Monday, October 28, 2013

Another Farewell to Portsmouth, VA

[Kyle]Growing up in Denver (Colorado), I had hardly even heard of Norfolk, Virginia before I got a job that had me flying into there from time to time. When Maryanne and I first arrived as live-aboard cruisers in our Tartan 30, we only initially expected to be staying for a winter, maybe two, to regroup and fill up the cruising kitty before moving on to other sailing areas.

Well, one thing led to another, as things do, and we ended up staying there a few extra years. I realize I get itchy feet and move around more than most people; I don’t tend to stay anywhere for too long. At first, it was necessity – chasing jobs to keep my career going, then it became a desire to see as many places as I could in the time that I had.

Norfolk/Portsmouth had started as a somewhat logical stopover along the meandering line across the map that is my life, rather than being a place I was drawn to as a destination, but it ended up being the unexpected single place where I have lived the longest since I moved out of my Mom’s house to give adulthood a shot.

I never got really attached to the place itself. While there is something nice about being somewhere familiar, I wasn’t overwhelmed with a sense of being back “home” when we sailed in. The best thing about the area for us was all of the wonderful friends we made while we were living there. If they suddenly all moved out of town en masse, I’d have a much stronger urge to go where they are than to go back and see Norfolk for its own sake. The two will probably always be intertwined though, so in that sense Norfolk has a place in our hearts.

Living just past Mile 0 on the Intracoastal Waterway while we saved and got the boat ready, it was hard not to feel left behind as the cruisers passed us by every year on their way south to escape winter, then north in spring, all tanned from months in the tropics.

This made for a swirling mix of confused emotions for me as we headed south for the second time: I was already missing friends I saw last night that I usually spent months without seeing. I wanted to hang back a few more days and get my fill of their warm companionship. On the other hand, I was so glad to be moving again, living in our chosen way. Norfolk would not hold us back from a life of adventure.

Since the last time we left, we been so far and had seen so much that we never could have dreamed. We had finally made it to the tropics ourselves before turning north-east and sailing until we made it all the way to Norwegian Fjords without night. We got as far east as Turkey before turning back west to where Footprint was tragically lost on a dark night on an Italian beach.

From that low point, uncertain whether or not we’d be able to get our “normal” life back, we once again went through the steps of becoming cruisers, this time with the benefit of experience to help speed things up.

Now we were back on a boat and once again, the tremendously unsightly first five miles of the Elizabeth River south of Portsmouth was a portal beyond which lay an almost completely different whole world of adventure and possibilities. The summer shakedown was over; we were becoming blue water cruisers again.


An early start, left us with an unexpectedly long wait at the first closed bridge... Pretty though!

Since it was a weekend this time, we no longer had to worry about rush hour restrictions on bridge openings. This meant that we could leave early the same morning and still make the first locking up at the Deep Creek lock on the north end of the Dismal Swamp Canal.

It was starting to get pretty cold. As we untied from the harbor wall in Portsmouth, I found myself sliding around on a deck covered in frost. It melted once we got some air moving over the boat. Once we got near the Gilmerton lift bridge (our first of the day) it became apparent from radio traffic that it was not opening on demand, as I had assumed, but was instead on a once an hour schedule. We would end up being about five minutes late. We would have to loiter for an hour before the next opening. The next lift time would be the same as the first locking at the canal five miles further away. We would then have to wait two and a half hours for the day’s second locking.

By the time the bridge finally opened, I was shivering from the cold. Perhaps we left going south a bit too long. Maryanne hid in the warm cabin and occasionally popped out to give me hot cups of tea. First through the bridge was an enormous barge going the other way being gingerly fed through the narrow gap by two tugboats. We were next, followed by a handful of other sailboats that had collected during the wait.

At the turnoff for the Dismal Swamp route, the other boats stayed on the main route while we turned off. Throughout the previous week, there had been several reports of boats on the Dismal Swamp route that had overheated due to water intakes clogged by mats of duckweed that was in some places thicker than a foot. Many had to be towed out. Several boats also had to fish their cats out of the water after the poor felines thought they were jumping off onto dry grass.

