Tall ships parade through the bay

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At the helm of my 31-foot 1985 Hunter sloop, Caper II, I’m struck by my good fortune as I find myself right at the top of the parade of tall ships, about to proceed past FortMonroe at Hampton Roads.

At the helm of my 31-foot 1985 Hunter sloop, Caper II, I’m struck by my good fortune as I find myself right at the top of the parade of tall ships, about to proceed past FortMonroe at Hampton Roads. The participation of some 50 tall ships from the United States and other nations makes this a spectacle on my home waters.

In all, more than 150 vessels, including character vessels, private yachts and military craft, will parade through Hampton Roads for the next two hours.

It’s about 9:30 a.m. June 8, a Friday. Caper II moves lazily along the edge of the main shipping channel, running west from Chesapeake Bay into Hampton Roads. It’s a glorious morning for this Sail Virginia 2007 event, part of commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Settlement and the Harborfest celebration in Norfolk.

I keep motor sailing just south of the main channel, which gives me a bird’s-eye view of each ship, all of which will end up passing before the reviewing stand aboard the attack aircraft carrier USS Wasp, moored at the head of the Elizabeth and James Rivers.

When I’m just opposite FortWool and FortMonroe, the Coast Guard cutter Shearwater, and several tugs and fireboats with fire hoses shooting water into the air in graceful arcs, are making way for the parade.

In the far distance, to the east, the rest of the vessels are beginning to form up in parade order. Naturally, the first two ships are the Jamestown Settlement’s historic replica of the Godspeed (88 feet), and the 126-foot recently launched schooner Virginia, the state’s new flagship.

I’m making 2 to 3 knots as the parade vessels are moving at 8 to 10 knots, so there’s plenty of opportunity to admire each entry. And since I’m on the water looking northwest away from the sun, I’ve got the best angle for taking pictures. Still, I’m cruising single-handed, so I have to keep a sharp eye on my position, respecting the dozens of other pleasure boats that are floating all around me, or while moving from vantage point to vantage point, depending on which tall ship provokes more interest.

Rise early, start fast

It wasn’t just by chance that I was cruising through Hampton Roads on June 8. I had just read about the Parade of Sail the day before, and thought to myself that seeing this event up close could be a great one-day adventure.

So this is how the day unfolded. I awoke at 4 a.m. and was at the Seaford Yacht Club just before 5 a.m. Caper II was motoring out of Back Creek with steaming and running lights blazing, onto the Bay as dawn was just breaking.

I picked up an 8- to 10-knot southwesterly and by sunrise, Caper II was sailing on a nice reach off Poquoson Flats. When I turned the corner to head down the Bay to Hampton Roads, those southwesterlies strengthened to 12 to 15 knots, and off Back River and Langley Field, some 15 to 18 knots, with higher gusts.

With the tide running out I was flying, often registering a boat speed over 7 knots. I have never gotten down Bay from Seaford to Thimble Shoal light in such fast time, about three hours — a terrific way to start the day.

It turns out to be a bit misty this morning. As I’m approaching Thimble Shoal light, I’m aware of a three-masted schooner far to the south, headed below the main shipping channel towards Little Creek.

Because of the direction of the southwesterlies, I’m not able to tack any closer to Hampton Roads, so I remain close-hauled to the east of Thimble Shoal light. As the mist begins to lift somewhat, I can see that the schooner has orange sails, and I’m beginning to conclude it is American Rover from Norfolk, seeking to reconnoiter with the tall ship fleet anchored overnight off Little Creek, in the area of Crumps Bank.

As I pass Thimble Shoal Lighthouse, I see that I’m on a crossing course with a large container ship that is moving rapidly out the channel to the Atlantic. The winds have lightened somewhat, slowing my pace, and it looks like the speed of the container ship will put me just off his stern.

That holds true as I cross the main channel, well ahead of another container ship behind the first one. A nuclear sub had already made its way up the channel toward Hampton Roads. I was to see two other nuclear subs in the area, all within a few hours, as well as a couple of barges being towed by tugs.

After I crossed the channel, continuing my single long tack toward the Little Creek area, dozens of masts — of sloops, schooners and square riggers — begin to emerge from the mist that was hugging the shoreline. Soon there are more ships than I can easily count.

I begin my tack back west to Hampton Roads. As the wind lightens even further, and the outgoing tidal current picks up, my speed is cut in half. It makes more sense to turn into the wind coming out of the west, and motor straight through Hampton Roads. It takes me another hour to work my way up the south side of the channel to Forts Monroe and Wool. By then, the parade has formed all across the southern part of the Bay, an armada of masts dotting the horizon.

As beautiful as they are tall

As I motored in the reviewing area for the next hour, I was most impressed with the 180-foot Blue Nose, Nova Scotia’s 1921 fishing schooner, which had quite a record racing against other Gloucester fishing schooners before they became obsolete after World War II.

Blue Nose would boast the largest mainsail area in the world until 2004, when the largest single-masted yacht in the world, Mirabella V (not present), took claim of those honors.

Another impressive two-masted topsail schooner is Chesapeake’s own 170-foot Pride of Baltimore, which I capture on film as it approaches the reviewing stands on the USS Wasp, with the navy crew in dress white lining the edge of the flight deck.

Another special sailing vessel is the Spirit of Bermuda, a design inspired by an 1831 painting of a Bermudian rigged schooner that was launched in 2006 from Rockport, Maine, with three carbon fiber masts and a 26-foot bowsprit. Other three-masted barks were the 178-foot Gazela Philadelphia, and the 180-foot PictonCastle from Nova Scotia. Of most interest to me was the 177-foot Tarangini from India, with its crew dressed in navy blue hanging from the rigging and yardarms.

Of course, the square-rigged training ships make a magnificent display of power, with mast heights that dominate the parade. In the lead is the 195-foot Prince William from England, which salutes the reviewing stand with cannon fire. Then the 295-foot German Gorch Foch II followed with their cannon salute, a band on deck playing American tunes, and crewmembers hanging from all parts of the ship including the bowsprit. Finally, there was the 254-foot Brazilian Cisne Branco, a vessel with exquisite hull lines, trimmed with flags topping all three masts. The parade was truly a feast of grand tall ship portraits that will remain engraved on my mind’s eye.

Slow, happy sail home

It’s now a bit past noon and the parade of sails has once again gathered just past the USS Wasp to proceed up the ElizabethRiver to downtown Norfolk for Haborfest. I’ve raised my mainsail and am ambling along at 2 to 3 knots on light southwesterlies back through Hampton Roads on my way up-Bay to the York River.

As compared with my early morning run of three hours, it takes five hours to get back to the yacht club. But I am completely satisfied with the way the day has played out. My timing was perfect, finding myself with Caper II right in the middle of the tall ship’s parade and having a ringside view.

I don’t really care how long it takes to get home. The breezes strengthen a bit in the midafternoon, but then fade out completely the last hour of my return.

As a bonus, I’ve made up for my earlier miss to see the three Jamestown Settlement ships come up the James on a mid-May day for the 400th Anniversary commemoration. I had waited patiently for a couple of hours to see them one early morning, only to discover they had already come up the river the day before and were already at the Jamestown settlement.

Now, having seen the tall ships up close, I think it still follows that “the early bird gets the worm.”

David is a 73-year-old former human resources executive who retired to Williamsburg, Va., and is celebrating his 10th season of cruising single-handed on the Chesapeake Bay.