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The Ditch

November 8, 2018

Christoph and I awoke before dawn, preparing Delfina to leave the dock at first light. The wind had kicked up and was blowing out of the northeast at a fierce 20-25kts. Once we untied and turned into the bay, four foot waves broke frequently on the foredeck. Delfina smacked her way across the bay to Mile 0 of the Intracoastal. With such strong winds and rain in the forecast, there was no question of sailing on the outside–-it would be a rough and miserable ride. I really had no desire to round Cape Fear on the outside, particularly  in foul weather. The bay was churning, and we were thrilled to stay warm and dry in the protection offered by our new cockpit enclosure. We hadn’t expected to need it on our first day out.

The intracoastal presents a variety of unique navigation challenges. Though it is referred to with disdain as “the Ditch” by experienced blue water sailors, because boats must motor single file in narrow and shoaling channels, it presents a myriad of its own obstacles and adventures. In Norfolk, it winds past huge naval installations, and urban waterfront industry, before joining with creeks, rivers and tributaries, bringing vistas of woodlands, and tall marsh grasses. Hazards include changing depths and strong currents, as continuously dredged canals join existing natural waterways.  

Delfina’s mast is considered “ICW friendly” at 63 ½ feet. Christoph measured it at least a dozen times, including the day before we left Deltaville. There are two ICW bridges in this northern stretch that sailors with tall masts seem to dread, both which have been noted to be less than 65 feet—the Pungo River and Wilkerson. Christoph had lain awake for nights before we left Lambertville, considering various ways to heel the boat, if need be, calculating that 10 degrees of heel would mean a foot of additional clearance. We had purchased water bags that could hold 50 gallons of water each, which we could suspend from the boom; or we could fill the dinghy with water and try the same trick. We had heard of sailboats backing through bridges. We didn’t look forward to employing any of these options. 

The Great Bridge Lock is the only lock along the waterway, and by the time we reached it, both the sun and the temperature had climbed. We hailed the lock hand on the VHF radio, who recommended starboard side tie-up. The lock gates seemed to open on the half hour; in any case, we made it in and several boats just behind us had to wait. We pulled up behind a motorboat named Lucky Lisa. The starboard side of the lock was lined with vertical rubber fenders, while the port side was bare metal––it was easy to see why starboard side tie-up was recommended. Owen handed the bowline to the lock hand, who wrapped it around a giant cleat, and handed it back to him; I did the same with the stern line. Across the lock, young children ran and shouted in a playground behind a fence topped by barbed wire, and signs warned that lifejackets were required in the lock area. We didn’t want to imagine why such precautions were necessary.

Owen and I held Delfina steady against the rubber fenders, letting out line slowly as the water level dropped 3 feet, and then we proceeded through the Great Bridge. As we motored, the urban landscape became less dense. Clouds gathered as we approached the dreaded Pungo River Bridge. We searched for the wooden tide board at the base of the bridge that measured bridge clearance, and felt buoyed when we saw the water level measuring clearance at 64 ½ feet. Winds out of the north can help blow water out of the canals. We approached with caution, necks craning upward, and exchanged spirited high -fives as we cleared the bridge without hitting our antenna.

As we wound our way south, we stayed in the middle of the channel to avoid the shallows, and reduced speed in accordance with prevailing courtesy protocols, allowing every overtaking motor vessel to do a slow -pass. The wind strengthened behind us.  We pulled out the jib and maintained a speed of 7-8 knots for the rest of the way to Coin Jock, VA. Although we had called ahead in the morning, seeking a place at the dock, we were placed on “stand by." Dusk had fallen by the time we arrived, and the marina’s one long dock was crammed with powerboats of all sizes, tied up tightly bow to stern, nearly every one of which had passed us along the way. But we got lucky--the friendly couple who run Midway Marina, which was also full, allowed us to tie up in front of their home, next door to the restaurant. A dock hand from Coin Jock watched us come in, and shouted directions to help us handle the strong current. He hopped over the wooden fence separating the properties and took our lines, easing us onto the dock. As soon as we were tied up, we walked over to the restaurant, and feasted on its famous prime rib!

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