Powered by canvas across the open sea


From downtown Miami, we can see the tops of the four 158-foot masts of the Chilean navy training ship, Esmeralda, towering above this city's port terminal buildings.

Photographer Andre Chung and I will sail aboard the tallest of the tall ships on the six-day voyage to Norfolk en route to Baltimore.

Esmeralda is part of OpSail 2000, a millennium celebration of seafaring, bringing many of the sea's most gracious vessels to Baltimore and seven other East Coast ports.

We find the Esmeralda, a 29-sail barquentine, moored between -- but far from overshadowed by -- two Caribbean-bound mega-liners. It is a contrast between ancient and modern, between refined grace and popular grandeur.

She is a 371-foot, white-hulled beauty, built in 1952 for the Spanish navy, but sold during construction to Chile as a training ship.

We are saluted aboard and ushered along a corridor of rich, dark mahogany paneling, hung with memorabilia of the boat's 44 training voyages and more than 300 port visits.

We pass the private cabins of the ship's 20 officers. We glance into their mess with its inviting corner bar and dominant, gilt-framed portrait of Lt. Ignatio Serrano, a hero from the 1879 naval battle of Iquique against Peru, Chile's last war.

We are shown into the wardroom. A soft light filters through the portholes. A settle with regency-striped gold silk cushions runs round the cabin. We are offered coffee and welcomed by Lt. Edmundo Gonzalez, dentist on a ship that also carries a surgeon, barber and priest.

But we will not enjoy the elegance of the officers' accommodation. We are billeted in the less-opulent, though comfortable enough, quarters of the ship's 70 midshipmen.

We will pass our days and nights with the young graduates of the Chilean naval academy who are spending a year literally learning the ropes on Esmeralda. We will be on deck with them, take meals with them at eight-seat dining tables, share their bathrooms and sleep in three-tiered bunks alongside them.

This is a diary of six days before the mast of a tall ship.

Day One (June 9)

Our first lunch is chicken soup with flat Chilean bread, pasta and a slice of beef, followed by fruit jelly.

Sharing our table is Midshipman 1st Class Jonathan Rockwood of Sacramento, Calif. On an exchange program from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, he has been aboard Esmeralda since it left Puerto Rico on May 27. He tells us that the Chilean navy does things differently from the U.S. Navy.

"It's not necessarily better, or worse -- just different," he says.

Until he saw Esmeralda at the dockside in San Juan, he thought he was joining a modern warship.

"I was extremely impressed and excited," says Rockwood, who hopes to be a naval aviator. "It was an opportunity to be on a sailing ship and experience what sailors of the 18th century did."

At dinner, the salon is almost empty. Most of the ship's crew of 320 are ashore for their last night in Miami. Curfew is 3 a.m., a pre-departure retreat from the normal 8 a.m. roll call while in port. Chilean sailors can stay out all night if they choose, or party aboard during voyages. The evening menu is soup, stuffed zucchini with potato salad and a fresh orange. Beer and wine, banned by the "dry" U.S. Navy, are available in the mess.

Our metal-framed berths prove hard. The first night is full of clanks and bangs as the duty watch gets ready for sea and late-night revelers rush in to beat curfew. Sleep is fitful.

Day Two (June 10)

The morning's shower is cold. It comes in three-second bursts at each press of the button. It's a splash-soap-and-rinse process. Breakfast is a monastic offering of bread, fruit preserves and coffee. The dining room is now crowded with the full complement of midshipmen.

The sun and wind are up, a perfect day to go sailing. After Capt. Edmundo R. Gonzalez delivers the daily orders, sailors in white T-shirts and blue shorts set about the business of setting sail.

They climb the masts to untie topsails and clamber along the bowsprit to prepare the foremost four of the ship's six jibs. The strings of lights that give the Esmeralda its sparkling nocturnal silhouette are stripped off. Water pipes are disconnected, mooring ropes readied for release.

Lunch is a hurried, excited meal. Midshipmen change quickly into their white dress uniforms. The 61 who will line the yardarms more than 100 feet above the deck tuck their trousers into their socks for safety, then head aloft. They know the wire on which they must perch for two hours of ceremony will press painfully through their thin soles.

