Boat People: Cheek to Jowl With the Maritime Set in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 12, 1997

IMG_7281

These days it is easy to forget that Baltimore is a port city. Merchant seamen don’t stumble around drunk on the Block anymore; now conventioneers do. The Inner Harbor, once abuzz with the boat-based trade of food, lumber, and coal, is now home to malls, parking garages, museums, hotels, and half-empty office buildings. Baltimore still is a player in the modern shipping industry, with its massive freighters, cranes, and dry docks, but none of that can be seen from the city proper except on a clear day from, say, the pagoda in Patterson Park or the top of the Washington Monument. With the exception of a few remnant working vessels, the Fells Point-Canton waterfront – one of the birthplaces of America’s maritime heritage – now berths only a large fleet of small pleasure boats.

But each year in mid-October Baltimore’s maritime heyday is nostalgically revived. Scores of two-masted sailboats come to town to engage not in trade but in another, more leisurely kind of competitive enterprise: a race. Some are made of wood, some of steel, some even of fiberglass and epoxy, and most are less than 20 years old. Many hail from the north – New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine, Novia Scotia – and stop for the event on their way south to more tropical climes for wintertime charters. Their captains all hope to claim honors in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va.

For days leading up to the event, schooner captains, professional crews, and paying passengers mix with Baltimore’s native nautical subculture at the Whistling Oyster in Fells Point, a bar that also serves as the headquarters for the Fells Point Yacht Cub, which organizes schooner-race activities in Baltimore. The race participants get serious for the 145-mile race to Norfolk, where partying resumes with a playful vengeance at a pig-and-oyster roast and an awards ceremony.

This annual orgy of schooner fare nets several thousand dollars to benefit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and spawns a handful of race stories and a shared sense of Chesapeake Bay maritime heritage among the competitors. It started with a challenge in 1988 at the launch of the Pride of Baltimore II, when Lane Briggs of Norfolk, the builder and captain of a unique schooner-rigged tugboat called the Norfolk Rebel, challenged the Pride II to a race down the bay, with the loser to buy the winner enough beer to satisfy the winning crew. In 1990 the competition was made official by the formation of a race committee and has continued each year since, attracting as many as 35 entrants. Twenty-four boats – from the 44-foot Green Dragon out of Massachusetts to Baltimore’s own 171-foot Pride II – participated in this year’s race, according to Briggs, president of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race organization.

The race, though young, reflects a very old rivalry between Baltimore and Norfolk, port cities with a history of commercial competition dating to the 18th century. It also revives a tradition of schooner racing on the bay, an activity that at one time captured the imagination – and gaming instincts – of Baltimore’s populace. In 1884, for instance, bookies in Mobtown’s bars were reported to have held $60,000 in bets on the outcome of a race  between two famous Baltimore schooners – the William M. Himes and the Judy – from Baltimore to Beaufort, N. C. After the Judy won by 10 minutes, both boats loaded their holds with watermelons for the return trip north.

Schooner racing today, however, doesn’t involve working boats. Rather than making runs for pineapples from the West Indies or shipping coal to New England, modern schooners are mostly chartered for pleasure, a use that, when it began in the 1930s, earned them the derisive label “dude cruisers.” Those that aren’t charter boats are either private yachts, educational vessels, or goodwill ambassadors, such as the Pride II. Together the schooners form the basis of an Atlantic Coast nautical society, a web of boat people familiar with each other – and with each other’s boats – and bonded by a taste for maritime history. When they congregate for the race, you can taste the salt in the air.

IMG_7283

The schooner race is known by crew and passengers as a chance to party, but winning it has become a coveted honor among East Coast schooner captains. The competitive spirit runs thick. Heading out of the Baltimore harbor at the helm of the Liberty Clipper on Oct. 16, race day, Jason Kurtz is asked if he thinks his boat will win. “We’re going to try,” Kurtz says. “And we’re going to have fun doing it.” Then he pauses, looks around at the other schooners heading toward the starting line just south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and adds, “Don’t let anyone fool you. Everybody is in this race to win. The bragging rights are huge if you win this race.”

