Well, she’s not a ship actually; she’s a brig. But during the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813 the brig Niagara became a flagship when Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had to transfer his flag to her after his ship, Lawrence, had been disabled. With Perry aboard, the intrepid little Niagara broke the enemy’s battle line and forced the British to surrender. In his after-action report, Perry wrote these famous words: “We have met the enemy and they are ours: two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop.”
I was first introduced to the modern-day replica of Niagara during my early research for The Prodigal. My main character, Jack Mallory, needed a vessel to commandeer in order to begin his search for pirate James Logan. Most pirate vessels were not large ships but instead smaller, nimbler vessels, often with a shallow draft which came in handy when seeking refuge in inlets, etc. from naval frigates or privateers, so I knew Jack’s craft would be something with less than three masts. I came across the Niagara‘s website http://www.flagshipniagara.org/flagship_niagara/index.htm on the internet and quickly realized a brig would be the perfect vessel to star in my story.
I was thrilled to find that the Niagara allowed passengers on day sails, so in no time I had myself booked aboard her and traveled from Michigan to Erie, Pennsylvania, to meet her. What followed was one of the most memorable days of my life.
We set sail in the morning from the Niagara‘s berth right outside of the Erie Maritime Museum (a wonderful museum to visit, by the way). The weather was good and the wind suitable for topgallant sails. During the several hours that we sailed upon Lake Erie, the day-sailors like myself were treated not only to the amazing sights and sounds of a working wooden, square-rigged vessel but to intermittent talks by the brig’s captain at the time, Walter Rybka, who explained things like how just such a vessel harnessed the wind, how she tacked and maneuvered, etc. The crew of volunteer and professional seamen (and women) also demonstrated live firing of one of the Niagara‘s 32-pound carronades.
I was fortunate enough to sail upon the Niagara two more times, once as a member of the crew. My biggest thrill that day, of course, was getting to climb the rigging. The Niagara also visits other Great Lakes ports, taking part in events like the Bay City (Michigan) Tall Ships Celebration. I visited her in Bay City, and while all of the ships were magnificent, they paled in comparison to the Niagara. So many other vessels today have as much a modern feel to them as a historical one, but the Niagara maintains the true look and feel of her original namesake. (The modern Niagara even boasts a few of the original brig’s 1813 timbers.) During those summer days in Bay City, the crew rigged awnings for the comfort of the hundreds of visitors who toured her decks.
I also spent some time aboard her in Port Huron, Michigan, where she was once again the belle of the ball in my opinion.
Needless to say, all of my experiences with the Niagara gave me a great feel for the Prodigal. Although the Niagara is two hundred years “younger” than the Prodigal and thus has many differences, including sail plan, being aboard her still helped me understand how square-rigged vessels feel and behave.
To help expand my research and portray a square-rigged vessel accurately, my contact with Walter Rybka led to an introduction to Patrick Claxton, seen in the photo below with me as we discussed something of import 😉 prior to my second day sail aboard the Niagara.
Pat, an ex-navy man and a former crewman aboard Niagara, not only shared his knowledge of sailing with me but also read The Prodigal during one of its earlier drafts to help ensure accuracy. I recently asked Pat, Canadian-born, how he came to be a member of the Niagara‘s crew.
“I was fortunate enough to be working for Dave Bierig, the local sailmaker when she was commissioning and we were doing some work on her awnings. I got interested and it appeared that it was the perfect time in my life for a bit of adventure, so I retired and signed up with the first volunteer crew. There were at that time only four people with any square-rigger experience, Captain Rybka, the Chief mate, the bosun and the saimaker. All the rest of us were green as grass, and as a result we spent almost the entire first summer tied to the dock will we learned which rope went where and what it did. It wasn’t until the captain was satisfied that he had the nucleous of a crew that we finally went sailing in late August 1991.
“I had served in the Canadian Navy as a young man and had slept in a hammock, so I got appointed Hammockmeister since I knew how to make sword matting, nettles and so forth. That began a nearly ten year period which remains one of the high points of my life. I went with Niagara twice to the east coast and cruised much of the great lakes, made many friends, learned a great deal about square rigger sailing, and developed a lasting respect for Captain Rybka and the other officers who made the program possible.”
I asked Pat what was one of his most memorable experiences while sailing aboard Niagara. “Probably when we were sailing into Norfolk Naval Station and we were cruising alongside a nuclear submarine. A head appeared out of the sail hatch, retired and reappeared with a US flag which was duly raised, dipped, and taken below again. I realized I was looking at 200 years of naval engineering within 200 yards of each other.”
After his years aboard Niagara, Pat retired from sailing but still serves her cause by volunteering at the Erie Maritime Museum as a docent. There, as he says, he “dazzles the visitors with my vast knowledge, and salty stories.”
So it’s good people like Pat Claxton, Walter Rybka, and the men and women who have served aboard the Niagara that I have to thank, not only for their contributions to preserving our history but for inspiring me during my research. The Prodigal couldn’t have been written without them!