Not the ocean, not the Bay, Rudee Inlet sweeps
boaters into a world all its own. [April 2004]
By Paul Clancy
Photograph by Starke Jett
There's something just plain thrilling about passing the Virginia Capes, especially outbound. You're leaving the comfortable embrace of the Chesapeake Bay and poking your bow into the edge of the vast unknown. Cape Henry always gets me, as it does again on this still summer morning. The lighthouses are bathed in haze and the land itself seems wrapped in a gauze of his
This is no ocean voyage—not this time anyway, just a short jaunt down along the Virginia Beach oceanfront. My destination is Rudee Inlet, the only opening to what locals call simply "the Beach" and the sweet temptations it holds. My hope is to succumb to at least a few of them, most especially those that hold its secrets.
The transition between Bay mouth and Atlantic Ocean is seamless. Bay, ocean, ocean, bay. There doesn't seem to be any difference on this sultry summer day with barely enough wind to fill my sails. None except the gentle swells that greet me and the outgoing tide that scoots me along. Rounding the cape and sailing south along the coast, I spot kayakers near Fort Story; they're paddling near dolphins that are moving strongly toward the north. Now there's the seawall and, back behind the towering mode
rn hotels that line the shore—the brochure view of Virginia Beach—is the venerable red brick Cavalier Hotel. There's the boardwalk, too, then the fishing pier and, just beyond, the first signs of the inlet—jet-skiers and parasailers. This ain't the Chesapeake out here—no way, no how—but it's funky, fun and delicious.
My sails are down now as I round the floating markers for Rudee Inlet. I hug the right side as a couple of fishing boats and PWCs pass. They could use a traffic light here, I'm thinking. Off to the left the city's littleRudee Inlet II dredge is huffing and puffing, working hard to keep the fast-shoaling inlet open. This was once little more than a narrow cut running across the beach, draining water from vast inland marshes. In the early part of last century a bridge and culvert were built. It wasn't until the 1950s that the city began to dredge the marshes to mine sand for oceanfront beaches. In due course, Owl Creek and a couple of lakes were created. Add jetties, a taller bridge, and there you have it: Rudee Inlet.
The result is a busy fishing center, jammed with charterboats, giant headboats and just about every other kind of water recreation you can think of, from PWC rentals to whale-watching excursions. Surrounding all this are lakes with waterfront mansions, some fine restaurants and an achingly beautiful creek that teems with wildlife. And, for those hankering for sand, surf and honky-tonk, Virginia Beach oceanfront stretches to the north.
I pull into the slip I've reserved at the Virginia Beach Fishing Center's South Marina on the outside of the low fixed bridge. Hike across the bridge and here I am, ready for a slice of life a la Rudee. (Don't ask where the name comes from; no one seems to know.)
If you're a beach lover, the first thing you'll want to explore from here is the south end of the new Virginia Beach boardwalk. It's a wide boulevard, paralleled by an asphalt bicycle path. This boardwalk isn't as lively as its northern counterparts—Ocean City, Md., for instance—because it's lined with nothing but hotels, no T-shirt shops or burger shacks. It's just a vast people conveyor, bristling with bicyclists, in-line skaters, joggers, walkers, wheelchair strollers, surrey bike pedalers—and of course, the requisite number of sea-gazers. There's not much wave action today, though there are plenty of surfers in the water, on their bellies, bobbing like jellyfish in the soft swells, waiting patiently. Closer in, a bulldozer spreads sand that gushes in a watery slur, pumped through a wide, snaking pipe from the inlet. (The city, with federal help, recently spent $120 million bolstering its beach with additional sand, seawall and boardwalk.)
A bare-chested young man stretches against the boardwalk railing, eyes closed, face skyward to soak up the rays. He's a picture of relaxation, though there's one little flaw in the picture: a cell phone and pager attached to the man's running shorts. Farther down a couple of women gaze out to sea, one of them with binoculars. Could she be watching that southbound Navy ship in the distance? Could there be a certain special person aboard? . . . Nah, she says, she's watching her 16-year-old son out there on a jet ski, alone for the first time. The only other times he's been on one of those things he has been with her. This is a big day, she says, like a graduation.
Along the north side of the inlet, fishermen have their lines in the water where flashes of silver indicate that menhaden, maybe thousands of them, are boiling. Something big is chasing them. I strike up a conversation with one of the fishermen, Fred McDaniel, who's wearing one of those floppy, two-brimmed hats and the knowing look of a man who's reeled in a few fish in his day. "Tuesday they caught a four-and-a-half-pound gray trout off the end there," he says as he attaches a piece of bait. "Some days you can come down here and catch one with every cast. Big skates come in here once in a while, sometimes speckled trout. . . . For flounders you've got to keep moving past them. They're lying out there. You got to learn to feel the tap. They just barely tap it. You got to stop and give 'em time to pull it in." McDaniel retired after 45 years as a baker in Delaware. He's put 7,000 miles on his bicycle since coming here. Like picking up the morning paper, he reels in a 12-inch flounder (it needs to be 171/2 inches). "That one really was hungry!" he says. "He liked to pull the pole right out of my hands!"
