Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Making a Break South

Well, the Dismal Swamp route has been closed for about a week now.  Announcements could be heard daily on the VHF radio that the "South Mills Lock is closed due to high water levels". We decided to take the more heavily traveled Albemarle-Chesapeake canal route.  While we wanted to stop at the Dismal Visitors center, the real highlight of that route is Robert. We have always enjoyed visiting with the lock and bridge tender at the Deep Creek lock. If you ever decide to give the Dismal a try, coffee and a chat with Robert is not to be missed.

We left the marina at York River on Sunday. We were actually able to sail...for a little while.  A close reach, then beam, then broad before the winds finally calmed and we were left motoring the last bit into the Hampton Roads area.  One more time by the big gray military ships at the military docks and Naval Shipyard in Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Ships of old and new in Norfolk.
We stayed at the free docks in Portsmouth once again.  Although the wooden docks of the north landing are not in as nice of shape as the south location, we chose it. The north landing docks are a couple inches higher so don't tend to go underwater as often at high tide.  The north landing is also closer to the public restroom at the visitors center, the water spigot, and free pump out.  It amazes me that more people don't take advantage of this dock.  The only reason I can think of is that they are scared off by the "No overnight mooring" signs at the entrance...that I think only apply to the dolphins and structure around the entrance to these locations (newer signs with the rules about overnight docking are now posted in various locations inside the basins of each of the free docks). The only negative is that all the local hotels have finally secured their WiFi so we only had limited internet access via our phones.

The Portsmouth North Landing free dock. Plenty of
free space at this location while we were here
The next day was a very short trip with the goal to re-position for better timing of the next few legs and to give us plenty of time to make it through the gauntlet of bridges south of Portsmouth and Norfolk. I remember my first time through here I overlooked the Gilmerton bridge and arrived there sometime around 5 pm. I didn't know the name of the bridge (I still don't understand why they are not posted in charts or on the actual bridge, but they usually are not) and it was just dumb luck that there happened to be a commercial tug with an opening reservation. Monitoring the name during the radio conversation, we were able to get through with the opening for the tug.

We left the free dock late enough that we wouldn't have an issue with the typical urban area rush-hour closures. But the craziness in Norfolk didn't disappoint.  Not long into the trip we came across one of the "normally open unless there is a train" bridges.  Was it open...nope.  Was it closed....nope.  This was a lift bridge that was about half-way up.  Now, I know some pretty large boats come through here and there is a good chance that half-way up was over the 60 feet of clearance I would need...but from the boat it can be really hard to tell, particularly when everything around the bridge is of a larger scale than you are used to (remember those big, gray, military boats). I had to look up the name of the bridge (in a list I had downloaded from Blue Seas a while ago) and try to hail them.  I was successful and found that the bridge was at 80 feet...plenty of room to pass.

Not a lot of clearance under one of these when closed.

Two bridges later I found another lift bridge that was not completely closed.  But this time it was only a few feet from the closed position.  I definitely could not get through it.  So, once again, the search for the bridge name in my list of all the bridges of the ICW and give them a call.  No response. Then I remember reading somewhere that one of the bridge operators doesn't tend to respond to current name of the bridge, but instead responds to it's old name.  I look it up in my offline Active Captain database and find that sure enough, the "Norfolk and Western" bridge was the one that apparently prefers to be called "Old Virginia" so I give it a try.  They immediately responded that they were running some tests and the bridge would be opening in a few minutes.

The final bridge issue was my old friend the Gilmerton.  Funny how I don't need to look this bridge up, it has been ingrained in my memory since that first encounter. As we approach, I see a boat waiting but it is farther away than most usually wait.  I give the bridge a call and they tell me to come to the closest day marker and they would open up.  Of course, about the time we get the mark I see the railroad bascule bridge that is just on the other side of the Gilmerton start to close. I knew what was next before the bridge tender even made the radio call.  She said that the railroad bridge was closing and she would open once the train bridge went back up (no point to raising the Gilmerton if you cannot pass due to the train).  No train, just a railroad work pickup crosses.  I guess it must be maintenance time for all the area railroad bridges.  Oh well, it was only another 20 minute delay or so.  Once the railroad bridge and the Gilmerton bridge opened, we were on our way.

The last obstacles are the Great Bridge lock and bridge.  A short wait for the lock to open (and only one powerboat that had to push his way past everyone else to be at the head of the line) and we were in the lock.  The Great Bridge lock is the least eventful of the locks and it seems sometimes it only raises or lowers a boat by inches. So, before you know anything happens, the gates at the opposite end of the lock open and you are on your way...the few hundred feet to the bridge.  Fortunately the lock operates in concert with the bridge so there really isn't much of a wait.

The free dock at Great Bridge.
There are two free docks at Great Bridge.  One is on the south side between the bridge and the lock.  It was empty.  The other is on the north side just past the lock.  We couldn't see it before we passed under the bridge, but once through, we found that it was pretty full.  There was enough space for us, but only if a boat that was already there moved down a bit.  So, after pulling over toward the dock, I spin the catamaran around.  I think a large boat spinning 180 degrees in a channel gets a little attention, and the owner of the one boat figured out I wanted to dock and offered to walk his boat down a few feet so we would fit.  After getting our boat tied up, I went down and thanked him for moving down.  There was still enough space for about a 25 foot or smaller boat, but otherwise the dock was full.  I can understand as this new dock is definitely the nicer of the two.

Boats at the Free Dock and Atlantic Yachts at Great Bridge.
Tomorrow the plan is to make our way south, past Coinjock, and then on to an anchorage just north of the Albemarle.

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