DULUTH, MN — In 1812, a war broke out on Lake Erie, causing vessels to quickly be built in order to ship men and guns off to battle.
One of those ships, the U.S. Brig Niagara, continues to sail on the Great Lakes more than 200 years later.
“It’s the fourth reconstruction of the flagship that Oliver Hazard Perry flew during the War of 1812 and the Battle of Lake Erie that took place September 10, 1813,” says Christopher Cusson, the Captain of the U.S. Brig Niagara.
Although the original sailed hundreds of years ago, the work it took to navigate her back then still remains to this day.
“The rigging and the technology of what we use for sailing is very close to what they would have used in 1813. That’s why it’s a very inconvenient ship and we have a lot of crew to man the sails,” says Captain Cusson.
The Niagara is a 2-masted, square-rigged brig with 15 sails, and she takes anywhere from 30 to 50 crew members to run.
Captain Cusson says everything we see in terms of sailing the ship is done by manpower – including steering with a tiller, not a wheel.
“One crew member will ease and the other will pull, and this allows us to have a little more leverage and mechanical advantage to get that big rudder over when we’re sailing fast and there’s a lot of pressure on the rudder,” says Cusson.
Then there’s the capstan, or as the captain would call it, the most useful tool on board.
“So this is a capstan bar and this goes in our capstan. This is a tool we use to raise anything that’s really heavy on the ship,” says Capt. Cusson.
But on this vessel, it’s not just the technology of the 1800’s that lives on.
“The accommodations on board for a lot of the trainees and the crew are very similar. We have crew and trainees living in hammocks using seabags, that’s exactly what they would have used then,” says Capt. Cusson.
While the crew works to keep history alive, for them, the journey is about more than just sailing.
“It’s great for team building and then it’s great for personal perseverance, crew have to go aloft, so there’s a lot of challenges to overcome and that’s one of the main things about being on board for two weeks or for the whole summer.”
So if you get the chance, climb on board.
The U.S. Brig Niagara has a sail training program so people can sign up to sail on the ship for two weeks as part of the crew.
At this time, there are still slots available for anyone interested in sailing with the ship to its next destination on Lake Erie.
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