Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Nansemond River, VA

Boating to Suffolk, Virginia
Way up the curvy and quiet Nansemond River lies downtown 
Suffolk, Va., which comes with a small town feel, great
restaurants, museums, a new marina,and a grand kid-friendly 
festival extraordinaire. [December 2010]

By Paul Clancy
Photographs by Jay Paul

It was going to be, as our grandkids put it, a pretty fun time. We would travel to a charming old town, partly by water, stay at a swanky hotel, have cool things painted on us at a street festival, bounce on bouncy things and get nuzzled by miniature farm animals. Oh, and stuff our faces.  

I'd always wanted to cruise to Suffolk on the long, winding Nansemond River, a tributary of the James that's just around the corner from our home in Norfolk. Suffolk has a lot going for it, including history that goes back to the first English settlements. It has nice restaurants and shops, a new cultural arts center, a railroad museum and, right up there on my A-list, a new downtown marina. What had intrigued me most about the old port town was how the ship captains of old negotiated the Nansemond all that way in square-rigged merchant ships. As the crow flies, it's only about 11 nautical miles from the mouth of the Nansemond to Suffolk. But by boat it's one heck of a long conga dance, easily 17 or 18 nautical miles--and, in a sailboat, labor-intensive miles. Did those square-riggers make  the whole run on one tide? Or did they take their time and drop anchor halfway there? My guess is that, when wind conditions permitted, they put the pedal to the metal. And I like to think if they made it in one shot, they doled out extra rations of grog to the crew.

My original plan had been to visit the town in early September, specifically on the weekend of the annual Taste of Suffolk street festival. And, because there's a 40-foot overhead power line about halfway 
up the river, just beyond Oyster Creek, that original plan had two parts. Part A would be on my 30-foot sloop, Ode to Joy, which I'd take as far as the power line; Part B would be on the dinghy, which would get me the rest of the winding way. What this two-part plan did not take into account, however, was that this turned out to be the same weekend Barb and I had agreed to take care of our Norfolk grandchildren, John and Annie--whose mom and dad had scheduled a much deserved anniversary weekend getaway.

Back to the drawing board. It didn't take me long, though, to concoct an alternate plan, albeit somewhat more complex. First, a few weeks in advance, I'd explore the lower river in Ode to Joy, accompanied by my neighbor and sailing buddy Dick Waters. Then, when the grandkid weekend arrived, I'd haul the dinghy to a midway point on the river and motor up to Suffolk from there; meanwhile, Barb and the grandkids would take the other car and meet me in Suffolk. John and Annie thought it was cool idea, especially the staying-in-a-hotel part. I liked it too, especially the getting-there-by-water part.

On the appointed morning of Part A (revised), Dick and I pointed Ode to Joy out of the Elizabeth River and into the James. Soon we were passing over the tunnel part of the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge Tunnel and, not long after that, turned left into the wide mouth of the Nansemond. It was mid-morning by then, just past low tide, and a gentle breeze was whispering from the north. Perfect. We'd ride the wind and tide just like they did in days gone by.

There's a high bridge and a set of power lines at the river's entrance, but once we put them astern, we hoisted my big ol' foresail, whiskered it out, wing-on-wing with the main, and ran large, as mariners once put it, gentled by the easy breeze. We were on an old square-rigger, we decided, hitching a ride on the wind and tide. We averaged about three and a half knots as we swept serenely up the wide and generous Nansemond, wriggling right and then left and right again. Hey, with 18 nautical miles to go, that might have been enough to gain the town wharf on one tide. Sea captains of old, by God. This called for much high-fiving.

We time travelers were on a river that got its name from those who populated its shores for millennia. The Nansemond Indians were a tenacious people who were not exactly thrilled to see the Jamestown settlers muscle their way onto their land. Captain John Smith and his crew explored the river and tried to set up an outpost at an island on the river, but sent a real oaf to run it. This genius attacked the Indians, looted and burned their houses and temples, despoiled their dead and seized their corn. The Nansemonds retaliated and chased the white men back to Jamestown, but later, after many bloody clashes, the tribe was driven from its ancestral lands. 

