From Here to Zero

Writing from Great Bridge, Virginia

When we arrived here on Thursday afternoon, and I stepped off the boat onto the dock, I realized it was the first time I had touched solid ground since Sunday. The previous three nights, we had been rafted up with our friend-ship Cinderella, hanging on to her larger, heavier anchor in the quiet coves and creeks along the western shore of the Chesapeake. We stopped at Solomon’s Island, then Deltaville, and then Fort Munroe – across the Elizabeth River from the Norfolk Navy Yard, home of aircraft carriers and war ships of all descriptions.

S/V Seneca in Deltaville, MD

Early evening in Deltaville, a glamor shot of the lovely Seneca.

Deltaville to Fort Munroe: Wednesday, Oct. 2nd, is to be our longest day of the journey. We anticipate ten hours on the water, motoring at 5.5 knots almost due south. It is hot and sunny, with very calm seas. Textured and green, the surface of the water is broken only by occasional crab pots and seabirds. We see more pelicans. As we look back for our companions, they seem to be in a bank of yellow-gray mist, their hulls barely visible.

We use the auto-tiller to keep us on course, which Phil affectionately calls “Otto.” It is a sort of auto-pilot that attaches to the tiller and holds a certain bearing, which we get from our chart plotter. It allows us to relax a little in the cockpit. The Chesapeake is so wide at the southern end that we can barely see a ribbon of land to the west, and nothing but water to the east. It is a curious magic trick that makes the distant water blue-gray, while the water around the boat is a translucent moss-green.

Toward the end of the day, I note on the chart that we are passing the Plum Tree Island Bombing Range, followed by the Plum Tree Island National Wildlife Refuge. I want to tell all the animals there to duck, but hope the bombs are directed toward the shallow water off to the north. Still, it’s a strange juxtaposition of aggression and compassion. As we point the bow farther west, we pass a beautiful stretch of beach with a string of large, luxury beachfront homes. No tiny summer cottages here.

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Waterfront homes along Buckroe Beach, just north of Fort Munroe.

Just as we are turning into the Elizabeth River, Seneca and Cinderella catch up to us and cut to our starboard. We have been helped by an impressive southbound current out of Mobjack Bay, and had reached speeds of 7 knots to keep ahead of them. We slowed down to let them pass, and felt proud that Catmandu had been able to stay ahead all day.

Sailboat in Chesapeake Bay just outside Hampton Roads

We followed this sailboat all day, and as we headed into the Elizabeth River, they hailed Cinderella. It seems Cinderella is famous in these parts, from Jaye’s presence online.

Our anchorage Wednesday night is not the quiet, rural setting of the night before. A busy interstate bridge on one side, and the military buildings of Fort Munroe on the other remind us that civilization exists beyond these boats, beyond the water that has held my attention these past few days. If I needed any other reminder of the outside world, I certainly get it the next morning as we cross the very busy channel at the mouth of the Elizabeth River and head upstream past the Norfolk Naval Station.

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Seneca in sunshine, passing us in the channel Thursday morning.

Fort Munroe to Red Nun #36

Our first encounter with a large vessel is this Coast Guard cutter. It looks huge on the horizon and towers over us just to our stern. We are four boats crossing the channel, having picked up a catamaran named Sea Quest. Jaye hails the Coast Guard ship to let them know we would be staying just outside the channel and out of the way. They replied, unlike several container ships we’ve hailed. They would cross our stern and pass on the starboard side. Since my father was a career Coast Guard officer, I felt a surge of pride in this gleaming white ship as it passed.

U.S. Coast Guard Ship in Elizabeth River

U.S. Coast Guard Ship in Elizabeth River, just passing us after we crossed the busy channel.

 

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Our view of Navy ships on our port side at Naval Base Norfolk.

 

Navy warships dominate our view for the next hour. Some of the largest military vessels in the world are docked here, and we pass aircraft carriers and destroyers and unidentifiable ships with pyramids on top. We are passed by a large container ship that doesn’t answer us, just steams past these tiny inconsequential pleasure boats. It is our job to get out of the way. It is likely that those merchant mariners, perched high on the ship’s bridge, can’t even see us anyway.

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Giant container ships like this one often don’t answer when they are hailed. It doesn’t matter. Just get out of their way.

Phil is at the helm, steering by hand today. Otto is blind and can’t react to giant obstacles quickly enough to be safe in the busy river. Gigantic cranes and commercial buildings pass by on either side. The size and scope of these enterprises are impressive, but I would prefer some lush greenery and some birds. I still haven’t seen a dolphin.

It is Thursday morning, Oct. 3, and to this New Hampshire native, it feels like mid-August. The sky is brilliant, and the warm breeze doesn’t cool us enough as we push southward through a strong current. I know there is a marina with a hot shower waiting for us this afternoon, but in my mind, the water is cold and refreshing.

We are keeping an eye out for Mile Zero. Somewhere in this part of the river, we will officially enter the Intracoastal Waterway. We know it is marked by red buoy number 36 and keep watching the numbers count down on the starboard side. Then, unexpectedly on our port bow, we spot the buoy. It seems out of line and we pass it on the wrong side with camera and cell phone raised.

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Mile Zero of the Intracoastal Waterway

We may be outside of the channel, but we are definitely in the waterway.

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