Voice of Experience: Bridge Encounter

John, a friend and sailing instructor, and I cruise from our homeport of Englewood, Florida, aboard his 35-foot Pearson sloop Lokahi. Because we often use the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), both of us are familiar with the bridges spanning the channels in this part of the world. One afternoon we were approaching the bascule bridge at Snake River Creek, near the island of Islamorada in the Keys. As
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John, a friend and sailing instructor, and I cruise from our homeport of Englewood, Florida, aboard his 35-foot Pearson sloop Lokahi. Because we often use the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), both of us are familiar with the bridges spanning the channels in this part of the world. One afternoon we were approaching the bascule bridge at Snake River Creek, near the island of Islamorada in the Keys. As was John’s custom, he called the bridge master to check in when we got to the ICW marker before the bridge. Because it was a high traffic time, we were told the next opening would be on the hour. We we were about 15 minutes early.

A quarter of an hour later, the time came for the bridge to open, but its warning bells hadn’t started to ring, so John began steering Lokahi in a circle. He would put the boat in gear and turn the wheel a bit as the boat began moving forward. Then he would put the engine back into neutral, then back in gear again. There were a number of other boats also waiting to pass through, including our friends JT and Shari. All of us waited patiently.

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Finally, about 15 minutes after the hour, we heard the warning bells start to ring and saw the traffic bars begin to drop across the roadway on either side of the bridge. Boats began moving into position to pass through, and when our turn came, John put the engine in gear and steered for the center of the opening. At least that was the plan. When he put the engine into forward gear, nothing happened. Clearly some part of the mechanism had broken and we no longer had either forward or reverse gear. With no steerage way we also had no control, and the current was now carrying us toward the bridge.

John turned the wheel hard to starboard, hoping he might be able to put the boat aground. When nothing happened he left the wheel and moved forward to the bow and dropped the anchor. Almost immediately he called back, “It’s not going to catch in time,” and I braced myself for the impact. With only seconds remaining, there was no time for us to unfurl the headsail and try to steer clear under sail. Approximately 18,000 pounds of boat was about to crash into a very large, immovable object and there was nothing we could do about it. As I held on I tried to think through all the “what ifs” and what we would do if one of us was injured. Of course, there was no time for any real reflection, and the next thing I knew, I was listening to the sound of the boat smashing into the side of the concrete abutment.

With nothing else to do on the foredeck John had returned to the cockpit, and we both watched as the mast made contact with the raised portion of the bridge. When I heard the crunch I was convinced it was going to fall down, but somehow it remained standing even though a spreader was shattered.

At about the same time the dinghy, which was on its davits, began to swing into the base of the bridge. When it became pinned between the boat and the base of the bridge all we could do was to watch helplessly as it was crushed between the boat and the concrete.

As Lokahi slowly ground along the concrete base, John made a call on the VHF to the local tow service. Several other boats had kindly stood by to assist, but once John knew the towboat was on the way, he thanked them all and said they could proceed.

By now, we were also aground in the shallow water next to the base of the bridge, and the current had heeled the boat over to about 30 degrees, enough to put the toerail in the water. Every minute seemed like a year, but not long after John had made the call, we saw a towboat approaching in the distance.

When it came alongside John told the skipper what had happened and the towboat crew put a line on our bow. Slowly they moved away and took a strain on the line. When it was taut, John called out, “Pull hard and fast!” He knew he was taking a risk by doing so, but he also knew that if the boat continued rocking, the mast, now almost jammed in the bridge superstructure, might come down. If he was going to save the rig, the maneuver had to work on the first try.

As the towboat pulled, I watched as the dinghy began to slowly move away from the bridge. Then suddenly we were afloat again. Once we were clear, the Coast Guard, whose station was right next to the towboat facility, called and graciously directed us to their dock. They looked us over carefully when we got there, and once they had determined that neither of us was hurt and that the boat was not about to sink, all that was left was to take our boat’s papers and fill out the incident report.

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