Cruising/Navigating - Virginia’s AICW
Norfolk to North Landing River
The Virginia segment of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW) begins in the north on the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, VA at AICW (MM "0.0"); near buoy (R "36" Q R). It proceeds in a somewhat serpentine, but overall southerly direction to the junction of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal Route (route #1) and the Great Dismal Swamp Route (route #2) located near (MM "7.1").
Route #1 provides deeper water and the possibility of higher speeds, while Route #2 allows the mariner to experience the wildlife and vistas along with slow and easy cruising. The vast amount of traffic tends to use Route #1, the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal Route.
Using Route #1, the Virginia portion of the AICW ends at (MM "34.0") on the North Landing River, while Route #2 of Virginia’s AICW ends at (MM "24.6") on the Dismal Swamp Canal (the Virginia/North Carolina State Line).
Aids to Navigation
Buoys and Marks
Intracoastal Waterway buoys and navigational markers are marked like most other lateral marks in the U.S. the difference is that either yellow triangles or yellow squares are added to the mark to indicate they are ICW markers.
The rule is: When proceeding south on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway in Virginia, markers with yellow triangles are kept to starboard while marks with yellow squares are kept to port at all times.
In most cases, this will equate to "Red" marks to starboard and "Green" marks to port southbound on the ICW, but use caution here, because regardless of the color of the mark; yellow "triangles" are to be kept to starboard and yellow "squares" are to be kept to port PERIOD.
- “Yellow Squares are ALWAYS kept to port”
- “Yellow Triangles are ALWAYS kept to starboard”
Regardless of the color of the mark!
NOAA Chart #12206, provides complete coverage of the Virginia portion of the AICW.
Chart #12206 - Norfolk to Albemarle Sound covers the ICW from (MM "0.0") in Norfolk to (MM "65.0") at Albemarle Sound via Route #1 and to (MM "65.0") at the mouth of the Pasquotank River via Route #2 (Great Dismal Swamp Canal).
Distances and Milages
All distances along the Virginia segment of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway are given in statute miles unless otherwise noted. Statute miles are used in order to conform to the distances shown on the small craft charts typically used along this route.
The Virginia portion of the AICW (southbound) is measured based on increasing mileage between the Elizabeth River (MM "0.0") and the North Landing River (MM "34.0") for a total of 34.0 SM (29.5 NM).
The Federal project depth for the Virginia portion of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway from Norfolk to the (Virginia/North Carolina State Line) is 12 feet.
The actual controlling depths in the channels may vary due to shoaling. This reduces the available water depths to less than the Federal project depth until maintenance dredging can be accomplished.
Bridges and Locks – VHF Channel 13.
Bridges, Locks, and Overhead Power Lines
Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway - Virginia Bridge Schedule
The following table lists the bridges & locks; their schedules, and restrictions along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AICW) south from Norfolk, VA to the North Carolina State Line.
The minimum overhead clearance for all fixed bridges over the Virginia portion of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is 65 feet.
This list is believed to be accurate as of July 2019. If any errors or omissions are noted, please e-mail us at with any corrections or recommendations.
AICW - Virginia Bridge Schedule
Norfolk to Pungo Ferry
Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway - Virginia
|Mile Marker||Bridge||Charted Vert. Clear.||Schedule||Restrictions||VHF|
|2.6||N&P BL RR Lift Bridge||6’/142’||Normally Open||Closes for RR Traffic||13|
|2.8||South Norfolk Jordan Bridge||145’||Fixed Bridge|
|3.6||N&W RR Lift Bridge||10’/135’||Normally Open||Closes for RR Traffic||13|
|5.8||Gilmerton Lift Bridge||36’/136’||Opens on Demand||Closed M-F 0630-0830 and 1530-1730 except Federal holidays.||13|
|5.8||N&S RR Bascule Bridge #7||7’||Normally Open||Closes for RR Traffic||13|
|7.1||I-64 Bascule Bridge||65’||Opens on Demand with 24 hour notice.||Openings from 0600 - 0900 and 1500 - 1800 Mon through Fri xcept Fed. Holidays require 72 hour notice.||13|
|7.15||I-64 Bridge||100’||New Fixed Bridge - Under Construction|
|8.8||Veterans Bridge||95’||Fixed Bridge||Twin Spans|
|11.5||Great Bridge Lock (USACE)||1’ - 3’ ↑||Once every hour from 0600 - 1900. Other times on demand.||Lockage is generally coordinated with the openings of the Great Bridge Bridge below.||13|
|12.0||Great Bridge Bascule Bridge||8’||On the Hr. 0600-1900 - Other times on demand.||13|
|12.6||Great Bridge Highway Bridge||65’||Fixed Bridge|
|13.9||A&C RR Bascule Bridge||7’||Normally Open||Closes for RR Traffic||13|
|15.2||Centerville Turnpike Swing Bridge||4’||From 0830 to 1600, Mon through Fri, except Fed. holidays, the draw need only be opened on the hour and half hour. Other times on demand.||Closed M-F 0630 - 0830 and 1600 - 1800 except Fed. holidays.||13|
|20.2||North Landing Swing Bridge||6’||The draw shall open between 0600 - 1900 on the hour and ½ hour. Other times on demand.||13|
|28.6||Pungo Ferry Bridge||65’||Fixed Bridge|
The Virginia ICW Bridge List as well as the entire AICW Bridge List (Norfolk to Miami) can be downloaded for your personal and private use below. The ZIP files contain the schedules in Adobe (.pdf) file format:
Temporary Long Term Bridge Restrictions
Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway - Virginia
|Mile Marker||Bridge||Charted Vert. Clear.||Restrictions|
|7.1||I-64 Bridge||65’||The VA Dept. of Transportation has awarded the contract to add a new fixed bridge just south of the existing I-64 bascule bridge. Project construction has started and the completion date is expected to be summer of 2021. The new fixed bridge will provide a vertical clearance of 100 feet above MHW.
