Text added and updated: January, 2016
As always, readers are responsible to perform due diligence with official charts, cruising guides and online cruising resources to verify the navigation and piloting information presented in this post.
NAVIGATION AND PILOTING (for beginners):
The Atlantic-ICW transits the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River through Norfolk, VA, and Portsmouth, VA. There is no practical way around it. South-to-north, the portion of the Southern Branch from Deep Creek, VA, (south) to Willoughby Bay at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay (north) is one of the most active and busy commercial and heavy industrial waterways on the entire East Coast.
Sanctuary’s crew feels this stretch of the A-ICW greatly exceeds NY Harbor in piloting complexity. This stretch is relatively narrow, the port facilities are closely quartered, and there is an extraordinary diversity of pleasure craft, commercial traffic and large-ship military maritime interests operating in the area. There are all manner of large and small work boats, tugs alone, tugs with barges, harbor pilot boats, bulk cargo vessels, container ships, US Navy Warships, US Coast Guard operations, dredges and pipelines, tour boats and water taxis operating on the Elizabeth River. There are oil, gasoline, coal, grain and quarry docks, and many dry goods dock facilities for large ships. Added to that mix, there are also all sizes and speeds of pleasure craft. For the pleasure craft operator who is not familiar with theses waters, a transit can be a time of high anxiety.
There are at least three automated railroad bridges that can delay river traffic for significant periods of time. Of these, Norfolk & Southern Bridge #7 on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River is by far the most difficult remaining impediment to cruisers, as it affects the ICW route and accommodates a very busy and active mainline railroad freight route. (N&S Bridge #5 is on the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River, and does NOT affect ICW passage.) Another is the Norfolk & Portsmouth Belt Line RR Bridge, known locally as the “Belt Line Bridge.” There is no place to anchor or tie up while railroad bridges are closed, so pleasure craft operators must be able to keep station, regardless of wind or weather conditions or tidal ebb and flood currents in the river. Marine security in the area is high and visible.
VHF channels 16 and 13 are constantly a-squawk with the names of local landmarks, locations and piers that only local maritime professionals are likely to know. These will largely mean nothing but anxiety to the visiting through-cruiser who is not local to this area. Maintain a vigilant visual watch, expect large wakes, and always be prepared to yield to others.
Commercial traffic has no patience for pleasure craft, and except in “no wake” zones, will not slow for us. Tug boat prop wash can easily throw a pleasure craft into a 360º spin or into a sideways slide off course. Cruiser’s on this stretch of river waterway must be vigilant and always on high alert. In practice, if not in law, when it comes to pleasure craft, the nav rules are trumped by local custom. There is no such thing as “stand-on vessel” or “right of way,” but there is definitely the “law of gross tonnage.” As much as anywhere, it’s up to pleasure boat operators to be patient and get out of the way in order to stay out of trouble.
All up and down the Bay, cruisers will see large ships in the commercial traffic lanes. Avoiding them is easy: stay away from them. Large ships travel at speeds of 18 knots, and they throw significant bow and stern wakes. Pleasure craft are well advised to keep a continuous visual watch ahead and astern, and act to avoid large vessels. On the Bay, large shipping traffic generally runs up the eastern shore in very well marked deep-water channels. Tugs with long-wire tows do not need the deep water channel and are often seen running the western shore. There are major cross-Bay shipping lanes at the York River, the Rappahannock River, and the Potomac River. There is a large commercial fishing fleet (menhaden) that operates from the Great Wicomico River, between the Rappahannock River and the Potomac River, out of Reedville, VA,
There is no large vessel traffic at Annapolis harbor, but there are military training (YP) vessels that operate from the navy base at the Naval Academy. There are also large US Navy sailing vessels operated by Naval Academy midshipmen. Those sailing vessels are US Navy commissioned vessels, and pleasure craft must stay clear of them. The two big navigation hazards in Annapolis are both in the category of pleasure craft. First, private sailing vessels will force the “stand-on” and “give way” rules to the hilt, simply because they can. And second, there are sailing training schools for kids and teens that teach their “students” that sailing vessels have the “right-of-way.” These “student sailors” do downright dangerous things under the assumption you can and will be able to avoid them. On one Wednesday evening occasion, I literally dropped our anchor to raise my “right-of-way” priority and protect myself from their dangerous operations. The bad news is, they learn that behavior from “adult” sailing training instructors (who behave that way themselves).
