It's a kinder, gentler Baltimore when you see it from the water


EARLY IN JUNE, my father made an announcement before the parishioners at St. Ignatius Church. There was to be an evening harbor cruise. A trip on the Patapsco River was, as he characterized it, "a Baltimore Thing."

I guess a Baltimore Thing is anything natives do instinctively that outsiders would consider curious or, at times, mystifying.

Baltimore Things have a strong appeal to locals, an attachment that can never be completely explained, even to those whose families have bought into the ritual for generations. A summertime harbor cruise sponsored by a social club, religious organization, union, school or professional association is one such occasion.

We left the night of June 27 from the foot of Fell Street in Fells Point. As with any church function, there was the usual preliminary confusion. The time printed on the tickets didn't match the time printed on the directions (Baltimoreans, being wonderfully parochial, need detailed maps once they venture into an uncharted neighborhood, even though it is not very far from where they live).

Those who arrived an hour early strolled around this Southeast Baltimore neighborhood and caught up with the old attractions (the ancient streets and buildings) and the new sights (marinas, promenades, new restaurants).

Our boat was the Harbor Belle, certainly not as large as some in the specialized species of watercraft that fall under the heading harbor cruiser, but an apt choice for the 70 people who signed up.

In a few minutes, all the component parts of this Baltimore Thing began to fall into place.

The first is location.

Baltimore's harbor is shamelessly misunderstood by those who spend a lot of time driving around, over or under it. How often do we take the time to sail on it?

A good harbor cruise takes in Patapsco River sights that can't be properly viewed from the shore, where buildings and other impediments get in the way. Even if you're down on the city, you won't be when you see it from the Patapsco. Docks, maritime terminals, landmarks and streets look entirely different from the water. They look better, cleaner, more dramatic.

One of the stars of the cruise is the downtown skyline, with the NationsBank Building a standout. The lighting on the mansard roof and the gold detailing have weathered nicely over the past two years. From the water, the bank building and its neighboring towers look like a thriving metropolitan center. You don't get the same impression at all when you walk along Light Street. The water plays all sorts of welcome visual tricks.

So, too, with Fells Point. The foot of Broadway becomes a quaint

TC village whose skyline is dotted with church steeples, crooked chimneys and dormer windows. There are no bars, no disorderly patrons, no traffic lights when you are sightseeing by water.

The list of things looking better from the water continues: The grass on the slopes of Federal Hill is greener. The Stars and Stripes floating over Fort McHenry are brighter and more inspiring. The walls on the Domino Sugar plant seem higher.

Fort Carroll seems distant and even more spooky. Whenever I pass this relic of 19th-century harbor defense, I cannot imagine that it is populated entirely by rats the size of hedgehogs.

One of the things I like about this trip is that there is no guide to point out the sights. A harbor cruise should be restful, without amplified noise of any kind.

There was no advance chatter about the John Brown, the World War II Liberty Ship berthed at Canton that soon came into view. Our Harbor Belle was the right size to maneuver close to it and provide us with an impressive look.

The subtle lesson in maritime history continued when we came into sight of what is left of the Coral Sea, which sits along the Fairfield waterfront. About three-quarters of this mighty aircraft carrier have been scrapped. What is left gives an unexpected impression of horrible beauty.

The other key aspects to this Baltimore Thing are timing, weather and company.

Take your cruise on an exquisite summer evening, helped along by a very fat moon, not quite full, but getting there. When the skies turn orange and violet, even the ramps of Interstate 95 take on a glow. By the second hour out on the water, you've left your frayed daytime nerves back on the dock.

And, finally, you should be with friends or people you know, if only casually. The cruise will give you the chance to get to know them better. Talk. Chatter. Baltimore Things are often about good times and friendships. And a beautiful moon doesn't hurt a bit.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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