The Great “Ditch”
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is the great “ditch” that provides protected passage from its beginning — Mile 0 — at Norfolk, Virginia, through the beautiful Carolinas and our next door neighbor, lovely historic Georgia and into Florida. Our state line is in the St. Mary’s entrance at about Mile 712. In our fair state that passage continues from Fernandina to land’s end at Key West. The Gulf Intracoastal Waterway provides similar passage up the Gulf Coast and across the Panhandle with gaps only past the western Everglades and up the Big Bend Coast.
It’s not really a ditch, but a series of natural rivers, bays, lakes, sounds and lagoons connected by canals, dredged to commercial depths and marked with red markers on the right from Jax to Panama City. ICW nav aids feature a yellow mark to distinguish them from harbor, private channel and river markers. The ICW is unique among the world’s recreational waterways, yet recreation was the farthest thing from its builders’ motives. In roadless pre-rail Florida, the ICW was the main — and often ONLY — artery, plied by sail and steam boats carrying everything from southbound settlers to northbound pineapples.
The waterway was conceived in the mid—1500s by Spanish Colonial Governor Manuel de Montiado to move troops to Westrec_Marinas_Icondefend his colony at St. Augustine. Construction did not begin, however, for about 300 years. In 1853 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) dug through the Indian haulover between the Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River to open the stretch between New Smyrna Beach and Cocoa. The 1855 Florida Legislature offered land grants to developers to complete the waterway. In the post-hurricane bust of 1927 the legislature created the Florida Inland Navigation District (FIND) to take over the project, and in 1935 the COE opened the last cut to complete the 525-mile (in Florida) Atlantic ICW as we know it.
It’s called the First Coast for two reasons:
It was the first to be discovered — by French and Spanish explorers a hundred years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock — and it is the first you come to as you enter Florida on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. By either definition, it is, indeed, a wonderful introduction to Florida waters — waters that offer a delightful blend of history, contemporary charm, varied cruising grounds and equally varied opportunities for activity ashore. In this respect, the First Coast is much like the rest of Florida. And yet, you’ll also discover that each of our “Coasts” is special and offers more than a few delights you’ll find nowhere else. The First Coast presents uncrowded cruising, anchoring and gunkholing, fishing and touristing with beaching opportunities everywhere — all served by excellent facilities.
The Georgia-Florida line runs through the middle of St. Mary’s entrance near ICW Mile 712, with Georgia’s Cumberland Island on the north and Florida’s Amelia Island on the south. From there for a considerable way southward, this stretch of the Waterway is mostly natural, and runs through the chain of rivers, creeks and sloughs that separate the mainland from the barrier islands. Anchorages, fishing spots, and nature-watching opportunities abound. So do shoals.
But be aware of the area’s wide tidal range — seven to ten feet (which is extreme by Florida standards) — and the strong currents that result. Use of a tide table is absolutely essential for everything from calculating bridge clearances to selecting an anchorage that won’t be a mud flat in the morning.
Also be aware that a few portions of the rivers, creeks and sloughs that comprise this stretch of waterway are not naturally deep enough to accommodate boat traffic and only repeated dredging makes them navigable. Since Mother Nature is always trying to restore her order, dredged channels have a habit of shoaling in again, which eventually calls for the placement of temporary buoys to mark the best water. Obviously, these buoys cannot be charted, nor be counted upon to be in the same place on subsequent trips. Keep your eyes open. Shoaling has been reported in the vicinity of Fernandina Beach Lights 1 and 3 and extensive shoaling has been reported in the vicinity of South Amelia River Daybeacon #34.
We will always try to warn you of such places. Not so you can avoid them, but rather so you will be sure to be extra vigilant. In truth, transiting any of these areas shouldn’t be a problem as long as you pay attention. The skippers of deeper draft vessels can hedge their bets by going through on a rising tide. But in every case, the “extra” attention required to safely navigate these shoal areas will be rewarded by the delights you’ll encounter once you have them behind you.
Fort Clinch, a pre-Civil War fort now part of Fort Clinch State Park still guards Amelia Island. To its south lies the beautiful old town of Fernandina Beach, which has lived under more flags than any other place in the country — a total of eight: France, Spain, England, Mexico, the Republics of Georgia and Florida, the Confederate States and the United States.
