Issue: From the Chesapeake Bay Magazine Archives
Destination: Norfolk, VA

When it comes to offering plenty of action for a family that
needs to stretch some sea legs, Norfolk is a sure thing. [March 2006]

By Wendy Mitman Clarke

Laundry. The bane of sailors everywhere, or at least sailors with small boats. My husband Johnny is a wizard with boats” fixing them, building them, figuring out how to reconfigure them to shovel ten pounds of stuff into a five-pound space”but he has yet to install a washer-dryer on our 34-foot ex-racing sailboat, not even one of those snazzy little European ones that slide into a closet. So here I sit next to the candy machine and the bathrooms at Waterside Marina in Norfolk, watching the clothes go 'round, as Chrissie Hynde once sang.

This is fine. It's been a big day already, with more to come. Norfolk is one of those cruising destinations that invites big days”compels them, really. You probably didn't come here if you were looking for bucolic scenery and abundant wildlife (unless you consider the waitresses at Hooters "scenery" or the Eurobeat throbbing out of Waterside on a Saturday night "wildlife"). You come to Norfolk for action”for the big ships, the busy channels, the hustle and bustle of the working waterfront, the abundance of things to do that are all within walking, ferry or water-taxi distance of your boat, whether your interest lies in the aforementioned "wildlife" or in world-class art, shopping, good eats, battleships or baseball. This city has always been known as a great place for shore leave, and although there have been times in its 300-year maritime history when that shore leave was, let's say, less than wholesome, these days, for a cruising family, it's terrific.

"You're gonnaloveit," I assured our kids, who were on their first down-the-Bay excursion on Luna. "In fact, you're not gonna believeit."

Expectations can be tricky things, potentially incendiary, like mishandled dynamite. But every now and then you get lucky. And before we even got there, Norfolk”with a little help from Mother Nature and the U.S. Navy”was living up to its billing.

We had left Dividing Creek north of Fleets Bay, just south of the Great Wicomico River, in a pewter haze. The day before we'd come about 70 miles from the Rhode River”the longest one-day run our children (Kaeo, 8, and Kailani, 5) had ever done on the boat. The plan had been to head southeast to Cape Charles and spend a day there, then take the kids offshore to Chesapeake Light and back, ending up in Norfolk for a few days of play and exploration. But not surprisingly for a Mitman Clarke cruise, a tropical storm was lurking. Listening to NOAA we learned that "Cindy" had hit New Orleans and Alabama and was scheduled to arrive on the Bay that night and the next day. Given the forecast, we amended our plan. A day of predicted driving rain and high wind would be better spent snug in Waterside, with us and the kids amusing ourselves with Norfolk's ample shoreside diversions. Chesapeake Light and Cape Charles could wait for a better day.

The 50-mile trip south to Thimble Shoal Light was uneventful, with the exception of our first sighting of a pod of dolphins off New Point Comfort. As gray as the sky, they passed just east of us, their smooth backs and dorsal fins barely creasing the pillowy water. As the day wore on the sun finally burned through, and the water, now a deep green, was full of rafts of sea grass. Now and then we saw a species of bright green fish, long and skinny, that would fly from the water and leap across it on their tails like skimming stones.

By mid-afternoon things were growing even more interesting. The wind started filling in from the northeast”the perfect direction for us at the moment”and by 3:30 was piping at about 20 knots. We were barreling toward Thimble Shoal Light, reaching along at about seven knots against an outgoing tide. In the thickening tropical haze the air felt like wet gauze; even if we hadn't heard the weather, it was easy to sense that something big was coming. Right about then the Hampton Roads Coast Guard station broadcasted that NOAA had issued a tornado watch for the whole area until 10 p.m., thanks largely to the leading edges of our friend Cindy. Cool. We were entering one of the biggest commercial harbors in the United States, not to mention the home of the world's largest naval station, in a building wind under a tornado watch in a haze so dense we could barely see half a mile.

