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Come Aboard Tall Ship Providence for a Sail Through History

The Providence at sea. (photo credit Tall Ship Providence Foundation)

Alexandria, VA – Mayor Justin Wilson called the Old Town Waterfront Park “Alexandria’s front yard,” at the recent  kickoff to the city’s 275th anniversary celebration. However, we Alexandrians are a riparian people, the people of a mighty river. In addition to a front yard, we also have a front dock, the Senator John Warner Maritime Heritage Center, and alongside it, a front ship.

The majestic 110-foot Providence,  rigged in the traditional manner with canvas sails that full-belly in the breeze, is a reproduction of an 18th-century sloop that served in the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War. It was built for the 1976 American Bicentennial.

Providence is floating living history. And part of cinematic history too. She served in the background of two Pirates of The Caribbean movies.

Caroline Carter, production coordinator, welcomes visitors aboard.
Early American Navy historical re-enactment in action.

Visitors can enjoy specialty sails, sunset sails, and dockside tours staffed by reenactors in American Revolution-period dress and using vernacular speech from the era when gunpowder was a precious commodity for the fledgling American Navy.

“Tis’ prizes we seek, British ships, and gunpowder for Providence’s cannons!” one might hear, as visitors immerse themselves in the roles of the ship’s crew. So authentic is the experience that even a passing plane will be called a “skyship” by reenactor Bryce Thomas portraying the character Sergeant Frank Thomas. “I’ve always wanted to set sail on a historically accurate ship,” he told The Zebra, adjusting his tricorn hat gallantly and helping visitors up the steep ladder to the quarter deck.

Caroline Carter, the ship’s production coordinator, embraces the spirit of Providence. “I do a little bit of everything,” she said. “On a ship like this, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” she said, noting that this was true also for early American seafarers.

Executive Director Clair Sassin, portside.

The ship’s cook, for example, would have doubled as doctor and surgeon for Providence’s crew of 70 men. “In the Continental Navy, your success depended on your being resilient and resourceful,” Carter said.

The tour encountered an iconic Revolutionary War hero when Carter asked, “Permission to board, Captain?” and received a gracious nod from none other than The Man. The Myth. John Paul Jones.

This legendary Naval leader was commander of Providence in 1776. He famously declared, “I have not yet begun to fight,” and, swashbucklingly, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”

“Permission to board, granted,” John Paul Jones said, with a slight bow. “Welcome aboard.” The reenactor portraying JPJ, Andrew Harding, was in full military regalia. The tour snapped to attention.

“Thank you, Captain.”

Reenactor Bryce Thomas portrays Sergeant Frank Thomas.
Kathy Seifert, VP of Development & Marketing, in the captain’s quarters.

“Proud to serve with you, Sir,” someone said.

In his journal Captain Jones described Providence as his favorite command and the crew as “the finest he ever served with.” Huzzah, tour! Doing so well already, historically!

In the low-ceilinged captain’s quarters – then the most luxurious part of the ship, but cramped and Spartan by today’s standards, making a visitor marvel at how the early American Navy lived like this for weeks on end in choppy seas and at war – Captain Jones’ detailed his leadership philosophy. It resonates to this day. “So long as we can float, we shall float together. If we must sink, we shall go down as one,” he said. “We’re a team on this ship and in this life at sea.”

“Huzzah, sir,” a visitor said softly.

“I’m deeply moved by that John Paul Jones quote,” said Clair Sassin, CEO and President of Tall Ship Providence. “That’s the kind of leadership and teamwork I hope we inspire in the next generation,” she said, emphasizing Providence’s educational mission. “The bravery and can-do attitude of the Continental Navy can inspire students today to meet the challenges they encounter in their lives with humanity and camaraderie, just as sailors did in 1776.”

Andrew Harding portrays Captain John Paul Jones.

Christy Adams, Manager of Education Programs, has tailored a Providence curriculum specifically for Virginia’s 4th-grade students, aligning with the state’s emphasis on experiential learning. “Some of Alexandria’s children have never seen the river,” said Clair Sassin. “We believe everyone should have the opportunity to get to know the history, the natural history, and the environment that supported the founding of Port City.”

Vice President of Development & Marketing Kathy Seifert said, “The curriculum really makes the Potomac River’s story come alive through real-life experiences like hoisting a sail and seeing a cool, historical navigation device like a sextant. Being on board a ship helps kids appreciate the interconnectedness of the STEAM* disciplines; science via the physics of wind and hydro dynamism of boat design, history and civics via learning who sailed and the values they sailed for. Plus,” she said, “having the wind in your hair, and the water lapping at the hull, you can’t underestimate that. That’s just a great experience for any one of any age.”

As visitors on the tour step ashore, they bring back to their terrestrial lives an appreciation for history’s lessons (for example, a cannon is called a cannon on land, but a gun at sea – get ready to win trivia night!) and a sense of pride in Alexandria’s rich maritime heritage and beautiful river, and amusement in how they performed under the command of John Paul Jones on America’s first Navy warship. “Aye, aye, Capt’n” they may have said too enthusiastically, embarrassing their teenage kids. For an hour, they were not landlubbers, but able seafarers, members of a ship’s company!

Caroline Carter demonstrates how early sailors measured the ship’s speed for rap students. (Photo: Tall Ship Providence Foundation)

The Providence’s legacy sails on, me hearties!

*STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. The “arts” in STEAM refers not only to visual arts and design but also to language arts, humanities, music, drama, dance, and media.

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