, Salem, MA

July 15, 2010

A 200-year-old sailing lesson

Friendship helps train Navy crew for USS Constitution

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

When the original Friendship prowled the seas on behalf of Salem’s Yankee traders, they relied on the fledgling United States Navy to keep them safe.

This summer, the rebuilt Friendship has been returning the favor, lending itself to the Navy as a learning platform, teaching 21st-century sailors how to operate an 18th-century vessel. A combined crew of Friendship volunteers and U.S. Navy sailors has been out on Boston Harbor this week, hauling on lines, climbing the rigging and unfurling the East Indiaman's massive square sails.

"It's actually given us a feeling of what we should be doing on the Constitution," said Naval Airman Trina-Jo Pardo of Dallas, Texas. "We're here to become 1812 sailors. And it's great training. It puts it in your face. It makes it more exciting."

The 29-person Navy crew is learning to sail the tall ship because their duties will soon include operating a much larger, yet similar vessel, the warship USS Constitution, built in 1797, like the original Friendship.

In sight of South Boston's Castle Island, historian and Friendship volunteer Mark Hilliard fired a salute from a replica musketoon, a once-common muzzle-loaded shotgun. The enthusiastic Hilliard put on a period costume just to pull the trigger.

"You've heard a piece of history," he said as the white smoke cleared. "That sound will be heard nowhere else."

Later came commands not much heard elsewhere, either.

"Ease the halyard," shouted the mast captain, reading from a cheat sheet. "Stopper is holding."

John Newman, a Park Service veteran long associated with the Friendship, offered, "Light strain on the lines. Don't pull 'em hard."

"Heave!" the crew chanted as they pulled. "Heave!"

Anyone who went aloft wore a harness attached to safety lines — lest a misstep should send someone to the deck as much as 100 feet below. But the safety lines are there only once you reach the top.

During the climb into the rigging, a sailor is untethered to anything but an adrenaline-fueled sureness and confidence.

(The original sailors had no harnesses but could be sure of foot, as in any weather they went shoeless.)

All this is in anticipation of the Constitution's biggest year since its 1997 birthday. In 2012, the Navy will remember the storied vessel's victories over the British navy's Java and Guerriere in the War of 1812. These and other exploits lifted her to legend and 200 years of preservation.

Currently, the Navy plans to sail the Constitution in Boston Harbor, under her own power, to mark the bicentennial. ("Old Ironsides," as the ship is nicknamed, is currently undergoing a restoration.)

The modern Friendship was built by the National Park Service from a contemporary crewman's model — now at the Peabody Essex Museum. Yet, the replica is fully modernized with engines concealed below decks and the latest navigational gear.

Colleen Bruce of the Park Service, who has shepherded the Friendship from its beginnings, lamented that the original captain, Jim Fox, has been too ill to participate in the training.

"Things wouldn't be where they are without him," she said.

Current Capt. Jeremy Bumagin of Marblehead has spent years on tall ships and sails Friendship about 12 times a year. He's developed real respect for his early American predecessors, mostly men in their 20s, who sailed as far as Sumatra and St. Petersburg powered only by wind.

It's right the Friendship should help the Constitution crew, Bumagin added. "We were the very kind of boat the Constitution was built to protect."

Ironically, the end came for the first Friendship after she was captured by the British in the War of 1812.

"We're trying to keep alive the institutional memory of how to do these things," said John Pydynkowski, also of the Park Service, nodding to the blue-clad sailors. "They've been training with us at the dock all summer."

"And it's great duty," said Naval Airman Michael Fleck, who hails from the South Shore and learned sailing at the Hull Yacht Club. "It's a chance to do things that a lot of people in the Navy don't get to do."

Bob Newmyer of Newburyport is a modern version of the Friendship sailors. Not only a Park Service volunteer, he is a Merchant Marine officer who has sailed the world on massive oceangoing cargo ships.

"It's one of those things," he said. "Either it's for you or it's not for you. I enjoy it."

The vessel sailed near a huge, squat, black cargo carrier large enough to fit several Friendships inside. Newmyer pegged her as a "car ship," carrying automobiles. He's sailed ships nearly twice its size, which impressed listeners.

But if the big ship attracts them, everything else in the water — ferries, pleasure boats, tugs, cargo ships — seems to linger over Friendship. Her engines go quiet, the sheets fill out fat with wind, hearts quicken and the deck slants so those onboard must adjust to stay upright.

The spectators on other boats pull out their cameras, they smile and wave and feel fortunate just at having seen her pass.