Our entrance was spectacular. Just inside Thimble Shoal Light an aircraft carrier was heading into Naval Station Norfolk, and two huge ships passed us, one inbound and the other outbound. No worries there, just the usual adrenaline at being so close to the big boys and hoping nothing weird would happen”such as a mast falling down. We watched in rapt puzzlement as what appeared to be a military helicopter flew in and out of the haze behind us, dragging some kind of sled through the water at the end of a long cable. "Imagine if you were sailing along andthatthing came flying across in front of you," I said. "What do you suppose the Rules of the Road say about that?"

I was soon to learn. We passed between Fort Monroe and Fort Wool and began the sweeping left turn into the Elizabeth River. In the distance, the whumping of a helicopter grew louder. Given that we were sailing past Sewells Point and Naval Station Norfolk”home to 75 ships and an air station that conducts more than 100,000 flight operations a year”this wasn't a big worry. The sounds of helicopters, jets and all things airborne are as common here as the crickets in a summer field. Except this time, the sound was coming from the helicopter we had seen earlier, and it was headed straight for us, huge sled and all. So was a jet-black rigid inflatable, barreling down on us with four heavily armed guys in what appeared to be full riot gear, waving us out of the channel. Ah, I thought, the Rules of the Road writ clear. Not that they had to wave much”we were already getting the heck out of the way as fast as we could, which is to say at about seven knots, which, under the circumstances, seemed terrifyingly plodding. The huge chopper started to descend, slowly making a sweeping turn toward the base.

"Furl the jib!" Johnny yelled over the racket. "What for?" I said, absolutely mesmerized by the sight of this whirling cloud of whitewater heading our way. "Because it's blowing about a hundred under that thing!"

We got the jib in just before the wind hit us; fortunately the chopper had turned enough that the blast wasn't nearly what it might have been. Kailani took cover from the noise in her bunk, Kaeo's jaw was flopping around on the deck, and Johnny and I were just stunned that we'd narrowly missed being knocked down by a helicopter. We watched as the RIB raced over to the sled as it settled into the water, and the chopper slowly towed it into the base, the whumping of its rotors growing more distant again.

"Well, what do you think so far?" I laughed at the kids, who for once were absolutely speechless. "Didn't I say you wouldn't believe this place?"

A little while later, after negotiating our way around a tug that was dragging a dredge pipe across the entire river, sidling by an outbound container ship aptly namedBig One, ogling the gigantic cranes of the Norfolk International Terminal and passing the battleship U.S.S. Wisconsinberthed alongside the hulking gray presence of Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, we pulled into Waterside Marina and gratefully took a slip. That night what was left of Tropical Storm Cindy swirled over with gusty winds and fits of rain, and we walked the wet docks, looking at the big-city lights and feeling glad to be there.

All told, Norfolk comprises about 62 square miles, more than 100 different neighborhoods and about 300,000 people. This from a city that began in 1682 as 50 acres purchased for the price of 10,000 pounds of tobacco. But location is everything, as we know, and Norfolk Towne had location out the wazoo. Despite some brutal moments in its history (New Year's Day 1776, for instance, when English ships opened fire on the city and burned much of it; or 1885, when the steamerBen Franklinarrived in Hampton Roads and spread yellow fever, killing a third of Norfolk's residents) the city has thrived. Largely this is thanks to its protected river, its proximity to the maritime hub of Hampton Roads, its rich agriculture (by the late 1800s, the city's website history states, the area produced more than half of all the greens and potatoes consumed on the East Coast) and its railroad access to the rest of the country.
And the Navy. The first Continental Navy Yard was built in Norfolk in 1801, and in 1917 what began as the U.S. Naval Operating Base and Training Station was built on Sewells Point. Today, Naval Station Norfolk occupies about 4,300 acres on Hampton Roads, and even if you don't have a helicopter chasing you, it's an impressive sight to pass by its 13 piers where aircraft carriers, submarines,  missile cruisers and other vessels await their next mission.

A couple of years ago my friend Paul Clancy, who lives in Norfolk, wrote a story in this magazine about how the city's waterfront, which was a veritable wasteland in the 1970s, was undergoing an astonishing revival. Waterside opened in 1983 with more than 100 shops and restaurants, and right next to it was Town Point Park, where the city began holding concerts and festivals. By 1991, the enormous, $52 million Nauticus, opened a block away, and a year later the city broke ground on a 12,000-seat Triple-A baseball stadium that went on to become a model for such stadiums across the country.

