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Sailing Short Stories

Patuxent River to the Pungo Ferry Bridge

My son in-law, Rick Whitney was retiring from the Navy and he wanted to move his Pearson 32 to his new home in Jacksonville, FL. Dick Wertz and I volunteered as crew for part of the trip. The boat was located at Patuxent Naval Air Station in Maryland. The Air Station marina is on Patuxent River across from Solomonís Island and only a few miles from the Chesapeake Bay.

I was stationed at Patuxent River in the early 70s and thatís where I purchased my first sailboat. It was a wooden 12-foot Penguin sailboat that cost $150. I read a how-to sailing book from the library and my son and I tried sailing in the seaplane basin on the base. Seaplanes would land on the river, taxied to the basin; climb the ramp and park on dry land. The basin had concrete walls all around except for the entrance. We launched our Penguin from the seaplane ramp and away we went. It appears to me now that the walls reduced the wind in the basin and that made sailing the tipsy little boat possible for a beginner. We never went swimming with the Penguin. The Naval Air Station was where all Navy and Marine aircraft were tested back in the 70s. I think the companies that manufacture military aircraft today are doing their own testing. The aircraft that used to crowd the runways and hangars at Paxtuent are no longer there.

Rick, Dick and I were going to move that boat south. April may have been a little early to start south and then it might not have been. Anyway, we meet at the boat for the trip south in April. The wind was blowing big time and it was a little cool. The boat was jumping up and down in the slip and it was hard getting on board from the dock. Of course, we were the only people at the marina. The forecast for the lower Chesapeake was 60-knots of wind and 12-foot seas. We spent the night on the boat and the Captain considered our options. He decided that maybe we should go home and try it again the following month. Dick and I didnít say anything, but we knew that sailing in that weather would be more adventure than we wanted. We were happy with the Captainís decision to postpone until the following month. We were giving the rental car people lots of business. It was good that they were located just outside the gate. We though the provisions that we brought with us this time would last for another month on the boat. They were mostly can goods and drinks and they canít spoil.

We met again the following month and the weather looked pretty good. My berth on the Pearson was the ďVĒ berth next to the head. I was sharing the ďVĒ berth with lots of other stuff. My feet were pointing towards the bow and my head was next to the head. I told everyone more than once that I didnít want to feel any sprinkles during the night. Rick was moving lots of personal gear south and we were loaded. We departed the marina after saying goodbye to a good friend. Roy was my Commanding Officer at Patuxent and also rented Rick a house while he was stationed there. He had been a friend to both of us and I was saying goodbye again after 35 years. Now thatís what I call a small World. We motored out in calm water, turned right and continued down the river to the Chesapeake Bay. The Naval Air Station is very large and itís perimeter reaches all the way to the bay. We motored around the station and we were on our way south.

I noticed the exhaust coming out the transom wasnít right. The Pearson had a Volvo diesel that had just been rebuilt. It sounded good and moved the boat well, but the exhaust had steam now and then. The boat had an operational temperature gage and that was going to come in handy as we moved south.

The Chesapeake is really divided into 2 highways. A big boat channel is next to the Eastern Shore and small boats normally travel the water close to the mainland. This is a safety feature that works well for small boats. Our destination on the first day was Deltaville, VA. We passed the entrance to the Potomac River and kept on going. We reduced engine speed on this leg to maintain a normal engine temperature. We were still spurting steam now and then. Not good.

Steam coming out the exhaust indicates that there may be water in a cylinder when the air fuel mixtures fires. The water leak could be external to a cylinder, but very close and in the exhaust system. However if the second possibility were true, the temperature gage would be constant, not getting hotter with a constant engine speed. Not good.

I had been to Deltaville back in the 80s by car. A marina was renting Halman Nordic sailboats at that time and I wanted to sail one before I drove to Canada to purchase a new boat for my business. I liked the Halman and we sold several through the years. Deltaville is a recreational sailing center for Richmond, VA. Itís located at the end of a long highway between Richmond and the Chesapeake Bay. Coming into Deltaville by water, you use a long channel that gives you access to Fishing Bay and the marinas at Deltaville. We saw an anchorage at Godfrey Bay across from Fishing Bay that looked good to us. It had deep water and fair protection from the wind. During a big thunderstorm that night, we wished we had anchored in Fishing Bay that had better protection from the wind and waves off the Bay. The storm gave us a rough ride and then it moved across the Bay and hit the Eastern Shore. It was like a light show in the sky from where we were anchored.

Rick checked the anchor several times during the night while Dick and I sawed logs. I didnít feel any sprinkles during the night. We had sunshine and warm weather the following morning. Our next leg was a short leg to Norfolk. We should arrive in the afternoon if the engine continued to run. We had breakfast and headed out the channel for the Bay. A Hunter Sailboat with its mast down across the deck had shared our anchorage. I suspected that this was being ferried somewhere. Some boats go up and down the East Coast on their own hulls. The Hunter followed us out the channel and passed us before we got to the end. He called out over the engine noise and said that we had steam coming out the exhaust. We thanked him for his warning as he passed us. He turned north at the end of the channel and we turned south behind him. We plotted a direct course from Deltaville to Norfolk. Our plan was to sail in the Bay if we lost the engine. That afternoon the wind was very light and on the nose. We would have had a hard time sailing in those conditions. The engine continued to run at a reduced rate and a safe temperature as Norfolk and the Bridges around Norfolk came into view. At the bottom the Bay, you turn to starboard into Hampton Roads and then turn to port to enter the Elizabeth River. The traffic was heavy and picking out the right navigational buoys were important. We passed the big Navy Ships docked at the Navy Base and continued up the Elizabeth to downtown Norfolk.