Kurtz, at 26, is young for a schooner captain. As a child he sailed with his family on the Great Lakes, then went to Hamilton College in upstate New York. In college he spent a semester at sea aboard an educational vessel out of Woods Hole, Mass. After graduating from college he dabbled in sales before joining a schooner crew in Key West. That was three years ago. Earlier this year he was hired as Liberty Clipper‘s captain.

Kurtz is one of many schooner sailors to make a career of working the big boats up and down the Atlantic seaboard. In addition to the Chesapeake fleet of dude cruisers (the Clipper City and the Schooner Nighthawk of Baltimore, neither of which raced this year) and vessels funded by foundations (the Pride II and the Lady Maryland), a variety of schooners operate along the coast, many in New England. Most of these boats provide full-time jobs for crews of 10 or more. The schooner race gives these sailors an opportunity to look at other boats for possible employment, to catch up with friends, and to upgrade their sailing licenses by taking a test administered in Baltimore by the Coast Guard.

Before the race Kurtz tosses a penny over his left shoulder and into the drink, then scratches the mast, both maritime superstitions believed to bring luck and wind. The schooner’s owner, Greg Muzzy, also throws a penny “to appease Neptune,” he says. Then the strains of Jimmy Buffet’s “Follow in My Wake” are piped over the schooner’s on-deck stereo speakers. Kurtz is overcome with good-spirited cockiness. “This is the song we’re going to play for the rest of the schooner fleet,” he crows, and starts singing along.

Muzzy came to schooner ownership after a career as an accountant and small-business consultant, and a lifetime of fascination with schooners. In the 1980s he took an educational schooner trip to learn celestial navigation; shortly afterward he took the plunge and bought the Liberty, a small schooner he still owns. Its success as a dude cruiser led him to purchase another – the Mystic Clipper – and rename it the Liberty Clipper.

Built in 1983, the Liberty Clipper is a 125-foot steel-hulled schooner designed in the style of the Baltimore clippers, the fast-sailing, “sharp-built” vessels that made Baltimore internationally famous during the first half of the 19th century. For her first six years she was owned and operated as a dude cruiser on the Chesapeake by Quentin Snediker, a towering figure in schooner circles. Today Muzzy sails her out of Baltimore in the summer and Key West in the winter.

Snediker played a key role in reviving pubic interest in the bay’s maritime heritage. The 1992 picture book Chesapeake Bay Schooners, coauthored by Snediker and Ann Jensen, chronicles the rich territory of bay-schooner culture in great detail, down to vessel lists and architectural drawings. He recently moved from Annapolis to Mystic, Conn., to help coordinate construction of a replica of the Amistad, a Baltimore-built clipper that achieved fame in 1839 when 53 West Africans mutinied and took control of the ship after being sold as slaves in Cuba. They were captured off of Long Island by the U.S. Navy and stood trial for murder and piracy; they were acquitted, amid great fanfare. The case became a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement in the United States, and its story is the basis of an upcoming Steven Spielberg movie.

IMG_7284

The race starts at 2:10 P.M., just outside of Annapolis. The Liberty Clipper crosses the starting line ahead of the Pride II, the boat to beat in the AA Class of larger vessels which also includes the 104-foot Lady Maryland of Baltimore, the 115-foot A.J. Meerwald of New Jersey, the 88-foot Ocean Star of Maine, and the 135-foot American Rover of Norfolk. “Take a picture of me with the Pride behind us,” Kurtz pleads as several cameras work to record the scene – which, with nothing in sight but big sails on two-masted boats, would be a familiar one to a bay waterman 100 years ago.

After the race begins, most of the AA Class schooners head toward the Eastern Shore, then tack over to sail west, zigzagging back and forth down the bay. The idea is to stay as much as possible out of the incoming tidal current, which is strongest in the deepest parts of the bay, by sticking close to shore, where a land breeze is also likely to add velocity. The increased sailing distance this strategy involves can be offset with higher boat speed.

Using her tremendous amount of sail, the Pride II banks on this strategy and pulls ahead of the pack. To fly that much sail, Liberty Clipper crew member Ron Peifer says, “you gotta work harder than a cat trying to bury a turd in a concrete floor.”

