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Norfolk celebrates its nautical heritage

Norfolk, Va.’s annual celebration showcasing the region’s rich nautical heritage and the city’s mile-long Town Point Park, drew some 350,000 boaters and land-based visitors in June.

The three-day 28th annual Norfolk Harborfest, June 11 to 13 at Intracoastal Mile Marker 0, featured a parade of sail, open house on four sailing ships, the 23rd annual Chesapeake Bay Watermen’s Rendezvous, a tugboat muster, Navy fly-overs, demonstrations on the river, boatbuilding of all sorts, performances on seven music stages and a host of land-based exhibits, vendors and roving costumed entertainers. Visitors also could tour the battleship USS Wisconsin. Navy ships in dry dock across the Elizabeth River formed a backdrop.

Private yachts, character boats and dealer displays in centrally located Waterside Marina were part of the festivities. Yacht club vessels rendezvousing in adjoining historic Freemason Harbor were also part of the dockside displays. Those boaters walked the block to Town Point Park and socialized among themselves. Scores of boaters anchored off or tied up in Portsmouth marinas. Ferries transported them across the ICW.

About 300 vessels — from sailing ships and U.S. military vessels to tugs, workboats and motoryachts — followed the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Block Island past Town Point Park in Friday’s Parade of Sail.

Later, visitors boarded the 177-foot Gazela Philadelphia, 89-foot Kalmar Nyckel, 68-foot Godspeed and 135-foot American Rover, docked on the waterfront. The barkentine Gazela, built in 1901 in Portugal, fished the Grand Banks until 1969 and now is Philadelphia Maritime Museum’s ambassador ship. Kalmar Nyckel, a replica of the 1638 Swedish vessel that brought Delaware’s first settlers, represented that state. Godspeed replicates one of the three ships that brought the Jamestown settlers in 1607. The three-masted topsail schooner American Rover makes day cruises from Waterside Marina.

Upriver of Town Point Park, the plank-on-frame 122-foot Schooner Virginia is nearing completion. (A fall launch is planned for the replica of the 1917 Pilot Schooner Virginia that served Hampton Roads.)

Harborfest observed National Rowing Day on Day 2 with the Crawford Bay Crew Classics and related land displays.

The day also featured some 75 indigenous workboats (Chesapeake deadrise boats, characterized by sleek, long, low hulls, forward cabins and broad sterns). “The guys use this festival as a deadline to get their boats all painted up for the season,” said one official.

Most workboats were all spit and polish as they paraded past the park, though instead of crabbing gear, the capacious craft carried friends and relatives. (At the dock, the overhanging stern platforms supported barbecue grills and lawn chairs. They disappeared before the docking contests and races, since stripped-down boats have a better chance to win.)

Day 2’s events climaxed with a fireworks show that drew hundreds of rafted boats and thousands of land-based viewers.

Cannon boomed on the river on the final day as the large sailing ships maneuvered during the annual Pirate Ship Battle. Apparently the good guys won, making the river safe for the third annual Tugboat Muster, and for normal ICW traffic that occasionally delayed river-based events.

Throughout the weekend watermen wove nets, built crab pots and demonstrated other nautical skills. The National Marine Manufacturers Association

attracted many to its “Discover Boating and Fishing” movie and interactive displays. Folks crowded around the

hydroplane Miss Budweiser, winner of 13 APBA Gold Cups.

During the festival children built and sailed model boats, watermen built small vessels and 15 two-person teams competed in the Quick and Dirty Boatbuilding and Racing Contest. Each team had four hours to build its own design from the provided plywood, sticks of timber and as much Sitkaflex caulking as they needed. On the final day each team launched its masterpiece — including a two-man “workboat” pursued by a shark and a bright green crocodile. The race exposed deficiencies in design or construction. Some boats sank or capsized. J2 Carter, a conventional-looking canoe built by the only man-woman team, won.

Ashore, non-stop music on the seven stages varied from acoustic and rock to country and steel drums. Roving pirates, sword fighters, chantey singers, jugglers, storytellers, and the Mock Jumbie Stilt Dancers and others kept things lively.

Food and drink at the 50-plus food booths ranged way beyond the usual popcorn, funnel cakes, turkey legs, ice cream and lemonade. Those tired of festival food walked to adjacent Waterside Festival Marketplace (shopping and dining complex) and nearby downtown restaurants.

When Harborfest activities ended for the day, downtown’s restaurants and nightclubs lured late-night celebrants.

“In the last two years, Norfolk Harborfest has witnessed increasing participation by recreational boaters and organizations in the boating industry,“ says Karen Scherberger, executive director in Norfolk of Festevents, which put on Harborfest. “We are delighted that Norfolk has become a boaters’ destination for festivals.”

Harborfest 2005 will take place June 10 to 12.