Thursday, April 29, 2010

Brig Niagara underway!

Since my first stint on board the Brig Niaraga last fall, I've been following her with great enthusiasm. Despite the best efforts of her remarkable crew and office staff, she is little known in the navy. And little known is an understatement. The fact that Oliver Hazzard Perry's flagship at the Battle of Lake Erie is afloat and sailing today is amazing in and of itself (more on that in a minute) but the fact that nobody in the navy really knows about it or cares to do anything once they find out is even more astonishing.

For those of you who are not familiar, the original Niagara was built in 1813 at Presque Isle - today Erie, Pennsylvania. After the famous battle where Perry reported "We have met the enemy and they are ours" she was laid up and sunk (yes, sunk!) to preserve her timbers in the cold muddy waters of a place called Misery Bay in case she should be needed again. Raised in 1913 to celebrate the centennial of the War of 1812, she was kept in Erie as a display piece and poorly cared for. Several restorations ensued, but the final restoration in 1988 was the only real long-term preservation effort. There, she was completely rebuilt by a crew led by Melbourne Smith in historically correct methods. Now - on that score - the ORIGINAL ship was hauled out, dissassembled, and the ship rebuilt. To me, that means that she is the original ship, restored. Others, including the National Parks Service claim that because the only original timbers remaining after the restoration were used in non-structural areas, she is a replica. Sorry, but I have to raise the BS flag on that one. She is as much the original as is USS CONSTITUTION, the Navy's very own "grandfather's hatchet". We replaced the head three times and the handle twice but it's still grandfather's hatchet. But I digress.

Today, Niagara sails out of the port where she was built almost 200 years ago. People can pay to sail in day classes or for extended periods aboard her and get the most hands-on experience of life in the Age of Sail that exists. Learn to handle lines, climb the rig - for crying out loud you even cook on a wood-burning stove and sleep in hammocks! It is utterly and completly AWESOME and I urge every single person who has an interest or has ever had an interest in fighting sail to GET YOUR KIESTER OFF YOUR CHAIR AND DOWN TO HER BERTH, ASAP! You will not regret a journey of any length nor anything you have to put off to see her - guaranteed.

Even the museum that was built around and for her in Erie is amazing. Inside, one of the best displays is a reconstructed side of the ship, which they took out to a firing range and actually shot at with the ship's guns. Battle damage and all, the recreated side is on display with a full summary and explanation of each shot hole and shattered timber - along with a video of the destruction. It is incredible, and something you won't find anywhere else. Because that's how they roll.

Today, Niagara is underway on her annual shakedown, ready for another season. To her crew: rock on, guys, I hope to return and join you soon! To NHS members and the navy at large: read, learn, support - get hot!

And in the words of Perry's Battle Flag - "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP!"

- Will

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