ABOARD THE PRIDE -- A crescent moon cuts a silver swath across the black of the Chesapeake Bay as Pride of Baltimore II glides quietly toward home on a following breeze. In the hour before dawn, the constellations Orion and Taurus twinkle in the western sky and Polaris, the North Star, is dead ahead.
The quiet is broken only by the whoosh of water chasing the stern of the two-masted schooner or falling away from its hull and the whispered conversations of the three crew members on watch.
Still to come is the exhilarating noontime charge into Annapolis. But for now, Pride sails easily in this light breeze. With only a topsail flying from the foremast, the boat makes nearly 5 knots.
The Pride is so well balanced that holding it on course takes only a light touch at the wheel.
This leisurely pace is a bit unusual, says Kim Hannon, who is taking her turn at the wheel on the 4 a.m.-to-8 a.m. watch.
"Other times, we'd have all the sail up trying to get to the next port on time," she says.
Miss Hannon, 23, of Great Falls, Va., has been on board 2 1/2
months. Like many of the other crew members, she is excited to be returning to Baltimore but a bit sad that the voyage is over.
"We're like family," she says, "and it's hard to think that in a few days it will all be over."
In the past 20 months, Pride has sailed more than 30,000 nautical miles, visiting 40 cities in Europe, including St. Petersburg in the Soviet Union.
"How many people get to go to Russia like this?" marveled Jon Secrest, who turned 24 yesterday.
"They gave us the red-carpet welcome. We went through nearly all our color brochures, and we were signing autographs left and right."
Often, captain and crew on this night on the Chesapeake Bay sounded overwhelmed as they recounted stories of the reception the Pride has received in other ports.
People in Sweden "told us they were devastated when they heard the first Pride was lost," Mr. Secrest recalled. "And they said they're so glad to see a new one."
The original Pride of Baltimore sank May 14, 1986, in a freak storm with the loss of four of its 12 crew members.
Pride II was launched in April 1988 and sailed from Baltimore on this voyage in April 1990.
One of its early ports of call was Baltimore, Ireland, where "the people are real possessive," Capt. Jan Miles said, laughing. "They think it's their boat."
"Their boat!" he exclaimed.
"This boat . . .," second mate Andrea Oliver said, shaking her head in wonder. "It's amazing. People just flock to this boat. I've ,, been on a lot of these kinds of boats, and I've never seen anything like it."
The crew, giddy with anticipation of the last two legs home, cast off from St. Mary's City's dock Friday as the sun sank, taking that day's balmy temperatures with it.
"Is this the one you tie with a granny knot?" deckhand Mike Furbish joked loudly as he helped stow the gangplank.
Although he has enjoyed the crowds that flocked to welcome the boat to England, Scotland, Wales and Germany, Mr. Furbish was looking forward to today's welcome at the Inner Harbor (the Pride is due in about 1:30 p.m.
"There, people come to see you because they know who you are," he said. "But then, I can't say as I'm in a hurry to get off the boat, either."
Maryland's seagoing goodwill ambassador motored quickly down the St. Mary's River to the Potomac and turned into the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout before Captain Miles ordered the topsail set to take advantage of the freshening southerly breeze. Soon, he turned off the engines, and the boat sailed north in near silence.
In the main saloon, Mr. Secrest, of Chevy Chase, only half joked that this dinner would be the last the crew would eat in shifts. And Doug Leasure, at 19 the youngest of the crew, rejoiced that it was the last time he would have dish-washing duty.
"Life at sea is full of evolutions and revolutions," first mate Dan Parrott said. "And as the last time for things rolls around -- especially the things that you thought were a pain -- they take on added significance. Other things that you want to do again and again, you don't talk about."
Although crew members spoke quietly with one another during the night, the "farewelling hasn't really started yet," Mr. Parrott said.
"We still have a lot on our minds. We still have to perform," he said.
The sun shot streaks of pink and purple between the stratus clouds that hugged the Eastern Shore as the breeze began to build. Already, Thomas Point Light flashed nearby, and the red lights of the radio towers at North Severn Naval Station blinked within easy reach.
Captain Miles hove to to wait for show time. It was a chance to clean up. Mops and buckets and sponges appeared magically. The decks were awash with soapy water. Crew polished brass and packed wads of gunpowder for the cannon.
"What must my parents think?" wondered Alyson Layne, who graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County with an English degree, but now was scrubbing the deck of a wooden sailing ship.