Thursday, June 3, 2021

Hampton Roads

We are under way northbound in Chesapeake Bay, with Hampton Roads receding astern of us. I had hoped to be headed north to New Jersey on the outside, but the weather is unfavorable and looks to remain that way for the foreseeable future. It's 87 nautical miles farther via this inside route, but the alternative is to camp out somewhere in Hampton Roads until the weather improves, and that can be well over a week.

Vector in downtown Hampton. Tight fit on the inside.

After my last post here a week ago, we ended up dropping the hook in a familiar spot off Reed's Point (map), the last stop off Croatan Sound before the Albemarle Sound crossing. It was a long day, but we wanted to cross the Albemarle early on Friday. We had the place to ourselves for a while, but at some point I looked up and a diminutive Nordhavn had taken up residence a short distance away.

Sunset over Reeds Point, Croatan Sound.

Friday we got an early start and had a very calm crossing of the Albemarle, which can get very uncomfortable in any kind of serious wind. The forecast was not great, and as a consequence we had the North River, Coinjock Cut, Currituck Sound, and the North Landing River more or less to ourselves, with just a modicum of locals at the usual water-play area of Pungo Ferry. Coinjock Marina was uncharacteristically empty as we passed.

Coinjock Marina, full every night, but uncharacteristically empty mid-day.

We made excellent time, which proved to be something of a liability. At Pungo Ferry we realized we'd reach the Centerville Turnpike bridge while it was still in its afternoon rush hour lockdown. We made the 4:30 pm opening at North Landing Bridge and then proceeded at idle speed to Centerville, but were still a half hour early for the 6 pm end of lockdown. We dropped a lunch hook mid-channel and shut down the engine to wait.

That put us in Great Bridge at 6:20, and we were very glad to find just enough space for us at the free Battlefield Park dock (map). Had the dock been full, we would have had to wait another 40 minutes for the 7 pm opening of the Great Bridge Bridge.  I offloaded the e-bike and ran to the Amazon locker for my packages, with a grocery run on the way back. Mid-store I got an urgent text from Louise telling me to get a move on, as a thunderstorm was incoming.

Vector on a full dock at the newly opened museum and visitor center.

We had been all set to walk across the bridge to the little Italian bistro on the south side when the heavens opened. I got back to the boat just in the nick of time, and we ended up eating leftovers aboard. A couple of boats that had arrived between bridge openings found themselves seeking shelter from the storm at Atlantic Yacht Basin across the channel, making us doubly glad we had snagged a spot.

Many lamp posts around the museum were adorned with whimsically painted rocks.

Long-time readers may know that we've stopped at this dock and its companion bulkhead kitty-corner across the way many times over the nine years we've passed through here. In that time we watched the dock rebuilt, the adjacent land cleared, a foundation poured and then left fallow, and finally a visitor center and museum for the battlefield built, only to have the grand opening waylaid by the pandemic.

The museum has finally opened, and, perhaps fittingly on Memorial Day weekend, I walked through it on Saturday morning. I had low expectations for my $8 entry fee (gladly paid, considering all the times we've used the dock), but I was pleasantly surprised. I even learned a few things about this decisive battle, seven months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that would embolden the Patriots and set the tone for the war that followed.

A nuclear submarine in the pen at Portsmouth, VA.

I scrambled back aboard once again just before the rain started. With the weather projected to be miserable all day, we opted to just spend another day at the dock, which permits stays up to 48 hours. None of the other boats moved, either, and Saturday arrivals had to transit the bridge and tie to the bulkhead, which itself was full by day's end. In a mid-day lull I returned to the grocery store to finish my interrupted provisioning. No such lull was forthcoming at dinner time, and we again ate aboard.

Vector on the bulkhead at the High Street Landing, as seen from the ferry.

We dropped lines for the 8am bridge opening Sunday morning in light rain. We had both the bridge and the lock to ourselves, a rare occurrence, and arrived at Top Rack Marina at slack to take on fuel. Diesel prices are insane right now, and fuel is a few cents cheaper further up the Chesapeake. But we were still hoping for an outside window, and we needed fuel, so we bunkered 700 gallons, rather than the 1,200 we would normally take. Their high-speed dispenser was down, so we still spent 90 minutes fueling.

Portsmouth railroad museum. No building, just some rolling stock. Closed.

Two hours later we arrived at the High Street Landing in downtown Portsmouth to find the basin entirely full. Everyone was hunkered down for the weather, and at noon we knew no one would be leaving for the rest of the day. We tied up on the outside bulkhead (map), as we have done in the past, even though it is more exposed to river chop and ferry wakes, and is playing a bit fast and loose with the rules.

Looking to finally get off the boat for dinner, at 6:15 we walked over to the Legend Brewing Depot, only to find that they closed at 6pm. Worse, they'd be closed Monday and Tuesday as well, and I had planned on picking up two cases of their excellent Brown. I'm still kicking myself for not walking over to pick up the beer earlier in the afternoon; my disappointment was palpable. We walked instead over to Gino's pizza, where we ate indoors, for only the second time, in the nearly empty restaurant.

My precious Brown Ale. So close, yet so far.

