Waves of excitement during ship's launch

Sultana: Thousands in Chestertown celebrate as a Colonial-era schooner replica is placed into the water.

March 25, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

She's been the talk of Chestertown for three years now, so it made sense to townspeople and tourists alike to turn out at the water's edge yesterday to watch in wonder as the voluptuous Sultana took her first official dip.

At the very moment the replica of a Colonial-era schooner touched the gray-green water of the Chester River, a crowd of nearly 5,000 onlookers burst into loud cheers. Cannons were fired and sailboats in the water nearby tooted their horns.

"May the Sultana sail again!" shouted Aly Conran, 10, of Westminster, who launched a gauze-wrapped bottle of champagne at the ship's bow just moments before it was hefted skyward in a magnificent show of power by a giant floating crane.

As the large canvas slings that cradled the boat for its brief flight grew taut, those standing nearby heard creaks and whines. Tiny bits of paint broke loose from the Sultana's creamy white hull as it was lifted off its trailer. "This is it," some volunteer crew members cried. "There she goes. There she goes."

The crane, which was moved into place by Army re- servists Friday morning, lifted all 112,000 pounds of the ship up and over a lamppost and into the river. The crane was used to set the schooner's masts, as well.

"This is probably the proudest day of my life," said John Swain, an Eastern Shore boat builder who helped get the Sultana project off the ground in 1998. "This ship represents thousands of hours of work."

Swain wasn't the only one in Chestertown who got a bit misty-eyed as the Sultana -- a vision in gold, black and white -- floated proudly on its own. All those hours of back-breaking, eye-straining and muscle-popping labor paid off splendidly yesterday.

"It's thrilling," said Mickey Elsberg, who is co-chairman of the Sultana Shipmates, which raised money to finance the $1 million project. "I was with my wife in the delivery room when our three sons were born, and this is a similar thrill."

Elsberg and the Sultana Shipmates presented Swain with six coins -- two 18th-century British half-pennies, two Maryland quarters, and two Sacajawea dollars -- to be placed under the boat's masts for good luck.

Standing on the brick-red deck of the Sultana a few minutes before it was put into the river, Josh Herman, one of four professional shipwrights who did most of the detail work on the ship, yelled down to a friend that everything was "suddenly very real."

"We're tying things off and boat's moving a bit," he called out. "It's getting to be that time."

Conran, the girl with the champagne, also helped build the vessel, as did a crew of hundreds of schoolchildren, some of whom returned yesterday to see if the Sultana they saw in various stages of construction would float. They weren't disappointed.

Brian Whalen, 11, of Sudlersville visited the Sultana about a month ago when it was under cover at a shipyard in another part of town. Whalen, like other pupils who visited the construction site, watched as master craftsmen used chunks of oak and Osage orange to re-create a piece of Colonial history.

"We got to look inside the boat," Whalen said. "It was exciting. It was something different."

The Sultana will continue to function as a working classroom. It will be used to teach students about life in Maryland in the 18th century, when British Royal Navy ships patrolled the Chesapeake. The ship will be captained by Gioia Blix, who worked on a Hudson River sloop headquartered in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., before joining the Sultana crew.

At yesterday's inaugural event, Chestertown Mayor Margo Bailey said the Sultana project had "energized" the town and the entire state. As the vessel was ferried by truck from the shipyard to the river front early Friday morning, she was overcome with emotion.

"When I saw the stern turn out on High Street and saw `Chestertown, Maryland,' I tell you, there wasn't a dry eye in the house," she said. The town's name is painted in large black letters along the Sultana's transom, or rear area.

Chestertown residents Willy Gale, 39, and Jeff Conner, 34, said the Sultana has given residents a reason to celebrate. Friday might as well have been a holiday, said Gale. No one felt like working. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of the ship.

Conner, who used his kayak to get a closer look at the Sultana, said he wanted to ride the first wave as it hit the water. Unfortunately for Conner, the crane operator was so careful with the schooner that it barely made a ripple.

"Still, it was fabulous," Conner said. "To be so close to it. I was right there. The police asked me to move back."

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