Washington, DC: Museums, Monuments and a whole lot more.
19th October –2nd November
After a very busy six days in Annapolis our next major target was a big one, Washington DC (who knows what “DC” stands for ? We didn’t, but we’ll tell you later). It’s not far as the crow flies, less than 27 miles from anchorage to anchorage in fact, but our journey would be a good deal longer, around 190 miles as we initially had to sail south down the Chesapeake Bay and then head in a more northerly direction up the mighty Potomac River. Many yachts bypass Washington due to the distance involved to get there, but we had been including DC in our plans for many months and were keen to go, no matter how far it was.
We have a fair amount of ground to cover here, so arm yourself with a coffee, tea, wine or beer, find a comfy spot and enjoy the read.
Leaving Annapolis we sailed in rather brisk conditions across to the small township of Oxford on the eastern shores of the Chesapeake. It was a pretty little spot with a well protected anchorage that served us well for a couple of days of strong winds. There didn’t seem to be a great deal to see or do in Oxford, though we did enjoy a walk into town and a meal or two at Schooner’s, the only restaurant on the waterfront. It was here that we got to talking to some nice folk who were fairly new to the cruising game, Frank and Christa from Hun Bun 111 and Leif and Birgitta from Persamus. Both boats hailed from Boston and having just been there ourselves we had lots to talk about. They were heading to the Bahamas together and it was their first passage of any distance so we enjoyed hearing of their plans and comparing notes, for we would eventually be Bahamas bound ourselves.
The wind had eased a little for our next leg to Solomon's Island at the mouth of the Patuxent river, and we spent the entire day tacking our way the 50 miles south, we were very happy to arrive and drop the anchor in a crowded bay later that afternoon. Our sundowners that evening really hit the spot and were well deserved.
The next morning we headed out and into the big and winding Potomac River. The trip upriver took us three days and with a lack of wind we motored the entire way from Solomon's Island to DC, anchoring at night along the river shores.
Our last day dawned overcast, drizzly and cold, we were now only a stones throw from DC and had planned to arrive mid-afternoon. Despite the weather, our spirits were high and with only a couple of miles left to go we suddenly realised that all our plans might be about to come unstuck. The Woodrow Wilson bridge loomed up in front of us. It spans the river just outside of DC and we needed to pass under it in order to get to the anchorage in the Washington Channel. Our guide book said that the bridge had undergone some renovations and the height had been increased substantially. What the book neglected to say was what the new height was and the times that it opened. As we approached the bridge we were very disheartened to read the sign down at water level saying the height was 73ft. It sure looked a lot higher, like high enough that we’d make it through, but what if the we were wrong? Masts and concrete are not a good combination.
So Annie got on the internet trying to find out the new height, no luck there, then she made a few calls to the Marine Police, the Coast Guard and a couple of the local yacht clubs, but still no one could tell us the height. Finally one club gave us the bridge manager’s number but all he could do was offer us an opening time,t he catch was that you had to book it 24 hours in advance! There seemed no option but to wait until the bridge was raised. Sensing our disappointment the bridge manager compromised a little,offering us a 2am or 4am opening next morning, (apparently these are the only times available on weekdays), we opted for the 2am slot and he promised to have someone call back soon to confirm the booking.
Rick, who actually worked as a rigger on the bridge, phoned back and yep, our 2am opening was set. He casually asked if we were the cat that had been milling about near the bridge for the last hour or so and what clearance we needed, when we told him 75 feet he asked why we simply didn’t go through now, the span was 85 feet above the water! You could have knocked us both over with a feather, we’d finally found someone who knew the height of this damn bridge and he’d said it in such a confident matter of fact way that we decided to give it a shot.
I gotta tell you we were more than a little nervous as we motored up to that big lump of concrete, but with Rick’s encouragement we gingerly inched forward.
The slightest scrape of our VHF antenna kissing the bridge and Liam would have had the engines in reverse gear as quick as a rat up a drain pipe. Along with Rick, who was in constant radio contact with us, were a few other riggers positioned under the bridge to check our clearance as we went through and sure enough, Rick confirmed we were clear by 10 feet…excellent, now we could breathe again! We yelled a big thank you to them and they called back '”Welcome to Washington”. Around 40 minutes later we were tucked in the anchorage opposite the Capital Yacht Club, and very pleased indeed to be there.
To say there is lots to see in DC is a gross understatement. We stayed 2 weeks and still didn’t see it all, but we made a hell of an effort, out walking all day and marveling at the rich history that surrounded us. There are the world famous Smithsonian Museums, Capitol Hill, The White House, and many monuments and memorials that honour key historical figures as well as those who fought and died for America in various wars, and a great deal more. To write about everything we saw would take a long time, and probably put you and me to sleep, so we’ll just focus on the things we really found special.