Originally important as both a seaport and a railhead (it was the eastern terminus of Florida’s first cross-state railroad, which had Cedar Key at its western end), and one of the first destinations in Florida to be enjoyed by snowbirds, who built wonderful Victorian houses there.
The whole town has been restored, and is full of stores and shops. Architecture also spans everything from Florida’s oldest surviving hotel (The Florida House — Inn & Restaurant on 3rd Street) to restored Victorian homes to ultramodern condominiums.
Fernandina Beach the Perfect First Destination
For boatmen newly arriving in Florida, Fernandina Beach is a perfect first destination, a town that effectively says — and means — “Welcome to Florida.” The town is charming, absolutely a delight to visit. A walk along Center Street might include window shopping and trying one of several restaurants for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Tiger Point Marina is at the north end of the island and its only natural deep-water marina. Right downtown in Fernandina Beach is popular Fernandina Harbor Marina, with dockage, gas and diesel and a waterfront restaurant.
All of Fernandina harbor underwent extensive dredging several years ago and more recently, new docks — and decks — have been installed there. During winter, be aware of severe chop, big enough to be called “seas” (3’+) when a nor’wester kicks against an ebb tide and long fetch.
Amelia Island Yacht Basin is farther south on Kingsley Creek. They welcome transients at floating docks in a sheltered basin with boatyard facilities.
Note: The twin highway bridges (SR A1A) are supposed to have a minimum (high tide) clearance of 65 feet. But we’ve heard reports that the actual clearance is somewhat less. If this means “close” for you, use the tide tables to help you gain some additional clearance.
Cruising types who prefer isolation have a wide choice of anchorages among the many bayous, sloughs, meanders and rivers that adjoin the ICW proper. These include Nassau Sound, Fort George River, and the great St. John’s River, which the ICW crosses just upstream from its mouth at Mayport. Vessels drawing more than five feet should treat the whole stretch of ICW behind the southern half of Amelia Island with caution. It is quite shallow with numerous shoals until you are well south of Nassau Sound, and the area is best transited on a rising tide. Deeper draft boats can avoid the problem by exiting the ICW at St. Mary’s inlet and coming back in at Mayport. Both inlets are straightforward and generally classed as all-weather, though you’ll add extra miles.
At the south end of Amelia Island the waterway jogs west. When crossing the Nassau River to enter a creek on the other side, be sure to positively identify your red turning mark. This route is clear on the charts and is well marked, but when you are on scene, that abrupt turn to starboard can feel wrong. Turning away from that beautiful expanse of water ahead to run toward the river’s south bank is somewhat counter-intuitive. Remember that the water ahead, while broad and beautiful, is not very deep. The channel under the bridge at the mouth of the Nassau River has shoaled to impassability; the bridge no longer opens. Look for lighted marker 46 and round it while turning south for the ICW cut at Ft. George Island.
As the waterway approaches and works its way around Fort George Island, the channel is rather narrow and winding and still often shallower than the ICW project depth of 12 feet, though it’s generally deep enough for most cruising pleasure boats. Just pay attention to the chart — and the markers. The waterway eventually straightens to follow a long cut down Sisters Creek, under the bridge at its mouth, and out into the broad St. Johns with Mayport to the east and Jacksonville to the west.
Here the cruising skipper faces one of the many win-win decisions typical in Florida cruising — to turn upstream to Jacksonville and the unequalled river cruising on the St. Johns River, or to continue southward down the waterway. We do both in the following pages; you may decide to do both by saving one ’til next year!
The ICW crosses the St. Johns southward across Chicopit Bay and down Pablo Creek past Jacksonville Beach, then enters a long cut to the Tolomato River at Palm Valley, around Mile 750. Through that area, where the Engineers straightened rivers, they left oxbows such as the loop around Pine Island at Mile 765, which offer great anchorages and good fishing.
At the McCormack bridge, Palm Cove Marina remains in place, open and welcoming transients, providing fuel and other services on the west side of the ICW. Beach Marine on the east side.
