Repaired Pride almost ready to sail

March 09, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

After the masts came down with a splintering crack and then a crash, after 10 tons of rigging hit the deck or plunged into the sea, after several crew members burrowed out from under the fallen sails and stood up in the sunlight again, miraculously unhurt, there was a moment as quiet as the sea had become. The squall had passed; shock was just setting in. Sailor Alan Morse stared at the heaps of broken wood, tangled rope and wires.

"After a couple of seconds, it was like, `Now what?'" the 25-year-old said.

The crippled Pride of Baltimore II was in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, 100 miles from shore. The plotted course that Sept. 5 day led from Torquay, England, to Santander, Spain, but after the storm felled the masts it was clear that Maryland's goodwill ambassador was going to have to make a run for coastal France.

The only sizable port downwind, the captain could see on his charts, was a city called Saint-Nazaire. "And no one knew anything about it," Capt. Jan C. Miles said.

The 100-foot vessel and crew have been there ever since, effectively stranded while the 19th-century replica clipper undergoes extensive repairs, now almost complete. The 12 sailors -- most of whom had signed on for a tour of the Mediterranean and the excitement of a trans-Atlantic sail -- swapped their nautical adventures for cultural ones.

Motoring up the river that leads into Saint-Nazaire the morning of Sept. 6, the mauled Pride was a sorry sight, its masts snapped and its rigging dragging in the water behind it like a fishing net. The situation could have been far worse, the sailors knew: In 1986, the original Pride sank off the coast of Puerto Rico, and the captain and three crew members were killed.

But it was still a painful journey for crew members accustomed to admiring looks for their state-owned tall ship, which travels the world for months at a time -- this tour began in Annapolis on May 2 and was supposed to end in early December -- raising awareness about Maryland.

"We didn't look like a boat anymore," said Miles, 55, of Pasadena, in one of a number of telephone interviews for this article. "We were just a lump of something."

Local residents strolling the waterfront and sitting on balconies above the river stared at the wounded craft. So did men operating the system of locks that led into the port's tidal basins, and other sailors.

"There was one boat that must have circled us three times, just looking," said Morse, who lives in Washington.

Unexpected city

The crew gaped back. The port was not the picturesque French village with medieval churches and ancient chateaux that several sailors had envisioned. It was, in fact, not pretty at all: a stark collection of modern buildings and warehouses alongside a noisy sunflower seed oil factory that periodically showered nearby ships with seed husks.

There was also a series of old Nazi submarine pens, which spoke volumes about the port's past: German-occupied Saint-Nazaire was bombed almost into dust during World War II. This was a city, the crew would later discover, that knew something about rebuilding.

But those first few days in port, the American sailors were still grappling with the logistics of their predicament. The crew -- which continued to eat and sleep aboard the docked ship -- felt slightly desperate.

For starters, nobody onboard knew more than a few phrases of high school French, let alone how to say "drill bit" or "widget" or "Where can we get a 100-foot Douglas fir for a new mast?" The complexity of the language needed for the historically accurate repairs -- which would end up costing more than a half-million dollars in donations, state funds and insurance money -- was staggering.

And to make matters worse, Saint-Nazaire is a city well off the beaten tourist track: Hardly anyone speaks English. It was clear to the sailors that many of the people stopping by to gawk at the ship those first few days wanted to help but didn't know how to offer.

So the crew negotiated as best they could, while word of their arrival slowly spread through the town of less than 100,000.

Then, after about a week, a man named Guillaume Charpy, who works in exports, spotted the wrecked ship while walking along the harbor with his children.

"It was a pity to see, everything upside down," said 46-year-old Charpy, who speaks excellent English. He said that even though the Americans and the French don't always get along, the heart of the city went out to the ship: "All of the people here are very close to the sea; in each family there is someone who works on the sea. When you have such a nice boat as the Pride of Baltimore II, everyone is interested and would like to help."

Language lessons

So Charpy did. He showed the crew how to get around the town and put them in contact with local shipbuilders. Also, he decided that the sailors sorely needed French lessons. Twice a week for several months he patiently lectured them on the basics of vocabulary and grammar.

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