Clearing the Bridges

We’ve all heard about sailboats being heeled over to clear bridges but few have ever done it, particularly when the mast height of Bluejacket, a 42-foot Ted Brewer-designed cutter, is 63 feet and bridge clearances up the river are 55 feet. It’s one thing to inch it along under a single bridge with full 55-gallon water drums hung out on the end of a boom or spinnaker pole, or using a twin outboard pulling on the spinnaker halyard; it’s another thing altogether to secure the cutter alongside and hold it over for 15 miles, doing 4 to 5 knots, in order to clear five bridges.

As we came to anchor west of the first 55-foot bridge in Ft. Myers on the Caloosahatchee River, Captain Wellington Bertolet, owner and skipper of the 75-ton displacement steel trawler Vagabond, looked at the well-found cutter Bluejacket anchored nearby and said, “between the six of us we have over 300 years of sailing experience, we should be able to get this done without a fuss.€VbCrLf

Tom Kelly and Alice Collins upped anchor and maneuvered Bluejacket along the starboard side of Vagabond. Nearly all the fenders available on both boats were hung between them. Bluejacket was secured with the mast abeam of Vagabond’s bridge. Tom Kelly had previously doubled up the spinnaker halyard on Bluejacket so we could heel it over with the mast over the top of Vagabond’s cabin. No one was quite sure how far over it would go if we pulled it down across Vagabond. Since Vagabond has a beam of 18 feet it just might be enough.

We all knew how to do the trigonometry to calculate the angle of heel necessary to clear 55 feet, but to be certain Kelly used a surveyor’s tape to measure out 53 feet on a 1/2-inch line, attached a sounding lead to the end and hauled it to the top of the mast using a spare halyard. Kelly figured 53 feet would clear the bridges with a couple of feet to spare to account for the masthead electronics and VHF antenna.

Before being heeled over, the masthead sounding lead hung just about even with the deck of the cutter. “When the lead touches the water we should be over enough to clear the bridges,€VbCrLf Kelly said. “I wish the wind would lie down. Twenty knots is more than we need, especially on the beam,€VbCrLf he continued, looking up.

Meanwhile the Vagabond crew, John Newbold, my wife and I, and skipper Wellington Bertolet, were making up the haul down block and tackle. A 1/2-inch marine braid line was attached to the doubled up halyard and hauled to the top of the cutter’s mast. A turning block was attached to the port rail about midships on Vagabond. The heaving line was run from the masthead through the turning block to a powerful electric winch on Vagabond’s port quarter. The masthead’s 53-foot lead line was carried across the top of the cabin and hung over Vagabond’s port side. When we started to haul the sloop over, the rod rigging hit Vagabond’s cabin top but the lead was only a foot above the water, indicating that we could likely tip the cutter far enough when we pulled it all the way down; no need for the water drums. Both the cutter and the turning block on Vagabond’s port rail were moved forward of the bridge so the rod rigging would clear Vagabond’s cabin when it was pulled over. At this point the cutter’s mast was just even with the front of Vagabond’s bridge.

Newbold manned Vagabond’s aft winch and pulled it over until the masthead lead was in the water. The masthead was nearly directly overhead on Vagabond’s port side. Evidently the trawler’s 18-foot beam was wide enough so when the cutter’s masthead was overhead on the trawler’s port side the height of the mast was 53 feet above the water. The cutter’s port rail was just in the water with the boat heeled over and the trawler took on a 5° to 10° list to starboard. We all agreed that a lighter towboat would have a much greater list if it tried the same maneuver. The pull required to tip the 42-foot cutter was estimated to be between 750 and 1,000 pounds; not unreasonable given the tackle used.

Kelly stayed on the helm of the cutter with the engine running. His job was to relieve any strain on the lines and keep it parallel with the trawler. Vagabond upped anchor and approached the first bridge.

As we neared the span, speed was reduced to a crawl. We all looked up anxiously as Captain Bert maneuvered the boats under the bridge. No problem; the VHF antenna didn’t even touch the bridge. Traffic on the bridge slowed to a crawl. Cars stopped on the upriver side to see if we made it under! A fast-moving sport fish even stopped to observe. The Florida Marine Patrol outboard boat approached from astern but turned back deciding to leave well enough alone. Fifteen miles and four bridges to go up the river to the dock at North Ft. Myers. Captain Bert increased the speed of the flotilla to 4.5 knots and turned the helm over to Newbold.

After we emerged from the second bridge, adjacent to the Ft. Myers city marina, Vagabond got a call from the marina manager saying we cleared the bridge by a good 4 feet and asking if we were for hire for similar maneuvers. “Of course,€VbCrLf Bert said and gave them his phone number.

After we cleared the last highway bridge we released the haul down line and Bluejacket immediately came upright. As we approached the Ft. Myers power plant, Bert asked, “What’s the clearance under those power lines up ahead?€VbCrLf

“Eighty feet,€VbCrLf I replied reassuringly.

Dick deGrasse holds a master’s license and is a USCG veteran. He and his wife Kathy live on Islesboro, Maine, when not on their 34-foot sloop Endeavour.

By Ocean Navigator