I wrote this in May, after a long-awaited voyage got blown out, and half a dozen of us had to figure out what we were going to do with a Saturday off. Sometimes, you change course, and strange things happen...
I like tall ships for the same reasons I like sled dogs and wild horses; they are inextricably tied to the rhythms of the natural world.
Round eared dogs, like Golden Retrievers, will wait at your feet with great eager brown eyes, "give me a command, come on, what do you want me to do?" Northern dogs will take a message and get back to you. Maybe.
If you point the nose of a normal domestic horse in any direction, he goes there without complaint. Wild horses must be whispered to, connected with. And they'll tell you when they think your human knowledge is too narrow and limited.
Most of our technology is 'push a button and go there'. Hop in the car, turn a key and point its nose north.
Tall ships are more like living things; they creak and groan, moving according to the shape of the water under them, spreading thousands of square feet of wings on the wind. And if the wind is blowing the wrong way, or not at all, you wait. If you run aground, you wait for high tide. If it's already high tide, you wait for a spring tide. The wind shapes the evolution of their wings, the way it does the wings of birds. Water shapes their hulls, the way it shapes fish or dolphin or whale. Their very nature is to migrate, to follow the wind. They take us out of our clock time world and into another one, a world of the rhythms of sun and tide and the clouds taking shape on the far edge of the world.
Last year, about this time, (May 10) two friends and I spent a day crossing the Chesapeake Bay in style: 18th century style. Rain, sog and ripping good wind, the 1768 Schooner Sultana balooshing through the waves like a sturdy Shetland pony on a rocky trail, sailing from Annapolis to St. Michael’s.
We decided to recreate the adventure this year, on the run from Annapolis to Chestertown.
With a few more crew. I rounded up Connie (a cousin) who had sailed last year, another cousin, Josh, one of the Longship Company guys (a captain on longship Sae Hrafn), my buddy Rainey, paddling buddy Sandy. I juggled packing lists, a campsite, who was driving what where (no return transport is provided, except the cars you shuttle yourself). I have a certain amount of trip anxiety, I guess, fretting over what goes in which pack and did I get enough stuff at Giant and is the food box too full or not enough and do I really need two bags of marshmallows, and where did I put the tie-down straps for stuff like packs and bedrolls (I swear they were in the kayak gear box), and will the van break down and what do we do if it does (AAA is my friend).
The week before the trip sucked. Insanity at work (stress and coupons, I hate you Corporate Subway Boys in the Ivory Tower). A horse that suddenly founders, with us floundering to find a new vet because the other one has apparently developed a case of insanity or overwhelming ego.
Then the well-trained sled dogs, who always wait when I open the gate, give me a heart attack. Legolas blows past me out the gate, runs to the kennel to inspect the food bucket, which is out of his reach, blows on by, runs around the back forty, finds a dessicated dead thing, blasts into the front yard and toward the Davidsburd Deathway (I grew up with a large population of flat cats). Screaming "target, target" (his signal to come and press his nose to my hand for a bikkie) I struggle after him. I can’t run (knees, arthritic feet, winter flab). Gasping I get to the front yard to see him trotting off with the big dead thing in his mouth. "TARGET!" I shriek, waving the food bowl. Somehow he decides the familiar (boring) shiny metal thing is more interesting than properly aged rabbit corpse. I grab him, stuff his nose in the food dish, and haul him back to the kennel.
The horse also survives, so far, with an admonition from the vet that she’s too bloody fat (I knew that, you wire her teeth shut or something).
I’m totally stressed and need a vacation.
And the weather sucks.
The weather report continues to suck. I find my Frogg Toggs, they worked fine last year in the drizzle. And the sun eventually came out.
Friday, May 15, Drew McMullen from Sultana Projects calls and says the weather is looking very iffy: 70/30 in favor of not going. The problem is not only random thunderstorms, or potential rain (the Bay is known for its sudden and fierce squalls), but the north wind blowing from the direction we are going to.
We are used to clock time. To pushing a button and getting light, heat, ground coffee. To jumping in a car and turning a key, pointing our bow north and going there.
Sultana hails from a time when your world was sixty feet of deck. And the whole limitless horizon. When you studied the clouds and knew their language. When where the wind was coming from was important. Sultana runs on the rhythms of wind and tide and weather. She has a backup engine, a fairly strong one, but her hull is designed to sail, her bluff bow designed to ride the waves, and her canvas wings designed to catch the wind from abaft the beam.
If you point her nose into the wind and turn on her alien engine, she bucks and snorts like a recalcitrant pony, or just stands there.
The last time they tried to sail in those conditions, the guest crew were cowering on the quarterdeck, three of them barfing the whole way across the Bay.
Saturday morning, Drew calls to tell us we’ve been blown out. The crew will likely wait till Monday to sail the ship north to Chestertown.
Sultana’s crew is professional, experienced. They know sailing, the Bay, their ship, what to expect from certain weather patterns. I know, from years messing with the Longship Company, with kayaks, horses camping and sled dogs, that there are parts of the world that yet run on the rhythms of wind and tide and weather. Things that don’t work because you push a button.
There are two more sails in September and October.
I’m still disappointed.
Now what? I’ve pried two days off, on a weekend, and I want to do something other than sit at home. I call everybody, we look like those vultures in the old Disney "Jungle Book" film: "so...whadday wanna do? I dunno, whadda YOU wanna do? I dunno..."
Connie bails till Sunday. Fred is in Bowie and probably goes to the longship work session. I can’t raise him on the cell. I get Josh and Sandy and Rainey. Josh shows early (9:30) and pokes around on his Blackberry.
Wait, there’s a tall ship in Wilmington I’d like to sail on, "Try the Kalmar Nyckel site." I suggest.
