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Tall ships spice up harborfest celebration

The event was combined with Sail Virginia, organized to commemorate 400 years of Jamestown

The event was combined with Sail Virginia, organized to commemorate 400 years of Jamestown

Visitors to the Norfolk waterfront for the 31st annual Harborfest celebration were treated to a two-fer of nautical entertainment during the weekend of June 8 to 10. Sail Virginia 2007 was held as part of the 400th anniversary of the settling of Jamestown.

Seven years in the planning, Sail Virginia brought more than 20 tall ships to the area from ports around the world. The two events combined to transform the Waterside and Nauticus dock areas, as well as the adjacent parks and city streets, into a maritime enthusiast’s dream port-of-call.

The evening before the event, dozens of tall ships anchored off Norfolk’s East Ocean View. With a nice 10-knot southwest breeze, the waters of the protected anchorage were almost flat. Local boaters cruised through, taking pictures and talking with the crews while they “dressed ship” in preparation for the following morning’s Parade of Sail.

Daybreak saw hazy but mostly fair weather, and the continued southwest winds allowed many of the ships to let go yards of canvas. With well over a hundred boats and ships in the parade, it took several hours for the procession to pass the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, the Naval Base, the container terminals, and on to Nauticus, TownPointPark, Waterside and FreemasonHarbor. There were so many ships this year that temporary piers had to be built to handle them.

Once they were docked, most of the larger ships were open for tours throughout the weekend, and there were crowds waiting for them. On opening morning, a giant Carnival Lines ship docked at the new Half Moone passenger terminal, hard by the NauticusMaritimeMuseum.

The cruise ship passed the word that the tall ships would be open for tours beginning at 8 a.m. Since the official start time for all events was 12 p.m., there were lots of folks walking through the festival grounds, queuing up for vendors and ship tours that were several hours from being ready.

In true maritime tradition, many of the ships mustered the crews necessary to handle the crowds and opened their gangways. Several vendors also “seized the moment” and fired up their grills and lemonade squeezers.

Unlike most of the open ships, The Spirit of Bermuda gave tours below decks as well as the weather deck. At 112 feet, Bermuda is used as a rig training vessel for teens, and was making only her second Parade of Sail stop since coming out of the yards in Maine, where she was launched in 2006.

Unusual for those participating in several of the tall ships parades up and down the east coast, Spirit of Bermuda returns home after every port call and changes crew, except for the few permanent members.

Initial estimates put the number of visitors during the combined Harborfest/ Sail Virginia events at around 1 million, with $32 million in economic impact.

In addition to the tall ships, several locations around the waterfront were transformed into “period” villages, with re-enactors and displays. But most of the crowds seemed to be on the piers, taking in the hulls that ranged from the 52-foot brigantine, Meka II, to the 294-foot, 3-masted bark, Gorch Fock, a training ship of the German Navy.

The first night of the show, three barges of fireworks were maneuvered into place. They were positioned about 100 yards apart, and spread from just in front of the cruise-ship terminal (the ship had left that afternoon in an impressive display of multiple side-thruster efficiency) to just off the Waterside Marina. Rockets and mortars were launched from all barges simultaneously. Combined with the echo from the city behind the spectators, the concussion and light show seemed to be one continuous finale, until the thunderous finale arrived.

The final day brought slightly smaller crowds, with the Harborfest portion of the weekend ending at 6 p.m. The tall ships stayed on past the weekend for a June 12 morning that started with a Blessing of the Fleet, and the ships headed out to sea to continue their summer voyages.

Informal opinion polls gave the combined 31st Annual Harborfest/Sail Virginia 2007 the highest of marks for entertainment, quality of presentation, and execution. The 32nd Harborfest is scheduled for the second weekend in June 2008, and the Norfolk Festevents crew is already working on it.

Sail Virginia was sponsored by Norfolk-based Dominion Enterprises, which is the parent company to Soundings.