Tugs And Swamps And Trees, Oh My!

Friday November 2, 2012

When the harps went off at seven o’clock this morning I knew it had to be very cold in the cabin. Even though we were snuggled together in settee with a down comforter and a sleeping bag over us it was not enough to keep the chill off of me. Checking the temperature in the cabin it was 46 degrees. That’s ridiculous. We need to get south and we need to get there now. The good news is we should be putting on some miles in that direction today. We’ll be going into the IntraCostal Waterway which starts in Norfolk Virginia and goes all the way down to Miami Florida. It’s a way to get down the coast inside protected waterways without doing any ocean sailing. We’ll be jumping out a few times to skip some places and cut down on time, but for the most part we’ll be following it almost all of the way down. When you first start at Norfolk there are two separate routes which eventually meet up again, and we’ll be takin the Dismal Swamp which ends in Elizabeth City, NC and staying there for a few days. It’s known as the Harbor of Hospitality and we also have a few packages coming to us at the Post Office there. Plus they have free docks for 48 hours and that doesn’t hurt either.

 After another synchronized bringing up of the anchors we were on our way with Rode Trip leading the way out into Hampton Roads Harbor where the winds kicked up from five knots to twenty five. Standing behind the wheel in full foulies I did some math in my head. If the outside temperature was currently forty-five and winds were blowing at twenty-five, that gives a wind chill of about twelve degrees making it feel to me like thirty-three degrees. After figuring this out I quickly threw the autopilot on and went below to make coffee or anything hot to hold in my hands. The winds were throwing a large swell through the harbor and we rocked back and forth with all our belongings being thrown around in the cabin. Thankfully that stopped once we got across and entered Elizabeth River but the winds were still strong and chilly. As we entered the river we could see all kinds of Naval vessels lined up on shore. There were aircraft carriers and even the new stealth Navy ship. Just past them were large tankers getting all the shipping containers unloaded onto stacks on land. Soon we were in the harbor inside the heart of Norfolk on our way to the Dismal Swamp. Coming up on us was a large fixed bridge to go under with construction being done on both sides and only an opening to get through in the very center. Because of all the salt water that had been spraying on our dodger coming down from Deltaville it made things a little blurry and hard to see in front of us sometimes so I asked Matt to make sure I would not run in to anything. He told me to keep going straight for the center which I still couldn’t fully make out but was pretty sure I was on course for and all of a sudden this motorboat that had passed us on our port side cut sharply across our bow and over to starboard. Before I could fully calculate what was going on Matt grabbed the wheel and threw us hard in reverse. It turns out there was a tug with large barges on each side coming under the bridge and allowing room for only it to pass through. We had a line of four boats getting ready to pass on the other side and we all had to stop ourselves in just a moments notice almost causing a few collisions. Even though there had been talk on the radio of one passing through there had been another one just moments before and we thought we were all in the clear.

After we all got moving and things were running smoothly again I took the wheel back and kicked up the power on the engine. There are two locks in the Dismal Swamp to go through and the last entry time for the first lock was 11:30 am, giving us just an hour to get there at this point. More obstacles stood in our way though because a mile after we passed under the fixed bridge there was a lift bridge we needed to get under and openings were only on the half hour. We had less than five minutes to get ourselves that mile and were sure we’d miss it, becoming stuck there for twenty five minutes and most likely missing the 11:30 locking. Glancing ahead on the chartplotter our AIS showed four or five boats stationary on our side of the bridge. Really throttling forward now we raced around corners trying to make the bridge by the time it opened. As we rounded the last corner we saw seven or eight boats just sitting there and no indication the bridge was opening. Slowing down to a standstill ourselves we caught up with the group and another Sabre waiting to go through. Waving and smiling at the owners we tried to tell them “Nice boat!” but they looked at us like we were crazy and threw themselves into hard reverse without looking behind, almost ramming into Rode Trip. Then as soon as the bridge opened they zoomed through cutting off multiple boats that had formed in a line behind the opening.

With the clock ticking down we went under one more fixed bridge before making the sharp turn into the entrance of the Dismal Swamp. Most of the boats waiting to get through the lift bridge made the turn as well and we all lined up in the narrow and shallow canal. We had fifteen minutes left to make the canal and luckily all the boats ahead of us were also booking it, trying to make it in time as well. Then Matt brought up a good point. Knowing how many boats were ahead of us, what if there wasn’t room for all of us to go through? Did they do two rounds or would we be told to come back the next day? As we rounded the last bend we had the lock in sight and saw it was already becoming full. There was one boat ahead of us that had stopped before the entrance and we assumed the lockmaster was about to close up and there would be two groups. Having our radio tuned to the lockmasters channel we heard chatter and it sounded like he was moving entranced boats further in to get one or two more in back and then the remaining boats would raft up to those against the wall. Serendipity was the lucky last boat to have a spot on the wall and then Rode trip and one other small boat were to be rafted up to others. As we squeezed in our ass was so tight to the back that I didn’t think they’d be able to close the doors. These guys knew what they were doing though and soon we had eleven boats in the lock and the doors were shut, our stern clear of any scrapes or dents. Blowing out a tune on a conch shell the boats applauded as we were then raised up eight feet. The doors opened on the other side and one by one all the boats ahead of us were let out with us straggling behind in last. We caught up a little bit at the next lift bridge and after going through we were all lined up in single file order going down the canal of the swamp. Our goal now was to make the next lock which was eighteen miles past the first but had a last locking of three-thirty. Because of the time needed to fit eleven boats in the first lock and then get them out we were only left with three hours to get there instead of the four we had originally assumed. We hoped all the boats ahead of us were also trying to make that lock since it’s hard to pass anyone in the canal and still being almost last (we did pass one boat) did not give us much of an advantage.

