Adventures of s/v WILD HAIR


Our land life took on form, solidity, routine. We had mastery of a limited set of skills. We had habitual expectations of others and ourselves. Going sailing, we let go of our attachments to our roles, views, and rituals. We persist because we are growing in this shapeless and dynamic world.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


On a warm and rainy afternoon in Norfolk, Virginia, channel marker Red “36” sat benignly in the middle of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. The marker looked like hundreds of others. This marker was distinguished, however, in that it represented the 0.0 statute mile of our nation’s Intercostal Waterway.

Dave and I had seen the tail-end of the watery snake in Key West, Florida months before. There, the waterway is mile 1250, a goodly distance from our present location. Today echoes of accomplishment. Feeling like a spawning salmon, I stare in awe at the point of origin.

“We made it,” I said to Dave as I stood to do a happy dance in the cockpit.

“Not so fast,” my salty husband cautioned. “The hardest part is just ahead. Look at the radar.”

Knowing that we were a mere 10 miles from our final destination in this two-week, 675 nautical mile trip, I climbed into the seat beside him at the helm and stared at our chart plotter. WILD HAIR’s radar projections overlaid our course. Ahead, a violent electrical storm with heavy showers appeared.

For two years our sailing grounds were plagued by drought. Put another way, we have enjoyed splendid sailing weather. We’ve braved electrical storms, but the winds and waves failed to pick up so the event was all drama and no punch. We’ve experienced 62 mile an hour winds, but WILD HAIR sat untroubled on anchor through the blow. Dave and I wondered when we would get clobbered with Mother Nature’s full bag of tricks while underway. She decided to give us the works late in the day on our maiden voyage into Chesapeake Bay.

Having sailed with ease through the Intercoastal Waterway of North Carolina, Dave and I didn’t stop to think about the population challenge of the Portsmouth-Norfolk region: bridges. That day, with me at the helm, we negotiated 9 bridges, 8 of which restricted their openings at the hour and the half hour. A waterway lock made additional technical demands as strong currents played our keel like a puppet master. Our progress was further threatened by afternoon rush hour when all bridges promised to be closed to recreational boat traffic from 3:30 until 5:00 pm. Astonishingly, we made the last bridge on our course at 3:28 pm with two minutes to spare.

It was after the bridges and locks that we passed Red “36” and spotted the storm.

With all the sails stowed, we pulled back on the throttle. “No reason to plow right into the worst of it,” reasoned Dave. Zippering down the side panels that cocoon our cockpit, and putting kitten Dinghy safely below decks, we prepared for the worst.

The storm was torrential. Visibility diminished rapidly to nothing. With our radar glowing red, orange, and yellow from the weather front, we could no longer pick up the location of ships and channel markers. Navigating to our destination, a new-to-us marina notoriously difficult for deep keeled sailboats to get into was impossible. We needed a Plan B.

“Bill,” I shouted into the cell phone. “Where can we throw an anchor for the night?”

Bill was the knowledgeable marina manager expecting our arrival at Bell Isle Marina in Hampton, Virginia. “There is no place to anchor, Heather.” With that declaration, Dave and I knew Plan B meant taking turns on watch until daylight, turning circles in the Chesapeake a safe distance from land.

“But,” Bill pointed out, “I’m not seeing anything behind this line of storms. It should clear and you should be able to make it in before dark.”

We backed up our radar image to a three-state perspective and saw he was right. Turning circles all night wasn’t necessary. All we needed to do was avoid hitting anything until the viscous front blew over. We cooled our jets and scanned the water around us for container ships as best we could.

The worst of it passed and blue patches of sky emerged. I rolled up our side panels to see clearly and Dave and I began the careful process of picking our way through the channel markers toward the marina. Bill’s last words rang in my head: “Although it’ll look like you can, do not cut between the islands or you’ll go aground. Also, hug the beach!”

Sure enough, as the sun emerged we misinterpreted the channel markers and headed straight between the islands. “Wait, no!” Dave shouted. “We’ve got to be over there!” A quick spin of the ship’s wheel careened us back into deep waters.

“Have you got Green ‘9’ followed by Green ‘9-A’ and Green ‘9-B’? Look, you can see them all curving around the point,” I coached my husband.

“Got it!” he said. “So far, so good.”

The curve off Chesapeake Bay led into stunning Back Creek made more beautiful by the aviary of birds nesting on the beach in the setting sun.

“Hug the beach!” I shouted as Dave took the corner too wide. “Hug the beach!” I shouted more urgently to his non-response. “MAKE A U-TURN NOW!” I demanded as I saw our next channel marker sliding behind us.

With that, Dave swung the wheel and put Red “2” properly on our starboard side. “Wow,” mused Dave. “You mean ‘hug the beach!’” We cruised strangely but safely within ten feet of the shoreline.

Between Green “9” and Red “10,” the chart indicated we should leave the channel and head toward the marina. White-knuckled, Dave made the turn in 5.2 feet of water. Knowing we needed to come into the marina at mid- to high-tide, we were surprised to find our keel still cleared the creek’s floor by a mere two inches. Further, the required turn was scattered with debris, broken off channel markers that did their best to guide us toward the deepest water. The approach looked treacherous by every measure and was nearly impossible to read. Dave took the leap of faith, made his best guess at the route, and motored in.

By this time, Bill had gone home and Marty, the owner of Belle Isle Marina, was on the cell phone giving aid. “Go to the ‘B’ dock, the second pier on your left and back into any slip,” he said.

Instantly we noted the marina catered to twin engine fishing boats. Most of the boats present were less than 20 feet long. Short, twin engine fishing boats have no trouble spinning on a dime and backing into a slip. With a single rotating prop that works inefficiently in reverse, sailboats as a rule don’t back up. The notion of WILD HAIR “backing into a slip” with the wind still blowing 25 knots was ridiculous. After two tries, Dave announced he was done. He pulled straight along the marina’s face pier. I tossed the lines to Marty, he killed the engine, and we were at our new home.

There are a hundred delightful, accessible marinas in the Norfolk-Portsmouth-Hampton area. I am un-embarrassed to admit that we selected Belle Isle Marina because it was inexpensive. Here, we’re renting a slip for a month at the same rate we paid for a night in the Bahamas. So, we don’t mind the inconvenience of waiting for tide or the difficulties navigating Back Creek. Besides, challenges give us an opportunity to be exultant over our ever-improving teamwork.

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