Tender Bridge Tender -
November 6, 2003
Some people get around by car, others travel on boats. Some do both. Most of the time, these two transportation modes coexist with minimal conflict. Difficulties arise, however, when a road crosses a waterway (or vice versa). Potentially, motorists could take a plunge or boaters could slam to a halt. Bridges offer a not-always perfect solution. If the bridge is high enough, everyone is happy. At water level, mariners can churn along unimpeded, while their terrestrial brethren whiz across high overhead.
It's the lower, opening bridges that create controversy. When they're closed, boaters view them as intolerable obstacles. When they're open, motorists see them as outrageous impediments. It's physically impossible to satisfy both groups at the same time. The folks in boats grumble as they drift around waiting for an opening. People in cars fume as they wait in line behind a traffic barrier. They blame each other for the delay. And, invariably, everyone blames the bridge tender. In the opening lines to her song Tender Bridge Tender, Eileen voices the typical boater response to a bridge delay:
Tender bridge tender, I'm under your power
We've revised our opinion of bridge tenders over the years. Just recently, we had the pleasure of conversing with several of these much maligned souls as we ducked in and out of "the ditch" getting to Florida from Chesapeake Bay. Overall, we found that they're doing a pretty good job. It can't be easy trying to satisfy all those conflicting demands. Boaters want them to open, motorists want them to close. Sitting all alone up in the bridge house, that's a lot of stress and responsibility. As Eileen continues in her song,
Tender bridge tender, are you lonely like me
Our favourite bridge tender works at the Alligator River Bridge in North Carolina. A couple of weeks ago when we called her on the radio to request an opening, she came back with, "Honey, I'd love to open for you. I'll stop the traffic right now and y'all come up." And after we had passed through, she called, "Y'all have a safe trip and come back to see me, y'hear?" It's nice to encounter someone who clearly enjoys her job; we'd love to meet her in person some day.
Relating well to bridge tenders requires a certain level of trust. Some are eager to get you through as quickly as possible, whether you're in a hurry or not. When we were passing through Daytona Beach, the well-meaning lady at the Memorial Highway Bridge exhorted, "Keep her coming, captain; I'll have her open by the time you get here." Now, Eileen finds it a bit counterintuitive to aim our boat squarely at a massive concrete and steel structure and plough ahead at a steady six knots. She wailed, "What if the bridge tender misjudges our speed and doesn't open in time? Or what if there's a mechanical failure at mid-hoist?"
"You've got to have faith," David replied, hoping the perspiration beading on his forehead wasn't too obvious. We kept our speed up, the bridge opened, and we slipped through with all of our spars and rigging intact. These people know their jobs.
We had only one unfriendly encounter with a bridge tender on our recent trip. The Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine only opens every half hour. We crossed St. Augustine Inlet at 1320 and, with less than a mile to go, we figured we'd make the 1330 opening no problem. As we entered the Matanzas River, however, we got hit with a knot of contrary current. David upped the revs to maintain our speed. In quick succession a motor sailor and then a big sports fisherman passed us. They were obviously gunning for the same 1330 opening. David surmised, "They'll get to the bridge in time to start the opening, so we don't have to worry about being a minute or two late." He eased back on the throttle.
We rounded the final bend and saw the two other boats by the bridge. The bridge was still closed. It was exactly 1330. "Great, we made it in time!" David exclaimed. We coasted up to join the others. At 1335, the bridge was still closed and David began some tricky manoeuvring in the current to avoid becoming entangled with the boats anchored in front of the Castillo de San Marcos. We heard the sports fisherman call the bridge. "Well, are you going to open or what?" he demanded.
"I only open on the hour and half hour, sir," the bridge tender responded.
"I've been waiting here for over five minutes," the sports fish sputtered.
"Yes, I've been watching you, but you never requested an opening," was the reply.
The voice of the sports fish went up an octave. "Well, what the hell do you think I was doing here? Okay, then, I request an opening NOW!"
"Sorry, sir, I only open on the hour and half hour."
The sports fish continued with some apoplectic comments, the rest of us waited silently, and at 1400 the bridge promptly opened.
Now it would be pretty easy to gripe about the uncooperative conduct of the Bridge of Lions tender, but we prefer to give her the benefit of the doubt. As we mentioned before, it's not an easy job. If she had opened the bridge off-schedule, she inevitably would have suffered an earful from some burly trucker. Add to that the fact that her job is already endangered. More and more opening bridges are being replaced with tall fixed ones. Just in the last few years we've noted the elimination of the Fairfield Highway Bridge across the Alligator - Pungo Canal, plus two of the bridges in Daytona, and the Merrill P. Barber Bridge in Vero Beach, Florida. You can't really blame bridge tenders for being inflexible when they figure their jobs are on the line.
And who knows what emotional ties have developed over the years between bridge tenders and the boaters they serve? Eileen's song concludes on a poignant note:
I'm coming back, he's the one for me
Of course, lots of people (not all of them heartless) would be perfectly happy if ALL of the opening bridges were replaced by 65 foot high fixed structures. Commenting on the new bridge in Vero, our friend Kelvin Taylor, the wharfinger at the municipal marina, claimed, "If they hadn't built it, there would be cars driving into the Indian River now. The old bridge just couldn't handle all of the traffic."
The new Barber Bridge is a source of pride among the local populace for reasons other than its practical benefits. Legend has it that the bridge was the first public works project in Florida history that was completed ahead of schedule and under budget - something that earned engineer Joe Borello a state employee of the year award and dinner with the governor. Vero residents are still amazed by the feat. Many come out to see the bridge's elegant curves lit up at night (the best view just happens to be from the deck of the Riverside Bar & Restaurant, our favourite Vero watering hole). And not insignificantly, the designers included a dedicated promenade for fishermen, which could well be the bridge's most popular and well used feature.
But we still remember the old Barber Bridge, including one frustrating incident when we ran aground waiting for an opening. And although we enjoy sipping our beer at the Riverside and watching the flood lights on the new bridge come on at dusk, we can't help wondering what ever happened to the old bridge tender. How many heartbroken boaters did he leave behind?