Much of the boating in South Florida will take you along or across the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). The ICW also known as “The Ditch” is comprised of four segments — Gulf Coast, Carrabelle, FL to Brownville, TX; a second section of the Gulf Coast from Tarpon Springs to Fort Myers; the Atlantic which runs from Norfolk, VA to Key West; and the plain old ICW which runs from Manasquan to Norfolk. The Gulf Coast Waterway is connected to the Atlantic by the Okeechobee Waterway.
The ICW was authorized by Congress in 1919. Florida, always ahead of the curve started construction in 1874. According to most sources the ICW begins in Manasquan NJ. However, the statute mile markers on the charts start in Norfolk, VA, which is the beginning of the section known as the Atlantic ICW. I haven’t found an explanation for the snub of my hometown, Manasquan.
The Florida ICW (originally called a canal) was completed in 1912. Initially tolls were charged, but the operation was never profitable. When I travel the ICW with landlubber guests, they would often ask whether I had to pay for bridge openings. I would collect $10 from my more gullible friends to defray the cost of boating. The ICW is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, under the command of Major General Bo Temple. One of the first Chief Engineers, appointed by George Washington, was Rufus Putnam. Can you really take serious someone named Rufus? The name Bo gets your attention. In Florida, the Florida Inland Navigation District joins the Army Corps to keep the ICW open.
Much of the ICW is supposed to be maintained at a depth of 12 feet, with the section from Fort Pierce to Miami at 10 feet. Even with the best of intentions and now with the federal budget restrictions, this is easier said than done. The area passing by Bakers Haulover Inlet is one of the biggest challenges in South Florida. The constant shoaling inside the inlet provides a great place for small boats to anchor. However, in between dredging, the channel becomes very narrow making it difficult for two large vessels to pass. Although not mentioned in Obama’s Jobs Bill the shoaling does present opportunities for Sea Tow and TowBoatU.S. Both companies can usually be found close by on weekends.
Another issue affecting travel along the ICW is that the chart datum is years out of date. A good example is found at channel marker G “25” just north of the Julia Tuttle Causeway. This is a channel in Biscayne Bay, not part of the ICW, but it illustrates the problem. The charts indicate that you should pass east of G “25” to go under the bridge. If you do so you’ll be calling Sea Tow.
The G “25” marker is in the correct spot. So if you follow the rule “green to port heading south” you’ll be okay. Red markers are always on the mainland side. When you’re on the west coast of Florida green is still to port but you are heading north. So mariners don’t get confused by “red, right, returning” all ICW markers have a small yellow square or triangle on the marker. From Manasquan to Texas, the yellow square is on your port and the yellow triangle is on your starboard, regardless of the color of the Aid which they appear on. Needless to say, if you’re color blind and/or flunked geometry you may still have a problem.
There’s no reason not to feel safe when travelling the ICW. In addition to Marine Units from virtually every city along the ICW, there are federal, state and county agencies to keep an eye on you — such as the Florida Marine Patrol, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, USCG, Homeland Security, US Customs, Broward Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol, Miami-Dade Marine Patrol, and the FBI. I only saw the FBI marine unit once several years ago. I was in a slow speed zone in Hallandale and I was passed by the FBI going full speed, on their way to thwart a terrorist attack. When I got to Hollywood I was relieved to find there was no terrorist attack and the agents arrived at Capone’s Flicker Lite in time for the lunch specials.