Living in Hampton Roads, Virginia, one gets used to boats. If you cross the tunnel/bridge to Hampton, Suffolk, Portsmouth, or Chesapeake, you will see boats. If you cross small bridges over the James or Elizabeth Rivers (on Granby Street or Hampton Blvd.), you will see small boats. There are plenty – kayaks, sailboats, fishing boats, tugboats, barges, cargo ships, Naval destroyers and air craft carriers.
I think, after a time, it becomes easy to lose the romance in seeing boats (and water). The romance leaves, perhaps, after the first few times you soak your pants/shoes in a rain storm during high tide, the first time your street floods, or during your first Nor’easter. Suddenly, the water doesn’t seem so cool, so pretty, so unique. It seems annoying, a hassle, dangerous, treacherous.
I moved to Norfolk from land-locked metro Atlanta, where the only water around was in the man-made lakes in Jonesboro, where I grew up, and around which families with money lived in large houses. I came here and fell in love with water, with the mermaids statues that dot the city, with sunsets over the bay, with the brackish smell that makes you think, momentarily, that you’ve got sewer problems. But then you remember the water, the salty smell, the breezes, the seagulls. My first year here, I rented a pool house from a very cool couple, the O’Connors (of O’Connor Brewing Co.), and the backyard let off onto the Elizabeth River (on the Granby side). I would walk through the backyard to my little pool house, and I would see the sun setting over the river, and I would stop and stare and think, wow. I live here.
I’ve been here for almost five years. And every time I drive to and from my girlfriend’s house, I cross the Elizabeth River (although it’s a different part of it), and I see the cargo ships, the large cranes that, during Christmas time, are decorated to look like candy canes. I pass over that water, and I am sometimes still caught by that old familiar feeling: I live here. I get to see this beauty every day.
And this time of year, late spring, almost summer, is one of my favorite times in this part of Virginia. The flowers have bloomed, the weather is warm, and festival season sets in. This weekend is HarborFest, which starts with an event called OpSail, and though I’ve lived here almost five years, today was my first OpSail.
OpSail is a nautical event that brings tall ships, both international and domestic, on a parade of sail from Virginia Beach into Norfolk, past Nauticus and the USS Wisconsin around to Town Point Park and the Downtown Norfolk harbor. My roommate, Andrea, and I went down for a little while to take pictures and enjoy a little sunshine before getting down to work. We got tacos from Hubcap Grill, our local pioneer food truck, and we sat and watched as the Coast Guard ship led the parade into the harbor.
Some ships shot off their guns, some sported sails dotted with sailors hanging onto the rigging, looking quite a bit like a circus act, and I almost expected them to begin flipping down from the masts like acrobats. All the while, over the loud speakers, an announcer told us the history of the War of 1812, of Norfolk’s harbor, and of the various ships that came in. My favorite was the ship from Ecuador, which played music (I believe I heard a merengue at one point) and which boasted sailors standing along the rigging, all matching in blue shirts and white pants.
There was another ship, however, pictured here, whose crew was standing up in the rigging, in different colored shirts: blue, red, yellow. I stood on the sidewalk as they pulled up to the docks right in front of me, and as they approached, they waved to us, and in unison, we waved back. And then we heard the singing. In their deep voices, they sang together in a language I didn’t recognize. A few yards away from me, a small group of bystanders began to sing, too, in English, though I didn’t recognize their song. Nautical culture is not a part of me, not so ingrained that I would know any song other than “Yo-ho, yo-ho, the pirate’s life for me.” But it was magical, there in downtown Norfolk, listening to a crew of sailors sing their song, met by a group of American bystanders, greeting them with a song of their own.
OpSail is only the first of the HarborFest events this weekend, including a concert by Colbie Caillat (whom I have finally forgiven for the song “Bubbly”) and Gavin DeGraw tonight, Edwin McCain tomorrow night, and food vendors selling foods like fried Oreos and turkey legs. And it’s all free and open to the public. And in case I didn’t convey my love of this place adequately enough before, I have to say it again: I get to live here.