Traveling down the Intracoastal Waterway from Peck Lake, Florida to North Lake Worth, Florida, a motorsail of four hours, we passed through seven opening drawbridges. On weekends, most bridges open on demand but during the week, they are each on a schedule, opening only every 20 or 30 minutes. While you can travel for miles on the ICW without seeing a bascule bridge, there are some stretches where the bridges will challenge your patience.
Almost any East Coast sailor will have to cross paths with a highway bridge at some time, either traveling the ICW or simply entering or leaving his or her home port. Here are some pointers and facts about negotiating the fixed and opening bridges along your route.
Bridge awareness should start at the time you first contemplate buying a sailboat. If you buy a boat that cannot pass under a fixed bridge along the route you wish to travel, you have made a very expensive mistake. Not counting bridges designed for ship traffic, fixed bridge clearances vary from 49 ft up to 65 ft in the commonly traveled waterways of the U.S. East Coast and Gulf Coast. All but one of the fixed bridges along the East Coast ICW have a theoretical clearance of 65 ft. The exception is the Julia Tuttle bridge in Miami which is only 56 ft. A few of the 65 ft bridges are in actuality a foot or so lower than advertised. On the Gulf Coast, 50 ft bridges are fairly common from Florida to the west. You should not have to worry about any bridges designed for ship traffic since they are designed for a clearance of 140 ft or more.
How does this relate to buying a sailboat? As an example, the masthead of our Catalina 42 sloop, Mandalay, is approximately 59 ft. above sea level. Add on a VHF antenna and a wind instrument and we need 62 ft of clearance. As you can see, the ICW bridge clearance of 65 ft can become critical, especially if the water is at flood stage when the clearance can be considerably less. Also notice that we cannot pass under the Julia Tuttle bridge in Miami, the Port Mayaca railroad bridge on the Okeechobee Waterway, as well as several Gulf Coast fixed bridges. Taking a look at a larger boat with a proportionally taller mast or a tall-rigged racing boat, it is easy to see that many sloops over 45 ft cannot travel the ICW at all. I mention sloops specifically since ketches and yawls usually have shorter masts than a sloop of similar length. Although most sailors contemplating the purchase of a vessel in this size range are well aware of bridge height restrictions, not all boat builders emphasize overall height, since their designs may be primarily intended for use in foreign waters or offshore. Mast height above the water (“Air Draft”) is a dimension that is not always included in the sales brochure. I would definitely think twice before buying a vessel that cannot pass under a 65 ft bridge if the U.S. East Coast is part of your cruising ground.
Most newer fixed bridges along the ICW are designed for a 65 ft clearance, however, new bascule and swing bridges are still being constructed where financial or space constraints dictate. Bascule bridges are the more familiar. They often have a clearance of around 25 ft when closed. The roadway opens like a drawbridge from one or both sides. Of course, a bascule bridge has an unlimited clearance when fully open. A swing bridge also provides an unlimited clearance. A swing bridge pivots in the center, rotating about a vertical axis opening a channel along one or both sides. On the ICW, there is also a pontoon bridge where the roadway actually floats on pontoons and is pulled to one side to open. Finally there are a number of lifting bridges where the roadway remains horizontal and rises vertically, lifted by a tower structure on each end. Some lifting bridges are capable of opening high enough for ocean freighters to pass, however they do not open all the way for smaller vessels. It is hard to judge whether a lifting bridge has opened far enough, so a call to the bridge tender should put your mind at ease.
Fixed bridges require less attention than opening bridges but there are still a few pitfalls for the unwary. The prime concern of course is the previously mentioned overhead clearance issue. If you are within a few feet of the charted clearance, you should check the clearance gauges (or tide boards) that are often mounted at the entry to each bridge channel to starboard. The scale on the gauge refers to the overhead clearance and a reading is taken where the water level contacts the scale. Your reading should provide the actual clearance at that time, which of course varies with the tides, rainfall, wind, and other factors that affect water level.
