Thursday, June 14th, 2012
By Kate “Bob” Addison
Tuesday morning and Picton Castle is smoking north bound up the Chesapeake Bay under full sail at 9 knots as we head out of Norfolk, Virginia after a very full four (exhausting!) days of festivities and fun.
Norfolk is a big, historic US Navy town, and we were there for OpSail 2012, a large-scale, international event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812. There were a huge number of ships and boats from all around the world: military and civilian, sailing ships big and small, battleships and yachts. Picton Castle was one of the smaller of the Class “A” tall ships in the line up, and one of a handful of non-military vessels. We spent the festival alongside a floating dock right in the middle of the goings-on. Standing on our foc’sle head looking forward you could see the Town Point Park full of visitors walking about or sitting on the grass, small stages with music, dancing, entertainments, tents and stalls selling everything from fresh lemonade to temporary tattoos. Looking left you would see two Canadian naval frigates: HMCS Goose Bay and HMCS Moncton all grey and smart and military. Looking right: the masts and rigs of five big and beautiful square rigged sailing ships – barques Guyas and Gloria from Ecuador and Colombia, United States Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, full rigged ship Cisne Branco of Brazil, and barquentine Dewaruci of Indonesia. All lit up at night, and dressed overall with bright colourful flags by day, it was an impressive and lovely sight.
The parade of sail into Norfolk was spectacular – the big military sailing ships (they mostly train cadets and sail the world representing their country at events like this) all dressed with flags and men on the yards, Dewaruci with her band playing. Historical replica ships from the 1600s such as Kalmar Nyckel and Godspeed sailing along looking jaunty with sprit-sails set. Past the USS Wasp (a big air craft carrier) we went, saluting with our lower topsails to the VIPs and EIPs aboard the aircraft carrier. The crew lined up on the deck of Wasp in their white uniforms looked like tiny toy sailors. And then past the enormous and seemingly endless Navy base – more big ships there than the whole Royal Navy owns I should think. We were joined here by a fleet of small boats, yachts and motorboats come out to welcome us in. The biggest and best welcome was from the Pride Boating Club of Hampton Roads – our sponsors for the event and boy did they take that sponsorship seriously, with a fleet to welcome us in, all Picton Castle flags and banners, then a welcome party, gifts and supplies, great fun we had partying with them too! Then on past the town, salutes firing from the ships and the land, make a sharp turn around schooner Virginia and the fire ships spraying their hoses into the air in great arcs, and then in to our berth with the help of a tug to push us upwind and against the current – ready for the fun to begin!
Our ship was open to the public for tours every day keeping the on-watch busy, and the off watch were kept busy too with free organised excursions to theme parks, shopping centres and historical sites. Visiting the other ships was a popular activity, and then there were crew parties of some sort every night, Picton Castle crew doing their bit to build international relations with the crews of the other ships. We got on especially well with the Scandinavian ships with our Danish and Norwegian contingent on board. There were extravagant fireworks on Saturday night, black tie dinners and dancing, formal receptions, a parade of crews and cadets – never seen so much matching, marching white and gold. Our gang added a splash of colour dressed in sarongs – well, we couldn’t compete on white uniforms, and sarongs seems appropriate for a South Pacific ship!
Captain and I attended a formal gift exchange ceremony with the US Navy and Mayor of Norfolk at the navy base. Transport was laid on in the form of yellow school busses, which was pretty entertaining – my first ever ride on an iconic American school bus and it was packed full of naval officers and tall ship captains. Bet that’s the most gold braid that bus will ever see. We arrived and shook hands with all the important people, our little tall ship gang standing out as civilians, the only people not saluting or wearing whites. But we looked pretty snappy too in our Picton Castle summer dress uniform of flowered Kia Orana shirts and black trousers or skirt. As this is an event celebrating the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812 there was some discussion among the officers of the principal historical combatants; England, Canada and the USA. All agreed that they would never do that again and it was all a big misunderstanding, a family spat, all is forgiven. There was an elegant finger lunch, with some chatting to some more important people and then coffee and teeny tiny cakes. The actual ceremony was a model of international diplomacy. Captains and commanding officers representing ships from all over the world shaking hands with a US Navy four-star admiral, exchanging gifts of plaques, pictures, ceremonial trinkets. Smile for the cameras and then same again with the Mayor. Four hours of travel and protocol for a 25 second photo op. Much longer than four hours if you add in all the cleaning and pressing of uniforms. But photos like that will hang on bulkheads in ships, and walls of headquarters of navy bases and at national capitals for years to come, a memento of an historic event, and of the power and influence of the world’s navies: not just their military might but the power to to do good and foster good will as well.