Memories of OpSail to be savored for years


Today, OpSail Baltimore 2000 ends with what promises to be the highlight of a memorable weeklong celebration of seafaring - the final Parade of Sail.

One after another, the barques and barquentines, the schooners and ketches, the yawls and cutters will assemble off Fort McHenry to take their leave of a city that has both enjoyed and embraced them.

Whether the tall ships will be in full, under-sail glory will depend on the wind and the judgment of the local pilots who know these waters so well. But, bow to stern, the ships' leave-taking will be like no other: a millennium armada.

No doubt a few young hearts will be broken, in the way of ship sailings through the ages. No doubt many memories will be stored for savoring. No doubt our harbor will be emptier without them.

It may be years before tall ships gather again here in such numbers, but, as was the case in the bicentennial visit of 1976, the event has burnished Baltimore's image both as a port of welcome and a city of promise.

But beyond the overall impact of the spectacle, some minor moments stick in my mind:

The cover picture of The Sun's special OpSail supplement showed a young Chilean midshipman clambering up the shrouds to the crow's nest of Esmeralda, the tallest of the visiting tall ships. It is a daily at-sea routine for the crew, and photographer Andre F. Chung climbed above them to take the photograph.

Only one thing was wrong with it: The sailor was wearing a watch.

The Chileans take mast-climbing seriously. They do not allow their sailors to wear safety harnesses, except when they are actually working on the yardarms. To minimize the risks, the mariners are prohibited wearing from any jewelry that might catch in the rigging, including, most prominently, watches. When the photograph reached the captain's desk, the sailor was firmly reminded of the rule.

As two tugs gently inched the full-rigged ship Amerigo Vespucci toward its pride of place on the Inner Harbor's west wall, a burly Italian crewman whirled a light rope with a heavy monkey-fist knot at its end around his head and hurled it toward the quay.

"Heads up, folks," shouted a longshoreman as the orange rope, a lead for the heavier mooring line, snaked toward the crowd. The onlookers retreated. The rope dropped short and landed in the water.

The Italian put more effort into his second throw, and the rope once more sped toward the dock. This time, out of the retreating crowd, ran Babs Ertle.

She grabbed the rope, which had fallen across one of the waterside lamps before it could slither back into the water again. She then calmly handed it to the longshoreman. Something about her reaction suggested she knew what she was doing. She did.

She crewed aboard Baltimore's own clipper, Pride of Baltimore II, in 1994 and 1995, when it cruised to Hawaii and Alaska. No longer a sailor, she teaches reading and science at Clarksville Middle School, but she still knows how to handle a rope.

By midafternoon Friday, before the weekend rush, it was already taking 25 minutes to do a slow-shoe shuffle round the deck of Germany's 293-foot, yellow-masted barque Gorch Fock II while the six-member oompah section of the Blaskapelle "Alte Kameraden" brass band played marching tunes.

The pace became more spritely after khaki-uniformed Master Sgt. Hans-Jurgen Wellhausen served the red waist-coated musicians from Fairfax, Va., foam-topped glasses of Bitburger beer. It was brewed in the town where former President Ronald Reagan caused a controversy by visiting a cemetery that contained graves of SS storm-troopers.

"Regardless of who is in the cemetery, it's very good beer," said tuba player John Taylor.

"We will play much better in a minute," said band leader Samuel Laudenslager, taking a quick gulp of a drink he would most surely not have been offered on a "dry" U.S. Navy ship.

After spending six days sailing on the Esmeralda from Miami to Norfolk, the least I could do for the midshipmen who had been so hospitable aboard was to invite them to a barbecue ashore.

They were, it turned out, spoiled for choice.

Patricio Concha had no fewer than four invitations for Sunday, which I take to be some measure of the welcome Baltimoreans have given to the young mariners.

When they arrived in Columbia, the Chileans remarked how pleasant it was to be in a house instead of on a boat, albeit the beautiful Esmeralda. They left their home port of Valparaiso in April and won't get back there until November. Their shore stops are welcome breaks.

They were particularly impressed by the trees in Columbia. Few Chilean yards, said Philip Thiermann, would have so many trees.

"Do the trees lose their leaves in winter?" he asked, coming from a country where most trees are slow-growing evergreens.

The absence of fences between the lots also puzzled them. At home, they said, such open space would invite intrusion by all and sundry. They wondered why footpaths weren't worn across my lawn.

Once the coals were hot, the graduates of Chile's naval academy lined up for chicken and burgers. They tackled the green salad like rabbits. They scooped up spoonfuls of pasta salad as if in Rome. The homemade bread disappeared faster than the early morning bake in a French boulangerie.

But, to a man, they avoided the potato salad. Was something wrong with it?

Not at all.

At sea, they explained with some embarrassed politeness, they were served potatoes twice a day, lunch and dinner, every day: roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, fried potatoes, sauteed potatoes, potato salad. Always potatoes.

Ashore, they simply wanted to avoid the seemingly inescapable vegetable. My wife just wished she had known earlier.

While being interviewed Monday morning in the floating studio WQSR had established aboard the Lady Pintail, berthed beside the Rusty Scupper, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye.

It was Colombia's 249-foot barque Gloria gliding almost surreptitiously past Fells Point, in front of the Domino Sugar plant, and into the Inner Harbor. Her yardarms were fully manned. A football field-size flag flew from her stern. With all the other boats moored, her slow, irresistible advance onto center stage in such a splendid display came as a total surprise.

If there is a single postcard image of the tall ships, this was it: stately progress, tall masts, strong sailors, and national pride.

As she came closer, we could hear the crew singing stirring, patriotic songs. The Lady Pintail's doors, closed for studio silence, were thrown wide open so we could share the sounds with the audience.

The talk-show host, rendered almost speechless for perhaps the first time in his garrulous career, invited me to describe the scene.

What could I say? What can anyone say?


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