Spring winds are at once fluky and gusty on the York River. We observed a dangerous situation that got resolved by a puff of wind.
Helen and Jim Curtis of Finksburg MD went out on a brilliant sunny morning, where off in the distance we saw a big Navy ship heading from Chesapeake Bay into the York. It was the USNS Zeus, a cable-laying behemoth that has been deployed the last six months out in the Atlantic.
Meanwhile my dockside friend Chuck Shaffner was sailing his classic 1926 Herreshoff out of our marina into a light breeze. As the wind picked up he started to soar and eventually crossed upriver by going under the Coleman Bridge, where the Zeus was bound en route to Cheatham Annex. Chuck was unaware. We were roughly between the two.
As the Zeus turned in a bend of the channel and headed toward the bridge, I radioed my position and reported that I was proceeding north to get out of the way. Suddenly the wind died, so I had to fire up the engine to make my retreat. I turned and saw that Chuck’s wind died as well, leaving him stalled out under the bridge, directly in the way of the Zeus.
Quickly, I radioed Chuck but he did not respond. So I notified the ship, “Zeus, this is Deadline proceeding north. The other sailboat off your bow has no radio or engine and has stalled out. Be aware. It is not intentional.”
The Zeus captain calmly took that in and then tried to contact Chuck on his radio, to no avail. They were about 1,00 yards apart when a faint gust of breeze caught the Herreshoff and blew it off the center point of the bridge and out of the way. Before long Chuck was sailing toward us, safely.
The Zeus passed a river cruiser docked at Yorktown and chugged through the bridge. The radio operator thanked the Coleman Bridge operator as he started swinging the bridge back to normal. I advised the Zeus that it would be tight fit a few miles upriver at Cheatham Annex because the USNS Cornhusker State was already berthed there. Zeus is 573 feet long and Cornhusker State is 668 feet. You can see by the photo beloe that Zeus did well to tuck into the pier — and without the aid of any tugboats.
When Chuck sailed past us, he said cheerfully, “I heard a noise and looked up to see the bridge starting to open. I thought, ‘I didn’t ask for the bridge to open.’”
A half hour later we heard a new report on marine radio. “Constitution here. We are preparing to make way off of Riverwalk Landing dock and out the York River. Mariners should be aware.” We were sailing gently a few hundred yards away, almost stalled like Chuck in the previous scenario. I radioed back our intentions and asked if we should evade. “No, Captain. You’re fine. We’ll go below you.”
Back at the marina, Chuck executed his customary and flawless docking into the slip under limited sail with no motor. I asked him if he was going to tell his wife what happened. He thought momentarily and chuckled quietly, “No.”
More River Adventure
Helen and Jim Curtis were no strangers to river adventure. He said, “We spent eight days on a Colorado River rafting trip. Our boat had ten high school kids and a parent along with them. We sat in the front with our legs over the bow and our hands behind us holding onto the lines. That way, we could be the first to jump off in the afternoon to find a good place to put our sleeping bags for the night. But the kids beat us to it anyway.”
I asked about the dangers. Helen said, “We went through three sets of Class 5 rapids. All we lost was a rudder, and they had a replacement with them. They were very professional guides.
Jim added, “The trip is 258 miles. They proudly told us that the oldest person they ever had on the trip was 70 years old. I was 77 at the time but thought it wise not to mention that.” Today he is 87 and spry as can be.
RVs and Sailing
In the afternoon, two couples in RV sales took a break from their work at a Gloucester County campground to enjoy the waters of the York River.
Jim Reneau loved it. “I’m thinking of buying a big catamaran. I had a stroke that left me with some stability issues, and the cat is much flatter than a conventional sailboat. But don’t get me wrong, this is wonderful. Our home is in Atlanta, but we’ve been on the road for so long that I haven’t spent three weeks there in five years. Need to sell it and get a boat.”
While Jim roamed the boat at took his wife Brandy up to the bow, their friends Lori and Kenny McGann were content to sit in the cockpit with wine and cheese. “We’re celebrating our 40th anniversary,” Lori said proudly. She hardly looked old enough. “I got married when I was 14 and he was 17. Fortunately, we were mature teenagers. Our children arrived quickly and now we have three beautiful grandchildren. I credit our Christian faith for much of our success. Plus I come from a family with long marriages, so I knew what to expect.”
Kenny and the others explained that they work for a campground timeshare with hundreds of resorts down the East Coast, across the Gulf and along the West Coast. Some people with RVs travel all year long, like the proverbial widow who sails on cruise ships in perpetuity.
“I’ll tell you one thing that RVs and boats have in common,” Kenny said with conviction. “You find yourself repairing them all the time. And I mean all the time. But that’s okay because you have a passion for them and realize the premise.” Boy, did he get that right.
While the two couples enjoyed the ride, Michael Davidsaver ran the helm. He and his wife Stacy were visiting from Wisconsin. “I used to sail with Sea Scouts on various lakes in Wisconsin. One time we got to go to Dallas and sail against Buddy Melges,” the famous boat designer and speedster. “He had four A boats in the race, 40-footers.” That was years ago, but running the boat for Michael was like riding a bicycle.
At one point Michael reluctantly took a phone call, and Kenny jokingly responded for him, “I’m on a sailboat right now, and this is not a conversation I want to interrupt me.” We laughed heartily.
Sailing the Trail
The previous day, Wane and Joy Jackson drove from eastern Tennessee and passed up Washington for Williamsburg instead. Then they went sailing on the York River on a magnificent spring afternoon.
Wane said, “My daddy used to farm along the Inland Waterway in Georgia many years ago. Now all that has been taken for development. He used to see some mighty fine boats come by, including Walter Cronkite’s.”
Although he never sailed before, he did great on the wheel. He took the helm in light winds that led us across the river to Yorktown, but not quite. A mid-current kept us from making ground upriver.
We talked about the great outdoors. “I used to take my son hiking as a boy. Last year he walked the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, all 2,189 miles. He walked almost every day, taking time off in bad weather and to rest or take in a movie. At three places along the trail you come out into cities. He walked the entire length in five and half months. He did it light, without a phone. It changed him, made him more serious, with more confidence in himself. He’ll be 39 next month.”
I sent them up on the bow for several hours to take in the scenery and the birds. Afterward we sailed nearly all the way into the marina. “We really appreciated this,” Wane said. “It’s one of the nicest things I’ve done in the last three or four years.”
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Sailing the Great Outdoors
Four couples had different experiences sailing the great outdoors, including a near miss between a Navy ship and a sailboat.
Capt. Bill O'Donovan
Williamsburg Charter Sails
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