A cruise to Virginia's Bennett Creek becomes a reminder of immutable laws and earlier days.

by Paul Clancy
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

Leaving the Elizabeth River on a sunny October day, fighting the incoming tide but then getting a nice shove as I entered Hampton Roads and turned west, I was keenly aware of this stupendous force that governs our planet. Twice each day, answering the tug of the moon and rotation of the Earth, billions of gallons of water gather in the ocean and roll past the Virginia Capes, elbowing into every river and creek in the Chesapeake region. And, just as surely as God allowed us to invent depthsounders, all that water is gonna turn around and roll back out again. And if I don't respect that eternal mystery, it'll sure enough cause me to run aground.

For years I'd hoped to find the courage to take my five-foot-draft sailboat into lovely Bennett Creek, an offshoot of the Nansemond River that's just around the corner from the hustle and muscle of the big city. My wife Barb and I have put our canoe in at Bennetts Creek Park and explored the upper reaches of the creek, but not the lower. But after the 2006 dredging of the approach channel to a supposed depth of six-something feet, I was game for a try, especially if the tide was on my side.

So I glided past Newport News, slipped through the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel and turned east. Just as I did, the Nansemond River bridge hove into view and I picked up the long approach channel for the Nansemond at flashing green "5". There was plenty of water for the next two miles, right up until I reached the entrance to Bennett Creek. It couldn't have been more welcoming, with flashing green "1 BC" and red "2" side by side. But as soon as I swung smartly to port to enter the channel, I realized this was going to get interesting. It was about an hour after high tide and my sounder kept blinking a warning that I was inches from the bottom, if not on it. I prayed for soft mud as I crept past the last marker and slipped into the creek where the depth suddenly increased. I had to smile as I passed a boat on a lift calledNo Worries.

A very nice thing happened as I entered Bennett Creek and made a gradual turn to port. The world changed. No longer surrounded by Newport News shipyards and coal piers in the distance, I was now embraced by lush marshes just about everywhere I looked. About a mile farther, there was the low U.S. Highway 17 bridge and a cluster of boats and buildings. This was formerly Bennetts Creek Marina and Restaurant, but now is Harbor Side Marina and Restaurant. I cruised by, swung around and ducked into what looked like a nice anchorage, a cove beside the marina. There was enough water here to get well away from small boat traffic, and the view of the marsh was superb. A great blue heron standing on the shore was unfazed by my company as my anchor splashed.

I climbed into my inflatable, gave it a few shots of air from the hand pump and then set off to explore the shoreline. As I rowed beside a house right on the point of the cove, a couple and their dog greeted me. They hoped I'd stay a couple of days, they said, because they don't often have a sailboat in their view. It was nice to hear. My 31-year-old Tartan has a new, blue paint job. They also offered a bit of advice: make sure to leave at high tide. Duly noted.

Just after dark there was a familiar whistle from shore. Barb, who works at the Norfolk Public Library, had driven out to complete my cruise with me, and I hustled over to Harbor Side's long dock. We'd been interested in this restaurant ever since it changed hands a few years ago and began serving lots of fresh seafood. Its owner, Nat Compton, calls himself a "seasoned fisherman," and he catches a lot of his own offerings. And, besides, how many creeks can you escape to and find nice eateries right on the water?

The food was delicious, and so was the view. We dined beside a window that looks across the marsh to a waxing half moon that seemed to be hung in the sky from the bright star above it, probably Venus. Together, as we toasted our good fortune to be here, the moon and its star dipped below the tree line. It was pitch dark, except for a sky full of stars, as we rowed back toward our boat's anchor light.

We slept soundly onboard, although I occasionally awoke and felt the current swing the boat this way and that as the tide crept out during the night. At first light, as I gazed through the companionway, my view changed like a slow pan of a video camera as we swung once more. It was low tide and the slow, ever-so-slow, flood had begun.

One of the best parts about having to wait for the next tide is not having to worry about time. It will change in due course; we might as well relax. And so we did. Coffee, tea and cereal, a second cup, a cookie. The sun turned the marsh into a parfait of colors: dark tide line below, golden middle, reddish, fall-touched top. We stepped into the dinghy and, side by side, rowed around the creek. A small crab scooted across the mud on the exposed shore. An elusive rail put in a brief appearance before ducking back into the marsh. Gentle waves from a passing fishing boat lapped against the shore. The great blue heron exhibited exquisite patience as it studied the water. We watched and watched until, finally, with lightning-fast stab, the creature plunged its beak downward. A fish jumped. It missed this time. But not the next. There was a quick toss of the head as the morsel of breakfast went home.

We lounged on cushions in the cockpit, Barb knitting, me reading and gazing at the wispy clouds and blue sky. Finally, at an hour or so before high tide, we weighed anchor and left the creek. This time, there was a sudden drop in depth and we had to kedge off a muddy bar to get free. I think we were also helped by the still-rising tide, a fitting conclusion to a lovely adventure.

[12.07 issue]