- since 2011 -

Golden Virginia

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

How the historic American port of Norfolk reclaimed its waterfront and launched a go-to maritime party

Norfolk Aerial

'Every waterfront city can aspire to be called superb. Human instincts to preserve and reinvent are acted out in the passion play of waterfront revitalisation, and this is an eternal dynamic'
Waterfronts in Post Industrial Cities, Harvard University conference

For a big dope like me, taking a decent photo from the deck of a boat that's bobbing up and down on the water owes more to fluke than good timing. For the crew of the Dewaruci, balancing 150ft above the waves on the slender crossbeams and tightrope rigging of their Indonesian tall ship as she rolls and pitches up the Elizabeth River is all about skill and sheer pluck. Perched in rows of three either side of her towering foremast, their smart blue-and-white uniforms like something from a stage show, what a bird's-eye view they must have: ahead, the stern of the Mexican barque Cuauhtemoc (pronounced 'Kwa-tem-uck') with her own crew on high-wire duty; bringing up the rear, the American schooner Appledore V on tour from the Great Lakes; down below and all around, a flotilla of small boats and naval vessels plus the odd low-flying helicopter piloting this magical pageant towards the crowded portside of Norfolk, Virginia, on a blue-sky morning. Talk about making an entrance. Welcome to the Parade of Sail, highlight of Harborfest, the biggest annual shindig this side of Chesapeake Bay.

The open sea is roughly ten miles due east. Here the Elizabeth meets the southernmost fringe of the largest estuary in the United States to provide a deep natural shelter from the Atlantic that first appealed to English settlers in 1619. Named after the home county of an indentured servant made good, Norfolk is now a city of a quarter-million people that styles itself as 'the heart of the Virginia Waterfront' and on a day like this I can see why. In the light breeze our little pleasure craft turns to head home and from the corner of my eye a dark, triangular object slices through the surface right behind us. "Bottlenose dolphin," nods Donna Allen, one of our hosts from the city's tourist bureau. "Unusual to see one when the river's this busy but yeah, we get a lot of those."

Guayas approaching Norfolk's Town Point Park (top); Dewaruci (above left) and Gloria <i>(right)

Guayas approaching Norfolk's Town Point Park (top); Dewaruci (above left) and Gloria (right)

Last night, sat in the airport lounge between two women reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I'd begun to wilt. Norfolk is only a hop-skip-and-jump from Philadelphia but I'd missed my connection and been sent to the naughty room for omitting a hotel address from Form I-94W or looking at the immigration officer in a funny way, I forget which. When the next available 50-seater jet did take off - "We're a Norfolk crew and we're going to get you there as quick as we can," promised the cabin girl - the pilot obligingly floored it. At one point we were travelling so fast I was convinced we'd gone back in time and through my window a frock-coated Quaker was flogging rolls of cloth to cats with red feathers in their hair. The scheduled one-hour-ten flight took 35 minutes and I thought about having a swift one, just to settle the dust, in the lively bar of the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel, but when someone asked me if I was German I knew it was time for bed. This morning, while yachts, dinghies and motorboats skidded past the riverside breakfast terrace like pearls on silver, a waitress with a New York accent asked me, "Would you like coffee?" Yes please. "You got it cutie."

Leading the Parade is Eagle, a Coast Guard cutter originally built by the German navy in 1936 and given to the US as part of war reparations, followed by Juan Sebastian de Elcano, a 364ft long Spanish schooner that's done six laps around the world. Next is Guayas, built in Bilbao and distinguishable by a giant condor for a figurehead and an even bigger Ecuadorian flag billowing in silky slow-mo from her stern. The river itself first appeared on an English map drawn in 1585, named not for the ruling monarch but a daughter of James I. In 1608 it was explored by John Smith and a dozen other colonists from the nearby settlement of Jamestown. A year later Smith (Colin Farrell in that movie The New World) was captured by Algonquian Indians but saved from slaughter, the story goes, by the chief's daughter Pocahontas. In turn she married John Rolfe (Christian Bale, ditto) who'd survived a shipwreck on the way to Virginia which was one of the inspirations for Shakespeare's mystical final play The Tempest, so they say.

Cuauhtemoc glides by a modern monster (top) and a fanfare from a tugboat (© Lacordrick Wilson/US Navy)

Cuauhtemoc glides by a modern monster (top) and a fanfare from a tugboat (© Lacordrick Wilson/US Navy)

Norfolk was also a focal point for the War of 1812, a naval spat 200 years ago between a British Empire wrestling with Napoleon and a nascent Federal Republic pursuing its own interests which, depending on whom you believe, 'established a heritage of American competence, heroism and victory' (Dr Michael Crawford, History & Heritage Command, US Navy) or 'was actually a disaster for the US and sparked some of Britain's finest moments at sea' (Prof Andrew Lambert, Department of War Studies, King's College London). Either way, in synch with Harborfest it's being celebrated as part of a broader national event called OpSail2012 'to promote goodwill among nations, inspire patriotism and foster interest in American maritime history'. Encouraged by John F Kennedy the first OpSail took place in 1964. It's since been held in 1976 (US Bicentennial), 1986 (restoration of the Statue of Liberty), 1992 (500th anniversary of Columbus' landing), 2000 (millennium) and 2007 (tercentennial of Jamestown). Four other famous ports - New Orleans, Baltimore, New York and Boston - are taking part but one million people are expected to converge upon Norfolk's waterfront alone, including 5,000 crewmembers from the star attractions.

