Friday, June 19, 2020


Emancipation Day. Freedom Day. Liberation Day. Whatever you call it, I can hardly think of a more fitting place for us to be on this day, at this time: in Richmond, Virginia, once the Capital of the Confederate States of America, long defeated but somehow, 155 years later, still celebrated here and elsewhere in monuments more fitting of victors. We are docked at the city wharf (map), at one time in the midst of the Confederate naval base and shipyards.

Vector docked in Richmond. We went down another couple of feet from here, and mostly had to get on and off the boat from the upper deck.

Not far from here, President Lincoln stepped ashore, just two days after Richmond fell, to tour the city, now smoldering in ruins. Directly across the river from our dock stood the Manchester slave docks, where the ghastly human cargo was unloaded and marched in irons to the slave jails, in the dead of night to avoid exposing proper society to the sights and smells of unwashed and often injured humanity.

Monday afternoon after I already posted we saw this US Navy Seahawk conducting low-altitude maneuvers nearby.

Tuesday morning we weighed anchor right after our first coffee, and rode the flood upriver until it petered out about four hours later. We anchored in another wide spot in the river, across from Windmill Point (map). With the hook down just after lunch, we had a relaxing afternoon aboard. We certainly could have made more miles, but with our dinner date not until tonight, there was no point in pushing against the combination of ebb and freshet. I got a couple of things done around the boat. It was a very quiet anchorage.

Passing Colonial Williamsburg on our way upriver Tuesday.

Wednesday, between the diurnal shift in the onset of tides and the fact that we were much further upriver, we were able to get a much later start. Nevertheless, we made it a very short day, because there are no anchorages in the last dozen miles of river. Instead we turned off onto a long-abandoned meander of the river and dropped the hook next to Farrar Island, in the Dutch Gap Conservation Area (map). The meander was actually cut off by the excavation by Union forces of the Dutch Gap Canal.

Just before turning off to Farrar Island we passed under the Varina-Enon bridge carrying I-295, our usual route around Richmond in the bus.

Wednesday I also called ahead to the lone marina in the city of Richmond, at Rocketts Landing, to ask about dockage. They informed me that, in normal conditions, they might be able to squeeze us onto their diminutive floating docks, but with flooding and the associated high current expected to arrive Thursday night, Vector posed too much risk to their docks. The dockmaster was able to tell me, though, that he did not think the city would have any issue with us tying up here at the quay. We had another dark, quiet, and peaceful night.

The tugs and ships kept referring to "Jimmy Dean" as a landmark on the radio, and we thought it must be a plant. No, it's his estate.

Thursday morning we waited until the flood was well underway. I knew that no matter how much tidal help we had, somewhere in the last few miles, the tide would be overwhelmed by the river flow, and the current would be against us. Our choice of departure time put us in the river just ahead of two tugboats running upriver light-boat to assist a cargo ship off the dock. They passed us in a bend of the river, and we had to pass astern of them later and through their prop wash as we passed the cargo ship. In between, we met a downbound tug with a barge on a short wire; our busiest, yet shortest, day on the river.

Our view of downtown Richmond and the Falls of the James out our front windows.

Our final turn northward, some eight miles south of Richmond, was at an escarpment called Drewry's Bluff, where the evacuating Confederates scuttled their fleet, in the hopes of one final blockade. The ships still lie on the bottom, under feet of silt. Shortly afterward we passed the deepwater port of Richmond, and after just a couple hours under way we arrived here at the head of navigation. As soon as they came into sight it was clear to us that the dockmaster was right -- Vector is too big and heavy for the marina, even in settled conditions.

View back downriver toward Rocketts Landing from the Great Shiplock. Vector is just out of sight to the left, behind the river gage that controls our life at the moment.

Fortunately the city wharf was devoid of fishermen as we arrived, and we had plenty of time to carefully plan our approach. The built-in fenders on the quay protrude 20" from the wall, but only extend downward 39". They were well above our rail line  aft of the forward fashion plate, and just barely making contact with the gunwales forward. We needed to approach carefully to keep them from overrunning the rails.

This huge fender on the quay in Richmond partly obscures the construction date - 1932.

The enormous cleats, designed for small cruise ships, were well above Louise's head, and as she was trying to lasso one, a man got out of his truck and offered to take it for her. He turned out to be one of the marina principals, and we had a nice chat. In all, it took us well over a half hour to get Vector situated and secured in such a way that we were well fended-off the dock. With a tide swing of over three and a half feet, and quay fenders just a bit shorter than that, we knew we'd be adjusting our own fenders numerous times.

Great Shiplock downstream gate, unopened in many years.

