Whether you pass under bridges by sail or motor, bow first on your own terms or carried sideways by swift currents, bridges constitute one of those man-made obstacles that add dimension, challenge, and occasionally a little zip to a plain old cruise. In places like the Intracoastal Waterway, you can be sailing along on a leisurely downwind run one minute, and the next minute be scrambling for the chart, the guidebook, and the handheld VHF as an an upcoming bridge looms into view.
As challenging as these structures might appear to sailboat owners, dealing with them is certainly manageable, particularly if you've done a little advance research. If what you're facing is a fixed bridge, your first move should be to double-check the charts for vertical clearance. With most modern highrise bridges, the majority of sailors don't need to worry. However, if you're the skipper of a Bristol 57, the 65-foot clearance on most of the bridges along the ICW won't be high enough for your masts, so you'll have to take an outside run.For all you captains of smaller vessels, you can stop gloating right now. Your boat might easily clear these high-rise bridges, but you'd better know exactly how much vertical clearance your vessel requires for railroad bridges. If you guess wrong about low tide and the clearance of your mast, you may become that one-in-a-million cruiser who watches with horror as his mast hits the first track of the bridge overhead, bends and then pops under the track only to find that the mast is too tall to pass under the second track of the bridge, so you end up stuck with a mast caught between the train tracks. (Yes, this has really happened. But no, it wasn't me.)
Once you've acquired a careful understanding for your vessel's vertical clearance and mastered the art of slinking under fixed bridges, you can join the ranks of captains who've tackled the other kinds of bridges: bascule (drawbridge), swing, float, and lift. This is where the real fun begins. You haven't really cruised the Intracoastal until you can gather with your friends and fondly reminisce about that windy, foggy, choppy morning when a two-knot current combined with a 30-knot gust to sweep your boat toward a bridge that had to be kept down so an emergency vehicle, some pedestrians, and a few stray dogs could cross at the last minute—only to find that when the bridge finally opened a tug boat with a mega-yacht in tow was bearing down full-throttle from the other side.
If a story like this one makes your stomach tie up in knots, here are some pointers to make the bridge-limbo process a little easier. When you see one of these bridges on the horizon, take the following action:
- 1. Contact the bridge tender. Some states have specific VHF channels set aside for bridge tenders. Check your charts or guidebooks for pertinent information.
2. Check the hours of the bridge. Most bridges have restricted openings during rush hours on weekdays, so look up the day of the week and double-check the hours. before you get on the horn demanding an opening during a restricted time. Many bridges in urban areas open on set schedules. Be respectful of these schedules.
3. Keep an eye out for traffic. The boats caught going with a two-knot current will often have right-of-way, but not always. Listen to the VHF and keep your eyes open for commercial traffic, which may be coming behind you, or waiting for you on the other side. Give those vessels the right-of-way they should be accorded.
4. Take note of the current. Are you being swept toward the bridge or away from it, and at what rate?
5. Keep track of the wind, which may push you one direction or another.
After you contact the bridge tender, you will probably spend some time traveling in circles or motoring against the current, waiting for the bridge to open. You'll find that some of this time will be spent trying to dodge the other 15 boats that are also waiting. Don't get too excited when the bells start ringing and the road gates go down. Usually, most of the cars will stop. A few cyclists will lazily pedal around the gates and take their sweet time crossing the bridge, extending your wait. During that anxious time when it seems like bridge will never, ever open, chant a little mantra: 'I am calm. I am patient. I am not pushy.'
When the bridge does start to open, you can get moving slowly. If you are smart, you have been listening to the VHF, so the bridge tender can warn you if only one span is opening, if there is a barge coming, if there is construction on the bridge, if someone is towing a large vessel through the opening, or if an emergency vehicle needs to get through and the bridge won't be opening after all. Transiting bridges is often a moving target and it's extremely important to stay informed via the VHF.
When you are positive that the bridge is going to open, proceed with caution. Don't be perturbed that you have to fight the weird currents that always happen around bridges and be careful how your masthead will respond to wakes as you only have so much horizontal clearance to work with as well. Just keep chugging away, making slow, but steady progress as you move past the bridge's structure. You are almost there, and there's relief on the other side. Congratulations! You've made it through the bridge. Only 10 more to go until you find that wonderful anchorage and can drop the hook for the night and breath easy.
Transiting bridges offers a special bonus for all the gearheads out there, because this kind of navigation gives you an excuse to buy a couple more pieces of equipment for your boat, especially when it comes to handling three or more bridges per day. First, buy a GPS, handheld or otherwise, so that you can input the bridges as waypoints and thereby keep good track of your arrival time. Also, you can adjust your speed of travel (faster or slower) so you can catch more scheduled openings and spend less time doing donuts and cursing the other boats that just can't seem to stay out of your way.
Second, get a handheld VHF. I've travelled north and south on the ICW without one and a handheld VHF would definitely be on my wish list. It's no fun to be trapped down in the cabin without any visual clues to help you understand what, exactly, the bridge tenders and other captains are talking about when they say, "Wait in the little pocket by the north span of the bridge so the barge can pass you on the port side, captain." When you have a day of bridges and explicit passing instructions ahead of you, you'll be glad you don't have to run up and down the companionway worrying that some information might be relayed incorrectly or inaccurately during a tight passing situation under a narrow bridge.