The crippled Pride of Baltimore and her weary crew reached Wilmington, Del., yesterday after being tossed by eight-foot waves and pounded against a shoal Friday night in the windswept Delaware Bay.
"I was afraid it was all over," said the Pride's skipper, Charles Whitcomb, 52, yesterday while being towed up the Bay by a Coast Guard patrol boat. "It was one miserable night."
Whitcomb added, "It's one Friday the 13th I'll never forget."
The $475,000 hand-built schooner, a replica of an early 19th century Baltimore clipper built for fast sailing in fair weather, will be put in dry dock at Wilmington's Marine Terminal for repairs.
Whitcomb said in a radio-telephone interview that the Pride's rudder had been crippled, the engine propeller damaged and that water was still leaking through seams in the hull weakened during the 45-minute grounding.
Officials said yesterday the repair work would be completed within a week, when the Pride of Baltimore would return home after a seven month, 7,000 mile winter cruise.
The two-masted topsail schooner was the object of an intensive Coast Guard aerial search last week after Norfolk officials reported it several days overdue.
Swept out to sea by two severe storms packing 60-knot winds, the Pride of Baltimore was blown 250 miles off its course. The search ended abruptly Friday afternoon when Whitcomb radioed the Cape May, N.J., Coast Guard station, saying the ship and its 11 crewmembers were safe.
After anchoring in the Delaware Bay for the night, Whitcomb said 25-knot northeasterly winds pounded the ship for 45 minutes against a sandbar, while the crew worked feversihly to pump out water seeping through the hull.
"Everybody's pretty tired," said Whitcomb. The skipper said he had not slept for 36 hours and that the ship's larder was down to "cans of instant mashed potatoes."
Whitcomb and his crew of eight men and two women were expected to sleep on board last night.
"I wasn't scared," Whitcomb said of his eight-day ordeal. "We were running a very small storm jib and make 7 to 8 knots. But we knew where we were."
An 82-foot Coast Guard patrol boat, the Point Franklin, arrived on the scene early yesterday morning to escort the the battered 90-foot schooner to safety.
"This isn't your ordinary tow job," a Coast Guard spokesman said yesterday.
Preparations for the delicate operation began at dawn yesterday when the Coast Guard rigged a special harness to tow the two-masted schooner. The "Y" shaped bridle was fastened to the ship's bow in two places. The operation was delayed when one of the ship's anchor lines became tangled in the rudder.
But that wasn't the only complication.
A dispute also arose between the Coast Guard and the ship's owners over the "Pride's" destination. The ship is owned by the city of Baltimore and leased to a local promotional group.
Although Whitcomb and Baltimore officials expected the Pride to be towed to its home port, the Coast Guard said its policy is to tow a disabled ship only to the nearest safe harbor.
"We're not a free towing service," said Coast Guard Lt. Mary Paul yesterday.
The owners said they considered hiring a private company to relieve the Coast Guard once the towing operation reached the Chespeake-Delaware Canal, but that plan was abandoned as too costly.
As concern for the missing ship grew last week, Whitcomb said, the Pride of Baltimore was "running dead before the wind with the seas behind us." The captain said they eventually ended up 250 miles east of the Delmarva Penisula.
"But we knew that we were going to get back," he said.
Whitcomb said the ship was unaware of the aerial search but had tried to alert at least two passing tankers one night to their predicament.
"But we couldn't raise them," he said. The ship's radio has a range of "30 miles, at best" and the ship has no electronic distress signal like those carried by most modern ocean-going yachts. But Whitcomb said they wouldn't have sent out a distress signal. "We weren't really in any danger."
Once the winds shifted, the Pride was able to head back to shore, somehow skirting the Coast Guard's search area which by Friday extended from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Cape May.
"i guess they must have missed us," Whitcomb said yesterday.
Melbourne Smith, the Annapolis shipbuilder who oversaw the Pride's construction in 1976-1977 and served as its first captain, said yesterday, "They're lucky to get back at all. This whole thing should be investigated. I think it [the Pride] is dangerous."
Smith was critical of the ship's operators, saying "They tried to rush her back too soon."
Smith said he quit last year after a dispute over scheduling and what he said was lack of maintenance on the Pride.
Whitcomb, who served as Smith's first mate on the Pride's 53-day maiden voyage to Bermuda, rejoined the crew as captain in Florida three weeks ago.
"I would think he [Whitcomb] would know better than to take her around Cape Hatteras in bad weather," said Smith.
But Whitcomb said yesterday that Hatteras, the so-called "Graveyard of the Atlantic," can be dangerous "any time of the year. We all have our own way of doing things." CAPTION: Picture 1, The Pride of Baltimore, under tow, heads toward Wilmington, Del. AP; Picture 2, Crippled Pride of Baltimore is towed by Coast Guard cutter through Delaware Bay toward Wilmington, Del.