It’s summer on the Chesapeake for us! We start with a visit to Smithfield VA on the James River, then spend 4th of July in Hampton before heading up the western side of the Chesapeake to the Potomac River. Colonial and Civil War history abounds, as well as personal history for us, as we make our way along this first leg of our Tour de Chesapeake up to Washington DC.
Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It’s up the Bay we go!
After a month plus in Norfolk tending to Human and Boat Maintenance, as well as getting our heads wrapped around ‘just cruising,’ we were restless to get moving again – because that’s what cruisers do. A boater’s equivalent to rolling stones and moss is the slimy growth on the hull below the waterline that accumulates when you sit in a marina for long periods, and we were seeing more than we cared to on See Level. So after hiring a local diver to clean the hull, we mentally dusted off our departure checklist and got underway.
We did a cruise around the Chesapeake in 2021 when we were still learning the boat and gaining confidence in our abilities and routines. The Chesapeake has so much history, culture, and unique geography that you could spend years exploring it. This time up, we were seeking new stops. But because back then COVID recovery was still going on, we also wanted to revisit a few places to see how much progress had been made in two years. So we were looking forward to a slow pace along the mix of new and familiar towns.
Jun 26-29, 2023
Our first leg turned into Military Morning as we left Little Creek Marina and headed toward the James River and our first stop in Smithfield, VA. This took us right past Norfolk Naval Base, and the radio was alive with chatter of multiple warships inbound in the Thimble Shoals Channel. We thought it a lucky day when we heard about a submarine in front of us doing a personnel transfer and then turning around to go back out to sea; so many times Dave has been on a submarine doing this exact maneuver. When we saw five Moran sisters pop up on AIS (the Navy contracts with the Moran Company for tug services, with all named after female family members) we knew this was a welcoming committee for the others we were hearing on the VHF. Then came three warships closing in astern of us headed for the base as we crossed to the other side of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. Dave slowed and ‘pulled over’ to allow the first of the three to pass us as a fourth destroyer was headed outbound from the base with the crew lined up on deck rendering honors to the inbound cruiser as they passed. In addition to the submarine, four warships, and fleet of tugs in Thimble Shoals Channel, there were a couple cargo vessels, barges, workboats, and dredging operations to add to the traffic we were working around. We’ve never seen this much going on in such a short time here in Norfolk. Dave being so familiar with this area and the traffic made it exciting rather than anxiety-inducing.
Smithfield was our first destination. Now best known for ham, Smithfield actually has a history going back to Colonial times. There was a really nice park right by the marina, Windsor Park, but for some reason Roxy hated it and was reluctant to walk on the trails around it — never did figure out why. Downtown had a series of sculptures honoring some Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence. And of course, we found the best bakery in town for an afternoon treat. FEW
Jun 30 – Jul 7, 2023
Gloucester Point VA
From Smithfield we backtracked to Hampton, VA, staying at the town docks. Downtown was a return for us, having been there in 2021. We were still puzzled by how few people were downtown, despite lots of improvements and that it was the Fourth of July weekend. The highlight for us was the NASA/Langley Space Museum. This area played a key role in the space program of the 60s, and in fact was where the events in the movie Hidden Figures took place. The museum had great interactive exhibits and an IMAX theatre, and well-worth the stop in and of itself.
From the town docks it was a few miles over to the other side of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel to Old Point Comfort Marina, part of what was the former Ft. Monroe Army Base. [Small World Department: We were greeted at the dock by the dockmaster George, a retired submariner who recognized the name on the reservation because he knew both Dave and his brother Jim from various submarines they had served on.] We used to visit Ft. Monroe when we lived in Virginia Beach and it was still an active Army Base. In 2011 it was turned it over to the state, with the National Park Service taking over the historic Old Fort. It looks pretty much the same as it did when we last saw it 13 years ago, but of course no military presence. The beautiful historic homes on the grounds that used to be officer and senior enlisted housing are leased out and 100% occupied and seem to be a community. The old fire station is now a coffeehouse, there’s a brewery, and the well-utilized public beaches are accessed between ruins of fort batteries. Of course, there’s the marina and a couple restaurants that have continued to operate (and about to undergo a major renovation). Everything is very spread out on the large chunk of property, which unfortunately makes it seem less vibrant than it could be. We walked Roxy and scootered all over, and couldn’t help but see how much potential there was here and hope that it will be successfully developed within its historical context. We had a fun 4th of July visit by the Souder family, one of Dave’s former officers on the USS MSP, complete with a classic ‘burger and dog’ cookout on the boat. But no fireworks – definitely not acceptable on a boat.
