Bridges Over (Hopefully Un-) Troubled Waters

Magic Carpet is out of the water and her props are off. Today they plan to pull the shafts and start getting things in shape for the trip to Florida.

When the final call from the boat yard comes through, we’ll go back to Virginia, pay the ransom and take her away. At that point, we begin a trip that has many possible permutations, each with its own rewards and potential penalties.

In general, we’ll be traveling south on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The Columbia Encyclopedia describes the ICW as a “3,000 mile long, partly natural, partly artificial, (channel) providing sheltered passage for commercial and leisure boats along the U.S. Atlantic coast from Boston, Mass. to Key West, S Fla., and along the Gulf of Mexico coast from Apalachee Bay, NW Fla., to Brownsville, Tex., on the Rio Grande. The toll-free waterway, authorized by Congress in 1919, is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers at a minimum depth of 12 ft for most of its length; some parts have 7 ft and 9 ft minimum depths. Among some of the waterway’s most often used canals along the Atlantic route are the Chesapeake and Delaware and the Chesapeake and Albemarle.”

The ICW is marked on charts in statute miles, instead of nautical miles, for reasons that are unclear to me. (For inquiring minds, a nautical mile is equal to approximately 1.15 statute miles) In any case, even though the ICW is considered to run all the way up the coast to lower New England, the “official” start of the ICW, at Mile Marker 0, is just a little bit north of where Magic Carpet is now in Portsmouth, Virginia. So for all practical purposes, we will be starting from the beginning of the measured route and traveling about 750 miles south.

The ICW is sometimes referred to as “the Ditch” due in part to its dredged-canal nature in some areas, but this characteristic is actually the exception rather than the norm. Although the main channel of the ICW is dredged periodically to maintain its authorized minimum depth, most of the ICW runs through waters that are wide and winding, not at all resembling a “ditch”.

As we travel south from Portsmouth toward Daytona Beach, we’ll have numerous opportunities to stay “inside”, following the ICW route, or to go “outside” into the open Atlantic.

The ICW follows pretty closely along the coastline, set back from the ocean shore in places by only a few hundred feet, and in others by a few miles. The land that separates the ICW from the Atlantic provides a degree of shelter, but because the ICW waters are fairly shallow, a good stiff wind can stir up a nasty and sometime dangerous chop in a hurry. Some of the bays and sounds that need to be crossed are so large that for all practical purposes, you are in the ocean, even if you are following the ICW route exactly. These parts are not to be trifled with.

Because we’ve managed to populate the great majority of the barrier islands that separate the ICW from the ocean, we’ve also created a huge number of bridges from the mainland to the barrier islands, and many of these bridges provide an opportunity for delay for the boater who can’t fit beneath.

Most newer bridges over the ICW have a minimum height above water of 65 feet. This is sufficient to allow most normal sailboats to pass. I guess if you want real bragging rights, you get a sailboat with a mast so tall you can’t fit beneath these bridges, but that’s another story.

These are fixed bridges, and usually, a boater is free to pass under them at any time, day or night. The other bridges, the lower ones, are of a variety of types, and the common denominator is that they all require a boater to request that they be opened to allow passage from one side to the other. On the route we’ll be taking, there are dozens of bridges that we’ll need to have opened for us in order to pass through.

This is why many boaters choose to go “outside” for at least a portion of the trip…to avoid bridges. If they all opened up when you needed them to, it wouldn’t be so bad, but most have restricted opening schedules, particularly during the work week, so that traffic on the bridge isn’t constantly disrupted for each passing vessel. Many of them just won’t open at all during morning and evening rush hour periods, so this makes a three to five hour period of each day unavailable for boaters, and for the rest of the day, most will open only on the hour. If you arrive at a bridge at 2:05, you’ll sit there until 3:00 before the bridge will open.

There are single and double-leaf bascule bridges, swing bridges, vertical lift bridges, and even pontoon bridges crossing the ICW. (The Great Bridge, pictured in a previous post is a double-leaf bascule). Standard protocol is for the boat to call ahead on the VHF radio to the bridge tender, giving him (or her) your vessel name, your direction of travel, and your request that you be allowed to pass. “Haulover Bridge, this is Magic Carpet, we are southbound and request an opening at your next opportunity”.

The bridge tender will respond and tell you whether or not he can open immediately, and if not, he’ll tell you how long you’ll be cooling your heels until he does open. In areas where bridges are spaced closely, this can result in a pretty complex dance as you try to time things so that you can pass through as many as possible without having to wait up to an hour at each one.

I’ll write a bit about the other option, an offshore passage, later.

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About TwoCaptains

The TwoCaptains are Jim and Janet, both US Coast Guard licensed boat captains home-ported in Daytona Beach. We recently sold our 1990 Ocean Yachts 56' CPMY "Magic Carpet", and now we're in the hunt for a replacement.
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