Friday, September 30, 2016

Starting the Albemarle Loop

Tuesday morning I get up and check the local weather on the radio and local TV broadcasts.  It sounds like there is a good chance of rain and thunderstorms, but most of it would be in Norfolk and north....good thing we were going south.  After breakfast we prepare to depart the free dock at Great Bridge.  Apparently everyone else had the same idea as two boats were already gone and the rest departed along with us.

The Centerville Turnpike Bridge was the first bridge south of Great Bridge and is closed between 6:30am and 8:30am. Those of us that departed together made our way to the bridge and rejoined those who had left a bit earlier as we all waited for the post-rush-hour opening of the bridge. We had about a 10 minute wait and made it through the bridge.  From there it is about 5 nautical miles to the North Landing Bridge.  This means if your boat can do better than 10 knots, you can make the next opening in half an hour.  For a trawler, 3 sailboats and us, a semi-leisurely 5 knots will get us there in time for the 9:30 opening.

The North Landing Bridge has some ongoing mechanical issues and has some opening restrictions.  I guess they are currently unable to raise both spans of the bridge at the same time, so most of the openings are of only one span.  For larger ships, there are specific times where the bridge tender will raise (or partially raise) the other span.  9:30 was one of the latter openings and there was a barge sitting on the other side of the bridge waiting to head north.  As soon as the first span was open, all of the southbound traffic proceeded through, and we passed the barge just as the other span was opened enough for the barge to proceed. It actually worked out pretty well...almost like it was choreographed that way.

Approaching the North Landing Bridge.
Once through the bridge, everyone resumed a normal cruise speed as there were no more time restricted bridges in the near future.  The trawler at the head of the group (which happened to be docked next to us the night before) headed off at what was probably around 8 knots.  We passed one monohull sailboat in front of us and made way at a comfortable 7 knots.  The other sailboats lagged behind us just a bit, probably in the 5 to 6 knot range.  It definitely isn't a NASCAR race on the ICW.

We all make our way down the North Landing River and out into Currituck Sound. We bid farewell to Virginia and enter North Carolina.  A little after lunch we passed by the town of Coinjock and the two marinas that, as best I can tell, are the only businesses in the "town". Some folks like to stop here, but I find it to be a bit overpriced for what it is.  I guess the restaurant at the Coinjock Marina is supposed to be decent, but I've never tried it so I don't know.  If you need provisions, you might be able to find some basic staples at their store. Since we didn't need anything and wanted to make it a bit farther this day, we kept moving on.

We made our way down the North River and headed west just before reaching the Albemarle.  Broad Creek is a well protected anchorage, and that was where we intended to spend the evening at anchor.  When we arrived at the mouth of Broad Creek, we found the gentleman in the trawler, which was docked behind us at Great Bridge, anchored just outside the mouth of the creek.  We made our way into the creek and quickly realized why he was anchored outside the mouth of the creek.  The light wind that could be felt at the mouth of the creek was completely gone in the protection of the creek itself.  We decided that a little breeze would help keep things cool and hopefully less buggy, so we went back out and anchored near the mouth of the river, giving as much room as possible to those already there.  Good thing we did as the wind died during the night.  The boat stayed cool enough but was covered in bugs in the morning.

We pulled up the anchor and made our way to the Albemarle. Our original first intended stop along the Albemarle Loop was Elizabeth City.  Since we couldn't take the Dismal Swamp route and have stayed at Elizabeth City on two other occasions, we decided it wasn't worth backtracking up the Pasquotank River for a third visit. Instead, we planned to make our way to Albemarle Plantation Marina.  As we entered the Albemarle, we found the forecasted 5 to 10 knot winds from the east were at the light end of the scale. Even with the spinnaker up we would only be able to make 2 knots.  So again we motored along.

The Albemarle is littered with crab pots.  The lines and marker floats dotting the waters surface make for an interesting navigation challenge at times.  You definitely don't want to wrap one of those lines around a propeller. I do wonder about the fishermen sometimes. I understand that they are just trying to make a living and supply the world with crab, and I don't begrudge them for that.  But when they use black, dark blue, or other low-visibility floats, you have to wonder what they are thinking.  In addition to the damage it can cause a boat, losing their equipment when it gets entangled in a boat and has to be cut away can't be cheap for the fishermen.  Or when the wind or currents cause the equipment to move from the original location I can only imagine that these nearly camouflaged buoys are impossible to find. Yet it seems that at least half the fishermen use these hard to see markers.