After that point there are some fishing camps and such along the way but the next major facility is at Camachee Cove north of St. Augustine at Mile 775.7. Note: Shoaling has been reported throughout the channel from Pablo Creek Light #46 in the Tolomato River to 500 feet south of Tolomato River Light #3. Transiting this area on or just before the high tide may add some margin of comfort. Be cautious, as always.
Camachee Cove is a very complete facility with dockage and restaurants and all the other features that make a great place to stop. A part of the larger resort complex known as Camachee Island, the marina offers excellent service and continually gets high ratings from cruising boatmen of all types. There’s service on site, too.
Heading south from there, the waterway passes the remains of the old lift bridge and under the new high bridge. Below it, just inside St. Augustine Inlet, strong tides, currents and winds combine with constant shoaling to test your abilities for a short stretch. The best water is on the east side of the channel. (Remember: keep all of the red markers to starboard when southbound.)
This area has recently been dredged. Although it may be somewhat safer, caution is still advised. The inlet is rough when the weather is weather is rough and bouys are small and unlit.
If the weather is not good, before running the inlet contact the St. Augustine Municipal Marina or one of the local for the latest information.
Be sure to go out the inlet far enough to clear #59 and round quick flashing red #60 before turning westerly. The magenta line (theoretical ICW centerline) on chart 11485 has been in error here as it took the wrong side of both lighted #59 and red #60. The magenta line has been removed from the latest edition of chart 11485 but the advice is still true. In fact, because of increased shoaling inside the buoy, it is more important than ever to avoid taking it on the wrong side!
Steeped in history, St. Augustine has been attractive to seafarers for over 400 years. It still is. The city offers room to moor or anchor downtown at St. Augustine City Marina. Other St. Augustine marinas, storage facilities and yards include Camachee Cove with Camachee Yacht Yard on the north side of the city and Conch House, to the east, near the Lighthouse. On the San Sebastian River, there’s Oasis Boat Yard, with full-service or DIY, Rivers Edge Marina with restaurant, the big and newly renovated St. Augustine Marine Center and several others. All are shown on Chart 1. (Shoaling has been reported in the vicinity of San Sebastian River Daybeacon #13A.)
The Spanish settled St. Augustine in 1565, and the city boasts the country’s oldest fortification. It remained a remote and dangerous outpost until the 1880s, when Henry Flagler, cofounder of Standard Oil, discovered it. He built three luxury hotels there: the 1888 Spanish Renaissance Ponce de Leon Hotel (now the site of Flagler College) that features an exceptional collection of Tiffany art glass windows (the windows that “made the reputation” of Louis Tiffany); The Alcazar Hotel, which is now home to the Lightner Museum as well as St. Augustine’s City Hall; and the Moorish Revival Casa Monica Hotel which has been restored to 19th Century splendor in both form and function. Flagler also built a railroad from Jacksonville to bring snowbirds to his hotels, which was the beginning of his fame as builder of the Florida East Coast Railroad that eventually went as far as Key West.(Continue…)
The oldest masonry fortification still standing within the continental United States was started back in 1672 and finished around 1756. It was called Fort St. Marks while under British occupation (1763 – 1783) and became Fort Marion in 1825. Declared a National Monument in 1924, it was renamed Castillo de San Marco in 1942. It’s now a museum open to the public, and one of St. Augustine’s biggest tourist attractions. Built of coquina (Spanish for seashell) — a local shell stone from nearby Anastasia Island that was used extensively for construction in the community’s early days — the fortress is interesting from an architectural as well as historical perspective. Though the castillo has stood for all these years, coquina is not impervious to weather, and by 2000 some exterior walls had eroded to the point they were in danger of crumbling. So the fort was closed in 2001 for repairs, has been restored, and is again open to visitors. It’s well worth a visit, not only for its views of the harbor but also for the view it provides into the struggles and hardships faced by the area’s early settlers.
We’re on the subject of tourist attractions in St. Augustine, we’d better mention that history buffs can have a field day in just about every corner of the historic old city. After all, it was first settled over 400 years ago and has been continuously occupied ever since — our nation’s oldest city. Among the accessible locations is the oldest house in the U.S. Also built of coquina (as are so many of the area’s structures) this is not a replica, but an original Colonial home that has occupied its site since the early 1600s and is also known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez House. There’s the oldest wooden schoolhouse (in the U.S.) dating back to the early 18th century.
