challenge, the engineers continued to commensurately narrow the channel. It took about two years to blast and drill through the area, but the project was ultimately successful. Literally millions of tons of material were removed, at a bargain cost of 19¢ per cubic yard. In the end, the $4.8 million project from Cape Fear River to Winyah Bay, boosted by public works funds, was completed under budget.

TIP: No matter what you call 'em, no-see-ums, sand flies, or gnats can still get through the screens! If these tiny biting insects are winning, repel the boarders by spraying your screens with Shoo-fly Screen and Surface Insect Spray, available at True Value hardware stores.

Meeting Reach, Isle of Palms; Courtesy of NOAA

Snap, Crackle, Pop

As you reach warmer water, you may be startled by loud crackling noises coming from your hull at night. The sound has been described as “Rice Krispies popping,” “bacon frying in a skillet,” or “the crackling of dry twigs burning.” Contrary to cruiser legend, the noise is not caused by krill eating the growth on your hull. According to several marine biologists, it’s the sound of snapping shrimp. Scientists have only recently discovered how these tiny shrimp make so much noise. At first they thought it was the snapping of the shrimps’ enlarged claws. And it is...sort of.

The noise is not the claw snapping, it’s the cavitation from the water jet made by its high-speed closure. Just like the cavitation from your propeller, the water jet from the claw snapping shut (at 62 mph!) changes the water pressure and forms tiny cavitation bubbles. When the low-pressure bubbles pop, the telltale crack is produced.

In warm waters, these small one-inch shrimp are abundant and noisy— so noisy they can conceal submarines from sonar. Snapping shrimp snap at 200 decibels, well above the 120-decibel human hearing pain threshold. So next time you’re trying to sleep, think of the thousands of snappers in the water around your hull, busily conducting their own coconut telegraph at a frequency of 300 kHz, stunning prey, defending territory, and communicating with other shrimp.

TIP: Find, or buy and drink (our choice), a box of wine. The empty bag-in-a-box packaging is perfect for safely transporting used motor oil from your boat to an oil recycling drop-off. Hmmm...let's see: that's one box of wine every 100 engine hours, right?



Blackbeard Island

At one time, pirates and privateers were viewed as "businessmen on the margin," not unlike bootleggers during Prohibition or Mafia bosses today. In the days of maritime conflict, seizing others’ ships was considered fair game. Pirates and privateers were a necessary part of the revolutionary economy, bringing home much-needed gold and munitions. Some pirates and privateers earned near-celebrity status, joining the soirées of politicians and wealthy merchants— not too different than our politicians today when they seek out shock celebrities like Dennis Rodman or "Puff Daddy" Combs for their parties or get-out-the-vote campaigns. It used to be eye patches and a hook, now it’s pink hair and body art.

But even among the pirate set, Blackbeard went for the shock factor. He braided his long black beard, smeared lampblack under his eyes, carried several pistols and knives, and boasted he never bathed. He carried long matchsticks in his hat, which he lit Halloween-style under his face at night to spook the victim ship’s crew before a raid. One of his favorite antics was to pour gunpowder into a mug of rum, set it afire, and swallow the fiery mixture. But his sense of humor was also described as "about as funny as a shipwreck." Once, he shot his pistol under a tavern table "as a joke" and took out a couple of kneecaps.

Blackbeard Island, just south of STM 633, is named after this most notorious of all pirates. Blackbeard had one of his many "branch offices" on this then-heavily-wooded island. It’s rumored he buried his treasure here, but many islands are rumored to hold his treasure. Either Blackbeard had a lot of loot or it’s wishful thinking on the part of treasure hunters.

In the end Blackbeard died off the coast of North Carolina without revealing his stashes. Even the beautiful Anne Bonny, the famous "Mistress of the Sea," couldn’t seduce or tease it out of him. Maybe it was because she refused to sleep with him, complaining he stank so badly. Blackbeard reputedly said only two people knew where his gold was buried: himself and the devil.

TIP: If you’re on a sailboat, use a deck-level light in addition to a masthead anchor light. A tiny white anchor light at the top of a mast is barely noticeable to small watercraft, whose drivers are looking for lights in their forward field of vision. Powerboats, with lower anchor lights, reduce this collision risk.

St. Simons Island Light; Courtesy of Brunswick-Golden Isles CVB

Fresnel Lenses

Think French, as in "Freh-NEL," the name of the French physicist who designed a way to use prisms to concentrate light into a powerful beam. Fresnel lenses are composed of hundreds or thousands of individual prisms, looking like a big glass beehive. Fresnel lenses were a great discovery for lighthouse technology, since even a weak light source, such as from oil lamps, could be magnified and focused to be visible dozens of miles away.

But Fresnel lenses were very expensive. Thousands of precision glass pieces had to be hand ground and polished. The work was usually done by the poorest French laborers, including children, who were paid pennies for a day of work. So most U.S. lighthouses were built with the cheaper local design of parabolic reflectors. In the 1850s, a group of engineers, military officers, and seamen initiated a national campaign to overhaul the nation’s lighthouses. This "Lighthouse Board" successfully lobbied to refit most American lighthouses with the Fresnel technology.

