The intracoastal waterway (ICW) is a well-protected way to travel over 3,000 miles in the United States from Texas to the Northern Atlantic coastline. We recently discovered 5 important insights while sailing from Port Aransas to Galveston, TX in the ICW, and that’s what we’d like to share in this post!
The ICW is not safe.
Yes, it’s protected, but an argument can be made that sailing offshore is safer than cruising the intracoastal waterway.
There are more hazards and obstacles in the ICW. We’ll discuss them down below, but here’s a quick list of dangers you might encounter when travelling on the ICW:
- Pipelines & Oil Rigs
- Traveling barges, anchored barges, and barges blocking the ICW (more on this down below)
- Swift currents
- Long days with no place to anchor (for sailboats)
- Can’t travel at night
…just to name a few.
Barges on the ICW
On our recent trip (see video above) we almost died.
It was night, and there were no cameras rolling.
That’s because we were in a bee hive of barges while waiting for the Colorado River locks to open. And the lights from the locks confused our vision with the lights from the barges.
I (Matt) was on the foredeck and Nancy was at the helm.
I was spotting on the shoreline, so we wouldn’t run aground, and we were following a barge toward the locks.
That’s when we saw the red and green lights. Red and green mean you’re looking at the front of a boat.
But these came out of no where so it took about 20 seconds before we can register what we were looking at!
And by then, it was almost too late!
The double-wide barge was heading straight toward us and only 100 feet from a head-on collision with us!!!
I turned to Nancy and yelled, “FULL THROTTLE STRAIGHT TO THE SHORE!!!!”
She maxed out theRPMs on the 40hp Yanmar diesel engine, and the barge laid hard on the horn.
The sound of that horn haunted my dreams for four nights straight. And I still wonder, to this day, if the barge captain saw us before we saw him. Did he slow his pace? I like to think he did. His heavy ship would crush our 40 foot fiberglass Catalina, and he would likely not even know it happened.
We escaped this deathly encounter with about 50 feet to spare.
And we vowed to never travel the ICW at night.
And we vowed to only ever use the ICW as an escape from more harrowing dangers at sea.
Cruising the ICW
The Intracoastal Waterway allows boaters to travel the east coast of America without having to enter the Atlantic Ocean. On the Gulf Coast, the ICW allows boaters to travel from the Florida Keys all the way to South Texas without much exposure to offshore cruising. The best boats to travel down the ICW are motorboats or sailboats with a mast no higher than 64′ or a keel not too much deeper than 5′.
Most of the inlets along the ICW allow for deep draft vessels, but the inlet experience does change from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast (as we learned on our recent travels).
Sailing the ICW from Port Aransas to Galveston
Overall the ICW is beautiful from Port Aransas to Galveston. It can offer rest from the rigors of offshore swell. And there are long stretches of countryside with wildlife and smooth cruising. The bays can be great sailing with the right wind, and the marinas are a great stop – especially for food and drinks!