Delays and channel closures should be expected during the period of construction.
Found along the Virginia Intracoastal Waterway
Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway - Virginia Locks
Via Route #1 - (1) The Great Bridge Lock. The lock opens on demand, but mariners should note that the City of Chesapeake’s Great Bridge Bridge, located adjacent to the lock, opens on the hour from 0600 to 1900 and on demand after 1900. The schedule is subject to change during adverse weather conditions.
Via Route #2 - (1) Deep Creek Lock (52x300) feet. The lock schedule is 0830, 1100, 1330 and 1530 seven days per week 365 Days a year.
(1) South Mills Lock (52x300) feet. The lock schedule is 0830, 1100, 1330 and 1530 seven days per week 365 Days a year. The drawbridges adjacent to these locations will operate as normal and in conjunction with the lock openings. Vessels are allowed to moor overnight in the canal. There will only be one operator at Deep Creek and one at South Mills, so the bridge will not be manned when the lock is being operated, and vice versa. Locks and bridges monitor channel 13.
While the South Mills Lock is actually in North Carolina, we cover it here as well as in the North Carolina section.
Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway - Virginia Overhead Cables and Power Lines
Approximately (6) overhead cables cross the Virginia segment of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The minimum cable crossing authorized clearance is 91 feet. (2) Cable crossings are on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River, (2) Cross Route #1, and (2) more cross Route #2.
Caution - Many of the overhead cables over the waterway carry high voltage, and an extra margin of safety should be allowed during threatening weather.
The tides in Virginia, where they exist, are semi-diurnal exhibiting (2) equal high and low tides every ≈24 hours 50 minutes.
Beginning in Norfolk with a mean average tidal range of 2.8 feet to just south of Great Bridge Lock where lunar tides are for all practical purposes non-existent, to North River Landing River where the mean tidal range increases to less than 1 foot at the Virginia/North Carolina State Line.
Entrances, Inlets, and Passes
There are numerous Entrances, Inlets, or Passes between the Atlantic Ocean coastal waters of Virginia and the sheltered waters inside. At last count, there were 11 entrances, inlets, and passes between the Maryland/Virginia state line and the Virginia/North Carolina state line.
The principal entrance is of course the Chesapeake Bay which is the only one in Virginia to allow access to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The remaining 10 inlets provide no access to the AICW. The best time to enter most of these inlets is on a rising tide with a smooth sea; passage may be hazardous during easterly gales and heavy seas.
Virginia Entrances, Inlets, and Passes
Chesapeake Bay Entrance and Rudee Inlet
Chesapeake Bay Entrance
The Chesapeake Bay entrance is located 233.6 NM SSW of the entrance to New York and 314.6 NM NNE of Charleston, SC. The mouth of the bay is 9.5 NM wide and for the most part deep. The Cheseapeake Bay Entrance is the only access on the Virginia Coast that intersects the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
NOAA Chart #12221 - Chesapeake Bay Entrance is suggested for the approach to the Chesapeake Bay while NOAA Chart #12222 - Cape Charles to Norfolk Harbor is suggested for the entrance.
There are (2) established approaches to the Chesapeake Bay, both through typical Traffic Separation Schemes:
- The Northeastern Approach is recommended for vessels drawing less than 42 feet and is marked by buoy (Y "NCA" Fl Y 2.5s BELL) located 9.3 NM east-northeast of the entrance at 36°57’30" N / 075°48’13" W. This approach is well marked by lighted yellow fairway buoys.
- The Deep-Water Approach is marked by buoy (RW "CB" Mo (A) WHIS RACON (–·–) AIS) located 15.9 NM southeast of the entrance at 36°49’00’ N / 075°45’36’ W. This is most often used by vessels approaching from the south and east or vessels with drafts of 42 feet or more.
