Voyage through memory

Volunteers: The Liberty ship John W. Brown's crew sails it from Baltimore to Toledo, Ohio, for repairs. It will return in August, educating visitors along the way.

May 30, 2000|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A crew of aging volunteer seafarers from Baltimore has sailed the restored Liberty ship John W. Brown into Toledo, Ohio, ahead of schedule and in fine shape after a voyage of 2,354 miles, the steamship's longest nonstop trip since World War II.

"We're all here in one piece," chief mate Richard "Rick" Bauman Jr. said of the 58-year-old ship and its crew, men and women whose average age is 68. No one got sick on the trip, he reported, and injuries were limited to a few sore muscles and bruises.

"There was no trouble" with engine, ship or crew, Bauman said after the ship tied up in Toledo at 2: 15 p.m. Saturday, almost four hours ahead of schedule after a 12-day cruise from Baltimore. He listed only minor problems: a seaweed-clogged water pump, an engine bearing running a little hot and some life jacket cages getting loose in the No. 3 hold.

The trip was the longest leg on the Brown's planned 5,167-mile voyage to the Great Lakes and back, its most ambitious trip since it was revived by a nonprofit group of volunteers in 1991. The trip's main goals are new rivets for the ship, educating visitors about World War II and offering its mostly veteran mariners a chance to answer the call of the sea.

"We rolled 15 degrees while passing Nova Scotia -- not rough, but we knew we were at sea," said Bauman, 46, a Chesapeake Bay pilot from Pikesville. In the hazardous North Atlantic, fog lay ahead of and behind the Brown but never enveloped the vessel. The weather for the voyage was generally favorable, Bauman said, and Friday, the day the ship the ship entered Lake Erie, was a beautiful day.

Hundreds of ship buffs in the Great Lakes region who had heard about the Brown's trip lined the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Welland Canal and other spots taking pictures as the vessel passed.

Bauman said the old steamship impressed the 10 Great Lakes pilots who guided the Brown through the seven seaway locks and the 10 Welland locks.

" `This is a marvelous ship. It handles just like the old-fashioned ships,' " Bauman quoted one pilot as saying. On its way to Toledo, the Brown steamed higher and farther north than it had since it was launched in Baltimore in 1942 as a cargo and troop ship. It sailed across Lake Erie to Toledo at 570 feet above sea level. Near chilly Newfoundland, it steamed at 49 degrees, 38 minutes north.

Dry dock

The 54 crewmen who sailed the ship to Toledo are to return home Thursday, the same day the ship is to enter dry dock at Toledo Ship Repair Co. for six weeks of rivet replacement and other repairs. After a brief stay at home, a skeleton crew of seven, led by chief engineer DeLacy Cook of Lutherville, will return to the Brown to guide the repair work.

The work is necessary to keep the old ship afloat. The Brown and the Jeremiah O'Brien, in San Francisco, are the only two Liberty ships still sailing out of 2,751 built during World War II. Almost all of the others are gone.

The age of the crew on the Baltimore-Toledo voyage ranged from 21 to 80. The oldest was lifelong merchant seaman Charles "Blackie" Blockston, junior third engineer from Baltimore, who almost 60 years ago was bombed, shipwrecked, cast adrift in a life raft in the North Atlantic, and captured and eventually imprisoned by the Germans. The youngest was cadet Charles Chappell, a junior at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y.

The voyage was a relief for sea dogs such as bosun Ed Agnew, a longtime merchant seaman from Lewes, Del., who had been itching to go to sea. Two years ago, in his early 70s, he passed tests renewing his able seaman's license. He and other crewmen spent the winter moving heavy loads to prepare the Baltimore ship for this voyage.

`Seamen's jobs'

"We've got to do more than be donkeys carrying loads up and down ladders," he said one day in the crew's mess. "We need to do seamen's jobs -- line handling, working the rigging, steering -- or there won't be any seamen left."

For fun, many in the crew, led by 77-year-old Fritz Glos of Perry Hall, stopped shaving during trip preparations. A machinist for 35 years with American Can Co. in Baltimore, Glos -- dubbed "Poop Deck Pappy" for his wartime service as a gunner's mate in the Navy Armed Guard -- served as the Brown's bosun's mate.

Other crew members did "marlin spike seamanship," splicing and working on lines (a marlin spike is a pointed metal or wood cylinder used to undo knots). Others performed routine shipboard chores and secured 11 wooden fenders for the tight canal locks. Some had traditional four-hour watches twice daily, and others were day workers.

The long wait to get under way was made longer May 15, when the ship's departure from Canton's Pier 1, set for 6 p.m., was delayed by a radar problem. But spirits lifted at 2:43 a.m. the next morning, when the ship departed.

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