Volvo racers' visit brings to mind the arrival of the tall ships in '76

April 08, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

It's hard not to catch the fever when Baltimore's harbor fills up with sleek sails. In a few days, we'll be home to the Volvo Ocean Race, and I'm sure I'll be among those who will have a long look at our Patapsco and the Baltimore Waterfront Festival.

Now, 30 years after a similar event, I'll divulge the details of my own personal festival the summer of 1976.

In those days I was reporter at the old News American. Then, as now, I never left the city on newspaper assignments and only covered stories as far away as taxicabs or, more likely, a Maryland Transit Administration bus could take me.

But that summer, as Baltimore's new and largely unbuilt-up Inner Harbor was showing signs of a terrific rebirth, Baltimore netted a big catch -- the tall ships Danmark, Amerigo Vespucci, Gorch Fock, Esmeralda and Eagle called here after appearing at a huge bicentennial celebration in New York's harbor.

I somehow convinced Lou Linley, the paper's city editor, that as the person who covered downtown renewal, I should go to New York and board one of the tall ships. I argued that the previous summer, when another tall ship, the Christian Radich, sailed from Washington to Baltimore, I got train fare out of the News' treasury to the District to make the circuit from the Navy Yard down the Potomac, up the Chesapeake and into Baltimore.

That was the summer of 1975 and the first section of the Inner Harbor promenades was being completed. Standing on the Radich deck and surveying the beginnings of the new Baltimore, I realized that the city was indeed on the brink of something great. It was my first glimpse of a harbor revival that is still happening three decades later.

Come the summer of 1976, Lou indeed gave me the green light, and I was soon leaving New York harbor aboard the Danmark. My berth was in the sick bay, which I soon needed. As we passed the royal yacht Britannia, and a waving Queen Elizabeth II, and the Ambrose lightship, my equilibrium took a downward plunge. I was seasick continuously until we hit Cape Charles and the placid Chesapeake.

On a humid and gray Sunday afternoon, the ships slipped into an awe-struck Baltimore. I observed how the crowd's density grew -- from a few boats off the mouth of the Patapsco until it seemed like a human blanket at Fort McHenry and Federal Hill. There didn't seem to be an inch of unoccupied space.

Later that week, President Gerald R. Ford met with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt aboard the Gorch Fock, anchored near the old McCormick spice plant on Light Street. It might have been planned only as a photo opportunity, but it worked wonders.

On one of those days, my Danmark hosts invited me back for a traditional smorgasbord luncheon. I think the News American phones were tapped, because very shortly, my bosses and everybody else, including the newspaper's publisher, were on the Danmark enjoying superb Danish hospitality. It was, after all, a short walk across Pratt Street to the handsome Danmark anchored along the Light Street promenade.

In the course of a beautiful July afternoon, I kept up with the toasts proffered by my hosts and consumed way too much aquavit, a high-octane alcoholic drink I now know to respect. My the end of the afternoon, my hosts mercifully placed me, for one last time, in the sick bay.

Someone roused me later. I was being hauled home. The newspaper's society editor, my friend Louise Ingalls, who had two sons about my age, observed my predicament. A native of New Orleans, Louise knew how to handle all unexpected consequences of a great party.

She drove her great battleship of an olive-green Mercedes-Benz sedan over the Pratt Street curbing onto the new brick promenade. She stopped her engine at the Danmark and called out to the deckhands, "Give me that sick reporter." Away we slipped to Charles Village -- and recuperation.

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