Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mystery Ship

The day we traversed De Tour Passage to enter Lake Michigan it was so foggy, we could barely see. We were peering through the fog, keeping an eye out for big freighters . . . when we were quite surprised to spot a pirate ship. 

Actually, it was the Flagship Niagara, part of the fleet of graceful, old-fashioned sailing ships collectively called the “Tall Ships.”

These vessels--topsail schooners, brigantines, brigs, and barques--have been sailing around the Great Lakes all summer long, stopping in at different ports, a movable feast of boating beauty.

The schooner Madeline in Kewaunee
For a while now, as we’ve travelled down the west coast of Lake Michigan, the Dragonfly has been either a little bit ahead or a little bit behind the tall ships.

They were in Green Bay (the city) while we were in Green Bay (the geographic feature).  A tallship docked in Kewaunee the day we left.  And we got to Port Washington the day before five tall ships arrived there. 

Among the swarm of gongoozlers at the dock was a guy who asked whether we might be the “mystery ship” that festival promoters have been advertising. Alas, no. 

Back in De Tour Passage, I figured out that OUR mystery ship was the Niagara by comparing the picture I took to photos on the tall ships website. I was interested to learn that this was the warship Oliver Hazard Perry commanded in the War of 1812—winning the battle to claim the lake for America.

At 198 feet in length, the Niagara is the largest tall ship in the festival—five times as long as Dragonfly. With a 118-foot mainmast, she’s ten times as tall as we are! And she carries four 32-pound cannons plus two 12-pound guns . . . whereas Dragonfly’s Cap’n threatens but has not yet installed that potato gun he keeps promising (for bombarding powerboats that throw up big wakes). But both boats are “ambassadors for Pennsylvania” (the Niagara’s home port is Erie, PA).

The original brig Niagara was deliberately sunk in 1820, after the war; raised and rebuilt in 1913; then rebuilt again in the 1930s and some more 1980s. So it’s not clear if you’d consider her the actual historic ship or a reconstruction. But either way, ain’t she a beauty?

We are docked in Kenosha, and the tall ships have just arrived in Chicago--less than 100 miles away. They’re more than a spectacle. They’re intended to celebrate the Great Lakes—"waters worth protecting"—and to carry a message of freshwater conservation. Communities are using the ships’ visit to organize “Green Villages” where people can learn about developments in solar, wind, and battery technologies.

So, we hope we’ll be able to see them--even though we’re not the vaunted Mystery Ship.

Although . . . amazingly enough, there really is such a thing as canal boats with sails. So maybe in a future year we’ll join the fleet.


  1. How fun is this??!! Another exciting sight to behold. They must be so beautiful sailing so silently through the waters. I have never seen them in real life, only on TV or in books. You guys have been so lucky to see such fascinating people, places and things. Love to you both. Mary

  2. I really love mysteries like that..
    Is there any similar stories in Port Clinton Docks?
    We're a bit near the place, hope to find there something exciting like this one.