Both established approaches converge on the inner approach buoy, (RW "CH" Mo (A) WHIS RACON (–·–·) AIS) located 2.3 NM ESE of the entrance at 36°56’08" N / 075°57’27" W. Exercise extreme caution where the two approach routes converge off of Cape Henry for vessels that may be maneuvering in the vicinity.
From the inner approach mark, (2) channels are available:
- Cape Henry/Chesapeake Channel which leads north up the Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac River and Washington, DC, Annapolis, MD, Baltimore, MD, the C&D Canal, and the head of the bay. It begins 2.3 NM NNE of Cape Henry Light and extends 10.1 NM northwestward where it splits becoming York Spit Channel leading up the bay.
- Thimble Shoal Channel which leads westward to Little Creek, Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Newport News, and the northern most terminus of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. It begins 1.7 NM northwest of Cape Henry Light and extends 9.5 miles west-northwestward. A Federal project provides for a 55-foot-deep channel with a 32-foot-deep auxiliary channel on each side of the main channel. Thimble Shoal Channel is a regulated navigation area and draft limitations apply. A vessel drawing less than 25 feet may not enter the channel, unless the vessel is crossing the channel.
Prominent on the Approaches
- Cape Charles Light (Fl W 5s 180ft 18M) on the north side of the Chesapeake Bay Entrance, located at (37°07’23" N., 75°54’23" W.), is shown from an octagonal, pyramidal skeleton tower, upper part black and lower part white, on the southwestern part of Smith Island.
- Chesapeake Light (2 Fl W 4s 84ft 5M Priv) nearly in the center of the bay entrance (2) is shown from a blue tower on a white superstructure on four piles, 13.9 NM miles eastward of the entrance at 36°54’17" N., 75°42’46" W. . The name CHESAPEAKE is displayed on all sides.
- Cape Henry Light (Mo U [··–] 20s 164ft 15M) on the south side of the Chesapeake Bay Entrance, (36°55’35" N., 76°00’26" W.), is shown from an octagonal, pyramidal tower, upper and lower half of each face alternately black and white, on the beach near the turn of the cape.
The approach is marked by buoy (RW "CH" Mo (A) WHIS RACON (–·–·) AIS) located 2.3 NM ESE of the entrance at 36°56’08" N / 075°57’27" W.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel complex has on several occasions suffered damage from vessels. In every case, adverse weather prevailed with accompanying strong winds from the northwest quadrant generally related to a frontal system. Weather deterioration in the lower bay is quite often sudden and violent and constitutes an extreme hazard to vessels operating or anchoring in this area. The proximity of the bridge-tunnel complex to main shipping channels and anchorages adds to the danger. Currents in excess of 3.0 knots can be expected in the area.
Local Magnetic Disturbance Differences of as much as 6° from the normal variation have been observed 3 to 17 miles offshore from Cape Henry to Currituck Beach Light.
A Naval Restricted Area extends northward and eastward from Cape Henry. (See 33 CFR 334.320 for limits and regulations.
Nautilus Shoal with a least depth of 7 feet over on the northern side of the entrance.
Inner Middle Ground frequently has Breakers occurring along the axis of the shoal. Starting on the seaward side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and continuing the entire length of the shoal. This phenomenon appears to be associated with large swells rolling in from sea from the south-southeast to southeast.
Tides and Currents:
Mean Tidal Range is 3.1 feet at Cape Henry, 2.4 feet in Hampton Roads, and 2.6 feet at Craney Island. Current velocities are 1.0 knots on the flood and 1.5 knots on the ebb at the Chesapeake Bay Entrance.
Rudee Inlet is located at the southern end of Virginia Beach, about 6.4 NM south of the Chesapeake Bay Entrance and 64.7 NM North-Northwest of Oregon Inlet.
NOAA Chart #12207 - Cape Henry to Currituck Beach Light is suggested for the approach to Rudee Inlet while NOAA Chart #12205 - Cape Henry to Pamlico Sound is suggested for the entrance.
The approach is marked by a lighted buoy (RW "RI" Mo(A) WHIS) located 0.8 NM east of the entrance at 36°49’47" N / 075°56’57" W. The approach is deep (20+ feet until the entrance channel outer buoys.
Prominent on the approach are (2) radar towers and a blue water tank about 1 NM southward of Rudee Inlet.
The entrance is protected by two jetties with a dredged channel leading between the jetties and is marked by lighted buoys and a lighted beacon on the outer end of the north jetty. It leads to a basin just inside the jetties, thence westward to a safety area about 0.2 mile above the jetties, thence northwestward to Lake Rudee or southwestward to Lake Wesley. While dredging operations attempt to maintain Rudee Inlet channel to a depth of 10 feet, the inlet is subject to continual shoaling.
