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Crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel with an RV

New experiences make me nervous, and I assume that holds true for most of us. Towing our fifth wheel through a major tunnel for the first time was such an experience. To top it off, this tunnel was one of the biggest I know of: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, or simply the Bridge-Tunnel, when speaking with locals.

The Bridge-Tunnel is quite a site to behold for those of us who appreciate enormous engineering projects. It is a 20-mile-long bridge on US highway 13, linking the Delmarva Peninsula to the Virginia mainland over Chesapeake Bay. Of the 20 miles, two one-mile segments submerge to the bay floor, allowing large ships to pass above.

For new RVers like us, the tunnels hold a few challenges:

  • Determining if propane is allowed
  • Having to tow RV over two narrow lanes
  • RV traffic is disallowed in winds of 40 mph and over, which was a distinct possibility in January

Despite these issues, we added the Bridge-Tunnel to our itinerary in order to avoid winter weather in the mountains along the western coast of the bay.

We left the RV park near Ocean City, Maryland, early in the morning to outrun the approaching thunderstorm. With only a half hour to go before reaching the Bridge-Tunnel, it was looking like we managed to stay well ahead of the storm. Until, that is, a driver decided to knock over a power line and halted all lanes of traffic for an hour.

Just as traffic started moving again, the wind began to blow fiercely. By the time we reached the Bridge-Tunnel toll booths, heavy winds and rain were buffeting the truck and trailer. Our hopes of crossing the bay before the storm vanished.

A few days before our trip, we contacted the CBBT Commission to make sure they allow propane through the tunnels. They informed us that as long as the propane is shut off at the bottle, we were free to cross. As we approached the toll booths, we were looking for the rest area they told us about so we may pull over and turn off the propane. Due to the cold weather, we wanted to run the furnace as long as possible to prevent the pipes from freezing. A few hundred feet from the gates a sign pointed left into the rest area, but to us it appeared as if it was pointing down a dirt road. At that time we did not notice that the parking lot was a bit further, just before the gates.

Thinking that I missed it, and having heard stories of stiff fines if caught with the propane running, I decided to pull over on the right shoulder just before the toll booths. It only took a few seconds for me to jump out and turn off the propane bottles, but that was enough for the truckers to make unkind comments over the [an error occurred while processing this directive] about my inappropriate parking. Looking back at the situation, I can't imagine a problem with me pulling up to the booth and explaining to the attendant that I missed the turn and still needed to turn off the propane.

As expected, the attendant asked us to take the U-turn lane into the parking lot (the one we missed earlier) until the high winds subsided. We pulled into the parking lot and joined a few RV's that have already been diverted. In a short time the parking lot was full of RV's and trucks without loads.

We had a quick lunch and decided to take a nap. Both of us had mild cold symptoms and the break from driving was welcome. It was difficult to sleep in the rocking trailer and with the noise of heavy rain, but it felt refreshing nevertheless. Four hours after stopping in the parking lot, the winds calmed. Officials with flashing lights and sirens came through the parking lot to let us know we may cross. Talk about a traffic jam! Hundreds of RV's and trucks headed for the single exit from all directions. Despite the number of vehicles, the parking lot cleared surprisingly fast with the aid of a couple of officers directing traffic.

Choppy gray waves stirred by moderate winds made the crossing eerie. Gusts of wind could still be felt as they hit the side of the fifth wheel, making us thankful for not having to cross at the height of the storm. Five hours behind, we finally arrived on the Virginia mainland.

I'm not sure what it is about Norfolk, but despite the fact that I have driven through it several times in the past, I always manage to take a wrong turn; this time was no exception.

At our disposal we had printed directions, trucker's map, and a GPS, yet we still managed to take a turn that took us into the north part of town. As we worked our way deeper into town against our best efforts, our agitation rose.

No offense to the good people of Virginia, but something about Norfolk caused us both to lose our map reading abilities and we were making our situation worse at each turn.

It was time to take a break. We pulled into a store parking lot and took some deep breaths to regain our calm. Patiently we reviewed the maps again and planned our egress from this trap. At last we were leaving Norfolk behind, resigned to the fact that we have lost half a day of travel. As we headed into the setting sun, a fiery red sunset melted away our remaining worries.

Charles Kerekes is a fulltime RVer traveling the US with his family and maintains the ChanginGears.com web RV site.

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