The first century's a breeze; Schooner: The Victory Chimes, 99 years old, returns to the place of its birth, the Chesapeake Bay, for its centennial.


Victory Chimes has come home to celebrate turning 100.

The 170-foot, three-masted schooner was once a mainstay of the Chesapeake Bay, calling Baltimore home for 30 years as it hauled lumber, fertilizer, coal, oysters and other cargo.

Now a passenger vessel based in Rockland, Maine -- and believed to be the largest historic vessel still sailing in the country -- Victory Chimes is one of 47 ships scheduled to take part Thursday in the 10th annual Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race from Annapolis to Norfolk.

Kip Files, the 48-year-old owner and captain of Victory Chimes, seems in awe of a vessel that soon will enter its second century of work -- overcoming occasional neglect, at least two sinkings and one grounding.

"Ninety-nine years ago, she was designed and built to generate income for the owners under sail," Files says of the vessel, which will be anchored off the Broadway pier in Fells Point until Thursday's race. "Ninety-nine years later, she's still doing that."

Beginning next week, the elegant schooner will be docked for six months at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels -- about 35 miles from Broad Creek in Bethel, Del., where the ship was built in 1900.

The Annapolis-to-Norfolk race route is one the schooner has made many times.

Once known as the "Edwin and Maud," for the two sons of its first captain, Robert Riggin, the ship was built at the end of the commercial sailboat building era.

Ruggedly constructed of white oak and Georgia pine, the ship's square bottom was designed to accommodate cargo and allow it to be sailed by a crew of only four.

For 46 years, the ship hauled cargo from New York to the Carolinas -- during the Depression and both world wars. Old photographs show the six-sailed vessel low in the water, its decks stacked with cargo.

By 1946, the demand for sailing cargo ships had ended, and Victory Chimes was converted to passenger use and sailed regularly around the Chesapeake Bay for a decade.

Ten years ago, the ship's owners in Maine had it rebuilt and were preparing to sell the ship for use as a floating restaurant in Japan. The deal fell through and Files, a veteran sailor who was supervising the restoration, bought Victory Chimes.

Files now leads excursions of several days around Maine.

Keeping a 99-year-old schooner in the water poses problems.

The masts are 85-foot-long pieces of Douglas fir. If one breaks or rots, it would be difficult to find an authentic replacement, Files says. Other replacement parts are also hard to find.

"You can't go to a hardware store and buy a 4-inch-by-10-inch- by-40-foot plank," Files says.

A National Historic Landmark, the ship is one of only three surviving three-masted schooners in the United States, and the only one still operating, experts say.

Its cavernous cargo hold has been reworked to house as many as 40 passengers. The six sails -- once made of cotton cloth preserved with mercury -- are made of a synthetic material that resembles canvas.

But Victory Chimes remains a sailing vessel with no engine, save for the Olds 6-horsepower installed in 1906 to raise the sails and lower the anchor.

Thursday, the nine-member crew will sail Victory Chimes to Norfolk as part of the schooner race, begun 10 years ago with seven ships as a friendly competition between the two port cities.

Among the 47 ships scheduled to compete are Pride of Baltimore II and America, the re-creation of the famous racing yacht of the same name, for which the America's Cup is named.

The record time for the 127-mile race is 13 hours, 45 minutes, set in 1994 by Adirondack.

While some of the captains in the race worry about records and competition, the point for most is to remind the public of the bay's importance and its maritime history.

"We want to create awareness of the Bay," says race founder Lane A. Briggs, of Norfolk. "The schooner is what made the Bay, before the railroad and car."

Briggs, 67, will sail Thursday with his four sons and three grandchildren on the Norfolk Rebel, his one-of-a-kind "tugantine" -- a tugboat with sails used for towing and salvage.

Files says Victory Chimes, the enormous old work boat, will head southward Thursday at a respectable pace, depending, of course, on the wind.

"For the three-masted schooner class built before 1901, I'm not worried about winning," Files says with a smile. "I tell people it's not when you finish, it's how you finish."

Race events

Several events associated with the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race to Norfolk are open to the public.

Today through Wednesday: Schooners will continue to arrive and will be docked in Fells Point and at the west side of the Inner Harbor.

Today, 1 p.m.: Two-person dinghy race, with oarsman blindfolded. Henderson's Wharf. 1000 Fell St.

Wednesday, 5-7 p.m.: Pre-race parade of schooners. Fells Point and Inner Harbor.

Thursday, 9 a.m.: Schooners depart harbor for race, which begins at 1 p.m. at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis.

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