Next up, Norfolk, Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Arriving into Norfolk from the Dismal Swamp must be akin to stepping out of a time machine that’s transported you hundreds of years into the future. In the blink of an eye we left the dense green tree canopy and calm chocolate water (brown thanks to the tannic acid from the decaying trees) for a waterway jungle of rusted steel, giant manmade structures and turbulent waters. From Jurassic Park to Blade Runner, just like that.
Norfolk is home to the largest naval base in the world. I’m guessing we passed twenty massive grey U.S. Navy warships, including frigates, cruisers, destroyers, battleships, aircraft carriers, you name it. Plus all the shipyards and ships that service the naval base and the significant industry built around it. Tankers, barges, tugs, ferries, pleasure boats – the Elizabeth River has it all.
To the delight of the kids, we stayed at the Nauticus Marina. The entrance to Nauticus Museum was thirty-second stroll from our slip. The kids spent an entire day wandering the exhibits, and we had to drag them out. That keeps happening. We learned about the Great White Fleet dispatched on a global tour by Teddy Roosevelt to show the strength and range of the U.S. Navy. Though we have plenty of gadgetry onboard Muddy Waters – in the form of radar, chart plotters, VHF, depth sounders, EPIRB, etc. – the kids were deeply fascinated by all the simulators at Nauticus. Landing planes on carriers, connecting fuel hoses from one plane to another and shooting down enemy fighter jets. We also participated in an interactive theater program set on the eve of WWII, and we were asked to help design a battleship. Very cool stuff.
And speaking of battleships, parked next to the museum is a spectacular specimen of a ship. It’s the USS Wisconsin, one of the largest (and last) battleships built by the U.S Navy. Like the USS North Carolina, which we toured in Wilmington, this ship is a floating city. The Wisconsin, built in 1943 and earning five battle stars in WWII, was only recently retired. In fact, in 1991 the Wisconsin fired the first shots for the U.N. led coalition after Iraq invaded and tried to annex Kuwait.
We also ferried across the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth, finding a quieter and less modern city that was probably a thriving town not long ago. While enjoying discussing local history in a comfortable coffee shop in Portsmouth, Keenan and I decided to leave Jennifer and Daria to their books and stroll over to the all-new Children’s Museum of Virginia. While we figured this was probably for younger kids, some friends told us it was still worth a visit. The building itself is an impressive structure of steel and glass. A sign in front said, Open 9 – 5. The doors were unlocked. No one was at the welcome counter or anywhere inside really. So, we started our own self-guided walking tour, beginning with the most elaborate and expansive model train set I’d ever seen. We moved on to a few other historical exhibits, recognizing a few toys and board games that have survived multiple decades.
We still seemed to be alone in the museum, and Keenan did suggest that it just might be closed. But, it was mid-week, probably just a quiet day I thought. I started to take some photos. Then we saw a few fellows in hard hats buzzing around. Not Bob the Builder types, but real workers with real tool belts. Hmmm. Then…all of a sudden, the supervisory voice of a suit-clad woman: “And who are you two and why are you here?” “Why, we’re a dad and son who live on a boat, are exploring Portsmouth, and came in through your unlocked front door with the sign on it that says Open 9 – 5”, I replied. She was silent, though her every facial expression said: “A likely story, living on a boat; and the doors are clearly locked mister irresponsible father with your school skipping son in tow.” Then she finally did say to us that the museum was closed to the public for another month while it was being built. She quickly escorted us to the door, still expecting it to be locked I think and presumably for us to crash right through it. When it opened, she bid us a pleasant farewell. Truth is, she was quite nice about the whole thing, and it’s obvious they’ve taken great care to make the museum a wonderful place for little kids to visit.
Next morning, we headed over to the Waterside Marina area to have breakfast with friend and mentor Dennis Fox who was in town for the America’s Great Loop Cruiser Association Rendezvous. We also ran into Chris & Alyse Caldwell as well as the husband and wife team, Janice and Steve Kromer, who run the AGLCA organization and put on the rendezvous. Not surprisingly, Dennis gave us some terrific recommendations on charts and guidebooks for the remainder of our trip. We also took a cab a few miles north of town and met with Garland and Jean Hagen for dinner. Naturally, I brought along our chart books for the Chesapeake and picked their brains too for some local knowledge. You carry your Blackberry everywhere you go; I carry our charts.
