There’s more to Great Bridge, Va., than meets the eye. Sure, the bridge is pretty great, but there’s also the north end of the southern ICW, a big ol’ marina, a quiet little town, a battlefield park and, of course, blueberry pie. [October 2013]
By Paul Clancy
Photography by Steve Earley
Sunday, dawn on the Elizabeth River’s Southern Branch. All is silent, with none of the clang and clamor we’d hear from the shipyards and dry docks if it were midday, mid-week. There is no boat traffic to speak of, with only the Norfolk-to-Portsmouth paddle wheel ferry breaking the pattern and the gentle wake of our 6-horsepower engine spreading across the otherwise still water.
Barb and I are reenacting a scene that southbound cruisers know very well—the beginning of the southern Intracoastal Waterway, the thrill of passing Mile Marker One and beginning a long, slow, soul-satisfying journey to distant ports of call. This time, at least, we’re going only as far as the place many consider a first stop on the ICW, Great Bridge, Va., which has a unique and interesting personality that is worth celebrating all on its own.
It’s mid-July and blistering hot, so early morning is the only time to go; Sunday because the drawbridge gauntlet you must run is impossible during weekday rush hours. We’re looking forward to shade and quiet contemplation and homemade blueberry pie. And whatever else happens at the setting off place for so many dreams.
The Southern Branch has a rugged beauty. As you slide past the marinas and docks at Portsmouth and gull-like awning of the N’Telos Pavilion, there’s the sprawling Norfolk Naval Shipyard with its massive hammerhead crane and steel gray hulks of warships old and new. Other parts of this rough kaleidoscope include a giant granary, huge domes for storing wood chips, a power plant, massive silos, oil tanks and a mulch warehouse. These muscular presences are softened, however, by riverbanks and wetlands that have been restored by the acclaimed Elizabeth River Project—the goal of which is to render this famously toxic river fishable and swimmable by 2020.
In case you haven’t been this way lately, the old Jordan Lift Bridge is gone, replaced by a curving, graceful high-rise bridge that, at high tide, is 140 feet high. Because it’s Sunday we have no problem getting a prompt lift at the Gilmerton Bridge, but at the last barrier in this fascinating obstacle course, Steel Bridge, we have to cool our heels for nearly an hour waiting for an opening. Then we’re home free and heading for one of the coolest parts of the trip, the Great Bridge Lock and Swing Bridge.
The village of Great Bridge is now part of the sprawling city of Chesapeake, but it once had a distinctive character and a history as pungent as cordite. It grew up around a series of causeways and bridges—the largest of which gave the area its name—that linked the farmers of North Carolina with the port of Norfolk. So vital was this link to the commerce of the region that during the buildup to the Revolutionary War, patriots were as determined to keep it open as the British were to choke it off. And inevitably a great battle, the Battle of Great Bridge, ensued.
During said battle, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, sent elite British grenadiers against dug-in patriots across a narrow causeway. The patriots, including 19-year-old Lt. John Marshall, the future Supreme Court chief justice, caught the British in a murderous crossfire. The rout, in which dozens of British were killed, turned out to be the first victorious American land battle of the war. The infuriated Dunmore then bombarded Norfolk and fled with hundreds of tories to Gwynn’s Island for a last stand before setting sail for New York and, soon after, England.
Just beyond the bridge is the newly dedicated Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways Park. We hope to walk over and check it out once we’re ashore, but first we must negotiate the Great Bridge lock.
The lock serves to raise boats from the end of the Southern Branch to the beginning of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, the long, deep cut leading to the North Landing River and eventually to North Carolina. It was dug shortly before the Civil War by steam-powered dredges that ripped through the tangled roots and hard-as-rock stumps of ancient cypress trees. This is the wider, deeper and busier of the two routes—the other being the Dismal Swamp Canal—that allow boaters to travel inside on their way north and south.
As the lock gates swing open, we enter on the port side and two lock tenders greet us and take our dock lines. In a few minutes, water at the far end of the 200-foot chamber begins to boil furiously as valves are opened and what seems like millions of gallons of water quickly raise us up several feet. Then the far-end gates open and we hustle into the canal, passing by a park lined with bright red crape myrtles, their blossoms shimmering in reflected glory on the water.
