Fells Point festival allows landlubbers to set sail for past


All I ask is a tall ship, a star to steer her by and maybe a bite of one of those corn dogs with a swig of lemonade.

Closing your eyes in the mid-afternoon heat at Fells Point yesterday, you could imagine 18th century life amid the tall ships -- had some foresighted gastronome thought to invent funnel cakes, pizza pretzels and pit beef 200 years ago.

The first day of a two-day maritime festival attracted an estimated 50,000 landlubbers anxious to see the harbor's star attractions: Fourteen tall ships, most of which had recently voyaged up the Chesapeake Bay.

Demonstrations by nautical craftsmen, performers dressed in period garb, music -- both ancient and contemporary, food of every variety, and the usual array of souvenir T-shirts and caps added a certain merriment to the proceedings.

But mostly there was the breathtaking sight of tall ships, majestic leviathans of wood and iron sitting side-by-side along the waterfront. Not since the bicentennial rallies of 1976 had so many tall ships docked in Baltimore, and organizers were eager to let people on board to see and touch the historic vessels.

"The first thing everyone wants to know is what are those fuzzy things for," said Ann Cleaver, second mate of the Gazela, as she pointed to the wadded material buffering the mast's wire stays from the sails. "The other things everyone wants to know is where the crew sleeps [below deck to the bow] and how tall she is [92 feet]."

Based in Philadelphia, the 108-year-old, square-rigged Gazela was able to attend the maritime festival only because the Chesapeake and Delaware canal permitted her to sail here without going out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Some of the wood at the stern of 636-ton ship is too badly rotted to risk rough water.

But even with a little rot, she is beautiful -- at least in the eyes of 4-year-old John Pusloskie of Parkville. He was fascinated by the humongous anchor chain, the cramped galley and just about everything else on board.

"Daddy, what are these for?" the youngster asked after examining the formidable iron rings that are spaced along the deck.

"Those are probably for the little boats," replied his father Andrew Pusloskie, a one-time sailor in the Merchant Marine. According to the ship's crew, he was exactly right: the deck rings were used to hold down the ship's 35 one-man dories when the Gazela fished for cod along the North Atlantic's Grand Banks.

Eric Sandvick, a preschooler from Rosedale, had a more immediate concern when he was brought on board the Dove, a reproduction of one of the ships that brought Maryland's first settlers from England.

After feeling the smaller wooden ship list a bit under his feet and seeing the crude work of 17th century craftsmanship, the 4-year-old asked his mother Jeanne Sandvick, "It's not going to move, is it?"

"I'm surprised at how primitive it is," Mrs. Sandvick said later. "I guess what I'm really surprised about is that people sailed it over here."

Bringing the proper context to the festival were people like Twyla Hirrlinger of Davidsonville, a member of the South River Sutlers, an Annapolis-area group that re-creates the life of colonial merchants.

She weathered the 90-degree heat in her 18th century dress and petticoats making cheese from unpasteurized milk and a little rennet warmed over a charcoal fire.

"Children love to feel a greasy candle or touch real wool," Ms. Hirrlinger explained.

Across the street, blacksmith Nick Vincent of Uniontown wore a more practical T-shirt and jeans as he turned iron rods into decorative hooks, heating them over a pile of coal with century-old equipment and then pounding away on his anvil.

A former economist who commuted to an office at Pratt and Light each morning, the 40-year-old Carroll County resident shucked the white collar yoke in February to become a full-time smithy.

"I'm a 20th Century blacksmith," Mr. Vincent confided. "At home, I use propane and a drill press."

The maritime festival continues through today from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. with ship tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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