And all this against the never-changing, ever-changing backdrop of the Elizabeth River. Unlike Baltimore, where most of the recreation takes place in the Inner Har-bor and away from the 24-hour business of a working waterfront, the come-and-go of Norfolk seems to be all in one place. Ships, tugs and ferries are constantly on the move, so close you feel like you can touch them, and if you wave at a tug captain you might even get a toot in return. Immediately across the river from our slip at Waterside Marina, three bristling warships rested in massive dry docks, managing to look menacing even while sitting still (the armed guards who stood on the bows of the ships 24 hours a day helped enhance their ominous mien). This living, thriving maritime foundation of the city is integral to the waterfront action. Watching the world go by on the river is half the fun of being here.

I'd been here before, of course, but only once by boat, and that was just overnight on a delivery down the Intracoastal Waterway, which starts just across the river at Mile Marker 1 off Portsmouth. My needs this time were far more critical: two young kids who had some serious sea-leg-stretching to do. With all that they'd seen on the way in, they were ready for action as soon as the lines hit the dock.

"Do they like baseball?" one of the marina staff asked me as I checked in. "Absolutely," I said, even though they'd never been to a game. He perused a schedule for the Norfolk Tides, the town's Triple-A team that's affiliated with the Mets. "You're in luck, then. They're playing Columbus [the Yankees' team] tomorrow night. You should still be able to get tickets."

I smiled. This was going to work just fine. 

The next morning dawned a little rainy still, and I wandered into Waterside in search of a newspaper and some coffee. But breakfast was short-lived since the kids had two things on their minds: sharks and battleships. Both were waiting over at Nauticus, so we walked through Town Point Park,  admiring the mermaids along the way. (These mermaids are all over the city, and though they're cast from the same mold, local artists have rendered each one unique.)

Nauticus sits like a great, gray, oblong-ish ship overlooking the river. Although many of its exhibits are related to maritime and naval history, it's not a museum in any usual sense of the word. The whole idea behind the place was to make it as interactive as possible, hence you have the chance to operate an oil-drilling rig, design a battleship, make a souvenir tape of yourself as a weather forecaster, pilot a ship into a harbor and participate in an attack on an Aegis-class destroyer.

This all sounded very cool, but first there were sharks to touch. The shark "touch tank" at Nauticus is home to nurse and bamboo sharks, and if we got there early enough we might be able to feed them. For Kaeo this was an opportunity not to be missed, and he got what he came for”the thrill of feeding, and then touching, the sharks who swam sinuously and slowly around the shallow tank. Mostly, they just lay still like shark carpets, making the touching part easy.

"You know that sandpaper we used to sand the bottom of that boat in the yard last week?" Kaeo explained to Johnny later. "It's like the skin on the nurse shark. On the bamboo shark it was more like that other sandpaper we used later." Based on this assessment we figured the nurse shark was about 80-grit and the smaller bamboo shark was about 120-grit. A second touch tank had sea urchins, hermit crabs, starfish and horseshoe crabs, among other residents, for the kids to get their fingers on.

While the kids moved on to the Weather Deck”a place to learn about tornadoes, lightning and other weather phenomena”Johnny and I used a simulator to pilot a ship into harbor. I regret to say that I set my personal level of difficulty too high and piled it up repeatedly; these big ships can be so very finicky in their handling. Meanwhile, Kaeo lost himself in the "Modern Navy" exhibit that had a series of computer games simulating submarines hunting "bogeys."

Finally came the Aegis Theater, with its "stage" set up like the command center of an Aegis-class destroyer. Actors explained how Aegis uses surveillance to monitor everything going on within a 250-mile radius of the ship, assess potential threats and then respond to them. They performed a simulated attack, showing how officers inside a ship's command center would respond in an attack. Then they invited us to do the same, using "yes" and "no" buttons on our seats to answer the questions rapid-fired at us during another simulated attack. Unfortunately, the majority of our audience was kids, and in their youthful exuberance they seemed to want to blow up everything as fast as possible, which was not the desired or measured response, the officer in charge lectured us. Too many episodes of Star Wars, maybe.

