Friday, January 30, 2009

The Ditch!

Well, we are true cruisers now...we spent our first day in the Intracoastal Waterway (the ICW or the Ditch). Doug here, by the way.

Today was the coolest day I've ever had on the water. We spent last night at a great little marina in Portsmouth, Virginia, called the Portsmouth Boating Center. The folks that run it are great and they had the cheapest diesel we have seen yet. We paid $2.499 per gallon. A far cry from the $5.59 we paid in Block Island in late May or the $5.19 we paid to fill the tanks in Yarmouth, Maine after we cleaned the fuel tanks in June.

We got up this morning and once again found frost on the dinghy cover. We are definitely not going south fast enough. '1031-frost.jpg'
We left at 8:30 on the dot. The first bridge which was in only 2.6 miles didn't open until after 8:30, then opens on request so we got to sleep in and not leave at "o-dark hundred". Tammy and I had decided to split the helm duties today as we do many days and she was nice enough to let me have the first watch so I got to do most of the fun stuff! We only went 30 statute miles today because we had a lot of bridges and one lock to go through and didn't want to push it too far.

Portsmouth Boating Center is less than a mile from Mile 0 of the ICW so very shortly after pulling away from the dock we were officially in the ICW. The ICW runs from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami, Florida, 1096 miles away, and is used by most cruisers who head toward the little latitudes. We may not stay in the ICW the whole way and may go outside (into the Atlantic Ocean) for some of it but the first 200 miles will definitely be inside. Actually the ICW runs most of the way from Maine to Miami but much of it is not usable by boats. The part from Norfolk to Miami is heavily used. '1031-icw-sign.jpg'

Because the Ditch has land on both sides it has a lot of bridges, many of which require that they be lifted or moved in some way to allow boats to pass under.
Some are for cars and some for railways. In the first 15 miles (my watch today) we went under two bridges that were high enough for us to go under without help, two bridges that were for railways and are kept in the open position unless a train is on the way, six bridges that we had to wait for an operator to open and one lock that had to lower the water level 2 feet to account for the difference between the water depth in the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound. One bridge required a wait of nearly 45 minutes because the railway bridge clsed well before the train got there.
The next bridge opens only once per hour and because of the earlier bridge requiring a 45 minute wait we missed the opening and had to wait another 45 minutes.
Now in a car, if you want to wait you just sit there with the brake on but in a boat you are constantly in motion. There is current and wind moving you, as well as the other boats waiting, so everyone is just moving slowly around trying not to run into each other. It is wild to watch. In the Navy we used to call it a Charlie Foxtrot...but I won't go there. At most of the bridges there was a group of about nine boats waiting - the same nine each time - we got to know each other!

The group of nine boats consisted of sailboats, a large powerboat, a bunch of go fast powerboats and us, the lone trawler. One of the go fasts was a 51 foot Sea Ray which probably has a top speed of 40 mph. They were behind us at first and we cruise at 7.5 knots. After following us for a while they decided they needed to get in front of us so they sped by us (with about a foot to spare!), giving us a big wake to deal with. After all that, they were right in front of us in the Great Bridge Lock twenty minutes later. They were from New Jersey, go figure!

The best part of the day for me was going through the lock. Tammy and I have been through a few locks before in the Panama Canal but as a passenger (hmmm - maybe there next???). This was my first one as captain. It was too cool for words! After milling about for ten minutes waiting for the lock to open, we were the third boat into the lock and docked against the starboard wall.
When you dock against the wall, you use just one bow line and one stern line. The line is looped around a cleat on the side of the wall and then held by one of the people on the boat. John and Colleen were our able line handlers.
After all the boats were in (about 12 of them), the back gate was closed and the water level was lowered two feet. Then the front gate opened and we all poured out of the lock. The lock master asked us to hurry because he had a tug and a barge that needed to use the lock. Commercial boats usually get priority in a lock so we were lucky to get through ahead of the tug. That same tug and barge passed where we were anchored about two and a half hours later. Boy is he slow!

After all my fun at the wheel, I turned it over to Tammy, the co-captain, at about 1:00. That four and a half hours at the wheel was great fun. Just driving Gypsies in the Bay or outside in the ocean when there are no other boats around is fun but having all that activity was simply exhilarating. The boat kitties seemed to miss the excitement of the moment. They slept right through the whole day.
I actually felt bad because I had all the fun but our friendly (???) go fasts decided to make Tammy's watch memorable. Shortly after taking the con she was steaming through the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal and four of the go fasts decided they needed to pass us in order to get to the next bridge on time for the opening. The first three slowed down to a speed just faster than us and passed with as much room as possible between us and them. We got wake but nothing serious.
The last one was the New Jersey goomba I mentioned earlier. He got just even with us and gunned his engine. It threw a wake at us that rivals anything we have seen before. The furniture in the salon was thrown across the room in addition to other miscellaneous stuff. I got on the radio and suggested that trying to swamp boats in the ICW was not proper maritime etiquette and that the next time he passed a boat he not accelerate until he was completely passed. He actually apologized but said he "had to accelerate" because he was running out of good water - duh, that would make you run aground quicker! We were not amused.

With little additional excitement we arrived at Blackwater Creek where we intended to anchor. Tammy did her normal masterful job locating the right spot to drop anchor and I proceeded to do just that. The spot Tammy chose is a perfectly wonderful, scenic spot about 200 yards off the ICW so we can get a quick takeoff tomorrow.
I think I can get used to this life!

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