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by Dan and Jan Ahart

Chapter Twenty-One

Norfolk, Virginia boasts the largest Naval base in the world. The only time we have seen more warships in one locale was in the movie "The Longest Day". There are more ships than one can count if all the "small" runabouts and launches are included. Just trying to study each one, even for a few seconds is almost impossible. We saw the battleship Wisconsin; three of the four nuclear powered aircraft carriers based there, which included the Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Enterprise. The last time we had seen the Enterprise was when she sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in 1968. These carriers are monstrous by any standard. With a compliment of 6,000 crewmembers, they are floating cities, capable; we were told, of cruising at over 45 knots. We also saw dozens of frigates, personnel carriers, supply ships, service ships of all types, tankers and destroyers as well as several submarines, some in the water and some in dry dock. We were able to cruise quite close to these ships, which was pleasantly surprising to us. There were some signs prohibiting civilian boats from getting really close and some of the ships or parts of ships were covered by canvas to block the view of some particularly secret apparatus. The propellers of the submarines in dry dock were covered for instance. The harbor is also a major commercial shipping facility, with tankers and freighters coming and going all the time. It's an exciting place to cruise. At our speed of five knots, it took us nearly two hours to traverse the harbor.

We anchored in a small bay next to Ft. Monroe, which is the only moat surrounded active duty fort in the nation. After two relaxing days, we moved to the city of Hampton's public pier where we anchored for another two days. The public pier offered a free dinghy dock and free water to cruisers. The waterfront area has been recently rebuilt and includes hotels and shops as well as the Virginia Air and Space Center museum and Imax theater. We frequented the restaurants, and visited the museum and theater, so I suppose we more than compensated the city for the water they gave us. It was a very enjoyable stay. But it was time to move North and the wind obliged by coming out of the South. We sailed to the Mobjack Bay at the Mouth of the East River, which lies just North of the York River, which is one of the major tributaries to Chesapeake Bay. Crossing approximately 25 miles of Chesapeake Bay took us most of the day thanks to the capricious nature of the wind. Our speed ranged from 1.9 to 6.5 knots. Appeals to Aeolus, keeper of the winds in Greek Mythology, were apparently ignored. Perhaps our incantations should have been in Greek.

We anchored two days in the East River, which flows South into Mobjack Bay, about 30 miles northwest of Norfolk. The river is mostly bordered by farms, with a few summer or weekend homes. Seeing so much farmland this close to Washington, D.C. was surprising to us, even though we had been told by friends to expect it. The rural nature of the area is very pleasant with a peaceful timeless quality about it. One of the attractions of the area was the home of Captain Sally Tompkins, who was the first female commissioned officer in both the Confederate and Union armies. Her home is a classic, columned, antebellum, whitewashed mansion right on the river. Surrounded by old oaks and green lawn, it looked like a movie set. Next to the mansion is an abandoned tidal flow grain mill, which really should be restored. From what we could tell, the water wheel was powered by water captured in a pond at high tide and released at low tide in order to generate enough water velocity to turn the wooden paddle wheel, which was about two "stories" in diameter.

On the 12th, the wind was favorable for a sail North, so we left East river and sailed out into the Chesapeake to continue northward. The Chesapeake is a very busy waterway and we saw many Navy ships as well as commercial container ships and barges under tow. We anchored in Billups Creek, which is just off Stutts Creek, which in turn is just South of the Piankatank River. The weather was mild with very cool nights, so we took the opportunity to do some work on Sojourner that we had been putting off. Mostly cleaning and tidying up, but we took our time and enjoyed the pastoral setting between jobs. We wanted to explore the Piankatank River before meeting friends in Deltaville on the 16th, so we weighed anchor about noon and sailed past Milford Haven, through a swing bridge and on into the Piankatank, finally anchoring off Roane Point. The river, at this point, runs West to East as it winds its way to the Chesapeake. The river is about a mile wide, where we anchored.

