Americans lost more than a ship when the Pride of Baltimore sank in a squall off the Bahamas. The green-hulled 90-foot schooner with her jaunty raked masts and damn-the-elements bowsprit was as much a symbol as a ship -- a sailing embodiment of America's Bicentennial rediscovery of its urban waterfronts, its maritime past and, in a sense, itself.
Conceived 10 years ago as a modest dockside tourist attraction for a Baltimore uneasy with its image as a city of gritty factories and white marble steps, the Pride was launched as something else again. Happily astounded at the success of the Tall Ships visit in 1976 -- which drew more people to Baltimore than any event in the city's history -- Baltimore glimpsed its future in its past and commissioned the Pride as a voyaging advertisement for all Baltimore had been and planned again to be.
"It isn't easy to weigh things like this against the other needs in a great city," Baltimore 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?"
Approval of the landmark Rouse development of the Baltimore Inner Harbor -- soon to be duplicated in Norfolk and other coastal cities -- sprang from the same spirit. Baltimore realized it had a good thing. The Pride would be its symbol.
So popular was she in that role that early conflicts developed between tourist interests in Baltimore, who wanted the Pride in the harbor as a tourist draw, and port interests who wanted her sailing elsewhere as a shipping draw. So successful was she that Norfolk, Alexandria and Galveston soon had to have their own tall ships, and Boston commissioned the building of the schooner Spirit of Massachusetts. Other outbreaks of tall ship fever erupted worldwide. The Statue of Liberty centennial July 4 will include a sailing fleet larger by 100 vessels than that which graced New York harbor in 1976, including square riggers from countries such as Mexico and Venezuela, which had none 10 years ago. Officials of Operation Sail 86 in New York were mindful of the Pride of Baltimore's symbolic role in all this. She had been scheduled to help lead the parade.
Anyone who ever sailed on her, however, found the Pride much more than just a symbol. Her cramped cabin and palm-chafing hemp rigging left little room for illusion or romance. There was scarcely five feet of headroom below -- and no portholes. Running offshore in a fresh breeze, with her low, broad decks routinely swept by seas, her shallow draft and intimidating 9,523 square feet of sail, she was a wet, exhausting and exhilarating reminder that the age of sail was not for the timid. The young men and women who crewed her wore their Pride of Baltimore jerseys with a special swagger. The rest of us, in this age of timidity, saw them and their brave little ship, and took heart.
Part of the Pride's appeal was historical. The Baltimore Clippers, of which she was a replica -- not to be confused with the much larger square-rigged tea clippers of the later China trade -- were the first truly American ship design and rewrote the nautical record book for speed and daring between 1776 and 1840. Crafted on the Chesapeake as blockade runners and revenue cutters, they taught startling lessons in seamanship to the sea-proud British in two wars, capturing merchant ships by the score and simply racing away from any warship. One legendary captain named Thomas Boyle kept Britain under a virtual one-ship blockade during the Revolution. Melbourne Smith, the crusty, remarkable marine artist and shipwright who conceived the idea for the Pride and searched Central America for hardwoods -- lignum vitae and bullet tree -- to strengthen her hull, had to work from old French and British drawings when he built her: the bay's shipwrights had worked from eye and memory.
But the real lure of the Pride was her challenge. Traditional sailing ships, says Capt. Burt Rogers of the Spirit of Massachusetts, force their crews to "reach deep inside themselves and discover what's there. There's always more than we think." The full-race 18th century artistry of the Baltimore Clipper design forced the Pride's crew to dig deepest of all. You could read the payoff in their smiles.
In the wake of her loss, there will no doubt be those -- led by lawyers and insurance men -- who question the need for such voyages and, perhaps, such ships. Yet the truly unsinkable vessel, like the uncrashable plane, has yet to be found, and danger enough -- with no rewards -- lies here ashore. It was concern about terrorism, after all, that led the Pride's owners to call her home when they did. Cruelly shortened though they were, the lives of those who died with the ship were enriched by her in ways and to degrees most of us will never know.
As for the Pride herself, she's gone now. But look at all she left us.