It's an easy jaunt from the inlet to the marinas and restaurants. Some day, I'm told, there will be a "Rudee Walk" here, tying everything together, but for now you can find your way around easily enough. I dine at Rockafellers, one of several restaurants on the inlet: grilled rockfish with red-skin potatoes and green beans.
I could get used to this.
The next morning I'm up early to watch the sun rise out of the ocean like a huge Florida orange. To the west is an almost-full moon, still hanging around. I briefly consider going out on one of the fishing boats . . . but, now, Big Sam's is calling. This local favorite, tucked in next to the Virginia Beach Fishing Center, serves up a great breakfast, one of the charter captains has told me. Inside, windows are frosted by air conditioning. There are framed pictures of surfers catching air—all bearing signatures and laudatory scribbles about Big Sam—some for his food, some for his past exploits on the boards. A table near me is occupied by a couple of guys, probably real-estate developers, because they seem to be talking deals. Another table is crowded with staffers from the Virginia Marine Science Museum who were—I'm not kidding—talking seals.
Back at the Fishing Center, the headboats are rumbling and Fred Feller is welcoming passengers aboard the Bobbi Lee, the 75-footer he named for his wife. Not much is biting, because the cold water's got the fish "all messed up," he says. "Southerly winds have moved the surface water offshore, and colder water's comin' in. We haven't had a northeaster since I don't know when."
Big, kindly Fred has been running charterboats out of Rudee since 1968 when it first opened, and whale-watching tours since the marine science folks began them 15 years ago. But the inlet used to shoal up so bad, he occasionally had to cancel whale-watching expeditions. "It was a mess, and you couldn't tell anyone they were wrong," he says as the Bobbi Lee rumbles out of the inlet. "The city bought the dredge, but couldn't keep up with the shoaling." Then, he says, an expensive yacht got caught and badly damaged on a sandbar. The owner sued the city and the courts sided with him, finding the city at least partly responsible for damages. A serious program of dredging, periodically backed up by Army Corps of Engineers monster dredges, was begun. "It's been good ever since," says Feller, sitting back now, steering with one foot. "Funny isn't it?"
Feller came down from Cape May and went in the service at Norfolk Naval Station. He played football for the Norfolk Tars, a service team, played with George Welsh, now head coach of the University of Virginia Cavaliers. Feller had hoped to get a football scholarship to Florida State but a blown knee changed all that, and he went into the charter fishing business instead—and indeed was the first charter captain out of Rudee. Now his son Skip is in the business too—that's him, in fact, in the boat ahead of us. Fred Feller is clearly comfortable in the pilothouse, with all those eager folks, 52 of them, waiting for a chance to put their lines in the water. His tummy touches the big aluminum wheel. "I love it," he purrs. "There's nothin' else I'd rather do."
We're heading up to the Bay mouth for croaker, the only thing biting today. Soon, small specks appear on his fishfinder and he throttles back. "All right folks, drop straight down and let's try it," he says over the loudspeaker. "Be sure to keep your thumb on the spool when you let your line down." Out on the lower deck, the air is sweet and cool. Two of the "heads" on this headboat today are Joel Tocker and his son Aaron of Seattle, visiting family members here in Virginia. "We heard this was a nice place," Joel tells me. "It's been great, watching the kids have a good time on the beach."
"We can actually go in the water," says Aaron.
At the stern, mate Jerry Cole helps people bait their hooks. A retired high school band director (Virginia Beach's Kempsville High), Cole wears a shirt that says, "I've spent most of my life fishing. The rest I've just wasted." There's a tuft of gray poking out of the back of his ball cap. He goes out with Feller just about every day, sometimes more than once. He wears what seems a perpetual smile, even when he's talking. "It's the serenity and peacefulness of being out on the water," he tells me. "I meditate, think about my family. My father was killed in World War II and my mother raised five of us, so we're extra close because of that."
Cole also likes to tell jokes, and the one he springs on me is funny only because he is. "A dogfish bit me right here," he says. "Left a tooth in my hand. . . . Here, feel right here." I fall for it, rubbing the spot between thumb and forefinger, and Jerry explodes with an "Arf!" that makes me jump and then double up with laughter. "Make 'em laugh," he chortles, "and you've got a friend for life." We pass groups of dolphins on the way back. Cole points to one that comes completely out of the water. Sometimes, he says, he passes his hat around and deadpans, "That'll be twelve dollars for the dolphin-watching." Maybe I'd have fallen for that one too.
Back in the inlet, I've got to try Rudee's on the Inlet Restaurant & Raw Bar. Even though it's brutal outdoors, the restaurant's got a sundeck, with shaded gliders. The arms have drink holders, perfect for sitting with a Mount Gay and soda, with a twist. Glide, wait for a breeze, glide some more.
