William Melbourne Smith, the spirit behind the original Pride of Baltimore who led a wave of historical shipbuilding, dies

William Melbourne Smith was a driving force behind the design and construction of the original Pride of Baltimore, and as it took shape at a makeshift Inner Harbor shipyard, the vessel captured the imagination of a city.

“The Baltimore clipper type of sailing craft is a delicate creation, not unlike a fine violin or a thoroughbred racehorse,” Mr. Smith had written in his proposal to city leaders, “with the ultimate purpose for its existence being only one thing — performance.”

Mr. Smith, whose attraction to ships and the sea was formed early in his life, died Feb. 2 from pneumonia at a West Palm, Beach, Fla., assisted-living facility. He was 87.

“Melbourne had the big vision, dreamed big, lived big and talked his way into building the Pride of Baltimore,” said Tom Waldron, author of “Pride of the Sea,” which chronicled the life of the vessel from its building to its loss nine years later in the Caribbean.

“What he did in that temporary Inner Harbor shipyard that was so publicly visible proved the building process was as important as the product,” said Waldron, a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

“It also gave the city in the mid-1970s much-needed optimism,” he said.

William Melbourne Smith — he never used his first name — was born and raised in steel-producing Hamilton, Ontario. He was the son of a steelworker, Stewart Smith, and Mabel Smith, a homemaker.

He was an “impoverished, misfit, hyperactive student who passed high school only because he could draw and paint,” wrote Paul Wood in his book “The Ingenious Life of Melbourne Smith.”

During his teenage years, he sailed four years with the Royal Canadian Sea Corps, built boats, visited shipyards and mastered “Dutton’s Nautical Navigation.”

He skipped college and worked as a musician in Hamilton playing drums and trumpet “well enough to perform at both Polish weddings and in the backup bands for Nat King Cole and Sophie Tucker,” Mr. Waldron wrote. He became a sign painter, moved to Montreal, and served in the merchant marines.

It was a life worthy of a Hollywood film. By the time he reached his 40s, he had experienced “shipwrecks, hurricanes, smuggling operations, blue-water sailing, shoreline shipbuilding in British Honduras, even a nearly fatal commission as the lieutenant-commander of the Guatemalan Navy,” wrote Mr. Wood in his book.

Mr. Smith became a maritime watercolor painter of historic ships and, after moving to Annapolis in the 1960s, was graphic designer of “The Skipper” magazine, which featured his work on its covers.

In the 1970s, he learned that the City of Baltimore planned to build a reproduction of a Baltimore clipper. In his proposal he could scarcely contain his enthusiasm for his love of 19th-century vessels.

Mr. Waldron noted that Mr. Smith told city authorities frankly that the vessel he would build “would stand no chance of being certified by the Coast Guard.”

“The vessel must be considered extremely dangerous if allowed to be sailed with incompetent crew,” Mr. Smith wrote in his proposal. “The very nature of the design would not meet with Coast Guard approval for commercial use and passengers would not be permitted while under way.”

In 1975 the city finance board approved a $365,000 budget for the 1812-era Baltimore clipper as a floating goodwill ambassador.

Mr. Smith teamed with Thomas C. Gillmer, a Naval Academy professor and naval architect who did the actual design of the Pride. The vessel’s dimensions were 90 feet long, with a beam of 23 feet. It carried 9,327 square feet of sail.

Wood for the Pride was personally selected by Mr. Smith and came from tropical forests in Belize. Shipbuilders used antique tools such as brace-and-bits, drawknives and adzes to construct the vessel, along with modern electric tools. A forge and blacksmith nearby crafted nearly all its metal pieces.

Fred Hecklinger, a retired marine surveyor, oversaw operation of the Inner Harbor shipyard.

“I don't use the word replica in describing the kind of vessels Melbourne built. They are reproductions,” he said. “He uncovered a lot of wonderful information on these vessels that had been hidden away. He would leave no stone unturned and was extremely well read about them.”

“Even though he had limited formal education, when he talked about something you were aware of his extraordinary abilities,” Mr. Hecklinger said.

Allen Rawl, a Kingsville shipwright, was eating lunch one day in 1976 aboard the SS Nobska, a former Nantucket steamer that was tied up in the Inner Harbor as a floating restaurant.

“I looked out … and saw the Pride going up. I walked over and was introduced to Melbourne and volunteered to work,” Mr. Rawl recalled. “He said, ‘Come on down.’ I did, and I found out I liked it.”

Mr. Rawl’s status changed from volunteering one day a week to being a paid worker.

“One day I came to work and Melbourne handed me a pay envelope and said, ‘That way, it’ll be easier to fire you if I have to,’ ’’ Mr. Rawl said with a laugh.

“The Pride, she was a thoroughbred,” he said. “It really changed my life.”

Mr. Smith denied that the vessel was named for the Chasseur, a War of 1812 privateer that hounded British shipping — although in its day the Chasseur had also been dubbed the “Pride of Baltimore.”

The Pride was launched in February 1977 and commissioned in May. Mr. Smith served as its first captain but only remained a year. In 1978 he resigned from Operation Sail, the group that ran the ship, in a dispute.

On May 14, 1986, after sailing more than 150,000 miles over nine years, the Pride sank in a 90 mph wind microburst 250 nautical miles north of Puerto Rico. Four crew members, including the captain, were lost.

“He was very upset at the sinking, but at the same time was very defensive about the vessel, whose design was suitable,” Mr. Hecklinger said. “The inquiry dismissed that she wasn’t handled well. It was the unusual weather conditions that sank the Pride.”

“It was a terrible blow at sea and when one thing happens, everything happens,” said Mr. Rawl, who sailed on the Pride’s maiden voyage as a crew member. “Melbourne was shocked — we were all shocked — but not really surprised.”

Mr. Smith continued building historic reproductions of ships, including the topsail schooner Californian in San Diego, the Niagara in Erie, Pa., and the Lynx, an 1812 privateer. He planned to build the Sea Witch, a 170-foot long three-masted American clipper, but failed to secure financing for the project.

While living in Florida for the last eight years, he continued pursing such projects as a reproduction of the USS Hornet and John Paul Jones’ Ranger.

Mr. Wood wrote that Mr. Smith was “a loner and a hard-headed eccentric. And yet his projects inspired and encouraged shipbuilding worldwide.”

“Melbourne was quite reserved, a great storyteller, and an energetic person,” said Peter Lesher, chief curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.

Services in Providence, R.I., were private.

Mr. Smith is survived by his wife of 25 years, Lilith “Lu-Lu” Arenas; two sons, Sean Smith of San Francisco and Simeon Smith of Winston-Salem, N.C.; and a daughter, Genevieve Kineke of Providence.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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