On the sails of education


The first and only time the schooner Sultana came to Havre de Grace, the visit hit a snag.

Actually, it was the boat that hit the snag, in the form of a shallow spot near the shore. The reproduction of a vessel that sailed the Chesapeake Bay in the 1700s was stuck.

Most of the water in the area is 15 feet deep, but the boat apparently hit a 6-foot-deep spot.

"We were having a really nice sail," said Chris Cerino, vice president of the nonprofit organization that owns the boat. "We just sort of came to a grinding halt, and our captain at the time tried to power us off there for about a half-hour."

As a gathering crowd gawked onshore, the boat's 30 passengers were ferried to land while the crew waited for the tide to come in and release the boat.

"It was a little bit embarrassing," Cerino said.

That was in August 2001, a few months after the March launch of the boat, known as the "Schoolship of the Chesapeake."

Cerino mentioned the incident during a talk last week at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum. About a dozen people attended his hour-long presentation, sitting on folding chairs and sipping apple cider as Cerino discussed the boat's history and its role as a floating classroom.

The Sultana, owned by the nonprofit Sultana Projects Inc., is based in Chestertown, and sails the Chesapeake nine months a year. About 5,000 people sail on the boat each year, and 10,000 students learn about Chesapeake Bay ecology and Colonial history through its programs.

The programs range from day trips and presentations that bring a model of the ship to classrooms to the three- to five-day "live-aboard" experience, in which students learn to operate the ship and participate in science experiments. Non-students can experience the Sultana through two-hour public sails and day sails.

Cerino's lecture was the first in a series of seven scheduled for the museum through May. All the topics are related to the water, and range from a discussion of the 17th-century explorer John Smith to a primer on bayside gardening.

The lecture series is the latest addition to the museum's offerings. Located on the waterfront in Havre de Grace, the museum explores local maritime history and also has a Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders School, which teaches students how to build and restore wooden boats.

During his talk, held amid the half-completed boats in the school, Cerino showed slides and brought along a few props, including a cat-o'-nine-tails similar to ones that might have been used to punish sailors aboard the original ship, which was built in 1767 and decommissioned in 1772.

He also passed around colorful cards, each detailing the life of a single sailor. These "muster cards" are used to teach about life aboard the ship.

According to Cerino, conditions aboard the original ship would have been unpleasant, to put it mildly. As many as 25 men would have been crowded aboard the 52-foot ship at a time, and the hold would have been so filled with supplies that there would have been no room to stand.

Detailed logs of the ship's activities were kept, so Cerino was able to base the cards on real individuals.

"She [the schooner] has a really amazing and extremely well-documented history," he told the audience.

In four years, 101 men sailed aboard the Sultana - meaning the turnover rate was high. Because the boat was small and could sail in water as shallow as 8 feet, it was used to patrol the Chesapeake for the Royal Navy in 1770 and 1771, searching other boats for supplies that were being shipped illegally to avoid paying the British tax. After 400 searches, it "seized exactly one ship," Cerino said.

The Sultana is a reproduction, not a replica, meaning concessions have been made for modern life, including the addition of a diesel engine and some plumbing, Cerino said.

During construction, which began in 1998, the shipyard in Chestertown was open to the public; schoolchildren were often invited to observe and help.

Four shipwrights and 250 volunteers worked more than 150,000 hours to create the schooner, following the original specifications from Royal Navy shipwrights. To keep the project as local as possible, most of the boat is made from Osage orange, a dense, rot-resistant hardwood harvested from the Eastern Shore. The keel is made from a Tolchester white oak, Cerino said.

Virginia Busby, a member of the maritime museum's board who organized the series of talks, said she hopes the museum and the schooner develop a "more formal, cooperative relationship."

She hopes to see the schooner back in Havre de Grace, where it might attract new fans, participants and donors.

"Our focus is maritime history," Busby said. "We have a venue for them to expand their base of support."

Cerino is happy to spread the word about the schooner.

"The folks that were there were great," he said of the Monday night lecture. "They had a lot of excellent questions. It's always fun when your audience is as enthusiastic as you are."

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