'Virtual Voyage' puts visitors at the helm

June 17, 1994|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Sun Staff Writer

If the idea of sailing a 200-year-old, wooden-hulled schooner through choppy, pirate- and shark-infested waters appeals to you, visit "Virtual Voyage" at the Fells Point Maritime Festival this weekend.

At the dockside exhibit, visitors can don virtual reality gear that instantly puts them in the captain's chair, with total interactive control of helm and navigation.

If you want to raise sails, you can raise sails. If you want to fire cannons, you can fire cannons. (You can't make people walk planks, however.)

It's like a surreal and high-tech Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World, cyberspace-style.

The exhibit is sponsored by the Connecticut-based Tall Ships Foundation. There is no charge to try the exhibit out. However, donations are welcome.

In addition to cyber-sailing, visitors can tour the restored schooner Alexandria, skippered by Capt. Peter Hall, the foundation's chairman. The Alexandria is a 125-foot, top sail, black-hulled schooner. Built in 1929 in Sweden, the ship hauled cargo before being remodeled to carry passengers in the early 1970s.

"People can come and get a feel for the ship, and hopefully get turned on to sailing," says Capt. Hall, the ship's captain. Volunteers and sailing enthusiasts make up the ship's crew.

Capt. Hall is a man serious about his sails. A lifelong seafarer, the former Potomac River tugboat skipper and maritime historian is devoted to the preservation of tall ships. As chairman of the foundation, he is charged with raising funds used to preserve other maritime treasures.

The virtual reality exhibit was funded by an endowment from Cutty Sark Scots Whisky. According to Capt. Hall, Cutty Sark has also pledged an additional $125,000 over the next five years, earmarked for the restoration of five more tall ships.

"The biggest problem is getting the word out about ship restoration," says Capt. Hall, "and Cutty Sark helped us develop this idea of virtual reality to increase awareness and interest."

For those who miss the Alexandria this weekend, Capt. Hall suggests watching the film "Interview with the Vampire," which comes out later this year. The ship makes an appearance alongside Tom Cruise's lead character in the bayous of New Orleans.

Capt. Hall hopes the virtual reality exhibit and the public appearance of tall ships will help landlubbers appreciate sailing's heritage and history.

"I hope to raise about $20,000 this year with the virtual reality show, and I'm trying to attract more corporate sponsors, too," he says.

The Fells Point Maritime Festival, now in its fourth year, runs Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Friday evening, the Alexandria will join other schooners and tugboats in a "Parade of Sails" in the harbor.

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