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The best of Baltimore begins at the deck of your boat

If the city of Baltimore has a flagship, it would be the USS Constellation. It is the oldest, biggest, tallest and most majestic vessel in the city's legendary Inner Harbor.

Three miles north up Patapsco River is the head of Baltimore's Inn Harbor and city center, marked by towering downtown office buildings and hotels.

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For more than a decade, the Constellation's annual "turn-around cruise" has opened the summer season in Baltimore. Just before Memorial Day, her caretakers carefully slide the 155-year-old warship out of its ropes at the head of the Inner Harbor, tow it down to Fort McHenry for an honorary cannon salute and return it to its berth, facing the opposite direction. This annual "flip in the slip" balances the ship's exposure to sun, wind and rain, and has become a major local event.

In addition to dominating the harbor, the Constellation's turn-around cruise is a blast for those invited aboard (free food and drink, live musicians), and beauty in motion for those who watch from shore. Even though the ship is being pushed by tugs, it's a delight to see a triple-masted wooden sloop of war making waves again.

Launched in 1854, the Constellation is the last Civil War-era vessel afloat and has sailed through some of our nation's most difficult history: It helped blockade the South during the Civil War and suppressed the slave trade in the Mediterranean and coast of Africa, seizing slave traders and liberating their "cargo." This history makes the Constellation a true "living classroom" for the thousands of Baltimore-area students who swarm across its decks each year and for the occasional descendants of crewmembers who come to visit the ship.

One such member of the Constellation family was on board for the May 2010 Turn-around cruise: Beverly Taylor-Diggs of nearby Bel Air, Md., whose African-American great-grandfather, Charles Cassel, served on the ship as an enlisted man during the late 1800s. Taylor-Diggs and her husband Larry were thrilled to be on the same deck that "Capt. Charlie" once walked more than a hundred years earlier - especially since family members in later generations (including her son) also joined the Navy.

"The turn-around cruise has enabled me to experience the pleasure of living a portion of my ancestor's cruise nearly 122 years later," says Taylor-Diggs. "Being able to participate on this small journey was a priceless sensation."

Sailing to Baltimore

If you go to Baltimore in your own boat, your entrance marker is Seven Foot Knoll Light, where the two main navigation channels from Chesapeake Bay converge at the mouth of the Patapsco River. You shouldn't have any trouble picking out the channels: Baltimore is one of the busiest commercial shipping ports on the Eastern Seaboard and the blazing white range lights are unmistakable. Since the channels are narrow, be prepared to squeeze out of the way for any freighters or barges heading in or out of the port. Being constrained by depth, the big ships have right-of-way under the rules of the road.

Also unmistakable, five miles upriver to the northwest, is the area's major industrial landmark: the sprawling, grimy Sparrows Point steel mill, still a major source of American-made steel, which played a crucial role in churning out the weaponry that fed the U.S. victory in World War II (it is now owned by a Russian company). Sailing past its glowing, throbbing, otherworldly furnaces at night is an unforgettable passage.

The USS Constitution under her annual tow to Fort McHenry.

Just upriver of Sparrows Point is the I-695 highway bridge, locally known as Key Bridge for an obvious reason: The distinctive "star-spangled" red, white and blue Francis Scott Key Buoy, anchored a few hundred yards above the bridge, just northeast of the R "6" nun channel buoy. This is the spot where Key, under armed guard on a small American boat, watched the British Navy's nighttime bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. "By the dawn's early light" of Sept. 14, after more than 20 hours of shelling, Key saw the huge American flag over Fort McHenry was still flying and was moved to write the poem that would later become the national anthem.

As you move upriver, the massive Dundalk and Seagirt Marine terminals come into view to starboard, marked by towering cranes and huge freighters tied up to the docks. Off to port, not far to the left of Fort McHenry, is the South Locust Point cruise ship terminal. While Baltimore has considerably fewer manufacturing plants than it once did, it remains a heavily industrial city (the towering Domino Sugar plant in the Inner Harbor is still very much in operation), and acres of docks, warehouses and tanks still line the waterfront.

