Tall ships are just one of the draws to the Norfolk Harborfest at Town Point Park. Photo: Festevents

Tall Ships Descend on Norfolk for Harborfest

People along the Bay have been spotting tall ships all week as they make their way south to Harborfest—which calls itself America’s largest and longest-running maritime festival.

The 47th festival runs Friday afternoon through Sunday evening (June 9-11), kicking off with a Parade of Sail Friday at noon. Organizer FestEvents says Harborfest “celebrates all of the elements that make Norfolk and Hampton Roads a historic maritime and Naval community.”

Six tall ships from around the Mid-Atlantic region and several other unique vessels will be the centerpiece of Harborfest, from locals like the schooner Virginia and American Rover to less frequent visitors like Philadelphia’s Gazela Primeiro, which came down the Chesapeake Bay.

And visitors will also get a glimpse of boats like NOAA’s research vessel Bay Hydro II, an Army Corps of Engineers high-speed survey vessel, and Impossible Dream, a fully adaptive sailing catamaran in the midst of an East Coast tour.

But free deck tours of interesting vessels are only a fraction of the things going on at Harborfest; 19 musical acts will perform on two stages. On Friday night, visitors can watch a drone lights show over the Elizabeth River, showing unmanned aerial technology synchronized to a nautical musical playlist. Organizers say it will be twice as large as last year’s show. And on Saturday night, a classic fireworks display will illuminate the tall ships below.

A “tug muster” will pit more than a dozen tug boats against one another in a friendly competition—the largest of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic region. Coast Guard search and rescue crews will give a demonstration by air and sea.

And in one of the weekend’s most exciting events, the Ultimate Build-a-Boat Challenge asks teams to build boats from scratch beginning on Saturday, then race them on Sunday in the Ultimate Build-a-Boat Race.

Those are just the boat-related attractions at Harborfest. They’ve also lined up a variety of land-based activities and entertainment, including pirate shows, a live walk-through butterfly exhibit and “Splash City Golf”, a driving range in which golfers hit a golf ball made from recycled oyster shells aiming for a floating green in the Elizabeth River.

Norfolk Harborfest is free to the public. It is open Friday noon-11 p.m., Saturday noon-11 p.m. (with fireworks at 9:30 p.m) and Sunday 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. You can find the full program and schedule of events here.

-Meg Walburn Viviano