About eight miles upriver our progress was stopped, as we knew it would be, by those pesky 40-foot power lines. Sadly, our time-traveling adventure having come to an end, we cranked up the engine and turned around. By the time we were back in the Roads, the wind had picked up and we sailed close hauled all the way home. In other words, over our trip we sailed both full and by--aka, by and large. Ha! I never knew that's where the expression "by and large" came from, but it's true . . . I looked it up. 

A few weeks later it was time for the more complicated Part B. On Friday afternoon, September 10, I drove to Brady's Marina which has a boat launch and is located on the Western Branch of the Nansemond just beyond where Dick and I had stopped. There I inflated my dinghy and attached my four-horse outboard. A couple of fishermen watched--bemused it seemed. They shook their heads when I said I was going all the way to downtown Suffolk. 
I knew the upper reaches of the Nansemond have no channel markers, but I had time to chat with Clinton Stevenson, marina manager and commercial fisherman. Leaning back in his chair with hands behind his head, he told me, "If you stay dead in the middle of the river all the way up, you won't have no problems."

And I didn't. In fact, it was one of the nicest water trips I've taken--about eight miles of meandering river that slices through a vast green sea of marsh grass. There's barely a visible dwelling, with the exception of a couple of clusters of riverfront houses. Otherwise, it seemed untamed and wild. At one point when the river seemed to be going the wrong way, I began to worry that perhaps I'd stumbled into a dead-end branch. But a good paper chart, backed up by my ancient Garmin, confirmed I was on track. 

Hilton Garden Inn, Suffolk It was late afternoon. I'd been puttering along for about two hours when I spotted what I thought at first was an overgrown mansion, and then realized it was the Hilton Garden Inn on the Suffolk waterfront, with the city-owned Constant's Wharf Marina alongside. 

The marina gets its name from John Constant, a fellow who in the 1720s set up a wharf here for loading tobacco, grains and salt on ships bound for Europe. Other spots on the river, including "Nansemond Town" near Bennett Creek, had failed to survive. John Constant must have been, well, constant, persuading farmers to bring their crops to market, and ship captains to sail up river to pick them up. The town, in fact, was named Constant's Landing at first--until the Colonial legislature changed the name to Suffolk, in honor of Colonial Governor William Gooch's home in England.

Suffolk grew to become one of the leading ports in America. In 1779, during the Revolution, the British set fire to its wharves and waterfront warehouses, and stores of pitch and turpentine exploded in an inferno that engulfed the town. War came calling again some 80 years later when Union troops marched in and took over. A fabulous Greek Revival house, known as Riddick's Folly because of its outlandish size, served as Union headquarters.

The town would again thrive, thanks to the rail lines that intersected here and lumber barons and peanut farmers who shipped on those trains. In 1912 an Italian immigrant, Amadeo Obici, came down from Pennsylvania and established what became Planters Peanuts. Like its two neighbors just to the east, the vast "cities" of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, Suffolk years ago subsumed its parent (the erstwhile Nansemond County) and became, like its neighbors, one of the country's largest municipalities in terms of square miles. 

Barb picked up John and Annie at school and drove down to meet me. Of course, we couldn't sleep on an eight-foot open dinghy. No, sirree. We'd have to rough it at the aforementioned Hilton Garden Inn. And bounce from one queen-size bed to another--at least two of us would. And press all the elevator buttons. And eat the freshly baked cookies, with milk, the nice people brought to our room. (I swear the hotel didn't know I was writing this story.)

The next morning there were more hotel highlights. These included running on the treadmill in the workout room. And swimming--and playing sea monster--in the indoor pool. Oh, and the buffet breakfast, during which two persons about one-third our size demolished three times as much food. Eggs, pancakes, waffles, you name it. It was at about this time when they asked if we could please all live there.

It's a short walk up the hill from the wharf to downtown where Main Street was blocked to car traffic. Old Suffolk is a charming place, full of historic houses and shops. You get the feeling you've gone back a couple of centuries. No skyscrapers, thank you, but human-scale--you might even call them squatty--mostly brick 
buildings. It isn't just Main Street, but several square blocks of history huddled together and bisected by railroad tracks. If you were to go on a historic ride through town, you'd stop at still-standing breastworks where Union troops dug in against a prolonged Confederate siege. 

