Destined to Sail with Pride
Jan Miles was bred to captain Maryland’s historic clipper ship
The man who grew up to be the captain of Pride of Baltimore II, one of the great tall ships of our age, started his sailing career in Annapolis in the late 1960s.
Jan Miles grew up in a family that sailed for fun, mostly overseas where his father was stationed as a foreign service officer. When the family retired to Annapolis, the teenage Jan had trouble adjusting to life in the states.
“My parents thought it would be good for me to take a year off to collect my wits,” Miles relates.
So at age 15 he took a year off from Annapolis High School to work on a boat being delivered through the Panama Canal to the West Coast. Returning to Annapolis and high school matured, he sailed and raced every boat he could get on.
The teenager hadn’t thought much about his future until, at 18, his father suggested he become a licensed captain.
“A light bulb went off in my head,” Miles says. He needed something to do with his life, and he loved sailing. He already had the requisite experience, so he buckled down and studied for the exam. Still in high school, he had a Coast Guard captain’s license. He graduated Annapolis High School in 1970; at that point in his life, he viewed sailing as a job, not a career or a calling.
By 21 he was diversifying his sailing skills, working at Mystic Seaport, a museum in Connecticut known for historic sailing ships.
His first assignment was mate on the schooner Brilliant, a classic 1932 Owens/Stevens yacht. As well as historic sailing, Brilliant taught him how to maintain an old boat and lead a crew. He also learned to work with kids as Brilliant took local high school students on educational cruises along the New England coast. Running an historic ship as a classroom, as he did then, is an experience that would bring him to Pride II.
After five years at Mystic, Miles went to sea. His mind racing along those timeless big horizons, he could picture himself as the captain of a tall ship. On the ocean, sailing evolved from Miles’ job to his calling.
The opportunity came in 1981, at age 30, when he was hired as a relief captain for the original Pride of Baltimore, which sank in 1986. He has been sailing with one or the other ever since.
Pride of Baltimore II sails the world, and Captain Miles has commanded her to some of the farthest points. His résumé on the Pride includes five Atlantic and three Pacific crossings. “She’s been as far west as China on a trip up the Pearl River and as far east as St. Petersburg in Russia,” he says.
One of the captain’s favorite places to visit — Pride’s namesake — is Baltimore, Ireland. When Pride II is in European waters, he always tries to stop there.
Pride II is on active duty approximately 220 days a year, so Captain Miles and his co-captain — Jamie Trost from Erie, Pennsylvania — each command for about 110 days. When the ship is not on duty, plenty of work still awaits; wooden ships need constant, year-round attention. When he’s not commanding the ship or supervising the maintenance, what does he do?
For recreation, he sails his 32-foot ketch Wizard on the Magothy River with his wife.
Crossing the Gangplank
It’s late winter when Captain Miles shows me his ship. She’s docked in the Canton area of Baltimore, undergoing winter maintenance.
“Pride is the most well known American sailing vessel; in many people’s eyes, she is the most beautiful sailing vessel in the world,” Miles says.
Crossing the gangplank onto the ship is like passing through a time portal. It feels like entering the early 19th century. It’s supposed to. A little over 100 feet long, 26 feet wide, weighing 200 tons, including 60 tons of ballast and with masts reaching 107 feet above the water, Pride II is a reproduction of an 1812-era Baltimore Clipper. These fast schooners shaped the history of the Bay, the War of 1812 and the development of naval technology. Small, even by the standards of that day, Pride is half the length and width of contemporary tall ships like the Constellation (docked in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore), and not much bigger than some of the lifeboats found on modern cruise ships.
Pride II has feet in the old world and the new. Built in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore in 1988 after the sinking of the original Pride, she carries twin diesels with enough fuel to cover more than 1,200 miles, plus a full complement of modern electronics, like GPS navigation and radar and satellite communications.
Even with this equipment, it’s unnerving to think of a ship this small crossing the ocean. Life at sea can be harrowing: ships, even well equipped modern replicas, can get into trouble. Weather is the greatest threat. The original Pride sank in a squall in 1986 with the loss of four lives. The Bounty (of movie fame) went down during Hurricane Sandy with two crewmembers.
Challenges of the Sea
Clipper ships sailed for profit. The Pride’s mission is to bring history to life. It’s succeeding. Since her launch Pride has traveled more than 200,000 miles and visited over 200 ports in 40 countries on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. In 2013 over 100,000 people toured the boat to be seeped in the history and science it represents.
In 33 years of Pride, Miles has seen it all, from the sinking of the original Pride in 1986 to a dismasting in 2005 while he was captaining the Pride off the coast of France.
“I was at the helm,” Miles recalls. “We took a puff of wind. I felt a vibration and saw the head rig disappearing behind the sails. The crew took down the main sail; there was a snapping noise from the foremast, then the main mast started to fall. It came down with a mighty thud. It was all over in less than two minutes.”
The accident was attributed to a faulty metal part.
The second surprise of the interview: That wasn’t the scariest moment of his life with the Pride. Everyone was quickly determined to be safe and the ship seaworthy.
The scariest experience came earlier that year, while crossing the Atlantic heading for Europe. Winds were forecast to gradually increase from 15 knots to 60 knots (65 mph). The ship can easily handle a 60-knot wind, but the forecast got the “gradually” part very wrong.
“Unexpected changes of weather create the most challenging situations on a sailboat,” Miles says.
The wind increased strength almost instantly. Captain and crew feared for the sails. If the sails were damaged, the mission to Europe would be in jeopardy. The crew — a dozen professionals — rose to the challenge, and they made it through safely.
Billets on the Pride are highly sought after in the tall-ship sailing world, so she has no problem recruiting a top notch crew.
“People like to sail on the Pride; she’s complex and well performing. People like that experience,” Miles says. Two mates, a cook, an engineer, a bosun and six deckhands plus a captain crew the ship. The 2014 crew hails from California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire and a number of points in between. Captain Miles’ local residence is rare coincidence.
The third surprise of the morning: Miles’ biggest worry is not storms nor breakdowns nor modern day pirates nor acts of God. It’s funding.
In 2008, Maryland ended all funding of Pride. Keeping the ship afloat is the responsibility of Pride of Baltimore, Inc., a nonprofit organization. Maintaining the $3 million ship and its crew of 12 — as well as the staff to coordinate and plan its voyages — takes more than $1 million a year.
Rick Scott, the executive director of the nonprofit, must find the money.
“We are incredibly grateful for the funding we received from the state over the years,” he says. “Now we have a significant gap each year and rely on grants, corporate partnerships and individual donations to sustain our programming.”
That means us.
“As our fundraising efforts intensify,” Scott says, “we are hopeful that the citizens of Maryland will continue to support their Pride so that together we can keep the Pride of Baltimore sailing for many years to come.”
In recent years, Pride has spent much of her time voyaging to ports outside of Maryland for festivals that offer revenue opportunities. This year, the money will have to come locally. As War of 1812 commemorations continue, Pride will spend all season in the Chesapeake.
Learn more at www.pride2.org.