Check out aircraft carriers and submarines at Norfolk Shipyard

Marvin Bond

As the Victory Rover starts up its engines for a tour of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, music on the public address system begins with a military march and then changes into big band sounds.

Engines rumble as the vessel heads out into Virginia’s Elizabeth River (named for the sister of King Charles I of England) for a two-hour trip past dry docks, coal piers, loading cranes, and container terminals. But the payoff is seeing a series of huge warships lined up in the water.

Norfolk ships MB
Naval ships berthed at the Norfolk Naval Station.

Paddle-wheel ferries shuttle passengers between Portsmouth and the Norfolk dock. From there, it’s a short walk across Town Point Park to board the tour boat outside the Nauticus Museum.

The shipyard’s mission, supported by 9,000 personnel, is to repair and maintain the Navy’s battleships, submarines, destroyers, support craft, and aircraft carriers. Home of our nation’s Atlantic Fleet, Norfolk is also home to one of the world’s largest naval base shipyards. Of the various maintenance facilities, the Navy operates five dry docks and three service piers, but other work is contracted to private companies.

Behind the berthed vessels is a 585-acre land complex for Navy housing, schooling, shopping, and recreation.

As we near the shipyard, the height of loading cranes becomes shorter due to restricted air space. Net barriers in front of the bows of the berthed ships underscore security concerns. Our captain begins identifying each ship by hull number, firepower capability, and other features. It’s a seascape of battleship gray.

The captain calls out No. 19, for example, to identify the USS Mesa Verde, an armed troop transport named for the Colorado national park, and No. 77, the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier, the last of the nuclear-powered behemoths. It had been under construction at Newport News during my previous visit.

Overhead, E2C Hawkeyes, early warning aircraft, fly low in the distance.

Board a battleship

While you can’t disembark to board any military vessels in the Navy yard, the battleship USS Wisconsin is on display next to the Nauticus Museum and offers an unusual opportunity to visit the huge vessel, which saw service in World War II, the Korean War, and the first Gulf War. Its size — almost as long as eight football fields — boggles the imagination.

Norfolk’s Nauticus museum traces the area’s maritime heritage and includes the battleship Wisconsin.
Norfolk’s Nauticus museum traces the area’s maritime heritage and includes the battleship Wisconsin.

An admission charge includes a tour within the ship, but visitors are free to wander around on the deck. Inside the Nauticus Museum are Navy and maritime exhibits on three floors.

I especially liked the displays on a sailor’s life, off duty and on duty.

Although the facility is named Norfolk Naval Shipyard to avoid confusion with a Navy yard in Portsmouth, Maine, it’s actually located in Portsmouth, Va., and the building that chronicles its history is named the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum. The museum features ship models, uniforms, and military artifacts. Equally interesting are the statistics that tell an amazing story of prodigious effort. 

During WWII, construction crews built 101 U.S. Navy ships, including the battleship USS Alabama, while others did repair and maintenance work on 6,850 U.S. and allied ships. The last ship built in the shipyard was completed in the early 1950s.

Victory Rover operates daily from March through December. Passengers may sit in an open-top deck or an enclosed cabin below with snack bar, beer, and wine. Adult tickets are $22; children 12 and younger are $14. From Hampton, the vessel Miss Hampton II offers a three-hour tour that also covers Norfolk’s massive Navy base.

For more information

Victory Rover tours: navalbasecruises.com

Norfolk Tourism: visitnorfolktoday.com

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