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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Sailing with Amistad in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race

On Monday, October 13, I rejoined the crew of the Freedom Schooner Amistad in Baltimore, Maryland, for the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. On my first night aboard, several schooner crews were invited to a party aboard Mystic Whaler, with Capt. John Eginton serving up an unending supply of oysters, both raw and grilled.

The days leading up to the race were largely spent in preparation, with the crew doing a lot of maintenance on the boat, particularly working on the brightwork. As the docks in Baltimore's inner harbor filled up with dozens of other schooners, the Fell's Point area took on the flavor of a family reunion and even a first timer like me found it easy to make new friends.

Among my new friends were the crew of the schooner Liberty, sailing out of Jersey City. I was walking along the quayside, looking for a place to get some crab cakes when Philip du Plessis, Liberty's owner, invited me aboard for dinner. While aboard, Philip and his wife Sharon told me about how they had only recently purchased Liberty and were still building their charter business with the help of their friend and captain, Bill Noe.

The organizing committee for the schooner race did a marvellous job and made sure that there were all sorts of activities for the schooner crews. There were concerts and shanty-sings, and a dinner at the Latin Palace restaurant. As an after-hours bonus, the crew of the Martha White, who had performed a dockside concert, continued with an impromptu jam session that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. Banjos, guitars and fiddles were handed around and many of us who had shown up to listen to the music ended up leading songs ourselves.

On Wednesday, there was a parade of sail through the harbor. I understand that this was the largest fleet of schooners that has assembled for the race and is, quite possibly, the largest group of schooners since the end of the age of sail. Whether this is so or not, it was an impressive sight as they made their way past the USS Constellation.

On Thursday, the schooners gathered south of the Annapolis bridge for the beginning of the race. With light air, Amistad had every stitch of canvas set and, at the sound of the starting horn, we were off! Almost immediately, the schooners Virginia and Pride of Baltimore II took the lead, their longer waterlines and greater spread of canvas giving them a definite advantage. Throughout the day, we sailed along with Lettie G. Howard and Lady Maryland, jockeying for position until sundown. Around midnight, the wind began to pick up and Captain John called all hands to strike the t'gallant, which involved lowering the sail and its yard to the deck, a process that proved to be much easier than it sounds.

Throughout the night, we made our way down the bay, watching the running lights of the other schooners and keeping a lookout for the frequent barges with their attendant tugboats. As the sun rose, we could only make out two schooners ahead of us, with several more on the horizon astern. We continued to plow on, passing the USS Cole as she made her way up the bay. Around 11:00am, we crossed the finish line in fourth place and began to take in sail as we made our way up the Elizabeth River into Portsmouth, Virginia, passing aircraft carriers and destroyers docked at the Norfolk Naval Base. When we arrived at the boat basin in Portsmouth, we came alongside the A. J. Meerwald and rafted up with her. That evening, the crews of the various schooners had their own informal festivities.

On Saturday morning (!), several schoolchildren came to visit the vessels and I helped demonstrate the use of mechanical advantage on the ship as the children hauled me aloft using a bosun's chair with a four-part purchase. At noon, shortly before the pig and oyster roast that was put on by the race committee, the Virginia hosted their own gathering in loving memory of their main gaff, which had broken during the course of the race.

With the race over, it was time for me to return to life ashore in New Jersey. I take with me memories of a great race and hopes for more sailing opportunities in the next season.

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