While departing Norfolk, we also overheard an amusing conversation between a 500-foot warship and a 30-foot sailboat, both in the channel exiting toward the Chesapeake. The young radio operator aboard the destroyer called the sailboat on VHF channel 16 and asked the sailboat if it could move out of the way. The salty old sailor who answered onboard the sailboat seemed to pause and think about it and then he responded and said he reckoned he could move…if necessary. I think everyone in the harbor listening on channel 16 got a good laugh from that exchange.
We arrived next at the York River Yacht Haven, up the York River, another terrific marina and friendly spot. With a lift from the gracious marina owners, we made it across the bridge to historic Yorktown, site of the siege of Yorktown, where George Washington’s forces defeated General Cornwallis in 1781. Though the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolutionary War wasn’t signed until 1783, the siege of Yorktown effectively ended the war and was its last major military confrontation. We walked through the battlefields, listening to an outstanding local park ranger give interesting details about the siege. Most incredible for all of us was the proximity of the fighting. Most this battle was fought by exchange of cannon fire, and the redoubts of each side were in some cases only hundreds of yards apart.
Jennifer and I could see history coming alive for the kids. We took two bike rides through the battlefields, passing surrender field and also the areas where the French and American forces planned the siege, treated their sick and injured, and ultimately stormed redoubts #9 and #10. We learned from a scholarly friend that the pesky mosquito also played an important role in Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown.
We learned the following day that a Bush Gardens water park was in the area and decided to give the kids the choice of a historic tour, on Segways, of Yorktown or a trip to the water park. Lo’ and behold, the kids selected the historical tour. We had a terrific tour guide, and while I’m sure the kids listened to everything he said, they seemed to be mostly focused on just how cool it was to ride a Segway for 90 minutes. The kind owner of the tour shop then offered to drop us back at the marina (our second such ride from a local).
While dropping us off, she noticed her parents’ car in the lot and figured they were having dinner in the restaurant. Turns out they were having dinner with their good friends the Disters, a couple aboard a Krogen like ours and whom we’d met in St. Augustine. Small world, but just the type thing that seems to happen on this trip. Well, the Disters kindly offered us their car to drive to Williamsburg the following day.
We spent a full day in historic Williamsburg and visited just about every corner of this wonderful living museum. We saw blacksmiths, gunsmiths, cobblers, bakers, silversmiths, carpenters, street theater, and so on. The kids were fascinated and we were too. That evening we drove over to the James River to visit Jamestown (American’s first permanent English settlement), but we didn’t realize access to the park closes at 5 pm, so we had to settle for the beautiful drive along Colonial Parkway, which itself was quite beautiful.
We’d planned to leave the following morning but learned that the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marina Science was hosting a marine science day. VIMS, as its known, is probably the premier estuary study institution globally. And it was just around the corner form the marina, so we took the opportunity to explore VIMS and listen to young scientists talk about the state of the Chesapeake Bay. In short, the Chesapeake isn’t looking good these days and has an abundance of dead zones thanks to decades of industrial waste and run-off. It was a great science lesson for the kids, and living at sea helps make them acutely aware of the need for a healthy environment.
Once we pushed-off, we made for the Indian River on the southern Chesapeake where friends Jean and Garland Hagen (from the trawler Arcadia) live. They welcomed us and took us on a terrific tour of a local steamboat museum, Historic Christ’s Church, and the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum (Jean’s father was a medhaven fishing boat captain in Reedville, her hometown). We also visited their lovely home on the overlooking the Chesapeake. We’re so lucky to have met the Hagens in the Exumas, and like the Foxes, Reeves, and others, they’ve given us so much local knowledge along the way. Thank you Hagens!
We said farewell to the Hagens and pushed off into the Chesapeake again, departing Virginia’s waters and entering Maryland’s. After a few hours, we pulled into Solomons, Maryland, the place where Jennifer and I spent our one-night honeymoon in 1994 at a local bed & breakfast (we left the next day for a full year of work and travel in Chile!) This time we spent a while touring the fantastic Calvert Marine Museum with the kids and then biked in search of the B&B Jennifer and I had stayed at years back. We couldn’t remember the name and weren’t quite sure where it was, but after some searching we came across it. We think. We’d hoped to find our names on the guest registry, but they had the older books in storage so we only had our memories to confirm this was the place.
We returned to Muddy Waters and had dinner with our friends the Andersons (from Puffin) and Littles (from Grand Adventure). Next morning, we were out into a mildly angry and choppy Chesapeake Bay, headed for Maryland’s capital and America’s sailing capital, Annapolis.