Skip to main content

Bridge crossings and bad assumptions

I have developed a close relationship with the Spa Creek Drawbridge in Annapolis and regard it as "my" bridge because I have gone through it hundreds of times in 40 years. Some bridge tenders, such as Rich Leger, are so used to seeing my small sailboat approach that they will open without a formal request. I always shout a loud "Thank you!" when going through, and Rich issues an all-clear hello in return with two toots from the control center.

Image placeholder title

A phone number for the bridge tender is posted - (410) 974-3840 - although some prefer an air horn or the ship's radio to signal. The tender sometimes issues a loud blast to alert that raising is about to begin, as the roadway's red lights flash and gates are lowered. But shoreside residents complained about too much noise, so the directional flow of the loud foghorn was changed, calming things down a bit.

Most boaters are a bit apprehensive when approaching a small drawbridge opening, and I am no exception. Impatient to get under sail, I usually raise my main during a three-minute hop from my slip in Wells Cove, just up the creek beyond the Petrini and Sarles boatyards. If I arrive early, I sometimes place my 5-hp outboard in neutral and reach about under main alone - a practice that irritates some boaters, though I demand no rights.

Coast Guard regs do not restrict sailing or motorsailing through Maryland's drawbridges, but when confronting a gusty situation, I may drop the main en route to the bridge. If a breeze is behind me, I usually strap in the mainsail tightly amidships and motor through with the wind passing safely on both sides of the sail. Incidentally, I have yet to hit the bridge (knock-knock).

Since the Spa Creek crossing is the fourth-busiest drawbridge in Maryland (3,578 openings in 2009), it's a wonder there have not been more accidents there involving boats and bridge - such as the one that occurred Sunday, Oct. 17. With the boating season drawing to a close after the annual sail and powerboat shows left town, the bridge was lowered on a large sailboat intending to pass through from the incoming blind side during the 2 p.m. opening.

The Spa Creek Drawbridge is the fourth busiest in Maryland, with more than 3,500 openings last year.

Apparently there was some kind of miscommunication between the skipper of the incoming 62-foot foreign-registered Zambezi and the bridge tender. Investigators say the skipper first informed the tender he would catch the next opening, at 2:30, but decided to go through anyway while the bridge was still open, assuming the tender saw him.

But the tender could not track Zambezi approaching from the incoming Eastport side because of a blind spot not monitored by a camera. He began the lowering process but stopped when the bridge made contact with the mast, which was not seriously damaged. The Maryland State Highway Administration, which owns, maintains and operates this bridge, is exploring the possibility of installing a fourth surveillance camera.

Not all of the state's drawbridges are alike or operate under the same rules. Spa Creek generally opens on request on the hour and half-hour during the boating season and is closed during weekday rush hours in the morning and afternoon. The bridge opening, with an average depth of 14 feet, does not look 40 feet wide from a boater's viewpoint, and sailboats sometimes pass through side-by-side in opposite directions.

Generally speaking, local inbound skippers grant outbound boats right of way, a courtesy extended (by some, not all) on the premise that inbound boats have had their fun in the sun and outbound vessels are entitled to their turn. Coast Guard regulations state that boats moving with the current have right of way.

Sometimes vehicle and pedestrian traffic jams form at the same time on the water and on the bridge, especially on gridlocked weekends and during sailing regattas. There is no rule stating that the first boat arriving has first-through rights, although some skippers will charge for the same narrow opening at the same time from both sides of the creek, ignoring seagoing courtesies.

Other skippers approach the opening at speed and throttle back to a crawl or even stop dead in the water and barely maintain headway while waiting for the full opening before proceeding through the span. If I have a few moments to spare as an incoming vessel, I usually drop my mainsail and put on the cover before starting the outboard.

My outboard wouldn't start once last year. The bridge was going up and an incoming sailor was dead in the water and waiting before creeping through under power. Since the wind was taking me to the bridge anyway, I rolled out my jib and broad-reached toward the bridge. I had to shout to the sailor, "Go! Go! Go!" He began to speed up after he looked back and saw me bearing down on him under sail.

Maryland's busiest draw by far (10,267 openings in 2009) is a bascule bridge over Knapps Narrows on Tilghman Island that provides a shortcut linking the Bay-side Eastern Shore and the Choptank River. Bridge tenders there may not open on demand for a sailboat if any sail is raised unless notified in advance that said vessel is powered by sail alone. There's a good reason for this: The current can be quite strong through this narrow cut, and maintaining steerage can be a challenge at times as boat traffic builds up.

Bridge attendants at Knapps also have a tendency not to open the bascule bridge all the way, depending on their estimate of needed clearance that can be judged from their perch. It can be less assuring for sailors when approaching a partly raised bridge and looking upward from their water-level vantage. Coast Guard regs state that drawbridges must be opened all the way.

A word of advice: Always speak with the bridge tender with a request for an opening and never assume he is aware of your intentions.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.