Maryanne had kept herself on top of the situation with first-hand reports from some of the boaters as well as frequent calls to the lockkeepers for status updates. They had been actively trying to flush the weed through and had finally assured us the day before that it would be okay to go through. Begonia’s water intakes are pretty deep out of the weed zone, so we felt comfortable giving it a go.

Getting the second locking up had another complication: Chris, one of our Norfolk friends who had gone sailing with us the previous week, had planned to meet up with us at the lock for breakfast, which she was bringing along with her. We made a quick change of plans and arranged to pick her up at a boat ramp along the way and take her through the lock with us.

When she arrived, she had enough food to feed sixteen people, which to be fair was probably the normal amount at her house, since she has two teenage boys. I’d like to say I gobbled it all up, but I was stuffed way before that. It was all delicious.


Deep Creek Lock and the Dismal Swamp canal

At the lock, Chris called her boys, who had dropped her off at the boat ramp, and arranged a pickup much further along at about the halfway mark. This helped pass the time as we went through the canal.

The Dismal swamp Canal is pretty, but it is arrow straight (except for one bend in the middle) and all pretty much the same. If the person not steering fell asleep in the cockpit for a couple of hours, they could wake up not knowing they had lost a second. Steering is another matter. There’s a regular enough supply of downed branches one side or the other to dodge to keep alert.

After dropping off Chris, it became increasingly clear that our normal one-engine mode of motoring wouldn’t get us to the South Mills lock at the far end of the canal before the last locking down of the day. We fired up the other engine, which improved our ETA to just five minutes after the scheduled opening. A couple of miles out, I called the lockkeeper to let him know we were coming and he was kind enough to look the other way at locking time until we got there.


Eventually making it to the South Mills lock for the final locking down of the day

Once we were through and back at sea level, we shut down the first engine and went back to economy one-engine mode for the ride down the ever-widening Pasquotank River. We had the whole thing to ourselves as we were treated to a beautiful sunset over mirror-flat water.

It was fully dark by the time we were approaching the gauntlet every boat that goes this way has to run: The Elizabeth City Bridge. Remembering my last encounter with the bridge tender the year before, I made a point of speaking very slowly and clearly into the microphone, using my best airline captain calm voice. It may not be the same guy, after all.

Me: “Elizabeth City Bridge, Elizabeth City Bridge, Elizabeth City Bridge, This is the southbound sailing catamaran Begonia, One-half mile north, requesting an opening please.”

Bridge tender: “(Unintelligible hillbilly dialect)”

Oh, no. It was the same guy. I had no clue what he said, so I just did my whole transmission all over again.

Bridge tender: “Cap’n, Bring it on back.”

Huh? What does that mean? Maybe he wants me to back off the speed to give him more time.

Me: “Say again.”

Bridge tender, sounding clearly disgusted with me for being so daft: “Cap’n, Bring it on back! I cain’t understand yew!”

Perhaps I was too wordy before. Me, speaking very slowly, enunciating every syllable (Yes, I can do it!): “Sailboat. North. Request opening. Please.”

Bridge tender: “Where y’all at? I cain’t…oh wait, I see yuh. I’ll git ‘er up.”

When we got to the bridge, he came out of the office and yelled something. We couldn’t hear him because of the noise and the distance, but it seemed to be along the lines of, “Damn Hippies, Get off my lawn!”

We thanked him on the radio, but never got a reply. Perhaps I went about it wrong and should have gone about it in kind, using nautical gibberish:

Me: “Lisbeth Bridge, sloop Begonia, six cables out, half east by northeast. Crow’s nest gonna whack ‘em, smack ‘em.”

Bridge tender: “Yumptuh flaing y’all!”

Me: “Yardarm. Bo’sun, Breech loader, Yaaargghh!”

Bells ring as traffic barrier goes down and bridge rises. Bridge tender comes out with a big smile and a hearty wave.

It could have just been unfortunate timing. It was about quarter to the hour. We may have been interrupting the season premier of “Glee”. Now he’ll never know if they got to sing that song or not. Instead of, “Get off my lawn!” he may have been yelling, “Damn boaters! You ruined my “Glee” again! I quit!!”

Let’s hope so.

