The Gazela Primeiro of Philadelphia, crafted in Portugal in the 1880s and once a fishing vessel in the treacherous North Atlantic, is docking here until Sunday.

A 19th-century stop in Annapolis waters

June 24, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A beautiful historic vessel, a tall ship from Philadelphia, just sailed in from Alexandria, Va., to call on Annapolis and is anchored in the Severn River until Sunday, easy to see from Eastport and the U.S. Naval Academy seawall.

Some may wonder why the Gazela Primeiro of Philadelphia, a 180-foot square-rigged sailing ship made in Portugal, isn't parked in the middle of the City Dock scene, the better to show off its crisp lines and 1880s design.

The answer is simple: the tall ship draws 17 feet of water and so must keep a safe distance from the dock's shallow waters. With the main deck about 10 feet above the waterline, the best way up and aboard is a rope ladder.

The square masts, which seem to frame the sky, have seen their share of star power. Brad Pitt filmed a few scenes of the movie Interview With the Vampire aboard the Gazela in New Orleans about a dozen years ago.

On Wednesday, first mate Rigel Crockett of Savannah, Ga., hoisted a welcoming courtesy flag from the "maritime republic" of nearby Eastport to make the vessel seem more at home in the waters. The visiting tall ship was later a destination for those sailing the Annapolis Yacht Club's Wednesday night races.

"When you visit a port, you fly its flag," the first mate said.

What Crockett, 30, wants people to know is that the Gazela is not just a pretty ship, but a sturdy veteran of the treacherous North Atlantic codfishing waters - also known as "perfect storm" territory.

For most of the 20th century, the wooden ship went out for five or six months with a 35-man crew and turned back home only when the 350-ton capacity fish hold was full.

"This is the real deal, the oldest square rig in the world," Crockett said. "It goes straight and it's so well-conceived.

"All those lessons that naval architects learned for years are in here. It was made at the height of the age of sail."

The 1880s, considered a golden age of shipbuilding, produced the Portuguese ocean fishing ship that Philadelphia now relies on as an ambassador of good will, similar to the Pride of Baltimore.

But the Gazela is twice as long as the Pride and cuts a more impressive figure at sea than the Chesapeake Bay schooner, which rides lower in the water. The Gazela's home berth is in the Delaware River at Philadelphia's Penn's Landing, the pier where it will return for the Fourth of July.

Joseph J. DiPrimio, an Annapolis resident, lawyer and technology businessman who recently moved here from Philadelphia, said he oversaw a $5 million restoration of the Gazela in the last few years.

As former chairman of the nonprofit Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild, which owns and manages the ship, DiPrimio said he would like to make sure this week's visit is a herald of more to come - perhaps even making Annapolis a regular stop on the ship's schedule.

"This [ship] is a historic preservation project," DiPrimio said as he stood aboard the Gazela. "And Philadelphia's not that far by water. Annapolis was once the capital of the United States, and so was Philadelphia. There's something about the two cities [in history], and so much we can do now."

Philanthropist William Wikoff Smith brought the Gazela to Philadelphia in 1971 to restore it and keep it viable for another few generations.

Surveying the decks, being painted in places by a crew of volunteers, DiPrimio said, "When you have a treasure like this, you want to keep it as pristine as possible."

He said the sailing programs for disadvantaged youth and apprentice ship crews and builders offer a "life-changing experience."

"When they take responsibility for a ship, they see a bit of themselves in the ship," he said.

Officers' quarters below are still spare, with the galley on deck and Portuguese telegraph signals preserved in the engine room. When not under sail, the ship runs on a 540-horsepower diesel engine, Crockett said.

The secret of its survival from the 19th to the 21st century comes down to one thing: the salt that kept the fish in the hold from spoiling.

"Salt's a preservative," Crockett said. "That's why it lasted so long."

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