The author shares his adventurous Delaware River Romp: a journey from Delaware City to Philadelphia aboard Go-Cat, a 17-foot Boston Whaler Montauk.

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Go-Cat is a trailerable 17-foot Boston Whaler Montauk and has proven ideal for offbeat little adventures such as this one.

“Whew, I didn’t expect this much debris in the river,” I remark to Eric, as I shake my head for emphasis. The bonus stuff in the water consists mainly of tree limbs and branches, along with the occasional full-scale tree trunk. They float like icebergs, with only a token bit above the surface. Wow. Is it always like this?

Luckily the situation doesn’t persist, but in the meantime, it makes for tricky going, as you can imagine. Both of us must squint our eyes and concentrate on the water directly ahead to avoid hitting something which would quickly end our “fun run” outing. Of course, we can slow way down and idle along, but Go-Cat doesn’t like to go too slow; she likes to at least be on plane, so that’s what we’re doing.

It’s a beautiful day in mid-April and we’re 20 minutes into a little voyage that started at the public boat ramp in Delaware City, DE. Actually, the trip started at three o’clock this morning when we hit the road in tidewater Virginia with Go-Cat in tow. Two hundred fifty miles later, with stops for gas and doughnuts, found us at the launch point.

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Happy boaters!

Our plan is to have a look at the 40-mile stretch of Delaware River from Delaware City, near the eastern terminus of the C&D canal, north to Philadelphia. We’ll visit the Wilmington waterfront too, which is along the way.

We’ve done this kind of small boat exploring before and have it down to what we like to think of as an art form. Go-Cat is a 17-foot Boston Whaler Montauk and has proven ideal for offbeat little adventures such as this one.

My buddy Eric and I came up with the idea to check out the Delaware after our last trip when we explored New York Harbor, circumnavigating Manhattan Island in the process. That trip was spectacular and would be hard to beat; we adjusted our expectations accordingly, just in case.

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Headed up the Delaware River.

This section of river maintains a width of between two and three miles, so there’s definitely a big-water feel to it. There’s enough fetch to generate some sizable chop when the wind picks up. Southeast of here the Delaware River opens up into a funnel-shaped bay of the same name. Delaware Bay extends for 70 often-tempestuous miles to the Atlantic.

Upon entering the river from the side creek at Delaware City we’re greeted with, besides tree limbs in the water, the view across to Pea Patch Island, home to Fort Delaware. The majestic masonry fort was built near the end of the War of 1812 to protect the harbors of Wilmington and Philadelphia. Rebuilt in the years prior to the Civil War, it was used as a prisoner of war camp during that conflict.

Heading up the river we have Delaware and then Pennsylvania on our port side and New Jersey to starboard. We head to Philadelphia first, with the plan to more slowly explore it on our return. We pass the inviting-looking towns of New Castle, DE, and Pennsville, NJ. Petroleum depots, refineries, and other maritime industry dot the river. Interstate 495 hugs the Delaware side in a section near Wilmington, through the residential neighborhoods of Bellefonte and Claymont. The traffic is thick, and it makes us glad to be on the water. We glimpse Amtrak trains rolling by periodically, bound for places like my hometown of Roanoke, VA, and New York and Boston.

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Delaware Memorial Bridge near Wilmington.

Trips like this are so often a result of poring over maps; my Rand McNally Road Atlas is almost worn to tatters, not to mention my collection of nautical charts. Such regular perusal was the genesis of this sojourn on the Delaware, and I encourage a healthy affection for maps to anyone who will listen.

Entering Pennsylvania waters, around Marcus Hook and Chester, there’s a notable uptick in the level of riverside industry; the waterfront is practically an uninterrupted stretch of factories, refineries, sand and scrap metal heaps, and all the fascinating vessels to attend to it all. Ocean-going ships are moored along the way, and massive tugs with pilot houses six stories high chug up and down the river in this vicinity. 

The wind on the water increases, the breeze chilling on an otherwise warm spring morning. We motor along, Go-Cat and crew in good spirits. There are only a few other recreational boaters out, a few fishermen. We’ve been watching planes coming and going in the distance and now we’re abreast of Philadelphia International Airport. The runways are right next to the river and we of course love watching the big jets take off and land so close by. We’re soon officially in the waters of the City of Philadelphia.

