After spending two weeks sailing on the Lady Washington in the Puget Sound, Gail Lazaras became smitten with 19th-century ships and formed a nonprofit with a single goal: to bring a tall ship to New Orleans.
During the voyage that transported her to the early 1800s, Lazaras trained as a crewmember on the traditionally rigged 112-foot ship with billowing square sails and a mast reaching nearly 90 feet into the air.
Asked what inspired her to set sail, Lazaras smiled and attributed it largely to reading Patrick O’Brian novels. The experience, she said, had all the allure and adventure she sought. She was captivated, and even tempted to take to the seas indefinitely.
The ship is a full-scale replica of the original Lady Washington, which in 1788 was the first American vessel to make landfall on the West Coast of North America following an expedition around Cape Horn.
Joining Lazaras on the Lady Washington was friend Crys Aprill, with whom Lazaras founded the New Orleans Maritime Heritage Foundation just months after their return.
On July 26, the small nonprofit hosted its “Mid-Summer Small Ship Party,” a fundraiser aimed at the group’s initial goal: building a small ship that will eventually tend to the tall ship.
As stated on the foundation’s brochure: “A working tall ship will strengthen and deepen New Orleans for residents and as a destination for visitors. Surrounded by water, New Orleans was and is a keystone between heartland waterways and the high seas.”
The event took place upstairs at The Irish House, and included a boat-building contest, seafaring costumes, sweet serenades by the Siren Sisters and boisterous ballads by the N.O. Quarter Shanty Krewe.
As he sipped a stout in preparation for the show, Shanty Krewe co-founder K.C. King said the group has performed its repertoire of shanties everywhere from Jazz Fest to the 200th anniversary of the battle of Vicksburg, and always with the guiding tenet that “You don’t have to be talented — you just have to put enthusiasm in it.”
For partygoers of all ages, the supplies required to build a miniature ship were laid across several tables: foil, cardboard, toothpicks, clay, straws, wooden sticks, and film canisters.
A baby pool on the back deck served as a testing pond. The more cargo the boats could hold, the higher the score.
Honoring the city’s long and vibrant history of trade and tall ships, Lazaras said she wants to bring the past alive for the thrill of it, and as a means of education.
Aprill already has started an afterschool program during which she uses boat-building and sailing skills as a physical platform to teach kids science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The program includes lessons on buoyancy, measuring wind, sailing angles and navigation, and can be scaled for different ages.
“There’s never enough hands-on and exploratory learning,” Aprill said, based on her more than 20 years working in education. “And once they get to the pool, it all comes together for them.”
The small ship, for which a public build is planned in the fall, will be a replica of a traditional rowing/sailing vessel from around 1800.
While money is raised for the construction of the tall ship, the small ship will provide a starting point for the educational experience envisioned by the foundation.
And while the tall ship will be modeled after one with local and historical significance — The Louisiana — it also will meet all modern Coast Guard regulations so that it can take people aboard, Lazaras said.
Trevor Tingle, another member of the foundation’s small corps of volunteers, was hooked by the lure of tall ships after boarding the Rose in Rhode Island. He worked as a deckhand on the voyage to California, by way of the Panama Canal.
It was a powerful, confidence-building experience, Tingle said, and one filled with all the romanticism of the open water he craved after growing up in the middle of Texas.
Tingle said he got involved with the nonprofit to help bring that experience to others.
The Rose was featured in the 2003 film “Master and Commander” (based on an O’Brian novel). But Tingle said the movie business was “mundane” compared with being a real captain.
Over the years, Tingle climbed his way up in the industry until earning his captain’s license. He works on crew boats on the Mississippi River.
To illustrate the power of their time on the Lady Washington, Lazaras pulled up her knee-length britches, while April rolled up a sleeve. Both women proudly displayed richly colored tattoos featuring majestic ships with sails blowing in the wind.
While there are models of ships that can give people a glimpse into an era prior to the invention of the steam engine, there’s nothing like the experience, Lazaras said.
“The crew, the calls, the smells, the ropes — it makes it come alive.”
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