Its red sails have become a signature sight on the Downtown Norfolk waterfront, and this year the American Rover celebrates its 35th year in operation. Principal owner, Brook Smith, recalls how at just 25 years old, he became the head captain of the iconic 135-foot, three-masted topsail schooner.
“At the time, I probably wanted to go play baseball or run around with my friends,” he jokes. “I was kind of like, almost dragged aboard.”
A Virginia Beach native, Smith grew up in a sailing family. He started working on boats while attending Cox High School; continued at Old Dominion University; spent time “in the islands,” sailing both private and commercial vessels; and after gaining his master’s license at 22, developed an apprenticeship under Merritt Walter, an expert in designing and building passenger schooners, who was on track to retirement.
With Smith as his apprentice captain, Walter had the American Rover’s hull built in Panama City, Florida and then finished in Norfolk. She was put into service and took on her first passengers in the summer of ’86, just a few years after the original Waterside festival marketplace had opened.
“At that time, she was the largest three-masted passenger schooner under United States flag,” says Walter, on his website, “and one of only two sailing vessels to be U.S. Coast Guard certified to carry 150 passengers.”
“There was a lot more excitement then about sailing ships and cruising on boats,” Smith recalls. “There was all these tall ship festivals, like OpSail 2000, where we had all four visiting tall ships from around the world.”
Smith recalls some fun memories from over the years, like when “Neil Diamond and his band chartered the boat for a three-hour cruise. ZZ Top bought tickets and came out on a public cruise.” Gesturing to the ship’s piano down in the lounge, he says, “Bruce Hornsby has played that.”
Between the American Rover, the Victory Rover (which gives tours of the base and Navy ships), and the Atlantic Explorer (a dolphin- and whale-watching catamaran that is run in partnership with the Virginia Aquarium), Smith employs 10 people year-round and up to 40 people at peak season.
A family man now with a son at Granby High School (“he hasn’t converted to boats yet—he’s big into baseball”) and a daughter in college in upstate New York (“she went to school for sailing and is doing the college regatta racing circuit up there”), Smith relies on his crew, including key man Tom Van Benschoten and Captains Brandon Peter and Chad Cummings, to keep the vessels in top condition.
“The side that nobody sees is all the work that goes into keeping these boats up, with Coast Guard oversight and dry-docking and all that” he says. “Honestly, trying to do this now would be so difficult and expensive. We’re blessed to have started when we did.”
What makes it all worth it?
“We’ve done thousands of cruises for tens of thousands of people,” Smith says. “We see people from all around the world and had a lot of great experiences. The best thing about this, is when you have a nice day and we’re able to get underway and set sail, we shut off the motors and take the whole trip under wind power. People that have never sailed on a boat before—seeing them enjoy it really makes you feel good.
“There are only a handful of large sailing boats in the country that carry this many passengers that you can even go on. Literally, there’s probably five or six,” Smith concludes. “So having one in Norfolk is a rare privilege and an opportunity you don’t just get anywhere. And if you haven’t seen the harbor at sunset, under the red sails…there’s really nothing like it.”