I’m not sure what I expected when I signed on as guest crew for a week aboard Pride of Baltimore II. But in the windy rain, my fingers sticky with tar as I helped tension the rig, I sure didn’t expect this.
We were holed up behind Cape Fear, North Carolina, making repairs after the jibboom had snapped off in heavy seas the day before near Cape Lookout 70 miles to the northeast. Helping to rig a temporary stay for the fore topmast, I thought of the countless sailors who must have done the exact thing in this very place. Over the centuries, this anchorage had likely seen many a crew licking their wounds and repairing broken gear after a tussle with the treacherous waters of Cape Hatteras.
And although sorry to see Pride II damaged, I can’t deny that I was enjoying the chance to help jury rig repairs—not a typical offering in this fabled ship’s sailing itinerary.
I’ve messed about in boats for a lifetime, but this was my first time aboard a tall ship. For a week I enjoyed (and endured) the life of a deckhand; climbed the foremast, manned the wheel, felt the pleasant pain of sore muscles—and clung to the rigging as foaming seas washed over the decks. My seafaring ancestors would have smiled to see me here.
Launched in 1988 in Baltimore, Pride II’s lines are based on the Baltimore Clippers made famous as privateers during the War of 1812. A topsail schooner, she measures 157 feet and carries two square sails on her 110-foot foremast. The mainmast aft is gaff rigged and both masts are steeply raked, lending her an unmistakable profile. From her stout bowsprit, the graceful jibboom extends forward 25 feet and supports two headsails.
Pride II is the second reproduction of a Baltimore Clipper, built as a memorial to her predecessor, which was struck by a microburst in 1986 north of Puerto Rico and sank, tragically taking the captain and three crew with her. Among other differences, the new ship has six watertight bulkheads and carries an additional 20 tons of ballast at the bottom of her keel. Since her commissioning in 1988, she has sailed more than 275,000 nautical miles and visited more than 40 countries.
She is also wicked fast.
A guest crew program invites paying volunteers to come aboard for a day sail to a week at sea. Guests must be in good physical condition and will be part of the working crew. Those over 65 (like me) need a doctor’s note. Ultimately, it’s up to each guest to decide their level of participation, but the more one can help, the better.
Although she has auxiliary power and modern electronics, Pride II is a traditional sailing vessel and depends on raw muscle power. I signed on for the 800-mile passage from Jacksonville, Florida, to Baltimore, Maryland, in May 2023.
I flew to Jacksonville from my home in Michigan. Shouldering my seabag, I found Pride II tied to the downtown seawall along the St. Johns River.
“Permission to come aboard?” I called over the rail.
“You look like one of us!” answered Taylor Methven, the watch captain. “Come aboard!”
In her 20s, Taylor is the bosun and has been sailing schooners and tall ships since earning a geology degree from Colby College. She showed me around the smooth planked decks. I eyed the maze of lines and rigging, wondering if I’d ever make sense of it all.
I shared a snug two-bunk cabin, but it had no portlight or hatch. A little fan labored to move the stagnant air, and I tossed all night in the stifling heat.
The aroma of bacon wafted through the saloon in the morning. Seated around the varnished table fitted with high fiddles, we ate breakfast compliments of Remy Perron. Normally a deckhand, Remy replaced the cook who had taken leave. When we’re eating, he explained, hats and cellphones are prohibited, and only the captain sits at the head of the table.
After breakfast, the 12 professional crew and we six guests gathered midships to introduce ourselves. Captain Jeff Crosby, barrel chested and barefoot, welcomed us aboard. Jeff grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, and has been with Pride II since 2008. Chief mate (and a co-captain) since 2017, he holds a 200-ton oceans license.
A strong tide ran up the St. Johns, so we waited for the noon slack. Under engine power, Jeff backed away from the wall and turned Pride II east toward the Atlantic.
The crew split into three groups, each with its own watch captain. Assigned to the C watch, my hours were 0800 to 1200 and 2000 to 2400, with Taylor in charge. Once at sea we formed two lines and hauled up the enormous gaff-rigged mainsail. Chanting together, we strained like plow horses at the thick halyards. Panting for breath, my arms on fire, I watched the long gaff inch up the mainmast.
A fresh southerly sent us romping north and a white wake stretched out behind.
“Set the t’gallant!” called the captain.
“Setting the t’gallant!” shouted the crew, jumping to the ratlines. Soon they were scurrying onto the yards like squirrels on a tree limb.
With her two square sails flying we set the main gaff topsail and Pride II skipped across the sea. Flying fish darted aside and dolphins leapt below the bow. Sunset brought a sliver of new moon, and Venus stood bright as a beacon in the night sky.
During our watch, Emerson Jones, a young deckhand from Berkeley, California, walked me through the hourly boat check. We inspected the ship’s bilges from the watertight bow to the lazarette aft (scented of tarred hemp and varnish). We noted electrical charging and battery data in the engine room, then logged our position, weather, speed, and compass course at the chart table.
I took a turn at the wheel. Pleased to be trusted alone, I steered by the red glow of the compass while watch mates trimmed the sails aloft. High above, the dim shapes of canvas swept across the star-filled sky.
