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Tall ships command the Great Lakes en route to battle re-enactment

| Monday, July 1, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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Historical re-enactments of famous battles delight history buffs and teach lessons of our past. Woolen-britches-wearing enthusiasts fill fields with their close attention to detail.

There's one place where it's almost impossible to re-enact a battle — on the high seas, or, for our purposes, the Great Lakes.

It's going to happen, though, for the War of 1812's momentous, nation-defining Battle of Lake Erie. On Labor Day (Sept. 2), at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, re-enactors will simulate the 1813 naval battle in which Oliver Hazard Perry and 557 sailors from the still-very-young United States of America defeated a fleet of the world's greatest naval power, Great Britain, in those same waters.

“We have never done this before,” says Burt Rogers, executive director of Tall Ships America, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving “tall ships” and teaching sail training. The organization is producing the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial.

“We're blessed that there are some fine historians in our membership, particularly Capt. Walter Rybka and Capt. Wesley Heerssen of the Brig Niagara in Erie, Pa.. Their mastery of the history of the battle and the period is fundamental to the mission of the ship. They've designed the choreography of the battle.”

The naval theater is the culmination of this summer's Tall Ships Challenge that began June 14 and runs through Sept. 9, in which a fleet of ships race across five lakes, making appearance at U.S. and Canadian ports along the way.

The ships involved in the festivities come from all over North America, like the Pride of Baltimore II, based in Chesapeake Bay, and the Lynx, which sails out of Newport Beach, Calif.

Most have professional crews, supported by student trainees learning seamanship.

Capt. David Leanza, caught on the phone dockside in Detroit, will be bringing his ship, Appledore IV, to most of the ports in the Great Lakes Tall Ships Challenge.

“It's a traditionally rigged schooner,” says Leanza, “The way the sails and rigging are set up, it sails similar to the work boats of the 1800s. It's not a replica of any specific ship, like the Niagara is, but is traditional in the design. We'll be doing day-trips in Cleveland, Chicago, Bay City and Green Bay. While others will have visitors aboard in port, we'll be going out all day: two-hour trips three-hour trips, sunset excursions.”

The festival fits in perfectly with the ship's mission.

“We do sail-training education and Great Lakes Ecology education,” Leanza says.

One ship, the Sorlandet, is coming from Norway. Built in 1927, it's billed as the oldest still-operating, full-rigged ship in the world, and is run by an international crew of sailing students.

Great Lakes ports participating in the Tall Ships Festival include Cleveland (July 3-7), Duluth, Minn. (July 25-28), and Chicago (Aug. 7-11), with the final events in Erie (Sept. 5-8). Each location will have its own events, including tours, concerts, parades and family activities.

“The ships arrive for the most part on the Third of July,” says Ed Thomas, spokesman for this week's Port of Cleveland 2013 Tall Ships Festival.

“The first thing is the ‘Parade of Sail,' which is where the ships all line up on the lake, and sail past the city waterfront, which takes a couple hours,” he says. “Local sailing clubs participate as kind of guide boats; there's a Coast Guard boat, a fireboat with water cannons. It's free to the public to watch from shore.”

Then, the ships will be in port from July 4 through 7, at the The Port of Cleveland just north of FirstEnergy Stadium/Home of the Cleveland Browns.

“They may be boarded — the public can walk through the ships and talk to the crews,” Thomas says. “There will be an entertainment stage with music, storytellers, a guy doing short lectures about the War of 1812 and the battle in 1813. A number of ships are doing what we call Sail-Aways. The public can buy a ticket (90 minutes; $55 per person) and go on the ship in the lake and get a feel for what it's about.”

In Bay City, Mich., the July 12-14 Tall Ships visit will coincide with the Maritime Music Festival, featuring bands from all over the world playing songs of the sea.

Battle of Lake Erie

Although the War of 1812 gets overshadowed by the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Lake Erie was still a pretty big deal. Capt. Walter Rybka has a few theories about what would have happened if it had been lost.

“The Battle of Lake Erie was a victory for the U.S.,” says Rybka of the Erie-based Brig Niagara. “If it hadn't been fought, or had been lost, and the British were still sitting in (occupying) Detroit, I think they would have been in a powerful position to argue for redrawing the border, which could have run along the Michigan/Indiana line. We had lost Detroit and couldn't get it back until the Battle of Lake Erie had been fought.”

Of course, the Canadians and British see things a little differently from Americans. Though they lost the battle, the Canadians tend to assume that they won the War of 1812. Americans, at best, consider it a draw.

“That's a good conclusion from the U.S. standpoint,” says Rybka. “Our war was with Great Britain over trade, seaman's rights. It was basically fought to mutual exhaustion, and things mostly returned to the pre-war status quo. We stood up to the world's most powerful navy.

“In Canada, it's a win. We came over their border several times. It's a uniting element — the country came together to defend itself. In England, the general view is, ‘What war?' It's a nickel-and-dime sideshow to the Napoleonic wars.”

The Sept. 2 battle re-enactment will be difficult to observe from land, but some visitors will be able to watch from several large spectator vessels.

The 1813 battle was three hours long and extremely deadly.

“I've laid out the movements of the battle from first-person accounts,” Rybka says. “They're fairly standard maneuvers — just a couple of 90-degree right turns, and then coming parallel again. We'll try to make some noise and smoke to give people an idea of the battle. A fireworks barge will be there to make a lot of noise and smoke in the center of the area, to represent the greater volume of fire these ships were capable of in their real configurations.”

The Brig Niagara carries four replica cannons, not the 20 that its namesake carried in 1812-13.

The battle was joined when the American flagship, the Lawrence, sailed ahead to meet the British fleet, and absorbed the full brunt of their attack. While firing back furiously, the Lawrence was virtually shot to pieces, with 70 percent casualties.

“The commander (of the Niagara) didn't bring the Niagara up to share that load,” Rybka says. “Some say it was because the wind didn't allow that. I think he had a choice.

“After the breeze allowed ships to start maneuvering, Perry had himself rowed over to the Niagara, and sailed into the British line, hitting them after they were already damaged.”

Curiously, Perry was forced to defy the very motto that is forever associated with him.

“His motto is ‘Don't give up the ship,' but he had to give up the ship to win the battle,” Rybka says. “The real motto is ‘Don't give up.' ”

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