Guiding Lights Show the Way Along the Winding
Serenity of New Jersey’s ICW

By Bob Trapani, Jr.

ICW Light 465
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

ICW Light 465 stands sentinel along
the winding waterway

Few waterborne excursions can top the sparkling wonderment of traversing the 118 miles of New Jersey’s Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). The natural beauty contained between its marshy banks is breathtaking. From the graceful heron to the weathered wharves of coastal communities, this inland seascape offers a unique combination of nature and serenity at its best. Recreational boaters delight in transiting the ICW, taking full advantage of the calm waters, relaxing stretches of “blue highway” and lazy curves along the soft marshy bends, but like all waterways, real dangers lurk quietly just beneath this tranquil seascape.

The ICW, which roughly parallels the Atlantic Ocean, meanders through bays, lagoons, thorofares and land cuts – all which present certain inherent navigational challenges. To complicate matters further, playful tides and currents use their sculpting powers to reshape the 100-foot wide channel on a continuous basis by moving troublesome sandy shoals and disguising ensnaring marsh mud in average water depths of only 3 to 6 feet.

USCG ANT Cape May's 49-foot buoy boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

USCG ANT Cape May's 49-foot buoy boat
loaded with ICW lights

Due to these factors, the question for some inexperienced boaters isn’t if they will go aground in the ICW, but when. The daily tidal flows add to the navigational nuisances as changing water depths at low tide surprise many boaters who suddenly find themselves high aground on a shoal that was hidden just a short time ago. In a lot of cases, escape is only attained by waiting a few hours for high tide to regain a temporary hold on the waterway and re-float the watercraft.

There to safeguard the recreational boater from such trouble spots and dangers is the U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) Cape May. The ANT serves as the steward for the ICW’s guiding lights – a cumbersome responsibility that stands in stark contrast to the waterway’s carefree environment. “Keeping a good light” on the ICW requires more than simply ensuring the aids to navigation (ATON) are in operable condition.

During the fall of each year, following the end of boating season, all the lighted aids in the ICW are removed for the winter in anticipation of the ice season. Months later as winter slowly cedes its hold to the approach of spring, ANT Cape May then readies its “army of lights” for reestablishment in the waterway – just in time for hibernating boaters to emerge once again to dot the seascapes.

Inspecting lights aboard the 49
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) FN Brian Wright, SN Elizabeth
Deneen and MK3 Rob Hollyfield inspect
ICW lights aboard the 49

A total of 160 lighted aids to navigation span the 118 miles of the Intracoastal Waterway from Manasquan Inlet to Cape May, New Jersey. With such a massive number of aids to establish each spring, the task of relighting the ICW hardly occurs overnight. The process generally requires six weeks of nose-to-the-grind labor, with the work proving to be both quite encompassing logistically and physically. Coast Guard ANT Cape May personnel apply approximately 768 man-hours to reestablish the lighted aids and enact repairs to the supporting structures each spring, and another 270 man-hours during winter for annual servicing.

The portability of the ICW lights is both a blessing and a curse for servicing personnel. Each lighted aid is self-contained and holds a battery, solar panel and lantern on a supporting light stand constructed of either aluminum or steel. This arrangement enables the (ATON) equipment to be easily removed at season’s end and conveniently serviced before deployment the following spring, but that is where the element of ease ends.

Senior Chief Dever on 49-foot buoy boat
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Senior Chief Dennis Dever holds the 49-foot
buoy boat on station at ICW Light 475

Once the “army of lights” is prepped and loaded onto buoy boats for placement, the outfitted light stands must be hoisted above to platforms awaiting their customary flashing beacon. Only brute strength is able to accomplish the arduous hoisting task since the ATON equipment possesses a total weight of approximately 160-pounds for an outfitted aluminum stand, while its steel counterpart weighs 200-pounds on average.

Another factor to contend with is the buoy boat itself. Some areas of the ICW are extremely shallow and therefore prevent the larger 49-foot vessel from accessing many of the lighted aids. In other cases, the simple availability of a buoy boat presents its own set of problems. “Since one of our two larger buoy boats has been out of service for about a year and a half, nearly all of the lights are transported and put up from 21-foot open boats,” says Senior Chief Dennis Dever, Officer-in-Charge of ANT Cape May. “The 21-foot buoy boats are more vulnerable to the weather, very limited in their carrying capacity and have no lifting ability.”

Lifting a light stand up to a tower
Photo by Dennis Dever

(L to R) Auxiliarist Bob Trapani
and SN Elizabeth Deneen lift a
light stand up to FN Brian
Wright at ICW Light 475


Even Mother Nature presents her own obstacles for reestablishing the ICW’s lights. “Ospreys are another challenge,” says Senior Chief Dever. “No matter how early we start, the Osprey seem to have their nest built on the light structure of their choice before we arrive – thwarting the ability to mount a light there. To overcome this obstacle, we set a small, lighted buoy “channelward” of that aid. The same applies for piles that are pushed over by ice or suffer from a collision with a boat.”

With Memorial Day fast approaching, summertime’s armada of recreational boaters will soon be enjoying the serenity of the Intracoastal Waterway and riding the tides to hours of relaxing fun once again. In the meantime, 160 lighted aids will be on duty to guide the boater’s waterborne path as they point the way to safe passage. What the public does not see is the many hundreds of hours of hard work applied every season to ensure the safety and well being of recreational boaters. Yet what the boater has come to take for granted when it comes to reliable ATON may inadvertently pay the greatest compliment of all to the U.S. Coast Guard. The fact that the ICW lights quietly “wink and blink” each and every night speaks volumes to the attributes of dedication and vigilance – and to ATON duty well done!

Created: May 2004

BM3 Cameron hoists a battery
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

BM3 Peter Cameron (top)
hoists an 80-lb battery up
onto the light structure

FN Wright installs a light stand
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

FN Brian Wright installs a
light stand at ICW Light 475

MK3 Hollyfield wires a solar panel
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

MK3 Rob Hollyfield wires a
solar panel to the battery

Senior Chief Dever checks a light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

Senior Chief Dennis Dever (right) checks to
see if the light is correctly aligned with
the focal plane of the lantern

Installing a light stand on an ICW light
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

(L to R) FN Brian Wright and
MK3 Rob Hollyfield install a
light stand at ICW Light 470

FN Wright inspects lampchanger
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

FN Brian Wright inspects the
lampchanger and lamps
inside a 155mm lantern

Variations to the U.S. System

From: United States Coast Guard, Light List, Volume II, Atlantic Coast, 2003

Installing dayboards on ICW Lights
Photo by Bob Trapani, Jr.

ANT Cape May personnel install
dayboards at ICW Light 465

Intracoastal Waterway aids to navigation: The Intracoastal Waterway runs parallel to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey, to the Mexican border. Aids to navigation marking these waters have some portion of them marked with yellow. Otherwise, the coloring and numbering of the aids to navigation follow the same system as that in other U.S. waterways.

In order that vessels may readily follow the Intracoastal Waterway route, special markings are employed. These marks consist of a yellow square and yellow triangle and indicate which side of the aid to navigation should be passed when following the conventional direction of buoyage. The yellow square indicates that the aid to navigation should be kept on the left side and the yellow triangle indicates that the aid to navigation should be kept on the right side.

Note: The conventional direction of buoyage in the Intracoastal Waterway is generally southerly along the Atlantic coast and generally westerly along the Gulf coast.