Uncharted Waters

As it sails into its second quarter-century, the `Pride of Baltimore' faces questions about its future course.

April 16, 2002|By Tom Waldron | Tom Waldron,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's only fitting that William Donald Schaefer will be honored tonight at a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Pride of Baltimore.

While many people can take some credit for the idea, then-Mayor Schaefer made the Pride a reality. Indeed, the notion of a Pride of Baltimore was utterly Schaeferesque: unconventional yet historically evocative; inspired but not particularly well-conceived.

It was around the time of the nation's bicentennial, and Baltimore had fallen into decline. New development was under way downtown, but the city needed some panache.

"I want something on the waterfront," Schaefer told his aides. "I don't know what it is, just bring me something."

What they brought him was a proposal for a Baltimore clipper -- the sort of fast, two-masted schooner once favored by speed-hungry privateers and last constructed more than 150 years earlier. Schaefer, the master of the grand gesture, was thrilled.

The mayor found federal urban renewal funds to pay for the project, and he visited the makeshift boatyard in the Inner Harbor day after day to watch the Pride take shape.

On May 1, 1977, Schaefer recorded the first entry in the ship's log, and the Pride of Baltimore, historically authentic to a fault, sailed into the Chesapeake.

"I thought I'd go out of my mind, I was so happy," Schaefer, now the state comptroller, told me as I researched the Pride's history last year.

A quarter-century later, the Pride of Baltimore II continues to take the city's name to ports around the country and much of the world. The Pride II completes its winter maintenance and makes its season debut this week, as host tonight of the anniversary gala. It will help greet the armada of yachts arriving for the annual Waterfront Festival this week before sailing off for Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Gulf of Mexico.

Although now is a time to mark an important anniversary -- and remember the four crew members who died on the original Pride during a voyage in 1986 -- some people associated with the Pride are also quietly wondering about the long-term prospects for the beautiful ship.

While it continues to be a source of civic pride for many, for others, the novelty of the ship seems to be wearing off. Many would-be donors take the ship for granted; others, like some of the big corporations that have left the city, are no longer around to help fund it. With an annual budget of about $1 million, much of it from state and city grants, and an insufficient endowment, the private, nonprofit Pride organization is under constant pressure to raise money.

Given all that, after 25 years, even a diehard civic booster must stop to ask: How many goodwill missions can -- or should -- the city's sailing ship undertake? Is it time to rethink the Pride's purpose?

The Pride of Baltimore was originally supposed to be a floating museum in the Inner Harbor. But the 1970s introduced Baltimore and much of the nation to the glory of tall ships, and city officials decided that its new boat, with its clouds of sail and cute little cannon, should go to sea as well. Early on, there were trips to Bermuda and up the East Coast. The Pride sailed the Great Lakes, and later went through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast to Canada.

Finally, in 1985, Pride officials sent the ship across the ocean for the first time, to Europe. The Pride made stops in Ireland, sailed under the Tower Bridge in London and called on still-Communist Poland.

After a winter in Spain, the Pride was scheduled to spend much of 1986 sailing through the Mediterranean. But when Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October 1985, alarm bells sounded in the Pride's office and the board of directors voted to cancel the 1986 tour. Europe, it was decided, was too dangerous. The Pride instead sailed west to the Caribbean with few problems.

But on May 14, 1986, as the Pride headed north toward Norfolk, Va., a vicious squall overwhelmed the crew and pushed the boat on its side. Water rushed in through the one open hatch. Like the Baltimore clippers of the early 19th century, the Pride had no watertight bulkheads, and the boat sank in minutes.

Four of the 12 crew members died -- Capt. Armin E. Elsaesser III, Vincent Lazzaro, Barry Duckworth and Nina Schack. The eight others made it into a life raft and bobbed in the ocean with almost no water or food for more than four days, before finally being rescued by a Norwegian tanker.

News of the sinking rocked Baltimore. Even as memorial services were being planned, people began clamoring for a new ship to replace the Pride. Radio stations launched fund-raising drives and unsolicited checks for thousands of dollars arrived in the mail.

Children delivered jars filled with coins they had collected. Despite misgivings by Schaefer and others, the Pride of Baltimore organization felt it had little choice and voted to build a second ship.

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