The masts dwarf St. Michaels. Towering over the skyline, echoing the stands of loblolly where the living wood once grew, even the pealing of the church bells every hour from three stories up seems to diminish in comparison. For the land-hugging cities of the 18th and early 19th century America like this Chesapeake town, the highest man-made points achieved on land were steeples. Ocean-going vessels of the age, with their stained canvas sails stacked taller than the most ancient trees and turgid with wind, seemed to indicate that the spirits they invoked were much more massive and distant than the one worshiped in the crouched sacred spaces on shore.
Tall ships, as it turns out, are quite aptly named. And as I pulled into the parking lot on Friday morning at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, the masts, with flags flying, of the Pride of Baltimore II seemed like lofty rip in the fabric of time.
Tall ships are a welcome and regular sight at CBMM, but not all are as apropos as the Pride.While the version that sails today is a replica (built as a memorial after a previous replica built in the 70’s tragically foundered at sea), the original vessel that she’s based on was a Baltimore clipper ship built by a Quaker man, originally from St. Michaels, who had moved his shipyard to Fells Point prior the War of 1812. There shipwright Thomas Kemp constructed the Chasseur, one of the fastest ships ever built in that age. As a privateer, the elusive and deadly Chasseur, captained by the flamboyant Thomas Boyle, harassed, captured, and sank scores of British merchant vessels on the Chesapeake and in the Caribbean, slipping through blockades and flotillas with an assassin’s elegant evasion. After embarrassing the British naval forces in several high-profile getaways (including an episode wherein she flagrantly escaped unscathed from a chase by several retaliatory British men-of-war and subsequently the braggadocio captain, Thomas Boyle, had a notice posted in an esteemed London coffee house announcing that the entire Caribbean islands were under blockade by the Chasseur alone), she was given the nickname by her hometown fans “Pride of Baltimore.”
The Pride of Baltimore dockside, looking like a ghost on the water.
There was once a day when the Pride of Baltimore would have seemed like a rather unremarkable addition to the forest of masts thickening the air of the harbor in St. Michaels. In fact, around the time of the original Pride of Baltimore’s construction in Baltimore, there were six active shipyards in the vicinity of St. Michaels. The proliferation of ship construction (especially the swift Baltimore clipper ships) in Talbot County was something that would make St. Michaels and its environs a targeted and ultimately attacked “location of interest” to the British as they marauded isolated towns throughout the tidewater during their 1813-14 Chesapeake reign of terror.
Today, the Pride sidles cheek-to-jowl with luxury yachts and sexy little speedboats, looking both out of place and scale. Our visitors ogle in wonderment at the throwback hanging out on the bulkhead, watching the crew scramble over her rigging like a living history demonstration missing only the parrot. But observing her silently steal up the empty river at sunrise, owning the expanse of water like the perfectly evolved Chesapeake creature she is, a simple truth dawns: she’s the one who belongs here. We modern Chesapeake people, with our flashy new boats crowding the harbor, running our engines over the church bells calling out the hour, are just visiting.