Not quite as ancient, perhaps, but sure to have something of interest to almost everyone, are the shops and restaurants on old St. George Street, a pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown St. Augustine. And not quite as convenient, perhaps, but worth a visit is the beautiful St. Augustine Lighthouse on Anastasia Island. It has a museum and store and the climb to the top is worth the energy expended and the fee charged. If more information is needed call 904-829-0745.
These and many other historic or otherwise interesting attractions are within walking distance of St. Augustine’s waterfront. But if you’d rather take it easy, narrated sight-seeing trains tour the sites every day but Christmas, operating from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM. The City’s Visitors’ Center — near the waterfront — has a store and maps and more information about everything
The waterway turns west past St. Augustine, then south into the Matanzas River. South of St. Augustine at Mile 792 on the north shore of Rattlesnake Island lie the ruins of Fort Matanzas, built in 1742 by the Spanish to guard the southern approach to the city. The fort is another of the many legacies of the original Spanish influence in the area. Matanzas means massacre, and the name commemorates the Spanish slaughter of the last of the French Huguenot colonists in Florida. Now part of the National Park System, the fort is open to visitors by boat or Park Service ferry from the mainland. The free ferry leaves every hour on the half hour from 9:30 AM ’til 4:30 PM. Park hours are 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM daily. If you need to know more, phone 904-471-0116.
The stretch of waterway in the vicinity of the Matanzas River and Inlet is notorious for constant and extreme shoaling. Dredging in 1999 once again brought straightforward navigation to the passage, but Mother Nature keeps rebuilding the shoals, especially near markers #81 and #82 (least depths occur on the east side of the channel at the turn near light #82), so constant dredging is required. As a result, you may encounter a dredge at any time. If so, be sure to contact it for instructions (on VHF 13) before you proceed. Shoaling has also been reported north of the Matanzas River Bridge on the west side.
The inlet itself (officially Closed to Navigation) also tends to shoal in and the safest approach here is with caution and, if possible, on a rising tide. This is another area where local knowledge helps. (Continue…)
Down the coast, the tide and current problems begin to ease and soon you’ll reach Rhodes Marine Service on the east side. The beautiful planned city of Palm Coast with its marina and golf course is farther south to the west. South of that is Hammock Beach Marina with every resort amenity — including transportation across to the beachside resort, with golf.
On down the coast, the ICW alternates between narrow Smith Creek and even narrower land cuts past Flagler Beach, finally entering the Halifax River around Mile 818. The Halifax broadens as the ICW works its way south, eventually taking us to the city of Daytona Beach. This beach resort town of long standing continues in its successful efforts to revitalize its tourist industry with the addition of several new high-end hotels, upscale restaurants and boutiques. New visitors are welcome and will be happily accommodated whether they are looking for quiet activities or collegiate hi-jinx, auto races and motorcycles! Of course, the world-famous beach itself remains one of the area’s biggest attractions. And while the city is still (and probably always will be) better known for auto racing and spring break than for its marine involvement, Daytona Beach definitely welcomes cruising boatmen. And this is not a new attitude.
The spirit even extends to bridges! The Carlton Blank Bridge now with 65-foot fixed clearance has glass-tile mosaics lining the bridge with others placed on the piers along the underside so the view from the water is just as beautiful as topside.
There are half a dozen marine facilities spaced along the mainland side of the Halifax, including Caribbean Jack’s Restaurant, on site at Loggerhead Marina, where there’s a pool, spa and much more. Then there’s Halifax Harbor and Aquamarina Daytona, just a bit farther south with a Chart House Restaurant & Lounge on site. On the east side, above the Port Orange Bridge there’s Seven Seas Marina with a restaurant. Also on the east, below the bridge, is Adventure Yacht Harbor and BoonDocks – a restaurant with casual dining and spectacular sunsets. The famous beach and other Daytona attractions are but a short two blocks away.
The Halifax River (where shoaling has been reported between Daybeacons 68 and 70 extending 40 yards from the west bank of the channel) ends at Ponce de Leon Inlet, Mile 842.
