Down to the Sea in Ships

PETER A. JAY

September 27, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — Use the term "traditional vessel" up here at the mouth of the Susquehanna, and waterfront old-timers would probably think you meant a duck-hunter's sinkbox, banned since 1934, or maybe a shoal-draft wooden skiff like the ones Earl Ashenfelter used for so many years to fish the rocky shallows below Conowingo.

But there's an appreciation for larger craft too. The fast-growing Havre de Grace Maritime Museum has its own old skipjack, safely berthed on dry land. And when such visitors as the elegant Lady Maryland or the cumbersome replica the Maryland Dove are in town, they draw their share of salty visitors along with the tourists.

So it was that last weekend, word spread quickly that there was something really worth seeing down by the water. Two tall, sharply-raked masts soared above the underbrush of aluminum spars at Tidewater Marina. The Pride of Baltimore II was here.

She looked, as she always does, both lovely and traditional -- though she is less authentic, and much safer, than her predecessor, lost at sea in 1986. The old Pride was a true replica of a Baltimore clipper, a wild and skittery thoroughbred of a sailing ship. Pride II was built to evoke the romance of the breed, but also to do a job.

She is a traditional topsail schooner that can spread a lot of canvas -- nine sails, when all are set. But she was built for more than plain speed under sail. She's bigger than the old Pride, and is said to be much more comfortable below. She has two big non-traditional but highly reliable diesel engines.

In a sense, the philosophy that gave Baltimore the two Prides is the same one that gave it Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It holds that if a project is worth doing in the name of the city, it is worth doing elegantly, whatever the cost.

Even if you believe, as many do in these difficult times, that it is inappropriate to spend public funds on traditional sailing ships or traditional baseball parks, the philosophy that won international recognition for these very different projects commands respect. It is elitist in the best sense. It says implicitly that quality matters. It says there is a difference between the best and the second-rate, and that Baltimore prefers the former.

If the city could reintroduce this thinking into its schools, say, where it used to flourish before quality and achievement became politically incorrect concepts, a major corner would have been turned. But that's a digression from today's topic, which is mostly maritime.

The Baltimore clipper, memorialized by both Prides, was a remarkable technological achievement in its day. "There is no type of vessel that has so much romantic and historical interest to Americans," wrote the naval historian Howard Chappelle in Part of the romance arose from the uses, frequently illegal, to which the clippers were put.

The fast mid-sized Baltimore clippers were often employed as slavers, smugglers and privateers in the early 19th century. As products of the shipbuilder's art, they were more admired and copied than the much larger square-rigged clipper ships which raced around the Horn following the California gold rush. Yet the square-riggers are more famous today.

Is it inappropriate for the Pride II, and other traditional craft such as Californian and Spirit of Massachusetts, to keep alive both technology and memories from the great age of sail? Surely not. These ships and their young crews, appearing as they do in ports around the world, are extraordinary advertisements for the places whose people underwrite their voyages.

This is true in the Baltic Sea, and it's true too in waters closer to home. Seeing the Pride of Baltimore II along the bulkhead in Havre de Grace certainly gave people here a more positive reason for thinking of Baltimore than most newspaper headlines have provided recently. That can't be a bad thing.

Last summer, the Pride was in Europe. She and her crew of 12 sailed her home to the Chesapeake from Cadiz, with stops in the Canary and Virgin Islands, and arrived in St. Mary's City last Thanksgiving Day. She's sailed a good many thousand miles, and if those who see her are fortunate, those who have sailed with her are more fortunate by far.

Joshua Slocum, who single-handedly sailed a 37-foot sloop around the world in the 1890s, when he was in his 50s, and then wrote one of the great sailing books of all time about it, had one piece of advice for those thinking of going to sea. "To young men contemplating a voyage I would say go," said the captain. Or, as a Baltimore philosopher might put it, Do It Now.

The existence of the Pride of Baltimore II says to young men, and certainly to young women too, that it's still not to late to go to sea. That's a message worth carrying around the world, or even up the Susquehanna to Havre de Grace.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.

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