Victory's Voyages

A Sailing Adventure

Into the Ditch

On November 2, 2022, it was time for Victory and her crew to reluctantly part ways with Kiwi Ken. We had traveled with Ken all the way from Atlantic Highlands, NJ to Yankee Point Marina in rural Lancaster County, VA. But now Ken’s Shannon 28 Southern Journey was hauled out for a winter of maintenance on the hard, while Victory was poised to continue her voyage south to the Bahamas. However, Victory would not be traveling on alone. Our new companions would be Shawn and Cynthia Gregory on sailing vessel Santiago.

The good ship Santiago is a 1982 Amel Maramu that was purpose built in France for serious open ocean sailing. Santiago, like Victory, has an old-school ketch rig, which means that she has a taller mainmast a bit forward of center with a shorter mizzenmast rising up in front of her rudder post. Santiago is 46 feet long, measures 13 feet at her widest point (beam), and weighs in at 28,000 pounds before she is loaded up with gear and provisions. Her impressive deep keel gives her a hefty 6.5 feet of draft (distance from her waterline to the bottom of the keel).
In contrast, Victory is only 38 feet long and a slender 11.5 feet at her beam, with an empty weight of 18,000 pounds and a modest 5 foot draft. She was built by Shannon Yachts in Bristol, Rhode Island in 1979 with a trade winds circumnavigation of the globe in mind.

Side by side with Santiago, Victory almost looks like a toy boat. Yet Victory has what old salts call “lovely lines,” so I suppose it’s not surprising that when we are at anchor we often have people stop by in their dinghies to tell us how beautiful she is. We have even had other boats radio us while underway to sing her praises. Such compliments for our boat pump our pride up a bit, but if you think about it, why? People are not telling Monica and I that we are beautiful, it’s our boat that makes their hearts beat faster.

In any case, both Victory and Santiago kicked up their heels as we departed from Yankee Point that day in November, sailing alongside Kiwi Ken and our new friend Warren in Warren’s lovely C&C sloop Blue Settee. We were also joined by another new friend, Hal, a Yankee Point live aboard sailor bucketing along in his distinctive yellow sloop Ka’mala. Of course, sailing in a flotilla made it that much more embarrassing when Victory’s captain promptly ran her aground. Excited to be finally resuming our journey, I steered Victory out of the marina on a course between a red day mark to starboard (right) and a green day mark to port (left). The problem with this is that I somehow mixed up the rule of thumb for aids to navigation in U.S. waters: red right returning, green right going, and we were going, not returning. Victory glided onto a mud bank and stuck fast. All efforts to free her by reversing out of the shallows failed. We had to resort to being towed off the bank.

Now, it is said there are two kinds of sailors, those who have run aground and liars. There was no consolation for me in this aphorism, but a perfect sailing day through a landscape painted in vivid autumn colors served as an adequate ice pack on my bruised ego as our little flock of sailboats made its way down Myers Creek into the Corrotomon River, then down the Corrotomon into the Rappahannock River. Our escort turned back at the Norris Bridge, leaving Victory and Santiago to sail on alone back into Chesapeake Bay. After a few miles we rounded a corner and anchored in Fishing Bay, on the Piankatank River.

Victory and Santiago did zero fishing in Fishing Bay. Instead, we weighed anchor at first light the next day to make a passage through the remainder of the Chesapeake to a plain, but serviceable anchorage in Mill Creek, a.k.a Old Comfort Point, at the mouth of the Hampton River, where it flows through Hampton, VA into Hampton Roads. We split up near the end of the passage, with Victory sailing a little further out, while Santiago motored along, more inshore. Eventually, the significantly larger Santiago and her powerful engine pulled ahead, leaving Victory alone to rack up another one of those experiences that spices up our story, but will perhaps make you think “better them than me.”

