THE HOOPLA surrounding America's celebration of its bicentennial in 1976 included an imposing array of tall ships, which conjured up images of harbors cluttered with wooden-hulled boats, masts and sails in the two centuries since the country was founded.
Unlike the armada of tall ships which sailed up the East Coast to nestle in Baltimore Harbor this past week, the event of '76 had the ships setting sail from Bermuda to New York, with the majority of them then heading south to Baltimore.
Before their arrival here, there were sets of photographs available of them traveling the high seas or with Manhattan as a background. Were we going to have to settle for our tall ships against those backdrops? I wanted the Key Highway shipyard cranes or Fort McHenry behind them.
Upon reading in The Sun that tugboats would be escorting each of the historic vessels into the city, I received permission to be on board the work boats each day as they met at the Bay Bridge.
"We leave at 5 a.m.," the tugboat captain warned me. "Don't be late."
Be late? I stayed awake until 4 a.m., ensuring that I would not miss the big event. The tug departed from Fells Point in darkness, but as the first glimmer of light appeared in the sky, the silhouette of the three-masted Gorch Fock, hailing from what was then West Germany, appeared on the distant horizon.
I knew that the constant movement of the tug and its ever-changing juxtaposition with each sailing ship would make drawing or painting on board impossible, so I began snapping photos.
As I became acquainted with the tugboat captains, they were most cooperative. "How's this?" one of them queried the next day as he escorted the Coast Guard's Eagle toward the Inner Harbor. Poised beside the wheelhouse, I responded "Would you mind swinging around to the starboard side and then back off 100 yards or so? My camera isn't equipped with a wide-angle lens."
"Well," he replied, "there's a Coast Guard cutter following behind the Eagle, but since we're the work boat, we have the right-of-way." So the tug made the move.
On Sunday, July 10, when the tall ships attracted a crowd estimated at 100,000, I assumed my accustomed perch beside the wheelhouse. A giant orange boom had been stretched across the Inner Harbor, so only the tug could gain admission to the sacred waters where the tall ships had docked bow to stern.
With throngs of people everywhere, the tugboat captain told me: "I want to do a 360-degree turn in the Inner Harbor first, and then I'll stop anywhere you want to take more pictures." And I snapped away at will.
Despite my pleasure with the set of colored ink drawings which were reproduced as a portfolio, there remained one embarrassing memory of that event. As one fellow artist after another asked me during the ensuing weeks: "I was so far back in the crowd I couldn't even get a good look at the tall ships, but I saw someone beside the tugboat wheelhouse taking photos who looked just like you. Could you have been that lucky?"
I was moved to confess.
Bennard Perlman, a native of Baltimore, is an artist and a writer and has been using the Baltimore Harbor as a subject of drawings and paintings since he was 14.