Operation Sail
Aboard the Topsail Schooner
Juan Sebastian de Elcano

Time, July 1976

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NOTE: Tim Foote, a small boat sailor and student of history, went at the last minute to join the tall ships of Operation Sail for their passage from Newport to New York.  He arrived on the rainy night of July 1st, and went from ship to ship, finding things in some confusion ashore as the great fleet gathered in its crews for the morning's departure, and was courteously taken in at last aboard the Spanish Navy's giant four­masted Juan Sebastian de Elcano. A few sentences from his report were used in Time's account of Operation Sail, and further echoes of the passage may occur, one hazards to guess, in his forthcoming book on Revolutionary War naval actions. One may be grateful for the impulse that made him go, we believe, and the memorable record he kept.  All photographs by the author.  -ED.

The trouble with being aboard is that you never see your own ship!  But the Chilean Esmeralda, seen here leaving Newort, is a sister to the Juan Sebastian de Elcano, except that Esmeralda carries staysails between main and foremast, where Sebastian carries a gaff foresail.


THERE HAD BEEN TALK that a special cash allowance was to be issued ($90 for midshipmen, $20 for sailors) so the men might better enjoy New York. La Escandalosa, the ship's daily, this morning warns against the dangers of the town, pointing out with courtly Hispanic understatement, that Nueva York has some unhealthy spots (zonas poco recommendables), but praising the virtues of the Cardinal Spellman Club on Park Avenue. There, it is promised, a shipmate can procure a free meal and properly Catholic young ladies may appear to dance with the crew. A mid­shipman remarks that he went there once - but never again! Another grins: "I am tryeeng to theenk een Eenglish."

Meanwhile Juan Sebastian de Elcano slides through the hot hazy morning of July 3rd, 1976, southeast of Sandy Hook, waiting for a pilot and the Bicenteniaro de Los Estados Unidos. When I went aboard in the dark two nights ago at Newport the gleaming white hull of the Argentinian training ship Libertad lay just aft, the string of lights around her bulwarks giving her the look of a queenly iceberg slowly melting into the sea. Along the quay beside Juan Sebastian and Libertad cadets, sailors and local belles were draped against cars, walls, even bollards as they said variously indecorous good­byes in a style familiar to anyone who has watched returning liberty parties in Norfolk or San Diego or, for that matter, anywhere in the world. Only Russia's Kruzenshtern, tied up behind Libertad was silent. Russian sailors had been allowed ashore only for closely supervised entertainments. Now no sign of life appeared on her shadowy decks, and a Rhode Island state police car was parked beside her with a bored trooper leaning against it.

Leaving Newport, July 2, in company with the Libertad.

When we dropped down out of Newport on the way to Manhattan, present politics slid away behind. The route the tall ships took, south past the tip of Long Island, was exactly the course Admiral d'Estaing followed in August, 1778 when he abandoned efforts to take Newport and offered battle to Lord Richard Howe's fleet just as a storm was about to strike. The Juan Sebastian herself is no stranger to the resonances of history. Her overworked sailors, I note, have labels on their pants reading Armada Espagnola. Even if that simply means Spanish Navy the phrase has a most unfortunate ring to my English-speaking soul.

She was nobly named, though. Signs and plaques aboard proudly display an orb which speaks to the ship: Tu Primus Circumdedisti Me- "You were the first to round me." As, of course, Juan Sebastian de Elcano was, as the navigator who brought the remains of Magellan's fleet home to Cadiz in 1522 after the commander died during history's first circumnavigation of the globe. Since Juan Sebastian's maiden voyage in 1928 every officer in the Spanish navy has trained aboard her and, at one time or another during their careers, most of them come fondly back to serve aboard. The 63 cadet-midshipman aboard study much of the day and take calisthenics to keep fit, leaving most of the work to 284 rated men and sailors, though the cadets do join the sailors aloft on the huge, square-rigged foremast. (Juan Sebastian's masts are made of hollow cast iron. The foremast doubles as smoke­stack, carrying sooty fumes high above the deck, dirtying the staysails. Since the smoke comes from the galley stove it often smells like food and is not hard to endure, the men who work aloft report.)

The sense of tradition is strong. Each evening just before dusk when the whole ship's company is mustered to hear the plan of the next day, cadets and sailors face each other at attention across the deck, at salute for minutes at a time as the band plays and they sing a deep, slow, throbbing hymn whose words and music strongly suggest our own "Oh hear us as we cry to Thee for those in peril on the sea." Standing so, hands to forehead, feet as if nailed to the deck, the ranks of men list slowly forward and backward as the ship rolls, but the ceremony is somber and moving nonetheless.