What happened was that as we struck our sails and entered Hampton Roads, we were confronted with a mammoth container ship. This was seemingly no cause for concern. We have passed by many large ships in the open ocean, careful to keep a lot of distance between them and us. We have also slipped by many large ships quite closely in the narrow confines of places like Boston Harbor. Hampton Roads is nowhere near as skinny as Boston Harbor, and we were able to stay about a half a nautical mile away from the behemoth, so everything seemed routine. However, there were two elements of this scenario that made it unlike our Boston Harbor experiences. First, the monster ship was steaming along at full speed ahead. Second, we were traversing what is known as Thimble Shoal.

The container ship was actually well past us when I realized that it’s high rate of speed and the shallow water of the shoal had combined to create the largest wake wave we have ever seen. There was no place to hide as I watched the long, steep wave rolling toward us across Hampton Roads like some sinister sibling of a tsunami. I would swear in a court of law that it took years for that wake to reach us, during which terror turned my hair and beard as white as an arctic snow bank. Well, maybe not, but I nervously warned Monica and turned Victory’s strongest point, her bow, towards the lumbering beast. It crashed into us.

Victory bucked and the resulting spray slapped me full in the face as a truly incredible volume of water sluiced down Victory’s tilted deck. Monica was nicely sheltered by Victory’s canvas dodger, but water rushing past the dodger poured into the cockpit where I stood at the helm. For the first time ever, I experienced knee deep water sloshing around my legs in the cockpit well. I can’t say that I liked it. Victory’s side decks were filled to the tops of her toe rails and the neatly coiled lines of Victory’s running back stays hung over her flanks, washed overboard and dangling forlornly. I was grateful that all Victory’s hatches were closed and battened down as I watched the water swirling out her side deck and cockpit drains.

We spent the next three days waiting out some unpleasant weather at Old Comfort Point, just a hop, skip and a jump from Norfolk, VA, and the entrance to The Ditch. The Ditch is the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the AICW. The ICW is a slender thread of sounds, bays, rivers, creeks, and cuts that links Virginia to Florida via North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. There are ocean inlets along the way where the mariner can either “go outside” or “come back inside,” although some of these inlets are very long, or very treacherous, or both.

The ICW presents more navigational challenges than one might think, especially for a sailboat with its deep draft. A lot of water moves through the ICW, in some places driven primarily by tidal cycles, and in other places driven by the wind. The currents can be strong and laden with sediment, making shoaling a real issue. There are countless bridges, some fixed, some opening only at scheduled times upon request via VHF radio. The larger bodies of water along the way are shallow enough that wind against current can push up steep, choppy waves. Parts of the waterway are arrow-straight, man-made links between natural features, while other parts are meandering paths through marshes or swamps. There are remote sections, with lots of wildlife: dolphins, bald eagles, herons, and pelicans. There are civilized sections through towns and cities with amazing sights like a sort of high rise parking garage for small motor boats that we frequently saw along the North Carolina Coast. And there are barges, dredges, and other commercial traffic to watch out for.

All of that still lay ahead of us as we got on the move again at dawn of the day after the bad weather passed, as it always eventually does. Victory and Santiago poked their noses out into Hampton Roads and we worked our way across to Norfolk and traveled past Battleship Row, the docks for the largest naval installation in the world. According to Wikipedia, there are 75 ships alongside 14 piers at Naval Station Norfolk. Continuing on, we passed Mile 0 of the ICW at Hospital Point without ceremony and continued on through about twelve statute miles of industrial scenery, including massive ships under construction. We passed under numerous bridges, including one that had to be opened to allow us to pass, then found ourselves in our first lock. Monica and I tended bow and stern lines looped around massive cleats on the lock wall above us as the swirling waters lifted Victory a few feet. Perhaps some day we will pass through the giant locks of the Panama Canal? In any case, the Great Bridge Lock was our first lock, and will probably always take up a few seconds of our personal highlight reels.

We were in the Ditch at last. A new chapter in Victory’s voyages was well and truly begun!