Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Bridge Too Many

In South Florida, we encountered bridge…


after bridge…


after bridge…

In this densely populated region, the channel is crisscrossed with vehicle and pedestrian bridges. In two days, we passed through 16 drawbridges and snuck under half a dozen fixed highway bridges, tall enough--65 feet is standard--for most masts to clear. Our mast is 42 feet. For boaters, waiting for drawbridges to open while idling in strong wind and swift currents is an adventure in patience, perseverance, and marine motoring skill.

Here’s how it works. When you approach a drawbridge that’s too low to pass under, you attempt to accomplish multiple tasks at once: call the bridge operator on the VHF radio (channel 9) to request an opening, continue to steer the boat, appraise the wind and current in case you have to idle in place for a while, take in the sail if you happen to be using the jib for extra speed.

Then you idle—forward, backward, zigzag, turning circles, watching the clock, watching for the vehicle gates to go down, praying for a speedy, on-time opening. When the span is raised, you rev the engine and charge forward, staying centered and  hoping to keep your mast away from the massive metal structure.

This can occur as often as every 30 minutes. You have to be on your toes, literally, to see over the deck of the boat. You have to be a master of timing and be in absolute control of your boat.

The trickiest part is the timing. Some bridges have a fixed schedule, such as every half hour or quarter to every hour, while others open on demand. A faster boat has an easy time putting on speed to make it on time from one bridge to a fixed opening time at the next bridge. For a slow boat like ours, the timing takes masterful planning.

At times we stressed our engine mightily, watching the thermostat heat up, in order to make a couple of miles in 15 minutes, for example. Other times, we drifted along leisurely because we knew we would have a long wait.

The attitude of bridge operators varied widely, from "Have a nice day, Captain" to absolutely no response to our request for an opening. I'm sure they deal with a lot of cranky captains every day!

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