Baltimore Inner Harbor is a busy harbor, but not as complicated as Norfolk/Portsmouth. The Patapsco River and harbor approaches to Baltimore are wide, and pleasure craft can easily operate outside and away from the shipping channels. Like New York, the commercial port areas of Baltimore are not located near points-of-interest to pleasure craft. Visual watch and situational awareness remain important, but piloting is generally easier than Norfolk/Portsmouth. By the time pleasure craft reach Inner Harbor, there is no longer any large commercial traffic.
Finally, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal is a Vessel Traffic System (VTS) controlled-access waterway with ocean-going tugs, barges and large ships. Mandatory-compliance vessels must check-in with VTS. Pleasure craft are not required to check in, but would be wise to monitor the VTS working VHF channel. The C&D Canal is frequently affected by early morning fog. Listen to the VHF well in advance of arrival at the canal for possible restrictions and/or closure information. The canal is narrow, speed controlled, and tidal currents can be very strong. In the canal, tidal currents are with respect to the Chesapeake Bay; flood sets eastward towards the Chesapeake Bay, and ebb sets westward to the Delaware Bay. Monitor VHF 13 carefully in this commercial waterway.
CRUISING THE CHESAPEAKE BAY (for beginners):
There are just a few *absolutely must see* stops on the Chesapeake Bay, but there are many, many delightful, fun dalliances. Presented in somewhat random order, described here for those cruising south-to-north:
The Portsmouth/Norfolk waterfront along the Elizabeth River offers several great stops. There are private marinas on both sides of the harbor, and water taxis to transport cruisers back-and-forth between Portsmouth and Norfolk. On the Portsmouth side, there are two public boat basins where cruisers can tie up for free. There are no electric or water services in these basins, but there is a free pump-out station in the north basin (N 36.83282, W -076.29663). These basins are a good place to wait out heavy weather. Take care not to tie up where water taxis and harbor cruise boats have reserved docking. Maximum allowed boat LOA is 40′. The High Street basin has room for 6 – 8 boats, depending on the care owners take in space utilization and courtesy for others. The North Basin is slightly larger but has less room for pleasure craft. These areas are highly foot-trafficked, but boat and personal security is not a concern at this time. Vigilance in situational awareness and responsible security precautions are recommended. High Street provides easy walking access to several restaurants, including an Irish Pub and a fabulous German Biergarten. There is a pleasure craft anchorage at Hospital Point on the Elizabeth River (N 36°50’44.3″, W 076°18’01.4″). The anchorage is in a “no-wake zone” that is largely honored by local traffic, and generally quiet after dark. Violators are always other pleasure craft who claim “they didn’t realize.” On the Norfolk shore, Waterside Marina is on a Riverwalk and is the most convenient place for a visit to downtown Norfolk. Visit the USS Wisconsin, a WWII Battleship museum just a couple of city blocks from Waterside Marina.
Heading north from Norfolk to the Chesapeake Bay, cruisers will pass the Norfolk Navy Yard to starboard; favor the red side of the channel. The Navy security patrol boats will be somewhat less interested in you if you travel that side of the channel, farthest off the Navy docks. Northbound, the last docks on the north end of the Norfolk Navy Yard are for Nimitz-Class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. In May, 2015, the USS Eisenhower (CVN-69) was at Portsmouth and the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) was at Norfolk.
While passing the Navy Yard piers, cruisers will be looking northward at the north shore of the James River. The City of Hampton, VA, lies ahead at 0º, Old Point Comfort Lighthouse lies ahead at 15º, and Willoughby Bay lies abeam to STBD at 80º, immediately past the Navy piers. Hampton is an excellent harbor-of-refuge if the Bay “is up.” There are good marinas, including the Hampton Public Pier, and a secure anchorage, in the Hampton harbor.
