Visitors to Williamsburg are surprised to discover so much water surrounding them. Indeed, when the second capital was formed in the city in 1699, it had ports on both sides of town along creeks extending to two rivers. Today as they sail on one of them, the York, visiting sailors recall earlier times.
Amanda Bedell took her extended family from the Buffalo NY area to sail on a bright summer day in light breezes. As she navigated, her twin girls sat backward in the catbird seats for better views of the water. Her boyfriend Shane Fechko brought his parents along as well. Shane’s dad Dan recalled his times on the water.
“When I was young, I almost rammed my uncle’s cabin cruiser into the Peace Bridge.” That’s the famous bridge that crosses the Niagara River. “He gently took the wheel and set me straight. Earlier he threw me in the water even though I couldn’t swim. So I learned quickly. It’s 15 miles up from the Falls, but the current is rapid anyway.”
Shane had a similar experience. “My uncle took us on a huge yacht along the Niagara River all the way to the sign that tells you stay back from the Falls. He shut off the entire and boat would spin 180 degrees because of the current. Very scary.”
Dan recalled another current. “I served in the Coast Guard for four years, from 1969 to 1973, all of it at Cape May, New Jersey. Every month or so we’d come across a boat with no one in it. They apparently had gone swimming and didn’t anchor their boat. It was swept away by the tidal current.” He looked off into the distance, still melancholy after all these years.
Staten Island Ferry
That afternoon a New York couple went sailing on the York as a respite from their busy lives. Ann Hookonsen took the helm but gave it up early to her husband John Valjalo.
“I’ve done all the steering that I’m going to do,” she said proudly. “I once steered the Staten Island Ferry right into port. My father was a marine oiler below decks, and he got permission for me to do it.”
I asked her about the frequent crashes that we read about in the newspaper. “They wouldn’t crash if they paid attention to the oilers. They communicate using cow bells below deck, and you have to listen for their signal.” Sure enough, as I gave instructions to John to navigate the Coleman Bridge, Ann repeated them word for word as if she was still on the ferry. I encouraged them to try the Jamestown Ferry for comparison.
Sailing with 101st
Two couples from Richmond and Pennsylvania who had never met had something in common while sailing on a serene York River. Jimmy Russell wore a 101st Airborne hat, having served in Vietnam. Bob Bivens has a daughter serving with the 101st at Ft. Bragg NC and has already been deployed to Afghanistan. Quite a coincidence.
“She was a gunner over there, running patrols,” Bob said. “Now she’s talking about rappelling out of helicopters, and with a 40-pound pack. What’s more, she likes to blow things up,” he said, “and may change her MOS to ordnance.” Her mother Pamela said, “She still texts me every day with the words Good Morning. At night, she texts Good Night. We Skype every few days as well.”
That baffled Jimmy, who said, “I don’t think it’s right for women to serve in combat, but that’s just me. We didn’t have much communication with our family back then. I spent 10-1/2 months in-country, moving from mountain to mountain. Today we have GPS on our phone to tell us where we are. Back then they didn’t know where we were. Heck, we didn’t know where we were.”
We got to talking about fishing and what’s popular in the York River: cobia, spot, croaker, red drum, sea trout, oysters, crab. Bob recalled an offshore trip out of Oregon Inlet, perhaps the closest spot on the coast to the Gulf Stream.
“We went out at 6 am and right away ran into seas that made the boat go bump/crash, bump/crash, bump/crash. I told myself to hold my stomach and I did, barely. We were out of sight of land and I couldn’t remember why I wanted to do this. Eventually we stopped and the captain coordinated with other fishing boats as to the best spot. Then some interlopers showed up in smaller Boston Whalers looking to capitalize on our captain. Suddenly he went to radio silence and the big boats fanned out to confuse the interlopers. He wasn’t about to let them get that intell for free. Everyone on our boat went home that day with fish, including tuna. The bait boys knew how to bleed and dress those fish in a hurry. If you don’t bleed them right they go bad quickly.”
In the afternoon, Jeff Garris and Patty Cook brought Hal and Patty Lassiter out sailing. The Lassiters had just finished a six-year run in Wyoming, where Hal said the temperature gets to 56 below in winter. I asked about the population. “About 400,000,” which is the same as our Virginia Peninsula. “To put that in perspective,” he added, “we have 500,000 antelope.”
Jeff has sailed Chesapeake Bay extensively and had his share of excitement. “I was at the Pirate Festival, which is just a big drunk fest. In the morning there were people lying everywhere on the docks, on the boats, on the grass. I came up to one group and they were annoyed that I was standing there. “You’re on my boat!” I announced. They scattered but somehow got in the water and took off my prop. I didn’t notice it until we were going over the Hampton Road tunnel and I had no power. My girlfriend at the time was crying because we were so close to freighters coming through beside us. I set the sails and alerted the marina for all hands on deck to catch us as we sailed into the marina.”
Sailing from Germany
Veteran sailor Corrina Caldwell brought a flock of cousins from Germany and Georgia to sail on what proved to be an uneventful afternoon. Heinrich Sbrzesnt and his family recently sailed a 41-footer in Croatia, which they enjoyed immensely. A friend operated as the captain. Heinrich has traveled the world for work and pleasure, so I asked where he would just as soon not return.
He thought for a moment. “Asia. I won’t go back to China, Pakistan, Vietnam. It’s very crowded everywhere, and people are rude. I much enjoy Spain, but Portugal is very poor. One time I was on Majorca standing on a street when a huge shadow suddenly overcame us. I looked up and it was your largest warship, the aircraft carrier Nimitz. Four helicopters took off from the deck, and I had the overwhelming sense of the power of it all, how you can take over.”
Power was not in the cards today as we motored around the York and reviewed the history of the two battles of 1781. I tell people that only one day in a hundred do we encounter no wind whatsoever, and today was that day,
On a brighter note, we got to watch Air Force One execute touch-and-go landings at nearby Langley Air Force base. Every third or fourth Thursday they come in low and slow, making numerous approaches and departures over the York River. The robin’s egg blue underbelly and big American Flag on the fantail are very distinctive.
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Sailing on Memories
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Capt. Bill O'Donovan
Williamsburg Charter Sails
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