A view from the top (of the bridge)

The USCGC Eagle, a 295-foot barque used as a training cutter for future CG officers, passes beneath the Memorial Bridge in 2013. The bridge was just high enough. Photo courtesy Walsh Construction

As experienced boaters know, there is much more to an outing than packing a picnic basket, picking out a destination, and heading out into the wide blue yonder. A good captain should have a lot on his or her mind: One must consider the weather, currents, the marina and berth arrangements at a given destination, and a long list of safety and other concerns that help make a trip memorable for the right reasons.

Certainly, one must be aware of any bridges that exist along the way. Especially drawbridges. Through boating courses, Coast Guard regulations, and by general observation and experience, most boaters will have enough knowledge to pass through a drawbridge safely. This assumes that they have an adequate radio system, tide charts, and the schedule of lifts for the bridge in question. But drawbridges are as unique as the bodies of water they span, and no one wants to wind up on a “YouTube drawbridge fail” video.

One of New England’s most picturesque and iconic drawbridges is the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge linking Portsmouth, N.H., to Kittery, Maine. The Memorial Bridge is a vertical lift bridge, operating year-round, that also doubles as a tourist attraction due to its charismatic chain and counterweight design and the way it’s lit, which accentuates an already camera-friendly skyline.

As one of the Memorial Bridge’s operators these days, with “a view from the top,” I thought it would be interesting to offer up, in narrative form, a small slice of what goes on up there on a given day.

First things first: “It’s a lift bridge, technically, not a drawbridge,” said Gary Boles, correcting me after I incorrectly used the “D” word. Boles is a seasoned lift-bridge operator on the Memorial Bridge, and has seen it all, from assisting the Coast Guard in locating boaters in distress, to lifting the bridge during a blizzard at 3 a.m. to let in the last of the local fishing fleet.

“There’s actually a lot to contend with down there for boaters, especially on this river,” he offered. Beneath the Memorial Bridge is the vaunted Piscataqua River, the second most powerful tidal river current in the U.S., which can make it a dangerous navigational challenge if the wrong situation arises.

“Late last year a sailboat with a 40’ mast was passing through when its steering system failed, right at the base of the bridge, during peak flood,” Boles said. “Fortunately, the operator on duty was alert, and heard the mayday call. He stopped the bridge as it lowered and was able to raise it back up in time.”

Evidently, the helpless vessel bumped the base of the bridge and whacked the tip of its mast, but not enough to cause any real damage. With a current as powerful as the Piscataqua’s, an otherwise minor incident can lead to real damage or even capsize.

As we spoke, the loud crackle of a radio speaker inside the control room burst in: “Memorial Bridge, sailing vessel Jenny Lee.”

Boles answered, “Memorial.”

“Hi, this is the sailing vessel Jenny Lee. We’re a quarter mile down river, can we get a lift?”

“Sure, we’ll get you at the bottom of the hour.” (The Memorial lifts at the top and bottom of the hour during peak season, and “on-call” for the rest of the year.)

“How many feet do you need?”

“Our mast is 32 feet, so we’re about 45 feet total.”

I watched as the vessel circled about 300 yards downriver, fighting the strong current with its small motor, its rudder being continually adjusted, as the folks aboard waited for the lift.

As we waited for the bottom of the hour, I looked upstream and noticed a large red tugboat heading slowly toward us.

“Handy Four, coming down,” crackled the radio, as the tug called in for a lift.

Boles answered, “Okay, captain, we’ll get ya.”

Boles told me that tugboats, large ships and barges don’t have to follow the bridge’s set schedule, and can call in lifts as needed. They also don’t have to tell the operator their height, as they pass under the bridge often.

As a courtesy, Boles called the Jenny Lee to let her know that she would have to contend with a tugboat coming through the channel in the opposite direction during the same lift.

“Thank you for that Memorial, I appreciate the head’s up,” came the call from the Jenny Lee.

Boles explained that the tugboat was heading out to the mouth of the river, where it would escort a gigantic fuel or container ship into the inner river to be unloaded. This, after passing under the lift bridge, of course. Out at the mouth of the river, the tug will pull alongside the barge, and a pilot will board the ship to safely navigate it up-river. The Memorial Bridge opens multiple times weekly for these larger commercial vessels, which can make things interesting for pleasure boaters like the ones aboard the Jenny Lee.

I watched as Boles coordinated by radio with his gate-man partner, who was down on the bridge span managing the pedestrian traffic. When all the traffic was stopped, he began to call in the gates as “clear,” one gate at a time.

Eventually a siren blared, and the giant superstructure of the center bridge span lifted straight up in front of us, which was an amazing sight. The tugboat and sailboat passed each other port-sides to, smooth as silk. Both vessels called the bridge to notify that they were safely clear, and to thank Boles for the lift.

“Communication is the most important part of our job here on the bridge. It’s not the type of place where you want to leave anything to guesswork.”

As I looked at the river gushing through the cement piers supporting the bridge structure below us, I could only imagine the problems you could run in to if you were careless on a tidal river with that much current, especially with the amount of traffic needing to pass through the limited space provided by a drawbridge opening.

The bridge was then lowered, and the traffic gates were raised, releasing a line of impatient traffic, whose workday commute had been delayed. Off sailed the tug, keeping the flow of commercial goods safely flowing into the harbor. And off sailed the Jenny Lee, into the sunset, to continue safely into the open waters beyond. It’s all in a day’s work atop Portsmouth’s Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.

Bram Hepburn is a freelance writer and a regular columnist for the online antiques site WorthPoint. He owned restaurants on the N.H. Seacoast for 20 years, and is currently a bridge operator on the historic Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, N.H. A collector of American antique bottles, Hepburn will be releasing the book “A Field Guide to American Trash” in the fall of 2019.

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