From Norfolk, we definitely recommend that cruisers visit Tangier (Island), VA. The Chesapeake Bay (West) approach (N 37°49’55.02″, W 075°59’57.24″) to Tangier carries 7-1/2 ft of water at low tide, and the Tangier Sound (East) approach (N 37°50’22.96″, W 075°58’19.89″) carries about 10 ft, but is subject to shoaling. There is no place to anchor, so visitors will stay at Park’s Marina for $30 per night, with electric. Milton Parks is a treat! Milton will take visitors all over the island in his golf cart. Tangier is a step back into the early 20th Century, and a real look at the lives of Chesapeake Bay Watermen. You will also discover that Tangier Island holds a very significant position in the military history of our Colonial and 1812 period. Tangier is a wonderful stop, and well worth the time.
From Tangier, we suggest a stop at Solomons, MD. There are several marinas there, all 3 star. Plenty of anchorages. Definitely while here, see the Calvert Marine Museum. Lots of good eats locally. There is also a large, well stocked West Marine chandlery, including a splicing shop.
From Solomons, stop at St. Michael’s, MD. St. Mike’s is the home of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. CBMM is a truly world class maritime museum, and a “must see.” St. Mike’s is a “touristy” stop, and a very nice, unique “Eastern Shore” town, with several pub food restaurants. St. Mike’s marinas are upscale and expensive by Chesapeake Bay standards. There is a large anchorage just outside St. Mike’s harbor, on the Miles River (N 38°47’12.3″, W 076°12’41.9″). A water taxi serves the anchorage from about 08h00 to about 22h00 daily in the summer months. We are members of the CBMM, so we dock there. But if I weren’t, I’d anchor out and use the water taxis.
Next, stop at Annapolis, Maryland’s capitol city. The private marinas of Annapolis are expensive compared to regional averages. There is a city marina along “Ego Alley,” first come, first served. Early in the day arrivals should find space available. Alternatively, there is a large mooring field, for $25.00 per night, I think. A water taxi service serves the harbor and will pick boaters up at their mooring and drop off anywhere along the waterfront at Annapolis or Eastport. The area surrounding the waterfront and the capitol complex is the “Historic District,” similar to Charleston’s “Battery” for building preservation. Absolutely, definitely, have breakfast at Chick ‘n Ruth’s Delly at 165 Main Street. BE AT CHICK ‘N RUTH’S BEFORE 08h30 WEEKDAYS OR 09h30 WEEKENDS. Wednesday’s, upstairs at Chick ‘n Ruth’s, is the weekly “Cruisers Breakfast.” Tables are reserved for “CLODS;” i.e., “Cruiser’s Living On Dirt.” Other cruisers there can tell transient visitors what’s happening in town on a week-to-week basis. Cruisers needing a ride for re-provisioning or a trip to Fawcett’s chandlery or West Marine, can probably get one there. There is an excellent and wide variety of local restaurants, of course, and lots to see an do. Definitely take the tour of the Naval Academy. Visitors will need two forms of picture ID to get on post, so bring passports AND Driver Licenses. The public is welcome at religious services at the Naval Academy “Chapel;” it’s really more of a cathedral. That is something to see!!!
Next, stop in Baltimore Inner Harbor. Until the unpleasant unrest of April/May, 2015, boat and personal security was never a concern along the Inner Harbor wall or at the Inner Harbor City Docks. These days, follow the Baltimore local news, be alert to emerging problems, an maintain personal situational awareness. Use private marinas if conditions warrant. At this writing (2013) dockage at the city-operated docks in the Inner Harbor is $1.25/ft. Transient visitors can tie up anywhere along the wall around the Inner Harbor, except where reserved for tour vessels and such. Again, $1.25/ft, and 30A electric is in the base of the light poles that ring the wall (recent info is that light pole outlets have
been discontinued; check for it). Electric at the city docks is $4.00/pigtail/day. So, a single 50A pigtail is a better deal than two 30A pigtails. The Inner Harbor City Dock does not take reservations. Our strategy is to arrive at Inner Harbor by 11h00 or so in the morning to have a choice in slips or wall space. There is a private marine at Inner Harbor, but much more expensive. Length-of-stay at the city docks is not limited. Visit the entire harborwalk; USS Constellation, Science Museum, Aquarium, USCGC Roger B. Taney, Hard Rock Cafe, Hooters, many other POIs. There’s something there for everyone. If you like baseball, check the Baltimore Orioles home schedule; it’s an easy walk to Camden Yards from Inner Harbor (4 – 5 blocks). Locate the Inner Harbor City Docks ahead of time on Google Earth.
