by Paul Clancy
photographs by Jay Paul
We set off on a cool but lovely late October morning, sails humming as we leaned into a brisk northerly breeze and put Hampton Roads behind us. We were on the wide and generous James River now, heading west on a long and winding adventure.
The James. At 340 miles, it's Virginia's longest river, ushering down from the western mountains, dropping precipitously at the rocky falls in Richmond, meandering over miles of swampy lowlands, brushing past centuries of history, gaining strength as tributaries join its entourage, then muscling into Hampton Roads and splashing into the Chesapeake.
Our goal was Richmond, a place we knew almost by heart but had never conquered by boat because of distance--a good 90 miles from Hampton Roads--and lack of accommodations for boats. But that equation changed with the appearance of Rocketts Landing, the new marina on the city's doorstep. As for distance? Well, 90 miles is nothing when the journey itself was the whole point and in some ways the real destination. Instead of speeding up, we'd slow down, being drawn around ever-beckoning bends of the river.
We'd spend a couple of nights getting there, stopping at one of the grand old plantations on the river, and soaking up some glorious fall weather. The predictions were pretty good all the way there and back, and we would be •accompanied by a full moon.
As we breezed ever westward, my sidekick Barb, who had grown up in Richmond but never gone farther on the James than an inner tube might take her, chimed in, "This is really fun! I never thought I'd go all the way to Richmond by boat." Nor did I.
As luck would have it, our plans meshed with those of another couple, Norm and Betsy Mason. They had organized a trip mostly for Norfolk Yacht and Country Club members, but the others dropped out, leaving just our two boats going all the way to Richmond. I had met the Masons at Tangier Island a couple of years earlier on a trip up the Bay, and it was great renewing the acquaintance. And, as it turned out, we couldn't have ended up with more helpful and congenial cruising companions. The Masons' spacious Monk 36 trawler, Peggy Sue (named for their sweet old North Carolina hound dog, who was along for the trip as well), acted as Mother Ship all the way, and Norm, who had made the trip before, played the role of faithful tour guide.
After overnighting in Deep Creek in Newport News the Masons spent a leisurely morning motoring up the James, anchoring in the Chickahominy River along with a third boat that was going that far, David and Penny West's PDQ 36 catamaran. Pushing to catch up in Ode to Joy, our Tartan 30, we passed Jamestown Island shortly after sunset, and by the time we approached the river's entrance it was dark. How fast that happens in late fall! We ducked under the new Va. Route 5 bridge and ghosted past bare cypress trees standing in the water (Barb torching them with our spotlight) and in the distance spotted the anchor lights of the two boats. We rafted up and collapsed into the hospitality of four lovely people. Wine and crackers and dip never tasted so good, nor were sea stories more enjoyable.
As morning dawned, the Wests stayed behind to explore the Chickahominy while we adventurers sailed out of the river and headed west. Most cruisers on the James are content to stop at the Chickahominy and don't realize what they're missing as the river puts on a new show. A mosaic of fall colors, painted by maples, tulip poplars and clinging Virginia creeper, turned darker and richer as we wound upriver, mostly motoring now, settling into a lazy pace. Up, up we went, past couples fishing from skiffs, shorebirds standing in muddy banks, mallards cavorting in the shallows, fall leaves and leaf pods helicoptering down to the water. We spotted a bald eagle circling and lunged for the binoculars in time to watch his white head and flashing white tail whiz by us.
As we had hoped to do, we splashed anchors off Westover, perhaps the grandest of the grand old plantations that lie along this stretch of the river between Claremont and Hopewell, and dinghied to the dock. It was exciting to be there, amid the sprawling grounds of perhaps the finest example of Georgian architecture in America. The signs here say it was built in the 1730s by William Byrd II, who amassed the land on which Richmond was founded. But recent archaeology suggests that the house was built in 1750 by his son, William Byrd III, a man of huge appetites and flaws.
Byrd III had gambled recklessly as a youth in London and amassed crushing debts that later came to haunt him. Then, as the American Revolution dawned, he found himself on the wrong side of history, siding with the British. Finally, as his loyalties and finances got the better of him, Byrd put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. His widow, Mary Willing Byrd, also harbored British sympathies. And when that notorious traitor Benedict Arnold sailed with his fleet up the James to attack Richmond, he and his troops stopped at Westover and received a not-unfriendly welcome. "Willing Mary," as some would later call her, narrowly escaped being tried for treason.
We present-day patriots were sitting on a bench overlooking our boats as they rode at anchor, their noses turned smartly into the northerly breeze. In the background, Peggy Sue--the dog, not the boat--was whining excitedly about rabbits she had spotted.
"Don't know of anything more satisfying than sittin' and lookin' at your boat at anchor," said Norm. He was right. This out-of-boat experience allows you to think how cool those people must be to have come this far and stopped here--and at the same time realize that these cool people are you.
