Issue: July 2009
Back Where It All Began


A visit to Yorktown, Jamestown, and Williamsburg, Va., comes to a stellar conclusion with an eye-popping Fourth of July celebration.


by Maureen FitzGerald O'Brien
photos by Karen Ashley


When husband Dan and I began our full-time cruising life aboardTrinitythree years ago, we knew that all manner of wonderful and eye-opening experiences lay in store for us. All those undiscovered (by us) creeks and rivers, all those cities and towns, all that unspoiled nature. Best of all, we would now have the time to explore it all--or simply to sit and observe it. 

What we had not anticipated was the omnipresence of history here on the Chesapeake, the sense that no matter where you go you're sailing headlong into the pivotal moments of our nation's history. Looking back, it seems that weshouldhave. After all, you can't swing a dock line around here without hitting something profoundly historic: the earliest English settlements, the Indian conflicts, the colonial period, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War. It's all right here.

No, we hadn't been focusing on the historic part at all . . . until a bit of luck landed us in Virginia's Historic Triangle--Yorktown, Jamestown and Williamsburg--for our most notable Fourth of July celebration ever.

For palpable, reach-out-and-touch-it history, the Historic Triangle is hard to beat. Consider the offerings: Yorktown, site of the very birth of the nation, where American and French forces cornered the British and forced a surrender that essentially ended the Revolutionary War; Jamestown, America's first permanent English colony, founded in 1607 and a profoundly important archaeological site; and of course Williamsburg, Virginia's beautifully preserved and re-created colonial capital, the gold standard of Early American interpretive history.

How, an experienced cruiser will surely ask, did we cover all this ground with virtually no advance planning? A lot of the credit goes to the free Historic Triangle shuttle service. We made full use of these comfortable little National Park Service buses, which come along every 30 minutes or so on their continuous service from Yorktown to Jamestown to Colonial Williamsburg, from mid-March through October.

But first things first. We had just returned from southern climes for a summer of sailing on the Bay and were happy to be in our home waters. Having set our sights on Yorktown--the most boat-friendly of the three points of the triangle--we headed out of Hampton Roads, reveling in the open expanse of the Bay after long days on canals and narrow rivers. We watched without wariness--plenty of room, plenty of water--as tankers lumbered north and fishermen headed out to sea. After a few hours of stretching our sails in brisk 20-knot winds, we steeredTrinityinto the wide and deep York River, sailing past huge barges moored east of Yorktown, which was coming into view off to port ahead of us. Because of the Navy vessels coming and going from the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, just beyond the town on the same side of the river, this is a fairly busy patch of water, but there's still plenty of room for pleasure boats.

Since even sailboats need fuel, not to mention regular pump outs, we veered to starboard toward Sarah Creek, on the Gloucester side of the river, turning to port beyond green "9" to York River Yacht Haven. This pit stop took longer than expected, since both tasks were strictly self-service, and, having never been here before, in the absence of dockhands, we had to figure out for ourselves what was where and how to work it. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful spot and empty slips were scarce on this beautiful summer weekday.

But our destination was the city-owned Riverwalk Landing Marina, which lay on the other side of the York, just below the Coleman Memorial Bridge at Gloucester Point. A slip at Riverwalk Landing, named for the city's delightful new Riverwalk Park, puts you smack in the middle of Yorktown's downtown scene. Indeed, it's all so new that our charts of a few years' vintage showed no sign of the marina, which was completed in 2005. But we had read about it and its mooring field in a guidebook, and wanted to try both. When our plan for a two- to three-day stay stretched into seven happy days, we had plenty of time to sample both some dock timeanda spell on a quiet mooring.

On the lower York, you learn quickly to be mindful of currents, which can shove you around rudely, especially when the tide is turning. Once inside the marina entrance, though, things calmed down quickly, and with help from a small army of cheerful dockhands, we soon hadTrinitysnug on the inside face dock. The marina has two floating concrete piers with 1,200 feet of sidelong docking. They can accommodate almost any size boat, including vessels as large as 400 feet. At one-tenth that size, ourTrinityfit just fine.

Since we found ourselves in this renewed little city on a perfect (that is to say,hot) day in late June, we were delighted to see a white-sand beach just next door to the dock, where locals were splashing and playing--and where we agreed to do a little splashing and playing of our own as soon as possible. But first we headed for Riverwalk, the town's happening riverfront. Recently refurbished, this cobblestoned waterfront area is bustling with retail shops and restaurants, as well as a small park and bandstand--the site of regular concerts on summer and fall evenings. After ordering coffee pick-me-ups at an ice cream shop, we hopped onto the Yorktown trolley (free) and surveyed the town with the help of the friendly driver, who acts as a tour guide.

It was quite a scenic ride, and after meandering through several blocks of beautifully preserved homes and churches, we jumped off at the Yorktown war monument, which honors the American and French soldiers who lost their lives in that pivotal 1781 victory over the British. Walking along the edge of the battlefield on our way to the Yorktown Visitor Center, we felt a shiver of comprehension, that sense of awe you feel when, for just a moment, you have your mind around what actually happened here, the profound importance of it.