Things were already turning lively, on this festival day, as a large group of cloggers started hoofing to banjo music. On a far stage a small band was playing. A clown strode by, stiff-legged, on stilts. 

John was just lining up a shot at a miniature golf course when Annie yelped, "John, I found a bouncy house!" The two of them dashed over to where one of those enclosed bouncing platforms was packing in children. Almost as good as the hotel beds, I thought. Nearby, an "airborne adventure" whooshed them up in a parachute contraption and set them down ever so gently. Next, "Muffin the Clown" painted pink butterfly wings around Annie's eyes and decorated John's arm with a spider web, a black widow spider dangling below. Then we zigzagged across the street to where Teeny Tiny Farm had miniature animals to pet, including a horse, donkey, goat and sheep, but the sweetest was the miniature llama that never seemed to mind the constant touches of little hands. 

All up and down Main Street were booths from local restaurants with great things to sample. Among my favorites was the crabcake with apple slaw that Dale and Andrea's Grits & Gravy was offering. The restaurant had been open less than a month. "I'm very much excited," said owner Andrea Delph, a Venezuelan who had recently moved to town with her husband, an about-to-retire Navy cook. "I love the people, the community. Everybody is together. It's like a family, a big family!"

Across the street, the restaurant Oysterette, open four years, was offering crab dip and she-crab soup. The soup, creamy and full of crab meat, was among the best I've ever had. And this while standing on the street slurping from a paper cup. Gotta return and take the time to savor it. 

A little farther up Main is another new eatery, the Plaid Turnip, with lots of local art hung on exposed brick walls. It works well in a town that seems to thrive on art. We stopped there for a sit-down lunch, and that's when John raised his glass of lemonade to my glass of water and said, "Paw Paw, here's to a good Saturday." He was right. It definitely was. Owner Ed Beardsley was scurrying about but stopped long enough to give his take on Suffolk. "It's a nice-size city but it's got a real small-town feel to it. People take the time to know who you are 'and say hi when you're walking down the street."

On the way back down Main Street we stopped at the Seaboard Station Railroad Museum. The station was built during the town's rail heyday and at one point served both the Seaboard and Virginian railroads. After passenger service ended several decades ago it fell into disrepair, but the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society rescued it and now runs it as a museum. The centerpiece is an elaborate HO-gauge train layout with tracks that snake through a scale model of the town as it looked at the turn of the previous century. The kids were fascinated and kept running from room to room as the little engine pulled a long freight train through the town. 

One place where we didn't have time to stop was the new Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, a major commitment to the arts that few towns its size have made. It occupies what had been Suffolk High School, but everything seems brand new, including the posh theater that once served as an auditorium. Somewhere in the building, actors were rehearsing for the local theater's fall production of Steel Magnolias. 

There are art galleries and classrooms for just about everything you can think of, including pottery, weaving, painting, filmmaking, stained glass, dance (jazz, ballroom, tap, ballet, hip hop), voice, acting, writing, storytelling and fitness. On an earlier trip--about 20 minutes by car instead of a full day's sail--Barb and I visited a weaving class where several people were threading looms and reproducing old patterns. We were also impressed  with the gift shop, which seems to  have chosen well from both local and  regional craftspeople.

Having survived our street festival adventure with the kids, we were now approaching the real test of the weekend--whether we'd all be able to ride comfortably in the dinghy for about two hours over an eight-mile stretch of the river. Although we didn't have to carry luggage because it would be left in Barb's car--I'd drive us all back to pick it up--a major consideration was fitting in every snack known to humankind. As I was smearing sunblock on the kids, I regretted that John's spider and spider web were smudged. 

And then off we went. This time we made sure to leave at high tide so we could, like those salty old mariners, fall with the river. With that extra shove behind us, we flew. Stayed in the middle, of course, and didn't dangle our feet too much--but ate snacks till the cows came home. It was a pretty fun time, the kids agreed, in fact darn stinking cool.