The Pride, down to the sea, is tragedy

April 11, 2004|By Ray Holton | Ray Holton,Special to the Sun

Pride of the Sea: Courage, Disaster, and a Fight for Survival, by Tom Waldron. Citadel. 293 pages. $23.95.

Life-and-death adventure is built into sea disaster books. Struggles for survival in cataclysmic circumstances yield unforgettable yarns for lay readers and become textbooks for seafarers hoping to learn from others' experiences.

Pride of the Sea is a book that will satisfy both audiences. It is an excellent account by a former newspaper reporter who presents a damning analysis of the disaster -- the sinking of the Pride of Baltimore in May 1986. At the same time, Tom Waldron makes a supreme effort to accord a certain dignity to all of those involved, especially the 12-person crew, four of whom perished, including the captain.

The Pride of Baltimore was a replica of the Baltimore clipper schooners that played havoc with the British in the War of 1812. They were long (100 feet), slender, fast and low in the water, but with an extremely tall double-masted rig. The replica was built as a promotional vessel for the City of Baltimore the Bicentennial year of 1976. Originally, it was to be a centerpiece in the Inner Harbor development, but midway through the construction, the founders of the project decided the ship should sail the oceans, promoting Baltimore.

Unfortunately, they did not modify the design of the ship in any significant way to meet today's oceangoing standards. In fact, they made a conscious decision not to have the vessel certified by the U.S. Coast Guard, ignoring the fate of many clipper ships that were lost at sea in the 19th century. Thus, Pride went to sea for nine years, suffering various calamities in heavy weather: a snapped jib boom and fore-topmast, a grounding, a near-fatal accident in which two crew members were washed overboard into the Baltic Sea and, finally, the sinking.

The boat was top-heavy in design and carried no ballast in its keel. The leaky ship could not take winds higher than 40 to 50 knots on the beam without capsizing. Nonetheless, in heavy weather, hatches were left open and crew members did not wear PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices). An EPIRB (an emergency device for transmitting a ship's position by satellite) was secured below deck and was not deployed. A ditch kit, which generally contains flares, a waterproof VHF radio, a second EPIRB, and other survival gear, was never mentioned in the book.

The surprise squall that sunk Pride with gusts of 60 knots slammed the beam as the ship sailed 300 miles north of Puerto Rico heading from the Caribbean to Norfolk and Baltimore. The captain and largely young and under-experienced crew struggled to reduce sail. The final order to head off the wind instead of turning into it contributed to the ship's doom.

Waldron carefully re-creates the chaotic moments as the crew scrambled for survival. The eight who wound up in a barely operable life raft (another life raft did not stay inflated) survived four days at sea until they were rescued by a passing oil tanker.

The story continues with funerals, memorials, the construction of Pride of Baltimore II (built to modern standards), a superficial federal investigation and two lawsuits resulting in modest settlements. In the end, though, the mother of one of the dead crew members summed up the tragedy best: "The sea beguiled them all. It fooled the hell right out of them."

Ray Holton of Bethlehem, Pa., is the former editor and senior vice president of The Morning Call in the Lehigh Valley, Pa. He reviews books while aboard his 39-foot cutter-rigged sloop with his wife, Donna, in the Caribbean.

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