As the tall ships of the OpSail 2012 Parade of Sail cruised toward him, his eyes feasted on a horizon brimming with boats of all descriptions.
“This is amazing, the most exciting parade we’ve seen,” the Hampton resident gushed, speaking over a cell phone. As his own sailboat Magic cruised alongside the U.S. Coast Guard tall ship Eagle he tried to drink it all in. “It’s the most magnificent sight I’ve ever seen on the water here, maybe that I’ll ever see.”
The escort fleet, a group of private pleasure craft authorized to usher the tall ships into harbor, numbered nearly 200. It was Leighton’s job to organize and direct them. Almost as many other private boats were motoring nearby allowing a close-up view of the parade as it turned the corner past Fort Monroe and headed toward downtown Norfolk. After a few tense moments, Leighton was able to herd the group in the right direction.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t stressful,” he admitted. “A lot of people don’t read instructions that well, but it all worked out … I’m thrilled to be here.”
Joy riders invited aboard the Eagle were also beaming. They said the parade lived up to its billing as a rare treat. Cool temperatures and warm sunshine made it the perfect day for a spring cruise. The wind didn’t co-operate completely, but ships were able to set sails for at least part of the course. More than 20 tall ships from America and around the globe participated in the signature element of OpSail’s Virginia stop.
One of the passengers was Williamsburg’s Tyler Zminkowski, a 16-year-old Warhill High student who earned a spot on board by writing an OpSail-award-winning essay titled “What the Star-Spangled Banner Means to Me.”
“This is so great,” Zminkowski said, peering out over the bow of the Eagle. The 295-foot barque had just cruised by the much larger USS Wasp, a towering amphibious assault ship. The Wasp’s crew lined up along its flight deck as the parade passed. “I thought it was nice how they lined up and did the salute.” The young man was unfazed by the fact that the Eagle’s sails were being used mostly for visual impact. “Eh,” he said. “We’ve got motors. Don’t tell anybody.”
The Eagle’s 220 crew members and cadets managed to keep the ship on course, unfurl sails and adjust rigging while also answering questions and chatting with guests on board.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Ron Stephens from Fayetteville, N.C. Stephens, a colonel in the Army stationed at Fort Bragg, got an invitation to ride on Eagle through his son, a cadet serving aboard the famous vessel. “I knew I’d be on a big ship and we were going to float into harbor for a big celebration, but this is much more than I expected it to be.”
What impressed him? “All the different parts coming together to get us where we needed to be. It was an incredible display of teamwork.”
Eagle had the honor of leading Friday’s parade and nobody was more proud of that fact than the ship’s captain, Eric Jones. When in command of other Coast Guard vessels in the 1990s, he lived in the Western Branch neighborhood of Chesapeake. In a way, he was coming home.
Also, Jones noted that OpSail marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Several important actions of that conflict took place in Hampton Roads. “All that rich history, a lot of it happened right here.”
Jones first sailed on Eagle in Virginia as a first-class cadet in 1986. Now, 26 years later, he was captain of the ship and navigating through those same waters. “It’s mind boggling,” he said.
He was glad to see so many of Eagle’s sister tall ships from foreign nations together again. The last time they intersected was in 2010 during celebrations of the bicentennial of South American independence. “To have all these ships together again is fantastic, a real treat.”
A treat, yes. Also, a surprise. An event like the Parade of Sail creates unexpected moments for those on board the tall ships.
Before the parade got underway around 7 a.m., the distinctive bleat of a bagpipe could be heard. A lone piper was playing “She’s a Grand Old Flag” from the deck of an orange-colored Virginia Pilot boat motoring nearby.
A few moments later, a strange-looking ultra-light aircraft attached to a dinghy buzzed the skies above Eagle as it cruised along Thimble Shoals channel. Even old salts on board the Eagle pointed, laughed and snapped photos. “That’s different,” said Coast Guard officer Carlos Hernandez. “That’s homemade, I bet. Where do I get one?”
Arriving at the Norfolk’s Town Point Park right on time at noon, the Eagle was met with a display of pageantry in the water and in the sky. Fighter jets soared past. A helicopter with an American flag dangling below it swooped past. The schooner Virginia blasted a cannon salute as it flew an 1812 version of Old Glory as fire boats sent streams of water arching high into the air.
Through a carefully coordinated maritime ballet, giant tall ships, includingColombia’s249-foot Gloria, executed a soft turn around the harbor and landed gracefully in berths at Town Point Park.
All of this and more gave the guests aboard Eagle plenty to smile about.
Although 16-year-old Zminkowski and his dad got up at 1 a.m. in order to be in position to meet Eagle on time Friday morning, the teenager said he had no regrets.
“Yes, it was worth it, definitely,” he said. “I’m a little tired. I’m going to crash tonight, but this has been an amazing experience.”