An experienced boating couple who spent decades on various cruisers and motor yachts got to go sailing for the first time. Charles Grimes took Tammy Bell and her parents JoAnne and Tom Bell sailing on the York River, and they loved it. The Bells found it exciting in a brisk wind of 15 mph that fluctuated for hours. We passed the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station where two Navy cruisers were in port.
JoAnne got the hang of the helm quickly and adjusted her course to the wind. “I like this,” she said. “I like this a lot. It’s better than a motorboat. It’s much quieter.”
Tom said, “We lived on the Intercoastal Waterway at Mile Marker 44. That’s 20 nautical miles south of Waterside in Norfolk, on the Elizabeth River. I had three boats at one time and it was just too much. Every time I came home after work, all I saw was boats. When I retired I sold the boats.
They lived near the Great Bridge Locks. You would think the water would be at the same level since it’s all on the East Coast, but Pungo Bay drops off. Tom said, “The lock moves water four to six feet depending on the wind and the tide. You can’t tie up in there, either. People do that and go out for lunch and come back to find their boat hanging high.” I couldn’t find photos of the locks, but here’s a video of the nearby Dismal Swamp locks. The photo is of Great Bridge, next to the lock.
He added, “It’s a parade of boats. Sometimes on the weekend in the summer they’re backed up three or four hours just to get through the lock. Commercial ships take priority and recreational are after them. It gets really hot while waiting in the lock, because you’re way down there with no breeze. It’s an amazing thing, those locks. All the valves and doors and machinery are well constructed.”
Karma on the Water
JoAnne recalled the first time they went out on a big cabin cruiser. “We had just moved in when I guy asked if we’d like to go out on his boat. Oh sure! We were out on the water when he looked ashore and said, ‘I wonder what the poor people are doing today.’ We didn’t think anything of it at the time. But a week later he lost his job and his house, and the engine on the boat blew up. So we’re very careful about what to say when enjoying a boat.” She added while looking to the back yards along the York shoreline. “But we sure enjoy this.”
They admired the cleanliness of the boat and recalled the challenge on their boats. “I remember a guy whose boat was such a wreck that it kept breaking down—in the channel of all places,” Tom said. ‘“You need to maintain your boat better, so I don’t have to come out and tow you,’ I told him.” JoAnne added, “One time he took the boat out of his slip and quickly jumped off at a dock at the marina because he discovered two raccoons living on board. This guy just wouldn’t take care of his boat. He was a pediatrician, a doctor for Pete’s sake.”
JoAnne and Tom saw everything along the ICW.
“The worst was a cigarette boat zooming down the straightaway in front of our house,” JoAnne recalled. “They were going too fast and weren’t aware of a curve in the canal. I knew they were going to crash. They were loud and drunk and we could shout but they couldn’t hear us. Sure enough the boat hit the bank and rose up into the trees before stopping.”
Tom added, “We could hear them screaming until the marine police and the Norfolk police arrived. They said they weren’t drunk, but they were. One guy went through the windshield and another had the steering wheel crushed into his chest. A third guy broke both legs. The owner came back two weeks later to get the boat out of the trees, some eight or ten feet high. ‘I can fix it,’ he said.”
They had their share of problems. “I fell off the 34-foot cruiser I once in December in the cold water,” Tom shuddered. “I quickly jumped up out of that water.” Altogether they spent around 20 years on the ICW. “We just love the water, love being around it and taught our kids to love it,” JoAnne said. I asked Tom if despite all the maintenance and other issues if he missed the boats. He hesitated and looked wistful. “Yeah,” he said quietly, “I do.”
Let’s Go Sail the Intercoastal
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