Friday, May 11, 2018

Bridgetender Tales

Bridge of Lions (public domain photo by Dennis Adams from here)
Fun evening last night with the St Augustine Cruisers' Net folks. Our guest speaker was Steve Deakins, one of the six bridgetenders from our local Bridge of Lions. He gave some great bridge statistics and history, like that the present bridge crossing replaced a wooden bridge that was there from about 1890-1925. Before that the only way to get across the Matanzas River was by ferry.

Its type is defined as a double-leaf bascule bridge, which comes from the French word for seesaw. It is 1545 feet long and has the unfortunate distinction of being the bridge most hit by barges in the State of Florida. The largest barge he remembers was 600 (!) feet long and needed four tugs to maneuver it. For some reason, this bridge cost almost 10 times more, per foot, than a "normal" bridge. In 1999 FDOT decided to recondition the bridge; work started in 2006. Weirdly, while I was working for the Enviromental Affairs Program in Washington DC and before I had ever set foot or keel in St Augustine, I reviewed the planning documents for the bridge reconstruction. On our very first cruise in 2009 we sailed through the temporary bridge structure that was built as part of the reconstruction -- that I recognized from the review documents.

Steve talked a bit about bridge openings, those activities you love to hate whether you are going through with a boat, or walking or driving across. This bridge is staffed 24/7/365; except in hurricane wind speeds above 72 mph. They open every half hour from 7 AM to 6 PM (except rush hours 8, 12, and 5 on work days) and on request outside of those times. He has a couple of minutes discretion in the timing of those openings, but more than that and he has to fill out paperwork! In his five years on this job, the most he has seen was 17 vessels going through a single opening (that lasted 15 minutes!), and 63 vessels during his 8-hour shift.  Those lengthy openings are problematic, he said; every 4 seconds of opening, another car is stopped. One Labor Day weekend, the bridge got stuck in the "open" position for hours.  The engineers couldn't get to the bridge to fix it because ... they were stuck in the traffic.

The real fun, though, came when he shared some behind-the-scenes insights and wild stories. There are 15 steps in the complete sequence to stop traffic and open the bridge and then close it and resume traffic. This short video from our local news station shows a bit of the operations.  (I'm thinking of the scene from Wizard of Oz where the wizard is desperately manipulating the levers and buttons behind the curtain.)

He talked of entitled sportsfishers and clueless pedestrians. He mentioned the 21 cameras along the route that on any Friday or Saturday night, can show people going across the bridge towards town sober; and then coming back again a few hours later, drunk. He told the story of a 40-ish foot sailboat coming from the south while the tide was going out (i.e., the boat was traveling with the current) in 30 or 35 knots of wind. Where/why were they trying to go, in those conditions, I wonder? Anyway, they caught their bow on something, and were swept through the bridge opening ... sideways. He had everyone in hysterics when he talked about the time when 14 Flagler college students jumped off the bridge naked during the normally quiet 4 PM to midnight shift. 

Finally he talked about the best way to hail the bridge. Hail when you are 2-3 channel markers away (he and his colleagues are pretty adept at gauging your speed and timing) give your vessel name and type, direction of travel and/or location on VHF 09. My standard is "Bridge of Lions Bridgetender, this is nouthbound sailing vessel Cinderella, approaching red marker 10, standing by for your 10:30 opening." (or, "requesting an opening" if it's after scheduled hours). Which leads to my favorite story of the evening, when Steve said he records every single vessel for every single opening. One of the audience members asked why, and he told us that once those bridge records helped solve a murder, when a transient had stolen a boat and killed the captain. The bridge records were instrumental in tracking and finding the killer.

The very attentive audience at Chatsworth Pub...

... riveted by excellent speaker Steve.


  1. Being hit by the most barges is quite a distinction. I had no idea that barges regularly ran into bridges :-)

  2. One of those things I hope not to witness first hand! But with lots of current, and as unwieldy as it can be to push a big heavy platform that is not designed in a particularly hydrodynamic way, it seems more understandable, I think.