Orange floats work...but can you see the other two?
The other issue with fishermen is placement of gear in known narrow boating channels.  This seems to happen a lot in the Albemarle.  The two ICW routes are charted and yet I've seen numerous lines of crab pots criss-crossing the route and, yes, sometimes with the very difficult to see floats. The rather narrow and shallow entrance into the Albemarle Plantation Marina had several crab pots littering the navigable part of the channel.  This behavior makes me seriously rethink the idea of adding line cutters to the prop shafts.  Originally my thought was that fishermen were just trying to make a living, but now my thought seems to shift to the idea that, if you are mining a known boating channel, then losing your pot when the float and line is cut off to protect a prop shaft seems reasonable.

In addition to the crab pots, we found the channel leading to the Albemarle Plantation Marina to be a bit narrow and shallow.  Luckily it wasn't too bad, and we were able to maneuver our nearly 22 foot beam through OK but did see depths around 5.5 feet in spots. I know the Albemarle has a bit of a reputation for being rough when the winds pick up so I probably wouldn't want to navigate that channel in my beamy boat on a rough day.

When we arrived at the Albermarle Plantation Marina, we docked at one of their T-heads and were met by their dockmaster Richard, a very nice and accommodating fellow. He helped get us tied up and situated.  The power pedestal was a bit away from the T-head so he let us borrow a power cable to use as an extension.  After we got settled, he gave us a tour of the Plantation on his golf cart.  As a guest of the Plantation, you have access to the bathhouse (with a free washer and dryer), WiFi, clay tennis courts, the swimming pool, and the restaurant at the clubhouse. The only issue is that the facilities are rather far from the boat, with the pool, golf pro shop, and restaurant being around 2/3 of a mile away.  The plantation has golf carts and they used to be free to use by loopers, but some bad apples apparently made a mess of a couple carts so they now charge $25/day.  Given dockage is free and 30 amp electric was only $4.25, even if you go with a golf cart, it is still a reasonable place to stay for a day or two. There is no place to provision in the area, even with the golf cart, so you need to plan accordingly.

The Albemarle Plantation T-head dock.

The restaurant at the club has a main dining area and a "grille".  The main dining area is probably a bit more formal than the average cruiser as slacks and a nice shirt are required.  The grille allows for casual dress and serves many of the same items, if not exactly the same menu.  We did have lunch at the Grille and found the prices to be reasonable with sandwiches and salads in the $8 to $10 range. The posted dinner menu appeared to be in the high teens and up, and they have an early bird special on Wednesday and Thursday that included a selection of several entrees, salad, and desert for $16.

Albemarle Plantation Marina docks. The harbormaster
office in in the distance on the right.
Overall this has been an interesting stop.  Other than a place to do some laundry or to drive around and see the mostly-retirement community, there isn't a lot to do.  It is more of a relaxing stop for when you need a day or two off (or to catch up on your blog posts. :-) ).  Today we should be heading to our next stop, the town docks at Edenton NC.

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.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Too Dismal for Dismal

Well, at the end of my last post I mentioned that we were waiting out a little bad weather.  It's not a lot of fun to sail in the rain without a cockpit enclosure and there didn't seem to be any reason to do it when sun would return in a few days.

The sun returned and we were making plans to head out on Friday.  Then late Thursday I saw a notice posted on Facebook that the ICW south of Norfolk was closed.  Both the Dismal Swamp Canal and Albemarle-Chesapeake Canal routes were closed.  If you follow my Facebook page, I did re-share the post on the closure. I tried finding confirmation that evening and wasn't able to confirm the closure until I called Robert, the lock and bridge tender at Deep Creek, the following morning.

Image accompanying the Chesapeake Bay Magazine's
Facebook post on the closures.
That rain that we were waiting to pass was apparently worse just south of us and caused a bunch of flooding.  Now, you would think that flooding wouldn't be a big issue for a boat, but it apparently is for the various draw bridges and locks along those routes. The Dismal Swamp route locks couldn't be operated with waters as high as they were. Apparently the already problematic North Landing bridge, and possibly one or more others along the other route, could not be opened for fear of damage due to the flood waters.