We tied up to the town wall in exactly the same spot we tied up Footprint five years earlier. A nice Canadian couple helped us tie up and then left us to finish our checklist. We took a brief walk along the waterfront to look at the other boats, and then popped into a pub for a pint and an appetizer.

The last time we were here, we didn’t have the time to really look around. Elizabeth City is kind of a strange place. The waterfront and the street with the pub were nice, but in between, there were a lot of boarded up houses and businesses. It’s pretty clear the town has been in decline for a while. Still, it’s peaceful enough and we do appreciate the boat-friendly atmosphere.


Not all boaters are passing through, this duck blind boat was towed in and caused Kyle to chuckle. The highlight of the day was a visit from Ron.

We slept in the next morning and were met for lunch by our friend Ron, who we met many years ago when we were living at Ocean Marine in Portsmouth. Ron is friendly and talkative and always has something interesting going on. He treated us to a delicious Mexican meal at a place that was packed, even though it was three o’clock. I had my fill of cheeses and multi-colored hot sauces and was full into the next day. Thanks, Ron, That was marvelous!

Lunch was over much too quickly and before we knew it, we were back at Begonia fixing things. Maryanne had been having difficulty with our pactor modem kicking off when trying to use the ham radio. She had replaced some of the data cables and installed ferrites (anti-interference devices) as well as checking that all of the connections were tight. I had found a corroded spot on our ground plane antenna, which snakes its way through both bilges, effectively shortening it by 15 feet. I cut out the corroded part and spliced the rest together. A test of the whole system came up failed again. We tried a couple of different frequencies using other ground stations and were finally able to successfully send a short email from our fancy-schmancy ham radio to my iPhone via a station in Florida.

The ham radio procedure is pretty complicated and tedious. First, atmospheric propagation charts have to be consulted to find a decent station and frequency band for the time of day, then the specific frequency has to be looked up and then set into the radio. We tried several different frequency ranges and were finally able to get about a 75% success rate using stations as far away as Panama and Trinidad. That’s pretty good for ham radio in the daytime. It’s nowhere near as intuitive as a smartphone, but it’s still pretty cool to have a radio that can transmit thousands of miles on a boat that actually needs to be able to do that. You can tell it’s a long way, though. The radios innards hum with the strain while transmitting and all of the lights on the boat go dim. Data comes back about as quickly as an average person can type. Individual letters appear on the screen at about three words every five seconds or so.

Once we had satisfied ourselves that we could make and maintain a connection, Maryanne downloaded our first ever weather forecast file, officially making our expensive satellite phone the backup method until we feel confident enough to mothball it entirely.


Not a bad place to spend an evening though some boats clearly get stuck here a lot longer

All told, our stopover in Elizabeth City was a good one, apart from the bridge thing. We had a lovely meal with a good friend and successfully made it over a pretty big technological hurdle. It was time to wind down with a nice glass of wine.

2 comments:

Mommy Dearest said...

I am growing a bit attached to the hillbilly gatekeeper, though somehow doubt he is really a Glee fan. It is good to meander through your thought and emotional process as you leave Portsmouth again. It was a good time to take that pause and look at your life and travels from the vantage point of a chimney top. You have so many friends scattered all over the world and I'm thrilled you stay in touch as you do--all the better for surprise Mexican lunches and bag breakfasts.
I hope you know I think of you all the time and wish you nothing but beautiful sunsets and fair winds.

Kate Rodenhouse said...

Wow, is it good to have your blog posts again! And yes, I know that doesn't make sense - we both loved seeing you and Maryanne and would much rather, and selfishly, have you be here all the time. But cruising is where you guys belong so we're excited that we can at least enjoy your blog until our paths cross again. (You know, meaning we stay put and you come back!) I'm sorry it was a black mark on your visit to Elizabeth City but your description of the bridge tender was my favorite part! I was CRYING reading it aloud to Mark! Ah well... I guess he wanted to be a trucker and had to settle for bridge tender. These things happen. And I agree with Carla: no way no how he was watchin' "Glee." It was definitely "Duck Dynasty." Glad you got your communications all sussed out. We will hopefully see you and Maryanne sometime in February!