Which is it? The Intracoastal Waterway or the Intercoastal Waterway?

"I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have time" ― attributed to Mark Twain (among others)

I once wrote about an experience I had on the Intracoastal Waterway. I had someone recently mention it in conversation, and they called this waterway, the “Intercoastal” Waterway. Which is it? Let’s settle this once and for all, and maybe we can increase sailors’ knowledge of our waters by a couple of notches.

In the last few years, I have had many people send me scores of articles mentioning the “ICW” (until this discussion is over, we will call it that) by its longer name. I would say about half call it the “Intercoastal,” and the other half label it the “Intracoastal.” Most people who send me articles and letters are pretty intelligent, but intelligence has nothing to do with whether they call it one or the other. Ignorance certainly does. I can tell you right now: The ICW as we know it, which runs down the East Coast of the United States, around Florida and along the Gulf Coast to Texas, is officially the Intracoastal Waterway (we can get more technical about the Gulf ICW and the Atlantic ICW, but another day). This is labeled as such whether it is misnamed and misspelled or not. Its official name includes the word “Intracoastal.” Period. End of Discussion.

Except—I did a Google search on it, as I wanted to know how it got named that way. This is all because, way back in my high school civics classes, I remember learning about the U.S. Constitution and that the federal government has power over interstate commerce, meaning commerce between the states, and the states had power over intrastate commerce, meaning commerce within a state (this is also consistent with interstate versus intrastate highways). In my Google search, I found some discussion out there about the two spellings and what they mean, but no one mentioned the Constitution/commerce situation or the highway situation. The search didn’t come up with much, and I believe I have the correct interpretation.

I have therefore come up with this theory and reasoning: The Intracoastal Waterway, by all rights and definitions, should technically—to be correct by the use of the prefixes inter and intrashould be named the “Intercoastal” Waterway, as it is just like an interstate highway, being used to travel between and among the states. It would be proper to call a waterway, like the Okeechobee Canal that crosses the state of Florida—and provides travel within the state—an intracoastal waterway.

But the name of the ICW is the Intracoastal Waterway for one simple reason: BECAUSE THAT IS ITS OFFICIAL NAME. Maybe in the beginning, someone labeled it the “Intracoastal” because it was providing travel within one state, and it just evolved to its present name, but it is today, officially named the Intracoastal Waterway.

So writers, sailors, boaters, philosophers and others who have been labeling it wrong over the years: You learn something new every day.


Steve Morrell