We were soon on the water again, passing other James River plantations, including Berkeley, the home of Benjamin Harrison, signer of the Declaration of Independence and father to President William Henry Harrison, "Old Tippecanoe." We passed more modern mansions too, like the lavish one built by sausage king Jimmy Dean. Each time we passed another, Norm, the perfect tour guide, alerted us over the VHF or phone to its historical significance.
We ducked under the Benjamin Harrison Bridge at Jordan Point and continued, sweeping past the factories and smokestacks of Hopewell. You can't do this without remembering that this is where Allied Chemical & Dye dumped Kepone, a carcinogenic insecticide, into the James in 1975, shutting down the river to fishing for several years. Even without this company, the city remains a smoky colossus, and we put pedal to the metal as we passed. Again, Norm came on the horn, informing us about City Point, where Ulysses Grant was headquartered during the siege of Petersburg, and where Lincoln spent two weeks conferring with his top general about how to unify the country after the war. Off to port, polished by late afternoon light, lay the Appomattox River.
And here, the guide books tell us, the James completely changes character. From a wide, rambling river, it proceeds to narrow and take several lazy, meandering loops that look like comic book sore thumbs. But in truth they hold some of the river's most inviting diversions and serene anchorages. Three of the major loops are now bypassed by time-saving cutoffs--all the more reason to spend an undisturbed night away from the traffic, on the hook.
A half-mile or so past the entrance to Jones Neck loop, just off a gracious-looking manor house that I believe once belonged to the owner of Curles Neck Dairy farm, we rafted up with the Masons. Betsy, bless her, had rustled up a roast, and we brought the wine. This cruise was turning out to be none too shabby. There was not a sound on the river that night.
The last 20 miles or so of the navigable James seemed in part like a small country river, although I was constantly alert to the possibility of a tug and barge or cargo ship steaming out of the Port of Richmond. None did, thank you. We waltzed serenely under the high-rise I-895 bridge, past the small port facilities, allowing ourselves an almost-there kind of high. And then, around one more turn, we could see Richmond's skyline and the long dock at Rocketts Landing Marina.
Rocketts Landing is one of the hottest pieces of real estate in Richmond. It's a sprawling complex of condos, apartments, restaurants and shops that sits on a hillside with a commanding view of the city. The first stage of the marina, sans showers, fuel dock or other amenities, opened in 2009. Progress has been slow, and there is no immediate timetable for completion. But the good news is that it's within walking distance of one of Richmond's trendiest downtown neighborhoods, Shockoe Bottom, and its next-door neighbor, Shockoe Slip, both named for Shocqouhocan, a creek so-dubbed by Indians who once inhabited the riverfront land. The area prospered as a shipping center for tobacco and slaves but, like most of Richmond, was leveled by fire when soldiers fled the capital of the Confederacy. Several decades ago entrepreneurs salvaged what was left of the old tobacco warehouses and taverns. They took up asphalt paving to reveal cobblestone streets. They turned the warehouses into living quarters. They attracted restaurateurs, shopkeepers and office dwellers, and made the place a huge success.
We walked along a canal that runs beside the river, then up into Shockoe Bottom, where we found the Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe, a California-style eatery with organic, locally grown offerings and floor-to-ceiling windows. It was packed with lunch seekers and laptop-gazing students. (Virginia Commonwealth University, the Medical College of Virginia and the State Capitol are within walking distance.) We shared a tasty avocado sandwich and a blackberry-raspberry-blueberry smoothie.
We called Barb's sister, Diane, who came down and took us to the house they grew up in for a brief visit with their mom. Then she drove us back to Rocketts Landing where we dined at the Boathouse, a new place on the top floor of a recently repurposed power plant. Be still my trendy-loving heart! We dined on pear and gorgonzola salad, thin-crust pizza with roasted onions and pistachios, lightly fried calamari and lobster bisque while seated on barstools, taking in the scene: river and skyline at sunset.
We shoved off mid-morning, waving goodbye to the Masons (who soon after waved to us as they motored quietly past). This time we stopped at Jordan Point Marina just east of the Benjamin Harrison Bridge, fueled up and pulled into an overnight slip.
We loved the place because of the people we met, including dock assistant Mac Meade, an Air Force veteran who likes to escape to his boat once in a while to mix and meet with marina slipholders and transients. "You got any problems," he said, "you go to the river and think them out."
We had dinner on board and watched a couple (Craig McBurney and Robin Ruffin) take their boat out for a sunset cruise. When they came back we invited them to stop in for wine and crackers.
"This is the best-kept secret for sailboats up here," Craig said. "This is bird-central: There are something like 200 year-round nesting pairs of eagles. You really see all of it like it was 400 years ago." As we talked, a gorgeous full moon rose over the river, prompting several corny but altogether true reflections. Isn't this great, we both said. Haven't we had fun? Isn't this river neat, especially this time of year? Aren't we lucky to have had the time to take this long, lazy cruise? Yes to all of that. Yes.
Early next morning, taking advantage of a strong-flowing tide--as well as current that had reached us from a long way off--we shoved off for home.