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In Our Waters - The Unofficial Race

The two former warships lay in the becalmed tranquil waters of Funchal, Madeira. The last foreign port call of their annual training voyage completed, cadets on both vessels worked diligently to ensure that all preparations had been made to leave the port in their wake. Stores had been loaded over the previous days, gear stowed, and the young boys spoke excitedly at the prospects of their homeward bound voyage. As the cadets readied lines and stood by to heave anchor, the prospects of their homeward voyage were buoyed by an additional flare of excitement in the form of scuttlebutt that permeated the various decks of both ships. The scuttlebutt was finally made official. Both of the training ship captains had agreed to participate in a race of sorts. The St. Mary’s and the Saratoga were about to set out to sea on a four thousand mile voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. As the order of heave anchor was finally issued, three cheers from the cadets bellowed from the decks of the St. Mary’s. The battle across the Atlantic had begun. The St. Mary’s had originally been launched and commissioned in 1844 at the Washington Navy Yard, as the U.S.S. St. Mary’s. The sloop of war was one hundred and forty-nine feet, three inches in length, with a beam of thirty-seven feet, four inches and a draft of eighteen feet. At the time of her commissioning, she was armed with sixteen thirty-two pound guns and six eight inch Paixhans guns. Though initially intended for service with the Mediterranean Squadron, tensions between the United States and Mexico altered her seagoing fate. On March 1st, 1845, the U.S.S. St. Mary’s was ordered to the Gulf of Mexico. Serving in a host of duties and operations, the U.S.S. St. Mary’s would eventually participate in the Mexican and American War between 1846 and 1847. At the cessation of hostilities, the sloop of war returned to Norfolk, Virginia. In 1848, the U.S.S. St. Mary’s was ordered to report to the Pacific Squadron. For the next twenty-four years, the sloop of war would operate throughout the Pacific area of operations in a host of capacities. In 1872, she received orders for the East Coast. She departed Mare Island, California and in 1873, she arrived in Norfolk. Upon her return she was placed in ordinary until she was called upon to support the next generations of merchant mariners. In 1875, the U.S.S. St. Mary’s was dispatched to serve as the underway training platform for the New York Nautical School. Abeam of the St. Mary’s was the Saratoga. The Saratoga had been launched in 1842 and commissioned on January 4, the following year. During her service in the United States Navy, she would amass an amazing career. She served as part of the Ivory Coast Expedition, actively participated in the Mexican-American War, as did her counterpart the U.S.S. St. Mary’s, sailed in Commodore Matthew Perry’s East India Squadron that opened Japan to the West, served in the Reform War, supported the African Slave Trade Patrols, and in the Civil War as a member of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. In 1875, the U.S.S. Saratoga was recommissioned to serve as a gunnery training platform. Twelve months later, the ship was returned to ordinary status. For the following eleven years, the U.S.S. Saratoga was repurposed to serve as a training ship for naval midshipmen. In 1890, she was loaned to the State of Pennsylvania to serve as the underway training platform for the cadets of the Pennsylvania Nautical School homeported in Philadelphia. Annually, she and the St. Mary’s would set out to sea for the underway training regimen. At thirty-two minutes past four on September 24th, 1902, both the St. Mary’s and Saratoga started out at the pre-determined starting line. The race had commenced. Running on parallel courses, the cadets aboard the two training ships wasted little time adding as much canvas to their rigging as possible to capture the winds. The two ships ran neck and neck as the opening days of the race continued. While the race may have been the focal point of many of the cadets’ thoughts, their academic training in celestial navigation, seamanship skills, and the finer techniques in sailing, continued in earnest. In early October, a lull in the wind becalmed both ships for several days. The cadets busied themselves and awaited a chance to pull their ship ahead of the other. On the twentieth day at sea, the lookouts aboard the St. Mary’s attempted to discern signals from the Saratoga. Unsure of the message, the St. Mary’s stemmed her forward progress so that the Saratoga could get closer. Signalmen messaged to the Saratoga as it neared. “R.Q.S” or “We do not understand.” Signals were hoisted in reply from the Saratoga. “A.R.” or “What is your latitude?” Some cadets aboard the St. Mary’s may have questioned the possible ruse but they were not going to let their plans for victory be swayed. The St. Mary’s cadets were called to action and soon the canvas was unfurled and the training ship began to gain distance from the Saratoga. The two training ships continued on their westward voyage, sometimes in sight of one another as they tacked across the Atlantic. With the warm waters of the Gulf Stream reached on the 26th of October, a decision was made by the St. Mary’s captain, Commander A. R. Wadhams, United States Navy, and his crew to not sail through the Long Island Sound to their homeport. The St. Mary’s would take the southern approach and head for Sandy Hook. Meanwhile, the Saratoga set a course for the Delaware River on her approach to her home port of Philadelphia. On the first of November, the bright beckoning beacon from the Fire Island Lighthouse was spotted by the watch aboard the St. Mary’s. The cadets and crew knew they were within striking distance of the finish line. The following morning at nine o’clock, the St. Mary’s reached the Navesink Highlands. Shortly after, a tow boat came out and lines were passed. After passing beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, the cadets made preparations for mooring lines to be passed. On November 3rd, 1902, the St. Mary’s made fast her mooring lines at the 24th Street pier. While their arrival at home was exciting for all aboard, the cadets were disheartened at the belief that the Saratoga must have reached her home port in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania before her and had won the race. Shortly after, a telegram was delivered to the St. Mary’s. Captain A.R. Wadhams smiled as he silently read the message. He passed it to his chief cadet to pass on to the crew. The Saratoga and the St. Mary’s had arrived and finished the race on the very same day. The forty-day, four thousand mile race across the Atlantic Ocean was officially completed. Cheers erupted from the cadets aboard the training ship. Despite becalmed seas, gale-force winds, the daily-drudgery of their duties, and their seamanship studies, the cadets, in their daring dash across the expanse of the Atlantic, were to be proud of their accomplishment in completing the last leg of their annual training cruise and of course, the unofficial race between the two training programs, in a most respectable and collegial fashion, in our waters.

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