ON LAKE ERIE — An unprecedented collection of tall ships had cut through the haze and gathered in the open water east of West Sister Island by early afternoon today, positioned near the site where the Battle of Lake Erie took place nearly 200 years ago.
PHOTO GALLERY: Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial thrills onlookers
The re-enactment of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British fleet was initially greeted by a heavy overcast sky, a few intermittent sprinkles of rain and a moderate chop on the lake, served up by northwest winds of 10 to 15 knots.
But the sun broke through around the time the first shots were fired, about two hours behind schedule, and the sky cleared to a bright blue. Private boats, likely numbering close to a couple thousand, formed a huge floating gallery around the re-enactment, which took place in a restricted “battle box” area.
The U.S. Coast Guard stayed busy enforcing that 500-yard safety zone around the 15 tall ships, support vessels and a fixed pyrotechnic barge participating in the massive undertaking. There were close to 70 security boats working the perimeter of the battle zone.
More than 550 re-enactors in period garb manned the vessels, along with the permanent crews. The star of the show, the Brig Niagara, had a large American flag from the era filled with the breeze high above her stern.
The U.S. fleet was victorious again, mimicking the way the 27-year-old Perry had handed the British their most humiliating naval defeat.
Following the historical script, at the height of the battle the re-enactor depicting Perry abandoned his badly damaged flagship Lawrence, and took a small boat to the Niagara, where he assumed command, raised the “Don't Give Up The Ship” flag and rejoined the battle.
After several rounds of heavy fire from Perry and the Niagara battered the British, the battle was won.
“It worked,” said captain Wesley Heerssen, the fulltime skipper of the Niagara, about the complex undertaking. “It was a huge event to orchestrate and the wind made it more challenging, but it came off without incident.”
The historical record shows that after Perry accepted the British surrender, he then sent his superior, Gen. William Henry Harrison, one of the most famous dispatches in military history, writing that “We have met the enemy, and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”