Speaking of gliding, a pontoon boat from the Marine Science Museum eases by, and I decide it would be great to check out the rest of the inlet that way. Before long I find myself at the museum, which backs up to Owl Creek, a habitat-rich body that feeds into the inlet. The folks there run Cruise-the-Creek guided tours every day. They're the opposite of muscle boats, ambling along in stately splendor, not giving a fig for speed. The creek's got the museum and a marina on one side and a virtual maritime forest on the other, a wide buffer on the edge of Oceana Naval Air Station. So, even though there can be a lot of noise when the jets take off and land, there aren't any mansions with monster docks and hot tubs. The trade-off seems fine with the green and great blue herons and double-crested cormorant we spot as the tour begins. The creek supports hundreds of fish species in the summer and acts as breeding ground for some of the great ocean species. Wax myrtles line the shore and low tide reveals thousands of holes dug in the mud by crabs. A tern dives where menhaden jump in the shallows. A snowy egret slides by on a cooling breeze.
So why am I about to spoil the mood? Why should I follow this serene experience by strapping myself into a parachute harness and flying the way I'm sure I was never meant to? I don't know. Because it's there? I guess so. "Worst-case scenario," says driver Dwayne Scott with Adventure Parasail, as I jump onboard, "the line snaps and you float gently down to the water." But this has never happened and he's "flown" thousands of people, he reassures me. Okay, Dwayne. I'm in your hands, buddy. They go fast today because there's little or no wind; you have to make your own. They hand you a life jacket, then snap you into the harness, your butt resting on thick straps. With another person next to you—two if you're a child—you're tethered to the bar that holds the chute.
I sit on the back platform of the boat as it speeds up and the chute begins to tug. And just as gently as I could pray for, I'm airborne. And just as suddenly, I don't have a care in the world. It seems almost natural, like . . . like sailing. The ascent is fast, and down below the sea is green, with hundreds of skates visible below the surface making an almost checkerboard pattern. There's a great afternoon view of the beach, stretching from distant Sandbridge in the south to the Bay in the north. I lean back and watch the parachute, then look back down at the boat racing below. It's quiet up here—and thrilling. I'm flying and doing what all first-timers probably do, shouting. We take a couple of slow turns and I can see all the stuff I came here to see. The beach, the inlet, the people, the boats. What a terrific, fun place.
I thought of staying another day, but I'm lonesome for home and leave the inlet near sunset. Two hours later, I'm rounding the capes again. And, once more, the transition is smooth. Ocean to Bay. It's good to be back.
Rudee Inlet At a Glance
I came through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in the Thimble Shoal Channel, dropped down, out of the shipping lane, and set my course for just north of the Cape Henry lighthouses. There are two lighthouses, one built in 1792 and no longer working, the other in service. There's also a lookout tower for the Virginia pilot boats. Somewhere up there, too, is a cross that commemorates the first landing of the Jamestown settlers in 1607. I couldn't see it from the water, but I imagined how the ground felt to those fellows when they set foot there—and how the natives must have felt seeing them.
Down the coast is mostly straightforward, with good depth, even where obstructions are indicated. You pass Fort Story, an Army base, then, at 89th Street, you'll begin to see private residences. The most prominent charted reference point, about halfway down toward Rudee, is the cupola on top of the Cavalier Hotel, one block off the shore.
In the summer, the surest signs of the inlet are parasailers and jet-skiers buzzing around the entrance, as well as fishing boats coming and going. I don't recommend entering at night because the lights on the ends of the jetties have not worked for years. There are recently installed large red and green flashing buoys, however, just east of the jetties, so a daylight approach is easy. The entrance depth is supposed to be at least 10 feet in all conditions, even on the lowest of low tides. Winter storms tend to cause shoaling at the entrance, so check Notices to Mariners. Inside the harbor the depth should be at least 7 feet. Be advised that the lowest of the two bridges that span the inlet is about 28 feet.
Unless otherwise noted, the following marinas offer overnight slips, electric service (30/50 amp), fuel, showers and pump-out. Transient slips for $1.25 to $1.50 per foot.
Virginia Beach Fishing Center (757-491-8000).
Southside Marina (757-491-8000) outside the bridge, no height restrictions;
Fisherman's Wharf Marina (757-428-2111);fishermanswharfmarina.com.
Rudee Inlet Station Marina (757-422-2999);www.rudees.com.
Big Sam's Inlet Cafe & Raw Bar (757-428-4858).
Calcutta's Bar and Restaurant (757-428-4070).
Dirty Dick's Crab House (757-491-3425).
Rockafellers Restaurant (757-422-5654).
Rudee's on the Inlet Restaurant & Raw Bar (757-425-1777).
Virginia Marine Science Museum (757-425-3474) holds more than 800,000 gallons of aquariums and live animal habitats, over 300 hands-on exhibits, an IMAX theater, an outdoor aviary, 10 acres of marsh habitat and a 1/3 -mile nature trail; open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, Labor Day–Memorial Day; 9 a.m.–7 p.m. daily Memorial Day–Labor Day; $5.95 children, $9.95 seniors, $10.95 adults;www.vmsm.com.
Adventure Parasail (757-422-8359) located at the Virginia Beach Fishing Center, "fly" solo, double or triple; prices $65 and up.
The Atlantic Princess (757-437-BOAT) 65-foot motor-catamaran departs daily from the Virginia Beach Fishing Center for sightseeing tours including dolphin-watching (summer), whale-watching (winter) and oceanfront/Cape Henry tours; $10 children, $12 adults;www.vmsm.com.