Dressed in green fatigues and wearing a leg harness, Midshipman Dominic Gray carefully climbed the lines toward the top of the masts on the U.S. Brig Niagara, ready to take orders on how to hoist the ship's square sails.
And just to make sure he gets to relive the experience, the 20-year-old Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps student at Miami University of Ohio had a small video camera strapped to his chest to record the journey.
Photo gallery: Sailing the U.S. Brig Niagara
"It's humbling," the Columbus resident said of his day aboard the rebuilt War of 1812 warship. "There were people who did this and sailed across oceans like this. It's not easy."
A signature vessel at this weekend's Navy Week celebration, the Niagara set sail into Lake Erie on Saturday with its crew and a contingent of military guests. Members of the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Royal Canadian Navy, and NROTC were aboard to experience a day of sailing unlike any normal day while stationed aboard more modern ships.
The brig joined four modern naval and Coast Guard vessels on the Maumee River this weekend — the guided-missile frigate USS De Wert, coastal patrol boat USS Hurricane, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mobile Bay, and frigate HMCS Ville de Quebec of the Royal Canadian Navy. And from each of those ships came volunteers — or for some, they were "voluntold" — to crew the reconstruction of a 19th-century military warship.
Responding to orders from the ship's professional crew, the day sailors yanked ropes hand over hand to raise and lower sails, climbed the "ratlines" toward the tops of the masts, and responded "Heave!" to the call of "Ah" each time a rope needed to be pulled.
"It's like sailing on a pirate ship," said Midshipman Clayton Septant, 20, of Bellbrook, Ohio, who like Mr. Gray was one of 12 members of Miami's NROTC program aboard. "I'm here for fun. This is history."
The Niagara is a "direct descendant" of the relief flagship used by Comm. Oliver Hazard Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie in September, 1813 — a decisive battle during the War of 1812, said Senior Capt. Walter Rybka, the Niagara's former captain and current administrator of the ship's programming. Although only about 60 of its thousands of wooden pieces are from the original vessel — namely some of the "ribs" of the ship — the Niagara is strictly authentic. Only its engines — used both as backups and to save time on light-wind days — and modern safety appliances are reminders that it is not carrying Commodore Perry's crew.
Throughout the seven-hour voyage, Mr. Rybka shared history of the ship, its commodore, and the 1813 battle that at one point looked hopeless but turned into a major American victory. But the real lesson of the Niagara isn't anything learned in a history book, Mr. Rybka said.
"The real value is not getting good at ancient hand-skills, it's getting the sense of community," he said. "The lesson of the ship is that the most important resource you have at sea is each other."
Navy Week presents the opportunity for citizens to visit aboard ships and meet young men and women who sail in the United States fleet. The ships are part of a summer tour of six U.S. cities on the Great Lakes, where sailors share information about their career and naval history.
For those crew members who have played host to Toledoans touring their ships, Saturday's trip on the Niagara was a day off. Some worked, others just enjoyed the view.
PO 2nd Class Jonathan Sperling, 24, from the USS De Wert, was one of 10 crewmen from the frigate aboard the square-rigger. Normally patrolling for pirates or drug-smugglers in the oceans off Africa or South America, Petty Officer Sperling said a tour in the Great Lakes has been rewarding.
Those visiting the ships during Navy Week have been welcoming and appreciative, the petty officer said, and Saturday's experience was "awesome."
"I've always wanted to know what it was like for the sailors of the old days," he said. "I can definitely imagine doing this. There is nothing better than hard work and fresh air."
Toledo lawyer Frank Melhorn served as port captain for the Niagara. He said that the donors who made it possible to bring the historic brig to Toledo wanted to make sure that the men and women of the armed forces were able to spend some time aboard.
That's what made the Niagara's visit to Toledo different from its stops in other ports.
"This is a historically significant event for members of the U.S. Navy to sail on the only historic sailing warship that is fully operational," Mr. Melhorn said. "The sails, sail. The guns, shoot. There is nothing phony about this ship."
Those who have yet to see the wooden warship still have a chance to go aboard. The Niagara is to be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. today. The other four ships are open from noon to 7 p.m.
And for those who want to try out their sea legs, spaces are available aboard the Niagara on Monday morning when it leaves Toledo from International Park at 9 a.m. and sets sail for Put-in-Bay. Price per person is $95, and registration is required by going online at www.flagshipniagara.org.
Marine Science Technician Annaliese Ennis, 35, who is stationed with the Coast Guard in Toledo, said the day on the Niagara was unusual for her.
Ms. Ennis said that as a member of the Coast Guard's marine safety unit, she spends most of her time responding to oil spills or inspecting boats, not sailing in them.
"I don't get a chance to get under way very often," she said. "Usually when I get out of the office, it's to inspect a boat."
Ms. Ennis said that it was her love of boats that prompted her to join the Coast Guard, but it wasn't just being on the water that made Saturday's sail special.
"I liked the merging of the different groups," she said, pointing to a navy sailor in his crisp white dress uniform talking to a member of the Royal Canadian Navy.
This sentiment was shared by many aboard the vessel, including Rear Adm. Michael Parks, commander of the 9th Coast Guard District, who at one time shared the bridge with Capt. Wesley Heerssen of the U.S. Brig Niagara and Rear Adm. Gregory Nosal, commander of the U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group 2 based in Norfolk.
"For me, this is an incredible, incredible honor to see our history come alive like this, to be aboard a ship like this and to think about what these men would have experienced," Admiral Parks said. " … This is our history. This is what it was really like."
However, back when the Niagara first sailed, members of the Royal Canadian Navy would not have been on board. Admiral Parks said that the gathering showed just how strong the bonds have become between the two nations and the brotherhood that forms at sea.
The admiral pointed down to the deck where there was a Navy whites and Coast Guard blues mixed in with the fatigues of the NROTC members as well as members of Canada's Navy. And down among them were the admiral's daughters, ages 9 and 12.
"I see my little 9-year-old hauling a line," Admiral Parks said. "This is priceless."
And as grand finale for the step back in time, crew members of the Niagara fired off one of two working cannons aboard just as it was about to dock to a waiting crowd in International Park.
"It really was an exceptional day," Mr. Melhorn said. "What's so gratifying is what these young people got out of it."
Contact Erica Blake at: email@example.com or 419-213-2134.