Here too we found an excellent museum maintained by the National Park Service. Among its exhibits was a replica of General Washington's field tent, and a scaled-down replica of a quarter-section of a British warship, where swinging hammocks, creaking boards, and cramped quarters conveyed to us all too well the belowdecks experience.

Out on the battlefield itself, on that warm summer day, it was hard to picture what a rotten place this must have seemed to the foot soldiers of Washington's underfed and overworked Continental Army. After a brutally long and hurried march all the way from New York, they were thrown up against the entrenched and battle-tested British regulars and Hessian mercenaries, led by General Charles Cornwallis. Bolstered by 11,000 French troops under generals Lafayette and Rochambeau, Washington managed to set the British on their heels, driving them back and back, one earthwork at a time, all the way to the York River. From the York, the British had no means of escape--there were no warships waiting to carry them out of danger, because early that fall a French fleet had repelled the British Navy at the mouth of the Bay. With no possibility for escape or reinforcement of troops or supplies, Cornwallis's fate was sealed. He was forced to surrender or sacrifice his 9,000 soldiers.

Which led us to "Surrender Field," where that last major battle of the Revolutionary War came to its ceremonial end. We boarded a small van in front of the museum and rode out to see where British troops and German mercenaries marched onto the field and laid down their arms. Our driver/guide described how some of these weapons were smashed and broken by disgruntled British and German soldiers, professionals all, smarting from their defeat by the rag-tag citizen soldiers.

Leaving the battlefield, we returned to town, where we pondered our nation's scrappy beginning over drinks and dinner at Nick's Riverwalk Restaurant. Since we had no reservation, we opted happily for their "Rivah" patio, overlooking the York and dined well on warm Virginia crab dip, followed by Carolina-style pork barbecue and nut-crusted grouper fillet. Afterwards, we strolled along the river and were excited to find a concert under way, featuring a popular local oldies band. With benches to relax on and a dance floor set up by the bandstand, we were some happy sailors.

Over the next several days we soaked up a wonderful variety of experiences in and around Yorktown. The most memorable of these was our half-day at the Yorktown Victory Center, a living-history museum that highlights the experience of ordinary men and women of the Revolutionary period. It's the kind of place where you can muster with the troops in an encampment or help with the chores on the re-created 1780s farm. We helped--a little--with processing flax, stirring a kettle, and weeding the garden. The weeding part wasn't pretty. No longer landlubbers, we'd lost our touch with the hoe and the . . . uh . . . digger thing.

Finally it was time to go see the place where this whole America thing began. The next day we took an early morning shuttle to Jamestown, a mere 15 miles away as the crow flies, though more like 20 as the parkway meanders. Here, 104 men and boys had landed and set up shop. Three ships,Susan Constant,GodspeedandDiscovery, had left England nearly six months earlier, in December 1606. What was then deemed a profit-making venture would prove to be the beginning of the English colonization of America. At Yorktown we had seen the virtual end of that colonial period; now, in Jamestown, we saw where it had begun,174 years earlier.

It is fair to say that we were a little overwhelmed by Historic Jamestowne, the site of the original settlement. We found it a thrilling place in its palpable sense of destiny. The setup here was quite straightforward, with no reenactments, no interpretive theatrics-only a single actor/historian describing the conditions and activities of that first band of English settlers in the New World. (We learned, for example, that several of the expedition's young boys were sent to live with the Powhatans to learn their language and customs, so they could return to the village and become interpreters.) Now the archaeological digs in progress here on the site of the original fort, which was long thought to have been lost to the river, are revealing the spatial realities of life in such a tiny and vulnerable place. It was an altogether moving experience to see this with our own eyes.

We found an altogether different approach to the Jamestown story--and also one not to be missed--at the nearby Jamestown Settlement. It too chronicles the nation's 17th-century beginnings in the context of its Powhatan, English and African cultures, but through historical interpretive programs, set in a re-created Powhatan village, colonial fort and replicas of those first English ships. This is the history of remarkable personal loss. The odds of surviving were shockingly low; indeed, all but a handful of the original 104 were dead within a few years--the majority killed off in the brutal winter of 1608-1609, dubbed the "starving time" in history books. And American slavery began here, as did the long and painful demise of Native American culture on the continent. We left Jamestown with alotto think about.

What can one say about Williamsburg, the very theatrical third point of this Triangle? It's a fantastic spectacle of colonial life, and the actors/interpreters deployed throughout this re-created first capital of Virginia are convincing and great fun to engage.

