Continuing south down the Chesapeake brings us to “Mile 0” – the official start of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in Norfolk, Virginia.
Norfolk is one of the east coast’s busiest ports & you can encounter anything & everything from ordinary ships to bulk gas tankers to naval ships to submarines. We lucked out & our only close encounter this time was a container ship. In most places, you just stay out of the channel & let them pass, however in ports such as Norfolk, they’re slowing, turning & docking at some point along the way. We decided to just keep speeding up to stay ahead of him, but a powerboat coming out of a nearby channel was not as lucky – he seemed oblivious to this huge container ship, which was really close & was rewarded with a very loud horn blast, which probably involved an underwear change as he looked up to see what was almost on top of him!
The first few miles of the Elizabeth River narrow down, taking us thru several bridges, a lock & more bridges. This lock, the Great Bridge Lock, is fairly old & often undergoing repairs with accompanying transiting delays. Some of the railroad bridges are automated with only a computerized voice on the VHF radio, “The Norfolk Southern #7 railroad bridge will close in 5 minutes”. It took us a year or two to figure out their numbering system which is a good thing, as they silently lower right in front of you with no other notice.
Many highway bridges are troublesome as well. This one, the Centerville Turnpike Bridge, has broken down so often that they had to “bite the bullet” & completely re-build it. This is unusual – they usually have to perform all repairs while still allowing all boat & car traffic to flow. They completely removed this one with cranes & placed it on a fabricated temporary platform. Great for us – bad for the vehicle traffic who has a long detour for many months.
We weren’t so lucky with the Alligator River Swing Bridge about 50 miles later. Although they recently completed a 16.7 million dollar repair project on this 3 mile-long bridge, it still breaks down, in addition to not operating when winds are over 35 knots (which seems too often in the spring & fall). As we planned our day to pass thru it, we learned another break-down had occurred a few days before. Thinking any repairs would have to be completed by then, we continued on, with rumors that it would attempt an opening that day at noon. As we got closer, the new reports were “who told you that?” as repairs would take at least 2 more days, learning the primary opening system had been damaged in the last hurricane (& not yet repaired), while the backup system was now broken too! There is an alternate route (shown in green), but is longer if backtracking to the Town of Belhaven – which we really didn’t want to miss. Of course, days of stormy weather were coming, beginning at noon that day. So idling in the middle of Albermarle Sound, we made our decision, pushed the throttles forward to cross the Pamlico Sound before the winds increased too much. While we did encounter some nasty, choppy 2′ – 4′ seas, the angle improved as we advanced around Swanquarter & up to Belhaven giving us a large, following sea.
We really like the Town of Belhaven. As with many small, North Carolina towns the population is declining, but Belhaven definitely wins the prize for trying the hardest. It’s a cute little town, with an inexpensive town dock, several marinas & great restaurants. Diana, director of the Chamber of Commerce, has an office right at the waterfront & goes out of her way to welcome every cruiser. When we mentioned needing a few groceries, she insisted on dropping us off & picking us up at the local Food Lion grocery store.
Oh, did I mention restaurants? The several restaurants are a huge draw for cruisers, as well as area North Carolina residents & vacationers who drive up to an hour just to enjoy the waterfront & dining. Our favorite is Spoon River Restaurant, which never disappoints for a special meal.
Belhaven really deserves our support, getting a big “A” for effort. To top it all off, downtown Belhaven gets flooded every few years with tropical storms or nearby offshore hurricanes, which is devastating for the businesses who have to recover once again.
Another favorite restaurant is The Tavern at Jack’s Neck. They have been slowly expanding their restaurant into adjoining vacant space with additional food themes. This is their new bourbon & oyster bar area (can’t go wrong with those two!) which will be opening soon. Being a friendly southern town, the owner stopped by our table, told us to grab our wine for a private tour! You can’t tell from the photo, but the decor & woodworking are over-the-top beautiful & high-end.
As we were departing our VHF radio crackled with someone calling “Vessel Twin Sisters” – who the heck? It was Diana, the Chamber lady, who noticed us pulling away & called just to thank us for visiting – like I said, they try the hardest! Our detour to Belhaven as well worth it.