But Muzzy and Kurtz of the Liberty Clipper take a different approach. They point their boat straight down the middle of the bay, running her before the north wind. Kurtz orders the crew to set the schooner’s two largest sails – the mainsail and the foresail, on the mainmast and the foremast – “wing and wing” on opposite sides of the boat. To do this, the foresail is held in place by a “preventer,” a heavy block-and-tackle rig attached to the boom that keeps the sail from swinging unexpectedly and dangerously across the deck. The schooner barrels along, pushing through the brine before the strong breeze, going a steady seven or eight knots – 10 or 12 miles per hour.

Several hours into the race the Lady Maryland pulls up from behind to come broadside to the Liberty Clipper. A smaller, slower schooner with a sizable time advantage over the Liberty Clipper under the race’s complicated handicapping formula, the Lady Maryland is one of the last vessels Muzzy and Kurtz expect to see up close this long after the start. But there she is.

Just as the Lady Maryland pulls up, Kurtz, noting the wind has suddenly shifted slightly to the east, orders the preventer removed and the foresail jibed to starboard – that is, moved to the right side of the boat to take advantage of the wind change. Meanwhile the passengers of both schooners stand on deck, staring silently at each other from a distance of about 25 yards. The silence quickly grows somewhat absurd – after all here we are, two groups of people on two large schooners in the middle of the bay and within easy shouting distance of each other. Somebody must have something to say.

A Lady Maryland passenger breaks the ice: “Pardon me,” he says in faux British accent. “Do you have any Grey Poupon?”

No one on the Liberty Clipper has time to laugh. At that very instant the foresail jibes prematurely, wrenching the preventer from crew member Brooke Pastore’s hands. The heavy wooden block with a meat hook on the end swings out of control above the deck and strikes Muzzy hard on the head, opening a two-inch gash in his scalp and cutting his ear.

The vibe on the Liberty Clipper turns quickly from carefree and confident to chaotic as the crew frantically runs for ice and towels to stem Muzzy’s bleeding and clean the blood off the decks. But within moments the schooner’s speed increases dramatically and the Lady Maryland shrinks behind us, not to be seen again until both schooners are docked safely in Norfolk the next day.

I write of Muzzy in my notebook, “He’s bloody and beaten, and I doubt I’ll see him again on this race. Too bad, because I liked his attitude.” An hour later, after another, different kind of mishap – the schooner’s sewer system backed up, making it necessary to “clean the shit out of the shower,” as one crew member put it – I add another comment to my notes, “I guess the Lady Maryland put the bad juju on us.”

I was wrong about Muzzy. By dinnertime he is propped up in a captain’s chair in the Liberty Clipper‘s main cabin, fielding comic banter about his misfortune. His head is wrapped in a bandage and a bag of ice balances atop his pate. Two or three bandages patch up his injured ear. “You look like that guy from A Christmas Carol,” says one crew member, alluding to Marley, the ghost who haunts Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale. “You look like that self-portrait of van Gogh,” another chimes in.

Muzzy is philosophical about the accident. “It was the shock of looking up and seeing the Lady Maryland right there. I was thinking, What the hell is that boat doing next to us?” But he doesn’t blame the “bad juju” on the Lady Maryland. Rather, he jokingly blames it on Kurtz’s superstitious act of scratching the mast before the race began, a sailing ritual that is believed to bring wind. “That’s what you get for scratching the mast,” Muzzy says.

He might have said, “That’s what you get for letting the press come aboard.” The last time that happened was during an excursion in Boston Harbor. Muzzy fell overboard, and a Boston Globe photographer captured him on film as he flailed around in the dirty water.

IMG_7285

Muzzy’s clock-cleaning by the Liberty Clipper‘s preventer is one of many mechanical hazards of sailing schooners. The Liberty Clipper, for instance, uses 4,300 square feet of sail, manipulated with heavy, complicated, and archaic rigging, to harness the power of the wind and propel the 145-ton vessel through unpredictable waters – a venture that is bound to lead to the occasional casualty. As would be expected, the Chesapeake Bay schooner’s 200-year history is filled with morbid tales of the tough life on the sea.