The lovely lighthouse that marks the inlet includes a museum and store. You can climb the tower for a magnificent view of the surrounding area, if you have the stamina! For more information call 386-761-1821.
Incidentally, Ponce Inlet was originally known as Mosquito Inlet. In 1927, the local PR types decided the name “Mosquito” wasn’t conducive to commerce and that a change would be better for land sales! It worked. The inlet has been called Ponce de Leon ever since.
North of the inlet, near Live Oak Point, the ICW bears right (southbound) and a local channel runs to the left toward facilities on the barrier island that include the sheltered Inlet Harbor Marina & Restaurant (very popular with the locals), Lighthouse Boatyard, Sea Love Boat Works and Down the Hatch Restaurant. Note that because of shoaling around the junction (and this whole area is always subject to new shoaling …) several temporary buoys have been installed and caution is required in transiting this area. This doesn’t mean you should avoid the area but rather simply that you should pay close attention.
Ponce Inlet, which can be tricky, but usually not dangerous, should nonetheless be considered only a fair-weather passage. As with other similarly-oriented breaks in the barrier islands, it is at its worst when winds are onshore, especially with an outgoing tide. About ten years ago the problems were intensified by increased shoaling from some heavy winter storms. Though improvement projects have taken place in recent years, it still has a bad reputation so we continue to suggest you treat this inlet with respect — and caution.
Actually, shifting shoals are also common here and they occasionally intrude on the channel not only in the inlet itself but within the entire vicinity of the inlet. For this reason, many buoys are not charted as they must be moved often to reflect the best passage through the ever shifting shoals. Keep careful watch.
From the inlet the ICW follows the north Indian River southward to New Smyrna which, in 1768, was the site of the largest British attempt at colonization in the new world. The name, New Smyrna, was given to the area by Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish physician who secured land grants totalling 60,000 acres. (The birthplace of the doctor’s wife was Smyrna, Turkey.) Reasoning that people from the Mediterranean would better survive and prosper in Florida’s sub-tropical climate, he arranged for indentured servants from Greece and Italy. The plantation initially succeeded, but shortages and mosquito-borne disease eventually took their toll and ultimately led to the fall of the New Smyrna Colony.
Among the several marine facilities in New Smyrna is the Riverview Hotel Restaurant at mile 845.3. The hotel is charming, the restaurant excellent and that spa’s great, too!
If anchoring out is more your style, the popular Sheepshead Cut anchorage is on the south side of the island between the two bridges, half a mile by dinghy from downtown. The Municipal Marina of New Smyrna has recently been rebuilt. The dockmaster, John Bauchman, has been a long-time Florida dockmaster, formerly in Marathon. Dolphin View Restaurant is south of the marina.
South of New Smyrna the waterway follows the North Indian River channel past a seven-mile maze of small islands and shallow channels that are pretty much off limits to cruising boats but very popular with area fishermen. The waterway then opens into Mosquito Lagoon (they didn’t change this name!), which is wide and beautiful but still shallow, and extends 15 miles southward to Indian Haulover. The lagoon is often alive with dolphins and other wildlife and the fishing is excellent — as the number of fishing boats will attest.
Along the way the channel is paralleled by dozens of spoil islands, many of which offer places to anchor and dock, camp and beach. The Florida Inland Navigation District has published a series of guides to the islands with notes on those that can be approached by boats. Contact FIND in Jupiter at 561-627-3386.
For all of the natural beauty of Mosquito Lagoon — and it is considerable — most cruising types are happy to reach Mile 869, where the first land cut made for the ICW takes a sharp turn to the west through Indian Haulover Canal and into the deeper water of Indian River Lagoon. (These waters are deeper in general, but shoaling has been reported across the channel from the Canal south to Marker #12.)
This entire area is steeped in history, with its oldest settlements dating to the early 1800s. Of course, the name “Indian Haulover” is a reference to the area’s original inhabitants’ use of a low spot in the island to haul their canoes over land from one body of water to another, a suggestion that they, too, considered the area quite attractive long before the first European settlers arrived.
Then, in the blink of an eye, you find yourself suddenly out of the Coast with the longest history and into one that’s on the cutting edge of the future: the Space Coast.