Sailors drawn to Hampton and Outer Banks

It’s been a long time since sailors first discovered Hampton, Virginia and the nearby Outerbanks that stretch into North Carolina along the Atlantic Ocean, and they are still coming to the area to join a rally, see iconic lighthouses like Cape Hatteras, dock at the many marinas that dot the area, and visit historic seaside forts and even a lost colony.

Hampton, located about 70 miles southeast of Richmond, is a stop along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) on the lower part of the Chesapeake Bay, and is the staging area for the Salty Dawg Sailing Association’s rally to the Caribbean.

Sailors gather in the fall to beat the cold weather and travel south together – there’s safety in numbers — across the tricky Gulf Stream and over the open ocean on their way to winter cruising grounds amongst the many sun-soaked islands.

Hampton has a storied history. Much of the area was burned by the British during the Revolutionary War (the U.S. War of Independence from Britain from 1775-1783), and again during the Civil War, with nearby Fort Monroe being the only fort in the more southerly U.S. States that remained in Union hands for the entire war years.

The local residents at that time found themselves in the tenuous position of being sandwiched between a Union fort and the whole Confederate army.

Fort Monroe, nowadays with its own recreational marina, was completed in 1834 and built as a result of the British attack during the War of 1812. It’s the largest stone fort built in the U.S., and is surrounded by a mote.

It’s been the site of a fort since 1609, sitting at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, a military strategic waterway.

Fort Monroe was where Confederate president Jefferson Davis was imprisoned after being captured by Union troops in 1865 (you can still visit his cell) at the end of the Civil War. Famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee was posted there as a young 24-year-old West Point graduate. And famous poet Edgar Allan Poe was stationed at the fort in 1828 during his military service.

The famous Battle of the Ironclads in 1862 during the Civil War, between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) — warships with their hulls clad in metal – could be seen from the ramparts of Fort Monroe. The fort was used to teach military recruits about cannon fire, and many of the batteries still exist.

The fort housed slaves during the Civil War and was nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortress” after a commander declared three slaves who sought refuge as “contraband” and were treated as captured enemy property, or the spoils of war, and not returned to slave owners.

Not far down the Atlantic coastline is the Outer Banks, a series of barrier islands that are known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” with over 600 shipwrecks identified and many more never explored, with ships over the centuries perishing because of the so-called diamond-shaped sand shoals that constantly shift with the waves.

These giant sand dunes, connected by bridges and a car ferry that make up Highway 12 that runs the 200-mile length of the Outer Banks, are the famous site of Kitty Hawk where Orville and Wilbur Wright pioneered airplane flight in 1903.

The sands shift so frequently with the wind and the waves of the Atlantic Ocean that large backhoes are stationed along the highway to clear sand from the road. It’s an area frequented by pirates from 1690 until the early 16th century.

Dotting these islands and sand spits are many lighthouses including the iconic Cape Hatteras, that was built in 1870 and is the world’s second-tallest brick lighthouse at just over 198 ft. North on the Outer Banks is the smaller Bodie Island Lighthouse, painted in the same contrasting black-and-white daymark colours, but with horizontal stripes instead of the candy-cane like swirls that make up the conical-shaped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

It sits on an octagon-shaped red brick and granite base. The first lighthouse on the site was 90 ft. tall and was first lit in 1803 but sailors complained that the light was not seen from a distance, and 60 ft. was added to the top of the structure in 1857.

The lighthouse was completely rebuilt in 1868 to its current height and, amazingly, due to beach erosion, the lighthouse was moved 2,900 ft. inland over 23 days on a specially built railway in 1999, to its current location 1,500 ft. from the shoreline.

Like other lighthouses in the area, there is a double keeper’s house on the grounds, where two families shared in the duties of keeping the light operational for sailors.

Just off the Outer Banks highway is the quaint North Carolina town of Manteo located on Roanoke Island. There are marinas, shopping, the historic Tranquil House Inn located along the waterfront, and the historic site called The Lost Colony of Roanoke.

It’s here that British sailors brought 117 settlers to the New World in 1587, thirty years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower.

These first settlers initially got along with the local native tribe and its chief, Manteo, trading goods and living nearby in peace. But things turned when one of the settlers shot and killed a native. A British ship returned three years later to resupply the colony, but the colony was found abandoned and overgrown, and all the settlers had vanished.

Some theories are that the settlers had moved elsewhere, since there was a carving in a tree indicating a nearby area, or that they were killed by the natives. But no one knows for sure, and the area is now simply called The Lost Colony.

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