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Pride of Baltimore's 1986 sinking recalled at Fort McHenry ceremony

Friends of the Pride of Baltimore gathered on a Fort McHenry lawn Saturday to recall the 30th anniversary of the sinking of the schooner and the deaths of its captain and three crew members.

Helen Delich Bentley recalled that May morning. The former member of the U.S. House of Representatives had just arrived at her desk at the U.S. Capitol when she got a call from the mayor of Baltimore who would become governor the following year.

"It was a desperate phone call," said Bentley, a former U.S. maritime commissioner. "On the other end was William Donald Schaefer. His voice was trembling. 'Helen, we've lost her.' I said, 'Who have we lost?' He said, 'Her.' His tears came down abundantly. 'She's gone down in the Bermuda Triangle.'"

Robert Foster, one of the Pride's survivors, stood before those assembled and considered the ship, whose construction began in 1976 and was christened a year later.

"The Pride was a constant and demanding teacher," he said of his experience. "If you did not do a task well, the boat would let you know."

Foster recalled the camaraderie of the crew, a group of young sailors.

"We were a group of people who were taking a pause in our lives," he said. "The boat meant a lot of things to a lot of people. After the rescue, it was a surprise to us, the attention we got and the interest in that event."

Foster described what happened after a wind microburst formed off Puerto Rico and caused the ship to capsize and sink. The eight survivors climbed on an inflatable raft. He described using a "three-cell" flashlight at night to signal passing vessels. Several passed them by.

"I have not had to use Morse code since that night," he said of the group's attempts to get help. He praised the lookout officer on a Norwegian tanker who spotted their tiny flashing light and rescued the survivors.

"I'm grateful he didn't dismiss our signal as the flickering of a fishing buoy that had gone adrift," Foster said.

Foster remembered the first time he saw the Pride of Baltimore as it passed through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal on one of its early trips.

"I was young, at a summer camp on the Eastern Shore," he said. "It was a sight."

Scott Jeffrey, another survivor, recalled the eight hours he spent in the ocean before making it onto a raft.

"Four days and 19 hours on that raft," he said. Of the sinking, he said, "It was bad luck. We had been in worse weather before. There was a gale off Malaga I'll never forget."

After the formal remarks and the singing of the "Pride of Baltimore Ballad" composed by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra member Jonathan Jensen, the survivors set off in a wooden boat and rowed into the harbor between Locust Point and Canton.

There they dropped floral wreaths to commemorate their lost four shipmates. A Baltimore City fireboat and a vessel from McAllister Towing shot plumes of water into the air as a salute. The Pride of Baltimore II, the vessel built to replace the lost Pride, set off three cannon at intervals. A fourth discharge failed to ignite.

The event attracted the Pride's extended family to this maritime reunion.

"We were the rock stars of every port we visited," said Bob Wallace, who served aboard the Pride in the 1970s, shortly after the vessel left Baltimore for St. Michaels and on to Bermuda. "We wore our Pride of Baltimore T-shirts and were the center of the world."

He was joined by John Peterlin III, who was a Pride crew member on its maiden voyage in 1977.

"I was a merchant marine officer living in Towson at the time," he said. "I'd come down to the Inner Harbor by the Science Center to watch her being built. There was a fence up as she was being completed, and I'd stick my head through. Finally they said, 'Here's a tar bucket and a caulking hammer. Get to work.'"

Jan C. Miles, senior captain who serves at the Pride of Baltimore Inc., sat on the deck of the replacement vessel and reminisced about the passage of time since the tragedy.

""The Pride's legacy has a life of its own, an emotional legacy and an honorable one. And by what we've seen today, it's an honest one," Miles said.

jkelly@baltsun.com

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