In a few more minutes we’re sidling up to the Great Bridge bridge, a double bascule affair. At precisely 11 a.m. bells ring, gates close, road traffic comes to a halt and the two spans split apart and rise almost as a welcoming gesture—though I’m sure none of the car drivers share my euphoria. And once we’re through the bridge, well, we’ve arrived, because our destination is the vast Atlantic Yacht Basin, with a quarter-mile of dock on the canal’s south bank just below the bridge. Just three hours from our slip in downtown Norfolk, we’re here.
The 60-acre Atlantic Yacht Basin (AYB) is the largest marina and boatyard I’ve ever seen—with some of the biggest yachts I’ve ever fanaticized about. It seems that just about every multi-million-dollar yacht cruising to or from some sun-drenched paradise stops here for fuel or repairs or puts up for a season or longer.
AYB was founded in 1936 by Dunwoody Atkinson, a dredge operator who had migrated north from Georgia. It seems that every boater coming through would ask him for advice about repairs, and he began to see an opportunity. Legend has it that he told his children, “I watched all that Yankee money going up and down the canal and wanted a piece of it.”
With his dredger, he dug out a vast basin behind the canal, and built the first of six storage sheds and several in-water work sheds. He built it and they came, packing the 40-foot high sheds with their massive hulks. Among the behemoths currently in residence or under repair are Chanticleer, the 108-foot yacht once owned by Frances Langford, a singer from the golden age of radio; and Black Knight, an 83-foot symphony of wood that once served as committee boat for the America’s Cup.
The AYB has the advantage of resting at the edge of a nontidal waterway. Because of the lock, Elizabeth River tides are halted there, and many Norfolk-area boaters pay an annual fee to guarantee dockage in the basin during hurricanes. Then there’s this: the requirement by insurance companies that yachts wait out hurricane season north of Hatteras, so this happens to be a haven of choice for their owners. As for us, our 25-foot Cape Dory, Blue Moon, is surely the smallest boat at AYB right now, docked among a gaggle of big trawlers.
For cruisers, Great Bridge has long been a refueling, refitting, reprovisioning stop. There’s a nearby grocery and electronics store. There’s also an alternative to dock fees. On both sides of the bridge there are free transient slips (24-hour stay), and right now, across from us on the north side of the canal, we can see four long-distance cruising boats tied up in a row. You recognize the long-haulers immediately—wind generators, radars, solar panels and jerry cans for extra fuel. And, yes, Canadian flags.
AYB hugs the south side of the canal just east of the Great Bridge bridge. On the north side, directly opposite, is the Battlefield and Waterways Park. You could paddle or row across or, as we elect to do, walk across the bridge, and enjoy the nice wide pedestrian lane, thank you. There are winding trails through the park and signs that tell you about the battle. There are piles in the ground where construction of a visitor center will soon begin.
Down on the park’s canal frontage is where the free overnight slips are chock-full of cruisers. And I’m just gauche enough—it’s late morning, after all—to knock on the hull of Misty, a sturdy Gulf Star 37. Up pops Jean-Francois Cote of Montreal, and we introduce ourselves. He and his wife had sold their boatyard, their house and cars to become full-time cruising sailors, but their teenage daughter, enthusiastic at first, began to miss her friends, so she and mom went home. Meanwhile, Jean-Francois has gone over to AYB to have his fading canvas resewn. He isn’t rushing to get back home, he says. “We were always going through and never had time to go to Washington and Baltimore. Now I really want to visit these places.”
We say adieu to our Canadian friend. There’s a pressing matter to attend to: a certain blueberry pie. While scouting out Great Bridge, I heard about a favorite local eatery, the Grill at Great Bridge—well known not just for its Philly cheesesteak but for its homemade pies. It’s a tiny place, about the size of a small diner, and almost a mile from the bridge. Since what was once a small village has been swallowed up by the fast-growing City of Chesapeake and, ugh, strip shopping centers, as walks go, there’s not much to write home about. But the trek to the grill is worth every step, and boaters are quite willing to hoof it there for breakfast or lunch and good conversation with its owners, Gary and Ann Pyle. I called ahead to make sure they were open for Sunday brunch and that there would still be a slice or two of pie—in this case blueberry—by the time we got there.
