The ICW is a narrow waterway that cuts down the East Coast of the United States. The channel in the middle is dredged to a controlling depth which varies with state, getting shallower as you get closer to Florida and deeper as you approach Virginia. Once you exit the channel, you are at the mercy to the local depths, and these can be rather treacherous.
Many places of the ICW are dredged sections of extremely shallow waterways. It is not uncommon to be cruising in 12 feet of water and see on the chart plotter that it is 1 foot deep next to the channel. Such a shallow depth will not be conducive to business of marinas, so they do their best to establish themselves in deeper areas and maintain these depths to remain in business.
While this may be the case, we have noticed that most of these places only have about 4 feet of water in them at low tide, making it very difficult for someone with a deep draft to anchor or tie up for the night.
We have a 6.5 foot draft and find ourselves relegated to the sides of the channel for anchoring at night. This is far from ideal, as we are exposed to the weather and traffic all night long.
The traffic might seem like a concern, but lets face it, the average person traveling the ICW is also a cruiser and they will also stop and anchor for the night. We have found that as the sun begins to get low on the horizon, everyone around us disappears as they enter marinas and anchorages for the afternoon and won't emerge until the next morning.
Protection from the weather might be a concern, except that the ICW is protection in itself. The waterway is so small, narrow, and shallow that actual waves can not form! We have experienced winds in excess of 30 knots on the waterway and when it blows across the ICW, the surface remains completely flat as there is no fetch to generate waves. When the wind happens to be blowing directly with the ICW, which can provide the wind many miles of straight line fetch, the waves only form into small chop no taller than 1 foot in height in the middle of the deep channel.
Concern about wind and weather exposure should be ignored as the entire waterway is a perfectly protected area and nothing like the same conditions on the open ocean!
Back to anchoring. The waterway is narrow and shallow, meaning that aside from designated anchorages (which are also shallow) your only option to stop for the night is to anchor on the side, just outside of the channel.
This works, as the channel ends and there is about 40 feet of water that rapidly gets shallower until you reach the natural shallow water depth of the area. This may seem like an acceptable compromise, as you are outside the channel and off to the side, but when you factor in the scope for anchoring, you might feel concerned about drifting into the channel while you sleep and becoming a navigational hazard in the dark!
This fear can be put to rest. The winds can be rather strong on the ICW, but the pale in comparison to the power of the currents that rip through the narrow waterway. Regardless of the wind, your boat will lay parallel to the channel as the current will point your bow into the direction the water is flowing from. To further ensure that you will remain out of the channel, you can actually turn your rudder a bit so that you will actually turn away from the channel.
Even though you are anchored, there will be around 3 knots of current flowing over your rudder and this will actually give you very responsive steerage. Having the boat steer farther from the channel will further offer protection from traffic and keep you out of the way during the night. If you time it properly and anchor as the tide is going out, you will soon find yourself grounded on the side of the channel and held in place until the tide comes back in. When you start floating, you will then be turned closer to the channel and into deeper water where you can safely raise anchor and continue on your way.
If you do not feel comfortable with adding a little rudder to your anchoring protocol, you can always center your rudder and let the current keep you in line with your anchor through the night.
Anchoring on the side of the ICW may not seem like a dream come true, and honestly it is far from a dream, but it will give you a place to stop along the way as you slowly sail towards your next anchorage.