Landlubber becomes captain

maryland scenes

A chance discovery of a love for water led to the helm of the Sultana

March 01, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,

CHESTERTOWN -If Tanya Banks-Christensen hadn't acted on a certain whim as a college senior, it's safe to say she would not have scored a big-screen cameo at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

Or was it Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End? She can't remember. And for that matter, the shot consisted only of her legs on the ship's boom.

Either way, her brush with Hollywood was just an amusing caper in an unusual and wholly unexpected career that has allowed her to sail replica sloops and schooners up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Now at the ripe age of 28, she has climbed the ladder from deckhand to chief mate to captain and recently took the helm of the Sultana, a replica of an 18th-century Royal Navy schooner. Berthed at Chestertown, the dark red, black and ochre vessel is a near-exact copy of one that once prowled the Chesapeake Bay. It went after smugglers and collected unpopular taxes on behalf of the British crown.

For Banks-Christensen, the appeal of piloting this educational boat on school field trips and five-night summer voyages is elemental. "I like the water," she said below decks last week as a stinging wind blew off the Chester River. "I like being outside every day. I like the rigging, I like sailing. I like working with kids. I enjoy teaching and learning."

Painting? Not so much. But that's part of the job, too. She and chief mate Beth Borchers have been prepping for spring by painting, refinishing wooden grates and the like. This week the two topmasts will go back on the masts. The rest of the six-member crew reports soon, with the first sail set for March 31.

Last week the two women, bundled in winter garb, sat side by side applying a fresh coat of white semigloss paint amidships, akin to the boat's living room. This is where school kids will examine plankton under a microscope and learn about medical practices of the era, such as amputation by hacksaw.

The air was frigid even out of the wind because the hatches were kept open to let in light and fresh air. An electric space heater cut the chill, but barely.

"You do kind of have your own reality," Banks-Christensen said, elaborating on why she has become smitten with sailing.

But it is not a reality she had imagined. Growing up in Philadelphia, she never sailed. Her sole maritime experience, as she recalls, was a ferry ride. After high school she enrolled at Alfred University in landlocked Western New York.

By senior year she knew she wanted to study abroad. Instead, she ended up studying aboard thanks to the Sea Education Association. "I applied on a whim," she said. "I guess I thought it'd be fun and different."

The program combined six weeks of classroom instruction at Woods Hole, Mass., with six weeks on the water as participants studied oceanography and learned to sail.

Banks-Christensen was hooked. After graduating in 2002, she signed on as a deckhand for the Providence, a sloop based in Providence, R.I. Like the Sultana, it was an educational vessel. Among her jobs was taking care of the woodwork as ship's carpenter.

The next year she wore the engineer's hat, which meant dealing with the engine, generator, plumbing and refrigerator. She had no electrical skills going in; this was strictly on-the-job training.

In 2004, having acquired a mate's license, she journeyed south to Chestertown to be chief mate of the 97-foot Sultana. Launched in 2001, it was built to precise plans stowed in British archives. As much as she enjoyed the gig as captain's right hand, Banks-Christensen returned to Rhode Island after the season. By then the operator of the sloop had gone bankrupt, and its crew was soon sailing south for an unlikely rendezvous with Hollywood.

On the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean, the second and third sequels of Pirates of the Caribbean were being filmed simultaneously. The Providence was a nautical extra. So, it turned out, were her legs. For one of the movies, Banks-Christensen said, computer-generated imagery added a mast to remake the sloop into a two-masted Chinese junk rig.

Once the fun in the sun ended, she headed north to work on an oyster schooner out of Bivalve, N.J., then on a vessel called the Spirit of Massachusetts. After that she became captain of the schooner Quinnipiack in New Haven, Conn., a job requiring a Coast Guard license.

Now she is the big boss on the Sultana. She's a good fit, says Drew McMullen, president of the nonprofit Sultana Projects Inc. Despite being just 28, she has solid experience and puts safety before all else, he says. Not only will she have 30 kids onboard for day field trips, but in the summer she'll take groups of nine on weeklong jaunts.

On four out of the five weeklong trips, the passengers will be students who pay subsidized fees under the Maryland Summer Centers for Gifted Students program. They'll live alongside the crew and sail around the Chesapeake, studying bay ecology and Revolutionary War history.

After this summer, the state plans to stop funding its program. But McMullen said he expects continued demand for the voyages from youngsters whose families are willing to pay their way.

Banks-Christensen concedes that as the school groups cycle in and out like the tides, a sense of monotony can creep in. "You have to remember it's new for the kids and exciting for most of them," she said. "Except when you've got a seventh-grader, where it's exciting but they won't admit it."

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