Clearing the headsails for hoisting.  Petty office in foreground signals: "Halyard's clear."

Being a guest aboard, when the ship is under motor power (as she usually is when there's less than a 15-knot breeze) is a little like one's imagination of a cruise on some vast, white Edwardian yacht. A twelve-piece band plays every evening. Glimpses into cabins reveal carved wooden paneling, what look like Savanarola chairs with lion-faced armrests. Coffee and drinks are served steadily in the officer's smoking room. And everyone is exceedingly kind and polite. (You soon find it impossible to get anyone to go up a ladder or through a hatch ahead of you, no matter how much of a head start he has.)

When a solid wind blows from the beam and her 2,457 sq. feet of new dacron sail are set, everything changes.  Going aloft, squads of men literally run up the ratlines, head to seat, like lemmings suddenly freed of the laws of gravity. Down on deck tug-of-war chains of seamen begin hauling hard on halyards and sheets. Far above, the great yards swing slowly around. Square sails, it turns out, do indeed blossom like flower petals opening in slow motion. Four bos'uns man their pipes simultaneously, but each one has a different set of signals which only the men in his particular squad seem to pay heed to. The result is a wild, bewildering, birdlike symphony. Some whistles suggest a flock of exasperated hotel doormen trying to call cabs on a rainy night. High, shrill cries ring out like the piercing shriek of a red-tailed hawk. There are fast melodic pipings and long, liquid, repeated warbling twitters. Then the giant blocks join in, creaking as heavy line slowly turns in their sheaves, a deep, complainy sound like the squawk of a giant seagull.

But when all four of the fore-and-aft sails, the topsails, the square sails on the foremast and the cluster of jibs and staysails begin to draw all sound seems to still. The vibration of the engine stops too. Then the ship inhales a great breath of life or pride as she plunges forward. Slowly this silence dies away, and rising out of it comes the first faint creamy hiss of water rushing under the bows.

Setting sail took 22 minutes by my watch, and even so one of the staysails remained jammed. High above us dark figures tug and haul madly at it. There is a flapping such as twenty jibs might make coming about at the same time. Peering upward from the bridge I see that the sail is wrapped around a stay and will be freed only if someone undoes a shackle approximately the size of a small snapping turtle. A stainless steel wrench which looks as long as a baseball bat appears. It has a rawhide lanyard but Juan Sebastian's surehanded seamen nonchalantly pass it back and forth a hundred and more feet above the deck. It is nearly above my head and I am convinced that if they drop the thing it will go right through the deck and all the way to China.

We have been wallowing south of Fire Island for about an hour when David Smith of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association finally climbs aboard and we head inshore in single file following the distant lead of the U.S. Coast Guard's training bark Eagle. It is still hazy. The waters off the tip of Sandy Hook and beyond are a kind of fantasia of sailboats, charter vessels, and outboards, among them some with some fine and very foolish names. I see a handsome racing sloop which someone has called Jaws, and another, smaller plastic craft named Sloop du Jour, not to mention Oily Boid IV. The way is so choked with little boats, in fact, that we have to keep putting the engine in reverse to creep along in the confines of the channel, to which Juan Sebastian must keep, with her 7:3 meter draft. Pilot David Smith is far from happy. Everyone on the bridge peers forward looking for a black can that marks the first bend in the channel. It pops into view but then is maddeningly obscured again by clusters of sailboats.

As Juan Sebastian heads in behind the point, another water hazard appears, this time an extended ribbon of sail and powerboats, each flying a special flag with a black map of New Jersey rampant on a yellow field. The boats all seem to be playing follow the leader through the Tall Ship anchorage and are clearly part of Governor Byrne's Welcoming Sail past. (To be part of it you needed to send in $25 and have a boat capable of making 6 knots in a dead calm.) As we edge toward our own anchorage they suddenly zigzag right across Juan Sebastian's bows. Again it is "Full Astern." We shudder almost to a stop. Finally the last of Governor Byrne's welcoming committee minnows its way past.

Cadets man the shrouds for hours on end as the Juan Sebastian makes its way up the Hudson.