After getting all squared away we took a stroll around the Rocketts Landing neighborhood. Several historic buildings have been repurposed into condos, apartments, and even a restaurant, and new construction is filling in the gaps. The neighborhood sorely needs a grocery, or at least a mini-mart, but is rather pleasant with many waterfront views.

Surrounded by graffiti, this dedication from 1849 is still legible on the lock's stonework.

We returned in the evening for dinner on the outside deck at The Boathouse. In addition to being seated outside, the restaurant has implemented touchless menus, ordering, and payment, with masked servers delivering food. We were afforded a lovely view of the city, and felt relatively safe.

Our dinnertime view, from the deck at The Boathouse. Vector looks diminutive from here.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, folks arrived on the dock to fish. By the time we got back from dinner there was hardly an open space on the quay. I spent a lot of time answering questions any time I went on deck, which was frequently to check and adjust lines and fenders. Cruising boats simply do not come here. Some of the fishing parties lingered and carried on until past 1am, but we were all alone when I turned in.

The quay full of people fishing and socializing. Some in this photo stayed past midnight. Boathouse is the place with the smokestack at right.

We went through a full tidal cycle at the dock yesterday, but by midnight, the water upriver was beginning to steadily rise, and I knew we would not have to raise the fenders again. We've been lowering them all day, and as I wrap up typing late in the evening, the river here is already three feet above normal and still has not crested. The upstream gage is just cresting, slightly above flood stage, and a flow just under 50,000 CFS. The river flow when we arrived yesterday was one tenth of that.

Some interesting art in the remains of the powerplant on Brown's Island, now an upscale mixed-use neighborhood.

Today's forecast was for rain, but I got a break in the middle of the day, and I put the e-bike on the ground and went for a spin. I rode up past the old ship lock, which, last century, raised ships and their cargo up to the level of the city proper for unloading. I continued along the narrow canal system, in and out of the enormous city floodwall, and across the river atop the old VEPCO low-head dam.

A short clip of the Falls of the James above 30,000 CFS.

I would estimate the flow at the time I was there to be 30,000 CFS. At this stage the river is closed to paddlers, who otherwise can run the class III-IV rapids right past downtown, emerging just upriver of where we are docked.

The paddling put-in above the falls, across the street from the Civil War Museum at the old Tredegar Ironworks. Closed.

My detour across the river and back meant I would not have enough battery to make it out to Monument Avenue and the Capitol, which I will try to do tomorrow. I returned by way of downtown and then Main Street, passing the restored train station, the 17th Street Market, and the quaint cobblestone restaurant district in Shockoe Bottom. The only real evidence I saw of the protests that have gripped the city was at the boarded windows of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum.

Edgar Allan Poe museum.

This evening we returned to Rocketts Landing to meet our friends for dinner at Conch Republic, which was chosen because there is plenty of safe outdoor seating. Of course, the rain that missed me early in the day arrived with a vengeance just before dinner, and we walked over in raincoats hoping for at least a dry spot on the deck. As it turned out the rain was short-lived and we had a great time catching up over sandwiches and beer at opposite ends of a suitable outdoor table.

Tobacco Row, residential lofts in historic former industrial space.

By the time we left for dinner, the current was running past the boat at close to three knots. The swollen river has been carrying all manner of debris, including a number of massive logs, some as much as 20' long and two feet across. And while the river will crest overnight, the flow will remain high and debris-laden throughout tomorrow and into Sunday morning, and so we'll remain right here, securely tied up, until it's safe to maneuver in the river.

Richmond station. I wanted to peek inside, but it is now open to ticketed passengers only.

In addition to some more riding around tomorrow, we have an Amazon order arriving at the closest locker, and I need to pick up a few groceries as well. We will likely drop lines Sunday; in normal times I could easily see us spending several more days here taking it all in, but with transit and rideshare risky, and most museums and other sites closed, there is little reason to do so on this visit.

The small canals that lead from the city wharves at the Shiplock basin (behind the floodwall) through town. In normal times small tour boats run their length.

I expect our return trip will be just as slow and lazy as the trip upriver. We have no particular destination in mind once we leave the James, and it's too early to be looking ahead to passage weather for either the Chesapeake or the Atlantic.

Richmond tonight from our upper deck, on a very hazy night.


  1. My brother used to live near Richmond and I went with him once to look around at the Tredegar Ironworks - interesting. Jimmy Dean passed in 2010 - I read years ago that he had a marine band radio and he liked to talk to the ship captains as they passed his house. Guess that’s why his house became a landmark on the river.

  2. Another funny one about Jimmy Dean. Sara Lee bought his sausage company and he was the spokesman for years.
    Sara Lee fired him some years later. After that he would say, 'Everyone doesn't love Sara Lee!"

  3. They have started using his voice again in the JD sausage commercials. Read he used to have a big boat he docked at his house named “Big Bad John” - name of his first hit song.


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