Plan ahead for safe passage

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By Michael McBride

One summer I joined our Sea Scout Ship 912 for a long cruise from St. Petersburg, Florida, to the Dry Tortugas and back. We spent nine days and eight nights aboard Bonne Femme, a 35-foot Pearson sloop with an inboard drive diesel. We towed a 14-foot dinghy.

We took the Intracoastal Waterway to Sanibel Island. From there, we would head southwest across the Gulf of Mexico to Key West. On the way to Sanibel, we would have to navigate at least 13 bridges, the most challenging of which was Albee Road Bridge.

As the bridge started to open, two powerboats were on our stern, another was coming in on our bow, and the boat was caught in a strong current. Realizing this wasn’t a routine bridge crossing, I took over the helm. The vessel had little steerage, just some forward/reverse, with major starboard prop walk.

After nearly hitting the inbound powerboat, Bonne Femme turned sideways under the bridge. The bow narrowly cleared the port side of the bridge, and the dinghy motor just missed the starboard side as we turned 90 degrees and continued into a 180-degree turn, our bow now pointing at the boats that had been on our stern.

To get through the bridge, we had to complete a 360-degree turn, narrowly missing the second boat, the bridge fenders and a channel marker on the other side.

Follow these tips to ensure that you don’t become part of the 360 club:

  • Plan ahead. Review and study the charts and research the name of every bridge. Our charts didn’t show structure names, which caused confusion during the trip.
  • Get a cruising guide with information about bridge passages, approximate opening times, VHF channels for contacting bridge-tenders, and descriptions of obstacles you may encounter.
  • Learn how to use the radio and horn to communicate with fellow boaters.
  • Get up-to-date information on tides, current strength under bridges and Notices to Mariners with local area warnings.
  • Vessels traveling against the current shall not interfere with vessels traveling with the current, so be polite and let other vessels pass first if down or running against the current.
  • Be nice to bridgetenders; they have the power to open the bridge for you!