Monday, of course, was Memorial Day, and after putting the ensign out, I lowered it to half staff, or at least as close as I can get. A couple of boats left the basin first thing in the morning, and, in hopes of moving, I walked over with a boat pole to sound the dock there, as we've not been in that part. A city truck had pulled up near us and workers were unloaded and setting up folding chairs in front of the flagpole. A sign for the Tidewater Concert Band sent us to the web to find there would be a concert in the park.

Audience chairs set up and musicians arriving to the flagpole stage. Wreath at left should have tipped us off.

Walking back, boat pole in hand, I ran into the crews of Sunshine, North Star, and The Old Blue Chair, and we chatted for 15 minutes or so about cruising in general, and these docks in particular. By the time I got back to Vector, the workers had set up a lectern and a speaker, the band was warming up, and city dignitaries were arriving. We had missed our window to move; if I started the engine now, I would be assaulting the musicians with noise and diesel exhaust. We were literally just 25' from the nearest musician.

Rear Admiral Dickey delivers her remarks. Captains Mulligan and Wolfson to her left, and mayor Glover to her right. As seen from our deck.

What started out looking like a concert turned out to be the city's Memorial Day celebration, in lieu of the annual parade (a 137 year old tradition), held in this park and live-streamed. We had front-row seats. The band provided the patriotic entrance, and then in turn the Mayor of Portsmouth, US Coast Guard Fifth District Commander Rear Admiral Laura Dickey, Portsmouth Naval Hospital CO Captain Lisa Mulligan, and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard CO Captain Dianna Wolfson all delivered remarks. The Chief of Police laid the memorial wreath at the foot of the flagpole, the band played the hymns of all five Services, and the top brass and color guard of the police department paraded the colors, making a snap turn as they came within a foot of Vector.

Portsmouth Police color guard parades the colors. They marched right at us and then turned smartly left along the bulkhead.

It was a nice ceremony and we were glad to have been there by happenstance. When it was over, Rear Admiral Dickey came over to the boat and chatted with us for several minutes; we learned that Search and Rescue calls are up significantly in the District due to the explosion of new boaters, and slip availability is at an all-time low. We do a lot of cruising in the Fifth District, comprising six mid-Atlantic states and the Capital District, and we thanked her for all the USCG does for us.

After having the police department literally march right past us, and the Coast Guard chat us up, we determined that no one cared we were on the outside seawall, so even though the basin emptied out, we did not bother to move. The chop was not bad, and we reasoned that leaving the calmer inside water to the lighter boats would be a friendly gesture. At noon I smartly raised the ensign back to the top of its staff.

Blossom steaming north past USS Wasp (LHD-1) in floating drydock.

Mid-afternoon our friends aboard Blossom steamed up the river on their way to the Waterside Marina across the harbor. I took a quick spin around town on the e-bike, stopping at the new visitor center on High street, and at the transit kiosk to buy passes for the ferry. We grabbed a 4:30 ferry over to the Waterside, our first public transit in over a year, and walked to Blossom for cocktails. We had stayed at this marina our very first year.

Walking back from dinner I caught the sunset beneath the Nauticus building.

After cocktails we walked over to the Waterside complex for dinner. Despite the complex undergoing a massive renovation and having something of a renaissance a couple of years ago, somehow the facility was entirely closed on a busy holiday. Just one eatery with a direct outside entrance was open, Stripers, but by 6pm they had run out of food, being the only open establishment for half the holiday weekend. We ended up walking over to Saltine in the whizzy new Hilton instead, for dinner on their lovely patio. It was great to catch up with Steph and Martin one last time before we parted ways, but we hope we will run into them again somewhere in New England.

Tuesday morning we dropped lines on the last of the ebb and rode it north toward the bay. The Norfolk Navy Piers is always a busy place, requiring a lot of attention at the helm, and this day was no different. Having to cross the channel to Craney Island Flats, I had to thread my way between an Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer, USS Stout (DDG-55), which was under tow to the BAE shipyard, and the USNS Robert E Peary, inbound for the piers. Louise worked on the target illuminator tubes for the Aegis cruisers, and we always wonder if one of her tubes is aboard one of these ships. Fortunately we missed today's arrival of a nuclear submarine, which always entails a more serious security zone and more restrictive movements.

Passing USS Stout under tow by a pair of Moran tugs. Her anchor is dangling, ready to deploy -- a precaution taken for a ship with no propulsion. The tugs are under command of the harbor pilot on the bridge of the ship.

With the early start we were in quarters at the Hampton Public Piers (map) by 11am, which I thought would give me a relaxing afternoon to take in the Virginia Air and Space Center, also comprising the NASA Langley Visitor Center, which has been closed every other time we have been here. The outside face dock was full, so I had to maneuver to the inside dock, just barely long enough for Vector. Our no-drama docking in the tight space earned us compliments from the crew of the nearby tour boat Miss Hampton II.

Not an illusion -- we are really just a foot from the dock.

