Modern Sea Tragedy Aboard Historic Cutter
Tuesday September 12 2011
The Pride of Baltimore, a 90-foot-long topsail schooner built to historical standards for the American Bicentennial in 1976, is no more. Returning from an Atlantic crossing with its 12-member crew in May 1986, the tall ship was caught in a storm in the Bermuda Triangle. Four people died, and eight others survived after a harrowing struggle with the sea.
The Pride, an authentic replica of an 1800s Baltimore Clipper, was built at a time when the historic Maryland port city had fallen on hard times. City leaders saw the project as a way to help rekindle the glory years.
Though it was initially conceived as a waterfront museum, and not built to Coast Guard specifications, the Pride generated so much excitement that it was sent on a two-year goodwill voyage to Europe. It was nearly home when disaster struck. The ship went down rapidly in 17,000 feet of water. The six men and two women who lived to tell the tale survived by clinging to a five-by-five foot raft, and were rescued by a Norwegian tanker.
Two of the survivors married each other after a proposal in the middle of the turmoil, Waldron notes, and most of the eight remain enthusiastic sailors today.
And Baltimore’s revitalized Inner Harbor hosts a new tall ship — The Pride of Baltimore II.
Original Pride of Baltimore
Pride of Baltimore was built in 1977 in open air shipyard in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. This Pride was the first Baltimore Clipper built in 150 years. She sailed over 150,000 nautical miles in nine years before she was struck by a freak squall and tragically sunk off the coast of Puerto Rico in 1986.
Specifications of the original Pride of Baltimore
- 90 feet on deck
- 79 feet at the waterline
- 23 feet at extreme beam
- 9 feet 9 inches draught
- 121 tons displacement
- 9,327 square feet sail area
Baltimore’s Renaissance Begins
In 1975, after many years of slow decay and decline, Baltimore was struggling to reinvent itself – to become once again the kind of vibrant center for business, commerce, and comfortable living that she had been in previous decades – indeed, in previous centuries. The old piers around the Inner Harbor had been cleared and a Promenade built around the water’s edge. Citizens were beginning to discover that the harbor could become a magnet for people and recreation, as it had once been a magnet for shipping and trade. But something was still missing – a symbol, a trademark, an icon to link Baltimore to its harbor.
City officials cast about for possibilities and an idea eventually emerged that captured the theme. Former Mayor William Donald Schaefer credits then Housing Commissioner Bob Embry with the idea “Let’s build a ship in the Inner Harbor to draw folks downtown.” With that seminal thought, a great sailing adventure and tradition was launched that would soon catapult Baltimore back into the imagination of the nation and the world as the home of adventurous seamen and romantic ships. A name was soon selected, a choice so natural as to be almost automatic – Pride of Baltimore. The name captured the spirit of the phoenix-like town. It also tapped into her maritime heritage since “Pride of Baltimore” was the nickname of Chasseur, the largest and boldest of the legendary, Baltimore-built topsail schooners that helped win the War of 1812, a conflict that first launched the city as a commercial and maritime center.
A New Baltimore Clipper is Born
In spring 1976, America’s Bicentennial year, an unassuming, open-air “Clipper Shipyard” was erected along the west shore of the Inner Harbor, just north of the newly completed Maryland Science Center. In May 1976, the keel for the vessel was carved out of a thousand year old piece of Central American hardwood, a species called Cortez from Belize. The adventure of recreating the first Baltimore Clipper to be built in 150 years was begun.
That adventure came to fruition on May 1, 1977 when she was commissioned in the Inner Harbor by Mayor William Donald Schaefer amid the tooting of horns, the ringing of bells, the spray of the fire boats, and a cannon salute from the USF Constellation. The adventure of embodying the pride and spirit of the citizens of Baltimore and Maryland and representing that pride and spirit to the peoples and nations of the world had just begun.
Construction of a Replica Baltimore Clipper
The classified advertisement, placed by the City in the Baltimore Sun on September 24, 1975, seeking proposals to design and construct the first Baltimore Clipper to be built in 150 years, stated that the ship was to be “an authentic example of an historic Baltimore Clipper. The ship is to be between 85′ and 90′ on deck, fully operable, capable of being sailed, and equipped with replica cannon. Construction materials, methods, tools, and procedures are to be typical of the period.” In a word, the ship was to be a replica, built by hand with traditional materials and methods as far as practicable.
The design/construction contract was awarded to the International Historical Watercraft Society, a corporate designation of master shipwright Melbourne Smith of Annapolis. Smith had extensive experience with traditional ship repair and construction and was an ideal candidate for the task. Design of the vessel was the responsibility of noted naval architect, Thomas Gillmer, long-time professor of naval architecture and engineering at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.
The vessel was built during 1976-77 in the open-air Clipper Shipyard on the west shore of the Inner Harbor adjacent to the Maryland Science Center. Work proceeded seven days a week and was followed closely by thousands of Baltimoreans and visitors who watched with fascination as the ship emerged from her keel in the makeshift yard.
