Two couples from Richmond and Lynchburg had never met until they went out on the York River to learn how to sail. What they got was a primer on the water and a rare view of a passing Navy submarine.
En route to the nearby Naval Weapons Station at Yorktown, it’s the captain’s choice whether to request an opening of the Coleman Bridge. Of course, the sub can clear the bridge in terms of height, but opening ensures greater security. On the other hand, scooting under an open bridge is much less obvious. Myriad issues drive the decision. Keep that in mind next time you play golf in a captain’s choice tournament.
We started out by tacking downriver in 7 mph winds that were perfect for teaching. Everyone got a round on the helm to feel the bite of the rudder in the water as we sailed close to the wind. Soon a Moran tugboat lumbered into sight, almost on a collision course. I radioed the captain and he acknowledged me to continue on course.
We turned around early to make a downwind run with the spinnaker. All four students got to feel the hyper-delicate touch required downwind. As the wind picked up, the waves did as well and the delicate wheel exaggerated small movements. The boat began to rock with the waves, and with it the spinnaker rocked from side to side off the bow. Soon a second Moran tug came behind us. A 40-foot Hunter was tracking us from behind until we popped the spinnaker. It slowly got smaller and smaller as we accelerated toward Yorktown.
Near the Yorktown Monument, we doused the spinnaker and reset both sails to drive a beam reach across the river to VIMS. From there, we would get to see the sub up close as it neared the bridge. Everyone got to sense the rudder effect of a big wind on a beam reach.
Meanwhile, Navy Patrol Boat 507 kept announcing its presence and clearing the way for the sub. “All vessels must stay back 500 yards from the submarine!” That’s impractical in a shipping lane channel, but by now the sub had cleared the USCG dock and was headed toward us. “Do not cross the bow of a submarine!” Right.
507 charged at us with a .30 caliber gun on the bow and .50 cal on the stern as six Marines in combat guard looked every bit the part. I tried to raise them on radio to state my position, which was standing off on the north shore. They didn’t acknowledge, instead announcing by loudspeaker, “Sailboat, do you hear us!”
“Yes!” I shouted while waving the radio microphone for them to see. We were only 50 feet away. “You’re not responding on radio.” Suddenly they did respond on radio and realized their error. To save face, one of them responded. “We will stand here between you and the submarine as it passes.” A buddy probably said to forget that since it’s just a sailboat, and they zoomed away under the bridge. The tugboat Wendy Moran emerged from the bridge piling to radio the sub, code named Event D, requesting a slower speed of 7 knots so the harbor pilot could board the sub for docking.
As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, I heard the crew cry, “Dolphins!” There they were, surfacing close to our boat. We hadn’t seen them in two weeks, and I assumed they left for the season. The submarine probably churned them up from below. By the end of the sail, we logged 31.5 miles and a top speed of 14.3 mph.
Sailing to China
The next day, Paul Try and Linda Kligman returned from two years ago with Linda and Gary Davis to sail on behalf of the Williamsburg Opera Association. Melody and James Owen joined us for Day 2 of their weekend pursuit of lessons and boat-buying tips. They plan to sail to the Caribbean next year and have made a quick start as quick studies. Similar to the previous day, they traded off on the helm coping with 15 mph winds and rising waves. Everyone loved it as they soared along the York.
James is a policeman who also volunteers with dog rescues. “Ours is a live-find dog, not a cadaver-find. Those are so good that they can smell a body under water as the boat nears it. Our dog is better with missing people who are still alive. It’s a Dutch shepherd and looks like a Bengal tiger. He’s never been on a boat before.” We postulated that he’d be good for finding a man overboard.
Paul and I chatted about the opera challenges and then changed the subject to travel. “We just got back from China, which we visited in 2002. The big difference that is obvious is the traffic. Back then, people on bicycles filled three of four lanes of any highway. Today they have been replaced by cars, and big cars at that unlike Europe. And of course motorbikes are big too.”
On another subject, he said, “You know that China bought Smithfield Foods for their pigs. I asked why China would import hogs instead of growing them themselves. It’s because they don’t have enough feed growing to grow the hogs. This is a country with 1.8 billion people.”
In mid-afternoon, Diana and Bob Alin hosted Bud Warner and his wife Marie, whom they brought from the Hornsby House Inn in nearby Yorktown. Bud recently spent 18 months building a small sailboat. “It’s made of all wood, even the cleats. It’s rigged as a catboat with the mast far forward on the bow. Then a bowsprit juts out to fly the jib. People say, ‘What a cute old boat,’ but I tell them it’s only a year old. She’s called Wee Mary.”