Two fixed highway bridges, an east span and a west span, both with a clearance of 28 feet, restrict access to Lake Rudee. Lake Wesley has no clearance restrictions with depths of 8 to 22 feet.
Rudee Inlet offers no access to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
- Local Magnetic Disturbance with differences of as much as 6° from the normal variation have been observed 3 to 17 miles offshore from Cape Henry to Currituck Beach Light.
- A Naval Restricted Area extends northward, eastward and southeastward from Cape Henry.
- A Naval Prohibited Area is off Camp Pendleton, 7.4 miles southward of Cape Henry.
- Firing Range Danger Zones are between 7 and 9 miles southward of Cape Henry.
Tides & Currents - Mean tidal range at the entrance to Rudee Inlet is 3.3 feet.
Virginia Entrances, Inlets, and Passes
Virginia’s Eastern Shore
While offering no access to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, we have listed below the inlets along Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
While most of these inlets are shallow and many are hazardous requiring strong local knowledge to enter; all of them will require careful navigation. That being said, a couple do offer refuge from the storm, if entered early.
Chincoteague Inlet lying between Assateague Island and Wallops Island, is 30 miles south-southwestward from Ocean City, MD Inlet.
The approach has no sea buoy, however lighted buoy (R "2" Fl R 2.5s), marking Chincoteague Shoals, is located 5.2 NM ESE of the entrance at 37°47’25" N / 075°22’21" W can be used.
Prominent on the approach are Assateague Light (Fl (2) 5s 154ft 22M) is shown from a 142-foot red and white horizontally banded conical tower and a lookout tower on the southern tip of Assateague Island; both are visible well offshore.
The marked channel through the inlet to Chincoteague Channel is subject to frequent change; the buoys are shifted with changing conditions. Breakers are evident on either side of the channel. A sunken wreck is about 0.4 mile southwest of Fishing Point in 37°51’54" N., 75°24’04" W.
Cautions - Chincoteague Shoals, extending about 3 NM east and south of the lower end of Assateague Island, with a least depth of 8 feet. Breakers are evident on either side of the channel and a sunken wreck is about 0.4 mile southwest of Fishing Point in 37°51’52" N., 75°24’03" W. Caution is advised when navigating this inlet.
Tides and Currents - Mean tidal range at the entrance is about 2.2 feet. With strong winds of long duration, depths may be as much as 3 feet above or below the normal level.
Metompkin Inlet, the ocean entrance between Metompkin Islands and Cedar Island, is used by some small local fishing and oyster boats. The changeable entrance channel is unmarked and should not be entered without local knowledge.
Wachapreague Inlet is found between Cedar Island and Parramore Island, 20 NM south-southwestward of Chincoteague Inlet.
The approach is marked by a lighted buoy (RW "W" Mo(A) WHIS) located 3.0 NM east of the entrance at 37°34’54" N / 075°33’37" W.
The approach and entrance are marked by uncharted buoys and beacons due to being shifted frequently to mark the best water.
Cautions - Wachapreague Inlet should only be entered with local knowledge.
Tides and Currents - Mean tidal range at the entrance is about 3.8 feet.
Quinby Inlet, lies between Parramore Island and Hog Island, has a fan of breakers across the bar at the entrance. Buoys marking the channel through the inlet are frequently shifted in position and not charted. The inlet should not be used without local knowledge.
Great Machipongo Inlet
Great Machipongo Inlet leads between Hog Island and Cobb Island, 16.8 NM SSW of Wachapreague Inlet, to Great Machipongo Channel. Shoals on either side of the entrance are marked by breakers at all times; the bar breaks only in heavy weather. The inlet is marked by buoys that are shifted in position with changing channel conditions.
Sand Shoal Inlet
Sand Shoal Inlet, the ocean entrance between Cobb Island and Wreck Island, may be entered through three channels. Northeast Channel leads along the south end of Cobb Island, Southeast Channel and South Channel just east of Wreck Island. The bar over Southeast Channel breaks in heavy weather. These channels are subject to continual change and strangers should seek local knowledge before transiting through the inlet.
Ship Shoal Inlet
Ship Shoal Inlet, the ocean entrance between Ship Shoal Island and Myrtle Island, is shallow and unmarked; it is used only by local oyster boats. There is deep water back of the inlet, but the channels to the inside passages are shallow and tortuous.
Little Inlet, between Myrtle Island and Smith Island, is shallow and is little used. Small boats can connect with the inside passage at high water.
Smith Island Inlet
Smith Island Inlet, between Smith Island and Fishermans Island, is fairly wide, but the narrow, changeable channel lies between sandbars and breakers. The inlet is used by many local boats with drafts of 3 to 4 feet, but it is unmarked and should not be used by strangers. The controlling depth over the bar is said to be 1.5 feet.