At the northern end of the Bay, plan to stop at Chesapeake City on the Maryland end of the C&D Canal. As you enter the basin at Engineer’s Cove, watch for nav markers in what appear to be strange locations. The mouth of the cove shoals from the ship traffic in the canal, and that shoaling is always changing. There is a floating dock to the west side of the harbor entrance with space for 4 to 5 boats. There is no fee for the “dockage,” but there is a modest charge for power, and another for water, which total about $15/night. In 2015, the power pedestals were upgraded and fit with ground-fault sensing circuit breakers. Be aware that those breakers can expose pre-existing AC electrical problems aboard cruising boats. There are also actual slips farther west, but only a couple that can accommodate the depth requirements of cruising-sized boats. There is a private marina in the cove. There is also a sizeable anchorage in the cove, from which cruisers can dinghy into town. Summer weekends are very busy with local traffic. There are a couple of very nice restaurants, and many shops. There is a fine US Army Corps of Engineers Museum, focused on the history of the C&D Canal, about 1/2 mile walk. It is a very worthwhile and interesting visit.
There’s a lot more to see and do on the Bay, of course, but the above “itinerary” will fill about two weeks at a comfortable pace. That assumes a couple of days at each stop, and three at Annapolis and Baltimore. I re-emphasize, the foregoing is just my opinion. That said, the Chesapeake Bay has many, many other venues and communities which offer wonderful opportunities for cruising and exploration. For those with more time to spend exploring the Bay, I’ve described what are, in my opinion, some of those locations here following.
Visit Cape Charles, VA; this is a small town on the very southern end of the DelMarVa peninsula; the “Eastern Shore.” The town has a long history, and one that has been hugely affected by the forces of economic change over the decades. The harbor has a modern marina with floating docks. Town is easy walking distance where there are shoppes and an excellent Irish Pubs. Visit the Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center, on Randolph Street, a moderate walking distance or easy bike ride from the municipal harbor marina. There is a fine marina on King’s Creek, a mile or so north of the municipal harbor, called The Oyster Farm. First timers should get local knowledge of access; the channel is marked, but narrow and potentially confusing to first-timers.
Visit Yorktown, VA; obviously, there is a lot of Revolutionary War history in the region. The Yorktown Municipal marina on the York River is both reasonable and convenient to the city (walking distance), but it is exposed to heavy weather and York River ebb and flood currents. Alternatively, cruisers can stay at the York River Yacht Haven on Sarah Creek, off the north shore of York River, across the bridge from Yorktown in Hayes, VA. YRYH is relatively expensive for the region. Cruisers can also anchor in Sarah Creek, but that is really only a secure place to overnight. We like Crown Pointe Marina, on the Perrin River, north shore of the York River before the bridge, for this stay. Rent an Enterprise Car while there to visit the Yorktown-Jamestown-Williamsburg Historic Triangle. Take a day trip to Jamestown and visit the National Park and the privately operated park there. Jamestown is the home port of s/v Susan Constant, s/v Godspeed and s/v Discovery, reproductions of the three ships that brought English colonists to Virginia in 1607. Visit Williamsburg; the premier living-history museum of the Colonial period. Plan a week for this stop to see all three locations. Crown Pointe is a full service marina but is out in the country, and a car is needed. They have a very nice pool and laundry, and a full service maintenance yard.
On the Eastern Shore in Virginia, some people like Onancock, VA. The run up Onancock Creek to the marina is lovely, and the marina is quite reasonably priced. There’s a very good restaurant at the marina’s landing. The town itself is at least a 3/4 mile walk. That walk is rewarded by a great, old-timish hardware store, and an ice cream shop; really not much more.
