By Cassandra Sottile
Elm Staff Writer
This weekend marked the 15th anniversary of Downrigging Weekend in Chestertown. Sponsored by the Sultana Education Foundation, Sultana’s Downrigging Weekend Tall Ship and Wooden Boat Festival has evolved into one of the largest annual tall ship gatherings on the East Coast. According to the Foundation, this was the most successful Downrigging Weekend in history.
From Oct. 28 to 30, town residents and visitors saw the Chestertown waterfront packed with ships, schooners, and wooden boats; watched performances from world-class musicians; heard lectures from authors and filmmakers; and toured the ships in the dock during an “open house.”
In November 2001, the newly launched schooner the Sultana and Pride of Baltimore II, a replica of an 1812 topsail schooner, and a Baltimore clipper, sailed down the Chester River together before both vessels “downrigged” for the winter. Fifteen years later, ships from the bay area and elsewhere come to Chestertown for the festival, and thousands of people flock to the Chester River, America’s best preserved colonial seaport, to see the ships.
To be “downrigged” means that the ropes and rigs of all the tall ships are tucked away in the deconstruction. The tall ships had all of their ropes and rigs for the festival, however, so visitors had the chance to see the last sail of the fully constructed ships before the winter.
The weekend schedule was packed. Select tall ships held an open house on Friday and Saturday and were open for public sailing. The 88-year-old A.J. Meerwald from Bivalve, N.J., a former oyster dredging schooner, took Washington College’s own Presidential Fellows sailing on the river. A “Pirates of the Caribbean” style Dutch-built Swedish ship from Delaware, the Kalmar Nyckel, took C.V. Starr Center Quill and Compass Scholars sailing. The centerpiece of the festival, the Sultana, a locally built replica of a 1768 ship that the British used in Colonial times to enforce tariffs on tea, was also open for sailing and touring. During all of the public sails, passengers were able to participate in deck activities, learn sailing commands, help the crew raise the sails, and even steer the ship.
During all of the public sailings on the ships, the captain explained the origins and history of the vessel, various nautical terms, and history of its home state at the time of its commissioning. Visitors also heard the legend about the Chester River Tea Party. Five months after the Boston Tea Party revolt in 1744, residents of Chestertown dumped tea into the Chester River from the British ship, the Geddes. This event is re-enacted every Memorial Day weekend from the deck of the Sultana during the Tea Party Festival.
In addition to the open houses and sailing of the tall ships, classic cars were also on display. There was a Marc Castelli Downrigging Show and Delmarva Dock Dogs. The Sultana’s new Education Center also hosted children’s activities, including the model boat building at the Madar Project Shop. World-class sailor and Annapolis author, Gary Jobson, also lectured at the Sultana Education Center on Saturday. WC’s Sailing Club even sponsored an educational cruise aboard the Pride of Baltimore II.