Roads and Rivers

By Tom Neale, 1/13/2005


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

High-rise bridges, like low-rise bikinis, mean fewer surprises.

We’ve made so many trips on the east coast ICW that I’ve lost count, of the number of trips and the number of bridges. The low-rise bridges come in all kinds. There are swing bridges, lift bridges, bascule bridges---even a pontoon bridge. They must open for most boats of cruising size. There are also high-rise bridges and, thankfully, they’re replacing many of the opening ones. They don’t have to do anything to let you pass, except not fall down. Usually there aren’t any surprises here.

The surprises come with the bridges that must open. The most common surprise comes when they don’t open when they’re supposed to. Occasionally it’s because of a problem with the bridge tender or a traffic emergency, but usually it’s because of a malfunction. It happens so frequently on the ICW that it shouldn’t be a surprise any more; but it always is--especially when you’ve been racing a line of thunderstorms, not to mention the darkness of a squally night, to get to the next safe harbor up ahead. There is also a category of bridges that only open when they’re supposed to. These are on what is euphemistically called a schedule: like every half hour, or every 20 minutes, except sometimes. The problem is that often the schedules cannot be followed (as with malfunctions or emergency vehicular traffic) or don’t work for the circumstances, such as speed of boat, need to reach safe harbors in time, and problems caused by the current and the wind. There’s a series of bridges like this just north of Wrightsville Beach, NC. Their opening schedules are such that many displacement hull boats have their trip lengthened by three hours because they can’t make the “next opening” and have to sit and wait. There are few anchorages and marinas in the stretch, so the wait often means that you have to run in the dark in some very narrow channels with strong currents or that you spend a small fortune tying up overnight for no other reason. Most of the innumerable bridges in Palm Beach and Broward Counties (in FL) were recently put on a new schedule. Much was said about boat traffic flow being unimpeded. But the planners not only seem to have overlooked the time it often takes to get through a congested bridge, they omitted one bridge altogether.


1. When approaching a bridge always monitor the local bridge frequency on VHF, as well as channel 16. These change as you enter different states. For example, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia use channel 13, South Carolina and Florida use channel 09.

2. Believe it or not, many boaters don’t even know which bridge they’re approaching and call out the name for a wrong bridge when requesting an opening. Have an UP TO DATE guide book with bridge listings, including bridge names and schedules. Even schedule listings updated annually will sometimes be wrong because of late breaking changes.

Click Here for More Tips

Other surprises happen when you let the bridge tender run your boat for you. Frequently some will instruct you to “bring it up to the fenders before I open it”. This is because lots of people in cars get very upset when a slow boat makes them wait while it’s chugging along against a current trying to get through the opening. And the bridge tenders have seen lots of boaters who don’t seem to understand what an adverse current will do to their progress forward and who cause unnecessary delays. But we must run our own boats. When the current is against me, I can figure out to come closer to the fenders on my own. The surprise comes when the current is running toward the bridge, you’ve followed the bridge tender’s advice, and gotten close and cozy with the pilings and fenders, barely able to back off and unable to circle in the narrow channel, and the bridge machinery gets stuck or the bridge is simply slow to go up, or a fire truck comes along. We’ve seen boats hit bridges, other boats, and run aground because the operators in essence abdicated control of the wheel to someone sitting on top of a highway bridge.

Bridge tenders who lack understanding of vessel operation issues and who are simply rude really surprise us. This is because most tenders are friendly, professional, and do the best they can under the circumstances to do a good job for everyone. It’s also true that a few boaters become uncommonly rude when they put on their “captain’s caps” and demonstrate an amazing lack of understanding of boating operations. This would take a toll on the good humor of any bridge tender. But all it takes is one bad situation to cause a huge problem. We watched in horror one day as a large tug pushing a much larger barge approached the Wappoo Creek Bridge, just south of Charleston, SC. The rig was being pushed by a current of about 3 knots. With all that water shoving him, he had to really move to maintain steerage. Just before he got to the bridge the tender called him and said he’d have to “stop” because one of the 4 sets of gates wouldn’t go down and she couldn’t open the bridge. The other sets were down and traffic had not only stopped but was backed up. The tug captain had to run his barge into a mud bank to keep from taking out the bridge—not to mention the bridge tender and some folks in cars.

With all the surprises, it’s no surprise that we’re never happy to see yet another bridge under construction. There are lots of construction crews building great bridges (except maybe the ones who built the bridge over the ICW near Jacksonville, FL a couple of years ago and were “just a little short” on vertical clearance), but occasionally the construction crews have a conceptual problem with what’s happening on the water. Sometimes they leave scaffolding or even nets or cables hanging over and make the bridge impassable to tall mast boats for weeks. On one occasion we were told by the bridge construction crew that there was plenty of room to get past two barges that they had, without prior notice, stationed under the span. We looked and, yes, there was horizontal clearance, but they had left a crane positioned so that its boom was swung out over the passageway. It would have dismasted most sailboats and removed the wheel house of many power boats.

Then there’s Norfolk, VA. This is one of the busiest ports in the world with heavy military, commercial and pleasure maritime traffic. There are many bridges with heavy vehicular traffic. The problems are sometimes exacerbated by pleasure boaters who don’t understand the issues such as those of moving tugs and huge barges and large ships with very limited maneuverability. Usually the bridge tenders and commercial people do a great job making it all work. But motorists sometimes become very irate when they have to stop and wait for a bridge opening. Lately a Norfolk TV news reported has discovered that if he rails about boats slowing cars at bridges, he gets a lot of happy viewers. Every so often, especially if a bridge malfunction has delayed highway traffic, he takes a camera crew out to a bridge, leans over the side during an opening, and yells down to pleasure boats (who are trying to safely pass through bridges) such absurdities as, “Why are you stopping all this traffic? Why don’t you go around?” “Around,” incidentally, means around Cape Hatteras—a 237 mile trip in one of the more treacherous parts of the ocean. But the general public apparently loves to see this gentleman on TV, standing on bridges and yelling at boats.

Which is the reason I’m writing this. The non boating public doesn’t understand many issues concerning boats. Issues presented by bridges is but one of them. They don’t understand that an opening delay or failure can mean much more than inconvenience. They don’t understand that you can’t just stop a boat like a car on a highway. The liquid “highway” on which the boat sits is moving, often very strongly toward shallows or obstructions that can hole the bottom. Also, wind will move the boat across that liquid “highway,” into danger, even if the current doesn’t. Further, boats are much more affected by bad weather and nightfall than automobiles. A delay that keeps the boat from reaching safe harbor before being overtaken by either can be dangerous. I drive a car too and I also hate sitting on the road waiting for a bridge when I think I’ve got something important to do. And it’s not always a big deal when I can’t get through a bridge on my boat. I wait, enjoy the day, and go when I can. But when it is a big deal, it can be very big.

The lack of understanding by the general public of boating issues, including bridge issues, is causing more and more problems. Politicians (who ultimately influence bridge regulatory agencies) are always sensitive to “majorities.” But the hue and din of the “majority” honking on a bridge doesn’t justify jeopardizing the safety of boats and boaters. Were that majority to understand, I’m sure they wouldn’t want to jeopardize the safety of boats, boaters or anyone else.

Boating organizations and boaters should work to educate the general public, those boat operators and bridge tenders who need it (hey, that’s all of us, some times), and politicians. We’re all in this together; sometimes we just need to bridge the gap.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale