First Day on the ICW

11/15/2007, Pungo Ferry Marina, VA


Before we went to bed at anchor in Willoughby Bay, amid sounds of military helicopters taking off and landing from the Naval base on the other side of the bay, we decided not to leave the next morning. Winds were to be 20 knots, with gusts to 30 after noon. A gale warning loomed and sailing would have been rather uncomfortable and possibly scary. The next morning, we woke up to increased waves in our anchorage, the wind was shaking Leander at her anchor and the entire boat would tremble. And this was before any of the major wind hit.

But the adventurous side of us took over. Well, not entirely. We knew that in our big bay, we’d be uncomfortable with the coming wind, so we’d have to move to a more protected area regardless. And we figured that the Intracoastal is what it’s meant to be: a protected inland waterway. We thought to give it a shot and see how it went.
Leaving anchor and getting out to the main channel was brutal. With wind on our bow we jumped up and down huge waves, with the rain beating down on us and soaking us through the rainproof gear, the water finding it’s way through whatever crevice it could. ” It is going to calm down any minute now” we kept on thinking, but not much changed. At the height of the ugliness we saw a gust of 48 knots. Around then we checked out an anchorage at Mile Zero of the Intracoastal Waterway, to make sure we had a plan B in case it never did get prettier. Even through the ugly wind, the waves and the rain we could not stop gawking at the aircraft carriers, the helicopter carriers and all the other immense navy ships along the harbor reach as we came into Norfolk.

However, as we made the turn into the southern branch of the Elizabeth River, which marks the beginning of the ICW, the wind made a complete 180 and started blowing behind us. It didn’t lessen in strength, but it was impressive how much more comfortable Leander was going with the wind, instead of against it. With the rain slowing down, and wind on our backs, we decided to go for it. ICW, here we come.

The ICW is a web of rivers, creeks, canals and protected bays connected together to form a safe inland waterway from Boston to Florida. The official mile 0 is in Norfolk as the portion north of Norfolk is much too shallow for a majority of the boats desiring to use it. The waterway is marked with buoys that you want to follow as the dredged channel can get too shallow too quickly outside the markers. There are also a number of bridges that connect either side of the land as you go along the ICW. Some of the bridges have 65′ of vertical clearance, which is enough for our 56′ mast. The rest are lift, swing and pantoon bridges, none of which we would be able to pass when closed. About half of these bridges stay open most of the time while the other half open on signal or on a schedule, i.e. on the hour and on the half hour. This was a welcome challenge to us as we’d never passed through one of the opening bridges on our own before.

We passed through the first bridge, normally open, following a freighter. The second bridge opened upon our signal and freighter and Leander followed along. It was comforting to be in the company of such a huge ship as it meant that Leander should make the vertical clearance as well as the depth with no problems if that monster could. After another mile, another bridge to open on signal. By this point, Paul had become an expert in contacting the bridge tender and getting us through the bridge without a problem. It was a pretty cool sight passing under the opening bridges with all the cars waiting as the bridge opens and we motor through. Next bridge was a fixed highway bridge with 65′ clearance. That supposed 9′ difference between the top of our mast and the bottom of the bridge felt a lot less as we went through with our hearts in our mouths.

After a couple more opening bridges, we came to our first lock crossing. Did I say today was challenging? We caught the 2:30 opening of the lock with another sailboat in front of us. Followed them into the lock and tied up on our port side with the help of the lock assistants. A mechanical issue that delayed the operation of the lock gave us the opportunity to go speak with the folks on the boat in front of us, Sirena of Oare. Eric and Dee were from England and were a delight to chat with. Today they were heading further south than us to Pungo Ferry, while our planned day was to end right after the lock. There were some public docks that we had planned to tie up to for the night just past the lock. However, we were quick to see that the dock was full of boats and there was no room for us. We decided to press on and go to Pungo Ferry Marina, at Mile 28.

The rest of the trip was cold but beautiful. We went through the woods and swamps, filled with trees of all the greens, yellows, reds and oranges of the fall. As the sun was getting low in the sky, we saw Pungo Ferry Marina, on the eastern bank of the river. First Sirena tied up, and then Leander right behind them. Bob and Bruce, the two fellows who worked at the marina, were super wonderful and friendly. The marina itself is our favorite so far. It is a small shack in the back waters of VA, and here we are in our ocean-going 41 foot sailboat in the dock that in other times would be occupied by small fishing boats.
As we were fueling up, Eric from Sirena came over to tell me that they had had the heat on in their boat for the last hour and that we should come over for a drink when we were done. What a wonderful and welcome invite that was. We brought an assortment of beer and a plate of gingerbread cookies that I had made and made our way over to Sirena. We spent an hour with Eric and Dee chatting about sailing, our lives outside of sailing, world politics and boat mechanics among other things. Dee and I had some red wine as the boys had brandy to warm them up and then a glass of the vintage single malt scotch that Paul reserves for only the most appreciative of scotch drinkers.

They were such a wonderful couple and we felt so comfortable being their guests. Paul politely declined their offer to stay for supper but as soon as we walked the 30 feet to our boat said: “I wish we had stayed for dinner, they were so nice!” I’m sure that we will run into them again along the ICW or in the Caribbean. In fact I have a strong suspicion that we might be at the same marina again tonight.

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