Pretending to launch missiles and fire guns was all very fun and interesting, but only when we were standing under the real thing”the battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin's massive 16-inch guns”did we really get close to the sense of what it must feel like when they are brought to bear. Built in 1941 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the Wisconsin served in World War II (at Iwo Jima and Okinawa), in the Korean War and in 1991 in Desert Storm. The venerable ship, decommissioned shortly after her Persian Gulf campaign, came to live at Nauticus in 2000. Visitors only need to walk a wide gangplank from the building to her main deck to stand nearly right under one of those huge guns.

Nothing about this ship is small”except us. Even each link of its anchor chain weighs 120 pounds. We spent about an hour touring the deck, where docents”many of them men who served on the ship”were still keeping a close eye on her and happy to talk about her exploits. The only disappointment was being unable to go below decks; those sections of the ship remain closed to the public.

By now the weather had completely cleared and a brisk northwesterly was blowing the sky clean. There was lunch to be had and laundry to be done; I chose the latter while Johnny and the kids grabbed lunch on Luna and then skipped across the dock to visit the historic tugboat Huntington. Years ago I had written about the rescue and restoration of the Huntington, which had been built in 1933 as a yard tug and fireboat and had rubbed fenders with some of the world's greatest ships, among them the S.S. United- States and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. Her fate surely would have been grim had not Norfolk local Brook Smith, who also owns the charterboat American Rover, bought the tug in the mid-1990s with the intention of restoring it and using it as a floating museum. Now berthed at Waterside, the tug is open for tours, and with its bright red hull and stout black stack it looks like the quintessential tug”all cheek and business.

By early evening I figured the kids would want a break before the baseball game, but, no. . . . So we hopped a block up the street from the marina to Prince Books & Coffeehouse. The night before, the writer Mark Helprin (who wrote, among other wonderful novels, Winter's Tale) had been there for a book signing and I'd been too bushed to attend. I had to settle for a signed copy of his Soldier of the Great War (which kept me enthralled for the rest of the trip), while Kaeo purchased yet another Star Wars literary epic and my daughter a story about sea turtles.

The folks at the marina office had told us we could walk to Harbor Park but by now at least the grownups were feeling the effects of an entire day on foot. So we hailed the water taxi, which just happened to be dropping someone off at Waterside just when we were trying to decide whether to hoof it or not. This little boat operates on the weekends and during special events, and while it did take us right on up to the dock at the ballpark, it wasn't cheap”$16 for all four of us. We decided on the way home to take the much cheaper ($1 per person) Hampton Roads Transit paddlewheel ferry that runs between Portsmouth and Norfolk every half hour, seven days a week.

The baseball game was great. I didn't care whether the Tides won or lost; I was just in love with the whole idea of being able to get to the park by water, and then to sit in a box seat on the third-base line and watch the game or the river traffic cruising up and down behind it. At one point a tugboat slowed down long enough to poke its bow toward the ballpark and catch part of an inning. What could be better than this? True, the hot dogs were dubious and the beer wildly overpriced, but the tickets themselves were peanuts ($10 each) for a setting like this, and it just got prettier and prettier as the warm summer evening settled down gently into the bright lights of the great American pastime. The kids were ecstatic to wave those big red foam fingers, Johnny was cheering wildly in a baseball-induced voice I'd never heard before, and I was feeling supremely self-satisfied. I love minor league baseball, I love seeing the river and the tugs working on it, and I love tying up my boat and being able to walk or ferry-ride to all of it, and then return to my boat and be isolated from all of it, too. There is no better way to see a city, and I felt ridiculously lucky, and even a little bit smart.
The truth is we could have stayed in Norfolk for days and never gotten bored”we hadn't even gone near the Chrysler Museum of Art, the Granby Theatre (Norfolk has more than a dozen cultural arts venues) or the various interpretive trails and parks that link the city's history with its present incarnation. But I always like to leave a place with a compelling reason to return, and there was no dissension about the fact that we would be returning.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. After a terrific breakfast at "d'egg," a diner about a block from the marina, we tidied up the boat and headed out. It was going to be a hot one, and we had a ways to go across the Bay. But after our action-packed shore leave, we were ready.

