High season at the top of the ditch - Soundings Online

High season at the top of the ditch

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In addition to marking the start of my third year on Medicare, July is the beginning of the high season for a boat nut, the time when the bank account of summer boating days has yet to be spent. Here at the marinas of Portsmouth, Virginia, we look forward to greeting the area yacht clubs during their summer cruises.

The sail-training yawls Thyra (left) and Svanen, built in 1960 and 1961 at the Paul Molich yard in Denmark, stopped in Norfolk before heading to Annapolis and the Naval Academy.

These cruises have a different pattern than those in New England, where summer evening gatherings are usually outdoors in a tempering sea breeze. The first time a large group came into Tidewater Marina during my time here, I went out to walk the docks and look at the boats. What I didn’t find were people socializing in their cockpits. I then realized that at 90-plus degrees, the weather had driven everyone onto the biggest motoryacht with the best air conditioning. Whatever works.

Propeller Woes

I came to work recently and heard what sounded like John Henry driving steel. I looked out the window to the service yard below and saw the guys taking turns swinging a big hammer at the forward clamp of a pretty stout-looking prop puller. Being the curious sort, I went down to take a look at the ugly prop, which was missing part of one blade and had serious creases in the others. Periodically, a larger puller would arrive, and the scene finally ended with an impressive hydraulic affair that was ultimately successful.

Among the hazards of the Ditch south of us are semisubmerged stumps just out of the channel. They can be under water when the level of the Great Dismal Swamp is high, as it was when this mishap occurred. The higher water makes the navigable area appear deceptively wide. The captain told me he was running in the high teens. Whether he hit a stump or a log, he wasn’t sure, but the damage was done.

Repairing running gear is quite a successful industry on the Ditch. Sailboats find mud before they find stumps; it’s the twin-engine motoryachts and sportfishing boats with exposed running gear that provide the boatyards and prop shops with a steady supply of customers.

Sailor’s Heaven

As I write this, two 60-foot Royal Danish Navy training yawls, Thyra and Svanen, are paying a port visit to Norfolk after competing in the St. Thomas International Regatta. My eagle-eyed friend with a loftier office spied them coming in and emailed his sailing friends with the intel. I took the ferry over to see and had a long chat with Sven, the assistant navigator.

Norfolk is often a port of call for foreign sail-training vessels, and the city hosted OpSail 2012. We experience a mini OpSail annually at Norfolk Harborfest. This year it is planned for June 9-11, with tall ships from Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Spain and the United States, including the Coast Guard barque Eagle.

Norfolk Harborfest is the one Bay event I consistently attend for the ships, food and music. It starts with a parade of sail involving the behemoths and local sailors in their own boats. Always a great time. If this issue is in your hands soon enough, come for a visit. If not, come next year. It’s worth it for the free music alone.

Gather Ye Soft Crabs

In my last column, I talked about the ever-growing oyster farming industry. This time of year, I start digging around for the results of the Blue Crab Winter Dredge Survey, which gives a good idea of the coming season. Those reports haven’t yet appeared online, but everyone seems to be expecting a strong population, thanks to the second consecutive mild winter. In 2016, we saw a big jump, and pundits are predicting another good year in 2017. I’ll try to have the facts dredged up by my next writing.

I read somewhere that the soft crab season begins around the full moon of May. Lots of crabs means that there will be plenty of opportunities for soft shells, that fried delicacy I have enjoyed in locales as varied as my own kitchen and the Roof Dining Room & Terrace of the Yale Club in New York City. Unfortunately, they aren’t on my current diet, but you can call your favorite crab house to find out if they have any, and dig in if it’s not too late. I’m working on the tofu version.

The Watchers

As I write this, the big event is the continued northbound migration of snowbirds. It makes for great yacht watching here at Mile Zero.

When I lived in Maine, I wrote a column for Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors magazine called “The View from the Porch,” which often featured an assemblage of aging cranks rocking on a porch, noting such yachting faux pas as dangling fenders and Irish pennants. This was not a fanciful image; we actually did that. And now the deck in front of my office provides the same opportunity during snowbird migrations. Perhaps I should gather my Maine friends for an annual reunion. We’ll call it yachting faux pas sud.

The peak flow of northbounders seems to be early May, when I can spot those who are intent on getting north: sailboats under power at full-cruise rpm, eager to shake off the meanders of the ICW and brown-water motoring. Usually there is a single helmsman. I suppose the crew is having a snooze to better prepare for the increasing pace of life in the Northeast after a winter on island time. My imaginings are probably quite different from the truth of life aboard, but I remember my own days of steaming back to reality in the spring.

If you are one of the lucky ones who stayed on island time as you migrate north, stop in and enjoy the fun and food here. It’s never dull at Mile Zero. See you at the Bottom of the Bay, the top of the Ditch.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue.