Partyers do a bit of naval-gazing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was 1:30 a.m. yesterday and a 23-year-old woman was perched on a beam at the edge of Broadway Pier in Fells Point, chin in her hands, staring up dejectedly at the strings of white lights draped from the rigging of the Chilean four-masted ship Esmeralda.

Trish Denning had been there all night. She drove to Baltimore from her home in Norfolk, Va., to meet a sailor, Juan Pablo, whom she spent time with during the ship's stop in Virginia. She dropped off a message asking him to call her hotel room, but he didn't. So she spent her evening waiting for him, watching the sailors walk down the gangway.

"I didn't come all the way down here for my health, you know," said Denning, chewing her gum as a sailor strolled past, his arm curled around a woman. "I gave him the number of my hotel here, and I expected him to call."

If the point of the Operation Sail 2000 tall ship tour, in Baltimore until Thursday, is to promote cultural exchange, then ground zero of its mission is on the wharves at night. There, hundreds of sailing groupies - many of them college students - flock to, talk to and look at sailors from Ecuador, Uruguay, Italy and elsewhere.

For some women, hanging out beside the ship's gangways simply provides an opportunity to comment on the sailors' starched white uniforms and their elegant bearing. But others tempt a more challenging sport: getting around the guards and "No Visitors!" signs at the entrances and scoring invitations to exclusive on-board parties. The most coveted prizes are the white invitation cards with the beautiful, curling script that sailors on the Italian ship Amerigo Vespucci hand out. They do so - with great discretion - to women who pique their interest as the hopefuls stand behind a steel fence.

To score an after-hours invitation to the Ecuadorian barque Guayas, women will try almost anything - even reaching back into the high school-level Spanish that they haven't used for more than a decade.

Everyone's invited aboard the Indonesian barquentine Dewaruci, which is moored beside the National Aquarium. But there are rules. The sailors have a 10 p.m. curfew and are forbidden to smoke or drink - forget about spending the evening with a woman.

To Trish Denning, no ship held more allure than the Esmeralda, because she was sure that on board was her Juan Pablo. A recent graduate from Old Dominion University, Denning met Juan Pablo during a visit of the Esmeralda to Norfolk two years ago. She wrote to him, using her skills as a Spanish major. He didn't write back. When the Esmeralda returned to Norfolk last week, she hurried to meet it and learned that Juan Pablo was still assigned to the ship. They hooked up again, had a brief, romantic time together, and she told him she would follow him up the coast to Baltimore.

Frustrated by her hours of waiting, she finally strode up the gang plank, her flip-flops slapping, to confront a naval officer wearing a white cap and epaulets. She demanded something, was handed a brown paper bag, and stomped back to her place on the wooden beam. Using a ballpoint pen, she scribbled an urgent note to Juan Pablo on the bag.

"He'd better be there tomorrow morning," she said, ignoring the crowds of sailors pouring out of Kooper's bar at 1702 Thames St. "Or I'll tell you, Baltimore will see some real commotion."

After she left, several women remained perched on the wooden railings beside the Esmeralda. They mused about the mysterious magnetic force emanating from the brilliantly lit ship.

"It's something about the sailors' uniforms," said Kelly Nisbet, 29, a customer-services employee from Fells Point. "People say cops are bad to date, but everybody is attracted to police officers because of their uniforms. That's why women are even attracted to UPS men. A man in a uniform will rescue you."

Teresa Rios, a 22-year-old medical assistant from Dundalk, had a different theory. "It's the way the sailors walk," said Rios, watching a trio of sailors stroll past. "I can't describe it. But it's very proper, dignified, confident. Most guys don't have it. But I love these guys."

The scene was more desperate earlier that evening in front of the Amerigo Vespucci, docked along the west wall of the Inner Harbor. The sun was setting as a private party began on the elegant, three-masted ship, which serves as a ceremonial ambassador for Italy and training vessel for naval officers. Techno-pop bubbled from a dance floor set beneath a canopy on the deck. A disco ball twirled and sailors in their white dress uniforms with black epaulets slouched over the ship's railing, watching the crowd surge past. Despite a sign beside the gang plank saying the ship is closed to the public, dozens of women and men pressed up against a barred fence.

"How do you get on board?" a middle-aged woman asked.

"Nobody gets on board," the guard replied.

Monae Stewart, 21, of Baltimore, knew better. Wearing a tight, leopard-spotted dress decorated with pink roses, she leaned over the fence and caught the eye of Francesco La Rosa, a sailor with long sideburns, broad shoulders and a white cap rimmed in black and gold.

"Can I come on board?" she asked.

"No," he said. "You know, the ship is pretty outside, but inside, it isn't so pretty."

"Can I see your hat?" she asked. He grinned, popped the cap on her head and laughed when she posed. He snatched it back.

"How old are you?" he asked.

"Twenty-one."

He looked at her incredulously. A whistle shrieked. He snapped to attention beside a half-dozen other sailors on the wharf as the ship's flag was lowered. Then he ambled back to the fence near her. He was looking at her differently.

"I don't like wearing my uniform," he said. "It's too formal."

"Are you going to change into something more comfortable for the party?" she asked, glancing up at the tent.

That did it. He took her hand, led her up the gangplank past the other women pleading to board.

"Hey, how did she get on?" one woman shouted. On the deck, a bartender served wine and colored lights swept across a makeshift dance floor. Down a short flight of stairs, a long white table was spread with antipasti, calamari, mussels, a tower of prosciutto, cheeses, bread and cake.

La Rosa lead Stewart over to a railing of the ship to talk. Behind them, the strings of lights in the rigging of the Indonesian ship Dewaruci reflected off the harbor. Surveying the party and the glimmering water, Lt. j.g. Alessio Prestijacopo reflected on the rigors endured by crews such as those aboard the Amerigo Vespucci and Dewaruci.

"It's a tough life," he said, sarcastically.

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