The ICW From on High

Content Provided by  Tom Neale

And I looked down from on high... Sounds like it's from the Bible, doesn't it. Actually I kind of felt like that, but not because I have an exalted image of myself (well, maybe a little). Mel, my wife, and I were in the top story of a very tall building in Portsmouth, Virginia, looking down on Mile One of the ICW and also a mile or so of that waterway as it wound south. We were looking down at a stream of boats, large and small, power and sail, following that magic ribbon of water. We were looking at tug boats and barges, freighters from around the world, warships of the US Navy and all that this section of the ICW offers. It's probably one of the most exciting parts of the ICW, at least to me. Other parts are all marsh or woods or vast stretches of open water. They too are exciting and beautiful. But the beginning, between Norfolk and Portsmouth Virginia, throbs and vibrates intensely with all the excitement of boats.

Mel and I have done the ICW trip, in whole and in parts, so many times for so many years that it's second nature to us. We've passed all the boats and ships, we've dealt with all the bridges, we've glided beside all the banks, and we've immersed ourselves and our "Chez Nous" in all the woods, marshes and swamps. We've seen all the sights and love them all. But this was the first time we'd seen this section of the ICW from above. We'd never before looked down on all the nautical pageantry that's around and just south of Mile One.

Usually we're in the thick of it, trying to not run aground, trying to make timed bridges, trying to stay out of the way of tugs and ships, listening to VHF traffic and trying to heed all the rules of the road while worrying about whether we'll make it to a good place to tie or anchor before dark falls. The stress of being in the thick of it doesn't render it unenjoyable; those stresses are just another part of the excitement. But they are stresses; sometimes very severe stresses. We, this time, were looking at it from up where it was quiet, up where it was almost surrealistic, without having to do anything but marvel and enjoy.

Still we missed being down there. Being down there would come, we knew, and then we'd be back in the thick of things, loving it up close and personal. But I think that I'll always remember the perspective of being on high where you see things you don't usually see.

When you're down there, you don't see the decks of the tugboats. You see the hulls, usually fairly freshly "tarred," and the superstructures usually fairly freshly painted. Even if the hulls and deck houses don't have fresh paint, they're seldom very rusty. But I was surprised looking down to see that generally the decks, which I wouldn't see from "Chez Nous," were rusty, dented and scarred. This is because the decks of a tug are battlefields of hard and often dangerous work involving heavy equipment.

Also, we could see down in the open holds of barges and freighters. Usually you don't have a clue what's down there passing on the water unless it's piled over the bulwarks, but from our tower we could see into the gaping mouths and bellies. Some of the cargoes are even pretty, some are mysterious and some almost seem noire down in the deep holds. Often we weren't sure what we were looking at.

And we could see clearly the sweep of the current as it grabbed boats and pushed them aside. I always fear this on the ICW because, let's face it, there are too many skippers out there who aren't familiar with what's going on. Rounding a bend into a strong current coming at you or from behind you can push you aside. It may be only your problem if you're pushed into a piling. It's another skipper's problem if you're pushed into his boat. Tugs and freighters are particularly susceptible to this. They often must really struggle to keep to their side and sometimes they simply cannot. But their captains and their engines are usually much more capable than those of us out for pleasure. They seem to handle it well, but in the meantime smaller boats have to understand what's going on and give them room. From our tall building we could better see the sweep of the current and the stream of south bound pleasure boats being pushed aside, some apparently without a clue as to what was happening. It was interesting to view this from above, where you could see everything... so unlike it is from your boat. And it was nice to know that we weren't down there potentially in harm's way from their sidewards drifting.

The leading edge of a little cold front blew through as we were watching. We could see the wavelets change direction, beginning to come from the west and the north. We watched the smaller sailboats heel a bit, the wind grabbing their bare masts. We knew that we didn't have to worry about it from our location, but we missed the excitement of cold fronts on the water in the fall.

On balance, we prefer to be in the thick of it where you can smell the water around you, feel the wakes, sense the push and pull of the current and wave to the skipper and crew in the boat passing you. We even prefer to worry a bit about reaching our next anchorage and checking the engine room and feeling our way clear of the shoals. But from now on I'll try to remember that perspective from the tower. You always hear people say, "it helps to look at it from another perspective"... or "step back and look at it from a distance". This frequently sounds trite. But I guess it's not. At least in this case, it makes it better. You have more than the relatively limited view from your decks. You know what you and your fellow boaters look like from up there. You have a better sense of what you're a part of... the grand beginning of an incredible journey. Even if it's just a quick trip out and back, it's great if you're on a boat. But this journey is the trip South.

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