Then there was the historic Old Fort itself, the largest of the stone defenses built along the coastline following the War of 1812 amidst the recognition that the fledgling United States was, indeed, quite vulnerable to attack. Despite being strategically located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, it has neither fired a shot nor been fired upon since it was completed in 1834. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t played some significant roles, particularly in the Civil War. Here’s just a couple of the historical points we found particularly interesting and learned about for the first time at the Fort’s Casemate Museum, with links for anyone wishing to read more about them.
- The Contraband Decision and Freedom’s Fortress: When a local confederate officer wanted three escaped slaves back who had made it to Ft. Monroe under the US Fugitive Slave Act, the Union General told him that since Virginia had announced it was no longer a part of the Union the Act no longer applied and to go pound sand. He further declared them ‘contraband’ of war (note this still considered them ‘property’) since they were being used to support the Confederate Army. Subsequently thousands of slaves escaped to Ft. Monroe and it was dubbed Freedom’s Fortress. Don’t be misled that this decision was out of any higher recognition of the evils of slavery. It was purely a way to thwart the Confederate war machine. While technically no longer slaves, they also were not free and were still segregated, exploited, and mistreated. I would highly recommend reading more on this aspect of African American history, the Civil War, and how this incident was a seed for the Emancipation Proclamation. https://savingplaces.org/stories/the-forgotten-the-contraband-of-america-and-the-road-to-freedom
- Jefferson Davis was imprisoned here for two years following the Civil War. The charges and his indictment were controversial as far as what to actually charge him with, a delay in the whole process, and went before the Supreme Court. But he was granted amnesty in the name of Reconstruction before a decision could be announced. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/jefferson-daviss-imprisonment/
With the holiday over, it was time to continue on. We made it to Gloucester Point the first day of travel, stopping midday because of predicted thunderstorms. The thunderstorms never developed, so we enjoyed the pool at the marina on the hot muggy day. Next was a Looper friend’s private dock on a creek just north of the Rappahannock River in Kilmarnock. I had actually spent a month in Kilmarnock as a medical student over 35 years ago doing a community rotation. Didn’t recognize a darn thing, not because it had changed so much, but because I just didn’t remember anything about being there; have to keep remembering login passwords so must have kicked that part out to make room. We enjoyed a lovely dinner and conversation with Dave and Sonja and one of their neighbors who is also a Gold Looper.
Up the Potomac River
July 8 – 13
Colonial Beach VA
To Washington DC
It was glassy waters as we turned up the Potomac River from the Chesapeake Bay, all the better to see the ubiquitous skates and jellyfish, Hague was really just a place to stop, a small family run marina with a small beach that made Roxy happy. We did meet a lovely young couple from DC who stopped by because they noticed we were from Minnesota and were curious about the boat, chatting for almost two hours and giving them a boat tour.
Then it was off to Colonial Beach for a couple nights. This was a fun stop. A resort town even during colonial times, it had a vintage beachy vibe, with art galleries and a great little coffee place. We scootered all around the small town and along the beach, and also took a dinghy ride to explore from the water.
Continuing up the Potomac, we had to pass by the Navy base at Dahlgren, a research facility. Research as in weapons systems, and as we started by we were hailed by a security boat saying they were getting ready for a live fire exercise and how fast could we go? Fortunately Dave knew they were asking because they wanted to clear the range area for some testing, while I questioned if they were considering using us as a guinea pig for their research to see if we were faster than their latest torpedo. So we kicked it up to clear the area.
We turned off the Potomac to get to the town of Occoquan. We had visited this town numerous times when we lived in the area, and were happy to see it has kept its charm with Victorian style architecture, art galleries, and colonial river town history.
A Trip Down Memory Lane – er, River
On the way to DC
Final Musings and Deep Thoughts
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 18
- Travel Days: 9
- Miles Traveled: 296.8 (258.1 nm)
*Pops is the family’s affectionate name for Dave’s dad. He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked. This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.