A very short sea voyage down to Rudee Inlet puts all the fun and excitement of Virginia Beach in a boater's backyard.

by Jody Argo Schroath
illustration by Richard C. Goertemiller

Is Rudee Inlet part of the Chesapeake Bay? No, not strictly speaking, because you have to go out into the Actual Atlantic Ocean to get there. Why is that such a big deal? Because, like mariners immemorial, we too have a tendency to distrust what lies beyond our home waters--as in, there be dragons and sea serpents and big waves and stuff. I know quite a few people who have spent their boating lives within a few miles of their home port--and are happy to keep it that way, thank you very much. Most of us prefer the devil we know, no matter how much we chide ourselves for being silly. And really, of course, we are being silly.

Which is why, when I got to the end of the Bay last summer, I felt I just had to keep going.Well, that and my husband's cousin Jerry. You see, Cousin Jerry and his wife, Cousin Helen, have lived in Virginia Beach for six years now and have been raving about it for at least five years and eleven months. "Listen," Jerry would say, "Rudee Inlet is only six miles down the coast from the Bay, so it's an easy zip around the corner, and hey, presto, you're there." He and Cousin Helen would be happy to pick us up at the boat and show us around, he said. But somehow, what with one thing and another, we had so far never managed to get down that way. So when Skipper the dog and I were exploring the southern Bay last June, I knew it was finally time to set up that meeting. Rick would drive down for the weekend, and we would rendezvous with the cousins for that long-delayed visit.

And what a great time we had! We drove up to First Landing State Park and visited the lighthouses at Cape Henry. We took a late-night stroll along Virginia Beach's boardwalk. We lunched in Rudee Inlet Station's outdoor gliding-table restaurant, swam in the ocean and visited the Virginia Aquarium. Jerry and Helen were as right as ninepence about Virginia Beach. It was a great place to visit . . . and I'll be happy to tell you all about it sometime, probably a lot more than you want to know. But for the purposes of this story, the important thing is that we could have done and seen everything that we did--with the possible exception of First Landing State Park and the lighthouses--even without the cousins. All of it was within easy walking distance of the boat. Moreover, we could have done it in either a powerboat or a sailboat.

On the morning of the big rendezvous, Skipper and I left Lynnhaven Inlet, where we'd spent the night, and zigged our way back through the channel markers, under the fixed bridge, and re-emerged into the Bay, just south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. As soon as we had cleared the entrance markers, I turned the Albin 28 east to follow the shoreline. Only a few minutes later, we were off First Landing State Park, Virginia's most popular state park. It's a fan favorite for good reason: it has nearly 3,000 acres of trails and a mile and a quarter of beach, with overnight cabins, a launch area, swimming and fishing. We idled past the lookout tower and a couple of small boats anchored just off the beach. A few minutes after that, we reached Cape Henry at the southern limit of the Chesapeake Bay. A few more minutes and we would be in the ocean!

It was a hazy blue morning with a soft offshore breeze and flat seas, so I slowed the Albin to take a long and appreciative look at the two old beacons that mark the edge of the Bay. The first, of cut stone, had been constructed in 1792, the first lighthouse authorized by the new nation. By 1872, however, its octagonal walls were cracked and engineers declared that it was not long for the world. So a second was built nearby and was first lit in 1881. But a funny thing happened to the first: It never collapsed. Instead it became a historical landmark and was deeded to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). Which is why Cape Henry has two lighthouses. It also has a memorial cross to mark the English settlers' safe arrival in Virginia in 1607. And it has a statue of Admiral Comte deGrasse, commander of the French fleet that held off the British fleet, trapping Cornwallis in Yorktown. All of these are now located within the U.S. Army's Fort Story, but are open to visitors who arrive by car and show the guard an ID. (I don't know about arriving by boat; I didn't have a dinghy with me, so I had an excuse not to give it a try--and I hate being chased by police boats, in case I haven't mentioned that lately!)

I dawdled off the lighthouses for a while and then followed the shoreline as it fell off south. I could keep the Albin just off the beach, since the water drops off within a 100-yards or so of the shore. As I neared Virginia Beach, however, I went out far enough to avoid the busy beach traffic but close enough to stay within easy view of the action. And action there was aplenty: banner-towing planes, ski-towing boats, small rental sailboats, swimmers, PWCs, sightseeing boats, deep-sea fishing boats. Behind all of that, the hotels, condominiums and beach businesses of Virginia Beach stretched south and west until they were lost in the haze. Now all I had to do was find the entrance to Rudee Inlet. Studying the charts over the years, it had seemed to me that Rudee Inlet--like Little Creek--must be packed to the gills with big bluewater fishing boats. Would there even be room enough in there to turn around? I had wondered. I was going to find out very soon. 

