The Intracoastal Waterway is a 3,000-mile waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States. Some lengths consist of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, and sounds; others are artificial canals. It provides a navigable route along its length without many of the hazards of travel on the open sea.
The waterway currently consists of three non-contiguous segments: the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, extending from Brownsville, Texas east to Carrabelle, Florida; a second secton of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, beginning in Tarpon Springs, Florida and extending south to Fort Myers, Florida and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, extending from Key West, Florida to Norfolk, Virginia.
The Intracoastal Waterway has a good deal of commercial activity; barges haul petroleum, petroleum products, foodstuffs, building materials, and manufactured goods. It is also used extensively by recreational boaters. On the east coast, some of the traffic in fall and spring is by snowbirds who regularly move south in winter and north in summer. The waterway is also used when the ocean is too rough to travel on. Numerous inlets connect the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico with the Intracoastal Waterway.
The Intracoastal Waterway connects to several navigable rivers where shipping traffic can travel to inland ports, including the Mississippi, Alabama, Savannah, James, Susquehanna, Delaware, Hudson and Connecticut Rivers. .
It is also an important route for those cruising the Great Circle. These are boaters making a round trip, using the Intracoastal Waterways, the Great Lakes, inland rivers and canals. The journey can begin anywhere along the way, like Chicago and the Illinois Waterway, then return via Lake Michigan. Many people have done this trip in many varieties of watercraft from kayaks to large cruisers.
Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW)
Throughout American history, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway has served a variety of purposes. Called "America's oldest highway," commercial ships have used it for nearly three centuries. As more and more people flock to the Florida coast during the fall, they use the AIWW for recreational purposes like tubing, water skiing and sailing. Even though the official beginning of the waterway is at Norfolk there are unofficial segments of it north all the way to Boston.
The Dismal Swamp Canal (shown here) winds its way through both Virginia and North Carolina, connecting the Chesapeake Bay to the Albemarle Sound. The canal is the oldest operating artificial waterway in America and is included on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also designated a National Civil Engineering Landmark. The canal was dug completely by hand; most of the labor was done by slaves from nearby landowners. It took approximately 12 years of back-breaking construction under highly unfavorable conditions to complete the 22-mile long waterway, which opened in 1805. A cruise through the Dismal Swamp Canal is a beautiful journey with cypress trees lining the shores. The water is coffee-colored due to the tannins in the waters.
Even though not officially part of the ACWW, the 154 mile long Okeechobee Waterway extends from the Atlantic Ocean at Stuart Florida, to the Gulf of Mexico at Ft. Myers, Florida. This provides a short cut across Florida in friendly waters, cutting nearly 200 miles off the distance around the southern tip of Florida. The Okeechobee waterway runs through Lake Okeechobee and is made up of two rivers; the Caloosahatchee River to the west of the lake and the St. Lucie Canal east of the lake. There are 3 locks on the west side of the lake and 2 locks on the east side.
Today, boaters cruise the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in Florida for free but it was not always that way. It was a privately owned, dredged, and operated canal called the East Coast Canal for a few decades after 1881. By the 1920s, at six points along the way (including one south of Dania in Broward County), chains were pulled taut beneath the surface of the water to obstruct passage until a toll was paid. Tolls from three to 10 cents were assessed based on the type of vessel and, if commercial, by a percentage of freight.
If you plan to travel the Intra-coastal Waterway, think ahead. Get the latest Intra-coastal Waterway maps nautical charts, and study them. Make note of marinas on your route, where fuel docks are located and cruising guides. Also know where you can re-supply with groceries and other family needs. Pin-pointing pump-out stations is also a good idea. Knowing these things ahead of time will lead to peace of mind and a more relaxing, enjoyable passage. Another thing to think about that some of us don't consider until it's too late - your vessel's vertical clearance height. Bridges are supposed to have a maximum clearance of 65', but some were built slightly low. If your boat is taller than 62', beware!
Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW)
The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway is located along the Gulf Coast. It is a navigable inland waterway running approximately 1,050 miles from Carrabelle, Florida to Brownsville, Texas. The GIWW crosses or meets, and in some cases is confluent with, numerous other navigable rivers and waterways. They include:
Apalachicola River...Atchafalaya River...Bayou Lafourche...Calcasiue River
Calcasieu Channel...Delcambre Canal...Houston Canal...Industrial Canal
Mississippi River...Gulf Outlet...Tenn-Tom Waterway...Mobile Bay
Neches River...Pear River...Sabine River...The Rigolets
The GIWW runs through a huge variety of terrain including swamps, forests, beaches, islands and communities. The Cajun country in the Morgan City area is particularly beautiful and rich in history. Some of the cities that the GIWW passes through are Panama City, Pensacola, Mobile, New Orleans, Morgan City, Galveston (photo) and Corpus Christi. A 12 foot navigational channel is maintained by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineeers but for small craft there are many tributaries, bays and bayous that make a great side trip to explore or fish in.
There are plenty of marinas and other services along the GIWW. One will also encounter a great deal of commercial traffic; towboats, ships and support craft for off-shore oil rigs to name a few. There are some locks to pass through that will have no lift. These are salt water locks and the purpose of them is to reduce salt water that enters the fresh water habitats.
Some parts of the GIWW are wide expanses of water with channel markings and others are narrow canals, but wide enough to safely pass large vessels with care.
The section of the canal from the Calcasieu to the Sabine River is said by engineers to be the one of the longest straight line canals in the world. It goes straight as an arrow from two miles west of the Calcasieu to the Sabine, a distance of 20 1/2 miles.
Barrier Islands provide the protection for portions of the waterway that run along the coastline. An example of that is the area between Apalachicola, Florida and Carrabelle, Florida.