Image from the Dismal Swamp Welcome Center's
Facebook page.
So, we continue to wait.  The Albemarle-Chesapeake route has been re-opened, but the Dismal swamp route remains closed.  Given how we often encounter floating logs and other issues in the swamp, we are rethinking taking that route as I can only imagine what flood waters have washed up (not to mention it isn't expected to be reopened until next week).  We are altering our plans to take the more heavily traveled route.  In order to try and avoid some of the heavy weekend traffic (and hopefully let that traffic help clear anything that might be in the way), we hope to continue our trip south tomorrow.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Down the Chesapeake

After our stop in St. Michaels, we started making our way down the Chesapeake. Our first stop was in Solomons MD.  This is the same place we stopped on the way up.  We chose to go to Calverts marina again since they only charge $1/foot for dockage and that is a bargain by just about anyone's standards.  The transient docks are good quality floating docks and they have an on-site pool and restaurant.  One convenient feature of the marina is a courtesy car and, although it is not in the best shape, is enough to get you to nearby stores if you need provisions or something for the boat. The bathhouse closest to the transient docks are also the ones closest to the boatyard and what I could only describe as "boatyard rustic" with painted concrete walls and floors and a hodgepodge of fixtures.  I don't mind the rustic facilities, but wish they were a bit more clean.

We used the courtesy car to pick up a couple things from the grocery store and stopped by a local BBQ place for lunch.  Courtesy cars are always an interesting thing.  I was first introduced to the concept as a pilot.  Smaller airports in smaller towns would often provide a car to allow people passing through to visit (and spend money at) local businesses.  Many marinas, especially those that are a bit out of town, also provide cars as a perk as those traveling by boat don't usually carry long-distance transportation any more than those in small personal aircraft.  The car is provided for free (other than you are generally expected to replace the gasoline you use) so they are often not the greatest of vehicles and not in the greatest of repair. I've learned to test basic things before taking a courtesy car very far.  Quick check of forward and reverse at slow speeds and brake effectiveness and function of the lights if we might be out in other than sunny daytime conditions.  Despite their limitations, they are very handy resources to have and are often greatly appreciated.

Courtesy cars can be looks nice from a distance.
At Solomons, the courtesy car is an old diesel Mercedes sedan.  The car runs OK, the suspension is a bit loose as is the steering linkage.  With 200,000 plus miles, the worst part of the car are the collapsing seat cushions, failed air conditioning, and failed drivers side window.  Very minor inconveniences and definitely better than walking the mile or two to the stores.

Although we didn't spend much time looking around, Solomons appears to be a touristy, weekend vacation sort of town. Thanks to the weather we decided to spend two nights here before continuing our trip south. The second morning we departed Solomons (and Maryland) for Ingram Bay Marina across the Potomac in Virginia.  As with most of the trip thus far, what little wind we have had has been pretty much right on the nose so not much sailing has happened.

Ingram Bay marina is a small marina guessed it...Ingram Bay. When we arrived we found a rather narrow channel, but it was wide enough for our boat.  The reported depths of over 6 feet must have been at the middle of the channel, but we found around 5 feet of water under our hulls as we crossed the breakwater into the marina basin. Once inside the basin the depth increased and we tried following the instructions for where to dock.  When we got to what we thought the marina had said, we found a slip that was about half the width of the boat.  We ended up tying off to the fuel dock instead.

The marina is a smaller facility, with covered and open slips for mostly smaller boats.  The fuel dock and one other end finger pier are the only places where larger boats can dock and I'm not sure if anything much larger than our boat can be accommodated, but we did fit.  It is in a nice setting and the marina owner also has a bunch of the surrounding property.  On it he has a couple cabins for rent as well as a lot of open area that our dogs really enjoyed.  The bath house is again rather basic, but here it is in better repair and cleaner than the last stop. This marina is again a bit out of the way, in fact, it is over 12 miles from the nearest town with stores. The owner, Captain Billy, offered to pick up something for us when he went into town later or we could use his work truck as a courtesy car. We took him up on the offer of the truck and went to town.  The best part of this marina was the WiFi though.  WiFi seems to be a common problem at most marinas but this one worked pretty well.  My guess is that it may be the quiet location and lack of users, but it was nice to have a more consistent connection (guess I should have worked on a post there...but didn't have a lot of time...sorry).

We left Ingram Bay the following day and made our way to the York river, just south of where we were when we built the hardtop.  This was intended to be a longer stop as it was where we had repositioned one of the cars. We arrived at the marina and I called them on the radio and they gave me instructions to a slip.  This was interesting since they said they would likely put me on a face dock.  I re-confirmed my beam and directions to the slip and made my way in.  As I approached the slip I could tell we wouldn't fit but the employees still seemed to think we would.  Since it had adequate rubber edge protection, I slowly moved the boat back until it touched on both sides.  We were a good foot wider than the slip, two or more if you include fenders.  After seeing the obvious evidence, they moved us to a face dock.

