Dick Cooper - November 2010

 

Sailing Into the National Hall of Fame
Grand Plans on Annapolis Harbor
by
Dick Cooper

When you stand on the docks of the National Sailing Hall of Fame and look out over the boats in the Annapolis Harbor, the Hall’s conundrum is very clear.
J-boats scoot though the anchorage like wisps on the wind. Fat old cruisers pull at their moorings with Chesapeake mustaches so brown you could almost plant in them. The masts of five-spreader maxis ring the harbor. Flocks of Optis skitter about, and over on the hotel docks, schooners load up tourists for a sunset cruise. Sailing is a sport, a profession, an avocation and always a passion.
It has numerous styles, uses and methods. So, the major question facing the Hall of Fame is how to define what is great and how to decide who does it best.
“We realize it is not like football or baseball,” says Lee Tawney, executive director of the fledgling Hall of Fame. “There are racers and cruisers; Albert Einstein was a sailor but not a racer. There is a right-up-front recognition that this is not just going to be racers.”
The National Sailing Hall of Fame, NSHOF, for short, is very much a work in progress. Tawney says a committee met in early September to begin framing the guidelines for inducting Hall of Fame members. He says the spectrum is wide and will include designers, innovators and builders as well as racers, cruisers and explorers. “We hope to have our first inductees sometime next year,” he says.
America’s Cup sailor and ESPN commentator Gary Jobson has been a prime mover behind the formation of the Hall in Annapolis. “Most sports have a Hall of Fame, but sailing does not,” Jobson says. “It is a place to celebrate those who have achieved great things on the water.”
The Hall of Fame, in its current configuration, is easy to miss. The two-story white house on the pier between the Annapolis Town Dock and the U.S. Naval Academy seawall is a nondescript 100-year-old structure in the midst of the nautical theme park that is Annapolis Harbor.
The house is the last residence standing in the once bustling watermen’s community known as Hell Point. The old Claiborne-to-Annapolis ferry docked next to it at the foot of Prince George Street. It was the home of Captain William T. Burtis, a colorful Annapolis waterman, who was renowned for harpooning a 900-pound shark in the Bay. The Baltimore Sun reported that Burtis put the shark on display in Bay Ridge and charged five cents a head to view it.
Because of its historic significance, the Burtis house is going to be incorporated into the 20,000-square-foot Hall of Fame building planned for the site. The new building will include a museum, exhibition hall, library and education rooms.
Tawney says that the Hall of Fame signed a 50-year lease for the land with the state in February and is now busy trying to raise the $30 million needed to start construction. He says that after the lease was signed, the serious fund raising began. “You can’t ask for money if you don’t have a lease,” he says. He hopes to have the money within the next two years. “The building will begin when we have the money to pay for it,” he says. “In the meantime, we are doing a lot of programmatic stuff.”
He says the docks are being used for sailing rendezvous, classic boat exhibits and free sailing instructions. The docks are also the current home of Bull and Bear, replicas of “sandbaggers” that hauled cargo around New York City in the mid-1800s. The vessels are low and wide and put up a cloud of sail. The old skippers used to move their loads of oysters around to balance the boats in stiff winds. When they began racing the boats, they used sandbags as moveable ballast.
The Hall of Fame, in conjunction with the Bull and Bear sailing of New Jersey, has taken hundreds of people for free sails on Sundays. Tawney says that for many of them, it was their first time on the water. He says the program also aims to get poor and disadvantaged children on the water for the first time.
This year, the Hall has been using the Captain Burtis House as a classroom to teach Anne Arundel County schoolchildren how to use sailing to learn math and science. “We are putting the course together as a module that can be used across the country,” he says.
A replica of the shallop used by Captain John Smith to explore the Chesapeake Bay over 400 years ago is also berthed at the Hall docks. Smith and his small band sailed and rowed the 28-foot open boat up and down the estuary’s rivers and bays. Its rough-hewn look and long oars are testament to how hard that journey must have been.
While the offerings at the current site are limited, the Hall of Fame’s website, www.nshof.org, has already drawn attention. Jobson introduces the site by saying, “Sailing has a storied history and the Hall will highlight the sport in all of its diversity.” The site offers a “Gallery” page of audio and video treats for those with a love of the sea.
“Sailing is so inextricably linked to our history, to music, our art and our literature.” Tawney says. He points to the page on the website that features a collection of sail-related paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. With a click, you can bring up a digital image of Winslow Homer’s “Breezing Up,” complete with a description of Homer’s life and career. Another click and you are looking at Fitz Henry Lane’s detailed seascape of “New York Harbor, 1852.” Tawney says that the Hall plans to add more art collections from other museums around the country.
With yet another click, you can watch a sideshow of stunning photographs shot by Daniel Forster and Onne van der Wal. Move over to the “Film Library” and you can download and watch a wide variety of films and videos. “That is part of the new world we live in,” Tawney says. “You can create a virtual space as well as a real space.”
Tawney said one of the first pages built was “Sailing in American Literature” with quotes about sailing from great authors, including this one from Mark Twain:
“Twenty years from now, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do, rather than the things you did do. So cast off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Tawney says the non-profit Hall of Fame will be free and open to the public.
Jobson adds that the Hall will serve as a public portal to sailing.
“I have spent my whole career trying to make people realize that the water is available to everybody,” he says. “The Hall will introduce people to the science, the environment and the magic of sailing. It is more than celebrating the names of people; it is how you educate people and how you get them on the water.”

Dick Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and his wife, Pat, live and sail in St. Michaels, Md. He can be reached at dickcooper@coopermediaassociates.com.