You can see a Fresnel lens at many of the lighthouses along the Waterway. The order of a Fresnel lens refers to the size of the lens. A first-order lens is about six feet wide and 12 feet tall; a sixth-order lens has an efficient one-foot diameter. Most ocean lighthouses use the more powerful first- or second-order lenses. Lighthouses for harbors or rivers, such as along the Waterway, are usually the smaller fourth-order lenses. The St. Simons Light has a third-order Fresnel.

Most Fresnel lenses are now replaced with modern light beacons, not because they are more effective, but because the delicate Fresnel structures are nearly impossible to repair. At today’s labor rates, it would cost millions of dollars to manufacture a new Fresnel lens.

TIP: Don’t put your vessel name on your dinghy. The t/t (tender to) ruse won’t circumvent Florida’s dinghy registration laws and it only advertises your empty mother ship when you are ashore.


Manatee Divots

Florida Manatee; Courtesy of St. Lucie County TDC
Supposedly Christopher Columbus was the first European to report seeing a manatee. The crew thought they had sighted the mythical half-female, half-fish mermaids. So these cleft-faced, coarsely whiskered, thousand pound “beauties” became linked with the scientific order Sirenia, after the mythical women in Homer’s Odyssey. Talk about delusional after months at sea without women!

For many boaters heading south, the eastern entrance to Haulover Canal is their first sighting of the endangered Florida Manatee (a sub-species of the West Indian Manatee). Manatees use the deep waters of Haulover Canal for shelter. The key to spotting a manatee is to look for the “footprint” in the water. Since manatees must breath air, they generally float near the water surface. They are very graceful swimmers, pumping their large paddle-like tails and even doing barrel rolls. But as they pump their tails for a dive, they create a large disturbance or boil on the water’s surface: a large ring like a raindrop echo several feet in diameter. As you wait for the bridge opening, look north for these telltale divots near the scenic overlook.

TIP: Before you leave, register your dinghy at your local Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Natural Resources (depending on your state). Florida considers a motorized dinghy a separate vessel requiring its own registration and legal identification.

Three One-of-a-Kinds

Boaters have strange ideas for a fun afternoon. They ogle the gear at Cabela’s, go bargain hunting for stainless hardware at a wholesaler, or browse cruising guides for regions not on their itinerary. If you’ve done any of these things, with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, “You might be a cruiser.” In which case, there are three unique Featured Attractions waiting for you in Ft. Lauderdale: Sailorman, Home Base, and Bluewater Books & Charts.

Sailorman is a sight like no other. It’s a completely different kind of marine store, described as the world’s largest marine emporium of new, used, and consignment marine gear. Cruisers swoon over barrels of anchor chain, browse aisles of marine supplies, locate or advertise for crew, and bring their used gear in for cash. It’s located about 1.5 miles from the Lauderdale Marine Center on the New River.

“Home Base” is how members of the Seven Seas Cruising Association refer to the association’s main office, located on 2501 East Commercial Boulevard. You can justify this visit as an “errand,” since the office provides members access to a phone, fax, copier, and computer. While you’re there, the office has one of the most complete marine libraries in the country and boxes of charts from all over the world as part of a free chart exchange.

Finally, need a courtesy flag for the Turks and Caicos? A cruising guide to Belize? Or the latest book by solo-sailor Ellen MacArthur? Bluewater Books & Charts, with over 35,000 items in stock, is where cruisers stock up on anything marine on paper or computer chip. If you’re going to winter charter in the Adriatic, there will be a member of the staff who once cruised extensively there. If you haven’t yet made your plans for the Bahamas, ask an expert for the latest advice on chart kits, cruising guides, and customs issues. The store recently moved to their new location at 1811 Cordova Road, southwest of Brooks Memorial Bridge (S.E. 17th Street) at STM 1066. There is a dinghy dock at Southport Raw Bar at the west end of the canal between 15th and 16th Streets (just northwest of the causeway bridge). If you have a drink or appetizer, you can leave your dinghy and walk the few blocks south on Cordova to grocery shop at a large Publix or visit Bluewater.


Seven Seas Cruising Assoc.

Bluewater Books & Charts

To read part I of this series, please click here.

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The Doyles in the Dry Tortugas, FL

About the Authors

Mark and Diana Doyle are authors of the popular cruising guide and electronic charting series, On the Water ChartGuides <> (formerly Managing the Waterway). They also write articles for professional, boating, and nature publications. They have sailed extensively between Canada and the Bahamas, including the Gulf of Mexico, Inland Rivers, and all five Great Lakes. Over the years their boat inventory has included a C-Dory Pilothouse 22, Catalina 30, C&C 30, Allied Princess 36, Vagabond 47, and PDQ 36 catamaran. They are currently on the East Coast of the U.S. surveying aboard their PDQ 34 power catamaran, m/v Semi-Local.


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