Rainy day on the York river.
Since our arrival, we have spent time re-positioning cars, re-provisioning, meeting with friends, and  other mundane tasks (I really did need a haircut). We are preparing to move on again, so naturally the weather seems to be deteriorating and with the rain I finally had a little time for another post. In the next few stops we are going to make our way through the Dismal swamp and the Albemarle loop before stopping again in Oriental, North Carolina.

Friday, September 9, 2016

St. Michaels...or Bye Bye Baltimore.

Finally...yesterday, we finally left Baltimore.  It was starting to feel like we were stuck in the mud.   Baltimore harbor is typically mud colored (or at least that is what I keep telling myself as the other options for that color are less appealing) but I know boats can move on it.  With some plans made and storms out of the way, it was well past time to go.

We departed in a morning with fair weather but not much wind.  Oh well, moving by motor is better than not moving at all. The temperatures were expected to be "above normal" and "near record breaking"...two phrases we have heard far too much in the time we have spent here.  We motored along and a light breeze picked up from the southeast...naturally the direction we were heading.  I have to admit the high temperatures, having wind on the nose is better than having no wind at all.  The wind made the temperatures bearable.

The bay bridge as we head southbound leaving Baltimore.
As we approached St. Michaels, my wife decided that she wasn't all that keen on anchoring out in the heat and about 30 minutes from arrival, she started calling to see if any marina's could handle our boat.  Smaller towns, particularly the further north you are, tend to have very limited options for boats as wide as ours.  She was able to find one and, after a little confusion trying to get directions from the marina, we where parked at their face dock.

I forget who told me or exactly how the warning went, but it was something to the effect of: the more times 'yacht' is found in the name of a marina or boatyard, the less likely you will actually find something worthy of the name 'yacht' and the less likely the facilities would live up to the standards of someone who owned a 'yacht'. The place we spent the first night lived up to that reputation. It is a combination marina and boatyard.  The most notable problems were the WiFi signal that didn't make it out to the docks and the restroom (that was described in one review as basic) I would describe as boatyard rustic with rusting fixtures, exposed plumbing  and flaking paint over cinder block and concrete construction.

Part of the St. Michaels Harbor
While it wasn't really all that bad, I had hoped for better at this charming little town. Oh, and did I mention that they only had room for us that one night and we wanted to stay two?  So, after getting settled in, I did a little searching and found that another marina across the way had a Friday special of $1.50/foot (plus a $29 resort fee that includes resort amenities).  This is a very good rate for this area, so we moved across the harbor the following morning.

Rover at the new dock...from near the old one.

After getting the boat over to the new dock, we took a couple of the resort bicycles and toured the town. It is a cute older town with lots of historic buildings from the boat building and fishing days. There are a couple museums including the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. This is a tourist town, so the main street is also lined with lots of stores and restaurants.

Buildings near the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Waterfront homes were a bit different back then.

We had lunch at an overpriced gourmet pizza place that could only survive in a tourist town (high price and less than mediocre food doesn't make for many repeat customers). Fortunately our ice cream stop later in the day proved to be a much better option and a welcome respite from the heat. The St. Michaels museum was an interesting stop and a chance to tour historic structures and see how people lived long ago in St. Michaels.

The main street in St. Michaels
Cannonball house.  Called this not because it stored cannonballs or was some important
part of the war of 1812, but because a cannonball came through the roof  and scared the

The town is definitely worth a stop.  If you are here on a Friday, I would even recommend the Harbour Inn Marina and Spa (even though I won't know how the free continental breakfast is until tomorrow) on a Friday. Stop by the St Michaels museum for a peek into the past and a map for a walking (or biking) tour of the town. Might skip the pizza place though.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Waiting Out Hermine

We think we have a basic plan for making it down the Chesapeake. We even plan on doing some of the Albemarle Loop. Of course, Hermine (just upgraded from a TS to an H) also seems to be planning to visit everything we will on our way south.  So, for now we will sit here in what we hope will be a bit safer location to wait out the storm.

The forecast "cone" seems to change a bit as we go, but so far Baltimore seems to be outside of it. The worst of the forecasts are showing winds no more than 30 knots or so in the area.  We have doubled up on dock lines, added extra chafe protection, and removed most loose items from the cockpit.  Tomorrow is supposed to be the calm before the storm, so we will continue to watch the forecasts and make appropriate preparations.

To all our friends and acquaintances in the path of Hermine, we hope you stay safe and secure.