Our backup plan was to stay the night at the Visitors Center five miles before the lock if we were running too far behind schedule. None of us wanted to have to drop out so early though since in Elizabeth City the free docks are on a first come first serve basis. We had a feeling that each boat ahead of us was also trying to get a slip there and we wanted to put ourselves in a good position to pounce in the morning. Coming up on the Visitor’s Center there was thirty minutes left before the locking and we thought that we might make it if the same number of boats were going through and they needed time to space them, allowing us to sneak in the twenty minutes late we were timing ourselves to be. The other Sabre was now directly in front of us and slowing down so I went to pass it on the right. They were throwing fenders down and preparing to dock at the center on our port side and noticed it was full so they all of a sudden came to a dead stop in the absolute middle of the canal. Throwing hard into reverse for the second time that day we tried to stop in an instant, almost crashing into them and having Rode Trip who was now behind us almost crash into us as well. So while all three boats are now at a standstill in the canal this first boat is just chatting away to people on shore and oblivious to the fact that they had stopped all traffic. With some sideways head nods and gestures from shore they finally caught on and began moving forward, still in the middle of the canal where we could not pass. It looked like our chances of making the second lock were growing smaller and smaller.

Receiving a call from Rode Trip on the VHF they mentioned they just heard talk between boats and the lockmaster but could not make out what was being said although implied that someone not too far ahead of us probably asked them to wait for the long line of boats trying to get through. Calling him up myslelf he said he would wait until everyone wanting to go through could get there. Not wanting to hold up everyone too much we still tried to kee up the best speed we could. Just as we were getting to the lock the Sabre, still right in front of us, pulled one more mid canal halt on us as they were now trying to tie off to stay the night on the north side of the lock.. As soon as they were far enough to the side that we knew we wouldn’t harm our boat we whizzed by them, cursing the bad name they were giving Sabre owners, and brought ourselves into the lock which now was only going to house six boats with no one rafted up. Talking to other boats while in being lowered back down it sounded like we were all trying to make Elizabeth City first thing in the morning and still wanted to make more distance that night. All we knew on Serendipity is that the anchorage we were aiming for was eleven miles away and it sounded like that’s where everyone else still moving forward was planning to drop anchor as well.

Once more us and Rode Trip were in the back of the pack leaving the lock. Most of the boats that exited first sped out of there like someone was chasing them, but the boat that had been just ahead of us in both locks and the one that Rode Trip rafted up to was right in front of us holding a steady speed. I was behind the wheel while Matt was below trying to air out the last of our wet belongings from Hurricane Sandy. As I was staring ahead into the uneventful channel I saw the boat ahead of us turn to the right like it was going to anchor. I know Matt had said there was an anchorage just passed the lock and didn’t think much of it. Then as I started to realized there was no place off to the side for this boat to go they tried to straighten themselves out but it was too late. Still charging ahead at six knots the boat collided into a tree. It looked like they missed the trunk luckily, but their mast and canvas was twisted and tangled into multiple branches with leaves showering onto their deck. Not sure what caused it or what to do we slowed down to a crawl wanting to see if they were ok and also wanting to make sure there was nothing sitting in the middle of the creek that made them suddenly veer off course. We determined that both the path and the boat were in good condition (they quickly pushed themselves off) and continued on our way.

Once again we were left with the fear that the sun would go down before we could make our final destination. With the mile markers in the channel now gone I was trying to count down the miles based on our latitude through the GPS. The sun which had been hiding behind clouds for most of the day had now set itself free and was giving a beautiful sunset. As we cruised along it threw bright orange and yellow colors onto the trees surrounding us. For a few minutes it let me forget about how cold out it was and imagine that we were passing through on a hot sticky summer afternoon. As soon as the sun sunk behind the trees that daydream ended and the cold really began to set in. When we got to the anchorage there were three boats already there and we passed them as they sat in their cockpits and waved to us, welcoming us home to the group of ICW boaters we’ll probably be following the whole way down.

Stealthy Naval ship.

Rode Trip rafted up inside the lock.

(Photo courtesy of Rode Trip)