A woman on the boat was talking about her doctor the other day. He said his patients are reluctant to drive from Williamsburg to Hampton to see a specialist. (You’d think we have all the specialists here by now, but that’s another discussion.)
Her implication was that traffic is so bad on Interstate 64 as to discourage any travel on it, never mind commuting to work. Routine traffic inexplicably halts due to clogging. Accidents paralyze the route for an hour or more. Things are getting rectified with a $150 million expansion to three lanes in both directions between Williamsburg and Newport News. The work has proceeded in three segments beginning in mid-2015.
Interstate 95 is worse and offers no reprieve in the way of expansion. It’s already five and six lanes across in Northern Virginia. One family on the boat took 11 hours to drive here from northern New Jersey. When I ask guests for their biggest headaches in life, commutation is the second-worst, topped only by enduring a terrible boss at work.
No such gridlock is found on the water. Unlike Annapolis, the self-proclaimed Sailing Capital of the World, the York River is wide open every day to all manner of boat traffic. Unlike San Diego, where people dodge Navy ships in the harbor, the York River has one Navy ship transit the Coleman Bridge every week. The 30-second video above shows a panorama at Yortown from the bridge to the mouth, with not a single boat to be seen on a bright and beautiful afternoon.
I went into my credit union one day and watched a scrolling screen of pleasant images. All of a sudden Let’s Go Sail popped up–my boat! It turned out they hired a freelance photographer to shoot magnificent outdoor scenes, and mine was one.
It might be more fun to have a half-dozen sailboats to play with, and that certainly is the case on the weekends. During the three extended summer weekends, dozens of sailboats turn out and look magnificent. Otherwise it’s clear sailing up and down the river. People love it.
Sailing a Tall Ship
Jim and Jo Ann Giesen of Ford’s Colony made a return voyage from last year, bringing with them their son Mike and new bride Jess.
Mike had no problem on deck casting off. “I sailed on the US Brig Niagara,” he said. “It’s a warship made to replicate the same from the War of 1812. The ship goes out of Cleveland with tourists, and I worked on it for six weeks. That including going up the mast 110 feet to drop the sails from the yard.”
Naturally I yielded him the helm as we proceeded out into the York under light winds. Given his experience, we set the spinnaker to run downriver. Eventually the wind died, so I kidded Mike that he failed the spinnaker test. Everyone laughed.
“Everything about the Niagara was authentic. We weren’t allowed to wear gloves because those were unheard of back then. More importantly, they said there was risk the gloves would get caught in the lines and that your fingers were actually safer without gloves.” Now you tell me, 40 years later.
Jess took the helm and asked for a photo. “I want to send it to my grandfather, who used to take me sailing. He’s 87 now. Wait, let me fix my hair.”
The couple are public defenders in Miami. Under questioning, they related fascinating tales about police laxity that make it easier to get defendants off. Mike ran a scenario involving a cop on the stand. “Do the police have the capacity to run DNA tests? Yes. Did you run a DNA test on my client? No. Why not?” Jess added, “They never learn. Juries are already biased against police, so we clear a lot of trial clients.”
In the distance we saw a Moran tug going downriver with his fire hoses firing a salute for the Fourth of July weekend. Behind it was another Moran tug escorting the USNS Zeus out of the York and back to the Atlantic, where it lays intel cable on the ocean floor for months at a time.
Back to sailing. Jess said, “I’m from Berkeley, and my parents took me into San Francisco for the 2017 America’s Cup races. We watched from shore as they rounded Alcatraz. They stayed entirely in the Bay, never going under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Later that day, longtime sailor Jeanne Kushabar brought two friends from Ford’s Colony. They were joined by a young couple from Ft. Eustis. The winds picked up from the east so we sailed straight out on just two tacks, reaching all the way to the Perin River buoy.
Brandon Hickey has nine years in the Army and Stephanie Fulig has four. They do helicopter maintenance and repairs across multiple platforms. He works Chinooks and she works Black Hawks. Stephanie had no sailing experience but quickly got it. She heeled to 30+ degrees as the winds picked up. There is something about military service that inspires confidence.
A family from Yorktown and a father and daughter from New Kent took a serene sail where they got to fly the spinnaker. John Kruger was on a return cruise and thought it would be advantageous for his daughter Noelle, who’s in high school. “I took her to Kitty Hawk to go hand gliding,” he said. “I loved it,” she said. “We also went in a glider, up 2,000 feet with an instructor who let me fly for 15 minutes. Very cool.” Skydiving is next, but not until she turns 18. The wind picked up in the afternoon when I took a couple out to cuddle on the bow.
