All the Ships at Sea
Two young couples went sailing for a little adventure on their respective wedding anniversaries. They wound up encountering a lot of adventure, as they saw all the ships at sea.
Craig Pancake of New Creek, West Virginia, took his wife Elissa out. Jean-Louis Lombos of Richmond took his wife Jennifer out as well, with a twist. “Sailing is on her bucket list, and she’s always wanted to learn how to sail.”
Once we cleared the channel of Sara Creek to get into the York River, we hoisted both sails and showed Jen how the theory of wind works. She took the helm and followed a heading more or less accurately as she got adjusted to the wheel.
Off to port I saw a big red Moran tugboat approaching, so I quickly turned the boat around and raised the captain on the radio. “I saw you with your sails out and was about to alter [course],” he responded. I told him I was giving him leeway even though I had the right-of-way, and he appreciated that.
A half hour later we encountered a Vane Bros. tug pushing a working barge. We radioed back and forth to avoid each other. It looked like he was working on the dredging project at nearby Wormley Creek.
The winds were light but fluky, which is an excellent way to learn. But Jen became frustrated at holding course. I directed her to the Coleman Bridge and suggested the southwest wind might take us directly there. We wound up tacking to transit the center of the bridge because the current knocked the boat around below.
Once past the bridge, Jen was able to turn upriver and hold course on a close reach. She had the sail plan well in hand. Soon we encountered two fellows in a small motorboat, drifting with their engine conked out and taking on water below deck, in the cabin.
One of them was bailing water out the back at a pretty good rate. He didn’t have a marine radio, so I took the wheel and sailed back behind him. As I circled around, I shouted to ask if he needed a tow. Not that I could do it, since I’m not licensed, but I was offering to call Sea Tow. The other fellow said he was on the phone at that moment with Sea Tow, and they both seemed confident they had the situation under control. We sailed away.
Soon we were near the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, so I again took the wheel to transit safely. I saw the Moran tugboat and figured it was getting ready to welcome a Navy destroyer or cruiser coming up from Norfolk. Inexplicably two Navy patrol boats hovered several hundred yards off the pier.
We sailed halfway up to Cheatham Annex and doubled back. Jen was learning the close reach, close haul and beam reach. She learned how to spill wind in a gust by releasing the traveler and by easing the mainsheet out. She was so good that she was able to sail under the Coleman Bridge without any difficulty.
Once back in open water, she had a straight shot downriver to sail in almost any direction. Near the Coast Guard Station, she tacked around and offered the helm to Craig Pancake.
Navy Submarine Ahead!
I quickly noticed one of the Navy patrol boats a few hundred feet away, with the Moran tug nearby. Suddenly the patrol boat made a fast dash toward us, with .50 caliber guns poised. The boat stopped 100 feet away and one of the crew shouted at us. None of could hear him, so I waved my radio speaker at him and hollered, “Go to 16!”
He did, and responded clearly. “This is Navy Patrol Boat 232! We are escorting a Navy submarine out to sea! Be advised there is a naval vessel protection zone of 500 yards in all directions! Please turn to port!”
I realized instantly that turning to port would put me on a direct collision course with the submarine. I responded, “You mean starboard!” He acknowledged his mistake and we sailed off in a different direction to provide plenty of leeway.
Upon reflection, I realized that the Moran tug and the Navy patrol boats were not awaiting a Navy ship coming in. They were waiting to escort the submarine out. The sub was so small that the conning tower was nearly disguised against the Navy pier.
Craig was aghast at finding himself at the wheel for the first time all day and the first time in his life, only to encounter a submarine. He did an excellent job changing course.
More Radio Traffic
We could hear radio traffic from the Navy as the parade continued down the river, out to York Channel on the way back to the Norfolk Naval Base. The crew alternated men to do the radio warnings, which I could tell they were reading from a script to get the hang of it. We could hear the astonished responses from the boats they encountered. One sailor said, “Oh my God! Now I see the submarine!” Our amusement at his discovery led us to think the Navy crew was having a good time scaring the civilian mariners. All in good fun.
Later Craig sailed over to Yorktown when we encountered another Moran tug. It was headed back to Norfolk. We were on a similar bearing, so I radioed my course and asked for instructions. He agreed to take my stern, which is the protocol.
We can go days on end without finding or encountering other ship traffic. This was quite the adventure, and quite the learning exercise.
Let’s Go Sail
Check rates and pick a day for a sailboat charter. See reviews on Trip Advisor from sailors like you.