Powered by canvas across the open sea

June 21, 2000|By ARTICLE BY GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE

ABOARD THE ESMERALDA — From downtown Miami, we can see the tops of the four 158-foot masts of the Chilean navy training ship, Esmeralda, towering above this city's port terminal buildings.

Photographer Andre Chung and I will sail aboard the tallest of the tall ships on the six-day voyage to Norfolk en route to Baltimore.

Esmeralda is part of OpSail 2000, a millennium celebration of seafaring, bringing many of the sea's most gracious vessels to Baltimore and seven other East Coast ports.

We find the Esmeralda, a 29-sail barquentine, moored between -- but far from overshadowed by -- two Caribbean-bound mega-liners. It is a contrast between ancient and modern, between refined grace and popular grandeur.

She is a 371-foot, white-hulled beauty, built in 1952 for the Spanish navy, but sold during construction to Chile as a training ship.

We are saluted aboard and ushered along a corridor of rich, dark mahogany paneling, hung with memorabilia of the boat's 44 training voyages and more than 300 port visits.

We pass the private cabins of the ship's 20 officers. We glance into their mess with its inviting corner bar and dominant, gilt-framed portrait of Lt. Ignatio Serrano, a hero from the 1879 naval battle of Iquique against Peru, Chile's last war.

We are shown into the wardroom. A soft light filters through the portholes. A settle with regency-striped gold silk cushions runs round the cabin. We are offered coffee and welcomed by Lt. Edmundo Gonzalez, dentist on a ship that also carries a surgeon, barber and priest.

But we will not enjoy the elegance of the officers' accommodation. We are billeted in the less-opulent, though comfortable enough, quarters of the ship's 70 midshipmen.

We will pass our days and nights with the young graduates of the Chilean naval academy who are spending a year literally learning the ropes on Esmeralda. We will be on deck with them, take meals with them at eight-seat dining tables, share their bathrooms and sleep in three-tiered bunks alongside them.

This is a diary of six days before the mast of a tall ship.

Day One (June 9)

Our first lunch is chicken soup with flat Chilean bread, pasta and a slice of beef, followed by fruit jelly.

Sharing our table is Midshipman 1st Class Jonathan Rockwood of Sacramento, Calif. On an exchange program from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, he has been aboard Esmeralda since it left Puerto Rico on May 27. He tells us that the Chilean navy does things differently from the U.S. Navy.

"It's not necessarily better, or worse -- just different," he says.

Until he saw Esmeralda at the dockside in San Juan, he thought he was joining a modern warship.

"I was extremely impressed and excited," says Rockwood, who hopes to be a naval aviator. "It was an opportunity to be on a sailing ship and experience what sailors of the 18th century did."

At dinner, the salon is almost empty. Most of the ship's crew of 320 are ashore for their last night in Miami. Curfew is 3 a.m., a pre-departure retreat from the normal 8 a.m. roll call while in port. Chilean sailors can stay out all night if they choose, or party aboard during voyages. The evening menu is soup, stuffed zucchini with potato salad and a fresh orange. Beer and wine, banned by the "dry" U.S. Navy, are available in the mess.

Our metal-framed berths prove hard. The first night is full of clanks and bangs as the duty watch gets ready for sea and late-night revelers rush in to beat curfew. Sleep is fitful.

Day Two (June 10)

The morning's shower is cold. It comes in three-second bursts at each press of the button. It's a splash-soap-and-rinse process. Breakfast is a monastic offering of bread, fruit preserves and coffee. The dining room is now crowded with the full complement of midshipmen.

The sun and wind are up, a perfect day to go sailing. After Capt. Edmundo R. Gonzalez delivers the daily orders, sailors in white T-shirts and blue shorts set about the business of setting sail.

They climb the masts to untie topsails and clamber along the bowsprit to prepare the foremost four of the ship's six jibs. The strings of lights that give the Esmeralda its sparkling nocturnal silhouette are stripped off. Water pipes are disconnected, mooring ropes readied for release.

Lunch is a hurried, excited meal. Midshipmen change quickly into their white dress uniforms. The 61 who will line the yardarms more than 100 feet above the deck tuck their trousers into their socks for safety, then head aloft. They know the wire on which they must perch for two hours of ceremony will press painfully through their thin soles.

The destroyer USS John Hancock heads the Parade of Sail along the main channel out of Miami, followed by the barque Eagle, the Coast Guard's 295-foot flagship, then the Danmark.

Under engine power, we fall into line astern of the 253-foot Danish training ship. Behind us comes Colombia's 249-foot Gloria and the rest of the majestic tall ship fleet.

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