A bay day-sailor marvels at tall ship macro-sailing


Some of my happiest sailing moments have been on a tiny Sunfish, tiller in one hand, a cold beer in the other, coasting into a dying sun on a summer's evening on the Assawoman Bay behind Fenwick Island, Del.

It might be called micro-sailing.

More recently, I have enjoyed what can only be described as macro-sailing. For six days, I was aboard the 371-foot barquentine Esmeralda, the Chilean navy's gracious tall ship, used for training its annual crop of 70 officer-graduates in the ancient alchemy of being a mariner.

Sun photographer Andre Chung and I sailed from Miami to Norfolk on the Esmeralda on its way to Baltimore, getting to know its captain and crew, learning the ropes of how sailors-of-old made their way around the world.

The experience was fascinating.

Capt. Edmundo R. Gonzalez, 44, is an officer with an outstanding record: commander of a fast patrol boat; Class of '97 at the U.S. Naval War College's international command program; master's degree in management from Salve Regina University, Newport, R.I.; dean of the naval operations department at the Chilean Naval War College; commander of a frigate and now the Esmeralda.

Even more impressive is the apparent universal popularity he holds with the cadets and seamen. He leads by example, teaches by experience.

We spent six days living, eating, sleeping along with the young men in his charge, and we heard little but praise for him. Perhaps that is because, as he put it, his executive officer concentrates on efficiency, giving the trainees a hard time when they under-achieve, while his own major concern is safety - of his men, his ship.

Over coffee in his cabin, he admitted that every time he watches from the bridge as the young sailors climb Esmeralda's awesome 156-foot masts without safety harnesses, his stomach tightens.

But he accepts the risk as part of the Chilean navy's "macho" tradition. He would not change it, even though three young Chileans have plunged from those masts to their deaths in the last 45 years.

But the most impressive part of the voyage was simply being on a ship that carries 29 sails, and, under the right conditions, flies 24 of them. Perhaps fortunately, we had no really strong winds.

But, in all honesty, we were hoping to see just how Esmeralda would cope with some heavy weather.

There is little reason to doubt her strength. This is, after all, her 45th training cruise since commissioning in 1955. She has more than 300 port calls around the world in her wake, so she has faced most of the forces nature can produce.

Winds on the Miami-Norfolk leg failed to get much above 15 knots. As night approached, the breeze seemed to die. To avoid having crew go aloft in darkness, the Esmerelda's topsails were routinely stripped off. The motor was switched on, but three jibs, two staysails, the two mains and the mizzen were left on in case the wind piped up.

This is how we were suited when the single squall we encountered hit us.

Suddenly, the boat heeled over and leaped forward. The sea, whipped into a frenzy of white caps, raced by, and a river of water gushed along the leeward gunwales. The off-duty sailors rushed out to enjoy the thrill, which lasted only minutes; then, we were back on a more even keel.

It was close as we came to a real adrenaline rush and only whetted the appetite for more.

A confusion of rope

We spent a lot of our time, in a timeless sort of way, on the oiled, teak deck, dominated fore by a huge anchor windlass and aft by a 6-ft. emergency wheel should the main helm in the bridge break down.

The forecastle and poop deck each have a pair of huge brass winches - cast in Cadiz, Spain, and driven by as many as eight man-powered spokes - for trimming the huge sails.

Miles of halyards and sheets run up and down the masts and along the deck in what to the untrained eye is a confusion of rope, albeit neatly coiled and hung.

The square-rigged foremast, with the horizontal yardarms that make this a barquentine, has 20 belaying pins at its base.

The other three masts - the fore main, the aft main and the mizzen - with their simpler gaff-rigged and topsails, have 12 pins each.

Each mast has its own crew. Daily on deck, the sailors go through their sail-handling exercises, learn to tie knots, take sextant readings - all traditional skills that may be of little use to them in the modern warships on which they are likely to serve but which, at the end of the year-long course, will have turned them into real mariners.

While laying no claim to such expertise myself, I did share with them the experience of being under full sail on the tallest of the tall ships, the fifth largest of its genre in the world.

The wind was coming from the southwest at about 13 knots, a perfect point of sail for Esmeralda. She cannot sail closer than 60 degrees to the wind, but when the breeze is from her stern, she is in her element.

Soon we were being powered by her six jibs, the two mains, the mizzen, four square-rigged foresails, three staysails, five topsails, and three studdingsails, flown from the shrouds to collect the last breath of deck-level wind.

'Plan ... made perfect sense'

The amazing thing was that to a day-sailor from Chesapeake Bay, the sail plan, complex as it was, made perfect sense. It would be nonsense to suggest that one could sail Esmeralda, but at least I recognized how she was being sailed, which was satisfaction, indeed.

What frustrated Gonzalez was that he was not in a race, although he initially thought OpSail 2000 was centered on the notion of a tall-ships race.

When he found out it was more a parade than a competition, he challenged captains of the 258-foot Ecuadorian barque Guayas and the U.S. Coast Guard's 295-foot Eagle to see who could get to Miami first from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Eagle, lighter with proportionally more sail area, won.

Gonzalez argues that making each leg of the tall ship gatherings a real race would add an element of excitement to the splendor that accompanies these gracious vessels wherever they go.

In rough conditions, he believes, his boat is unbeatable. But in the light weather we encountered between Miami and Norfolk, Eagle again left us in her wake.

On the first night out of Miami, even the 191-foot Indonesian barquentine Dewaruci crept over the horizon and started to overhaul us.

Gonzalez ordered his men to break out two extra sails. Steadily, we pulled away.

With some satisfaction but also fretting, he said, "Everybody is behind us now, except Eagle. I don't know where she is."

We never did catch her. But we had a lot of fun trying.

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