The perch from which I write in Portsmouth,Virginia, overlooks Mile Zero of the Intracoastal Waterway, the neck of the funnel through which pass the snowbird migrations following the temperate weather south in the fall and north in the spring. Somewhere here, the Chesapeake ends, and the military and industrial complex of the Elizabeth River narrows to the ICW.
I tell people I live at the “Bottom of the Bay” and the “Top of the Ditch.” For a boat nut and general maritime observer, it provides an ever-changing parade of boats, yachts, ships, tugs, barges, dredges and ferries.
It also represents the clash of interests that define America’s greatest estuary. Within miles of here are places of great beauty, fertile creeks and bottoms abounding in life, and several miles away towers centuries of industrialization and military development. It is not unusual in the same day to watch the passage of small sailboats, megayachts and America’s largest ships of war — all less than a football field from my window. It is a great place to hang out.
Staten Island … Virginia?
I have a lawyer friend who has a nearby and loftier spot overlooking this stretch of water. From his conference room, he has a view of a shipyard that services large commercial vessels, among them the Staten Island ferries, which rotate through for refurbishing a couple of times a year. During a delicate negotiation with a woman and discussing recipients for a large charitable donation, my friend looked out the window and said he could see the Staten Island ferry. The would-be donor, concerned that she was working with someone geographically clueless or possibly delusional, promptly folded up her papers and left the building. I believe she returned later after apologies and explanations were made.
Flavor of the Bay
There is no lack of picturesque and historic towns competing for the tourists flocking to the Chesapeake in the summer. Each town has engineered some sort of can’t-miss festival to celebrate something historic, gustatory, silly or a combination of the three, usually with an art show thrown in. Across the river in Norfolk, there seems to be a festival every weekend, with music echoing off the houses on the Portsmouth side. I like the wine and beer festivals and the annual Harborfest in June, with the tall ships and deadrise races, which are somewhat like the Maine lobster boat races but with vastly different accents coming over the VHF.
At the rest of the Norfolk festivals, it often seems that the music changes but the food booths stay the same. There is a even a Cajun festival (go figure) with deep-fried alligator, which fortunately isn’t featured at the next festival. I hope they change the oil before next week’s funnel cakes. My advice: Skip the festivals with alligator nuggets or funnel cakes; stick with crabs, oysters and local brews.
As a part of North America where indigenous natives found themselves camped alongside America’s first illegal immigrants — the English — there are some distinctive place names here. Some of my favorites are along the Eastern Shore, aka the Delmarva Peninsula. There’s Nassawadox, a native American word meaning “land between two waters” — the Bay and the Atlantic. And the Virginia capes forming the mouth of the Chesapeake were named for two sons of King James I: Cape Charles and Cape Henry. (I had to go to Wikipedia — that great gift to lazy scholars — for some of these details.)
Another nifty place is Onancock, which Onancock.org says is derived from the native word “auwannaku,” meaning “foggy place.” Another translation for that is “Maine.” I went there to show a boat this spring and asked Siri on my iPhone to navigate to Onancock, Virginia. After a few slowly enunciated repeats, the voice that is Siri replied: “I would blush if I could.”
In northern New England, particularly coastal Maine, where I keep a foot planted, as well, people who move in are referred to as being “from away.” There is even an old joke that ends, “He’s not a native — I remember when his great-grandfather moved here.”
In Tidewater, Virginia, in-migrants are more often referred to as “come heres,” which seems a good deal more welcoming than “from away,” although the locals may still hold us in disregard but are too polite to say so. I like to think that the more welcoming expression is used because this area has long been an international seaport that also hosts tens of thousands of transient military personnel and retirees who liked it here enough to come back. It seems to have long since gotten over provincial resentments. Whatever the reason, I am always pleased when someone calls me a “come here.”
Floods and tempests
Tidewater is low country. For someone who grew up in the western mountains of Maine and, later on, the bold shores of its coast, the idea that the street in front of one’s house could flood just because the wind blew down the Bay at 25 knots for a few days came as a surprise. A nor’easter — or noth’easter, as my grandfather pronounced it — that stalls off New Jersey will push a lot of water into the lower left-hand corner of Chesapeake Bay. I live in a 1775 house that seems to be at that very point. Fortunately, the folks who picked that spot made sure it was well elevated above the street, and even in large storm surges we have never taken any water aboard. If I ever eat my words, you’ll be the first to know.
Today at Mile Zero
As I said, the spot where I sit and make a living selling boats has a continuous parade of all things marine. As I wrote this column, I admired the 120-foot schooner Virginia, a “repli-duction” of a Virginia pilot schooner in the experiential education sailing trade. Sadly, the foundation that built and owns the boat is losing the struggle for funding and curtailed the current season to bring her home to sell. If you have ever dreamed of sailing the world in a ship of wood with a couple dozen of your closest friends, now is your chance. I will become one of those friends.
See you at the Bottom of the Bay, the Top of the Ditch.
Peter Bass is a writer and yacht broker who serendipitously found himself at the nexus of the Chesapeake and the Intracoastal Waterway, aka the Ditch. Visit PeterBass.com for more.
November 2014 issue