- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004


By Tom Waldron

Citadel Press, $23.95, 293 pages, illus.


The sinking of the Baltimore clipper replica Pride of Baltimore in May 1986, with the loss of four lives, was a public relations disaster for the Chesapeake’s old port city; but it was also a disaster for that curious group of scholars, carpenters, wooden boat lovers and nostalgics known as “schooner people.”

Luddites of the boat world, schooner people religiously subscribe to Wooden Boat magazine, revere the craftsmanship of the past, and truly believe that wooden boats and ships represent a high point of world culture as lofty as fine art. Without these people, the project of building a replica of the legendary Baltimore clippers could not have gotten as far as it did.

But with their energy, their gift for publicity and their peculiar sense of correctness, a beautiful ship was built to spread the fame of the Port City at the time of America’s bicentennial in 1976. And nine years later, she came to grief during a sudden storm at sea. Pride was laid flat by a gust of wind, filled with water and sank quickly.

Journalist Tom Waldron asks the obvious questions and comes up with some unusual answers, which he delivers with a commendable sense of regard for the families whose sons and daughters were lost, and who themselves had become part of the schooner family. He studiously avoids making harsh judgments, but leaves a trail of damning facts for the reader to interpret.

Mr. Waldron writes carefully and well. His research is thorough, although his understanding is of the bookish variety. He quietly spins an ominous story of disaster waiting to happen on the world’s most dangerous ocean, the Atlantic. It is a story of self-delusion and ignorance, which led those involved in the Pride of Baltimore project to build a boat without any real historical model, but with all the inherent flaws of her type. In spite of warnings, the ship carried far too much sail on heavy towering masts, yet was never fully ballasted for stability.

And then, with false confidence, Pride was sent out into the treacherous North Atlantic — crewed not by hardened ocean racers or fishermen, but by schooner romantics drawn to the project by wafty notions of an “authentic” experience.

Mr. Waldron tells the story kindly, as that of a romantic project meant to grace Baltimore’s waterfront with a living reminder of the great days of commerce and revolution, when fast, low, slant-masted schooners carrying huge crews and a cloud of sail roamed the bay, making fools of the British invasion fleet of 1812 and creating a legend of American daring, cleverness and ability.

But the project, backed by that great irascible sentimentalist of Baltimore, former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, soon got out of hand. What was planned as an exhibit became an envoy. What was meant to stay in Baltimore sailed away, away from the relatively protected waters and into the Atlantic, where the Pride of Baltimore was never meant to sail. “At most,” Mr. Waldron writes of the original plans, “the ship would take occasional goodwill voyages down the Chesapeake.”

But Pride became a victim of her own hype. Caught up in “tall ship” festivals, she traveled a circuit to Europe and back, spiced with receptions and wine parties. Then, manned by a tiny crew of rank amateurs, she met her fate in a simple and fully predictable manner.

Carrying too much sail, she was pushed over by a violent squall; a huge topside hatch was inexplicably left wide open. Lying flat on her side for a few minutes, she filled with water and sank.

Behind the ship’s death drama were design flaws that made the boat too “tender” (the opposite of “stiff” in sailing terms). This description applies to the hull’s ability to right itself when pushed over, as all sail ships are, by the wind. Pride was so tender that several of the crew doubted her ability to recover from a severe heel. Several close calls reinforced their fears.

Things can go terribly wrong in sailing terribly quickly. But it is clear, in spite of Mr. Waldron’s telling, that the crew was incompetent, and the captain lacking in judgment. There were too few people on deck, too many sails up, and bad decisions were made at the helm, including the major and fatal mistake of not turning into the wind to ease pressure on the sails.

Two topmasts — extensions of the rig to carry more sail — should have been taken down and stowed on deck for the ocean crossing, as experts had recommended. A mere 12 people were in the crew, nine men and three young women, in contrast with “close to a hundred,” Mr. Waldron’s estimate of the throngs of sailors manning the real Baltimore schooners of 1812.

Six of Pride’s crew were complete newcomers to the boat, and when the deadly squall arrived, only four of them were on duty on deck. Only the captain was over 30 years old.

Not only was there incompetence at most levels aboard a ship unsuitable for blue-water work, but there was a more subtle delusion afoot. While playing at being 19th-century “tars,” the ship, the crew and the equipment were a mix of the old and the new.

Pride had a motor — but not a powerful one. Her rigging was modern stuff, not old fiber. She carried modern radios and rescue gear. Navigation was by satellite with a sextant as backup. A fax, a diesel stove, inflatable small boats with outboards, a refrigerator, and on and on, the list of modern elements grew longer. And among the most telling were the drums of fuel kept on deck, adding to the Pride’s tendency to tip easily.

The result was that the crew had little of the old-time experience of sailing such a ship. Pride motored into port. She sailed when winds were fair. She made schedules, read weather reports, ran a generator to supply electricity. When a crew member fell overboard in 1985, the captain dispatched the inflatable with an outboard to rescue her.

Compromise with “old time sailing” was everywhere, nowhere more than in the makeup of crews, all “schooner people” who flew in and out by plane as they joined or left their “authentic” life at sea. In fact the life was not authentic at all, just the “schooner” life of pretense and half measures. So when the crisis came, no one was ready, vital crew jobs were left undone, and the ultimate compromise — to turn and run with the squall rather than turning into it — was the result.

Having done the investigative work well, Mr. Waldron spends an inordinate time telling how the survivors clung to a rubber life raft until rescued by a passing freighter nearly five days later: a story spelled out in excruciating detail (down to the last bowel movement), but without emphasis on a most important fact.

Two hand-held EPIRBs (emergency position indicating radio beacons), which would have sent signals via satellite indicating distress at a precise ocean location, were within easy reach of the crew, but were not used. “The EPIRB’s were kept out of sight,” writes Mr. Waldron, “since they were too modern for the historic look of the vessel’s deck.” Perfect schooner reasoning, it was perhaps the finishing touch of a setup for disaster.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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