Bridges over the ICW

Single Bascule bridge- very roomy

Today, we began planning our trip to Miami from Velcro, I mean Vero Beach. We have easily fallen into the habit of saying “Velcro”. Rolls off the tongue so smoothly.  Our raft buddy. POLAR PACER, left today as did our mooring neighbor,  SANUK. I think the wind kicked up more than expected for them.

As I looked ahead in our ICW guide, I couldn’t help but cringe at the plethora ( yep, my word of the month) of restricted bridges and thought now was as good a time as any to describe these structures and their role in our trip.

The 1,095 miles of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW for short) contain 137 bridges of which 81 need to open for sailboats (and many powers too). In the last 130 mile stretch there’s 41 opening bridges of which 22 are restricted.

The styles of bridges are varied: swing, bascule (hinged and raises open from the hinge), fixed (non opening) – 99% have 65′ clearance at high tide, lift (railroad only) or pontoon. We’ve only encountered two lift bridges, both just south of Norfolk. They function as the name implies, they lift up parallel to the ground attached to metal tower-like structures on each side of the waterway. Massive describes them well.  The ICW contained one pontoon bridge which we show above. Two weeks after we went through, it was taken out of service having been replaced with a fixed bridge. The ICW also has one automatic single-bascule railroad bridge at Mile 876 (Titusville (NASA)) which we passed through on our way here. It’s usually open, but when a train in due, the green lights will change to flashing red and a horn continuously sounds four blasts for eight minutes. At that point the bridge will close as long as the scanning equipment shows nothing under the bridge.

If a bridge is of the opening variety, then life becomes more interesting and boredom can be greatly reduced.  The flavors are: restricted, on-demand or a mixture of the two. The flavors can alternate between weekends and weekdays.  If a bridge is always restricted to a set schedule you simply have to adjust your speed and take into account the myriad of factors that can influence your speed and ability to make the desired opening time. A common schedule we encountered prior to Florida was “Open on the hour and half hour”, but there were bridges that only opened on the hour. When you have several of these types in a 15 mile span, the calculator and chartplotter are your friends. Florida has a plethora of bridges, but we were recently on a joy run of no opening bridges for 79 miles!
On-demand bridges provide an opportunity to talk, however briefly, with someone new. If you want to communicate with a bridge tender, you call him or her on the appropriate channel using the VHF marine radio. Most states use Channel 13, but some like Florida use Channel 9. Channel designation is regulated by the Coast Guard. Channel 16 is the “monitoring” channel and the one used for distress calls.
A typical bridge hailing would go something like this: (first be sure you are on the correct channel) “Wappoo Creek bridge this is the southbound sailing cat requesting an opening.” With any luck you have another boat or two behind you. The bridge will acknowledge your call and indicate that they will open when all boats are close enough. For some reason that we have yet to figure out, bridgetenders will often ask for the boat name AND where from. This occurs when several boats are making the passage. Once you are clear, most vessels will thank the bridge tender for the opening and say they have cleared the bridge.
Most bridge tenders are friendly and courteous.  One clearly enjoyed her job and she was a hoot! A real southern accent and she was talking to each boat like we were best friends.  “Keep it coming darlin’, watch that crab pot in front of ya. That’s it. Y’all have a good day now.”
The trick to ensuring a prompt response to your call is to use the correct name of the bridge, be polite yet confident and provide the necessary info clearly. If you see a boat a short distance in front of or behind you, indicating that you will slow down or speed up for the opening is always an appreciated gesture.
We can’t wait to do the bridge dance again, real soon.


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