Learning to Sail
There’s nothing scary about learning to sail because the lessons are easy and the sailing is fun. Rabih Khouri and Leyna Downing went out on a quiet day to learn the ropes, having studied a bit and seen a few movies. The wind was light at 3 mph as we headed for Yorktown with Leyna on the helm. “My grandfather sailed a catamaran in the Caribbean and my uncle sailed competitively while I was growing up, so I suppose it’s in my blood,” she said.
We worked on the Close Reach as optimum, the Beam Reach for staying flat, and the Broad Reach for spinnaker. They handled the spinnaker just fine and we flew down the York at 4 mph. By then the wind had picked up so we could tack back on a Close Reach that got our speed up to 10 mph and the heeling to 15 degrees. Perfection. They intend to get a boat and go cruising around Chesapeake Bay on the weekends. It’s the ultimate couples experience, and there is no gridlock out there.
Rabih is a an engineer with a unique career. “Everything I do is underwater,” he said. “We’re working now on the HRBT tunnel expansion, which will be a separate tunnel bored under the water. It will have four lanes going in one direction, and the old tunnels will be four lanes total in the other direction. The cost is $3.2 billion. You can follow it on VDOT’s website. The new tunnel will go past the island that’s out there now. That big building on the island is the pump house that keeps water out of the existing tunnel. The project includes a separate bridge as well for the new four lanes. It will probably be higher than the existing bridge.” Because of sea-level rising due to global warming? “Yes.”
“Some of my work takes me up on top of girders high in the air. People get nervous because I use a cane, but it helps steady me. I need it for balance after I had a tumor removed from my brain. Among the side effects is that I can predict rain. The change in barometric pressure affects nerves in my head and gives me a headache.” I was watching the skyline and occasionally looking at my weather app for approaching storms. “We have about an hour,” he said, reading my mind. And he was exactly right. By 2:30 when we got in the rain began to fall.
Sailing the Tennessee
A beautiful young couple from Alabama took a day off touring to tour the water instead. Allison and Andy Atkins had never sailed and just wanted to experience the serenity of the atmosphere. They each ran the helm in light winds that eventually built to 10 mph. The York reminded Andy of the Tennessee River.
“I used to work on tugboats and barges,” he recalled. “The tugs ran to 100 tons, and we worked 5o to 100 barges a week. Mostly hauling steel. Some of the tugs were quite large, up to 11o feet with three big diesel engines. Very powerful, like that,” he pointed to the Bunny C, which was knocking off for the day on the Coleman Bridge job. “I spent 13 years on the tugs and barges.”
Sometimes what you learn on a sailboat has nothing to do with the couple, but their extended family. “We have four kids ranging in age 14, 12, 10 and 4. They’re from previous marriages except the four-year-old, he’s ours together. They’re a lot to handle, but nothing like my sister’s.
“Shelly has 10 children, seven of them adopted and all seven with Down’s Syndrome. They have three biological children as well, and they help out. She was deeply affected by our aunt, who had Down’s. Back then, they weren’t sure what to make of it. Shelly and her husband (he’s retired military), adopted the Down’s kids from Bulgaria, Siberia, Ukraine and other countries. People ask why they don’t adopt in this country, but there’s a long waiting list.
“You should see the before-and-after pictures. They were skin and bones over there, and now they’re fine physically. Shelly got her master’s in special ed from the University of Alabama. She advocates for Down’s children. Hers are all well except the oldest. He has severe autism as well as Down’s and acts out sometimes. But together they are the most well-behaved children you’ll ever see. They’re fully functional, help out, do the laundry. Three of the younger ones are on feeding tubes, actually.”
Allison slowly sailed toward a 28-foot boat with a solo sailor who didn’t quite see us. I suggested she overtake him, and she tried. Eventually we got close enough to take a photo, and I elected to tack away rather than surprise him. He’ll be sufficiently surprised to get the photo, 8 x 10. I take them of local boats so the owners finally have a picture of the thing under sail.
Let’s Go Sail
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Get Away from Gridlock by Sailing
Visitors to Williamsburg who enjoy Let's Go Sail often marvel about how wide open the York River is, free of boat traffic. It sure beats vehicular gridlock at home.
Capt. Bill O'Donovan
Williamsburg Charter Sails
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