Periodically, we “Titanic midwesterners” find some excuse to get together. It’s a chance for people with like-interests from a relatively small geographical area to gather and enjoy a shared passion. These get-togethers usually involve something Titanic-related – we’ve gathered for the Titanic musical, fellow TIS member Roman Rudnytsky’s piano concert and the Titanic exhibition in Cleveland, to name but a few. This time, with nothing Titanic-related happening in the area, we simply planned to meet for dinner at Pickle Bill’s, a wonderful seafood restaurant in Grand River, Ohio, and “talk Titanic.” On hearing of our plans, David Brown, Titanic enthusiast and long-time seafarer of Port Clinton, Ohio, mentioned the Red Witch, a gaff-rigged schooner, to TIS member Denise Hunyadi, who had been planning the event.
The Red Witch, whose home port is Port Clinton and whose crew are friends of David Brown, was scheduled to be docked on the river just outside Pickle Bill’s the very weekend of our anticipated gathering! Why not combine our dinner with our love of ships and see if we could arrange a cruise?
When Saturday, September 13th dawned dreary and overcast, I was a bit concerned. As it turned out, my trepidation was unnecessary. Although cloudy, the day was warm and breezy and, by mid-afternoon, the clouds had begun to part.
Twelve of us arrived at Pickle Bill’s around 4:00 and proceeded to our assigned table – Maggie and Marty Bailey of Columbus, Ohio, Helen Reese of Boardman, Ohio, Mary Ann Whitley and Craig Sanders of University Heights, Ohio, David Brown of Port Clinton, Ohio, Paul Marquette and Ruth Murray of Youngstown, Ohio, Denise Hunyadi and John Hays of Rocky River, Ohio, Dave Shuttle of Erie, Pennsylvania and me, also of Erie. After stuffing ourselves with fantastic meals, Craig and Mary Ann left for a prior engagement and the remaining ten of us boarded the Red Witch, prepared for an exciting sail on Lake Erie.
With a length of 77 feet, a beam of 17 feet and a height from water level of 77 feet, the Red Witch was built in 1986 as a replica of the vessels that were the workhorses of America’s 19th century transportation system. Built expressly for chartering, the two cabintops are at chair height and are quite comfortable for seating those on deck. Named after the epic sea story, Wake of the Red Witch, by Garland Roark, she has been given the honor of being named the flagship of the Ohio Bicentennial. Her brilliant red Honduran Mahogany hull supports 2 main masts and five sails – the Jib, Staysail, Foresail and Mainsail, as well as the Topsail, which was not flown that day.
Our crew that evening were all seasoned sailors. Captain Karl Busam, born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, has been sailing most of his life. He taught sailing while in college and also worked as a towboat operator. He and Captain Gene “Bud” Curtsinger, who was raised in Dallas, TX and began sailing while in college, are co-owners of the Red Witch. After searching for the right boat for two years, they found the Red Witch in San Diego in 1995 and she was put into service in Lake Erie in 1997.
After a short introduction, presentation of basic safety precautions and brief instruction on a bit of important nautical terminology by Captain Karl (one does not go “downstairs” to the “restroom”... one goes “below” to the “head”), we were under way. We traversed the river, paralleling the Fairport Pier, under diesel power but, once on the open lake after just a few minutes, it was time to shut down the engines and let the power of the wind take over. The Red Witch crew encourages passengers to get involved in the voyage, so, with the help of Marty Bailey and 3 other passengers, the sails were set. With the engine noise quieted, the only sounds were the wind in the sails, the splash of the water and the conversations of those onboard. From our vantage point on both the river and the lake, we could see several lighthouses, as well as the Perry Nuclear Power Plant. It seemed an odd convergence of the old and the new.
Once refreshments were offered, pretty and petite crewmember Mary “Murphy” Baruth, brought out her violin and treated us all to some wonderful music, starting off with “The Three Captains,” then continuing with “Soldier’s Joy,” “Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Barren Rocks of Aden” and the “Swallow Tail Jig.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Murphy can boast quite a list of accomplishments on her resume. She is the Supervisor of Heritage Preservation for the City of Windsor and sits on the Board of Trustees for the Marine Heritage Association of Canada, which operates the tall ships Tecumseth and Bee. Her interest in history lead her to an interest in historical re-enactment and from there, to artillery. She was named, this year, a “master gunner” (black powder cannon) of the Canadian Royal Navy. Murphy joined the Red Witch crew in May of this year and says of the experience, “It allows me to do everything I love together – sailing, history, music – it’s perfect!”
Throughout our journey, the crew entertained us with tales of sailing and David Brown, who assisted the crew as a seaman, even coaxed us into joining him in a sailing song. Taking the helm at one point in during the sail was our own Maggie Bailey!
All too soon, it was time to turn the ship around and head back to the dock. We came about and, as we made the return to port, watched the sun set on the horizon. My earlier concern about the cloudiness of the day had turned into a blessing. The remaining clouds reflected brilliant hues of orange, red and yellow as the day slowly turned to dusk.
Lake Erie, being the shallowest of the Great Lakes, is notorious for its quickly changing conditions. We were lucky, though, to have had relatively calm waters throughout the voyage – slightly choppy waves of 2-3 feet on the trip out quieted to mild swells of 1-2 feet as sunset approached, making the trip back was very calm – a perfect ending to an enjoyable cruise. As we approached the entrance to Grand River, the lighthouses began shining their warnings to mariners, standing like sentinels on a battlefield.
We arrived back at the dock about 8:00 and, after making our memento purchases of T-shirts and prints, we said our goodbyes – until the next time.