You can hear Norfolk, Virginia on the VHF long before you get there. Even a day out, you hear plenty of regular announcements by warships saying how far to stay away from them. It’s enough to envision something in your head like a small smattering of a couple of slate gray, imposing military boats with security details. Maybe a couple of helicopters.
Flash forward a couple days, to when we entered Norfolk. Now well within the range of other less-powerful VHFs, I heard a working fisherman politely ask a submarine to please slow down because otherwise their lines would part. I heard a Coast Guard cutter declare that should someone come within a certain distance of them as they move through the main channel, they were authorized to use deadly force. Oh, and then there’s the hovercraft. All I saw was spray and then as it came closer, some super fast vessel at the center of the maelstrom whaling toward us. I really, really want a ride on one of those now.
Couple of minutes later, I heard “Sailing vessel passing west of Norfolk Navy Base, this is warship delta 5-5 on your port quarter,” while getting something below. I dropped whatever it was I was doing and went to the companionway to stick my head out. Holy crippity. They were talking to me.
Now, we kind of joke that I’m the “communications officer” because Colin never really hears what’s on the radio. To him, because of how his hearing works, I think the radio quite literally sounds like Charlie Brown’s womp-bwamp-womp teacher voice with a bit of static thrown in for interest. I can’t ask him if he heard what I heard. He didn’t hear it.
Meanwhile, to fully set the scene, there’s a very fast helicopter with a really big gun passing overhead. Metal islands tied into gargantuan refit slips revealed themselves to be aircraft carriers as we rounded the corner.
I’m armed with a boat made of wood that’s kind of pointy in the front, a bunch of grains and dried beans, and a couple of punk rock records on my iPod. At this point, I feel invaded.
“Where are we in relation to land and buoys?” I quickly said to Colin. “Give me some reference points.”
This happens a lot to me. If I’m not at the helm, I have no idea in a moment’s time what I’m north of, east of, or whatnot- that goes for buoys, points of land, or whatever. I waited and listened for them to hail me again to be sure I didn’t answer when I shouldn’t have, but the huge “55” on the front of the gigantic metal thing behind us was pretty unmistakable. I hailed back, we switched to 22A.
“We’re going to pass to your port, please stay clear of my vessel,” was what they wanted to convey.
You know what? There’s far too much radio communication in that place, which is what makes it more stressful than it needs to be. An overtaking vessel radioed me to say I should stay clear of HIM? We were hugging the nuns for Pete’s sake. It happened two more times with a couple of other boats, one recreational and with a tug moving something big. Let’s just all follow the rules and keep our eyes out, eh?
We stayed one night in Portsmouth, VA, just across the river from Norfolk. It was my birthday, and the dockage was free in the little downtown area there where I found a beer bar with enough good Belgian stuff to impress a geek like me. “Stay as long as you like on that dock,” said a guy at Mile Marker 0 Marine Supplies earlier that night about the “No Docking Overnight” signs. “They don’t mean anything.”
On the way further up the river, the densely packed working waterfront continued for another few miles. Buildings covered in Dr. Seuss-like pipelines with spouts, ramps, and domes sat adjacent to piles of scrap metal and artificial islands made of dredged material. Every so often a herring gull or cormorant, impossibly thriving, seemed like a distinct punctuation in the landscape to me. “We live here anyway,” they seemed to say.
We passed a big cargo boat named Peace and got to hear him finish his transmission on the radio. “Peace out,” he said.
Just a few miles away from the hovercrafts, submarines, warships, helicopters, and barges loaded with coal, we banged a right and hit the Intracoastal Waterway for the first time, happily motoring among trees again.
For a good article about safety day and night around working boats, please read this Cruising Compass piece.
See all the photos from Norfolk by clicking here.