Heave, ho, heave, ho. I was pulling on a rope with about 15 other people, trying to raise a sail on a British Navy schooner. It was June 1814, and we were about to engage in the Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek.
The Battle of St. Leonard’s Creek involved a group of American barges that tried to stop the British navy from going up the Patuxent River to get to Washington DC. It definitely was a David v. Goliath scenario. For its 200th anniversary, there was to be a reenactment of the battle involving several tall ships. The Pride of Baltimore II, a recreation of an 1812 schooner, was participating and taking on observers. Excited about the opportunity not only to sail on a tall ship but to participate in a battle reenactment, I had signed on.
Besides the Pride of Baltimore II, there were three other tall ships participating in the reenactment: the Sultana (repro of a circa 1768 ship) from Chestertown, MD, the Maryland Dove (repro of c1630) from Historic St. Mary’s, MD, and the Kalmar Nyckel (repro of c1638) from Wilmington, Delaware. That’s the Kalmar Nyckel, above (I didn’t get a photo of the Pride, but she’s on their website, if you’re interested). All the ships were docked at Solomon’s Island, a picturesque and touristy fishing village not far from the battle site.
My husband had signed on with me — he who gets seasick looking at water in a bath tub. Armed with enough motion sickness pills to take down an entire fleet, we headed to Solomon’s Island early on the morning of the battle. The Pride was open for tours. so we got a chance to take a close look at the ship and ask questions before the actual trip. Most important: yes, there was a toilet available. These ships were reproductions, not replicas. A replica, I learned, was an exact copy. Reproductions look like the original, but have modifications. The Pride had a motor, electricity and plumbing.
We boarded at noon, with about 35 other observers and about 12 crew. Despite the American flag flying on the Pride, she and the rest of the tall ships were playing British ships during the reenactment. “We’ve been impressed!” yelled someone in the crowd. One of the reasons for the War of 1812 was that the US objected to the impressment, by the British navy, of American seamen from its ships.
“We’re going to ask that you help out, if you want,” said the First Mate. “We can do it on our own — we usually do — but it goes a lot faster if you help.” He was talking about raising and lowering the sails. I don’t think “if you want” was ever a term used by the British Navy. About half of the observers got into it, including me and my husband. That’s where the heave-ho came in.
It was a picture perfect day. We had a Coast Guard escort as we sailed up river, to keep the dozens of private boats surrounding us from getting too close. “This is nothing,” said one of the crew. “When we did the Battle of Lake Erie last year, there were so many boats around us that you could have crossed from Canada to the States over the lake and never touched water.”
About an hour later, we got to our destination. A crowd had gathered on the shore. Following the battle script, cannons from shore fired at us and we fired back. Tiny boats with costumed rowers came at us from a cove, representing the Americans in their barges. The only shooting they did was of photographs of us. We fled and sat mid-river for over an hour, then went back to fire again.
Three hours after we’d left port, the battle was over. In 1814, the Americans retreated and the British, discouraged from continuing their journey toward DC, went on to harass ports along the Patuxent instead. They finally made it to DC a couple of months later. We sailed back to Solomon’s.