Most of the work was done by hand using traditional methods and tools – the adz, the caulker’s hammer, a ship’s saw. Some of the experienced shipwrights were from Central America, associates of Melbourne Smith in a Belize shipyard where they had built and repaired boats for the Caribbean trade. Others were experienced sailors and hands from Maryland who wanted to share in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of building an “old style” ship in the traditional way. A master blacksmith, or rather a shipsmith, set up shop on site and forged thousands of special fittings for the vessel. By the time of launch, just ten months after the keel was laid, fifteen devoted craftspeople made up the building crew.
Launching and Rigging
Pride of Baltimore was launched on February 27, 1977 by “Big Red,” a huge floating crane from the Bethlehem Shipyard that lifted the bare hull like a toy and gently placed her in the water. The traditional bottle of champagne was cracked against her hull by then Congresswoman (now Senator) Barbara Mikulski. But much work remained to be done. Forty tons of fixed ballast were packed along the keel below deck. Ballast consisted of specially molded iron pigs and cubes, as well as ten tons of traditional Belgian paving stones that had been part of Baltimore streets – and had probably arrived from Europe as ballast in 19th century sailing vessels! The two masts and spars of Douglas fir from Oregon were shaped and stepped, and the rigging put in place.
A major compromise with authenticity occurred late in the ship’s construction process as a result of the incredible excitement stirred by the arrival and visit of six “tall ships” from around the world to the Inner Harbor during the City’s 1976 July 4th Bicentennial Celebration. Sensing that Pride of Baltimore could awaken the same kind of excitement in other ports, City Council authorized an additional $50,000 for a diesel engine for Pride of Baltimore to enable her to travel to distant places and maneuver in crowded ports. Hence, an 85 horsepower Caterpillar propulsion system was sandwiched into the vessel after launch.
On May 1, 1977, Pride of Baltimore was commissioned by Mayor Schaefer in the name of the citizens of Baltimore and Maryland, most of whom, it seemed, were dockside participating in the ceremony.
Her topside was painted black with green anti-fouling paint below the waterline. Her unmistakable signature was a result of her steeply raked masts (17 degrees), the broad white stripe along the exterior gunwale, and her flowing white banner atop the mainmast. With her gaff rigged fore and mainsails set and her square foretop sail raised, Pride of Baltimore was a beautiful and unforgettable reminder of Baltimore’s proud maritime heritage.
Goodwill Ambassador to the World
During her nine years at sea, between her maiden voyage to Bermuda, New York, and Nova Scotia in 1979 to her final European voyage in 1986, Pride of Baltimore extended the hand of friendship to countless visitors. She visited ports along the Eastern Seaboard from Newfoundland to the Florida Keys, the Great Lakes, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, and the West Coast of America as far north as British Columbia. On her final voyage, she visited European ports in the Irish Sea, the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the English Channel, and the Mediterranean – the first Baltimore Clipper to be seen in those waters in 150 years. Altogether, she logged over 150,000 miles, equal to six times around the globe. She sailed further in nine years than most sailing vessels travel in their lifetimes. No museum ship was Pride, but a true Ambassador for Baltimore and Maryland.
A City is Stunned by the Loss of her Pride
On the morning of May 19, 1986, the early morning quiet of the McGeady family home in Severna Park was shattered by the insistent ringing of the telephone. The caller was Joe McGeady who reported that he was calling from the deck of the Norwegian tanker TORO approximately 250 north of Puerto Rico. Pride of Baltimore had been struck and sunk by a violent squall (what the US Coast Guard later called a microburst squall) some four days earlier. The captain and three crew members were missing and presumed dead.
The word spread quickly – to the staff and Board of Pride of Baltimore, Inc., to the families of survivors and those lost at sea, to the news media. In the following days as reports came out, the residents of the City and State watched and prayed with stunned disbelief as the details became known. During a dramatic news conference with the recently rescued survivors at Glen L. Martin Airport a few days later, it was confirmed that Pride of Baltimore had sunk on May 14, having capsized in 80 mile per hour winds that developed suddenly and with no warning. The vessel had been struck and sunk so quickly that there had been no time to radio for help. Eight crew members climbed into a five by five foot rubber life raft where they floated helpless for four days and seven hours with little food or water. The captain and three crew members did not emerge from the wreckage and were presumed lost. Although the survivors saw six vessels during their ordeal, only the TORO spotted them. That was at night – the ship saw an SOS signaled with a flashlight.
Those lost were:
Armin Elsaesser, 42, Captain
Vincent Lazarro, 27, Engineer
Barry Duckworth, 29, Carpenter
Nina Schack, 23, Seaman
The tragedy brought an abrupt end to the adventures of a noble sailing vessel – but not an end to her mission. As the minister at a memorial service for the drowned crew members reminded his audience, “Those who go down to the sea in ships feel particularly close not only to nature, but to God.”
A permanent memorial to the original Pride of Baltimore has been erected in the Inner Harbor on Rash Field. The memorial consists of the characteristic raked mast of a Baltimore Clipper along with the names of those lost in the tragedy carved into pink granite. The memorial reminds those who visit it of the precariousness of life at sea, a lesson the citizens of this great port city once knew well but had long forgotten.
Doug Worrall Photographer