Once anchored we begin to inspect the cheerful fleet that cruises around inspecting us. Enthusiastic camera fans shout at our sailors to say "Cheese!" The Tall Ships are at anchor almost exactly where Admiral Howe anchored his fleet in July, 1778 and waited for d'Estaing's superior fleet to cross the bar, give battle, and perhaps take New York. Instead, pleading that not even for 50,000 livres could he get a pilot to take him over the bar, the French Admiral moved on to Newport.

July Fourth dawns. Another pilot, Bill LaSalle, comes aboard. The Tall Ships move north toward Manhattan. After the nautical mess of yesterday we expect a score or so of small boats to be run down during the day's festivities. But as Juan Sebastian passes under the Verrazano bridge, our 200-yard wide channel is clear. Westward, toward Staten Island and the U.S.S. Forrestal, the water is speckled with boats. Northeast toward the towers of Manhattan, though, they are as thick as a Hollywood director's dream of Dunkirk. You think you could leap from deck to deck all the way to the Battery. Blimps and helicopters cavort around the towers of the World Trade Center like tropical fish in a tank. Thunderous salutes and puffs of smoke explode from navy vessels left and right of us along the way. Standing on the bow I see the Statue of Liberty through a slot between the jibs, her outline faintly softened by feathery arcs of water from a red fireboat. Her base, like the stands and streets we pass all afternoon, is crowded with people whose faces at a distance, look like multicolored sprinkles on a birthday cake. Just above her a South African gunboat is anchored. Our ship's doctor, who also edits the ship's daily paper, remarks: "Ironic."

Once again we have moved backwards in history. It was behind Bedloe's Island, now given over to Miss Liberty, that another Eagle, Howe's flagship HMS Eagle, anchored during the summer of 1776 to be protected from Rebel fireships as the Admiral waited for his lethargic brother to take Manhattan.

We move north behind Portugal's beautiful Sagres II. Sails have been partly set to please the crowd but they are not drawing - quite the reverse. A light north wind is coming down the river at us. Juan Sebastian's band keeps up a musical barrage of marches and rumba. But what we now mostly hear is the "Whoy, Whoy, Wboy" of sirens as small Coast Guard Auxiliaries with blue "squad car lights spinning, tear down upon any small boat skipper who has edged into the channel or is going too fast. The loudspeaking sounds ferocious and deafening: "You there, Egg Harbor! You are transiting an anchor area! Slow down!"  Pause. Then "Have a good day."

Cadets manning the shrouds. 

Our men salute and our band plays the Star Spangled Banner as the cruiser Wainwright, presumably with President Ford aboard, comes steaming downriver led by tugs and Coast Guard boats. A squall of Hudson River rain obscures the George Washington Bridge just as the distant green squaresails of Libertad seem to be going under it. Eagle, which led the parade, runs past us now, heading south with sails bulging from that now fortuitous north wind, her forestay slicing past the sheer cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades. She is far enough west to be near the course taken by Captain Hyde Parker in HMS Phoenix, and James Wallace in the frigate Rose as they headed up the river past an American barrier of sunken hulks and chevaux de frise July, 1776. On that occasion Parker is said to have put his pistol on the binnacle and told the American pilot he'd blow his brains out if they struck.

Off Spuyten Duyvil the tall ships move in toward the eastern shore, waiting to come about. "Heading back, all sails set and full with that fortunate northerly we get a better look at the scores of smaller boats in the parade. Gipsy Moth IV. The all-girl schooner Winston Churchill. Squadrons of smallish sloops all flying German flags. A full scale model of the Santa Maria. A Viking ship which seems to be powered by an Evindrude outboard. Well below us, opposite Grant's Tomb, four big blue racing yawls from Annapolis, with matching blue and gold spinnakers, are gybing in parallel formation, doing a kind of soft shoe dance down the river.

As Juan Sebastian heads toward her berth on New York's West Side we all feel suddenly drained of energy. The light is fading. Everyone is still faintly intoxicated by a kind of joy that has echoed all day long from the ships to the crowd and back. Two tugs nudge us into Pier 90, which is rimmed with people. Bow and stern lines and spring lines are shot out and secured. It is hot and quiet.  The officer in charge on the foredeck is Juan Sebastian's third officer, Capitan de Corveta Jose Maria Molfulleda Buesa, a kind man who has spent some time earlier trying to explain to me in detail how a square-rigged ship comes about. Now Jose Maria leans forward and shakes my hand with some finality.

"Happy Birthday," he says. For a second I cannot think whose birthday he means.