Monday, October 30, 2006

'Pirates' Anchor in Rio Vista

'Pirates' Anchor in Rio Vista
Historical Vessels Pause to Educate
By Jennifer Gentile/Staff Writer

It is not every day that a bona fide celebrity comes to Solano County, but a star of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" arrived at the Rio Vista waterfront Wednesday and will remain there through Tuesday.
While the celebrity in question was not Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, or Keira Knightley, this star was integral to the film and was their home on the high seas. Named the Lady Washington, "Pirates" fans know it better as the Interceptor and the boat where much of the first film's action took place.

With a displacement weight of 178 tons and a length of 112 feet when fully outfitted, the Lady Washington is a faithful reproduction of a merchant vessel that sailed from 1750 to 1798 before foundering in the Philippines. The Lady Washington is accompanied to Rio Vista by the Hawaiian Chieftain, which is not a replica, but modeled after trading vessels of the same period. The slightly smaller Chieftain, classified as a square topsail ketch, has 10 sails to her counterpart's 11 and is 106 feet long at full extension.

Both the Lady Washington and the Chieftain are owned by the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, which has plans to sail them down the California coast throughout the rest of the year. The more maneuverable Chieftain will remain behind in the Sacramento area briefly before making the voyage.

Crew members explained that education is the ships' primary purpose. Michael Jacobson, the captain of the Lady Washington, estimated that 15,000 schoolchildren had walked across the deck in the past year. The education program encompasses seafaring history, the life of a sailor, as well as the operation of the vessel itself.

"We try to make it as interactive and hands-on as possible," said Lady Washington mate Tyson Trudel. "Our take is that if they wanted to stay in the classroom, they would have stayed in the classroom."

Jacobson added, "It is really gratifying to see young people get excited about history, and this boat really lends itself to letting history come alive."

The public can participate in dockside tours, by donation only, while the boats are in port, as well as mock battle sails and three-hour adventure tours for prices ranging from $25 to $50.

While the Chieftain joined the Grays Harbor fleet only recently, the Lady Washington was built in Aberdeen, Wash., in time for the state's centennial in 1989. In 2002, she went to Los Angeles and on to St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean to begin filming a blockbuster.

According to Trudel, the process began with "making her look how Disney wanted her to look," which meant striking all modern gear on board and giving the ship a new paint scheme, among other modifications. Several of the Lady's crew members served as extras, Trudel said, and also spent a day teaching the actors the basics of sailing.

"Being that this is an educational vessel, teaching actors was not that far of a stretch," Trudel said. He added, "They were nice folks, and Johnny Depp, particularly, was a really nice, personable guy."

After traversing the Panama Canal, Trudel said the Lady Washington faced strong winds commonly known as the "Christmas trades," which caused roaring 20-to-25-foot seas and as much as 40 knots of breeze. A broken jib boom forced a stop in Colombia, where repairs were made and the Lady Washington went on to become famous.

"It was a good experience," Trudel said, "and it was a lot of work."

The Lady Washington has since returned to her day job, and groups of students waited excitedly Thursday for their chance to board her and the Chieftain. Margaret Campbell, who teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Lewis Carroll school in Oregon House, found out about the Rio Vista visit on the Internet and traveled more than three hours with her students for the unique field trip.

"They couldn't believe it when we were driving up the road," Campbell said. The teacher said prior to making the trip, she had been talking to her students about trade and the role seafaring played in commerce and the spread of civilization.

The public can board the Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain through Tuesday. For further details about them and their schedules, visit

Jennifer Gentile can be reached at

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