Here’s a rundown of the range of boats and ships along the York River. Then a unique factoid is included with each class, followed by advice to mariners.
York County tourism officials do a masterful job attracting tall ships from all over the world to Yorktown. The most recent was also the biggest, El Galleon. It’s a replica that epitomizes large 17th century ships that were used for trade, spreading Spain’s influence abroad.She weighs 500 tons and extends 164 feet long and 33 feet wide.Three masts furl seven sails comprising nearly 10,000 square feet. Also, the ship has covered 35,000 miles by visiting ports in four of the five world continents.
Next in terms of size, every week one or two US Navy warships glide up from the Norfolk fleet to re-arm at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station. Then the Coleman Bridge swings open for only one client, the Navy. An amazing distinction is that these ships throw no visible wake. But ten minutes after they pass, you can see a faint outline of the wake and hear it wash onto shore a few minutes later. Historians say the breakthrough at Midway in World War II was that we spotted the Japanese wakes before we saw the ships.
York County also snared American Cruise Lines to land in Yorktown on a Chesapeake Bay tour that begins in Baltimore. These so-called “small cruise ships” disembark scores of passengers to go tour Williamsburg, Jamestown and of course Yorktown. The magic is that the ships come in at night and find startled locals next morning walking the dock in admiration.
Barges & Dredges
Oil barges anchor in the middle of the York River. Some of them are loaded with 400,000 gallons to offload at the Yorktown Terminal, for piping to Philadelphia. Meanwhile others lie empty, waiting to be filled with oil for water transit to—Philadelphia. In short, this plan makes no sense. Nearby the dock, dredges have spent the past year digging the river bottom lower for a water line. They pull up muck to be dropped into scows and dumped at designated spoils spots in the Chesapeake Bay. And among seven main rivers of Chesapeake Bay, only the York is considered self-dredging.
Spectacular ocean-going yachts blow into the York River during the summer. Most of them stay at Yorktown. But years ago, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin chartered a yacht to cruise the Chesapeake Bay. When they got to York River Yacht Haven as the last spot, the captain had to load three Groome limousines with her luggage to fly back to Los Angeles. Brolin was very pleasant interacting with the marina folks, but she was unfriendly. A diva, for sure. More recently a 142-foot megayacht worth $35 million stayed at the marina for three weeks.
The big red tugs by Moran precede the Navy warships under the bridge to catch them and guide them into the NWS dock. The wake of the tugs is greater than that of the destroyers and cruisers that tower over them. Mariners are wise to hail tugs as they proceed so as to convey your intentions and avoid their path. Smaller tugs accompany anchored oil barges to prevent any runaways. Tiny tugs are used to push small barges for pile driving. All tugs hail on Channels 16 and 13, and they like for you to catch their name the first time.
Cutters & Coasties
The US Coast Guard deploys cutters for VIP tours and to escort the occasional submarine into Yorktown. Every other summer the barque Eagle lands at the Yorktown Training Center. At 295 feet, it is the primary ship used to teach sailing, navigation and other mariner skills to future officers. Coasties are the small fast boats used to train enlisted personnel at Yorktown. They practice towing, man-overboard and other techniques on weekdays. Try not to get in their way.
These long, low boats are often hand-made and are used to catch crab and oysters. You can tell the difference between the boats because the oyster deadrise has a framework to hold the dredging scoop. Crab boats stay close to shore in ten feet of water. Their crab pots are useful guides to low water and shoals. Avoid them at all costs so the lines don’t foul your keel, rudder or prop.
Sailboats stand at the top of the recreational pyramid for elegance and skill required to operate. Motorboats abound too, but sometimes they run aground on the shoal of the entrance to Sarah Creek. Scrutinize the York River chart before getting underway.
It was almost 150 years before underwater archeologists got to look for the scuttled transport ships that Cornwallis (unnecessarily) sunk to ward off the French fleet. Relentless current and innumerable storms broke up all ten ships, and only pieces were found. In more recent years, significant artifacts have been found of the Charon, the British command ship of Lord Cornwallis that the French sank off of VIMS with a red-hot cannon ball. Hence the term “hot shot.”
However, a two-masted frigate named The Betsy was found intact. In the 1970s tourism officials built a pier 100 feet out to it and a cofferdam around it. Alas, the current has long silted in the cofferdam. A painting of The Betsy is at the foot of the pier. The ship was noteworthy for having its deck painted entirely red—to disguise the flow of blood in battle.
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