One week after the schooner Pride of Baltimore sank off the coast of Puerto Rico, sailing experts are asking whether the 19th century replica recreated the risks of an age gone by, as well as its splendors.
Not only were the technical advances of the last 150 years sidestepped to build the ship nine years ago, they say, but its builders may have chosen one of the more dangerous ships of its era to copy.
And because it was classified as a pleasure boat, the Pride did not have to meet most of the U.S. Coast Guard's safety standards.
"This is a terrible thing to say now . . . but I really don't think it was a very safe boat," said Arnold Gay, a veteran yachtsman and boat yard owner in Annapolis.
Baltimore clippers, Gay said, "were built to beat other boats. In the years since then, we've improved on boats that go to sea."
The Pride was knocked over in a fierce and sudden squall May 14 off the coast of Puerto Rico and quickly sank.
Eight crew members were saved after drifting almost five days in a life raft. The captain and three others were lost.
A Coast Guard inquiry is scheduled to begin in Baltimore today.
Even those criticizing the ship admit they are reduced to speculation about whether the winds were too strong for any boat to survive, whether there were errors of seamanship, or whether there was something inherently wrong with the ship.
Melbourne Smith, the Pride's builder and first captain, said he believes the accident "was just bad luck. If they had missed that weather they might have sailed on for years."
Had the Pride had watertight bulkheads -- compartments inside the ship -- it might not have flooded so fast and sunk so quickly, the experts said.
But the Pride's bulkheads were not watertight, according to Pride spokesman Eamonn McGeady, nor were they required to be, because the Pride did not carry cargo, passengers or students.
The Pride, which did have to carry flares and life jackets, also was not required to carry Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), beepers that send out radio distress signals and might have alerted rescue authorities more quickly.
In fact, the Pride carried two beacons -- one in a forward part of the ship and the other in the captain's cabin -- but as it turned out, Pride officials said, the ship sank so quickly there was no time to turn the beacons on, or to carry them into the life raft as is standard practice when a crew abandons ship.
According to the Coast Guard, the Pride applied for and received a modified passenger license between 1979 and 1983, allowing the ship to carry passengers in restricted inshore waters. Coast Guard spokesman Bob Baeten said the ship "far exceeded the requirements" for that license but did not reapply after 1983.
Sailing experts said the Pride may have suffered from being both too ancient and too modern. Its hull, made like the original, did not have the heavy and stabilizing lead keel, or bottom, of modern ships that help them withstand the pressure of heavy waves and high wind.
The original sailing ships carried ballast of stones or depended on their cargo to supply weight; the Pride used heavy concrete blocks.
On the other hand, the Pride's sails and lines -- made with old-fashioned materials but using modern equipment -- may have been too strong, said Reese Palley, an ocean yachtsman and author on offshore sailing.
In the days of sailing ships, Palley said, fierce winds snapped the ropes and ripped away the sails and masts. That reduced the wind resistance and the chances of the ship being blown on its side, he said.
Most of the people who sailed the Pride, Palley continued, grew up on and trained on modern ships. "They are emotionally attuned to modern boats," he said. "They've been pushing their boats to their limits for a long time." Older boats like the Pride, he said, "were never meant to be pushed."
Peter Standford, president of the National Maritime Historical Society, has inspected and sailed on many of today's sailing ships and written about them extensively. Investigation may reveal "a defect that comes with the historical design," he said, but he was impressed at the quality of the Pride's construction, her performance, and her skipper.
He said the Pride seemed sound and well maintained, unlike two other sailing ships sunk in recent years: the British ship Marques, which was lost off Bermuda in 1984 with 18 of its crew, and the Danish ship Active, which went down with nine in the North Sea the year before.
"I'm staggered," Standford said.
Capt. Francis (Biff) Bowker of the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, who sailed commercial sailing ships in the 1930s and skippered the museum's large schooner for 22 years, said he always had "mixed feelings" about the Pride. "This was a ship that I never really did approve of," he said.
Baltimore clippers, designed for warfare, privateering, and rushing slaves and tobacco to market, were designed for speed rather than safety, Bowker said, adding, "I have a feeling that a great many of those ships capsized."
But his feelings are mixed, he said, because danger isn't always a bad thing.
"There may be risk in it, but young people want risk," Bowker said. "They want challenge . . . . If you take that away from them, there's nothing left.
"I sailed on the last of the big sailing ships. Some were leaky and they were all old. I just shipped in them because I loved the life. That was my challenge. I knew I might be lost."