The Intracoastal Waterway . . . a simpler life runs through it

By staff writer Vicki Lathom. Photos Copyright © Vicki Lathom.

IT’S CALLED THE Route 66 for boaters.

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, also known as “The Ditch,” is the inside route for cruisers to go north and south along the east coast without going out into the ocean.  Made up of rivers and sounds which were linked by man-made canals almost a century ago, the ICW is the preferred and safer route for recreational boaters.

Taking the ICW is like a waterfront road trip through the belly of the east coast.  In over 1,000 miles, from Chesapeake Bay to Florida, the scenes can be primordial-like swamps (reminding you of the African Queen) to vistas of Tara-like Colonial mansions (complete with widow walks and giant porches) to modern-day beach houses.

The Intracoastal Waterway - marsh

Grassy swamp

The Intracoastal Waterway | Wrightsville Beach

Wrightsville Beach

Intracoastal Waterway - trailer living

Trailer living along the shores of the ICW

In the winding, swampy parts, the ICW feels like it could run out of water if you take the wrong turn, or that an overhanging tree branch might hit your boat’s mast.  Partially hidden floating logs occasionally bump the bottom of the boat.

Stairways of Colonial mansions sweep down lawns to the water. Some homes are so imposing they’ve been used in movies such as The Prince of Tides and Forrest Gump. A traveler can enjoy Sunday brunch in the grand dining room at the elegant Jekyll Island Club in North Carolina’s “Millionaires Village.”

The Intracoastal Waterway | Pasquotank River

Reflections on the Pasquotank River

The Intracoastal Waterway - mansion


The Waccamaw River in South Carolina has deep water to the banks, lined with cypress trees draped in Spanish moss.  Unexpectedly, dolphins surface and follow the boat for a while, just like in documentary films.  Shore birds perch like statues on top of dead swamp trees or pilings.

Every now and then, an eagle soars by.

Intracoastal Waterway - Waccamaw River

Waccamaw River

The Intracoastal Waterway - crab pots

Crab pots

More than an architectural and landscape experience, the ICW offers a glance at another lifestyle. Stopovers in marinas are often in rural towns and settings: city slickers get a close encounter with a rural lifestyle where things are less cynical and complicated.

At Osprey Marina in North Carolina, the dock master tells of when he took English literature in college and the text for the class was The New Yorker magazine. “I knew I should drop the class right away, because I never could understand what they were trying to say.”

Intracoastal Waterway - boat lift

Six level Hi and Dry boat storage

The Beaufort-Hyde News of Belhaven, North Carolina features a fifth grade student who received an award for the “character trait of cleanliness” because of being “neatly dressed and well groomed, obeying the school dress code at all times.”

Local television programming can include two religious channels out of five.  Recent debates during political campaigns for county commissioner were over a proposed increase in fees for ferry use to the island of Ocracoke.

The sounds of a drag race can be heard from a quiet anchorage on a Friday night.

The Intracoastal Waterway - dredging

Dredging on the ICW

Fishing on the Intracoastal Waterway

People fishing on Pasquotank River in North Carolina

A month of taking the ICW from Florida back home to Annapolis was a surprise dip into many levels of geography and society.  While at times I was near screaming for the conveniences of a big box store, wine shop or even McDonald’s, a field trip through the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway was a seminar I couldn’t get anywhere else.



About the Intracoastal Waterway

Vicki Lathom, staff writer on Milliver's Travels

Vicki Lathom


Vicki Lathom has been a writer and sailor for forty years. She retired from being director of public information for Montgomery County, Md., in 1996, and went to work for Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer as his speechwriter. Vicki has also done freelance travel writing and photography for such publications as SAIL and Maryland Magazine. She is currently a writing instructor for two graduate schools at the University of Maryland.



  1. Vicki,

    Although I was never much of a sailor even while “crewing” on a Hobie Cat, your piece makes me want to experience the slower life of rural America, and doing it by boat without having to go out on the ocean is exactly my speed. I’m not sure I would miss the Big Box retailers all that much — I just know from experience that Starbucks is not in every small town (ahem, like Kanab, UT). Now the coffee shop on every corner, I would definitely miss!

    And that mansion is something special (I’m a Realtor during the day, so of course I would notice the house 😉

    I never knew this intracoastal waterway existed so thank you for the education!

    • It is indeed a trip through rural America, or maybe rural anywhere. The guy who commented about not “getting” the New Yorker made my day. He was so down to earth and really serious about wanting to understand the supposedly sophisticated humor of the magazine. I explained that only New Yorkers understand the New Yorker. The rest of us just scratch our heads.


  2. Wow Vicki, what a treasure!

    Sounds like a fantastic trip to take, such beautiful scenery and great to see life taking a different pace.

    Thanks for this, great post.

    • This was one of the hardest articles I’ve done in a while. So many winding parts of it, like herding cats. I’m so glad and surprised that people haven’t heard of the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s quite an accomplishment for our forefathers to have built it.

      Thanks for your feedback.

  3. Joan Christiana says:

    Dear Vicki,
    Congratulations on another beautiful article! We are just finishing up our trip on the ICW, have 10 more miles to go. Once more you have captured in words such awesome beauty and ripe experience.

    I will recommend your article to those who wonder why on earth we do this! I am certain they will wish they could drop everything and join us.

    Wishing you continued success and a happy summer.


    • Joan: Thanks so much. It means so much to hear this from a fellow traveler…one who knows exactly what my words are about. I’m still not sure why on earth we do this. It really is a calling.


  4. I am sitting here with tears of pride in my eyes.
    Love you

  5. That is SO cool! I live not too far from the ICW in Florida…..I had no idea it was so large! Thanks for sharing and the photos are terrific!

    • Thanks. Having someone who lives near the ICW comment makes my day. Who would have thought that I could help add a perspective for someone who’s already “there?”


  6. I would love to experience this someday.
    Your writing is very descriptive, and your pictures are wonderful.
    I especially like the reflections one. Very cool!
    Thank you for sharing your trip up the ICW.

    • I unofficially named that one, “Weird Reflections.” It turned my head a bit, but I thought it was because I like weird things. Your liking it makes me believe in my instinct a little more. Thank you for saying I was descriptive. That’s really important — especially since most readers haven’t been there-seen that.


  7. Barb P. says:

    I really enjoyed your article, having made the trip myself several times. I especially liked the reflective photos on the water.

    • Barb:

      Thanks. Again, getting feedback from someone who’s been there is wonderful. I would never have thought that the reflections would be so meaningful to people. I found them so and am struck by how others did too. Vicki

Leave a Reply to vicki Cancel

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *