The first thing to understand about Baltimore clippers is that they were the 19th-century hot rods of the sea.

The pioneering shallow-draft topsail schooners were designed to sail out there on the ragged edge of safety where highly skilled seamen purchased speed at the price of great daring.

Evasive capability was their principal weapon. They carried just enough cannon to capture merchant ships during the War of 1812, then sped away from pursuing British warships with far heavier armament, flaunting on their jauntily raked masts a terrifying press of canvas that forever threatened to carry away a spar or capsize the vessel.

Tom Waldron is not a sailor and didn't fully understand all this at first. When he started researching "Pride of the Sea," his new book on the 1986 sinking of the 90-foot replica Pride of Baltimore, "my reporter's instincts had me looking for someone to blame," he said the other day as a May wind whipped flags and banners beside Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"But as I finished up the reporting, I realized it's a good bit more complicated than that. No one's really to blame" for the sinking that claimed four lives 18 years ago today, "but there are explanations, some somewhat subtle and others historic."

What he has produced is one of the year's great adventure reads -- part survival story, part suspense thriller, part history lesson -- that manages to capture both the squalor and the poetry of blue-water voyaging aboard a ship from another time.

It's an impressive and improbable achievement for a former Baltimore Sun reporter best known for his coverage of 11 sessions of the Maryland legislature. He covered the sinking of the Pride at the time, but he'd never really written an action narrative, never even been aboard the ship.

The story had been on his mind for years, and when he decided to accept a buyout offer from the Sun three years ago, "I knew the Pride was a great story, knew it was a book. I finally had to go down to the library to make sure no one else had written it." Surprisingly, amid the current boom in survival stories and nautical tales, no one had.

The basic story, he knew, "would tell itself." The ship had left Spain after a European tour in May 1986 when terrorism worries canceled further stops in the Mediterranean. It had safely weathered an Atlantic crossing, only to be overwhelmed and sunk by a meteorological microburst, or "white squall," about 320 miles north of Puerto Rico en route north from the Caribbean. Eight of the 12-member crew survived five days of watery hell in a tiny rubber life raft before being spotted and rescued by a Venezuela-bound Norwegian oil tanker. Four others -- three men and one woman -- died.

What Waldron didn't know, but would learn from letters, diaries, logbooks and interviews, were the full dimensions of that story -- the moment when, after struggling hopelessly for hours to keep one of their shipmates afloat, the survivors had to let him die or else die with him. He didn't know of the ghastly decision to strip clothing from another dead body to keep a crewman alive.

Nor did he know that the Pride had come horrifically close to sinking in the Baltic just three years before.

To reach beyond what he already knew, Waldron realized he had to win the cooperation of the survivors. Would any of them want to dredge up such horrific memories?

As it turned out, most were willing, possibly because, with enough aw-shucks mannerisms to do credit to Jimmy Stewart, Waldron has a great reporter's gift for empathy and inspiring trust. He started with Baltimorean Joe McGeady, whose uncle he already knew.

"I stopped by McGeady's marine construction business, introduced myself and said, 'I know you don't remember me, but I covered your return after the Pride went down and I'd really like to do a book about all that. Would you be willing to sit down and go over it?' He said he would, and from there I was able to build, one on the other."

In the end he won the cooperation of six of the eight survivors and the families of all four of those lost. Two of the families "took a little convincing," he said, but in the end decided "that it was an important story and a way to honor their children." When he showed up, Waldron said, "they were really ready for me": They had assembled almost everything they had from their children's past -- reports they'd done in third grade, high school pictures and college projects.

"It sounds painful . . . but in a way it's a parent's dream: Here's a guy who really cares about your children and wants to hear everything about them." As a father of sons 16 and 12, Waldron could identify with that. But there was an eerie moment when he walked into one crewman's house and it felt like his own home. He realized that he and that family's lost son would have been exactly the same age: "I could have been their own son coming home. . . . I stayed for dinner and we've kept in touch and they've been wonderfully supportive. They aren't bitter or anything. They're long past that. But they obviously have questions and concerns. And those will stay with them the rest of their lives."

If the human story is the heart of "Pride of the Sea," Waldron has two larger stories to tell as well. One is the technical-historical story of the building of the Pride and the continuing debate over whether the full-race authenticity of its 19th-century design wasn't inherently unsafe for our more cautious age. The other is the wonderful romance between the Pride of Baltimore and Baltimore itself.

