river

In July 2010 Andrew Wainwright (left) and Leah Yoch (right) carried a canoe to the James River as Gabe Silver (blue shirt, hat), with the James River Association, supervised.

It's not often you get to undo a regret. And when the opportunity comes, what does that regret turn into if you don't jump at the chance?

In March, I wrote about a friend, Rob Cocke, who was about to set off on a grand journey. He and three others were in Urbanna preparing his sailboat for a two-month voyage to the Dominican Republic. They got home about 10 days ago.

Rob invited me to come along, as he has for many of his previous adventures. I couldn't carve out two months, but I had hoped to join them for some of the early days in the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIW). It's a place I've driven over and along many times in many states and always wondered about.

For one reason or another, though, it didn't happen — I didn't make it happen. I was disappointed a bit in myself, but I moved on. What else can you do?

Then not too long ago, Gabe Silver of the James River Association offered me an opportunity to reverse that remorse. Over Memorial Day weekend, his email explained, he and a yet-to-be-determined crew would pilot a boat newly purchased by the JRA up the inland waterway from Florida to Hopewell. He projected a Friday to Tuesday time frame. Would I like to join the crew?

I checked my schedule: Nothing else going on that weekend, and my wife was off, so she could take care of our two-year-old. She gave me the thumbs up.

Silver's email was short on details and long on possibility. When I called him to say I was in, he filled me in on the back story.

The JRA is in the process of building an ecology school on Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, an island in the tidal James. They needed a boat, he explained, for ferrying school groups back and forth to the island. It'll also be used for eco-tours and other educational purposes.

After much research, they settled on what amounts to a giant, commercial-grade pontoon boat. The one we'll be piloting — from Savannah, Ga., to Jordan Point Marina in Hopewell — is 40 feet long by 12 feet wide. It can accommodate more than people, which will come in handy for large groups.

On this trip, there'll be no more than seven of us: Silver, his wife Sonya, local eco-tour operator Mike Ostrander, retiring Lower James River keeper Chuck Frederickson, myself and possibly two others.

"It's entirely covered by a canopy and the helm is all the way forward," Silver said. But with two 115-horsepower outboard motors on a boat that big, "It's not a speedboat, for sure."

Ostrander and Frederickson are both Coast Guard-certified captains, and Silver's wife used to sail regularly, so safety shouldn't be an issue. But she's the only one with experience on the AIW.

"Even though it's a big boat, it'll be pretty easy," Silver said, "especially compared to a big, bulky sailboat. (It has a) shallow draft, not as easy to run aground, and the helm being all the way forward makes it a lot easier to look for debris in the water."

All this was heartening, but it didn't really matter. It could have been the Kon-Tiki or a trash barge, I wasn't missing this opportunity again.

After talking to Silver, my next call was to Rob to pick his brain.

"It's the Appalachian Trail for old people," he said, with a laugh, describing the AIW. "Everyone we met was over 60 years old. We stuck out like a sore thumb."

He said the key is getting good guides for following the sometimes circuitous waterway: "You can't have too much information."

Dozier's Waterway Guide, a.k.a. "The Cruising Authority," seems to have it all — maps, aerial photos, marina listings, tide tables and anchorages — but Silver said that with our cruising speed likely not all that high, "unfortunately, we're not going to have a lot of time to stop and see the sights. We're basically going to be under way all day every day."

That's fine with me. No matter what happens, it'll be an adventure — one made all the more sweet because not long ago it seemed like an opportunity I'd never have again.

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