Also on the Eastern Shore, visit Crisfield, MD; stay at Somers Cove Marina (state owned; reasonably priced; well protected; nice facility). This is a good place to take either a tour boat or the “mail boat” to Smith and Tangier Islands. The mail boat is much cheaper than tour boat, but requires an overnight stay on the Island, so plan ahead for accommodations if you want that option. Crisfield was historically a waterman’s village, but has “been discovered,” and now is a condo and retirement community.
On the Western Shore, Deltaville, VA, and Urbanna, VA, on the Rappahannock River, are summer tourist stops. Deltaville has several excellent marinas and many boating service businesses. Some of the marinas have courtesy cars, and you do need a car to get around. There is a large, well-stocked West Marine and a smallish, but well stocked, local grocery store (handles re-provisioning needs) on the western end of town. Good local restaurants in both towns. Urbanna is more upscale and walkable from the marina.
On the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, 6 miles up the Potomac River’s north shore, is the St. Mary’s River. Visit St. Mary’s City, MD, on the St. Mary’s River. We think this is an outstanding stop. I would rate St. Mary’s City a *must see* stop except that it is somewhat out-of-the-way. No public marina dockage is available, but there is a large, moderately protected embayment there at Horseshoe Bend (N 38°11’30.7″, W 076°25’56.7″). The area is large enough for many boats, with good holding in 7′ – 15′ of water. Horseshoe Bend is fairly well sheltered from heavy weather. St. Mary’s City is the forth oldest permanent English settlement in America, and is today the home of a pre-colonial reproduction of the village that was to become Maryland’s first capitol. The reconstruction includes a Yaocomico Indian village, a branch of the Piscataway Indian Nation. St. Mary’s City was the earliest colonial settlement with a specific mandate welcoming both Catholics and Protestants, and a Catholic Cathedral was erected there. The cathedral reconstruction is solely a secular ornament in today’s historic village. Docent’s provide high quality interpretations of life in the village. The port at St. Mary’s City is the home port for s/v Maryland Dove, and the home of St. Mary’s College, one of Maryland’s “Honors Colleges.” Eat at the college dining hall where cruisers will find good meals at attractive prices. Plan at least a full day to visit the historic village. There are free “Music-on-the-Green” concerts every Friday evening in the summer, overlooking the Horseshoe Bend anchorage. See the college web site for details. Also use St. Mary’s City to stage for St. Leonard’s creek or to stage for cruising up the Potomac River to Washington, DC.
On the Eastern Shore, via the Wicomico River, is Salisbury, MD. This is a rural, relaxing and peaceful river cruise. Salisbury is a working class town, with a very reasonable marina, and some good restaurants near the marina. Be mindful of the two, correctly charted, cable ferry crossings on the Wicomico River along that route. Call those ferries on VHF13/VHF16 to arrange to pass over the cables when they are lowered and lying on the bottom.
On the Eastern Shore, via the Choptank River, is Cambridge, MD. The city marina is reasonably priced and protected from heavy weather. The harbor entrance is marked by the Choptank River Lighthouse, a reproduction “screw pile” lighthouse. This is a wonderful, relaxing working-class city with excellent seafood restaurants.
On the Eastern Shore, Chestertown, MD, up the Chester River, is an excellent stop. There is a low highway bridge across the Chester River beyond which cruising boats cannot go. There is a small marina for transients. Many – most, actually – of the real estate properties in Chestertown are on the “Registry of Historic Places,” so if architecture is your thing, don’t miss Chestertown. The Chester River is a rural, quiet river. There are lots of places to anchor.
On the Eastern Shore, Rock Hall, MD, is a nice Bay village with nice waterfront restaurants. The main harbor has large, non-navigable shoal in it’s center, and access to shore is from a large, square-shaped channel around the perimeter of the harbor. Cruiser’s must stay in that channel. Restaurants with transient dockage for visiting boaters are quite good. Access to town from the main harbor is walking distance. Access to town via a local shuttle bus is available to cruisers who stay at one of two upscale marinas (Haven Harbor, Osprey) on Swan Creek. This area of the Eastern Shore is quite shoal, so visiting cruisers must honor charts and markers.