Dismal Preparation

November 23, 2017 

    We didn’t want to get too late of a start Thanksgiving Day, but we also didn’t have that far to go.  With no idea of what we would encounter for boat traffic, we estimated at least three hours and no more than five hours to get to the bridges, which was not ideal timing-wise.  But it would give us a minimum of two hours at the other end to sort out an anchorage just above the lock before sunset; and that would prepare us for a leisurely motor through the Dismal Swamp the following day.

The chart designated “65 foot bridge clearance” of Interstate 64 is based upon the average high tide.  At noon on Thanksgiving Day, the actual high tide would be one-tenth of a foot higher than that… not a problem.  But Kris and I did discuss the fact that, when talking about having only two feet of clearance below sheering off all of your masthead electronics, suddenly any extra space you can gain by a falling tide would be, at least, psychologically significant.

So we found comfort in the fact that, from noon forward, we would be gaining extra bridge clearance thanks to a falling tide.

As we worked our way through the massive main harbor area of Norfolk we were immediately struck by how little boat traffic we encountered.  Navy and commercial ships, tugboats, huge barges, fishing trawlers, private powerboat and sailboats that were all expected could be counted on our fingers today.  If we were lucky, our holiday timing would provide both minimal traffic and minimal stress.

As we rounded Hospital Point, we also reached Mile Zero, the “official” beginning of the 1,243 mile long Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway which we had actually already been following since departing from Annapolis.




We motored steadily along at about five and a half knots, passing through a very surreal environment.  As we came around the first bend, to our left stretched a line of a dozen or more behemoth Navy ships secured to the docks side by side –  four aircraft carriers, destroyers, supply ships, even a surgical hospital ship; all towering above us as we passed each one.  Cruising past the largest naval installation in the world, and homeport for the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, aboard a forty six foot sailboat was both quite intimidating and exhilarating.

Continuing forward, naval vessels became scattered amongst more commercial looking ships at rest to either side of us.  However, regularly spaced signs constantly reminded us that we were passing a Naval Facility – No Trespassing.  The signs, as well as the Navy patrol boat with flashing blue lights at rest alongside the channel (identical to one that continually patrolled up and down the bay in front of the helicopter hangers at Willoughby Bay), provided enough deterrent from considering any shore landings.

It must have been after somewhere between ten and fifteen miles that the shoreline began to take on a much more commercial and industrial appearance.  Naval vessels, which had overshadowed everything else, began giving way to Goliath barges and cargo ships.  Towering cranes and strange, monstrous wheeled machines lined the docks.  Piles of steel piping, mountains of coal, stack upon stack of shipping containers, dwarfed only by their own staggering numbers – quite the change in scenery for us from the week just prior.  Overshadowed only by the military’s continued presence, the merchant fleet’s endless loading and unloading hundreds of thousands of tons of cargo at a time dominated our attention from every direction.

Gilmerton Bridge… our official baptism through a lifting bridge (that wasn’t already up).  Really, it’s probably not going to make anyone’s Top Ten list of undertakings.  But, there is still a certain sense of awe to be had in calling the tender in the bridge control room on VHF radio to arrange for the bridge to open, allowing your sailboat to pass.  There is a certain mystique in stopping both directions of vehicle traffic, just to make room for your mast.  Ten years ago I might have been one of the people cursing the inconvenience of being stopped for the whims of a sailboat.

Gilmerton Lifting Bridge

The Gilmerton Bridge Tender working the 8 to 5 shift on Thanksgiving Day couldn’t have been a more friendly person to interact with.  And Hollywood couldn’t have provided a voice-over with a more authentic sounding Southern Belle accent than the voice of the woman we spoke with.  It was a good thing, too; because we’d need definitely need to be in a calm state of mind five minutes from now…

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