Kalmar sails between 10 and 3, and it’s already nearly noon. We’d never get there in time.
Baltimore. Close, and we can still get in a few hours at the aquarium.
We load up in Josh’s car and head down 83. Josh navigates Baltimore more easuily than York. Thank the gods of travel; I loathe interstates, I detest going over 55, I really really hate 695, the insanity loop around Baltimore. We’ve pared our Sultana daypacks down to simpler packs for a shorter mission. I’ve got granola bars, V8, Frogg Toggs, water bottles, two cameras and a shipload of batteries. I pause in the parking garage, reading the manual on my new camera, to figure out how to tell it that it has now devoured lithium batteries not alkaline.
We walk toward the aquarium.
Masts loom on the waterfront; the Constellation, most of it the original ship from before the Civil War (1854). In between her three stately masts rise two other masts, raked hard, as if she is going warp eleven.
The Pride of Baltimore II is the first tall ship I fell in love with. A few years ago, on the heels of the first Pirates movie, some friends and I went to Inner Harbor for a tall ship festival. We rounded the corner in the water taxi and there she was, cutlass blade hull hugging the water and those warp eleven masts. She's a "schooner, pilot boat-built" as they said in the old days. Now they call them Baltimore Clippers; the jet fighters of 1812. Fliers and sea-wolves with government issued letters of marque and reprisal; they ran blockades (fliers), like Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon, or took enemy ships as "prizes".
I sailed on Pride II a few times since; on the Chester River at Downrigging weekend, on a two day guest crew passage from Baltimore to Chestertown. I walked on her decks every time I saw her open for tourists. Sent pictures to the Pride office (one appears on their Privateer Society brochure). She is, with Sultana and Kalmar and Sae Hrafn, one of my favorite ships.
I’m not sure why I didn’t think of checking her site that Saturday morning. I guess I assumed she was busy. Or on her way to ports more exotic. Out of reach. I forgot that she too, does simpler things like two hour tours and groups of school kids.
"Hey, let’s go over and take a look." I drag the other three after me, past Constellation’s looming stern.
There’s life aboard, a crew. And a gangway to the waterfront walkway. Tourists are wandering aboard, eyeing the new varnish and the antique technology that was the cutting edge of its time.
"Let’s go aboard." I wander up, camera in hand, as full of wonder as when I first saw her. Form follows function, and her form is beautiful. "Like a fine Arabian steed", one British observer in the War of 1812 years wrote. "Like a wild black mare galloping through the woods at night," observed several sailors of the first Pride. Even sitting still, her canvas wings folded she is full of rich details: the perfectly straight lines of standing rigging, the sweeping curves of running rigging, the sculpture formed by carefully belayed and coiled line, the textures of varnished cabin trunks and rails, of weathered deck, of layered mast hoops and sail edges like the feathers of a giant bird.
She’s leaving tomorrow on her summer tour which will take her to the Caribbean, up the coast to the Canadian Maritimes, Baltimore’s icon doesn’t stay in Baltimore much of the year.
They’re doing a public sail at 3. One last public sail till fall.
It doesn’t take much convincing to ditch the aquarium in favor of a sail on Pride.
Her mighty engines (bright yellow, about the size of refrigerators, and one, in 2007, was guarded by a foot tall pink plastic Jesus) fire up. Over the side I can see the murky harbor water churn under Pride's screws. We chug backwards, through the green and purple dragon boats peddalled by tourists, past the docked sailboats.
Then Pride begins to spread her wings. The foresail, fore-staysail, and the square topsail. There are too many people on deck (though the original Baltimore Clippers had crews of more than a hundred), and the space between Fort McHenry and the Francis Scott Key Bridge is too small for her 10,000 square feet of full canvas. We tack back and forth, often with the wind nearly in front of us (on a tack, you change course across the eye of the wind, so it is in front of us as we change course). I try to watch the frantic coordinated dance of lines loosed and belayed somewhere else, of the vast wing of the foresail (which reaches past the mainmast) slipped past lines and mainmast, of half a dozen hearty sailors (including several strong young women) hauling on a line to crank the topsail around to catch the wind.
I shoot hundreds of pictures, and remember why horsemen and sailors have calluses.
We pass Fort McHenry, and one of the four remaining screwpile lighthouses in the Bay (Seven Foot Knoll, a round red one at Inner Harbor). The Lasy Maryland, the only pungy schooner reproduction, is docked at the foot of the lighthouse.
Pride flies on the wind, demanding effort and attention to detail from the crew handling her lines. Finally she fold her wings and drifts back past Seven Foot Knoll, the dragon boats, the aquarium. We hold cannon fire until we’re past the aquarium, then let loose with a shout that echoes off the skyscrapers.
Pride is here, carrying the memories of her ancestors.
The wind changes. The carefully coordinated adventure takes a left turn. The spontaneous action produces a startling result, and a new, unexpected adventure.
I always thought someone should do a movie about the privateers. A woman aboard is writing a screenplay about privateers in her family. I have her card. She has some good books to recommend on privateers. Maybe there’s a story in here for me as well.
We pass a street performer, Unicycle Lady (she has a website under that name). She’s in slightly cheesy pirate garb, doing a wonderful performance, part of which is done to the old Styx song, "Come Sail Away", one of my favorite songs of all time (I sang along with a live performance of it once, ten feet from the lead guitarist, Tommy Shaw). Unicycle Lady reminds me of the Motley Folk, the travelling entertainers, in the Inkheart trilogy, which I just read, nay, devoured. An excellent example of YA fantasy, an example to emulate.
Privateers, firedancers, fliers and sea wolves. There’s a story to be told. Many of them. And sometimes, you have to take a different tack to find them.