“Captain Joe,” as he is known at dozens of marinas from Maryland to Florida, has followed the ICW’s magenta line south to Fort Lauderdale 21 times. Single-handing his old 26-foot sloop Compromise, he knows where all the free docks are located, where to turn off to find an abandoned marina, where to get a bargain-price meal . . . and when to stay off the magenta line. “He just shows up at the dock, picks out a slip and ties up,” marina owners will say, shaking their heads with a mixture of resignation and affection. With his white beard and white flapped cap, Captain Joe is a fixture. And over the years, he’s seen just about everything he says. Alligators, snakes, otters. You name it, Captain Joe can tell you about it. He’s also seen a lot of other boaters hard aground. Most of the time, he says, their skippers have just misjudged the channel by a foot or two one way or the other—it’s easy to do if you draw more than 5 feet. But occasionally it’s because their skippers have made the mistake of following the magenta line on the charts rather than the aids to navigation in front of them. “Dumb,” he says.
Dumb, indeed. The famous magenta line marking the route of the Atlantic and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterways has been a boon to millions of skippers, commercial and recreational, since it first appeared in 1912 in the Inland Coast Pilot guide. It keeps them from getting lost in the baffling system of canals, creeks, rivers and cuts that make up the ICW; it gets them safely through crowded harbors; and it aims them in the right direction across large bodies of water such as Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. But, like Captain Joe, over the years, it has become bit idiosyncratic. Not only does it sometimes go on the wrong side of the channel markers, but occasionally it even goes overland like an amphibious vehicle. This leads to a lot of head-scratching and the occasional grounding. The cruise guides warn boaters where to ignore the line, and generally skippers suddenly faced with the contradiction make the right choice. But not always—when you’ve been tracking a line for 500 miles, and it’s gotten you through, it’s hard for even sensible skippers to deviate from it.
Which is why, at the end of last year, NOAA announced that it was going to discontinue the magenta line. It was leading too many people into trouble. The line, as it turns out, hadn’t been modified since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president and the country was in the middle of the Great Depression. In 1943, as part of his colossal stimulus program, Roosevelt tripled the budget of the Public Works Administration, which in turn allowed for a substantial update of the nation’s charts, including the inland waterway system and the magenta line. But that was it. The line has remained substantially the same for 70 years. No wonder it’s a little weird in places.
But removing the line would certainly lead to another variety of disaster. Imagine boaters wandering around the nation’s waterways trying to find the route on their own. They’d end up in Tennessee! Well, 99.9 percent of the people and organizations contacting NOAA after their announcement agreed. So early this year, NOAA announced that the magenta line would be updated to reflect recent data . . . though it will still be removed in areas where the navigational information (like chart soundings) are inconclusive. “Today’s decision to reinstate the magenta line is not a quick fix,” said Captain Shep Smith, chief of NOAA’s Coast Survey, Marine Chart Division, in making the announcement. “It will take at least three years to fix problems that were 70 years in the making.” Hooray!