Two months before the Pride of Baltimore tipped over and sank off Puerto Rico, the captain wrote his employers that he was "still very concerned about the Pride's stability." The captain, who was lost with three crew members in the May 14 sinking, recommended in his letter presented to a Coast Guard inquiry here today that the ship's stability be tested by experts during a visit to Maine this summer.
Capt. Armin E. Elsaesser III gave no other details of his concerns in his letter to Gail Shawe, executive director of Pride of Baltimore Inc., a private, nonprofit group that operated the Baltimore city-owned 90-foot replica of an early 19th century Baltimore clipper. Shawe, testifying today during the last day of public hearings at the inquiry, said she believed that Elsaesser's comments reflected his interest in learning about his ship and that he was not afraid the ship was unstable.
Questions have been raised about the Pride's stability because it was knocked over so quickly by a strong blast of unexpected wind and failed to right itself. Crew members have testified that it happened so fast they had no time to take any preventive measures or to collect emergency equipment and provisions set aside for such an accident.
A modern sailing vessel typically has a fin made of lead attached beneath the ship to counter the force of the wind on the sails and prevent it from tipping over. Builders of replica ships such as the Pride have followed old-fashioned techniques and instead placed heavy weights in the lowest parts inside their ships. In the Pride's case, between 40 and 50 tons of lead, iron and stone had been lowered into sections below the cabin floor.
Elsaesser, described by colleagues as one of the best sailing ship captains in the country, and other captains who had served aboard the Pride "were all aware of the fact they were sailing a 19th-century vessel, and were concerned about her stability," Shawe said. "Certainly, it was always discussed." Elsaesser and other captains showed "interest, I think, more than concern," she said.
After the inquiry, whose public sessions ended today, Shawe said the Pride's captains had nobody to turn to for advice on sailing the sleek schooner because none had been built since the early 1800s. There were no ships like the Pride in the world, she said, and "she was the most demanding vessel in the world, probably, to sail."
The ship's builders and designers testified today and Thursday that the ship was soundly made and was not unstable. "I think she had very good stability," designer Thomas Gillmer said.
Gillmer, a retired professor of naval architecture at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, said studies in 1984 showed the ship's center of gravity -- the point at which it pivots when it is heeled over by sea or wind -- had risen several inches since the Pride was launched in 1977. That rise, in theory, would render the ship less stable. At that time, he said, the captain removed accumulated equipment, such as excess anchor chain, and the center of gravity moved down several inches.
Gillmer said that when he was designing the ship he was told it would be used to sail only in the Chesapeake Bay and other coastal waters. But when construction was nearly half complete, the project organizers decided that the ship would be sailed offshore, he said. No design changes were needed, he said.
Although the original Baltimore clippers were used mainly along the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean, Gillmer said, they "were used effectively offshore," especially around England during the War of 1812.
Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board officials said today that they will spend more time examining the Pride's stability. Cmdr. John Maxham, who is heading the Coast Guard's investigation, said tests will be run using what data is available on the Pride, to see how stable it would theoretically be in winds like the estimated 70-knot gust that is thought to have knocked the ship over.
The Coast Guard regularly examines ships carrying cargo and passengers for stability, Maxham said, but the Pride carried neither. "It met all the requirements for stability, because there were none," he said.
In addition, Maxham said he is interested in examining the "rapid flooding" of the ship after it was knocked over. Crew members testified that it filled with water and sank in less than a minute. Modern ships are required to be built with watertight compartments to prevent, or at least slow down, any sinking. True to the historical design, no such watertight bulkheads were required or constructed on the Pride.
Maxham said he will also continue investigating the ship's life-saving equipment. One of the Pride's two life rafts was punctured as the ship went down, while the eight surviving crew members spent six hours swimming in the sea before they could inflate the second raft, whose valves had been damaged.
Maxham said it is too early for him to say whether he will make any recommendations regarding replica sailing ships.
"It comes down to risk," Maxham said, "and what are acceptable risks."