Ships of the York
You can go for days without seeing another boat on the York River. Then they show up in multitudes, seemingly for no reason. In fact, there is a cycle to the boating and shipping traffic. Here’s a rundown of the range of boats and ships along the York River. Next, a unique factoid is included with each class, followed by advice to mariners.
By far the most impressive scene on the river occurs whenever a US Navy submarine transits the Coleman Bridge on the way to the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station. The boat loads or unloads Tomahawk missiles, some of which are presumed to be nuclear. Sub captains used to request a bridge opening, but not in recent years. A parade of security boats precedes the sub and warns boaters to stay back 500 yards. That is often impossible because of the size of the channel or one’s location near the bridge. But the idea is intimidation, and it succeeds. Among all the ships of the York, subs are the most dramatic.
York County tourism officials do a masterful job attracting tall ships from all over the world to Yorktown. One recent arrival 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 weighed 500 tons and extended 164 feet long and 33 feet wide. Three masts furl seven sails comprising nearly 10,000 square feet. The ship has covered 35,000 miles by visiting ports in four of the five world continents as an elegant ambassador for Spain.
Next in terms of size, nearly every week one or two US Navy warships glide up from the Norfolk fleet to re-arm at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station. 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. Today, the accompanying tugboats throw a bigger wake. In 2019 more Navy traffic was apparent as the Trump adminstration rattled sabers over the Middle East.
York County also snared American Cruise Lines to land in Yorktown. We are part of 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, startling locals the next morning as the awake to a fresh arrival.
Barges & Dredges
Oil barges anchor in the middle of the York River, just north of channel marker R-22. Some of them carry 400,000 gallons to offload at the Yorktown Terminal, for piping to Philadelphia. Others lie empty, waiting to be filled with oil for water transit to—Philadelphia. (The business plan makes no sense.) Nearby the dock, dredges spent an entire year in 2017 digging the river bottom lower for an electrical line. They pulled up muck to be dropped into scows and dumped at designated “spoils” spots in the Chesapeake Bay.
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 on their debarkation day, 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 Streisand 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 of New York City precede the Navy warships under the bridge to catch them and guide them into the NWS pier. 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. They tow the barges at sea and then reorganize to push them along in the Bay and the river. Tiny tugs push small barges for pile driving. All tugs hail on Channels 16 and 13, and they like you to catch their name the first time as a matter of respect.
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, the Eagle teaches sailing, navigation and other mariner skills to future officers at the Coast Guard Academy in New London CT. 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. Look for the distinctive aluminum guard rails on the stern, which protect the outboard engines from damage by drug runners (not here, but in Florida).
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 (photo, right). Crab boats stay close to shore in 10-15 feet of water. Their crab pots are useful guides to checking for low water and shoals. Avoid them at all costs so the lines don’t foul your keel, rudder or prop and so that you don’t run aground.
Sailboats stand at the top of the recreational pyramid for elegance, rules of the road, 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. The owner typically sets the auto-pilot for a course and then goes below for a cup of coffee. Among other ships of the York, this is pretty pathetic.
It was almost 150 years later before underwater archaeologists got around to looking for the scuttled transport ships that Cornwallis (unnecessarily) sank to ward off the French fleet. Relentless current and innumerable storms broke up all ten ships. In more recent years, significant artifacts turned up near the Charon, the British command ship of Lord Cornwallis that the French sank off of VIMS with a red-hot cannon ball (illustration, right). This is where the term “hot shot” came from. A new expedition funded privately in 2019 discovered more artifacts, including seven cannons from an adjacent transport ship. National Geographic underwrote much of the work and has kept the news private until ready to publish and broadcast.
The only ship intact is a two-masted frigate named The Betsy. Around 1970, 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 had its deck painted entirely red—to disguise the flow of blood in battle.
Let’s Go Sail the Ships of the York
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Ships of the York
Ships of the York describes myriad ships, boats, dredges and wrecks that one finds above and below the waterline.
Capt Bill ODonovan
Williamsburg Charter Sails / Let's Go Sail