The destroyer USS John Hancock heads the Parade of Sail along the main channel out of Miami, followed by the barque Eagle, the Coast Guard's 295-foot flagship, then the Danmark.

Under engine power, we fall into line astern of the 253-foot Danish training ship. Behind us comes Colombia's 249-foot Gloria and the rest of the majestic tall ship fleet.

With the ship's band playing, the Chilean crew sings the national anthem as we glide past crowds of well-wishers and the fleet of spectator boats.

Once we reach the open sea, the water changes quickly from translucent green to cobalt blue. To the directive shrill of bosun's whistles, the sailors fly the sails.

Powered by more than 2,500 square yards of canvas and a 15-knot wind from the southeast, Esmeralda heels only slightly as she turns north and sets course for Norfolk. The deck takes on a rhythm of its own, and life aboard settles onto a 15-degree list and into a routine of four-hour watches.

Sleep remains elusive as the red night light shines constantly and lockers and doors bang with the change of watches, the surging and slowing, the swaying and stiffening of the boat.

Day Three (June 11)

Sunday aboard is an easier day for the trainees, 70 midshipmen and 70 seamen. After morning assembly, they spend two hours making the boat shipshape. Then the sailors off watch are free until evening Mass.

The time is not wasted. They are completing assignments, taking sextant readings, writing papers. The mess, which doubles as a classroom during the week, quickly takes on the appearance of a library -- books and papers spread across the tables.

A car chase blares from the television in the adjoining lounge. The noise does little to disturb sailor Christian Pena, who is tuned in to a CD player newly acquired in Miami.

Pena, 22, of Vina del Mar, near Valparaiso, paid $70 for a Panasonic CD player that would have cost $140 in Chile. "Very cheap," he says, listening to Aerosmith's "Get a Grip," while he writes a paper on sail-handling.

Occasionally, the chirp of a whistle comes over the loudspeaker. This one, at 3:30 p.m. signals tea break.

"There is a whistle for everything," says Victor Korner, 21, also from Vina del Mar. The whistles, which carry better than voices in the wind, tell the sailors when to get up, pull ropes, furl sails or report to class.

There is another benefit: Because whistles are the main form of communication, any shout in an emergency attracts immediate attention.

In the evening, another whistle chirp summons the faithful to evening Mass on Esmeralda's poop deck.

There is something special about prayers offered on the vast emptiness of the ocean, of hymns drifting across the endless waves. As the 20-knot wind strips a dark-blue back cloth from the boom cradle behind the crucifix, the sinking sun lays a path of shimmering silver toward the worshipers. Power and peace are present here.

Maryland sailor-writer Myron Arms calls his book on the spiritual side of sailing "Cathedral of the World." These young Chil-eans are in that church tonight.

After the service and supper, the midshipmen hit the books again, preparing for tomorrow's first full day of courses on this leg of their four-month, 17,000-mile voyage -- a distance equivalent to more than two-thirds of the way around the world.

Day Four (June 12)

The morning exercise period is a 90-minute whirlwind of sail changes, readying Esmeralda for a beat into the wind one minute, a reach with the breeze from abeam the next. Sails are flown and doused, pulled in and let out.

The crew's task is made easier by the lack of wind and the slackness of the huge sails. The diesel engine pushes us along at 8 to 10 knots, with the north-flowing Gulf Stream helping keep us on schedule to join Friday's Parade of Sail into Norfolk.

From the bridge, Captain Gonzalez, a former frigate commander, watches his men. He is not happy with what he sees.

The sailors climbing the mast seem too confident. They are clambering up and down the shrouds too quickly, inviting accident. After the exercise, he cautions them to take more care, recalling his midshipman classmate of 25 years ago who fell but escaped with broken bones.

Three sailors have died climbing the masts of Esmeralda since she entered service in 1955. But still no safety harnesses are used. It is, explains Gonzalez, part of the tradition and machismo of the Chilean navy, the country's only military service without uniformed women.

"We are very jealous of our traditions," says Gonzalez, who climbed to the mast top earlier in the voyage. "I agree with it."

