Friday, February 04, 2011

ICW Norfolk To Waterford

Boot Key Harbor, Marathon, FL
34 42.54 N 081 05.58 W

Readers seemed to like the ICW post, so here's an extension.

The ICW mile zero is in Norfolk. North of that, one has the choice of going to see (outside) or staying inside. The inside route takes you up the Chesapeake Bay, across the C&D Canal, and down the Delaware River/Delaware Bay to Cape May, New Jersey, total passage about 300 miles.

Chesapeake Bay is by far the sailing capital of the East Coast measured in popularity of number of boats. Cruisers keep their boats there in marinas. Many of them own retirement homes on the shores complete with private docks. The Bay, its islands and tributaries constitute 6,000 miles of coastline. Boaters can (and do) spend entire lives exploring the Chesapeake.

Libby and I have done all the biggest highlights of the Chesapeake: Tangier Island, and all the major rivers (Elizabeth, James, Yorktown, Rappahonnack, Patomac, Patuxent, Choptank, Severn, and Sassafras.) But having done all that, we decided that we like North Carolina waters (4,000 miles of coast) better than the Chesapeake, so in recent years we favor skipping the Chesapeake/Delaware.

Anyhow, a typical nonstop transit of this route, not counting extended stops, would have overnights at the following approximate locations. Day 1 - Jackson Creek, Deltaville. Day 2 - Back Creek, Solomons. Day 3 - Annapolis or Knapp Narrows. Day 4 - Bohemia or Sassafras. Day 5 - Cape May, New Jersey. Allowing for stops plus adverse weather, figure three weeks. Now you understand, why we prefer a 24 hour outside passage as the alternative, if the Chesapeake is not our destination; 21 days versus 1 day.

By the way, The Delaware River and Delaware Bay are not nice places to sail. There's little or no sheltered anchorages and little or no places to stop and explore, lots of commercial ship and barge traffic, shoals to watch out for, and frequent bad weather. If you carefully time your departure to catch the tides, you can make it all the way from the Chesapeake to Cape May as a day sail.

The anchorage in Cape May stinks. It is small, there's a lot of traffic, and no nearby place to land a dinghy. We've never been there in bad weather but we here it's a terrible place to be. The town of Cape May, is a mecca for Jersey tourists -- it doesn't appeal to us. I advise not leaving the Chesapeake unless it looks like you can get all the way to New York without adverse weather. If there is zero wind, motor the whole way.

Cape May to New York City: There is a New Jersey stretch of the ICW, but it's far too shallow for most sailboats. Indeed, every time we sail past the Jersey Coast on the outside, around the time of low tide we hear numerous calls for Tow Boat US and Sea Tow. The calls are from power boaters who need less than 2 feet who have run aground anyhow. An outside passage is the only choice for us.

We hear that it is possible to put in for the night at Atlantic City and also at Barnegat Bay for overnight stays. We've never tried them. Thus, you can do it as three day sails, or as a single 24 hour passage.

Usually, the Jersey Coast weather is mild and the seas are gentle, making for an easy passage. Watch out for storms; even far out at sea. We sat out the remnants of Hurricane Wilma behind Liberty Island listening to reports of 30 foot seas off the Jersey coast.

At the north end of this passage, you can anchor at Sandy Hook New Jersey, or behind Liberty Island (The Statue of Liberty). To get into the harbor and Liberty Island, you must get past the Verazano Narrows. Now is, the time for exact planning with regard to tidal currents. If the tide is against you, anchor at Sandy Hook and wait; better still time your arrival for flood tide. Our first trip north, we tried to pass Ellis Island against maximum current, and we could make 0.3 knots over the ground.

The ship and ferry traffic in New York Harbor can be overwhelming and frightening. Be advised though, the traffic is very much lighter after midnight and on weekends and holidays. Sailing past Manhattan after midnight is really spectacular.

Let's assume you are continuing 150 miles up the Hudson River. (Next post I'll talk about getting to Maine)

By all means, spend a day or two in New York. You can get a water taxi at the Liberty National Golf Course Clubhouse which is only 100 yards away from the anchorage (neat huh?) You can also rent a mooring at the 79th street Boat Basin -- WARNING most of the time, the currents and weather at 79 th street are severe enough to discourage us. Liberty Island is a better choice.

Going up river, it's critical to catch the flood tide. If you do it exactly right, you can ride with the tide up to 10 hours, making fast progress.

Beauty: After the center-of-the-universe buzz of NYC, the beauty of nature starts at the north end of Manhattan Island immediately after the George Washington bridge. What a remarkable and abrupt change, from the world's best know metropolis to unspoiled and splendid nature in only 100 feet!

From there up to Newburgh, NY (about 50 miles) is the most beautiful part of the Hudson. We believe it to be the most spectacular scenery visible from water on the entire East Coast. Painters and authors have been enchanted by the Hudson for centuries. It's splendor is visible only by boat. Pray that it's not a foggy day when you go by. You'll love the Ramapo Mountains and West Point. Beware: There are only 4 anchorages in this stretch, so plan carefully.

From Newburgh up to Catskill, NY, (another 50 miles) it is also beautiful, especially on a clear day when you can see the Catskill and Berkshire Mountains in the distance. Anchorages are even more scarce, I can only think of three. We highly recommend stops in Kingston, and Saugerties, both are very fun and very charming. You'll also transit from salt water to fresh water in this region.

Catskill, is the place where most boats lower/raise their masts, Riverside Marina and Hop-O-Nose Marina are the two outfits who do it for you. A place called Middle Ground, just North of Catskill is a very secure and especially charming and beautiful place in June. Here the terrain and foliage change from Hudson Valley to Mohawk Vally character. Since Libby and I lived in the Mohawk Valley for 40+ years, we feel at home once reaching Middle Ground.

The final 50 miles from Catskill, through downtown Albany and Troy, up to Waterford, NY is mostly urban/industrial. However, Albany looks great from the water. There are only two anchorages in this stretch.

North of Troy you come to the Troy Federal Lock. Past that lock there are no more tides. South of that lock there are still 4.5 feet of tide even 150 miles up the River; most people find that hard to believe.

Waterford is the place where The Erie Canal and The Champlain Canal meet the river. To go beyond, you must choose whether to go North or West and you must have your mast down. Fortunately, Waterford is a very cruiser friendly place with free docks, water and power, and nearby stores, restaurants, and a charming little village. In season, it's nearly as nice as Marathon. Alas, the season there is all too short.

By the way, Skipper Bob's book, Anchorages on the ICW, will take you all the way from Key West, through the Chesapeake, and up to Waterford, NY. Small wonder that this thin little book is the bible of East Coast Cruisers. I'll wager that 99% of the boats have a copy on board.

p.s. In the previous post I said that dolphins are more plentiful in Florida. On second thought, that's not true about dolphins. Indeed, the biggest dolphin pod we ever saw with 300-400 dolphins was at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. However, the northern dolphins are smaller and less familiar than Florida's bottle nose variety.

p.p.s. Yesterday, a reader praised me for brevity in my descriptions. Guess I blew that today.


  1. Hi Dick!

    Thank you for these informative posts. I live on the west coast now but have family in both Florida and the Thousand Islands region of the St Lawrence River (NY). I have fantasized about traveling up and down the east coast between these destinations-how realistic do you think that is?

  2. Send me an email,, and we'll chat about it. Anonymous comments on this blog don't give me your email address, so I can't respond directly.


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