It varies, depending on the expedition brainfart of the week, but, right now... yeah, it's Pirates. The Soundtrack, you know, from those Disney flicks. Ok, before you send me by the boards to be marooned forever in some mosquito infested salt marsh (one of my favorite environments, by the way), let me explain.
I grew up on horseback, a total landlubber in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.The Susquehanna flows down through our farm hills into that great inland sea called the Chesapeake Bay, and then into the sea. I remained blissfully unaware of it through my childhood and youth, though I grew up on the likes of Sea Hunt and Flipper and Cousteau specials. I eventually learned to swim, and even SCUBA dive: but floatin' boats were to get you to the sunken one, and the floatin' ones were usually stinky noisy diesel affairs. I did living history from the Viking age to the Renaissance, mostly bopping big guys upside the head with broadswords and galloping picturesquely about on my horse. Sometimes I would join my friends in The Longship Company on one of their Viking longships. I was certainly no sailor; mostly we rowed around the marina and creeks at Solomon's Island, MD, once in awhile, we'd put up the big square thingie and blow downwind for awhile.
Then came a year when tall ships sailed the silver screen; Peter Pan, Master and Commander, and the first Pirates film brought us adventure on the high seas, and it looked awesome. Still, it was a film fantasy, something I knew a bit about as an artist and writer specializing in the young adult fantasy genre.
Then a friend took me to a tall ship festival in Baltimore. I rounded the corner in the water taxi and fell in love.
She lay there, sleek cutlass blade hull hugging the water, her two masts raked as if she was going warp eleven, even at the dock.
Which is how I found myself on a pirate ship on Halloween. Ok, not technically a "pirate" ship, a privateer. The Chesapeake Bay, and Baltimore in particular, were famed for their swift, agile "sharp-built schooners", used in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. They were privateering vessels with government issued letters of marque and reprisal; "Flyers" who would run blockades and carry goods, and carry off any enemy merchants who happened to get in their way; "Sea Wolves" who would prey on enemy merchants, capturing "prizes" for a struggling young nation (and themselves, in the bargain). The Pride of Baltimore II is a recreation of the famed Baltimore Clippers of 1812, and for a wee bit of gold (or your Gold Card) she'll let you sign on as Guest Crew for a few days before the mast, no experience required.
Some sailor once compared the experience to riding a wild black mare through the wild woods in the dark of night. I understand the Black Mare imagery: I had my own wild black mare; a mustang adopted through the Bureau of Land Management's Adopt-A-Horse program. Not the Lone Ranger White Knight, not the Roy Rogers Golden Hero. Batman, Bagheera, Arnold's black-leather Harley-riding Terminator, the night-black steed of Zorro, dangerous power, the one riding the thin line between light and dark, good and evil.
The Chesapeake Bay privateers made their mark on history, and faded from it as the great Bay grew crowded, silted, full of phosphorus and nitrogen and algae blooms and dead zones, deficient in shad and crab and oyster and striper and skipjack.
Roaring on a reach, under slatey skies in early November, with a full press of canvas over my head, I caught a glimpse of the Bay that was.
That might yet be. I catch more glimpses, later, as I paddle my sea kayak on parts of the Captain John Smith Water Trail. As I feel the shape of waves reflecting off the marshes' mudwalls, as I watch an eagle sail out of the woods to snatch a fish from a fleeing osprey.
I want others to see this too. To feel it. To experience it.
Pride is not the only ship that still sails that vast inland sea. There are others; a small fleet made of the things of Earth; wood and canvas and line, others who creak and sing and gallop over the waves, flying on the wind; schooners, colonial ships, skipjacks and others. The 1769 era topsail schooner Sultana carries more than 4,600 students each year on educational adventures. I met one of those kids, on Chincoteague Island; his mom said he hadn't stopped talking about it for weeks. I manned her helm (tiller and steering tackle, not a wheel) in a cold May rain for forty minutes (and wished for more) while she balooshed cheerfully through the Bay chop from Annapolis to St. Michaels. Upon our arrival (under slightly sunnier skies than we had set out) a group of kids on the lighthouse yelled "Arrrr, hey pirates! Yo! Pirate ship!" The original Sultana was a pre-Revolution revenue cutter for the British Navy, we didn't bother to correct them.
Wouldn't you want to sail on a pirate ship?
The Chesapeake Bay Program (a multigovernmental interstate partnership along with the Environmental Protection Agency) has as one of its goals to give 100 percent of students a meangingful watershed educational experience by their high school graduation.
An experience: not a list of facts and names and dates which will sail in one ear and out the other.
An experience: spending even a few hours unplugged from the I-pod and the Game Boy, in a world where you pay attention to the direction of the wind and tide, to the shape of the swells rolling under your feet, to the color of the clouds on the far horizon, where a mysterious fin flashes out of the depths and then vanishes, where travel means hauling on a line with six other people, standing out in the rain, or the sun, where air conditioning is your hat, and central heating is a wool sweater... an experience of connecting to the real world, and maybe caring enough about it to make sure the Bay will have oyster reefs and grass beds and clear water for the next generation.
If it starts with a cheesy Hollywood image, or a book, or a soundtrack, arrrr, so be it! Captain Jack, and Captain John, would be grinning.