Explore the Hampton Virginia port whose rich history includes both the famous and the infamous.
Hampton Roads Harbor is where the James River and Chesapeake waters mingle, and the ICW gets underway on the mid-Atlantic coast. At harbor’s entrance, the massive stone Fort Monroe lies to starboard with its “mini-me” Fort Wool to port. Daymarkers guide mariners past enormous ships of the Norfolk Naval Station to port. After a short jog to the north to flashing red “2”, the dogleg channel of the Hampton River leads to the very boat-friendly port of Hampton, Virginia which offers much in the way of history, boating facilities, and attractions. Over 400 years old, it is the oldest, continuous English-speaking settlement in the United States.
Forts Monroe and Wool protected Hampton Roads for many years. The famous 1862 Ironclad Monitor and Merrimac naval battle took place just offshore of Fort Monroe’s Old Point Comfort. Pocahontas was baptized at St. Joseph’s Church. Lincoln instated his Emancipation Proclamation at Hampton University, America’s first African American University, which has a fabulous museum.
Blackbeard Point is best known for the infamous pirate whose head was placed on a spike for all to see. As morose as that sounds, Hampton celebrates this event the end of May during the Blackbeard Pirate Festival as 50,000 marauders invade the streets. Restauranteur Carlyle Bland fills the streets with more contemporary events throughout the summer including rolling with the bulls and Tomatito with whiffle bat-wielding roller derby queens, Human Foosball, 1000-foot water slides, drag races with drag queens, and some 20 block parties. The 6th Annual Freaky Kon-Tiki River Raft Race takes place July 25th, and the longest-running powerboat race, the Hampton Cup Regatta, roars into town on Mill Creek August 8-9 with free admission for spectators, while the 33rd Annual Hampton Bay Days festival is September 11-13, a celebration of Chesapeake Bay through entertainment and art.
Even if you have alternate cruising plans for those dates, local historic sites provide insight throughout the year into our country’s beginnings. The Hampton History Museum is always a good place to start. Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum offers free tours within the cannon rooms of the fort highlighting artillery advancements from the War of 1812 through the Civil War. Edgar Allen Poe served at Fort Monroe—the largest stone fort built in the U.S.—and Andrew Jackson was imprisoned there. A fun, three-hour voyage on the tour boat Miss Hampton II takes passengers to the tiny “crossfire” Fort Wool in the harbor. The double-decked boat serves reasonably priced cheeseburgers and cocktails at its snack bar and sails from Hampton Public Piers from mid-April through October.
A walking tour of Fort Wool conveys its years as an adjunct to Fort Monroe throughout several wars. (Private boats may dock at Fort Wool from May 1st through September, 9 AM to 5 PM.) Miss Hampton II captures a great view of the local waterfront plus up-close observation of Norfolk Naval Base activities. On one such voyage, for example, tugs urged a submarine into the open harbor, a warship chugged out of its dock and a blue-light security breach occurred when a cruiser ventured too close to the action. Miss Hampton top-notch narrator named every aircraft carrier in port.
Returning to the Hampton Public Piers, a genuine moon rock waits just a block away at the Virginia Air & Space Center. As a visitor center for NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base, it’s an intriguing place to learn about space exploration with real spacecraft and hands-on exhibits. A 1903 Wright Flyer biplane and warplanes from several wars hover above visitors as flight simulators immerse all in the adventure of flight. The Little Wings play area allows the younger crew to build a plane, create an airport and climb into a cockpit. Several volunteers add knowledgeable tidbits just for the asking. A restored carousel sits just outside the center’s door.
What to do
Downtown Hampton Public Piers provides complimentary bicycles to visiting transients. (Docking stern-to is highly recommended due to its half finger piers). An Enterprise car rental facility is a few steps away for provisioning and exploring Williamsburg, Yorktown, Jamestown, or the Mariners Museum in Newport News.
A funky courtesy car from Venture Restaurant is also available for shorter trips. The Crowne Plaza Hampton Marina Hotel has a fine restaurant and bar, a fitness facility available to visiting cruisers, and the place is chock full of nautical décor including models of America’s Cup sailboats and the massive silver cup of the Hampton Regatta. Hotel rooms offer splendid harbor views of both pleasure and work craft underway, the Hampton University campus, ospreys, herons, and other seabirds.
Downriver, Bluewater Yachting Center’s full-service marina offers a complimentary shuttle service to downtown. It has two boatyards with complete indoor facilities, laundry, showers, a swimming pool, and the Surfrider Restaurant—order the crab cake served with an enormous broccoli head.
Both the expanding Hampton Yacht Club and the Old Point Comfort Yacht Club offer reciprocity arrangements for visiting members of other bona fide yacht clubs. The Hampton Yacht Club is situated on the Hampton River between Bluewater Marina and the Hampton Public Piers. Old Point Comfort Yacht Club uses the Old Point Marina at Fort Monroe and has a clubhouse. Paradise Ocean Club is a very active beach club with a restaurant, Tiki Bar, live music, a pool, and private beachfront. It’s an easy walk away from it and the newly opened restaurant Deadrise located within the marina. Rental bikes are available.
The commodore of Old Point Comfort Yacht Club, Bob Killebrew, provides helpful local knowledge. “There are no particular hazards in the waters of Hampton. The ship channel is 65 feet or more and average depth within the Roads is around 20 feet.” He adds that there are some bars to be aware of, but channels are well-marked with day beacons. Currents can be tricky past Fort Monroe during the outgoing tide (2-3 knots) and between forts when the tide is coming in and the river is flowing out. Local sailors avoid coming directly into the Hampton Bay Channel and “creep along the shore past Fort Monroe, then skirt around the corner into the Roads.”
There is substantial commercial traffic in the area that needs wide berth; call them on VHF channel 13 if you’re uncertain how or when to pass. Killebrew highly recommends obtaining Guide to Cruising the Chesapeake Bay and says there are many marinas and full-service boatyards but advises calling for information and reservations ahead of time. His favorite anchorages in the area are the Hampton River in Hampton near the Hampton Yacht Club, Mill Creek off Fort Monroe, and just off the Old Point Comfort Marina and his yacht club.
“In a few years, we expect the Fort Monroe-Hampton area to be a major destination for sail and power boats on the Chesapeake Bay. Sailing and boating on the Southern Bay are very close to an open-ocean experience, with the added attraction of great marinas and support facilities, historic sites and other rich and varied attractions ashore.
Old Point Comfort Marina
(Virginia Clean Marina)
100 McNair Drive, Bldg 207, Fort Monroe, VA 23651
Conch and Bucket
13 E Queens Way, Hampton, VA 23669
Paradise Ocean Club
490 Fenwick Road Hampton, VA 23651
(757) 224-0290; paradiseoceanclub.com
Surf Rider at Bluewater Marina
1 Marina Rd, Hampton, VA 23669
(757) 723-9366; surfriderrestaurant.com
30 E Mellen St, Hampton, VA 23663
(757) 224-9299; facebook.com/ThePointAtPhoebus
By Nancy E. Spraker, Southern Boating Magazine, July 2015