Historically, though, the hazards of schooners have more to do with economics than mechanics. The Sarah, launched on the Wicomico River in 1731, was the first schooner built on the Chesapeake Bay, according to Snediker’s book. By that time the bay’s growing class of merchant planters was realizing ever higher returns from producing and shipping tobacco, beef, pork, grain, and other perishable goods to markets on and well beyond the bay. Piracy or seizure by warring nations was a constant threat, labor conditions for crews could be unbearable, and an infamous human commodity – slaves – were transported to the bay in inhuman conditions in schooner holds.

By the end of the 18th century schooner-based trade was a booming local industry, fueling Baltimore’s remarkably speedy growth. As Snediker points out in his book, between 1776 and 1783 the population of Fells Point – the city’s main shipbuilding center – jumped from 821 to 1,522, with the slave population rising from 65 to 276. By 1820 Fells Point shipbuilders could produce a schooner to order in six weeks, with much of the craftsmanship handled by slaves.

Many of the schooners built on the bay in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were fast-sailing vessels with sleek lines – Baltimore clippers, as they came to be known. Based on the design of Virginia pilot boats – small schooners used to speedily transport pilots, who would board incoming ships and guide them to port – the Baltimore clippers quickly became internationally renowned. They were widely used as privateers – armed vessels hired by merchants or governments to fend off pirates or enemy craft. And they were used by pirates themselves, who could more easily overtake “prize” vessels in a speedy clipper. The opium trade from the Far East relied on the clipper’s stealthy, swift qualities, and later, after the importation of slaves was banned in 1807, Baltimore clippers were used in the illegal “black ivory” slave trade.

Naval architect and historian Howard Chappelle summed up the Baltimore clipper with a well-crafted sentence Snediker uses in his book: “Sired by war, mothered by privateering and piracy, and nursed by cruelty, nevertheless, the Baltimore clipper will always remain the type representative of the highest development of small sailing craft, as built by American builders.”

Once the illegal slave trade was brought to a halt in the 1850s, Baltimore clippers faded from the bay’s schooner scene. Only a few remained by 1860. A variety of other schooner types – such as the bug-eye, the pungy (of which the Lady Maryland is an authentic replica), the clump schooner, and the skipjack – came to the fore, many of them used in the then-booming oyster industry.

Dredging for oysters brought its own hazards. Cruel oyster captains were known for running their crews ragged, then “paying them off with the boom” – an “accident” that swept unwanted crew members overboard to unrecorded deaths. Also, oyster clans fought each other for territory and fought the “oyster police,” a state-sanctioned navy that tried to keep a lid on the rampant ruthlessness in the hugely profitable industry.

As if ruthless captains weren’t enough, schooner folks were faced with dangers in port, too. The Baltimore waterfront after dark was an ominous place where bad luck and trouble lurked around every corner. Schooner crews leaving their boats at night were sure to stick together, walk in the middle of the street, and carry brass knuckles in their pockets.

By the 1920s and 1930s, with the oyster industry in decline, working schooners were also on the outs. A few lasted into the 1940s, when a few enterprising individuals came up with a new use for them: dude cruising. In 1944 Herman Knust came across an old schooner – the Levin J. Marvel – in Curtis Bay, bought and refurbished her for $18,000, and started Chesapeake Vacation Cruises, taking vacationers out for a thrill on the Chesapeake. Three years later he invested in Edwin and Maud – a schooner launched in 1900 that still dude cruises today under the name Victory Chimes.

Todays schooner culture is underwritten mostly by charters, foundation grants, and public funding – a necessity, since the big old boats, which are expensive to maintain, cannot be put to economical use hauling freight anymore. Schooner sailing still has its dangers – Muzzy’s mishap is a good example, as is the lost of four lives when the Pride of Baltimore went down in a freak squall near Puerto Rico in 1986 – but its days of piracy, drug running, and oyster wars are long over.

IMG_7286

The strong breeze holds steady all night, then picks up steam after changing to the southeast in the wee hours of the morning. Around 2 A.M. one of the Liberty Clipper‘s jibs – the sails that fly ahead of the foremast – rips, making a sound, Brooke Pastore recalls, like “a screaming woman” as the force of the wind shreds the sail. In rough seas and darkness, the crew wrestles the ruined sail to the deck.