Years ago, I sold a Com-Pac 23 to customer in Norfolk. We did a test sail down the Elizabeth River from Portsmouth to Hampton Roads. They were having an air show at the Naval Air Station and the customer wanted to see the show. The Honda motor for the customerís boat wasnít available when I delivered the boat. We had a great sail down the river, down wind to Willoughby Bay and the air show with no motor. Sailing back against the current and the wind was next to impossible. I really tried hard to get that boat back to its slip in Portsmouth. I was tacking back and forth in Hampton Roads and an anchored freighter was doing better than I was going to windward. The current wasnít going to change until after dark, so we parked the boat at the Naval Air Station Marina and took a taxi home. The Honda came in the following week and the customer got his boat back to Portsmouth on his lunch hour. We sold boats at the Norfolk ďIn The Water Boat ShowĒ in the 80s. Our customers were mostly military personnel and other nice people from the Norfolk area. I also attended an electronics school at the Naval Air Station back in my military days. The Air Station has seaplanes on display that were used by the Navy in WW II. Patuxent River has newer aircraft on display at their main gate. The Navy sends most of their old aircraft to the bone yard in Arizona, but they keep a few of the old birds around for historical purposes.

One of the best marinas in Norfolk is Waterside. Itís a marina thatís located in downtown Norfolk. It has restaurants and everything else a big city has to offer within walking distance from the docks. I like Waterside except for maybe the loud music on Saturday nights. The nightclub next to the marina plays loud music until the early morning hours on Sunday. The showers and the food were excellent and we slept well after the music stopped. The showers were on the 4th floor of a tall building next to the docks. We had to take an elevator to the 4th floor with our towel and a change of clothes. The next morning we powered up and kept our fingers crossed again. The next leg of the trip would be down the ICW and if we lost the engine, sailing a 32-foot sailboat in the ICW could be a problem. The engine temperature stayed constant the previous day with the reduced engine speed. We were hopeful.

Norfolk is on one side of the Elizabeth River and Portsmouth, VA is on the other. The channel through Portsmouth, VA has all kinds of boat maintenance facilities. These yards do contract work for the Navy and there were boats everywhere up and down the channel. An old ďTall ShipĒ was being worked on in one yard. You go through an industrial area outside Portsmouth that scraps ships and other metal parts. We waited an hour for a bridge opening and saw all kinds of interesting work being done at a scrape yard. As we departed the industrial area, we ran into a residential area with a few houses here and there and then we heard lots of jet engine noise from the aircraft that were taking off and landing at Oceana Naval Air Station. You couldnít see the airfield for the trees growing along the banks of the ICW. The Navy avoids launching and retrieving aircraft while an aircraft carrier is at the dock. The Marines always launch their aircraft for home as the ship passes offshore on its way to Norfolk and home. Most Navy aircraft that are assigned to ships at Norfolk are physically located at Oceana. We continued down the ICW and passed the twin horizontal swing bridges just outside Oceana. We also passed the entrance to the Dismal Swamp Channel. We were heading towards the VA NC border and the Pungo Ferry Bridge. The temperature gage was doing pretty good. The Pungo Ferry Marina was located in VA on the north side of the bridge. The bridge is a 65-foot high rise and stands out because itís in a very rural area. The marina is very small and was home to 2 boats. A woman and a dog lived on one powerboat and the other boat was a large wooden military boat. The ex-Navy boat was a WW II minesweeper that had several interesting assignments during its long service. Its last military assignment was at the Naval Academy before being sold as surplus. The man that owned the boat bought and sold Navy surplus boats. He said this old boat was worth lots of money and he planned on selling it soon. The marina had a great restaurant that served food to the local people that lived in the homes in the area. I think this whole area was a bedroom community for Oceana and the Portsmouth area. We had breakfast the next morning, fired up the diesel and departed the marina for NC and points south. We got as far as the Bridge and the temperature gage pegged at maximum hot. We shut the engine down and floated around for a while figuring out what to do. After letting the engine cool off, we started the engine and made it back to the marina.

We off loaded everything that could be removed from the seat lockers so we could inspect and maybe repair the engine. The Volvo engine was a raw water-cooled engine and the raw system was working. We had water coming out the exhaust at the transom. A pump on the engine moves water to the engine head, circulates the water in the head and then expels the hot water with the exhaust. The engine didnít get hot running at the dock. Whatever was wrong with the engine was inside the engine. Because we had steam coming out the exhaust under load, it appeared that we had a cylinder leak at the head gasket. We didnít think we had a solution at that time and Rick called Boat US for a tow. A towboat came from Coinjock, NC and towed the Pearson about 20 miles north to a marina with a travel lift. The Pearson made the rest of the trip to FL by truck.

Dick and I were picked up by a company truck and made our way back to NC. A person at the marina gave me directions to a highway that was going our way. That highway was a long ways from where we were. One of the most unusual things about the Pungo Ferry Bridge was that it didnít have a highway connecting it to anywhere. It had a four-lane road going from side to side, but the roads on each side were residential streets. I think I would still be looking for a way home if a person at the marina hadnít given me good directions.

Looking back on our engine problem, I think I should have tightened the head bolts while we were at the Pungo Ferry Marina or better still, when we first identified the problem at Patuxent. The engine had a few hours since overhaul and the bolts probably needed to be retightened. Doing a torque check on the head bolts after 50 hours is a common requirement on most diesel engines. Resealing the head gasket after the leak occurred might not have been possible, but it would have been worth the effort had I though of it at the time. A big problem with most people is they donít have time to do sea trials on boats after major machinery changes. We had planned on taking the Pearson across the Chesapeake to the Eastern Shore a year before and didnít because we just didnít have time. That trip would have identified our engine problem and the engine could have been repaired. Where does all the time go? The Pearsonís Volvo engine was repaired in FL and the boat is currently alive and well in the St. Johns River.