It was not a battle. At least not officially.
The reason the tall ships Lynx and Pride of Baltimore II were firing cannon shots at each other Sunday afternoon in Boston Harbor was, technically, an exercise. “A way to introduce the general public to what it may have been like during the War of 1812,” said the Pride’s captain, Jamie Trost.
There were no winners and losers, technically. But onboard the schooners, replicas of the Baltimore privateers that defended the young country against the British, the crews and the passengers were keeping their own score.
For the children onboard — each ship booked paying passengers for the mock battle — it was all about the cannons, the 6-pound guns whose boom could be felt deep in the bones. They counted each report, analyzed the damage that might have been done had there been an actual cannonball inside.
But the rivalry, if you want to call it that — OK, it is — has “nothing to do with who fires more shots accurately,” Trost said.
It’s about being crisp, about maneuvering better. About steering your ship into position so that your cannons are lined up perfectly for a damaging broadside if this were a real battle, which it is not.
“These boats are living historical artifacts, and the only way to illustrate that is to show it off, and that requires every person on the crew doing what they need to, exactly when they need to,” Trost said as he prepared the Pride to shove off.
John Pickering, his second mate, said the guns were for show; this was about sailing. “You get to do some unique maneuvers,” he said. “We sail it hard. And we sail it close.”
And by close, he means close enough to talk to the other crew when they pass each other, bow to stern. Close enough for their cannon blasts to rattle your teeth. Close enough to talk a little trash with each pass.
Both crews are based in Baltimore, where the original, groundbreaking schooners were built with innovative hull designs that turned the tide of the war and had the British desperate to burn down the shipyards that created them. The people of Baltimore held off the invaders. Francis Scott Key wrote a poem about it that later became our national anthem.
And both crews are friends; they have overlap. Each captain has done time at the helm of the other ship. Trost will tell you that the better boat is whichever one he’s on. John Beebe-Center, the captain of the Lynx, is older, and has the sun-weathered look of a lifelong sailor. When he hears Trost’s boast, he will say only that he remembers what it was like to be young.
“My crew, however, is mindful that they want to look at least as good as those guys,” he added with a smile.
The closeness of the crews and the proximity of the ships on each pass were what made it special for the passengers. It was all very jokey — a few other vessels even joined in, firing their cannons at the Lynx and the Pride during the mock battle. But for the children on board, they could see just how crazy an actual 1812 sea battle might have been.
“Imagine that cannonball going right through your stomach from right over there,” said Jake Doucette, 11, of Methuen, who was aboard the Lynx with his stepfather, Brian Duffy.
Putting others in those shoes is the mission of each ship. “This isn’t like a whale watch where you sit, you see something cool, then you leave,” said Andrew Mackin, 11, of Newton. “It’s nice to see what they did in the past. . . . It’s cool to see how many movements they had to make.”
There are a lot of movements to make vessels this large move. The pace of the battle was glacial. Hollywood, the crews will tell you, is good at fast cuts, at making battles look more exciting than the reality, which is, basically: Pass close, take some shots, then try to turn the behemoths around as fast as possible to get in the best position for the next shot. “I hope they’re impressed by the sense of anticipation, the anxious anticipation, the tension inside these rails when they were out there fighting for the nation,” Trost said.
It worked. The children felt it. But they still wanted a winner, and Beebe-Center, at the conclusion of the battle, gave it to them.
“If for no other reason than Pride’s last shot fizzled, we won,” he declared. And the kids on board agreed.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker