With brass fixtures gleaming and rigging reworked, the wooden schooner Alexandria set out under rose-colored sails this week for the July 4 Statue of Liberty gala in New York Harbor.
The voyage along the Chesapeake Bay, with a weekend festival stopover in Norfolk and then north along the Atlantic coast, will be the longest for the 57-year-old, three-masted, oak-hulled ship since two summers ago when she sailed to Quebec for another tall-ships festival. The trip will also be a reunion for the blue-eyed, bearded Capt. Gregory Birra, who sailed the 125-foot Swedish cargo vessel before the Alexandria Seaport Foundation bought it in 1983 and tied it up on the Potomac River.
Asked whether he feared a return to the helm after a couple of years away from sailing, Birra shook his head no. "It's like making love . . . . You don't forget," quipped the pipe-smoking captain who had furnished his below-deck quarters with his favorite books, a painting of a ship on stormy seas, an oriental rug and an old family quilt in preparation for the journey.
Up above, volunteers and other members of a newly hired professional crew had spent weeks stocking and preening the vessel that has become the pride of Alexandria's waterfront.
"It's like we're provisioning a spaceship," said first mate Mike Waters, a professional sailor hired on for the Alexandria's New York City journey. "If you don't have it on board, and it's not in good repair, then you can't replace it and you can be sure it's going to break when you need it most." He added sternly: "There's no second-best on ship."
Waters worked furiously the weekend before departure, making sure that each of 65 lines and 100-odd pulleys were in good order for handling the sails in heavy seas. The right-hand man to the captain also saw that 500 gallons of fresh water were brought aboard, that the ship's tanks were filled with 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel, and that the two life rafts were ready in case they would be needed.
Because the Alexandria will be moored among 10,000 boats during the July 4 festivities and supplies are likely to run short on shore, the boat is provisioned with necessities for the round trip, which could last from two weeks to a month depending on weather. Among the supplies packed into the ship's galley were four weeks' worth of meat-and-potatoes fare that two volunteer cooks will prepare around the clock for a hungry crew.
After rigging and stocking provisions comes attention to the crew, said Waters, who described the special challenge they will have in maneuvering the huge old vessel and its more than 7,000 square feet of sails. This trip will include six professional sailors, about five volunteers, and reporters from The Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who will send daily stories via radio transmissions.
"The ship's crew will function as a family, with a definite time-honored hierarchy," Waters said. "The captain is God. He has complete responsibility and he's in a position to send you into a life-threatening situation" -- such as the drill of "going aloft," climbing the ship's 85-foot masts to furl the sails, sometimes during pitching seas.
Duties on the Alexandria were doled out the night before leaving port during the captain's address at an "all hands" meeting. A schedule of the "watch" rotations was tacked up listing where each crew member should be under normal sailing conditions and what each should do if there's a crew member overboard, a fire on board or some reason to abandon ship. As is tradition, the crew was divided into two groups to alternate working four hours on and four hours off around the clock.
Peter Ansoff of Alexandria, one of about 200 volunteers who care for the ship year-round, said he feels lucky to be one of the few invited to join the New York journey. "We've all put our hearts into her and we're really pleased that she's able to do this."
Ansoff and Bill O'Brien of Springfield, a volunteer sailor who will meet the boat in New York and come aboard for the return trip, both expressed sadness about the recent sinking of the Pride of Baltimore, a similar-sized tall ship that represented that city at festivals around the world. While the Pride met adverse weather conditions that there is no reason to believe the Alexandria will encounter on this trip, O'Brien said, "That's a risk that everyone's aware of. You just have to go on."
When the appointed hour came for the schooner Alexandria's departure, she steered south and left the banks of Virginia behind. Once offshore, something magical would happen, Waters promised. When all the provisioning and planning is done, he said, "You leave behind a lot of the pettiness, like the minor things we worry about on shore, and sail into a simpler way of life. It reduces life to its essentials. All you have is the boat, the weather and your crew mates."
With good luck, fair weather and steady wind, the crew of the Alexandria will arrive in New York Harbor July 3 to participate in what Mayor Ed Koch has dubbed "the biggest party in the nation."