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May 18, 2012
The history of OpSail in Hampton Roads
By Diane Tennant
© May 11, 2012
In times past, the Chesapeake Bay and the harbor of Hampton Roads would have been filled with sailing ships riding the wind.
That time has come again.
OpSail 2012 Virginia will bring tall ships and military vessels from around the world to Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore in June, part of a four-year national commemoration of the War of 1812 and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Visiting ships will tie up in various Hampton Roads ports and will also visit Cape Charles and Onancock on the Eastern Shore, and Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
A highlight will be three parades of sail, beginning with the military Sea and Air Parade on Wednesday, June 6, followed by the main event on Friday, June 8 – the OpSail 2012 Virginia Parade of Sail. The international fleet of tall ships will gather the day before in Lynnhaven Roads to the north of the Lesner Bridge, and the parade of sail will begin at 7 a.m. Friday, with the first ship reaching Town Point Park in downtown Norfolk around noon.
The fleet departs on Tuesday, June 12, the tall ships parading together from Hampton Roads up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore, accompanied by recreational vessels.
This whole grand spectacle began, decades ago, with a single ship.
In 1964, maritime historian Frank Braynard and Nils Hansell of IBM conceived a plan to foster global goodwill by inviting the world’s remaining sailing ships to visit New York City.
Operation Sail, or OpSail for short, drew the endorsement of President John F. Kennedy and a Congressional resolution of support.
The international gathering of tall ships and other vessels was so popular that an OpSail event was planned for the Bicentennial in 1976. But the year before that extravaganza took place in New York City, a much smaller happening shook up things locally – a single tall ship tied up in downtown Norfolk.
The Norwegian ship Christian Radich drew 13,000 visitors to what organizers themselves described as a rat-infested, muddy waterfront. The ship was so popular, in fact, that when the Bicentennial rolled around, Norfolk invited several tall ships to stop by on their way to or from New York City’s OpSail.
“It would be almost unthinkable,” said Mills Godwin Jr., Virginia’s governor at the time, “for these great ships not to make Hampton Roads one of their ports of call.”
The few that sailed in drew 50,000 visitors to the city’s waterfront, and Harborfest was born.
“Harborfest is what inspired the city to develop the waterfront into a public gathering place and to make the improvements on the water’s edge to accommodate not only tall ships but cruise ships and the marina,” said Karen Scherberger, executive director of Norfolk Festevents Ltd. “Once Waterside and Town Point Park were built, that gave way to this surge of revitalization into downtown Norfolk.”
Simultaneously, Operation Sail Inc., the national nonprofit organizer of tall-ship events, continued planning sail celebrations tied to landmark American historical events – the Bicentennial in 1976, the Statue of Liberty restoration in 1986, the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic in 1992, and the new millennium in 2000.
Although not an official partner, Norfolk organized its own tall-ship gatherings every so often, inviting vessels on their way to or from New York to stop in Virginia, usually during Harborfest. The OpSail name could not be used, so local events were called, for example, Liberty Sail of the Americas in 1986.
In 2000, Operation Sail Inc. expanded outside New York for the first time. Norfolk was invited to be an OpSail participant. It was hugely successful.
The next tall-ship event held locally was Sail Virginia 2007, part of the 400th anniversary commemoration of Virginia’s English colonization.
This year, Norfolk is again an official partner, along with the Navy.
Scherberger said national organizers had their pick of waterfront cities along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s such a distinction to be asked to carry the name OpSail,” Scherberger said. “The feather in Norfolk’s cap, and Virginia’s, is the fact that our city has been selected each and every time to host these mega-maritime events.”
The visit of tall ships to various harbors allows comparisons of the local port to others, she said, and demonstrates Hampton Roads’ ability to maintain commerce, military and recreational activities on the water while hosting such a large event.
“There is not another port in the country that’s able to accommodate an event like this without displacing some other maritime business,” Scherberger said. “In our case, everything continues to move and flow and operate without any interruption. That says volumes about the port of Virginia.”
OpSail 2012 Virginia is expected to draw 17 tall ships, eight foreign naval vessels, 12 research and working vessels, thousands of small crafts, and 2 million visitors. It all goes back to the Christian Radich.
“The new Norfolk as we know it today, the new downtown,” Scherberger said. “You can trace the spark of revitalization back to the visit of the tall ship.”
Diane Tennant, 757-446-2478, firstname.lastname@example.org