As we approach the finish line, the spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel between the Eastern Shore’s Cape Charles and tidewater Virginia’s Cape Henry are outlined by lights. The full moon peeks occasionally through the clouds as we cruise along at nine knots or more. There we are in the middle of the broadest reaches of the bay, and twice a haunting sound, very much like that of a dog baying, is heard behind us.

We cross the finish line right around 5:50 A.M., the fourth boat to cross after the Pride II and two Class I boats, Imagine …! and Woodwind. “Fourth to scratch, not to shabby,” Kurtz says after the crew does a countdown over the finish line. He figures the Liberty Clipper lost to the Lady Maryland by about 12 minutes on corrected time (which takes into account each boat’s handicap), but his calculations show her beating the Pride II by about a half-hour. The most important thing – short of winning, of course – is to beat the Pride II.

The crew takes down all the sails but the main and the fore, and the Liberty Clipper heads up the James River toward Norfolk. Huge aircraft carriers and other monstrous naval craft are docked along the shores. Container ships also line the passage to downtown Norfolk. The Nauticus – a massive nautical museum designed to resemble a battleship – comes into view, and the Liberty Clipper prepares to take a berth behind the Pride II at a pier in front of the edifice.

After the docking, Jan Miles, the Pride II captain, drops by and says his “preliminary calculations” also indicate the Liberty Clipper beat the Pride II. The Liberty Clipper‘s crew is reserved, preferring to wait for the official results before claiming victory of the famous Pride II. Muzzy, who went to the hospital shortly after docking, returns with two large stitches in his scalp. He’s in good spirits. “All’s well that ends well,” crew member Nate Kirmess says. “And it’ll be worth it if we won.”

Dutch Schulz, a Pride II mate who once captained the Liberty Clipper, stops by to greet Muzzy, his old boss. “I’ll settle for first over the line,” Schulz says. Schulz describes the Pride II‘s trip as “a sleigh ride,” adding that the captain “was so excited” to cross the finish line before Imagine …! and Woodwind, two boats with modern hulls designed for racing – a feature some say should disqualify them as schooners. Schulz declares he’s “ready for a three-day, knockdown, drag-out, nice-to-meet-ya” – in other words, to resume partying.

Due to the strong, steady wind, the race ended for many schooners much sooner than expected – in about half of the time of last year’s race. Antsy crews are thirsty for beer, so after dark a keg is obtained an tape underneath the shelter of a pagoda near the Nautilus. It is pouring rain.

Jan Miles and Chris Rowsom, the Lady Maryland captain, chat about schooner racing. Miles says, “Our industry doesn’t know shit about racing, so hotshots like us” can tear up in a race. It appears that Lady Maryland came in first in Class AA, and Rowsom says he loves winning. His only regret is that the schooner wasn’t crewed by its regular users – schoolchildren participating in the bay-based educational programs of the Living Classroom Foundation, which owns the Lady Maryland. Instead the boat was crewed by members of the local chapter of the Corinthians, an international sailing club.

On Saturday midmorning the Lady Maryland goes upriver a short ways to pump out its sewage. As it passes the Liberty Clipper, the crew’s competitive edge comes to the fore. “That bucket was our competition?” Kirmmse snaps. Another sailer claims, “They stole our strategy.” Another attributes Lady Maryland‘s finish to “a freak of wind.”

By late afternoon on Saturday, the schooner crowd is partying hard, eating roasted pig and oysters under a tent in the rain. A band plays sea chanteys. There are few surprises in the official results: Imagine …! is best overall, Pride II wins first over the finish line, and Lady Maryland wins first on corrected time among Class II schooners, beating out the Liberty Clipper and Pride II, in that order. For his efforts at the Liberty Clipper‘s helm, Kurtz collects a compass – and the ever-precious bragging rights for beating Pride II.

Those gathered for the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race love the boats, the history, the sense of participating in cultural preservation that comes with keeping a centuries-old sailing tradition alive. But as Frank Turney, a crew member on the Yankee out of Cape May, N.J. – the boat that took the honors of coming in dead last in the race – says, the event is really about having a good time.

“That’s the only reason I come on these things,” he says with a wry smile as he sips his beer. “They throw good parties.”

IMG_7287

IMG_7288

 

 

 

One thought on “Boat People: Cheek to Jowl With the Maritime Set in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s