For our first visit to Williamsburg, we again caught the shuttle at the Yorktown Visitor Center and settled ourselves comfortably for the scenic ride--first along the York River and then west to Williamsburg itself. There we switched to the local shuttle and made our way to the Williamsburg Visitor Center. We had decided to make our first day's visit a walk-around-and-get-acquainted tour. Our first acquaintance, as it turned out, was General Cornwallis--on horseback and bolstered by a small troop of redcoated cavalrymen--who stopped to scold us and a few other nearby tourists, exhorting us to reconsider our treasonous inclinations and to think twice about allying ourselves with the French "monsters."

These "people of the past," as they are officially known, are quick to engage tourists in whatever is on their interpretive minds--whether it's a mere pleasantry, an explanation of whatever chore they might be engaged in, or a lively debate (sometimes quite one-sided) about the revolutionary forces, the state of the government, the prices of goods, taxation, and the like. Later in the day, we encountered the infamous turncoat Benedict Arnold at the capitol building, where we suffered his Tory views on the colonists' fight for freedom and equality. But he was roundly heckled and reviled by the "people of the past" citizenry.

After lunch at the excellent Trellis Restaurant on Duke of Gloucester Street, we returned to our exploration of this remarkable museum. Historic Williamsburg dates to the late 1920s and was initially financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the Standard Oil baron. Rockefeller Jr., whose financial involvement was kept secret at first, called his first walk with Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, the Episcopal clergyman who envisioned the restoration of Williamsburg, "the most expensive walk I have ever taken."

The next day, back in the here and now at Yorktown and Riverwalk Landing Marina, we decided it was time for a change of scenery, so we left the floating dock and moved to one of the $25 moorings just downriver from the marina--though still within easy striking distance by dinghy. This turned out to be the perfect plan for our extended stay, and we were superbly positioned for our view of the Fourth of July fireworks display. After spending a festive Fourth in town, we dinghied back toTrinityfor a front-row seat and a steak barbecue dinner. Then we waited, wine glasses in hand, for the evening festivities to begin. The evening began with a Marine Band concert at the Yorktown Monument--the fifes and drums could be heard in the distance--and the feeling of expectation increased as we watched preparations aboard the nearby fireworks barge.

And what a show it was! For what seemed like hours, countless rounds of fireworks filled the sky above us, each one bigger, better and more colorful than the one before--and all of it coming to a dazzling and loud climax in a spectacular finale. Among the boats that had filled the moorings around us, the air of celebration lingered for a little while after the fireworks had subsided. Then, one by one, they meandered off into the dark, heading for nearby home ports or other anchorages. We were happy to stay where we were, briefly considering, then abandoning, the idea of selling everything we owned and living here forever. Instead, we tidied up the cockpit and turned in.

Very early the next morning, we slipped our mooring and rode the retreating tide back out to the Bay, leaving Jamestown, Yorktown and Williamsburg behind us. Did I mention there's a lot of history around here?


Cruiser's Digest: Historic Triangle 
There is nothing tricky about the approach to Yorktown's Riverwalk Landing Marina. About six miles from the mouth of the York River, you'll see the Coleman Memorial Bridge, where the river narrows at Gloucester Point (on the north shore) and Yorktown. The two floating piers just before the bridge are Riverwalk Landing Marina (757-890-3370;www.riverwalklanding.com). The marina's overnight slip fee of $1.75 per foot includes electric and water, showers, restrooms and laundry facilities, and pump-out service.

The relatively new waterfront development, completed in 2005, fairly buzzes with activity in the warm months. In addition to its restaurants, cafes and shops, there is a weekly farmer's market (every Saturday morning this summer, except July 4, from 8 a.m. to noon, on the waterfront between Buckner and Ballard streets) and free open-air concerts on Friday evenings.

For more exploration, the free Yorktown Trolley runs daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., March 16 to November 1, with nine stops, including two along the Riverwalk, one at the Yorktown Victory Center and one at the Battlefield Visitor Center. The Victory Center is open daily, (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Battlefield Visitor Center has the same hours of operation and is the starting point for both ranger-guided walking tours and self-guided driving tours of the battlefield sites. For more information on Yorktown and the surrounding area, visitwww.yorkcounty.gov/tourism/attractions.htm.

The National Park Service's free Historic Triangle Shuttle offers rides every half-hour from Yorktown to the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center. And from there you are connected by the other arm of the Historic Triangle Shuttle to the re-created Jamestown Settlement and the nearby Historic Jamestowne archaeological site (open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except the aforementioned holidays). Like the Yorktown Trolley, the shuttle operates daily from March 16 to November 1. There is also a free shuttle connecting the various elements of the Jamestown site. For more information on any of the shuttle services, call 757-898-2410 or go towww.nps.gov/colo/parknews/historic-triangle-shuttle-2009.htm.

Colonial Williamsburg of course is open year round and has attractions too varied and plentiful to list here. We recommend that you spend some time exploring the CW website,www.colonialwilliamsburg.org, or that you order one of the many guidebooks you'll find there. As a starting point we suggest the Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg, a 176-page soft-cover book by Michael Olmert, first published in 1998 and now in its fifth printing (ISBN 0-87935-184-5).