The North Carolina section of the Intracoastal Waterway, or ICW, is a stretch of the ICW that is always popular among recreational boaters. This 300-mile-long stretch of the ICW is lined with port cities, waterfront communities, beautiful beaches, and expanses of open water for boaters looking for adventure and inspiration, without the hazards or the treachery of open sea travel.
Wherever you decide to start, whether you’re traveling south from Virginia, or starting with us here at Northwest Creek Marina, the North Carolina ICW makes for a fun, picturesque boating experience you’re not likely to forget.
What is the Intracoastal Waterway or ICW?
For those unfamiliar, the Intracoastal Waterway, usually shortened to ICW, is a 3,000-mile-long inland waterway made up of man-made canals, natural inlets, rivers, bays, and sounds that runs along the United States Atlantic seaboard, from Massachusetts, all the way to Brownsville, Texas in the Gulf of Mexico.
This federally-protected and maintained waterway was first constructed as a means for commercial boats carrying precious cargo to transport their goods southwards while avoiding the often treacherous and unpredictable waters of the open sea, especially those around Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. The waterway has provided a safe and accessible route through the east coast, passing through the states of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, around Florida, and then into the Gulf of Mexico, since it was first opened. Today, the ICW remains a popular commercial waterway but sees more frequent use by recreational boaters and vessels.
Cruising the North Carolina ICW
The North Carolina stretch of the ICW runs for about 300 miles along the state’s eastern coast. There are two routes into North Carolina from Virginia to the north, the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Virginia Cut. From there, you enter Albemarle Sound into the Alligator and Pungo Rivers before entering the Pamlico River into Pamlico Sound, then traveling southwards along the coast to the mouth of the Neuse River, past the popular seaside town of Oriental, then down Adams Creek to the port cities of Beaufort, then passing through Morehead City, Sneads Ferry, Wrightsville Beach along the coast, through Snow’s Cut into the Cape Fear River, and then exiting North Carolina via Calabash to continue on its way into South Carolina and onward.
The North Carolina ICW is relatively safe to traverse on most days. For most of its stretch, the ICW is a straightforward route, with a clearly marked continuous, linear path. In fact, the ICW was engineered that way, with some added natural scenery to make the sights worth seeing. Due to the many inlets, rivers, creeks, and other tributaries that connect to the ICW, currents can become strong and change drastically depending on where the currents are flowing in from. As such, be ready for strong tides and current changes as you sail along the ICW.
It’s important to note that the ICW is a relatively shallow channel, with an average depth ranging from only 12 to 6 feet. As such, it’s vital to be aware of the tides, any bridges you might be passing under, and the channel markers along the ICW for tricky turns and twists.
The ICW is notorious for having many bridges, especially around the Florida area. The water level could also determine if your vessel would be able to pass under certain bridges. Some bridges will open on demand, meaning you’d have to call ahead for passage, while others remain closed during certain times of the day. Before your trip, be sure to plan out a route and check if there are any bridges you’ll be passing through, as well as the height of their openings and when they’re open. It helps to have handy navigational tools, which are readily available on your electronic devices like tablets and even phones, so you have a guide to go back to if you ever lose your way.
Be aware of weather changes before you set off. Depending on the time of the year, storms and strong winds can be expected to strike at any moment. Fortunately, the ICW provides many safe and convenient places to dock your boat and keep out of the weather if you ever find yourself out in a storm. There are many port towns and cities that line the ICW and plenty of marinas, piers, and docks to dock your boat for the night. There are also many places to dine, sleep, restock on fuel and provisions, and even sightsee. No matter how far you’re going down the ICW, there is a near-constant supply of places to dock at and stay if you’re ever running low on anything.
You can expect to find both commercial and recreational boats out on the ICW, although depending on the time of the year, one could outnumber the other. The ICW sees a lot of traffic, so be wary of other boaters and remember to slow down for other vessels passing you, or hail other vessels before you pass them.
Must-Stops on the North Carolina ICW
The North Carolina ICW is full of seaside port cities and towns where boaters can dock, dine, and see the sights! Here are all the best stops to make along the North Carolina ICW.
Located just up the mouth of the Neuse River, New Bern is a charming riverside city and one of the oldest in North Carolina. It served as the state capital from 1746 to 1792, before it was moved to Raleigh. New Bern is steeped in history, about 300 years of it! Learn more about the American Civil War, see the birthplace of Pepsi Cola, and visit the Tryon Palace, the state’s first capitol building. New Bern is also the home of Northwest Creek Marina. We’d be happy to have you if you decide to take a detour to New Bern.
Image: Northwest Creek Marina
Located just at the mouth of the Neuse, Oriental is known as a premier boating destination. This town thrives on the water and is called the sailing capital of North Carolina. It’s got a rich maritime history, one-of-a-kind boating, and fishing experiences, a calm and relaxing atmosphere that charms anyone who visits, and stunning waterfront views.
Not to be confused with Beaufort, South Carolina, this Beaufort is pronounced “bow-fort” while the one in South Carolina is pronounced, “bew-furt”. Beaufort is a scenic nautical town and a haven for many boaters, featuring many dockside shops, restaurants, marinas, and charming seaside cottages. They say that even the legendary pirate captain Blackbeard anchored his ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, in Beaufort’s very own harbor!
Morehead City is home to a bustling port and fishery and remains one of the most visited tourist destinations along the ICW. It’s a great place to dock, dine in one of the many restaurants along the harbor, and stock up on provisions and fuel for your boat. Morehead is home to the North Carolina Seafood Festival and the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament.
Sneads Ferry, like most cities along the North Carolina coastline, is known for its commercial fishing and especially their seafood. It’s a charming locale full of quaint shops, seafood restaurants, and lovely waterways, harbors, and marinas. Anyone who comes to visit is sure to fall in love with the rustic, small-town atmosphere of Sneads Ferry.
A favorite stop for many boaters sailing the ICW for years, Wrightsville Beach has one of the cleanest and most beautiful beaches in North Carolina, where people can enjoy a day out in the sun, relaxing on the beach, swimming, surfing, paddle boating, or fishing on the pier. With crystal clear waters, picturesque views, and mild temperatures, Wrightsville Beach is the perfect summer getaway for tourists and boaters.
Southport is a quaint little seaside town best known for its warm, small-town atmosphere. A hidden gem along the North Carolina coast in the Cape Fear River, it makes for an idyllic escape for anyone wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of big city life. Its economy and attractions are all centered on the sea. Just west of Southport, you can follow the ICW past Calabash and into South Carolina.
As you’re sailing along the North Carolina stretch of the ICW, or if you’re looking to head down the ICW from the Neuse, Northwest Creek Marina is the most ideal place to dock and stay for the night. Our hospitable staff and world-class amenities would be happy to welcome and assist you on your next boating adventure!