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Can We Rebuild the Ranger?

A new tall ship would remind the Port
City of her lost maritime heritage

Ranger We were doing about 30 knots in the wave piercing catamaran "Finback" when the first white dot of the HM Endeavour slid onto the horizon off the coast of York, Maine. I did a cartoon double-take. Despite weeks of planning for the visit of the 1790 tall ship, I was unprepared for the gentle majesty of the thing. As the catamaran circled the $17 million hand-crafted replica, I had the distinct feeling that we, not the tall ship, had passed through some rift in time. The Endeavour made sense. We didn't.

Visitors lining the shore in Portsmouth Harbor never saw the sails well open as we did. When our high tech vessel pulled alongside, we seemed to be keeping pace with a giant sleek wooden keg of beer. With both ships still moving, members of the little VIP party boarded the tall ship by scurrying up the side on a dangling rope ladder. The shifting wind forced most of the sails down and we were allowed to wander about for three glorious hours, as young crew members yanked on ropes and shouted orders.

As we were joined by a flotilla of private boats in the beating September morning sun, an officer turned to me and said proudly, "This is the best it has been in America. This is how it should be!"

Let's not be coy. The Endeavour tall ship visit to Portsmouth was a major success. That's not just because over 15,000 people toured the Australian replica of a famous British vessel and learned about history. That's good enough for me, but cities don't run on intelligence. They burn cash. At roughly $10 per shipboard tour, the 10-day Endeavour income should fire an economic broadside into the skulls of even die-hard politicians,"suits" and bean counters.

That doesn't include the tens of thousands in corporate donations, the restaurant, gift shop and souvenir take. People who didn't even know New Hampshire had a state pier showed up there in droves, 60,000 in all. Visitors to the chamber of commerce across the street from the pier tripled during Endeavour's visit. From Florida to Maine, Endeavour's top two days in her summer-long American tour happened here.

Do the math. Historic sites are the new number one tourist draw in America. And we just watched 200,000 of our tourism dollars sail off to Australia.

So let's get back to basics and build our own tall ship. It's been considered many times. Yes, it will cost millions. People will argue, executive directors will burn out and volunteers will drop like flies. The Endeavour project dragged on for seven years and went bankrupt twice. Even the Japanese couldn't bail out the finances. But the Australian team built it -- the finest replica ship in the world, many say. Today the 1,300 local school kids who toured the Endeavour know more about British and Australian history, than they do about their own ship-building port.

We've already practiced with a wooden gundalow replica. I was there the day the oxen dragged the great flat wooden boat from Strawbery Banke to the river. The crowd was excited, emotional. That kind of thrilling event happened all the time around here in the old days. The towns along the Piscataqua have been building big wooden ships here since the Faulkland in 1690. We built the Raleigh, the one that appears on the state seal, the warship of the new country. We built the Congress, sister ship to the Constitution and Constellation that fought the Barbary pirates. We built the steam-powered Kearsage, that blasted the Alabama in the second-best known water battle of the Civil War. We rebuilt Old Ironsides twice. Piscataqua craftsmen created the finest clipper ships in the world -- Nightingale, Typhoon, Witch of the Wave. That is the tradition that carried us to the submarine era and has made Portsmouth Yard famous the world around.

There is no question which Portsmouth-built ship we must recreate. Ranger wins hands down. This is the vessel that "worried" the entire British Isles when John Paul Jones and 145 men were, effectively, the entire US Navy during the Revolution. Two-thirds of those men and all the officers were from the Piscataqua region, including two freed blacks Cato Catile and Scipio Africanus. Some of these men are buried in the North Cemetery in Portsmouth.

All we have left of that famous 1777 voyage is a handbill. It may be the earliest recruiting poster in American naval history. Like its modern counterparts, the handbill reads more like a travel brochure than a call to arms. Jones promised his men that they would be treated with dignity, make lots of money and travel to fascinating sunny new lands. In reality the men rose near to mutiny for the lack of wages, lack of rum, hard battles and cold weather. Despite all odds, Jones managed to get to France, meet with Benjamin Franklin, raid a couple of towns, capture a few ships and carry the first American flag into foreign waters. The voyage of the Ranger, most historians agree, changed the course of American history.

You get a whiff of all that history off the handbill. You may feel the edge of it watching Robert Stack in the 1959 film titled "John Paul Jones." There's a stir of emotion at Jones' tomb in Annapolis, at his birthplace in Scotland, at his boarding house bedroom in Portsmouth, at military museums and in books.

But we don't learn much of our history from books, not much that sticks anyway. The history that stuck for me as a child was on the fields of Gettysburgh, in Washington DC, in Philadelphia, along Boston's Freedom Trail, at Lexington and Concord, at Sturbridge Village. Earlier this year I finally got aboard Old Ironsides while it was docked in Charlestown, Massachusetts nearby. Even though it's 90% rebuilt, the feeling was embedded there in the marrow of the masts.

Still the feeling was nothing like climbing up the rope ladder to the deck of Endeavour as the ship approached our own harbor. Being there, on the deck with the commotion and the sails made all the difference. I've motored in and out of our harbor a hundred times or more, but it had never felt this way. This was a wooden ship arriving in the harbor that had launched a hundred like her. This was about canvas and hemp, about wood and pine tar. The river, I had forgotten, is the long lost front door.

If you were there, you felt it too. The wooden ship Endeavour just belonged in Portsmouth. It seemed to know its own way to the pier. Our Ranger, the one we might someday build, is already better known. Every where it travels, it will remind people of New Hampshire's place in history. It will teach kids like no text book. It will stir souls like only a wooden ship can.

Oh yes, and for you bean-counters, it will bring in big bucks too.

© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
J. Dennis Robinson

For more information see:

  • John Paul Jones Homepage
  • Old Ironsides Homepage
  • 375th Celebration Homepage
  • Robert Stack in John Paul Jones, the Film

    Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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