During the 1980’s, I owned a number of excellent sea boats, from a 23′ Formula to a 54′  Bertram, which I bought in 1987, and owned through 1993.  I was not a “dock sitter,” and cruised as often asI was able to get away.  Every year, I would take the boat south to Key Largo for the winter, and back up to Nantucket for the summer.  I totally enjoyed those 1,600 mile trips, and it was inconceivable to me that the majority of boat owners who took their boats south hated the trip, and paid professional captains to do it. For my friends and I, the trips were always adventurous, sometimes exciting, sometimes relaxing, but never boring. Over the 30 or so times I made the trek, I got to know every great restaurant and bar on the Intracoastal Waterway, not to mention the discount fuel docks. It was often like Huck Finn poling the Mississippi, always meeting new people and having new experiences.
We would run offshore from Nantucket, through Long Island Sound, entering New York City’s East River at Hell’s Gate, aptly named for the vicious tidal currents that could often make navigation a bit dicey, to put it mildly.   When one first enters New York Harbor at The Battery, the Statue of Liberty comes into view, and it was always a truly emotional sight, no matter how many times one had seen it. After leaving the harbor, we were back at sea. Part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway originally ran the whole length of New Jersey, and it still does; however, it is badly shoaled along its route, and the lack of commercial traffic makes it financially unfeasible to keep it dredged to a usable depth.  The Waterway was conceived in the 1930’s as an inland alternative to running offshore, and facing the threat of the Nazi U-Boats that patrolled the sea lanes.  Today, the Waterway begins at Mile Marker Zero in Norfolk, Virginia, and is kept navigable by the Army Corps of Engineers all the way to Miami.  Despite shoaling in many areas, the Corps does a great job of keeping it passable.   Our first stop would generally be Atlantic City, with all that implied!
Our next port would be Norfolk Virginia, and one had to watch the weather carefully, as it was open ocean all the way, unless one chose to take the longer route through Chesapeake Bay.  What makes the trip so interesting is the practically endless number or ports one can visit along the way.  You could easily spend months at it, if you stopped at every different port.  If you wanted to make time, you could stay offshore and bypass Norfolk Harbor, but I only did that a couple of times, as there were so many great stops on the Waterway, heading south from Norfolk.   As you enter Norfolk’s inner harbor, you are immediately aware of the U.S. Navy’s dominating presence.  You saw “Carrier Row” on the south side, where I had seen as many as three aircraft carriers docked, including the USS Enterprise.  Further along, we would  idle past the massive Norshipco yards,  always buzzing with the overhauling and maintenance of naval vessels, 24 hours a day.  I either tied up at the Norfolk City Marina, which was within
walking distance of many superb restaurants, or chose to put Norfolk’s many bridges behind us, and stay at Great Bridge, Virginia, the site of a Civil War battle.  One of the major dredging contractors on the Waterway had opened a shipyard and marina there, known for honesty and superb workmanship.  It was a great place to leave one’s boat for maintenance or repairs, as it was easy to fly in and out from Norfolk. Of course, Great Bridge had the mandatory excellent restaurant!
After going through the locks at Great Bridge, you are really in the Waterway.   In this area, there are a few routes which may be chosen, including the Dismal Swamp Canal, originally surveyed by George Washington, or the Alligator-Pungo Canal, a laser straight man made cut, that came pretty close to being boring.  We often stopped at the little town of Coinjock, North Carolina, not only for its well known cheap fuel, but also to visit our friends, the Harrisons, who owned the fuel dock and adjacent marina.  I suppose liberals would call them “rednecks,” “crackers,” or “Swamp Yankees,”  but these were some fine people. They were Papa and Mama Harrison, and their two sons, Clarence and Eddie.  They sold over a million gallons of diesel fuel each year, and they owned about 5,000 acres of Southern Yellow Pine forest along the Waterway, so they were far from poor. If one stopped there regularly, as I did, you would have endless conversations with each of the Harrisons, about everything from politics to hunting, or the biggest thorn in their sides- sailboats.  They hated the sailors, many of whom would pull up to their high volume fuel dock, buy ten gallons of diesel, and ask if they could have free dockage. They sold Harrison’s Marina T-shirts, which had a drawing of a sailboat being smashed by a Coast Guard cutter, and the caption, “Save The Day – Sink a Sailboat.”   It was hilarious to watch a sailboat approach their mostly open docks, only to be turned way by Clarence, who said, “We’re all full up.”  If they asked for fuel, the answer was, “We’re out of fuel.”  Once, when told that, a sailor asked, “What are you talking about?  You’re fueling that big yacht right now!”   Clarence drawled back, “Ah mean we’re out of sailboat fuel!”
Their house was right on the property, and if you made the cut, Mama Harrison would invite you over for dinner- one of those 5,000+ calorie southern affairs, topped off with her homemade pecan pie. They always broke out a bottle of smooth but potent “mountain dew,” and it was a good thing we didn’t have to drive anywhere!  If you turned down thirds, she would not be happy.  How Eddie and Clarence remained thin was beyond me.  By the time I took my last Waterway trip in 1993, the elder Harrisons had passed away, and the boys sold the big tract of land for equally big money.  I read recently that their marina property was being sold as residential canal front lots.  So it’s been over 25 years since I used to get Christmas cards from the Harrisons, always with Mama’s handwritten note,  “Look forward to seeing y’all this spring!!”    I miss them, and the trips, and the other friends and acquaintances we came to meet in the little backwater towns, but it wouldn’t be the same now.   As Maine’s own Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote in the last lines of his acutely depressing poem, “Mr. Flood’s Party,”

“Where strangers would have shut the many doors,
That many friends had opened long ago.”

Meanwhile, it was still a good 1,000 miles to Miami, after leaving Coinjock!

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