Traveling South By Boat – Part 2



Jumping ship in search of coffee. Portsmouth Virginia

The skipper working at his desk outside my door and the bright sunlight piercing the portholes of my berth gently brought me to life. Even when a boat is tied securely to a dock with bow, stern and spring lines, she rocks due to lapping waves. For me that rocking leads to a wonderful nights sleep, like a baby in a cradle. The brisk morning air demanded a layer of fleece but the sunshine and cobble walks through the gentrified downtown inspired us to jump ship in search of morning coffee. We walked past smartly painted and tucked commercial buildings dating back to the late 1700’s and restored Queen Anne and Colonial Revival residencies. Some shops were closed because it was early but most were closed because we were in the South and it was Sunday.

Back onboard we readied the boat for departure. A sailboat, even with the jibe rolled and mainsail stowed, catches a lot of wind. That is why you see boaters walking their boats down the pier or straining to push the bow this way or that before hopping aboard. If you don’t take such measures the waves and wind will blow you back into the pier causing damage to the boat and the skipper’s ego. Our skipper made a smooth exit.


Chris, the Elixir’s skipper. Portsmouth Virginia

The skipper, Chris, is an engineer by training, a competitor by nature and a sailor because motorcycle racing got a little hard on his joints. He initially sailed Hobie Cats because he liked the speed and the fact that after a Nor’easter he could find free parts strewn across the beach. Another impetus was, “It was a good way to meet girls”.

The skipper has changed a little since his Hobie Cat days; all of Elixirs’ parts were bought with cash, not found adrift. Elixir is a forty-foot sloop (sailboat with one mast) built in the 1980’s in Canada for fast sailing through blue (deep) water. It has two berths and if you drop the salon table it can sleep six or seven adults. Chris purchased the Elixir four years ago after it sat neglected in a boat yard for a few years. Since then he has personally replaced, repaired or cussed at every system and part on her. Today the Elixir is afloat with new paint, reinforced bulkheads and rigging, updated electronics, navigation and sounding systems and many other gadgets I have no understanding of. Elixir is once again ready for blue water sailing – but like all boats the work is not finished.


The south branch of the Elizabeth River. Chesapeake, Virginia

Boats are known for having endless nooks, cubbyholes and lockers (cabinets). The first few days aboard Elixir we spent hours repeatedly packing and unpacking lockers searching for cookware, clothing, tape, tools, etc. The lazarette was the junk-draw, catchall, locker-from-hell. It was located outside the cabin in the aft cockpit and it’s lid doubled as a portside bench seat. It was about seven feet deep, seven feet long but only three feet wide and filled with wet, heavy things, such as dock lines, power cables and tool boxes. To reach for something deep in the lazarette I had to lift the bench seat then hang like a gymnast with the weight of my body balanced on my anterior thighs while my trunk, head and arms dangled in it’s musty air. Sometimes the item was too heavy to pull up without falling in and I would have to jump in and drag it out. Other times I would crawl in, pull everything out, place it on the deck, sort through the mess and still never find what I was looking for. One night as I dangled like Nadia the lid of the lazarette crashed down on my legs like a mousetrap. If you were standing on the deck you would have noticed the bench seat ajar and a pair of blue boat shoes sticking out. It would have made a very funny photograph but I was on deck alone, which made it far less embarrassing.


Susan, resting comfortably on the lid of the lazarette.

The second day of our journey was twelve miles or half as far as the first but included the Great Bridge Lock and our first interaction with bridge tenders. On the ICW bridges are one of the things, like bad weather, that can slow you down. Some bridges open at specific times so if you are too early or late you just sit there until the next opening. Other bridges open on demand, which means you call the tender as you approach via the VHF radio and ask him to open the bridge.


Waiting in the Great Bridge Lock. Chesapeake, Virginia

Going through the Great Bridge Lock was simple, you placed one wrap of the bow and stern line around a cleat bolted to the top of the lock and held on until the lock opened. The fun part was visiting with other cruisers who were also doing new things and seeing new places. They appeared more like children on holiday than adults in retirement; they were excited about what they were doing and that happiness could be heard in their voices.

A woman on the boat in front of us asked, “Hey, where are you from?”

“Norfolk”, Susan answered.

“We’re from Pennsylvania, our captain’s from Philly.” A white haired man standing behind the wheel nodded and waved. “Where are you headed?” she asked.

“The Bahamas.”

“So is our captain”, the woman squealed. “But I’m getting off in North Carolina. Hope to see ya again along the way”.


Leaving the Great Bridge Lock and passing under the Battlefield Blvd. Bridge. Chesapeake, Virginia

As the lock opened the bridge just ahead started to separate and tilt toward the sky and the boats trickled out one after the other like ducklings. We were now out of the salty Elizabeth River and in the fresh water of the Chesapeake Canal heading toward North Carolina and the Albemarle Sound. The stretch before us was straight and narrow, a ditch cut by man not nature and bordered by trees and tall grasses not skyscrapers and shipyards. Our environment had changed and bad weather was coming.



Categories: Travel, Writing

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4 replies

  1. Thanks again for bringing us along. How much of this journey can/could you guys do under sail?

    • Hey, Dan. Thanks for the question and for following. On the 225 mile section I did we found only one place where we could put out the jibe and sail for a few hours. Most of the ditch is just too narrow and outside the channel it can quickly become only two or three feet deep. At Beaufort NC it’s common for sailboats to leave the ditch and sail along the coast.

  2. Great post – it really captures the experience!

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