Why does Chile, not the richest country in the world, spend $1 million a year to train its young mariners in such arcane sciences as reading a sextant on a sailing ship? They all know that GPS, the satellite ground positioning system, will tell them instantly the exact location of the diesel-driven warships they are likely to serve on for the rest of their careers.

"We convert these guys into sailors. That's our job, nothing else," Gonzalez says. "We teach them how to face the sea, how to face the weather, how to face the environmental things at sea.

"As a navy, we think the best way to do it is in a ship like this, a ship that puts the guy as close as can be to the environment.

"We send the guy to a warship, where he will be converted into a warrior. But he is going to be already a sailor."

Day Five (June 13)

Our first order of business today is to get a sea-level view of the ship. Chung and I drop from a wooden stepladder into an inflatable controlled by two wet-suited divers with knives strapped to their legs.

These are shark waters, but we see only flying fish, silver glints against the sea as they skip across the waves, apparently disturbed by our intrusion.

Esmeralda, alone in a circle of liquid lapis lazuli, is a beautiful sight, her bowsprit, above the condor figurehead, pointing proudly up and forward, her masts seeming to touch the sky. We watch the students going through their morning sail exercises, working the jibs, mains, staysails and topsails.

We circle the tall ship, but with the breeze picking up, we are ordered back aboard all too soon.

The southwesterly sets in at 13 knots, blowing from Esmeralda's port quarter, a perfect point of sail. The captain orders all sails flown.

As the wind shifts to the south, the sails are set wing and wing, the fore-main and mizzen extended to starboard and the aft-main out to port. It seems that not the slightest zephyr can get through the interlaced Dacron.

With night falling, the sails are reduced to a more manageable arrangement before the crew takes dinner and we are suddenly transported back to another world: The menu is cheeseburgers; the night's film, shown in the officers', midshipmen's and seamen's quarters, is "Diabolique."

Day Six (June 14)

The sea is all but flat, its surface undulating rather than fragmented. For the first time, the sailors parade in their dark-blue mariner's sweaters.

The cobalt-blue sea we have marveled at since Miami is now battleship gray and the water merges with the mist about 100 yards from the ship. The sails are stowed and we ghost along at 7 knots, a speed that will enable us to stop in 500 yards -- "with the anchors, if necessary," Captain Gonzalez says.

The anchor-chain hatches have been opened to allow the hooks to plunge down if we run into an emergency. Extra lookouts have been posted on the bow and bridge. The ship's bell is tolled and its horn sounded at regular intervals.

"You always have to worry about collision," says Gonzalez, who can be found on the bridge whenever the environment gets challenging.

The rotating radar arm peers 10 miles into the mist. Our steel masts should make us highly visible to other ships' radar. But still there is tension. We are nearing Norfolk and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the busiest stretches on the East Coast.

Sometime during the night we calmly rounded the notorious Cape Hatteras.

"It's a mosquito compared to Cape Horn," says Gonzalez, who has rounded the Horn 20 times and will take Esmeralda round the tip of South America on his way home to Chile in October.

In his cabin at the stern is an artist's impression of Esmeralda facing the terrible fury of the Horn. The gale-force wind is represented by horizontal gray strokes, but the boat is clearly taking the battering without much trouble.

The artist, he says, has depicted the boat flying too much canvas. In a storm, he says, he would furl the top two squaresails and put an extra reef in the three mainsails.

But he has total confidence in Esmeralda. "She is strong," he says. "In a storm, nobody can catch us."

The mist refuses to lift, and we ghost along, hushed, listening for engines, bells, horns, any warning of a nearby craft. It is the sort of eerie setting that reminds one that Esmeralda has a darker side to her character -- as a reputed prison ship and torture chamber during the Pinochet dictatorship.

It is not a charge that has great resonance with today's young officers.

"It's not true," says Midshipman Philip Thiermann, 20, of Santiago. "She was always sailing."

There is no mention of torture in the official guidebook to Esmeralda, a name associated proudly with the Chilean navy since early in the 19th century.

Finally, the sun burns off the mist as we pass Cape Henry with its black-and-white lighthouse. The sailors look at the long, white beaches and think of girls in bikinis.

We dock at the U.S. naval base at Norfolk to take on fuel and water before joining the other tall ships for the parade into the city's harbor.

Next stop -- Baltimore.

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