By Michael Carr – We all respected Jan Miles, captain of the schooner Pride of Baltimore. His vessel was faster, sleeker, bigger, and better funded than the rest of us who sailed schooners. He most likely had the best coffee too.
He and “Pride” won every schooner race and Pride was the star attraction at “Schooner Fests”, as well as other tall ship events. We were the opening bands to his main event. Jan knew he had the queen of the fleet, and though he tried to be humble, when Pride sailed into a harbor everyone took note.
“Hey skipper, Robert just made a fresh pot of coffee if you want to top off your mug” came the call up through the galley hatch. I was sitting on schooner Ocean Star’s deck, a 90 ft steel schooner, in St George Harbor Bermuda. Another gorgeous day in Bermuda, moderate southwest breeze, smells of tropical flowers, salt air, and the sounds of boat and waterfront activity at the start of a day.
I was enjoying our morning at anchor, drinking coffee and getting my head in the game for the day ahead. We were departing mid-morning en-route Portland ME, a good 5-7-day sail depending on winds. We were all feeling relaxed about the upcoming voyage. Our weatherfax had been printing out charts showing a large and stable high-pressure system sitting over the western Atlantic. We were expecting southwest winds and a broad reach all the way to Maine. Perfect schooner weather.
I handed my metal coffee mug through the galley hatch for a refill and then heard Virginia, our Chief Mate, yell to me from the pilothouse. “Holy Shit Skipper, you gotta come here and listen to this.”
Virginia rarely yelled. She was thoughtful and methodical. Her strongest statement was her signature phrase “I don’t think so…” whenever she was presented with a half-baked plan.
I grasped my coffee and headed back to the pilothouse. “What’s up?”
“Pride of Baltimore is arriving later this morning, I just heard them call Harbor Control on the radio. Their ETA is about the same time we are planning on departing.”
We looked at each other and gulped down some coffee. If we departed before they arrived in St George, we could meet them in the open ocean. They would be on a close reach, and we would be on a broad reach, our best point of sail.
“We could use our salute cannon and give them a one-gun broadside” I suggested. I was having visions of “Master and Commander”.
“We could charge our fire hose and give them a water cannon broadside” Virginia offered.
“OK, we will refine our plan once we get underway,” I said, “Let’s get underway as soon as possible so we can meet them in the open ocean, and let’s set every sail we have!”
With a scurry of activity, we raised our anchor, set sail, and were underway. We cleared St George cut and slowly rounded up to an NW heading, setting all our sails. Flying jib, inner jib, staysail, foresail, main and fisherman. Over 3,000 square feet of sail area. Our speed slowly increased as we moved north, out from under Bermuda’s lee, moving from 6 knots to 8 to 10 knots. We were plowing water and charging through the seas. We balanced the sails and tweaked the trim. We were searching for perfection.
“Can you see Pride yet?” I asked our bow lookout.
“No, nothing on the horizon” they shouted back.
“Keep a sharp eye, they will be coming fast, and once they pop up, we will have very little time to maneuver and close.”
I was doing math in my head. We were making 10 knots, Pride was easily doing 15 knots, which makes a closing speed of 25 knots. Every minute we were half a mile closer to each other. A thousand yards ever minute closing speed.
“I SEE PRIDE!” came a shout from the bow, two points off our port bow.
I grabbed our binoculars, scanned the horizon. There she was, her topsails showing above the horizon, hull down, but clearly PRIDE. Damn you Jan, prepare for a broadside, went through my head. Where was my saber?
I turned our large wooden wheel slight to port, coming up a few degrees and headed directly for her. We were now ten miles apart and with a closing speed of 25 knots, that distance would be covered in 24 minutes, if not sooner.
“Prepare the cannon, prepare the fire hose,” I told Virginia.
“Aye Aye Captain!” she responded in a truly British Royal Navy way.
We thundered along, plowing through the waves and swells. We had our cannon ready; we had our 1.5-inch 150 psi fire hose charged and staged amidships. When we passed each other, with us making 10 knots, and Pride making 15 knots, there would be less than 2 seconds when we were actually broadside. The timing needed to be perfect. We need to open the fire nozzle and light the cannon just as our bowsprits were abeam. We needed to hit Pride amidships.
Pride now loomed large in front of us. Her hull was above the horizon, we could see her massive bow spray and all her sails were up. She was a racehorse, there was no denying that.
She was one fast damn boat.
I knew Pride saw us as well, but there were no radio communications and no apparent change in her direction. We were charging towards each other with focus and intent. Now we could see her crew on deck, they were scurrying around. Maybe we were a mile apart. One mile was 2.5 minutes at our closing speed of 25 knots.
Virginia had briefed our crew. Listen for our Klaxon air horn to sound. When she pressed the horn button, we would fire our cannon and spray our fire hose. I wanted to be 100 feet off Pride’s portside. I focused on her aspect, aiming for her stern, allowing me to see her beam.
On she came, I could now see Jan on Pride’s stern deck, steering and obviously amused by our approach. He was a steady hand, we would pass close and he would certainly roll his eyes at us, “So nice,” he might say later.
Those last few seconds before we passed were a blur. We could hear Pride’s bow wash, the wind in her sails, her lines vibrating in the stiff 20-knot wind. Then came the deafening horn, the boom of the cannon, the wall of water from our fire hose. We were dead on with our timing, the fire hose swept their deck and I think we soaked Jan. I am not sure, but I stood on our fantail after we passed and gave him a jaunty salute!
And then we both disappeared over the horizon, two ships passing at sea, bound for ports and experiences yet unknown.