Other Voyages of Discovery
How far we’ve come in 400 years
Whitecaps stirred by a fresh southwesterly beckoned like pretty white horses. We took a break from our interviews with scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences at Gloucester Point, one of the nation’s largest centers for estuarine and oceanic studies.
Our trawler, Bright Pleiades, was underway before 7am. With help from the ebb, the institute’s red buildings and then the York River fell away as we approached Thimble Shoal Channel, farthest south yet in our voyages of discovery around the Chesapeake.
Off Old Point Comfort, we intercepted the leaders of a parade: fireboats ceremonially hosing the air as they passed Thimble Shoal Light. Then came Godspeed, a reproduction of one of Jamestown’s ships. Behind the 74-foot barque followed 50 more tall ships from 10 countries. The nautical parade started Sail Virginia 2007, Norfolk’s weeklong celebration of maritime technologies that four centuries ago brought the first Europeans, and their scientists, to tidewater Virginia and Maryland.
The parade dominated the shipping channel between Norfolk (with the world’s largest naval base), Hampton and Newport News. Together the municipalities handle the most tonnage of any port in the Chesapeake.
Approaching the parade, we had been parallel to a tug pulling an empty coal barge. Seeing the unusual traffic, its skipper radioed that he’d be turning right in 14 minutes, bound for Pier 9, Dominion Terminal.
“Uh, captain, we have a parade here. Can you delay that?”
“I can’t slack my wire.”
The rules of navigation favored the tug, giving priority to “a vessel engaged in a towing operation such as severely restricts the towing vessel and her tow in their ability to deviate from their course.”
Tug and barge joined the parade. They were just the first vessels to crash the party of vintage ships.
The official parade consisted of tall ships power-sailing from their overnight anchorage off East Ocean View to docks in the Elizabeth River for the festival.
An aircraft carrier anchored in Hampton Roads was the next jarring note. A pleasing young female voice on channel 13 reminded waterborne parade spectators of the post-Cole, post-9/11 protocol that private vessels coming nearer than 500 yards were subject to a quick and severe response. (Later in the morning she relented: Sailboats may go between our port side and the parade route.)
The majestic three-masted Gorch Fock II passed upstream under full sail, hard on the wind. The 293-foot steel ship is the sail-training vessel of the German navy.
During a lull between tall ships, a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, bucking the parade, emerged unannounced and headed to sea. An armed small boat labeled Escort 2 blue light flashing and siren howling chased a hapless outboard out of the way. Other spectator boaters got the concept and moved aside. On the submarine’s small, dark deck, four officers, immaculate brown uniforms snapping in the breeze, looked ahead resolutely. We were saddened to see that the enormous, sinister-looking boat needed paint.
Cisne Branco, Brazil’s full-rigged steel ship, 249 feet long, paraded past, an orchestra on deck playing exuberant Brazilian music, the afterstay billowing an enormous national flag.
A retro sternwheeler, jammed with tourists, took in the show.
Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité, maintain safe distance from military vessels came over VHF channel 13 like a chorus.
Spirit of Bermuda, 114 feet, passed next, its wood transom gleaming.
Bluenose II (Canada); Tarangini (India) with scores of sailors standing high in the rigging, waving; Rara Avis (France), Alliance (Yorktown, Virginia) and Pride of Baltimore II.
An inbound freighter followed, stacked high with containers. Two angular and gray Navy destroyers, having waited patiently on the horizon, now pushed through the parade area, asserting by their mere presence vessel-free exclusion zones within the finally savvy spectator fleet.
The history and romance, even the frivolity, of the parade morphed into the multifaceted reality of the 21st century Chesapeake: commercial, pleasure, military, celebratory, international, domestic, local.
We headed back up the York River to conclude our interviews. The complexities of the Chesapeake these scientists are discovering are subtler than a parade, but the findings could approach the significance of the first arrival of tall ships four centuries ago.