Until I took up sailing, I never gave much thought to bridges. They were simply handy devices to help you get over or around an obstruction, usually water. But there is something grand about viewing a bridge from its underside, as you slide along serenely at 3 to 5 knots.
My little 24 foot Yankee Dolphin, Kalea, has made her share of bridge observations over the years, beginning with the trip back to our Potomac River slip after we bought her near National Airport in 1977. We sailed under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, then as now a span completely devoid of aesthetic appeal and lacking in that basic requirement in bridge design: confidence building.
At least, down there on the water, we weren’t concerned about those frequent drive-time radio announcements concerning “delays expected on the Wilson Bridge.” But I saw places where concrete sections had either fallen off or been removed. It wouldn’t have taken a large piece to send Kalea to a watery grave hard by the Blue Plains Sewage Plant. Hardly a proper fate for my lovely little boat.
For the next couple of years, Kalea plied the Potomac waters around Mount Vernon, never venturing south of Quantico. Now, after countless day sails to Fort Washington and the Occoquan, we decided it was time to probe the lower Potomac, where the river widens and you can sail nice long legs without the trouble of frequent tacks. The Potomac meanders in a generally southerly direction before making a wide, lazy loop to the north-east and then a pretty sharp turn back to the south again at Mathias Point. When you round Mathias, you see the Route 301 bridge dead ahead. The sight is not exactly awesome. This is not the Golden Gate or Tampa’s Sunshine Skyway, just a utilitarian, truss steel platform that permits cars and trucks to move from Maryland to Virginia without getting wet. But to me, there was something majestic and metaphoric about the sight, seeing for the first time its looming presence, each broad shoulder holding a shore, those spidery legs that seemed too delicate to support such enormous weight.
“The 301 Bridge” is indeed a gateway. You can measure it by the salinity of the water. You can see it, since the river seemed to stretch to the horizon. You can note it on the chart which alerts you, in red block letters, to “Tyler’s Lump” and “Carter’s Lumps.” And, it holds the allure of new adventure, a break from the boredom of easy buoy roundings and beer-can races.
I remarked to my crew guy, Pat Piper, that this was a very special occasion. I ducked below, rifled through my bag of cassettes and found Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition.” What I wanted was something toward the end, I remembered from an earlier hearing. Something regal. Gate-like.. I fast-forwarded and there it was, the final movement, the glorious Great Gate of Kiev!
The music swelled and soared just as Kalea adjusted herself to a close-reach, (her favorite point of sail) and slid beneath. The moment was magical and tersely noted in Kalea’s log: “Passed 301 Bridge, 1435 hours. Wow!”
There have been noteworthy bridge moments since. The first time under the Bay Bridge is seared in my memory. Ducking below, fetching the Mussorgsky, and cranking up the amps, drinking in the beauty. A colossus astride the Bay. Bending and arcing, steel cable and steel beam in perfect harmony. The Mother of all Erector Sets.
Two years ago, Kalea encountered a bridge unlike any she had seen before. I had trucked her to her new home in Southern Delaware, the Indian River Marina, a fishing-oriented facility with quick access to the Atlantic just a few hundred yards away. Sailboats are rare in these parts. Counting Kalea, there are but four in our large, state-owned marina. The first thing the fishing people noticed was my 5 HP motor. “You plan to go out there with that?” they inquired. The current runs routinely at 6 to 7 knots (faster, with an easterly blowing) between the Indian River and the Atlantic, which is where I had hoped to take Kalea, since she was designed to handle an ocean challenge. You know the current is swift when an Annapolis-based alternative energy company makes a proposal to harness the strong tidal flow with turbines to provide electricity for some 10 thousand residents. The CEO of the UEK Corporation, Phillipe Vauthier, says our inlet is ideally suited for his turbines. Only the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia has a stronger current than ours, he says. I prudently exchanged my Honda 5 for a 15 HP Johnson which fit snuggly in Kalea’s well.
The bridge over the inlet channel has a clearance of 35 feet. Kalea measures 34 feet and a few inches from the tip of her VHF antenna to the waterline. And, there was another concern: those big charter boat hot-dogs, heavy-handing the throttle in the channel, raising the water level with their wake and further reducing the air between Kalea’s mast and the base of the inlet bridge.
We picked a low-tide morning for Kalea’s big adventure. The wind had been steady from the north east, creating a fetch, pushing white ocean water into the river between the jetties. The swiftly moving current and the wind-driven water created a dark green eddy here, a patch of smooth, black water there, four-foot white-topped seas dead ahead. To call it turbulent would be about right Kalea, bless her stout Sparkman-Stephens heart, kept her footing. The long-shaft auxiliary huffed and puffed but did its job, pitting its muscle against the waves that were striving to muscle us back. My knuckles on the tiller were white as I suggested to my crew, a fellow sailor who, recklessly (or courageously) often takes his 22-foot Sailmaster under the bridge that we should maybe turn around and head back. Not a good idea, he shouted over the racket of the waves crashing against the bow. It wouldn’t be wise to turn broadside against these waves. Sensible advice, I conceded. But the really sensible advice would have been not to be out there at all.
Once we cleared the jetties, the seas became almost benign. The waves smoothed sufficiently to raise the main and working jib. It was a fine sail, marred only by the realization that we’d have to return the way we came, and the tide was rising. But my fears were unwarranted. We surfed the waves home and cleared the bridge with several inches to spare.
There are plans to replace the Indian River bridge with a brand new span, one that would eliminate the need for pilings which have been battered by 37 years of those relentless currents. Erosion has dug hundred-foot holes in the channel and around the pilings Divers routinely go down to assure those concrete supports are secure. The new bridge will provide at least 45 feet of clearance, which would suit Kalea just fine. Then, she could forget about getting a bang on her noggin and concentrate on bucking through the turbulence.
Plans call for the new bridge to be ready in just a couple of years. Till then, the aging Kalea will be stuck with the current structure. We certainly won’t venture out when the wind is anywhere close to the eastern quadrant. Skipper and everyone on board will don a PFD and keep it on. The tide charts will be our bible.
We’ve ducked beneath the bridge and stuck our nose into the ocean a half a dozen times now. Somehow, I’ve always been too busy to pop “The Great Gate of Kiev” into the tape deck. With enough practice, that span over the Indian River may become just another gateway to adventure, a chance to swim with some real dolphins who are almost daily visitors to our area. Then again, we might decide that Kalea should return to the waters and bridges that she knows and loves. If we choose the latter, we’ll be conceding, of course, that Kalea and her master down here in lower Delaware have found a bridge too far.
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