In the early 1800s, the schooners that slipped into the water from Baltimore shipyards were known for their speed.
Rooted in shipbuilding designs that moved cargo quickly on the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore schooners became stars in the flourishing international trade that helped build the nation as well as some personal fortunes.
But when America took on Britain in the War of 1812, many Baltimore schooners — or "clippers" as they came to be known — stopped carrying cargo and began to seize it instead.
The American navy was tiny at the time and about to confront a superpower. The British navy, the largest in the world, included several hundred warships, while the American navy had 20 or fewer. So the government commissioned private vessels to interrupt the supply line by attacking the British merchant fleet.
"Basically, private citizens were licensed by the government to capture enemy ships," said Jamie Trost, co-captain of the 1812 schooner replica, Pride of Baltimore II. "Anything they seized, they got to keep."
To Americans, these private warriors were patriots. Officially, they were "privateers." The British called them pirates.
"If you were on the receiving end, privateering wasn't much different from piracy," Trost explained.
As a war tactic, privateering dates back to at least the 1500s. American privateers were particularly successful during the War of 1812 because of Baltimore schooner designs that evolved from shipbuilding experiments along the Chesapeake Bay.
When the British attacked Baltimore in 1814 — launching an assault on Fort McHenry that inspired the national anthem — they were after the privateers, their schooners and the city's shipyards.
"The British called Baltimore a nest of pirates. They were coming to clear us out," Trost said.
Trost and Co-Capt. Jan Miles share the helm of the Pride of Baltimore II, the most accurate replica of an 1812 Baltimore clipper afloat today and a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
The Pride is a striking sight both on the water and at the dock. Its sleek black hull measures nearly 97 feet on deck and extends another 60 feet to the tip of its bowsprit. Both sides are marked with a broad gold stripe. British warships used this color pattern, so privateers and some American navy ships adopted the look to trick the enemy.
Below the water, the sides of the Pride's hull slope inward to reduce its mass. This makes the schooner swift and relatively nimble in tight areas, which are common along the Bay's coast and tributaries.
Two wooden masts lean toward the rear of the Pride at a sharp angle. No one knows for certain why this so-called "rake" became part of the design, but the unique slope of the masts seems to have evolved from both colonial conditions and the continual pursuit of speed.
"The angle makes the mast more stable in the ship and requires less rope to hold it upright," Trost said. "In the early Chesapeake colonies, they had plenty of tall straight trees but not as much rope. By 1812, they were experimenting with how much rake was desirable and these schooners were at the extreme."
In good wind, fore-and-aft sails, so named because they parallel the hull, billow from the lower two-thirds of the masts. They are topped by rectangular sails that run perpendicular or "square" to the others, anchored by long wooden arms — or "yards" — that extend widely from both sides of the mainmast.
A clue to the Pride's name, and a link to the exploits of Baltimore's most famous privateer, can be found on a tidy white dingy tethered to the Pride's gleaming deck. On the back of the dingy, in neat, modest letters, is its name, Chasseur.
Chasseur is French for "hunter." The original Chasseur was a fast Baltimore schooner captained by the outrageous Thomas Boyle during the War of 1812.
Boyle came to Baltimore as a young sea captain in 1794. He was one of the first privateers to step forward when the war began and captured nine British ships within his first five months.
After returning to Baltimore in 1813, Boyle was landlocked for months as the British set up a naval blockade to stop Boyle and other privateers from leaving the Bay. In October, under heavy weather, Boyle made his escape and seized 20 more British prizes.
In 1814, he took command of the 14-gun Chasseur.
"The most successful privateer captain was paired with the largest schooner out of Baltimore," Trost said. "Boyle spent most of the year sticking his thumb in the eye of the English."
Boyle sailed for the British Isles and captured or sank another 17 vessels. But his most memorable act was pure bravado.
Mocking Britain's blockade of the Chesapeake Bay, Boyle sent a message to King George III proclaiming a blockade on the entire British Isles, to be enforced by Boyle alone.
Boyle demanded his notice be posted at Lloyd's Coffee House in London, the hub of the shipping industry and its underwriters. Logically or not, his proclamation caused an uproar. Some of the British warships were called home to protect the merchant fleet.
Boyle returned to Maryland a hero. The press hailed the Chassuer and its crew as the "Pride of Baltimore."
The phrase was reborn in 1977, when Baltimore was looking for ways to celebrate the city's heritage. The Pride of Baltimore I was constructed in an open-air shipyard near the harbor, where tourists could watch progress on the first Baltimore clipper built in 150 years.
"The original idea was to keep it tied up at the dock as a symbol. But this was during the nation's bicentennial, and we had lots of visitors from other countries who wanted to know if it was going to be an ambassador," Miles said.
So instead of becoming a dockside attraction, the Pride I sailed for nine years and covered more than 150,000 miles. It came to a tragic end in 1986 when a sudden, violent squall sank the schooner off the coast of Puerto Rico.
The captain and three crew members were lost. Eight others floated in a raft for four days before a Norwegian tanker rescued them.
"There were lots of tears and then a big vacuum," Miles said.
But the Pride I had rallied so much admiration at home and abroad that public demand to replace the schooner began soon after its loss.
Unsolicited donations began to arrive in the mail, including jars of coins from school students. The state provided a $1 million grant, while private citizens, corporations, and foundations volunteered another $2.5 million — ultimately enough to build the Pride of Baltimore II, pay for insurance and create an endowment to help sustain operations.
Ownership has since passed from the city to a private nonprofit organization, the Pride of Baltimore, Inc., which maintains the schooner's beloved reputation as a working ambassador.
Since its launch in 1988, the Pride II has sailed nearly 200,000 miles to more than 200 ports in North, South and Central America, and Europe and Asia.
"Why is this most recognized American schooner sailing today? Because this ship is not a wallflower," Miles said.
In 2012, the Pride II will make stops around the Chesapeake Bay as well as Georgia, New York, New England and Nova Scotia. You can check out the Pride and learn more about its story through dockside tours, public sails and a few opportunities for overnight passage, all of which will draw extra attention as the War of 1812 bicentennial kicks off this summer.
Pride of Baltimore 2012 Ports of Call in the Chesapeake Region
The schedule of dockside tours and day sails is continually updated. Call or go on-line for details, or subscribe to the Pride's newsletter for the latest updates.
- Defenders' Day Weekend: Sept. 7–9, Baltimore.
- Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race: Oct. 10–11, Baltimore.
- Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race: Oct. 13–14, Portsmouth, VA.
- Schooner Rendezvous: Oct. 20–21, Cambridge, MD.
- Schooner Sultana Downrigging Weekend: Oct. 25–28, Chestertown, MD.
- Port of Call: Nov. 1–4, Baltimore.
For details, call Pride of Baltimore, Inc. at 410-539-1151 or visit www.pride2.org.