Friends and Low Places on the Intracoastal Waterway

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The moment of truth: Lunacy approaches the Wilkerson Bridge

The moment of truth: Lunacy approaches the Wilkerson Bridge

This past fall, for the first time in more than 20 years, I took a boat down the “Ditch,” following the Intracoastal Waterway from Norfolk, Virginia, to Beaufort, North Carolina. In a sense it was my very first time, as I was the skipper instead of crew, so I was more aware of the challenges involved. Most of these involve draft, but I wasn’t too worried about that, as Lunacy, my Boréal 47, can float in just 3ft of water with her centerboard up. What did have me worried was vertical clearance, as Lunacy’s air draft is 64ft 11in, just 1in under the standard 65ft clearance for fixed bridges on the ICW.

One thing I had forgotten is how much fun driving the Ditch can be. In the objective sense, piloting your boat under power from mark to mark through a maze of creeks, canals, opening bridges and river mouths might seem tedious. In the subjective sense, though, it is anything but. The experience, the scenery and weather are all quite various, your mind at all times sharply focused.

I had also forgotten about the great sense of community on the ICW. It literally forms a kind of grapevine, as information is passed up and down the route from boat to boat, just like those tunneling prisoners whispering back and forth to each other up and down the line in my favorite WWII flick, The Great Escape.

My first tidbit of hand-me-down data came on a dock in Portsmouth, Virginia, right at Mile Zero, when the skipper of the catamaran tied up across from us casually mentioned he’d just heard that in two days the Alligator River Bridge would be closed to boat traffic for an entire week due to maintenance work.

Studying my charts, I concluded that if nothing went wrong we’d be through this low swing bridge before it shut down. If something did go wrong, there was also a long detour through Pamlico Sound that would save us waiting a week for the bridge to reopen. And indeed, during our first day in the Ditch we hit the many opening bridges and the one canal lock with no delays, and were tied to a dock in Coinjock, an easy day short of the Alligator River, well before sundown.

That same evening, however, I picked up another casual fact from a northbound boat. The Wilkerson Bridge, a fixed span on the Alligator-Pungo Canal, had a clearance of 64ft rather than 65. I studied my charts again and saw they were in conflict. The electronic ones showed a clearance of 65ft, but an old paper chart, given to me by a friend many years earlier, had a handwritten notation, where 65 was crossed out and 64 written in.

The next day we plunged onward. Water levels in the Ditch so far had been very low, thanks to days of a hard north wind, so I figured the Wilkerson Bridge wouldn’t be a problem, and that afternoon we cleared the Alligator River Bridge and anchored off Deep Point, just two miles short of the Alligator-Pungo Canal. Still, during the night I could not sleep, as it occurred to me that if we failed to squeeze under the Wilkerson Bridge we might be stuck, for a week at least, between two impassable bridges.

Come morning, I studied the charts again through a gorgeous blood-red sunrise. If we were caught in this trap there’d be no exit through Pamlico Sound. The only prospect of a diverting cruise was up Milltail Creek, where a buddy and I once caught our mast in overhanging trees, this aboard a Bristol 29, during my very first ICW transit. If we couldn’t clear Wilkerson we’d be trapped, just like my heroes in The Great Escape.

As we made our way down the Alligator-Pungo Canal, not long after that beautiful sunrise, I studied the shoreline and saw the water was not nearly low as before. Finally, at the end of the canal, the Wilkerson Bridge loomed ahead of us. The height board at the bridge base showed a clearance of 65ft, more or less, as I drove through as slowly as I could.

I heard my radio antennae clicking under the bridge girders, saw them quivering as they scraped by, and then we were through, with all the warmth and light of the South suddenly lying open before us. 

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February 2018

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