First-time boaters to Baltimore are often surprised at how narrow the entrance is to the Inner Harbor - which is what Fort McHenry was built to protect. The length of only two football fields separates the classic star-shaped fort at the end of "SoBo" (as the south Baltimore peninsula is called) from Lazaretto Point, just to the east. Depths are good close to Lazaretto Point, but be wary of shallows off Fort McHenry.

The river snakes to the northwest and three miles up is the head of the Inner Harbor and center of Baltimore, marked by towering downtown office buildings and hotels. The USS Constellation is berthed in front of the lively Harborplace Mall, which was one of the early and most successful urban restoration projects in the nation.

Beverly Taylor-Diggs (with husband Larry) whose African-American great-grandfather, Charles Cassel, left, served on the USS Constellation as an enlisted man during the late 1800s.

While there is some anchoring space in the Inner Harbor, the better choice is to take a slip at one of the half-dozen convenient marinas.

Charles Cassel served on the USS Constellation as an enlisted man during the late 1800s.

Water taxis make it easy to explore the harbor's attractions while your own boat is tied up at the dock.

A city of boats

As any boater will quickly see, the Constellation is only one of several historic maritime points of interest to explore in Baltimore. Several (such as the Constellation) are maintained by a non-profit group, Historic Ships in Baltimore, and are open to the public:

  • The USS Torsk, a submarine that holds the Navy's record for dives (more than 10,000), which is tied up in front of the National Aquarium.
  • The Coast Guard cutter Taney, the last surviving U.S. warship that was in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and which engaged Japanese Zero aircraft during the battle.
  • The Lightship Chesapeake, which for decades marked the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.
  • Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse, the oldest surviving screwpile lighthouse on Chesapeake Bay, which once marked the mouth of the Patapsco River and the entrance to Baltimore.

If it's in port, you'll also see the Pride of Baltimore II, the state of Maryland's "goodwill ambassador" ship, tied up at the head of the Inner Harbor. With its sharply raked double masts and slender hull, the Pride is a fully functional reproduction of the beautiful Baltimore Clipper topsail schooners, which were originally made in nearby Fells Point (as was Pride II). As its name indicates, Pride II is Baltimore's second reproduction Baltimore Clipper; the original Pride was lost in a white squall north of Puerto Rico in 1986, taking with it the captain and three crew.

Other maritime points of interest in Baltimore's Inner Harbor include:

  • Fort McHenry, of course, which has an active series of family programs and puts on an always-memorable Fourth of July celebration. Fort McHenry can be reached by water taxi from the Fells Point stop. By land, it's due east of Federal Hill in SoBo.
  • Fells Point, one of Colonial America's most important seaports, and which remains one of the city's most distinctive and lively neighborhoods. Fells Point was the center of Baltimore's rough-and-tumble boatbuilding industry and the source of the fast and deadly Baltimore Clippers that preyed so effectively on British shipping during the War of 1812 (which made it the primary target during the Battle of Baltimore). At the time, Fells Point was infamous for its "three Bs": boarding houses, bars and brothels; it's cleaned up now and has some great bars, clubs and restaurants (Bertha's Mussels being a local legend).
  • The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in historic Chases Wharf. The museum honors the freed slave Frederick Douglass, who lived in Baltimore and worked in the maritime trades, and Isaac Myers, who founded the first African-American owned-and-operated shipyard just yards away.

Other waterfront attractions in the Inner Harbor include the wonderfully designed and family-friendly National Aquarium; the Power Plant entertainment/dining/shopping complex (in a beautifully renovated old power plant); and the Maryland Science Museum. Within walking distance are the baseball and football stadiums for the Baltimore Orioles and the Baltimore Ravens.

The Inner Harbor also puts you within striking distance of Baltimore's many other cultural treasures, such as the Walters Art Museum, the Pratt Free Library and the world-famous Lexington Market, where folks from "Bawl-mer" (as they call their town) do their grocery shopping. The Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore (he lived and is buried in the city) honors all things Poe.

Even if you're not a big fan of cities, Baltimore is simply a can't-miss destination for anyone who has a boat on Chesapeake Bay.

Stephen Blakely is a writer in Washington, D.C., who sails his 26-foot Island Packet, Bearboat, on Chesapeake Bay.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.