Early in their book How Not to Buy A Cruising Boat, our good friends, Tim and Deb Akey of The Retirement Project, discuss the importance of deciding what kind of cruiser you think you are before attempting to buy a boat. Since we began our travels this summer, I have been learning first-hand that there are, indeed, different types of passages that may appeal to different types of sailors. Two types of cruising with which I’m now familiar (thanks to our current semi-circumnavigation of Florida) are gulf cruising and ICW cruising. The first type offers some of the same visions most people probably imagine when they think of sailing: cruising along under filled white sails, surrounded by turquoise/deep blue waters, with waves that can result in a long and shallow glide or a rocking-and-rolling sensation similar to one of those bull rides at a carnival. However, the ICW offers a different kind of ride altogether.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the acronym, ICW stands for the Intracoastal Waterway: a 3,000 mile-long river-like stretch of water that runs from Boston, MA, down and around Florida, eventually ending in Brownsville, Texas (near the Mexican border). Think of it as a path made of natural waterways and man-made ditches that offers sailors, merchants, and other travelers a route made safer by cutting inland just enough to create a land barrier against potential storms and angry ocean waves. The ICW isn’t entirely continuous, and is actually broken up into three separate chunks. We have been traveling on the part that stretches from Fort Myers to Tarpon Springs, FL.
Initially, I wasn’t too excited about traveling on the ICW. The second-hand reports I’d received didn’t sound promising: murky waters, too narrow for sailing, and lots of bridges to worry about fitting under, not to mention the close proximity to the state birds of Florida: mosquitoes (those little blood-sucking monstrosities that always seem to zone in on me…grrrrr). Not a pretty picture, right? However, my experiences in the last two weeks on the ICW have really opened my eyes to the positive aspects of ICW travel. So, without further ado, here are some observations about traveling on the USA’s ICW.
If you want to see wildlife from your boat, the ICW is actually a better option. You see, in my visions of ocean/gulf sailing, I had visions of jumping dolphins and surfacing turtles. While I did see two large loggerheads surface over the course of our trips from Marathon to Miami and then Marathon back up to Fort Myers, I never saw dolphins until nightfall, and those sightings consisted of a dorsal fin or two in the distance for the span of a few minutes. Conversely, the ICW offered us an abundance of wildlife. We’ve seen manatees, turtles, a bonnethead shark, a plethora of dolphins, as well a number of bird species including cormorant, osprey, ibis, pelican, egret, and heron.
Another aspect of ICW travel that is pertinent to sailors is the bridges. While I originally viewed these bridges merely as obstacles, I have to admit that the process of opening and passing through them is kind of interesting. Travelers should definitely prepare for the process in advance; while some bridges open on request, others only open on the hour or are closed during certain hours to accommodate rush hour road traffic. When you are within proximity of a bridge, you radio the bridge to request access, they inform you on the approximate time of their next opening, and you may or may not have to adjust your speed to make that opening. Once the bridge is completely up (in the case a bascule bridge or “drawbridge”) or off to the side (in the case of a swing bridge), you motor through, thank the bridge operator, and continue on your merry way. A typical VHF transcription of the whole process would read something like this:
Us: “Stickney Point Bridge, Stickney Point Bridge, this is northward-bound sailing vessel Pascagoula Run”.
Bridge Operator (BO): “Northward sailing vessel, I see your approach. What is the name of your vessel again?”
Us: “Pas-ka-goo-la Run”.
BO: “Uh, roger that, captain. How do you spell that, exactly?”
Us: “P-A-S-C-A-G-O-U-L-A Run.”
Me: “Joel, you’re giving these poor bridge guys a hell of a time. Are you sure you’re happy you picked the name you did?”
Me: “Okeedokee, then. I’ll say no more”.
BO: “Roger that, thank you, captain. Our next opening is at 12:20. Upon complete opening of the bridge you may make your approach.”
Us: “Roger that, thank you Stickney Point. Standing by on channel 9.”
…. (Time elapses while bridge is opened–most take a few minutes–we motor through)
Us: “We are clear. Thank you, Stickney Point Bridge.”
BO: “You’re welcome, captain. The next bridge is ___________ and it opens at __________.”
Us: “Thank you, Stickney Point. Standing by on channel 9.”