Exploring the Intracoastal Waterway

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Much of our route from here to the finish of the North American Odyssey is on an important waterway called the Intracoastal Waterway. By paddling on the Intracoastal Waterway or (ICW), we are able to stay in sheltered water and avoid the big waves of the open ocean. We began paddling in the ICW in northern New Jersey. Much of the ICW Waterway is protected by barrier islands. So far, we have enjoyed paddling through calm salt marshes while waves crash on the beaches on the ocean side of these islands. Dave and I have been seeing many birds here. These salt marshes are important for migrating and wintering birds. We are looking forward to exploring the waterway and learning about the wildlife that we encounter over the next few months.Intracoastal Waterway map from Virginia to Florida

What is the Intracoastal Waterway?

The Intracoastal Waterway is a 3,000 mile (4,500 km) waterway along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S. A waterway is a body of water that boats can navigate. The ICW is made of natural inlets, saltwater rivers, bays and man-made canals. This waterway is important because it is a way that boats can travel the Atlantic and Gulf coasts while avoiding the hazards of the open ocean. The ICW is technically divided into two segments, the Atlantic and the Gulf. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway runs from Norfolk, Virginia to Key West, Florida. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway runs from Carrabelle, Florida to Brownsville, Texas.

History of the ICW

The sheltered waters along the East Coast were important even during colonial times. In 1808, the Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin proposed creating a system of canals that would link Boston Harbor in Massachusetts with Brownsville Harbor in Texas. The full plan was rejected, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted surveys and began construction on several canals.

AICW6After the Civil War, this waterway became less of a priority as government funding was focused on building railroads. Then, several developments in the early 1900s led to the construction of more canals along the Intracoastal Waterway. The invention of the internal combustion engine led to a shift from using coal and steam power to using diesel fuel. During World War I, there was a need to transport cargo in bulk. Using barges was an inexpensive way to transport cargo, so the ICW became important again. During World War II, the Intracoastal Waterway was used to avoid German submarines along the East Coast.

Who Uses the ICW Today?Chesapeake_and_Delaware_Canal_eastern_entrance

The ICW is still used by oceangoing vessels and barges, especially near the northern industrial ports. It is a popular route for pleasure crafts (recreational sailboats and motorboats). We began our travels on ICW at its unofficial northern end near the Manasquan River in New Jersey. For larger vessels, the official northern end of the ICW is Norfolk, Virginia. Goods that are still transported along this route by ocean going vessels and barges include oil, gasoline, asphalt, fertilizers, wood, sand, gravel, iron and produce. We look forward to sharing more information about the ICW with you as we continue south. If you would like to learn more about this interesting waterway, check out the following links.


Amy packs her kayak on one of the islands created by dredging in the Intracoastal Waterway.

Further Exploration






Image credit for the upper 3 images: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

3 thoughts on “Exploring the Intracoastal Waterway”

    1. We paddled most of it, we reaching the ICW in New Jersey and followed it down to the Florida/Georgia border. We sometimes left the ICW to paddle on the outside in the ocean, or follow smaller channels that diverge from the ICW, but the vast majority of the time we were paddling along the ICW. I don’t remember for sure what our average speed was, but I would guess about 3 miles an hour and we would typically paddle 20-35 miles a day. We camped on sand bars along the way most nights. We stopped in towns and did presentations in local schools and for paddling clubs and other groups, so we didn’t paddle every day. I would guess we paddled an average of 5 day a week.

      We have a book coming out this fall about that journey, which you might enjoy!


      I hope this helps! If you have any other questions let us know.

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