It has been two years since an armada of tall ships has come gracefully sailing up the Chester River to remind us of our come-from-away roots. We’ve experienced a change of Presidents and endured a pandemic. We’re watching temperatures soar and seas rise while suffering through a broken supply chain. We’ve even survived a plague of locusts of Biblical proportion since the ships’ last visit.
Enough! We need a break. I’ll even settle for a momentary distraction. I’m craving a good, old-fashioned slice of peace and calm, with maybe a few happy memories thrown in to sweeten the deal. Like a kid on Christmas eve, I’m restlessly awaiting that first sighted sail atop a tall mast coming ‘round Devil’s Reach, the gleam of polished planks, the boom of a cannon. I want to think back to a gentler time when oak and canvas sailed the seas and the wharf at the foot of High Street was a gateway to the whole, wide world.
But we need to remember this, too; there were also chains on that wharf. Chains, and tears. Slaves were bought and sold there, entire families separated, human beings counted as chattel. Slavery is one of several stains on the soul of our nation, and if we celebrate the ships that brought the world to this Bay, river, and town, we also must acknowledge that they sometimes carried a cruel human cargo. History has many painful chapters; only fairytales have happily-ever-after endings.
History is the lens through which we see ourselves as we were and therefore as we are. When the tall ships are in port, our individual and common histories come alive again. They have an almost magical ability to transport us to the world that once was. It was hardly a perfect place, but nostalgia can color our perspective and make it seem so. Memory needs tempering from time-to-time; without an occasional wee dram of reality, those good ol’ days might appear a little rosier than they really were.
Nevertheless, I confess to considerable anticipatory delight in the days prior to Downrigging Weekend. I want the weather to be dry, or maybe just a little moody to remind us that transoceanic voyages weren’t always uneventful. I want to see the town full of people again—not forever, you understand, but for a day or two. I want friends to stop by the porch or their way down to the river. I want to see the ships illuminated at night, their masts and riggings a complex and colossal spiderweb spiraling up into the nighttime sky. But most of all, I want a reprieve from the strum und drang of today’s challenges, and the opportunity to think about the way things were. The way they really were.
This year, there will be six tall ships of varying sizes and designs in port or on parade. There will be schooners and clippers, skipjacks and buy-boats, tugboats and jolly boats, yawls and ketches. There will certainly be some oyster shucking to go along with plenty of beer and Bluegrass music. The more of the former, the better the latter will sound.
I hope you can come. Whether you’re a from-here or a come-here, Downrigging is a sight to behold. You can dream your dreams and write your own true stories. C’mon over!
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, MD. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com