Cruising the Intracostal Waterway from Galveston to New Orleans

Written by Margaret and Alan Hill

We live near Galveston, Texas and had long dreamed of cruising the Great Loop. After months of careful planning we were set for a 2008 departure, but Hurricane Ike hit September that year, damaging both our house and boat, delaying our plans for another year. Finally, in November 2009, we undid the dock lines and set off on our Grand Banks 46 Europa.

The first leg of our journey was from Galveston to New Orleans, and we knew not to take this crossing lightly. At the moment there are no marinas along the 350-mile stretch—all the recreational boating facilities that once existed were wiped out by the series of powerful hurricanes (Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike) that have battered the area. What’s more, there are plenty of obstacles in these waters, including commercial shipping traffic, barges, and off-shore oil-field equipment. 

We prepared for the trip by seeking out current, local knowledge, help from Marinalife and asking questions of anyone we knew who had undertaken the journey within the last year. We talked with one sailor who had completed the trek six times and gave us tips on several anchorages. Others suggested we run off-shore, skipping the entire Louisiana Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). All the information we gathered indicated that things were still in poor shape but that the canal was clear—barges using the ICW heavily. Since we were traveling in November, we were concerned about weather and shortening days. We knew that we’d have between 75 and 100 miles to cover each day, so our days would be long. 

We left our home slip at the Lakewood Yacht Club in Clear Lake, TX on a fine, clear Thursday and headed to the Galveston Yacht Harbor for our first night. The voyage took only three hours and by late afternoon we were tying up at the fuel dock, filling our tanks to capacity. We’d decided that we’d try to leave each anchorage about 30 minutes before sun up to try to give ourselves as much daylight as possible, so by 6 a.m. the following morning we were on the water, cruising away from Galveston. We passed Bolivar Island, destroyed by Hurricane Ike, and found the shoaling at Rollover Pass difficult where the gulf washes through to the bay. Heavy barge traffic slowed our progress at times, but we also found the barge captains both helpful and polite. We crossed under the Gulf Gate Bridge at Port Arthur and, after clocking about 100 miles, anchored (mm 270) behind a flat isle called Shell Island. There were 25 feet of water, a grassy bottom, and plenty of room to swing during the night when the currents shifted. 

The next morning we pulled anchor at 5:30 a.m. and were on the ICW by 6 a.m. We knew that this would be our longest day with 110 miles ahead of us. What’s more, since it was a Saturday, the Shell Morgan fuel dock in Intracoastal City -- our destination for the night -- would shut down at 4:30 p.m., and it would be closed all of the following day, a Sunday. We had to press forward. We made it through the Calcasieu Lock and Black Bayou Bridge by following closely behind a barge. At 3 p.m. we cleared the Leland Bowman Lock and by 4 p.m. we were tied up at Intracoastal City’s Shell Morgan fuel dock (mm 160), which has a reputation for being the cheapest fueling station along the Gulf Coast.  We filled our tanks and motored across the inlet to tie up for the night against their bulkhead. We had 50 amp power here and met an employee named Elwood who gave us lots of local knowledge about reaching Houma. The cost to tie up with power on a secure bulkhead was $20.

The third day brought signs of Hurricane Ida crossing the Gulf and heading toward Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. We watched the storm carefully as friends in Houston supplied us with current weather information. Our stopping point for the night would be Houma (mm57).  Traveling on the ICW through Louisiana can be treacherous because there are loads of fishermen on the water and their wakes can disrupt the peace and stability of a shallow-bottomed trawler like ours. We were in luck because it was a Sunday and the New Orleans Saints’ football game started at 2 p.m., so all the fishermen hustled to be off the water by 1 p.m. Still, we were very careful to go slowly if we passed any stray fishing boats. By 5 p.m. just as dusk was descending, we pulled into the Houma City Docks, where dockmaster Ray helped us tie up to the bulkhead. This is a very small dock with shallow water and room for only two or three boats, but with Ida bearing down several more boats squeezed in that night. The dock is just under the Delarge Bridge, at a narrow spot on the ICW.

There were no grocery stores within walking distance of the dock, but there were several great Italian restaurants, and the hospital right across the street had a surprisingly good and reasonably priced breakfast. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. The owner of a Monk 36 came down the dock to meet us and gave us some wonderful Satsuma oranges. He also gave us local knowledge that would be invaluable for our next leg—getting through New Orleans.

We had two main challenges at this point: avoiding Hurricane Ida, and making it through the locks and bridges of New Orleans during daylight.  Usually cruisers make the entire run from Houma through New Orleans in one day, but that can only be accomplished on summer weekends, when there are plenty of daylight hours and no bridge curfews. One of the best pieces of local information we learned during the whole trip was there is a deep-water tie at the New Orleans-area Boomtown Casino, which is on the west bank of the Mississippi River and only five miles from the Harvey Lock, one of our possible passageways from the ICW into the river. We waited an extra day in Houma for the storm to pass, then refueled at noon on Tuesday and left for New Orleans. 

Even though the storm had passed, the winds were still high and many barges were pushed up onto banks. We turned from the ICW up into the Harvey Canal and arrived at the Boomtown Casino just before sunset, tying up in 10 feet of water. There were three strong posts for our lines. Much of the ICW barge traffic bypassed the Harvey Canal for the Algiers Canal, so our anchorage was relatively tranquil. We left at first light and covered the remaining five miles to the Harvey Lock, where we went right in. The lock master was very helpful and by 8:45 a.m. we were through and into the Mississippi River. We reported in with the River Traffic Controller and he gave us explicit directions for getting down the river and into the channel for the Industrial Lock.

We arrived at the lock to find we’d have an extremely difficult four-hour wait. The channel is busy, and red-flagged dangerous cargo has priority for passage. We were instructed to tie up behind Coast Guard boats, where there was a hazardous construction mess. At long last we and two other pleasure crafts were given the signal and we entered the lock. Again, the lock master was very helpful. We emerged from the lock at 1 p.m. and then had to have two bridges opened for us. These bridges have curfews during morning and evening traffic times, so we only had a small window of opportunity for getting through them. If we’d had to wait until after the evening car traffic was finished it would have been dark. At about 2:30 p.m. we finally docked several miles up the channel at SeaBrook Marine in New Orleans. 

Looking back on this trip, we still breathe sighs of relief that it went so smoothly, and we learned several valuable things: cruising in November is wonderful because temperatures are blessedly cool and there are no insects; weekdays are better on the ICW than weekends because there are fewer local fishermen; getting to New Orleans is easiest during weekends and holidays because there are no curfews on the bridges. We were lucky to never meet another trawler during the trip because the docking spaces along the way were limited to single bulkhead ties or tight anchorages. And if we undertook the trip again, and didn’t have the same time and weather constraints, there are several fun places we’d stop along the way—L’Auberge du Lac, on Lake Charles, makes a great side trip, as does the famous Tabasco plant at Avery Island; the Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans is restored and a lovely place to stay.

People were extremely friendly everywhere we went, and the barge captains were both informative and helpful. Louisiana hospitality is genuine and caring. And the autumn colors and Louisiana swamps were beautiful. The trip both challenged and entertained us at every curve of the ICW. 

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