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Tall Ship Flotilla Drops Anchor at L.A. Port

Festival: Thousands greet the elegant vessels as they navigate choppy seas to enter harbor.

September 07, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN and STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They stared through binoculars and squinted through the glare by the thousands Friday, transfixed by a spectacle of swelling sails and 90-foot-tall masts, polished wood and miles of rigging as 14 tall ships swooshed into the Port of Los Angeles.

Dubbed the "Festival of Sails," this was one parade that truly floated, as awestruck spectators lined the bluff-edged streets of San Pedro, crowded along the ocean-view rails of Point Fermin Park and even perched on roofs to witness a moment of seafaring majesty.

"If this were a picture on a wall, I would buy it," said Paul Bokor, 71, of El Segundo as he stood at the highest plateau of Point Fermin. He gazed in silence as the tiny armada assembled one mile offshore, with fog-shrouded Catalina Island and cloud-streaked skies as the backdrop.

From this distance, the parade--organized by the Los Angeles Maritime Museum; its educational affiliate, the Los Angeles Maritime Institute; and the Port of Los Angeles--moved slowly and smoothly with a peaceful elegance.

For Bokor and so many other spectators, the vista provided a pure historical fantasy, conjuring images of the Age of Discovery, pirates, cannons and seafarers with salt in their veins.

"We all see ourselves on Treasure Island," Bokor said. "I'm sitting on the deck of a ship on the open sea, now that's true freedom."

An inspired Pelham Henry, 69, asked, "What's that saying? 'The ships were made of wood and the men were made of steel'?"

But on the water, chaotic moments gripped the crew of the Swift of Ipswich, a 90-foot-long replica of an American topsail schooner of the Colonial Era.

Capt. Peter Bulkley, a retired naval officer who has sailed across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, found erratic winds and 3-to 4-foot swells a test of his considerable skill.

"Slack the headsails!" he shouted from the helm to his crew of 12 men and women as he began the delicate maneuver of turning the vessel into Angel's Gate, the perennially windy entrance to the nation's busiest harbor.

Not all of his crew were veteran sailors, and they needed nothing short of precision in their movements: pulling the rigging to change direction of the sails.

While the parade was well choreographed a year in advance, no one anticipated the onslaught of L.A.-style pleasure-boaters. Dressed in their shorts and Hawaiian shirts, they waved from little motorboats that dangerously loitered in the path of these giant "Cathedrals of Sail."

"Get those people outta there!" yelled a crew member as the Swift scudded within a few yards of three boats.

"Spectators don't realize we are dependant on wind and not very maneuverable," said Bulkley. Seconds later, the Swift sliced through choppy seas at close to its top speed of 8 knots.

With the ship leaning 20 degrees to starboard in strong winds, water sloshed over the sides as crew members made a mad grab for ropes to keep from falling down.

"Ride 'em cowboy! Yee-haw!" screamed sails man Cappy Cross, 49, with wild delight.

The erratic winds made it impossible for the parade to maintain a constant speed, stretching the line of their procession longer than planned--not that any spectator noticed.

In Southern California, exposure to tall ships can typically be limited to the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.

That's where Johnathan Stadler, 4, first learned about ships, his mother said.

"Cool," the boy said. "I just like how they are SO BIG."

The marshal of this parade was no Hollywood star.

Todd Burgman was selected by the Marine Institute for his years of piloting tall ships. From a Coast Guard cutter he called out minute-by-minute navigation instructions to ensure that the ships stayed in line, in order and out of harm's way.

Onshore, spectators were wondering about the story behind each vessel, its name, its builder. Is it really wood? What are the sails made of? What is the 2002 mission of a 19th century replica wind machine?

Leading the parade was the Swift, followed by the brigantine Irving Johnson of Los Angeles on its maiden voyage.

Behind her followed the topsail schooner Bill of Rights out of Los Angeles and then the Spirit of Dana Point, a gaff topsail schooner.

Then came seven more ships from as far away as Ukraine and New Zealand. The last was the grandest. The Europa, a 185-foot-long square rigger from the Netherlands, with its three giant masts that earned the gasps of spectators.

While such a floating parade is new to the Port of Los Angeles, which temporarily halted commercial freighter traffic for the event, tall ship extravaganzas are common on the East and Northwest coasts, where port cities proudly embrace their maritime heritage.

As the ships sailed past the breakwater, Angelenos chased the parade by their preferred mode of transportation: their cars. The streets of otherwise sleepy San Pedro were jammed as vehicles wended their way downhill to the port.

"What's going on here? What's everyone looking at?" asked one flustered mail carrier trying to traverse congested streets.

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