Setting a Fateful Course

Its builders made the Pride of Baltimore as authentic as possible -- a decision that helped seal its doom.

Cover Story

April 25, 2004|By Tom Waldron

IN MAY 1986, Baltimore was rocked by the news that the city's goodwill ship, the Pride of Baltimore, had been lost in the Atlantic Ocean. The beautiful schooner had been launched with great civic pride nine years earlier and had become a treasured symbol for a struggling city. Four members of the Pride crew died in the sinking; eight others spent almost five days in a life raft before being rescued by a passing tanker.

In his new book Pride of the Sea (Citadel Press, $23.95), former Baltimore Sun reporter Tom Waldron recounts the story of the life and loss of the Pride. The following excerpt from the book describes the ship's beginnings. A replica of an 1812-era Baltimore clipper, the Pride was designed to be as authentic as possible. The few concessions made in the name of safety would, eventually, not be enough.

OFFICIALS AT THE quasi-public agency redeveloping downtown Baltimore in the early 1970s assigned the job of finding a Baltimore clipper to Jay Scattergood, a lanky, recently discharged Navy jet pilot from Philadelphia. Scattergood, who had sailed on the Chesapeake Bay for years, researched Baltimore clippers and consulted with naval architects. Scattergood, 27, quickly determined that all of the clippers were long gone -- either torn apart, rotted to pieces, or under water. There was one offer worth checking out -- a guy in San Diego offering to sell the city the Golden Dragon, a "replica" clipper he had built. It turned out that the Golden Dragon was only two-thirds the size of the old-time Baltimore clippers and had been built partially with laminated plywood and fiberglass -- not the most authentic of materials.

City officials passed on the Golden Dragon and concluded they would have to build their own sailboat. They also had a marketing brainstorm: the sailboat would be built right in the harbor to give tourists something to watch.

In looking for an architect, Baltimore officials made clear they wanted the boat to be certificated by the Coast Guard as a passenger-carrying vessel or as a sailing-school operation. For such sailboats, Coast Guard regulations set minimum standards for stability and other sailing characteristics to ensure a certain safety level. Other boats -- so-called un-inspected vessels -- did not have to meet such safety requirements, but were prohibited from carrying passengers or students. Naval architects consulted by the city had mixed opinions about the feasibility of building a historic boat to Coast Guard standards. One Massachusetts architect took a look at the city's idea and concluded it would be "unlikely" that a Baltimore clipper replica, with its inherently racy design, could receive Coast Guard approval.

James A. McCurdy, a prominent Long Island architect, agreed, but said there was an alternative. He said his firm could design a historic boat with just enough compromises to accommodate the Coast Guard's safety requirements. The firm had designed two other historic wooden vessels, the Harvey Gamage and the Bill of Rights, both of which were certified by the Coast Guard to carry passengers.

"Our past experience indicates that an exact replica of an old sailing vessel is unlikely to meet Coast Guard requirements," McCurdy wrote to city officials in the summer of 1974. "However, we can see no reason why changes in hull and rig proportions necessary to meet Coast Guard standards could not be accomplished without destroying the flavor and appearance of the vessel."

McCurdy's track record and attention to Coast Guard safety requirements appealed to Scattergood and others at the redevelopment agency, and they attempted to hire his firm. But the process bogged down in early 1975. There were problems getting approval for McCurdy's contract from a municipal bureaucracy that had more experience with asphalt paving companies than with schooner designers. There were concerns about spending more than $300,000 on a boat, a large sum for a financially strapped city in the early 1970s. And there was the nagging question of what the city would do with its boat once it was launched: sail it, dock it, or both.

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