In my bunk after the watch, the ship’s ceaseless groaning, creaking, clattering, and thumping lulled me to sleep.
In 24 hours we logged 206 miles, helped north by the Gulf Stream. Crew members happily made plans for our early arrival in Baltimore, but by afternoon the wind backed northeast and built. Under low scud we furled all but the foresail and staysail and began to motor-sail.
Night brought gusty winds and rain. Lightning lit the ship in blinding glare, and thunder boomed like cannon fire. Pitching into growing seas, waves broke over Pride’s bow as she rolled heavily, her decks awash.
Following the example of the professional crew, I hung tight to the rigging as I moved about the salt-slick decks. In the gray dawn, cliff-faced seas flashed their white heads above the rail and pounded the hull with the sound of wrecking balls.
Near noon we’d had enough, and Jeff altered course for the anchorage behind Point Lookout, North Carolina. Standing at the wheel he called for us to come about. Motoring into the wind we got the staysail over but had trouble tacking the loose-footed foresail.
“Come on, guys!” Jeff barked. “Get that sail across, we’re vulnerable here!”
A tacking vessel normally faces headseas briefly as she comes through the wind. But Pride II, delayed by the stubborn foresail, lay pointing directly into the seas. Pitching wildly, waves flooded her foredeck like surf breaking on a pierhead.
A comber rose ahead, and the bow lifted till the ship stood on her heels. The wave passed below, and Pride II plunged her long jibboom, heavy with furled sails, deep into the sea. Green water exploded over the bow, and I ducked as it hit me like a sledge. I heard a tremendous crash and a loud crack. Looking up, I gasped. Twenty-three feet of the jibboom were gone, snapped off like a tree limb.
“ALL HANDS ON DECK! NOW!” roared Jeff and Taylor down the companionways. Wide-eyed crew burst from the hatches.
“Take in the fore!” shouted Jeff, and sailors swarmed the foremast pinrail hauling down the buntlines. Others ran forward grasping at the clutter of twisted halyards, slack forestays, and shredded rigging.
The broken jibboom, its forward end pointing astern, rolled heavily against the bowsprit. Jeff turned Pride’s bow downwind to ease her motion, and crew scrambled to steady the dangling spar.
Concerned that securing the loose rigging and trying to re-tension the rig in the rolling seas could exhaust the crew and further damage sails and gear, Jeff turned and ran for shelter. Motoring under bare poles, he set a downwind course for refuge behind Cape Fear, North Carolina, 70 miles southwest.
A somber mood fell over the ship’s company, stunned into silence by the accident. At midnight we dropped Pride’s 850-pound anchor in the protected waters behind the cape.
Under bright deck lights, crew immediately began to clear the tangled rigging and re-tension the masts. In the morning our watch hoisted the 14-inch-diameter jibboom end and secured it to the midships rail. During the day we sorted out the tangle of halyards and jury-rigged temporary blocks for the forestays. From bosun’s chairs, Taylor and crewman David Harrison (aka Texas Dave) tensioned the bowsprit by taking up on the bobstay lanyards.
Stars appeared as we finished tensioning the rig. Though missing two headsails, we could still set the inner jib, or staysail. Jeff called us together and thanked everyone for their hard work.
“Get some sleep,” he said. “We’ll get underway at 0200.”
Under the black sky, six crew worked the heavy, two-handled windlass and brought up the ground tackle. The anchor secured to the cathead, we set a course for Hatteras and the Chesapeake Bay.
Pride II made the remaining passage in light air. Once around Hatteras we entered the Chesapeake at dusk. Around us a dozen brightly lit freighters waited their turn at the ports of the lower Bay. All night we continued north, and late the following afternoon Jeff ordered the foretop furled as we approached Baltimore.
“Want to lend a hand?” asked second mate and watch captain Cyrus Belenky.
“Sure!” I said, reaching for a harness. I once owned a Westsail 32 fitted with mast steps and often climbed aloft for fun. Following the crew, I scrambled up the web-like ratlines to the foremast top.
I paused to clip in my harness and admire the view (and catch my breath). Ninety-five feet below, the ship looked small as a toy, and ahead loomed the hazy towers of downtown Baltimore. I eased onto the foot rope hanging below the foretop yardarm. Leaning over the varnished spar, six of us gathered in the heavy sail and secured it with gaskets. Working aloft is a privilege not many guest crew are offered (or that many accept!), and I was honored to be asked.
Near our berth in Baltimore’s harbor a pilot boat rumbled up beside us. The captain stepped out on deck and waved.
“Welcome home, Pride!” she called before speeding off on her next assignment. Her warm greeting illustrated Pride II’s beloved status in Baltimore.
Soon after we docked, the crew began their farewells, drifting away to homes and families (and some to the local pub). I sat on deck enjoying the evening quiet. I had fulfilled a lifelong dream, and in the active week aboard I gained confidence that I can continue the sailing life for years to come.
I look forward to joining Pride II again. She’s scheduled to visit the Great Lakes in 2025, and I’m marking my calendar for a chance to relive again the bygone days of sail.
Charles Scott is a semi-retired cameraman/photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. A world traveler and lifelong sailor, he’s logged 25,000 offshore miles on numerous ocean passages.