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Tennessee's 'Vol Navy' is a staple of home games in Knoxville

Saturday, November 10, 2012 | 11:35 a.m. CST; updated 12:23 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 10, 2012
Tennessee fans tailgate with the Volunteer Navy on the Tennessee River outside Neyland Stadium before the Missouri football game against Tennessee on Saturday. Tailgates are held on about 200 boats before each game.

KNOXVILLE — Just east of Neyland Stadium, home of the Tennessee Volunteers football team, the Tennessee River runs through Knoxville. On Friday afternoons before home football games, boats slowly begin to arrive on the dock on the east side of the river, setting anchor in the murky greenish-blue waters.

As the sun sets and the lights from nearby street lamps reflect off the calm waters below, more and more boats arrive — most flying a bright orange flag overhead. Printed on the flag is a large white “T,” with an anchor jutting out of the bottom of it. The occupants wave to each other, celebrating a weekly reunion of kindred souls.

Each sailor is a proud member of the “Vol Navy,” if only for a game.

At Missouri, fans tailgate wherever they can find the space, setting up tents and lawn chairs behind parked cars, creating lines of portable grills up and down the aisles of crowded parking lots.

The situation at Tennessee is similar, yet so much different.

Instead of arriving on land, many Tennessee fans sail down river and set up shop on the dock at “Volunteer Landing” in a line alongside dozens of other boats. Only one road — Neyland Drive — and a set of train tracks separates the edge of the Tennessee River and the brick football stadium that serves as the final destination for most of the sailors.

Here, as each boat rocks lazily from side to side, fans congregate in anticipation of the next day’s game.

They don’t tailgate. They sailgate.

The basics are the same. Most boats are stocked with grills, televisions, stereos and alcohol. Washed up on the gray rocks on the edge of the river, several orange plastic cups serve as small reminders of past home games.

Dwight Church, a member of the “Vol Navy” since 1975, owns one of the boats parked on the south side of the fleet. A sleek, white 60-foot long boat, “C Lady” sits in a line alongside a few other boats, all of which belong to Church’s friends.

His boat, as he explained it, has everything a football fan needs to prepare for a big game. Ovens, stoves and washing machines are built into the wall in the small kitchen area that is located adjacent to the living room. A flat-screen TV slides down from the ceiling in front of two couches, providing satellite television so Church can monitor the progress of Tennessee’s SEC rivals.

At least, that’s the plan.

“Service expired, that’s good,” Church said sarcastically late on Friday afternoon, after turning on the television to see nothing but a black screen. “We’ll have to go through that whole operation of calling DIRECTV. I’ll get it done, don’t you worry.”

There are three bedrooms in the boat, plenty of room for Church, his family and friends to sleep on Friday nights before a game. Each bedroom is equipped with another television, each complete with surround sound.

Upstairs, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” plays faintly out of stereo speakers. No one seems to notice. Church’s guests in the cabin are preoccupied, sipping on vodka cranberries and preparing soups and salads, a first course in a long dinner to come.

The next morning, more boats continue to arrive as the game against new SEC opponent Missouri steadily approaches. As the sun beats down and sends sparkles off the river water beside it, the “See Dog” sits docked alongside other boats, with its owner sitting comfortably inside.

Gary See, who bought the boat three years ago, reads a newspaper and snacks on mixed nuts. As he looks around and greets his neighbors beside him, See explains that the “Vol Navy” is a family of strangers, Tennessee fans who congregate for a few days and then go their separate ways.

“For most of us, this is the only time we see each other. We’re not friends away from the ‘Vol Navy.’ But it’s fun,” See said. “We have coffee in the morning together…and obviously, cocktails at night.”

The fact that the football team is only 4-5 hasn’t altered the mood at “Volunteer Landing.”

Sammy Jones, a longtime regular at the dock, demonstrates this passion. His pants are checkered bright orange and white, mimicking the pattern of Tennessee’s end zones. He wears a white collared Tennessee shirt, and his hair is hidden beneath a hat that features black, orange and white spikes that jut out vertically.

He is a die-hard fan. He owns season tickets, but he rarely, if ever, goes to the game. His boat, the “Tenn Angel,” is the place where he prefers to watch his football games.

“I have season tickets, and I rarely go to the game. I won’t go today,” Jones said. “I’m happy to just sit here and watch it on the TV.

“You’re still in the atmosphere. You see the fireworks going off,” he said, motioning to Neyland Stadium, looming in the distance to the northwest. “You’re right in the middle of it.”

After the game, whether Tennessee wins or loses, there will inevitably be a big party down on the river. The boats will rock from side to side again, as the sailors meander from one boat to the other, laughing and chatting with friends old and new.

Eventually, the boats will drift away, as the “Vol Navy” disbands and “Volunteer Landing” is left calm, quiet and lonely once again.


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