Many Americans are unaware that a 3,000-mile strip of water connects from Boston, Massachusetts all the way to Brownville, Texas. It is called the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) – not an intercoastal waterway, as it is popularly misspelled.

While the Atlantic portion can extend up to Massachusetts, technically, it starts at Norfolk, Virginia. The waterway travels down the southern East Coast to wend around the southern tip of Florida, to pass Louisiana and end at Brownsville, Texas. The “intercoastal” waterway map would show much of the entire south along with the East Coast.

The two main sections are the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which obviously parallels the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway, which runs past the Gulf of Mexico.

Note that this is an inland waterway – when you travel along the waterway, you do not travel in the open ocean or the gulf. Rather, waterway travel will take you through various canals, rivers, bays, inlets, and sounds. Many of these locations are natural but some are man-made. You can find many books that serve as a waterway guide to this vast connection of canals, rivers, and bays.

History of the Intracoastal “Intercoastal” Waterway

The waterway was first conceived in 1808, and the United States government started its first survey on developing such a waterway back in 1826. The Gulf “intercoastal” waterway map first started taking on real shape back in 1905 with the connecting of existing canals that spanned New Orleans and Galveston Bay.

Congress approved the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW) in 1939 with the Rivers and Harbors Act. It is maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers and is used by the Coast Guard, law enforcement, the military, and recreational boats such as tours and cruises.

In 1949, the Texas portion was extended down to Brownsville.

5 Tips to Traveling by Boat on the Intracoastal Waterway

Here is a brief waterway guide to provide some preliminary pointers on navigating through this amazing, diverse resource in the United States:

1. Familiarize Yourself with the Special Waterway Markers

Experienced sailors and boaters might initially find the markings along the Intracoastal Waterway to be a bit confusing.

For example, traditionally, red would mean “returning from seaward,” but since the waterway is inland, the convention has been shifted. On the Intracoastal Waterway, red means “returning to Texas.”

The ICW also utilizes yellow squares and triangles. recommends “when following the ICW in a leg from New Jersey to Texas, keep yellow triangles to starboard and yellow squares to port, regardless of the color navigation aid they appear on.”

(Port is left, starboard is right when facing the front of the boat.)

2. Understand the Bridge Limitations

The last thing you want is to get stuck under a bridge because your mast is too high. If you have a boat that is taller than 56 feet, you will need to exit to avoid the Julia Tuttle Bridge in Miami and re-enter at a later point. The rest of the waterway has an official overhead clearance of 65 feet in high water (with one bridge in North Carolina at 64 feet).

Some bridges are drawbridges that will open and close to allow boat traffic to pass. It is very important to pay attention to the bridge signals, so you aren’t caught underneath when the bridge starts to lower again.

3. Make Sure You Have a Good Intracoastal Waterway Map

In these days of GPS technology, a good old-fashioned map seems quaint. However, a good map will help you navigate through the diverse landscape of the ICW. It can also provide information on various local sites and places to stop along the way. You also don’t want to get stuck if your satellite navigation quits on you.

4. Bring Some Bug Repellant

As you get further south along the ICW, you’ll start to notice more bugs. For example, South Carolina has its fair share of “no-see-ums” or biting gnats. They can even get through screens, which is what makes them so annoying.

5. Enjoy Your Trip – Don’t Rush It

The Intracoastal Waterway is not the place to race. Ideally, you’ll be able to travel through the ICW when you have some time to spare, such as an extended vacation or during retirement.

Remember, it’s the Intracoastal, not “Intercoastal” Waterway

Yes, “intercoastal” makes more sense and rolls off the tongue easier, but make sure you pronounce it correctly when you are traveling. The INTRAcoastal Waterway is a great way to see a lot of the United States while avoiding dreaded car traffic. Whether you go on your own boat, or join a cruise, you are sure to have an interesting adventure on the ICW.