The Smithsonian Museums are legendary, we had heard about them for many years, and believe me the legends are well deserved. There are seventeen museums and galleries that come under the Smithsonian banner and like many things in the USA, they are BIG. Most are located along the parkland area called the National Mall, which extends from the Lincon Memorial at one end to Capitol Hill at the other. We spent quite a few days looking through the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History and the American History Museums. It’s quite easy to occupy an entire day with each one, such is the volume, diversity and quality of the exhibits. And as many of the exhibits are interactive, it’s very easy to lose yourself amidst the clever technology available. In fact we needed to go back a couple of times as we found ourselves being ushered out at closing time, and yet we had much more to see.
A word of advice should you get to the Smithsonians…leave yourself lots of time, and probably take a break after a couple of days, we did. You can get serious “museum overload”.
While the Smithsonians are about history, cultures, air and space travel and the evolution of man and animals, another museum is devoted to history of a very different, almost recent and depressingly tragic kind… the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The focus here, as the brochure states, is about “the mass murder of the European Jews – a watershed event in human history”. It took us more than a day to view all the exhibits and gain a good comprehension of the events depicted, it’s disturbing, graphic, and at times, very emotional but extremely well done. The Holocaust Museum is not for everyone, though it gave us a far better understanding of what really went on under the Nazi regime during their horrific ethnic cleansing campaign. For obvious reasons photography was not permitted inside this museum.
Apart from the museums, Washington has loads of memorials, and they are just brilliant.
We strolled through those commemorating the WW11 efforts of Americans in the Pacific and Atlantic theatres of war, then past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial which lists the names of the 58,000 who died during that war. And did you know that more than 420,000 lives were lost amongst the allies, including over 53,000 Americans, in the Korean War? We certainly didn’t. The Korean Veterans Memorial was very well designed, it is made up of two exhibits, one is a granite wall filled with etched faces of service men and women, and just opposite the wall are statues of soldiers on patrol. When you look at the wall from a certain angle you actually see the statues reflecting on the highly polished surface of the wall, it made a terrific photo opportunity. The memorials all differ slightly in the manner that the message of loss is communicated, but that communication is extremely effective.
On a more positive note there are some fabulous monuments to historical figures, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson being at the forefront of such people. Their monuments were sensational. We particularly like the Lincoln Memorial, the setting is neat and when you consider his achievements in unifying the Union while abolishing slavery, it’s obvious why he is so revered. Another one, constructed with a decidedly poignant message was the national memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Having been opened only recently, it was designed with a more modern way of conveying a message, and it is really clever.
The monuments that we visited were all located among extensive garden and park areas, and set near a huge pool that looks like it stretches nearly a mile, the “Reflecting Pool” (it was under renovation when we were there), this too is all part of the National Mall.
INTERMISSION TIME! You’re about half way through. Ok time for you all to go and have a loo break, another coffee or just shut down your computer and read the rest another day.
As with any nation’s capital, and Washington would have to be by far the heavyweight here, there is also the political element.1600 Pennsylvania Ave aka The White House and Capitol Hill are very prominent landmarks and definitely demand a visit.
To say the White House has over-the-top security is an understatement, the place is crawling with Secret Service Police, they’re on foot, on bicycles, in suits and in “darth vader” type vans. While you can certainly get up close and personal with the White House fence for photo opportunities, and just about hear the tune to the West Wing TV series in your head, the minute anyone of importance arrives or leaves the premises the surrounding area goes into lockdown mode and the public are moved way back from the perimeters. This happened while we were there and the polite secret service took on a whole different persona. It was an amazing transformation, almost hostile you could say. Still, that is their job and they do it well.
Washington overall is crawling with cops bearing any number of badges…Secret Service, Sheriffs, FBI, K9 divisions, State Police, Subway Police, Park Police and a few more to boot. Anyway, the White House is truely grand and seeing it in the flesh, so to speak, was a real “Washington moment” for us. Tours are available to visit the White House, but unfortunately for Australians our embassy in Washington no longer has the inclination to provide the paperwork necessary for it’s citizens to visit this icon. There is, however, an excellent visitors centre explaining the history of it's location, construction and the day-to-day running of the place.
Capitol Hill, where most of the politicians hang out, is quite a monument in it’s own right. We signed up for a tour, along with many other folk keen to see the inside of government, and had an interesting couple of hours, and with the help of a very knowledgeable guide gleaned an understanding of the building and it’s workings.
Sadly, the House was not sitting that day, so we missed out on actually observing the banter between those entrusted to run the mighty US of A, maybe next time.
The US Supreme Court and the expansive Library of Congress is also housed up on the Hill. The Library is a very ornate and somewhat old-style building, it nevertheless holds tens of thousands of precious books and manuscripts and, if you happen to see Leonardo Di Caprio in the movie, J Edgar Hoover, you will be watching a good amount of footage set in the very same library.
To say we walked all Washington would be a fair statement, we trekked many miles, and several of those miles were out to the Arlington National Cemetary, final resting place of over 320,000 servicemen and women, along with many political figures. The cemetery dates back to 1864 and covers 624 acres. We took a short tour and were simply gobsmacked at the sheer number of white headstones marking the gravesites, they appear to stretch forever.