I got to try out the new pedestal power tester I built on my off day in Great Bridge, and once we were secure I picked up the several packages waiting for us in the office. Those included the new folding legs for our saloon table, to replace the fixed pedestal that we removed during the flooring upgrade. The space center turned out to be closed Tuesdays, as luck would have it, and so I installed the table legs and got a few other things done instead. I had to e-bike to the century-old hardware store for fasteners.

240v receptacle tester I built after probing a half dozen outlets in Jacksonville. The perfect-fit el-cheapo voltmeter was one of my Amazon deliveries in Great Bridge.

We had followed a familiar Krogen Manatee into the harbor, and they were backed in and secured in their slip when we arrived. We heard on the radio they had booked for three days. So we were surprised to see them drop lines and leave right after we got our packages aboard. I learned later the marina had updated to GFI pedestals during their renovation, and the Krogen could not connect without tripping the power. Long-time readers may know that I have helped solve this problem on numerous RVs and boats; the campground industry went through this a decade ago, but it is just now starting to impact older boats. He will need to fix his wiring, or soon find himself with no place to go.

Carousel selfie. We had it to ourselves.

We ambled over to the on-site Bull Island Brewing pub for dinner and a nice draft, then strolled the neighborhood. We found the historic Bukroe Beach Carousel to be back in operation for the first time since we've been coming here, and with the place empty and on a whim we went for a dollar ride on the painted ponies. The very loud music was delivered by a century-old band organ, so we were surprised to hear tunes from our youth, including Georgy Girl, Downtown, and Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.

The back of the band organ as seen from my pony on our ride.

When the ride stopped, I asked the young operator, Will, about it, and he absolutely lit up and gave us the behind-the-scenes tour of the entire carousel. The organ works on paper scrolls, which were produced from 1920 to 1973, and he had selected those 60s tunes for us when we walked in. Humorously, our final entertainment for the evening was watching the Miss Hampton depart and return on a pizza cruise full of pre-teens and teenagers, with a DJ playing music from the 70s-90s. It's as if I had gone on a kids' cruise in my youth with big-band music playing.

Half-century old paper band organ scroll. That's Will's hand in the photo, and I am sorry I did not snap his photo, too.

Danny the dockmaster has been friendly and accommodating for us on every visit, and yesterday morning I asked if we could depart a little after checkout time so I could get my space center fix. Before the center opened, we topped up the water, offloaded the recycling, and pumped out, and I rode over to VASC right when they opened at 10. I skipped the included 45-minute IMAX movie, and the exhibits themselves only took me an hour.

The Langley LEMS. Every lunar astronaut trained in this.

Mostly I was interested in the Langley artifacts, which included the Lunar Module trainer used by all the landing crews, and the Apollo XII command module, Yankee Clipper, bearing the signatures of the astronauts. Space travel seems routine now, but when you see the charred hull and decimated ablative shield of a returned capsule, you are in awe that anyone survived. On the more modern front, the museum has an Orion test article that was used to test the Launch Abort System.

Apollo 12 CM Yankee Clipper, rather space-worn. At left is a Mercury test article, and above an Orion one.

Notwithstanding a "take your time" from Danny, we were off the dock shortly after checkout time for a very short trip around the corner to the Phoebus anchorage (map), between Old Point Comfort and the bridge/tunnel causeway. They are adding more tubes to the tunnel, and we had to swing wide of the crane barges. We had thought about making some progress north, but opted for Phoebus instead because it is more protected and we could get ashore for dinner. Alas, we were rained out once again and had to throw together some pasta aboard.

The capsule was later autographed by Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean.

We have a long day today, and so we got an early start, or at least we tried. This seems to be our week for fouled anchors, and when we weighed, we were caught on a 3/8" chain. With the chain well above the surface, we were able to get a line around it from on deck, drop the anchor from under it, and then let the line go, a total of less than five minutes.

Orion test article used for the Pad Abort test.

As I wrap up, the plotter is projecting an arrival at the Great Wicomico River, our planned anchorage for the night, around quarter to six. I expect a quiet evening after a nice dinner on board. Tomorrow we will continue north, and we are bracing ourselves for working our way through the busiest part of the bay on a Saturday.

Langley invented what was to become the Harrier jump-jet, seen here. One of many aircraft on display.

Update: We are anchored in Mill Creek, near Mt. Olive, Virginia (map). I had hoped to finish this post under way, but a thunderstorm overtook us and I got a little busy at the helm. Seas were behind us until we made the turn for the creek, and then I had to crank up the rpm. We're tucked in with good protection now, and I expect a calm night in spite of the occasional thunderstorm.


  1. Great posting, Sean! Love all the pictures & maps of where you go & dock up. Now curiosity has got me when you mentioned Louise's target illuminator tubes. I would like to know what those are & how they are used (picture would be nice...:))Looks like you've made good traveling progress in spite of the bad weather. Stay safe & happy traveling!

    1. The target illuminator tubes that Louise worked on when she was with now-defunct Varian Associates were very large klystron (microwave) tubes that produced the microwave energy radiated from the Aegis missile system to bounce off the target back to receiver arrays aboard the ship and the missile itself to provide precise target fix and guidance. You can think of it as a very large, powerful, and precise radar system. I think photos of the actual tubes are still classified, but this web site explains them and shows similar ones:


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