Hitting a bridge with a boat

Now, it’s not like that barge hanging up on a bridge abutment in the Mississippi, but:

The Beals Island bridge over Moosabec Reach way Down East by Jonesport is on the chart at a 39’ clearance.  Although I have never measured my mast, I approached this bridge with a measure of confidence, born of my previous experience.  That first time, 10 years ago, I looked at the bridge with trepidation, and my sailing companion took the outboard dinghy and went well away from the boat as we approached the bridge, and came back reporting that he could see light between the top of my mast and the bottom of the bridge.  Not being a geometer, I pressed him on the math until I was convinced, and we passed under the span with several feet to spare, as he promised.

So this time, as I neared the ominously low-looking span, I was blithely assuring my sailing companion of this time that there was plenty of clearance.  Even so, we reduced sail and put the engine on in reverse to slow our hull caught in the fast moving tide that was shooing us down the reach.  Turns out my confidence (oh, it was ever thus) had about a foot of arrogance in it, and the top of the mast struck the bridge with a clang, crash, and then a series of scraping, sickening metal noises.

My utter surprise and Annie’s utter shock stopped us for a second.  The very upper part of the mast has antennae, instruments, and a light on it, and bits of plastic and metal clattered onto the deck, followed by flakes and almost sooty stuff that I though was part of my boat, but turned out on later inspection to be shards and flakes of bridge paint – apparently we gave nearly as good as we got.

We caught on the first girder, turned sideways under the bridge, freed that one and caught the second, and then (the crashes!) the third, but the fourth was lower than the others, and there we caught more solidly.  We were in a pickle – if we tried to go upstream we would have to pass under the three girders we had already buckled under.  To stay where we were would slowly, as the tide rose another 5 feet, poke our mast up through the roadway, or (more likely) down through our boat.  Every minute the tide rose (13 feet in six hours around here) would mean we were more stuck.

Using the engine, backing and filling between the two girders penning the mast above us, I got the boat sideways to the current, parallel to the roadway, and let her float back into the girder (crash, again).  Then I cut the engine, and the strong tide carried the hull out from under the bridge, tilting the boat and the mast until it slipped under the girder and with a shudder we were free.

Within minutes we were laughing between adrenalin bursts.  We are now sailing without a wind vane or a masthead light, but luckily the radio antenna was a whip, and survived, and all the truck that holds the top of the sails is scraped but intact.

Never again will I assume. (I assume I’ve said that sometime before.)


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