On average there are 25 burials daily, a very depressing thought considering we are talking about people in combat. We were there to observe, at a distance, one such burial, and as described in the cemetery's pamphlet, the procedure is as follows –“The flags at Arlington stand at half staff when burials are underway. A funeral with full military honours is a dignified and moving occasion. An honour guard accompanies the American flag-draped coffin drawn by matched horses. A band plays solemn marches while muffled drums beat the slow cadence for the procession. Before the remains are lowered, a squad fires three rifle volleys and a bugler blows the long notes of “Taps”. Finally, the guard folds the flag and presents it to the next of kin”. You cannot but sense the emotion present, just being an observer was quite moving.
The most visited site in Arlington is the gravesite of John F Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline and their deceased children. An eternal flame, the only one here, attests to the reverence the nation holds for JFK. His brother Bobby is laid at rest nearby in a grave marked only by a single white cross. It stands alone under a tree, away from the other graves, it looked respectful.
There are also memorials to the Pan Am Lockerbie tragedy in Scotland and the astronauts who perished in the space shuttles, Columbia and Challenger missions.
While at Arlington we also visited the Tomb of the Unknowns and witnessed the extremely formal and precise Changing of the Guard, which takes place every hour.
A sentinel (guard) from the Third US Infantry division maintains an around the clock vigil. He paces 21 steps alongside the tomb, pauses 21 seconds, then returns, with every movement executed being a crisp and quick one, and naturally the sentinel is immaculately presented in a pristine uniform. It was a pretty cool thing to see.
As luck had it, one of our best friends from Oz was in DC for a business trip. Susan, from the Gold Coast, arranged to stay a few extra days and spend some time with us. It was really great to see her again, the last time was when we had a whirlwind visit back home for Christmas in 2009. We had a fun few days cruising around town with her. We took in the Spy Museum and enjoyed a couple of good meals in local restaurants. Coinciding with Susan’s visit was a monster cold snap that descended on Washington and took everyone by surprise. It actually snowed for a couple of hours,and according to the locals that never happens before Halloween, and while it was bloody cold, like 5 deg C, it was also a bit of fun and we made the most of it, posing for silly photos and laughing at the craziness of it all. The a/c on the boat had a good workout as we had it on non-stop trying to keep warm, needless to say we never left the boat that day.
Our Washington story would not be complete without mention of the incredible amount of helicopter traffic directly over our anchorage. Sometimes we felt like we were under a chopper highway. It would not be an exaggeration to say we’d see a few choppers every hour, and they flew very low with the vibration and noise resounding through the whole boat, we just loved it. Many of these choppers were the big White House types, we called them POTUS choppers as they regularly ferry Barack Obama and his senior aides to and from the White House. Sadly we never were quick enough to snap off a photo. It seems that when you see three of these choppers in formation (we did once), then the President is up there in one of them.They fly up the river and then the trio split to go in different directions. The idea is to keep the bad guys guessing as to which one is actually carrying the precious cargo. They looked and sounded terrific, we really looked forward to hearing the “thump thump” of the rotors heading our way, though the locals were far less enthusiastic. I guess the novelty does wear off when you live there.
Washington is different to most other cities as it’s pretty much all about the Government and Government activities. The Pentagon, the largest office building in the world is there, well just across the river in Virginia, the FBI, a ton of embassies, Australia included, anything to do with record keeping, taxation, justice, agriculture, money printing and just about any other government institution you could think of is headquarted here.
Most of the workers are public servants and at times the place had a sort of “sterile” feel to it, particularly around the buildings housing the government employees as the streets were often curiously empty. In total contrast to weekdays were the weekends when there always seemed to be some public event taking place, whether it be a fun run, charity walk or marathon, the streets came alive and were awash with people.
Washington is a city of old style buildings, usually low rise. Even the new buildings resemble the historic ones, so the city has style very different to say, New York. That said, it’s an easy place to walk around, the terrain is flat, the streets and pathways are wide and the lack of crowds makes getting from A to B quite simple.
Our travels so far along the USA east coast had provided us with some fascinating sights, and Washington DC (DC stands for District of Columbia – were you right?) was well and truely up there as one of the highlights.There is just so much to see and there is no other place quite like it. Still, two weeks in one place is a long time for us and just like the flocks of Canadian geese that we saw overhead, it was time to get moving and head on down south to warm and sunny Florida.
Yippity,Yippity,Yippity, That’s all folks!
CRUISING NOTES: Formalities: This is a tricky one. CPB are at Andrews Air Force Base and don’t want to know about yachts so I called Virginia on # 8042269675. Supermarkets: Safeway is a 10min walk from Gangplank Marina or for everyday things there is a CVS/pharmacy at L’ Enfant metro station, 5 mins walk from Capital Yacht Club. Anchorage & Dinghy dock: Anchor in the Washington Channel outside the Capital Yacht Club, the dinghy dock and club facilities are available for $15 per day, inc wi-fi, water, showers & laundry. Gangplank Marina further down the channel is $10 per day (we didn’t use them). Attractions: All are within walking distance of the anchorage, the National Mall & Smithsonians are only 5-10mins by foot. The metro station at L’Enfant station is 3 mins walk.