2014-08-09 / News

Tall Ship Niagara Educates Public About Historic Warfare

By Macaela Bennett


Captain Billy Sabatini stands next to the tall ship U.S. Brig Niagara at the Arnold Transit dock Friday, August 1, during the first stop of a five-leg journey for the ship. Captain Billy Sabatini stands next to the tall ship U.S. Brig Niagara at the Arnold Transit dock Friday, August 1, during the first stop of a five-leg journey for the ship. As part of the bicentennial commemoration of the Battle of 1814, the reconstructed U.S. brig, Niagara, spent the weekend at Mackinac Island, where its crew gave tours and taught visitors about the ship’s history.

Built in 1988, the tall ship is a fully functioning replica of the USS Niagara, which played a large role in both the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813 and the Battle of Mackinac Island in 1814, an American attempt to recapture Fort Mackinac from British forces.

Half of those in the brig’s crew of 38 are professional sailors and half are trainees, who pay to work on the ship for a few weeks or months. The crew lives on the ship and teaches visitors about its history and functionality at every port. This stop at Mackinac Island marked the first leg in a fiveweek journey for the ship and its crew.


Ordinary Crew Member Phillip “Pip” Conner stands next to the tiller, which steers the Niagara. While the crew can’t be sure the USS Niagara would have had a tiller instead of wheel to steer the boat during the early 19th century, they believe it is likely because a wheel would have taken up too much space on the deck. Ordinary Crew Member Phillip “Pip” Conner stands next to the tiller, which steers the Niagara. While the crew can’t be sure the USS Niagara would have had a tiller instead of wheel to steer the boat during the early 19th century, they believe it is likely because a wheel would have taken up too much space on the deck. In addition to teaching about the ship’s historical significance, crew members hoped to interest visitors in joining the trainee program.

“Sailing a tall ship is like a dying language,” Captain Billy Sabatini said. “It’s not something that you can just pick up a boat book and learn how to do. It has to be taught and practiced to be kept alive, and it’s important because, for years, boats were the only way that everything moved. It’s only been 150 years since that time, but it’s getting to be a lost art form. When you arrive at ports like this, it gives us a chance to share our story and, hopefully, inspire people to do more research.”

“If we don’t encourage others to join us in maintaining this tradition, tall ships will go away,” said Allison Taylor, third mate and naval communications officer.

Niagara sailed here in 1814 to attack Fort Mackinac, but her guns couldn’t be elevated enough to reach the fort walls, so American solders attacked from the back side of the Island, where they were met by British forces and turned away.

Captain Sabatini and his crew also told visitors about the Battle of Lake Erie, which was a decisive American victory, unlike the battle on Mackinac Island.

During that battle, American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry left his damaged flagship, Lawrence, to continue the fight with Niagara, one of nine small ships in his fleet. He led the Americans to defeat the British fleet that day, an important win for American forces in the War of 1812.

It was an amazing feat, said crew member Tye Feltner.

The crew aboard the Lawrence suffered 80% casualties that day.

“Usually, 30% casualties incapacitates a ship,” Captain Sabatini said, “but it’s amazing how much Perry’s men trusted him. They were willing to literally fall to their death following him.”

Captain Sabatini said examples like this show the difference in leadership between naval officers and those fighting on land.

“In the navy, the captain is right by the guns, directing alongside his men, and it’s very gruesome. It’s not like on land, where officers guide from way behind the front lines,” he said. “The leaders led their men into battle instead of just directing them into it. Perry was one of those great leaders. If Americans would have lost this battle, Michigan could be part of Canada, the entire Midwest could be, because the British would have controlled Detroit, Chicago, and all the upper lakes.”

Crew members described the gruesome battle, reporting that blood covered the entire deck and was seeping through its cracks onto the men below. After Captain Perry left Lawrence, it was turned into a hospital ship to care for the wounded.

The flotilla’s primary doctor was sick during the battle, so the ship’s 25-year-old on-call surgeon took over.

“Dr. Usher Parsons warmed up his tools, thinking that would make his incisions hurt less, and little did he know, he was sterilizing his tools and he had an 80% success rate for his surgeries,” Mr. Feltner said.

It is this ability to witness what the battle would have looked like firsthand and walk around the ship where history took place that gives value to tall ships like Niagara, Ms. Taylor said.

“We’re representing a part of history that’s unknown,” she said. “It’s a little-appreciated battle and to have that kind of story that we can tell while showing people how big the guns are and looking at the rig makes it more tangible to people.”

Crew member Phillip “Pip” Conner said being able to teach history is why he continues to work on tall ships.

“We try and re-invent the wheel way too often,” he said. “We need to learn from history, because we’ll see that how people will behave is based upon the environment they’re in and we can draw from these past experiences. It’s neat to see where we come from, too. The smallest twist in the past would have meant a huge change. Even things that seem arbitrary were important.”

Captain Sabatini said he loves directing Niagara because of this passion his crew shares for educating the public.

“Teaching is what energizes me every morning and if visitors take away anything from touring the ship, I hope it’s that everyone here loves what they’re doing and how much we want to be here,” he said.

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