We're too far from shore to see the crowds as the Cook Islands barque Picton Castle, red-sailed American Rover and Colombian training vessel Gloria glide past in silent succession towards a quayside transformed into a micro-managed festival site. For the next four days the moored ships will invite visitors on board from noon to 8pm and all around there'll be concerts, entertainment and historical re-enactments; a 99ft Ferris wheel and marquees for food and drink and merchandise; water taxis, harbour cruises and a free citywide shuttle service complementing a shiny new light rail system known as The Tide. Total cost $6 million, paid for by corporate sponsorships, state grants and the City of Norfolk, with proceeds going to local charities and causes.

The lady luring them onto the docks (left) and Picton Castle greeting the crowds

The lady luring them onto the docks (left) and Picton Castle greeting the crowds

"At some point in our history we literally and figuratively turned our back on the waterfront." The words are Michael Bloomberg's. The city is New York whose mayor in 2011 announced a plan to reclaim 500 miles of neglected shoreline, driven as much by economic imperative as civic absolution. It could've been my hometown Liverpool 30 years ago when Albert Dock, now Britain's largest group of Grade I listed buildings, almost became a car park, or Norfolk in the 1950s with a waterfront described by city historian Thomas C Parramore as 'a purgatory of rotting wharves and abandoned warehouses'. All of them were swept away to create a grand new linear avenue called Waterside Drive (but only after feisty preservationists had redirected its proposed route to save historic buildings) followed by a hotel and public esplanade in 1974. The first tall ship, Norway's Christian Radich, adventitiously docked three years later and Harborfest was born. In 1983 Town Point Park, site of the current festival, was officially opened.

It's here to her designated berth that Cisne Branco is heading. Her name means 'white swan' in Portuguese and is taken from the national anthem of her country Brazil. Cuauhtemoc (in honour of the last Aztec emperor) comes next, dwarfed to her starboard by the hulking amphibious assault ship USS Wasp from Norfolk Naval Station. Then it's Dewaruci (a deity from the epic Sanskrit poem Mahabharata) with her daredevil crew. Peering up at them reminds me of a passage from Herman Melville's 1848 novel Redburn: His First Voyage (a book I know I'm apt to quote) in which the young protagonist climbs dizzyingly high to loose the topsails at night: 'I could but just perceive the ship below me, like a long narrow plank in the water; and it did not seem to belong at all to the yard over which I was hanging. A gull or some sort of sea-fowl was flying round the truck over my head, within a few yards of my face; and it almost frightened me to hear it; it seemed so much like a spirit, at such a lofty and solitary height'.

Eagle and Cisne Branco <i>in port (left) and furled sheets in the sunshine

Eagle and Cisne Branco in port (left) and furled sheets in the sunshine

One by one the ships dock at close quarters along the western end of Norfolk's waterfront, which in 1994 was anchored by a new National Maritime Center called Nauticus. You start by riding the museum escalator up to its third-floor displays about the modern working port (proudly the only one on the East Coast able to handle super-sized container ships) and neighbouring naval base (four years ago, surprisingly given the area's military provenance, Barack Obama became the first Democrat since 1964 to win here and carry the state of Virginia). Level two documents the history of the wider Hampton Roads region - 'roads' being a nautical term for a water channel - and from here visitors can board the adjacent battleship USS Wisconsin, all 887ft and 45,000 tons of her, gifted to Norfolk in 2009. It took four years for Nauticus to get the green light and a public referendum on the $52 million development was refused. I might not be privy to the balance sheets but I would hazard that it's helped make Norfolk's waterfront a proper place to go. Next door is a cruise-ship terminal completed in 2007 - by which time cruise-visitor figures had doubled to over 100,000 - and specialising in six-day voyages to the Bahamas.

In an editorial entitled 'Time to shine' local newspaper The Virginian-Pilot trusts that 'this summer's OpSail arrival will allow the region to show the world what a gracious host it can be... [It] also gives Norfolk a chance to celebrate its continuing revitalisation and give thanks for the tall ships that sparked refurbishing of the jewel that is the city's waterfront'. On both accounts, guess what cutie? You got it.

Panoramic view of Norfolk harbour (this and top photo © Bryan Weyers/US Navy)

Panoramic view of Norfolk harbour (this and top photo © Bryan Weyers/US Navy)

'Four other historic ports - New Orleans, Baltimore, New York and Boston - are taking part but one million people are expected to converge upon Norfolk's waterfront alone'


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The Liverpolitan
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