Cruiser's Digest: Norfolk, Va.

Navigationally speaking, getting to and around Norfolk is about as easy as it gets; these are enormous channels with enough depth for cruise ships and aircraft carriers, so they're obviously well lit, well marked and pose no big challenge to the prudent mariner with up-to-date charts and a competent lookout. The tricky part is staying clear of all that heavy metal. Keep your VHF tuned to channels 16 and 13, a main working channel for commercial traffic, to get a sense of who's moving where and when. There's plenty of depth throughout the area so staying just outside the shipping channels is easy enough. But if you haven't been here before, I wouldn't recommend trying it the first time after dark; the myriad lights, against the backlight of the city, can be confusing.

It's about 10 nautical miles from Old Point Comfort, the lighthouse at Fort Monroe, to Waterside Marina. Just past the gap between Fort Monroe and Fort Wool”the gateway to the storied waters of Hampton Roads”you'll pick up the series of channel marks, beginning with green "1ER", that mark the beginning of the Entrance Reach. Follow the Entrance Reach to Norfolk Harbor Reach as it bends slowly southwest around Sewells Point and Naval Station Norfolk, an unmistakable presence to port. Once you see the armed guards in inflatables and on the piers and ships along the "long gray line," you probably won't need to be reminded to give this area of high security a wide berth. Recreational vessels may not stray inside the "float line" along the length of the station's waterfront.

As you travel nearly due south down the channel you'll leave Craney Island to starboard and pass the entrance to the Lafayette River to port. Just past the river entrance are the huge coal piers at Lamberts Point, and the channel bends southeast into downtown Norfolk. To starboard is the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River, then Port Norfolk. Below that is Scott Creek and the historic city of Portsmouth, where you would pick up Mile Marker 1, the entrance to the Intracoastal Waterway. There's also a popular anchorage here in Crawford Bay, a small bight just off red "36" south of Hospital Point. The anchorage offers dinghy access to Portsmouth and Norfolk, but since it's exposed to the main channel it can be a bit rough.

When you see the U.S.S.Wisconsinto port, tied up next to Nauticus, you're there. Just past Nauticus is Town Point Park and then Waterside and Waterside Marina (757-625-3625; The marina offers laundry, showers and ice but no fuel or service. It's the only marina within walking distance of shops, restaurants and attractions at Waterside and in downtown Norfolk. It's a good idea to call ahead and reserve a slip, especially on weekends. Fuel is available, as are more slips, at marinas and boatyards in Portsmouth, on the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River, Scott Creek, Lafayette River and Willoughby Bay. See pages 379-380 of the 2006 Guide to Cruising Chesapeake Bayfor more information on these.

Hampton Roads Transit Elizabeth River Ferry (757-222-6100; vice.html) provides service between Ports-mouth and Waterside, including Harbor Park, every half-hour Monday through Friday, 7:15 a.m. to 11:45 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10:15 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. One-way fare (cash only) is $1 for adults and kids and 50 cents for seniors and those using wheelchairs. You can also bring your bike onboard. During the boating season, a privately owned Water-Taxi service (757-439-8294) runs between Norfolk and Portsmouth, with half a dozen fixed stops on each side of the river, on Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., and during special events.

Norfolk Electric Transfer, more commonly known as N.E.T. (757-664-6222), is a fleet of free electric buses that run throughout downtown Norfolk. The buses operate Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, noon to midnight; and Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

Norfolk Tides(757-622-2222;
Nauticus, the National Maritime Center(757-664-1000;
Tugboat Museum(757-627-4884).
U.S.S. Wisconsin(757-322-2985;

For information on other attractions and to see a schedule of events, go towww.DowntownNorfolk.organd click on "Things To See and Do."