In 1975, when a crusty marine artist named Melbourne Smith sold the city on building a replica of a Baltimore clipper for the Inner Harbor, it wasn't really intended to go to sea. It was a desperation symbol of hope for a once-great industrial port whose economic tide had ebbed and whose once-bustling Inner Harbor had become little more than a polluted eyesore. Architects of urban renewal had long urged the city to look for its future in its maritime past, by making the Inner Harbor an ornamental core of revitalized urban life.

The Pride of Baltimore was to be largely a nautical museum piece -- a tourist draw built to authentic Baltimore clipper standards, but one intended to spend most of its life as a dockside attraction.

Before the vessel was finished, however, the nation was dazzled by the Bicentennial parade of tall ships in New York on July 4, 1976, and a visit of only a few square-riggers to Baltimore later that summer drew more tourists than any event in the city's history.

Suddenly what had been a minor part of Baltimore's revitalization became its dominant symbol.

"It isn't easy to weigh things like this against the other needs in a great city," Mayor William Donald Schaefer told the crowd at the Pride's commissioning in May 1977. "But we had to make a decision: Were we a city with a dream or just a city?"

The Pride received enough modern gear to take it to sea, a new mission as the city's rakish, sail-borne ambassador.

"There is simply nothing more beautiful than a sailing ship," said Waldron. And the swaggering Pride was a sailing ship with attitude.

But she also gave Baltimore a new identity, recalling the days when its shipwrights were among the finest and most creative in the nation, and crafted a design that set a standard for the world. So successful were Baltimore clippers as privateers during the War of 1812 that a single one -- the Chasseur, captained by Thomas Boyle -- kept British merchant shipping under blockade, ultimately triggering the British navy's unsuccessful attack on Baltimore during which Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Yet the very authenticity of the Pride came freighted with troubling questions. She had no such modern safety refinements as watertight bulkheads, and her full-race design was tricky and hard to handle. No one had sailed one in more than a century, and even the shipwrights who built the Pride were working from secondhand drawings. No original designs survive because 19th-century Baltimore shipbuilders worked by eye and by instinct. The Pride's naval architect, Thomas Gilmer, had to work from British drawings whose lines were copied from one of the few Baltimore clippers the Royal Navy captured.

Combing through official correspondence, logbooks and crew letters, Waldron found early and repeated questions about the type of ballast and its position in the vessel, and the Pride's stability in extreme storm conditions, but the questions apparently were disregarded in the face of her exhilarating performance and ambassadorial panache.

Most significant of his findings is a previously unpublished incident in 1985 when the Pride was caught in a storm in the Baltic Sea and so overwhelmed that two female crew members were swept overboard and nearly lost.

That event, an eerie precursor to the ship's sinking, "was a revelation," Waldron said. More astonishing, he discovered that he'd been unknowingly working for years at his church with a woman who had been one of the Pride crew during the incident in the Baltic.

"She'd never said a word about the incident or working on the Pride," Waldron said. "When I found out, I told her, 'We need to have lunch.' "

In the end, Waldron decided, those who sailed the Pride knew exactly what the tradeoffs were. The cramped quarters, the palm-chafing exhaustion of hauling lines and climbing rigging, the wave-swept decks and cramped wet bunks were all a passport to the astonishing beauty and thrill of racing with the wind offshore in a zone somewhere just north of brave and just south of foolhardy.

The loss of the Pride of Baltimore "stunned the city," Waldron said. Looking around the gleaming bustle of the Inner Harbor's hotels, office buildings and restaurants, he noted that "none of this was here when the Pride was first built. The ship was a symbol of new hopes for the city. It inspired all of this. And no one wanted to let it go."

Even as Baltimore wept for those who drowned, the campaign to build a new Pride began. One radio station raised $49,000 in a single day. Today the Pride of Baltimore II sits at dockside in the Inner Harbor and sails for the city as well. But it is larger, has a deeper and heavier keel, watertight bulkheads and a more powerful engine.

It looks just as rakish and turns just as many heads. But it's not quite the offshore time machine its predecessor was. Whether that's a good thing or merely an inevitable one, only those who have sailed them both can really say.

Tom Waldron is the author of "Pride of the Sea," on the 1986 sinking of the Pride of Baltimore, left. Its successor, Pride of Baltimore II, is behind him. In 1999, the Pride of Baltimore II sailed up the Potomac, and past the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, on the way to Alexandria in honor of the city's 250th birthday. John O'Connor, center, and Alex Ott work on the Pride of Baltimore II, which replaced the Pride of Baltimore after its sinking 18 years ago today.