We left St. Augustine at first light to travel down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), also known affectionately as “The Ditch”, making our way south to the Melbourne, Florida Gam. A gam in the old sailing days was when ships would pass within shouting distance of one another to allow the crew, many of whom had not been ashore for months, to trade stories with another crew for a short while. This annual gathering of Seven Seas Cruising Association members is one of the largest, and we’re looking forward to reconnecting with some old cruising friends and making new ones.
The Ditch is quite an engineering feat by the Army Corps of Engineers, connecting bodies of water just inside the coastline with canals and locks to allow boaters safe passage down the coast when conditions offshore aren’t very accommodating. It runs continually for over 1,200 miles from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami, Florida, and continues through the Keys and up the west coast of Florida, totaling over 3,000 miles.
Although it’s not always very scenic, it does provide relatively safe passage along the coast when you either can’t or don’t wish to wait for a weather window to travel offshore in the Atlantic. Depending on the area, you will see remote backwoods, modest small houses, or extravagant mansions. There are towns, docks, and businesses along the way; there are marinas to find dockage or a mooring, or protected spots where you can anchor for the night. We prefer the anchorages, and carry a book that lists anchorages at specific mile markers compiled by one industrious soul. Ours is a little out of date but updates can be found on the Internet that are input by boaters to reflect local conditions. Or you can take your chances and feel out a good anchor spot on your own.
Traveling the Ditch can be monotonous, even boring at times. Unless you’ve got some wind on your stern you can’t sail, and shouldn’t sail in most areas anyway due to restricted maneuvering room. You have to pay attention to your course almost constantly to stay in good water and navigate the winding trail. There are other boats in close proximity that travel at varying speeds, and we never navigate the waterway after dark.
All of the fixed bridges, save one just north of Miami, are rated at 65’ off the water, allowing most small to medium sized sailboat masts to fit underneath. The drawbridges, called Bascule Bridges on the charts, take a call to request an opening. These can slow you down some but they make the trip a little more interesting.
After my first trip up the ICW in 2006 I was ready to venture “outside” that is in the Atlantic, to allow us to make better time and set the sails and autopilot and let the boat sail itself. Then you just have to keep watch for other vessels. Easier but there is always weather to contend with.
So you’re trading some security and control over your conditions with the time involved, as well as fuel costs. To some boaters it’s just the way to get south.