I needn't have worried about finding the entrance. Since Rudee Inlet is the only port between the Bay and Oregon Inlet, N.C., many miles to the south, and because it's Virginia Beach's only access to open water and the rich fishing grounds that lie beyond, it attracts a lot of boaters, both permanent and transient. That's why there was no mistaking its entrance. It was like watching honey bees bringing the day's pollen catch back to the hive. I simply joined the swarm.

Red and white whistling marker "RI" stands offshore, signaling boats returning from the sea or transiting the coast that this is where to find the inlet. Then come flashing red "2" and flashing green "1", followed by the inlet's twin stone jetties. Since the inlet is in a perpetual state of shoaling (not surprising, given the ocean's proximity) it is also in a perpetual state of dredging, with the result that the entrance channel is usually good for 8 to 13 feet, at least until you reach the far side of the double bridges (vertical clearance 28 feet). Even there, the depth generally is at least six feet. All bets are off, however, after an Atlantic storm.

As we passed between the jetties to enter the inlet, we found ourselves fourth in line behind a trawler, two offshore fishing boats and a small bow-rider. Jockeying for space in the outgoing lane were a family-size jet boat (DayGlo-yellow and well stocked with excited children and parents), a small skiff and a head boat. This was one busy place! Under the bridges, however, the waterway opened up into Lake Rudee, with large marinas cheek-by-jowl to starboard and private homes to port. Virginia Beach Fishing Center was followed by Fisherman's Wharf Marina and then Rudee's Inlet Station Marina with its the long fuel dock parallel to the channel. I pulled in there to fill up and to ask directions to our slip for the evening. That taken care of, I decided it was still early enough to explore the rest of Rudee Inlet before settling in and calling the cousins.

I was surprised at what I found. With Skipper taking the bow watch, we idled past the inlet to Rockefeller's Restaurant and then took the long narrow island ahead of us to starboard. Suddenly we had left the buzz of the beach behind. We had also left most of the homes. Here were trees, birds and a wholly unexpected quiet--well, except for the periodic roar of military aircraft close overhead. On the whole, however, this was not how I had pictured Rudee Inlet at all! As we left the island behind, I could see the buildings of the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Center straight ahead. It would be easy to drop anchor here and take a dinghy to shore, I thought. To the aquarium's left lay Owl Creek, one of the area's busiest boat ramps. There was a line of cars and boats there, too. Yet, until the next F/A-18 Hornet came subsonically zipping through, everything was utterly quiet, so quiet that Skipper curled up on the bow and went to sleep. (Some lookout!)

It was still early--Rick wouldn't be arriving for another hour--so I decided to take a look on the other side of the bridges. Just after the entrance, the inlet splits, with Lake Rudee and the bridges to the right and Lake Wesley (and no bridges) to the left. Lake Wesley would perhaps be more aptly named Wesley Creek, since it never really widens out. Nonetheless, it offers enough room and enough depth for sailboats and other high-aspect craft that would otherwise be excluded from Virginia Beach by the low, fixed bridge. So, heading back out through the bridges, I turned right this time before I reached the inlet and entered Lake Wesley, a charmed world of mildly idiosyncratic residences. Each seemed to have its own singular personality in a subtropical resorty kind of way. I felt as if we had been transported to the West Coast of Florida, and were motoring along Casey or Longboat key. Despite its charms, however, Lake Wesley didn't seem to have much room for a boat to swing at anchor--perhaps only enough room for a couple of 35 to 40 footers. Heading back to the bridges, however, I spotted a perfectly good alternative to the anchoring problem. Virginia Beach Fishing Center has an annex that is outside the bridge on Lake Wesley. That means that tall boats have a place to tie up and still have easy access to all of the beach activities and restaurants, not to mention the Virginia Aquarium.

I was just waiting for a break in the traffic to jump in line to get back to the other side of the bridges when my cell phone rang. It was Rick. He and the cousins had gotten tired of waiting for me to call, he said, and had driven down to Rudee Inlet Station. They were currently tapping their toes on the fuel dock, waiting for me to show up so we could start having fun. I decided not to mention that Skipper and I had been having plenty of fun all morning and merely said that we would be arriving before they could say Jack Robinson. Which we did. Skipper saw them first and began to spin happily at the bow, making docking just that little bit more interesting--not what you're looking for when entering a strange slip at a strange marina full of very expensive boats, single-handed. But then, we had been out on the ocean today, so we laughed at fear. Besides, we had bowthrusters! 

[7.11 issue]