The boat as backdrop

December 19, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- You might call it Hornblower's Revenge, after C.S. Forrester's fictional sea captain. It must be contagious, because it's certainly widespread. Every town on the water wants a boat of its own, especially an historic one that tourists will pay to visit.

Ego as well as economics is involved here. Authenticity, or at least a passable imitation of it, is a big deal along the modern waterfront. And there's nothing like a nice old boat to authenticate a community's historic pedigree and blow the municipal horn. It's almost as good as being in a movie.

If the boat just sits there it's OK, but if it actually goes places or does things it's even better. Havre de Grace doesn't own the skipjack Martha Lewis, but she's home-ported here by the foundation that operates her, and whether she's off down the bay dredging for oysters in the winter or carrying passengers for charter in the summer, she's quite a local attraction.

And of course the current Pride of Baltimore, which has flown the flags of the city and the state all around the world, is a much more glittery ornament. Conceived in tragedy, after her predecessor was lost at sea, she's been a spectacular success, and remains the envy of countless other alongshore communities that consider themselves much more deserving of such a glamorous vessel than dowdy old Baltimore.

Some of these wannabe towns have embarked on misadventures afloat and gotten in over their heads, to use a marine metaphor. A good example is Alexandria, Virginia. In 1985, noting the attention drawn to Baltimore by the first Pride, a local foundation bought an old schooner, named her the Alexandria and set out to sail and restore her. It was not a good investment.

She made some successful goodwill voyages, but she gobbled money and labor, much but not all of it volunteer. Last month she was sold for an embarrassing $25,000, less than 10 percent of what she'd cost even before the several hundred thousand dollars of repairs she required, to a fellow from the Midwest who rashly thought he'd sail her south.

She made it to sea, but she leaked like a Senate committee. The wind breezed up, the engine died, and the pumps quit working. She went to the bottom of the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast on December 9. The Coast Guard, amazingly under the difficult circumstances, rescued the seven people on board, although not the two dogs.

In Baltimore, of course, the loss of the first Pride after some 150,000 miles of sailing led directly to the construction of the second -- a slightly larger, less authentic and much safer vessel. The second Pride, launched nine years ago next April, was partially paid for by the insurance on the first, but the million dollars the state of Maryland invested in her has been money well spent.

Floating is enough

Which brings us to the current local wooden-boat project, the poor old Constellation, now being rebuilt to the tune of $9 million, even though it's understood by all concerned that the 142-year-old relic won't ever sail again. Assured flotation, not navigation, is her goal. If she can stay dockside and help draw people and dollars downtown, she'll be considered a success.

Some in what might loosely be called the traditional marine community, including sailors and serious maritime historians who strongly backed both Prides, are astounded and even outraged to see all that money now being poured into that particular hole in the water in the name of historic preservation.

As history, they say quite correctly, the Constellation's a crock, and to many an embarrassment as well. A great many people spent a great deal of time and effort trying to mislead the public about her background. It was only five years ago that this deception, which included outright lies and forged documents, was finally exposed.

She was not the Constellation launched in Baltimore in 1797, a few weeks before her sister frigate Constitution was launched in Boston, and so she was not, as she had long been promoted as being, ''the oldest ship in the Navy.'' She had the old frigate's name, but she was actually built in the Norfolk yard where her namesake was broken up, and she was launched in 1854.

The great naval historian Howard Chapelle was pilloried after he pointed this out in a newspaper article in 1948, and for 40 years, most of which the surviving Constellation spent in Baltimore, a determined cover-up continued. But eventually, thanks to two determined Navy researchers, the indisputable truth came out.

It made no difference. At vast expense, the 1854 ship is being preserved anyway, still in the name of history. Peter Spectre, who reported the whole saga for WoodenBoat magazine in 1992, has a good fix on why this is so.

It's not about history at all, he recently commented to Angus Phillips of the Washington Post. It's about commerce. ''It's to get people to come to the waterfront and buy some plastic belaying pin made in Taiwan. They don't care about the boat; it's a backdrop.''

That's not so terrible, perhaps. Waterfront cities need backdrops to draw those tourist dollars. But 9 million is a lot of dollars, and it's hard not to wonder if Baltimore shouldn't have followed Alexandria's lead, found some fool from Ohio to buy the Constellation for a promise and a handshake, and sent them both out to sea.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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