Note that all bridges have a designated channel with fenders along each side. If there is a current in the area, the fenders can direct or funnel the current making its effect stronger. In any event, a strong current can push the boat towards an abutment making extra care imperative. We have crabbed through bridge channels at close to 20 degrees just to stay in the center. The key is to react quickly when the current starts to take control and not to be afraid to use all the power you’ve got. If you have to turn the boat and crab, don’t be bashful, turn the wheel and open up the throttle.
Opening bridges of various kinds have charted clearances in the closed position. In some cases, a small sailboat or large powerboat can pass under the bridge without an opening. Other opening bridges have clearances so low that a small motorboat cannot pass under them. To request an opening, it is best to call the bridge tender on the VHF radio. Bridges monitor different channels in different locations. Florida bridges use channel 9 while other ICW States monitor channel 13. To request an opening, you must first determine the name of the bridge. Usually the chart does not provide the name, but guidebooks such as Skipper Bob’s or the Waterway Guide list them. Often, the name or number of the highway crossing the bridge is the name or is an adequate substitute. A radio call to the bridge would then sound as follows:
“State Highway 3 bridge, State highway 3 bridge, this is the eastbound sailboat, Hurdy-Gurdy, requesting your next opening.“
The reply might sound as follows:
“Roger, Captain, I have you in sight and the next opening will be at 11:40”, or “Bring it on up captain and I’ll open when you get close enough”. Common courtesy applies when talking to bridge tenders. A “thank you” following your passage is appreciated.
It is still acceptable to sound your horn to request an opening (one long, one short blast), but you will not have the benefit of hearing the bridge tender’s reply. Using the radio makes more sense unless it is out of action.
When you are approaching a drawbridge anticipating the opening, how close should you be and how fast should you go? Often, an experienced bridge tender is watching your progress and will begin his process of stopping traffic and opening the bridge as you pass a predetermined point. If you proceed at your normal speed of say 5 knots, the bridge should be open by the time you arrive. This sounds easy but can be disconcerting as you motor towards a closed bridge. Be extremely careful of current that may be carrying you toward the bridge making it impossible for you to slow down much or stop! The tender would like you to be close to the bridge to minimize the time it must remain open. He also may tell you not to proceed until the draws are fully open. Balancing these requirements takes some judgment and experience. Motoring in circles in front of the bridge is a good way to stay close and maintain control for a single screw vessel. If there is little current and wind, it is usually possible to “hover”, moving forward very slowly, placing the engine in gear just frequently enough to maintain steerage.
We left Charleston, South Carolina one morning knowing that the first bascule bridge to the south did not open from 0700 until 0900 to allow rush hour traffic to pass unobstructed. We arrived at the bridge a little before nine and found that 26 other boats had the same idea. There was little wind but a fair current to deal with so circling with the other boats made sense.
Swing, lifting and pontoon bridges follow the same protocol as bascules. You may need to ask a swing bridge operator which side to pass on if there appears to be a channel on each side of the open bridge. One of the channels may not be navigable.
There are no firmly established right of way rules for boats passing through a bridge channel, however it is generally accepted that a vessel traveling with the current has priority over one that is opposing the current. It is also prudent for a pleasure vessel to give way to a commercial vessel such as a barge. Passing through an opening bridge under sail alone is not recommended unless the engine is disabled, in which case the bridge tender should be notified of the problem.
Commercial vessels are usually given an opening on demand even if the bridge is on a restricted schedule. If you are close to a tug and barge, stay in contact with the tender and he will probably let you pass during the same opening.
Bridges are generally marked with lights for travel after dark. Fixed bridges display a green light above the navigable channels as well as three white lights in a vertical line above the green light if there is a preferred channel. Drawbridges display a red light when closed and a green light when open.
Negotiating bridges is a way of life on the Intracoastal Waterway and on most other waterways of the U.S. Following the guidelines above should insure that the transit is safe and enjoyable.