“I’m into all things blueberry,” she who must be obeyed had said.
Ann, a former school teacher from South Boston, Va., and Gary, a restaurateur from Philadelphia, met while students at Old Dominion University. They opened the grill 20 years ago with the idea that they’d get it running and then sell it. “But the funny thing that happened was we became part of the community,” says Gary, working the grill, wearing a red Phillies baseball cap.
Ann, who takes our orders, says she misses teaching but nevertheless enjoys this work. “This is fun because we’re so close to our customers. We look forward to coming to work every day.”
Two of their regular customers, Linda Linnon and her husband Michael, recount the story about a deer that must have panicked at traffic while crossing Battlefield Boulevard. The animal crashed through the window and leaped over the counter, causing Gary to scramble in the other direction, fast.
The cheesesteak sandwiches are delicious and Ann’s blueberry pie, topped with ice cream, is amazing. We’re lucky the pie isn’t gone. “We have a regular who’s literally a rocket scientist who drives all the way from Newport News for breakfast and asked for blueberry pie,” Gary says, “and she [Ann] wouldn’t give it to him.” Just about smacking our lips, we manage to walk back to our boat, thinking longingly about naps.
Instead of lounging in the cockpit, we park ourselves in two of the six Adirondack chairs lined up facing the canal under low trees and watch the passing show, yachts coming, yachts leaving, the bridge lifting. It’s getting hot, but the shade and a nice breeze turn this into a lovely Sunday afternoon for reading, napping and taking in the scene. A dragonfly lands on Barb’s book, then takes off. A couple of regulars who keep their boats at AYB year-round come by to pass the time of day. Some liveaboards from Savannah come sit with us. They’ve been leapfrogging up the coast, leaving their truck at the last stop, traveling north a couple of days, renting a car, going back to retrieve the truck—and starting all over again.
Rowers glide by in single shells, creating a fascinating scene: the almost-nightly ritual by members of the Juniper Rowing Club. The group, as well as two local high schools, has sheds and a dock at the far end of the yacht basin. It’s a perfect setup. They can row, row, row their boats in a beautiful setting up and down the wide, protected canal.
Not long before this trip, Barb and I had driven down to see the club in action. We learned that the club has about 40 members who meet several nights a week and row single, double, quad and eight-oared boats. Some are former high school or college rowers, but others are beginners who have discovered the beauty of the sport and the camaraderie that goes with it. “I think it’s the friendship,” said Scott Gordon (“Gordy”), one of the founding members, as we climbed into his skiff to watch the action. “There are some who say, ‘Hey, it’s on my bucket list; I’ve always wanted to do it.’ ”
We skimmed along the canal, following a couple of boats as they flew up and down the canal, from one bridge to another. There’s a lovely symmetry in their movements. The long blades catch the surface and drive, recover, drive, recover—all the while roiling the mahogany-colored water stained by centuries of steeping in the peat and roots of juniper and tupelo.
Back at the dock, as an eight-oared boat was put back on its rack, I chatted with Michel Guse and her daughter, Taylor Denchak, a former high school rower who got her sister involved and finally her mother. “They were bugging me for seven years,” said Guse. “I thought it was about time I tried it.” Taylor then turned her recruiting sights on Barb and me. “It’s a lot of fun. You need to come out with us!”
Back to the here and now, there’s one more adventure on our Great Bridge bucket list. Just across the road from where we’re docked is a low, unpretentious building that you would not suspect to house a fine restaurant, but there it is: Julieann’s at the Lochs. We walk over and dive into some of the nicest food we’ve found near a waterway. Take, for instance, the grilled salmon Vera Cruz, topped with red onions, green olives, tomatoes, roasted red peppers and capers on a bed of citrus and herb infused couscous. This is not a review, but I let Barb’s comment sum up our experience: “Oh my gosh, this place is outstanding.”
Back in the cockpit of our humble Blue Moon, a brilliant sunset paints low-hanging clouds a bright mango-pink that dances on the juniper waterway. We awaken to heavy fog that slowly lifts as we head for home, redoing the steps of our dance through the lock and several bridges, pleased about having taken one small step on what to many is a journey of a lifetime.