Sailing with Physicists
As the weekend arrived, Hurricane Michael was long gone, leaving behind clear skies and a very calm Saturday morning. A crew of six young physicists arrived for a charity auction cruise involving a church daycare that one of them belongs to. They were celebrating Kelly Klutz’s birthday, so she got to assign the helmsmen in rotation.
Three of the team work at Jefferson Lab and three work in W&M Physics. John Leckey explained the breakthrough that Jeff Lab publicized earlier this year involving proton studies. They talked of their world travels for physics: Hong Kong, mainland China, Australia, Vancouver, Switzerland. They talked about children too, and John’s wife Cara is due in February.
Austin Ziltz said, “We had to put Jonah in time out because he told his mother to shut up. She asked where he got that and he said from me. He had heard me tell her to shut up. So we both spent time in time-out, and I explained a lot to him about that.”
John and Cara once took a sailing course that was more classroom than water-based. “It was eight hours a day for multiple weekends. One guy was on cocaine and hoping to pass so he could run his father’s 50-foot boat. He wasn’t doing very well and asked the instructors if they would come along with him and they said no.” We contemplated a guy on cocaine behind the wheel.” As if reading our thoughts, Cara said, “Don’t get near any boats, that’s my rule.”
John turned out to be quite the helmsman. The winds were building from 2 to 10 to 15, and at one point we reefed the Genoa. Later I broke the reef and with the wind still building, John broke through the record 15 mph level not once but three times. It was exhilarating.
In the afternoon, a former Navy man brought his wife and her parents along in the brisk winds. With us were a couple from Richmond who sail a 50-foot Bavarian in Tortola. Richard Puckett took the wheel and never looked back. The Navy fellow, Keith Stevenson, explained about a submarine and an LCS troop carrier in dock at Naval Weapons Station. , tWith binoculars, he said, “It looks like a Virginia Class sub, the way the con is raked slightly backward. It’s an attack sub, bigger than the LA Class but smaller than the Ohio Class.” Keith noticed two Moran tugs straddling the sub and said they were weighing anchor. Sure enough, away they went along with the Navy Patrol barking orders at everyone to stay away. I notified them I was sailing off to the north.
We turned as the sub parade neared the Coleman Bridge. As occurred earlier in the week, the captain left the bridge closed since he or she could easily transit underneath. The big question was whether they would stop traffic above, and they didn’t. Within half an hour as the sub cleared the York Channel, the unidentified LCS (Littoral Class Ship) got underway as well.
We ended the day covering 56 miles in wonderful winds and conversation.
Sailing with a Legend
Grayson Williams joined us for Day 2 of the Williamsburg Area Learning Tree series of classes. He regaled a visiting student from Memphis with the night he spent with an overturned sailboat in the James River during the 1940s. He’s also still big into Toastmasters even though his vision is failing. I told him about a copperhead rattlesnake we found in our back yard, and he took off.
“A guy in Toastmasters told us how he killed a copperhead in his driveway. Now this is a fellow who’s a big nature lover, very much into wildlife and conservation. He only kills what he can eat. Well, he wasn’t going to eat a copperhead. So after he killed it he put it into a jar as if to preserve it. He called the Virginia Living Museum, but they didn’t want anything to do with a dead snake. So he put the jar in his own refrigerator. We can only imagine what his wife thought about that.”
We sailed in painfully light winds that were actually quite useful for teaching. The Memphis student, David Comas, moved the starboard block for the Genoa sheet to make the sail more puffy. We had to bang on it because the car had been frozen in place for years. Eventually we put the spinnaker up, which was a first for him.
For the afternoon run, the winds picked up nicely after clocking around to become easterly. Two anesthesiologists from Virginia Beach brought their family, which included two adorable boys aged 8 and 10. Kathleen Brenner went to UNC Chapel Hill where she ran competitively. “I still run half-marathons and shorter, but my first race was in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. Now my girlfriends and I take long weekends to do local races. I can run seven miles in eight minutes, but I have to be careful of my knees.” Her husband Matthias Koenig cautioned, “Your body will tell you when to stop. Listen to it.”
We listened to the wind as it picked up and then flew the spinnaker for a second time on a long run back to Yorktown.
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Two couples learning to sail got to see a Navy submarine transit under the Coleman Bridge. It's the captain's choice whether to request the bridge be opened.
Capt. Bill O'Donovan
Williamsburg Charter Sails
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