When I ran a charter boat in Brielle, New Jersey, my marina was just past a railroad bridge with a four-foot vertical clearance at high tide. I went through it twice a day. The bridge usually remained open unless a train was due or the operators were changing shifts. I knew the train schedule and would leave the dock before 6 a.m. If I left later, I’d have to suffer a long wait for the commuter trains heading to New York.
Inbound was a different story, because the afternoon boat traffic was always heavier. If the bridge was down awaiting the train, boats would collect on both sides until it opened. There was the potential for all hell to break loose, particularly on weekends or when someone was in a rush, or simply ignorant of the rules. The smart boaters knew to let the boat with the current pushing its stern go through first, because those skippers had less control than the drivers on boats with bows facing the current.
One day, I was idling in a safe spot upstream, waiting for that bridge to open. The tide was starting to move and water was turbulent near the bridge’s abutments. A skipper in a gorgeous, wooden Egg Harbor 37 idled briskly by me, apparently obsessed with being the first to go through the bridge when it opened, even though the bridge tender had not yet signaled that it was safe to proceed. By the time the Egg guy realized he had committed too soon, he did not have enough reverse power against the incoming tidal current. Instead, his boat went sideways and splintered tens of thousands of pounds of mahogany, teak, varnish and white hull paint against the bridge base.
The value of local knowledge comes into play when navigating around a bridge, whether it’s fixed, a bascule with a single or double-leaf span, or a structure with a vertical lift mechanism. While water depths, current and traffic will always vary, one thing you can count on are abutments that support the span overhead; they deserve your utmost respect.
Passing through any bridge requires caution because it’s dangerous. The deep-water channel at this particular railroad bridge also has a sharp swerve that creates a blind bend due to the bridge tender’s station. You have to be near the opening from either side to see what is headed your way. While party fishing boats and boats with flybridges or tuna towers are easy to spot from either side, low-profile express cruisers and small outboard boats can appear out of nowhere. Inland rules of the road require the operator to sound a prolonged blast before passing through. It’s a habit for me, but few mariners actually do it.
This is no place to play chicken. Even when the width of the bridge opening (shown on a nautical chart) is sufficient for two boats to pass through simultaneously, care is needed. Note that the chart also shows the vertical clearance at high tide; you should know how much you need to safely pass under. Bridge tenders are not required to open the bridge if you have removable or adjustable appurtenances such as antennas or outriggers.
Most bridge tenders monitor VHF channels 9 and 13. Typically, signage at the bridge will indicate the radio channel, possibly a phone number for the bridge, as well as the name of the bridge, and times for opening. (This is why you carry binoculars aboard, right?) Some bridges open on demand; others have restricted schedules. If you need an opening, switch to low power and call the bridge tender; identify your position, inbound or outbound, and request the next available opening. Some bridge tenders may request you to officially signal with one prolonged and one short blast on your horn; the tender will then signal the same to you and open the bridge.
Be advised that some bascule bridges have spans that do not open to a full upright position. This means unlimited overhead clearance is not available due to the structure of the bridge. If for some reason the bridge tender cannot open the bridge, he or she will respond with five blasts, which means to stay back until further notice. There could be a mechanical issue, workers on the bridge, or a commercial tug and tow approaching from the other side and not visible from your position. Be patient and stand by.
When passing through an opening proceed at a slow speed and be alert for small boats fishing near the bridge. Often you will not see these boats until you pass them. Some may even be tied to the bridge structure. You are responsible for your wake so even if the fishermen are there illegally, you are accountable for the boat’s wash. This is more likely to occur when you are passing under a fixed bridge.
Once you’re through the bridge and ready to get underway, remember to call and thank the bridge tender on the VHF. That’s good nautical etiquette.
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.