The weather report called for 50% chance of thunderstorms and from what we saw as we set the anchor, the odds had increased to 100%. After settling in for the duration of the evening, we were sitting in the cockpit watching the clouds, when it suddenly appeared to both of us that we were observing a tornado trying to form. Both of us had taken the U.S. Power Squadron weather course, which included an adverse weather observer orientation session, so we were familiar with the dynamics of tornado formation. If a thunderstorm cell grows large enough, it will create certain wind patterns that may set the stage for tornado formation. Most tornados form on the southwest side of a cell along what is termed the "wall cloud." From our vantage point on the South side of the river, we could clearly see the wall cloud and the formation of a rotating band of clouds about a mile or two North of the river, which put it about three miles directly North of us. There was no rain between us and the rotating part of the storm, but rain, lightning and thunder were very heavy northeast of the rotating area. In addition to the cloud activity, the water around us was acting very strangely. When we anchored we had one-foot waves out of the East, but during this period, the wind seemed to be from everywhere and nowhere in particular. The waves stopped moving in any one direction and simply undulated up and down. The river surface looked like a giant meringue pie. But the clouds begged our attention. Time and again, the rotation gained speed only to become disorganized again. For one brief moment it actually formed a very slowly rotating funnel that almost reached the ground before it disorganized again. Many thoughts go through one's mind at a time like this. Mostly, my thoughts were of someplace far away. We discussed weighing anchor and moving, but which direction? A river doesn't leave a lot of options.

We did take time to silently state our case to God that we had always worked hard and tried our best to be good people and felt strongly, but respectfully, that we deserved his attention at this particular time. Perhaps he agreed, because the storm slowly moved off to the East. It was only then that it occurred to us that we could turn on the television and see what the weather channel was reporting. To our astonishment, the weather channel was talking about our location and warning everyone to take shelter, as this was a major cell with tornado or waterspout development very likely. We were really sort of glad we didn't hear that earlier. Digesting this news, we went back out to watch the storm. After it had moved out over the Chesapeake, about four miles to the East, we saw no fewer than five large waterspouts form and dissipate. Each one lasted about a minute or two. We don't know if anyone was caught in any of them, but we were very thankful that we had not been any closer than we were. Back to the weather channel, we learned that more thunderstorms were coming our way, but thankfully, no more tornado warnings. Between midnight and 0400 we did get surrounded again by an incredible lightning show and some heavy rain, but nothing we couldn't handle. I must admit that experiencing this demonstration of the unpredictability of weather, and perhaps life, I was reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, "Have faith and pursue the unknown end." Not bad philosophy. By the way, that was Holmes, senior, 1809 -1894, who was a surgeon, Dean of Harvard Medical School, lecturer and poet, best known for his famous poem "Old Ironsides." His son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. 1841 - 1935 became one of the most famous Chief Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before he was wounded three times as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War.

The next day, friends of ours from Florida arrived and we had a very enjoyable time with them and their niece and her companion that evening. Later, when we were dinghing back to Sojourner, we saw what looked like someone in the cockpit of our boat, with the cockpit light on. Jan and I were perplexed because we knew we had only left the anchor light on. As we drew closer a man's voice from the cockpit shouted, "Are you from Sojourner?" We were speechless. Was he from the marine police or the local sheriff? Had we been caught throwing food scraps overboard? Were we anchored in a forbidden location? After what seemed like a long time to think of an appropriate answer, I shouted back, "What?" The answer came back, "We are aboard Turning Point, a twelve-meter Catalac just like yours." What a relief and what a coincidence. There are only nine, twelve-meter catalacs registered in the U.S. These are English built boats and our association only lists that many in the states. According to the association, there are only 27 in the world. For one to show up in the same small cove as us is a phenomenal coincidence. We spent an enjoyable hour with our new friends and then called it a night. The next morning our friends from Florida met with us on Turning Point, and we had an association meeting of sorts in that our Florida friends sail Galavant, which is also a twelve-meter catalac. Here, in one small cove were representatives of one third of the U.S. fleet of 12-meter catalacs. We had a great time comparing boats and swapping yarns. We'll continue North, up the Chesapeake, as weather permits. Stay tuned.

Dates: ,
Locations: Norfolk, VA

The Ahart Odyssey 1999-2004 Dan and Jan Ahart. All rights reserved.