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Approaching the Wilmington, DE, waterfront.

We arrive at the entrance to the Schuylkill River on the port side. It beckons and we head up it, following its sinuous course. Industry lines it, some of it appearing decaying and abandoned. There’s a forgotten feeling, a sense of urban wilderness. Philadelphia is right here but it seems far away. Still heading slowly up the Schuylkill, we come to the riverside park at Bartram’s Garden. It features paths and meadows. There’s a floating dock with a collection of colorful dinghies bobbing alongside it. Like puppies they seem eager for attention.

A little farther on, the office buildings of Philly peek above the trees lining Schuylkill River Park. This is our turnaround point; it’s time to head back the way we came. We pause to marvel again at the huge Philly Shipyard just upstream of the Schuylkill River mouth.

We leave the City of Brotherly Love astern and head back down the Delaware with one eye ever on the lookout for floating hazards. But first, across from Philadelphia, we skirt along the New Jersey side where Red Bank Battlefield Park is situated. Commemorated there is the Revolutionary War battle in which the English were repelled, preventing the enemy’s use of the river as transportation. You gotta love Revolutionary War history.

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The Seaboard Pioneer on the Pennsylvania side.

The return voyage down the Delaware is relaxed. The tidal flow is going our way, there’s not much debris in the water, and we have plenty of fuel and provisions. At least enough to get us comfortably back to port this evening. Life aboard Go-Cat is good.

The highlight of the return trip is our poke up the Christina River at Wilmington, DE. The city is a mile or so up the Christina from its mouth at the Delaware. First, we come to a busy container port, and we idle alongside it. We watch like excited kids as the massive cranes on 10-story derricks offload a moored ship. 

A few turns up the Christina we seem to have transited a time warp. We find ourselves confronted with a 17th-century sailing vessel, complete with monkey-like crew scurrying up and down the rigging, maintaining and repairing. It turns out to be a replica of the Kalmar Nyckel, the Tall Ship of Delaware. The original ship voyaged transatlantic in 1638 to establish the colony of New Sweden. It reminds us of just how bold our ancestors were. We gawk and wave as we slowly pass.

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Eric minding ship and fueling up.

Along the Wilmington waterfront proper we encounter several floating docks which look inviting for a stop. Unfortunately, they feature signs which make clear that we best keep looking! A little farther on we do find a public dock to tie up for a picnic and a stretch. The River Walk promenade is busy with pedestrians, and we receive a Wilmington welcome after all. The skyline is studded with bank buildings, reminding us of Wilmington’s status as the queen of financial institutions.

The tuna fish sandwiches, chips, and cookies and all the rest are a happy memory as we leave Wilmington in our wake. Time to return to Delaware City, but we still have plenty of daylight, so we take our time. Along the way we pull in for a closer inspection of pretty New Castle. We nominate it for most appealing town on this part of the Delaware River.

Before returning to the boat ramp, we stop at the Delaware City public dock, tie up, and take a walking tour of the place. We meet some friendly locals, who are quick to smile and point out things we must see while we’re here. The history of the town is interesting; its early 19th century roots directly linked with the creation of the C&D Canal. It was a totally planned, laid-out city, created from scratch to serve the needs of the burgeoning canal commerce. Founders imagined it would grow in size and importance to equal Philadelphia. That hasn’t happened but that’s not a bad thing. We like Delaware City just the way it is. 

As per usual when such an outing is winding down, our heads are brimming with newfound experiences. Returning to the ramp we load Go-Cat back on the trailer, strap her down, and take off to find tacos and otherwise rejoin life on dry land. 

Yes, our latest mini-expedition in the waterworld has been entertaining and uplifting, once again affirming the sentiments of the Scottish author Ken Grahame: “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” 

By John W. Robinson

To read more about the author's adventures on Go-Cat, check out:

The DelMarVa Loop 

Cruising the Dismal Swamp Canal

Circumnavigating Manhattan