Harbor Fest 2008 sets sail with Amistad getting elegant escort

The Freedom Schooner Amistad (foreground) and the Spirit of South Carolina cruised Charleston Harbor on the eve of Harbor Fest.

Wade Spees

The mammoth container ship disappeared under the Ravenel Bridge. The thrill-boat ride shot away. The sun sank into clouds and the mists came up. And out of the mist came the tall sails. It looked like something from another time.

"Sweet," said Logan Johnsen, first mate of the Amistad, as he got his first glimpse of the Spirit of South Carolina heeling by. "The trim, the sails, the way she's cutting through the wake. She's just a nice sight."

Around him the crew members from Sierra Leone took up the ship's Creole song, dancing and pattering the beat on deck barrels.

Charleston Harbor Fest 2008 opened Thursday evening with the Spirit, the

Lowcountry's own tall ship, the Schooner Virginia and the Corwith Cramer ceremonially escorting the Freedom Schooner Amistad into port. The spectacle told a sea tale, one that carried centuries of significance, not only for the port city that made its name with sailing ships but also for the freedom ship and the Gullah nation performing a sacred libation ceremony on Sullivan's Island as it passed.

The Amistad is a replica of the famous 19th century sailing ship commandeered in 1839 by captive Africans en route to being sold as slaves in Cuba. They would win their freedom in the United States and eventually return home to Sierra Leone. It's completing its first trans-Atlantic trip, retracing the infamous Middle Passage that slave ships took from west African nations such as Sierra Leone, a dream of the sailors who launched it in 2000.

Asked how she felt to make that history and be greeted by tall ships, Capt. Eliza Garfield smiled, put her hand over heart and nodded.

"It's a celebration in spite of incredible sadness. If you come out of (the Middle Passage) singing, with people calling you to be in spirit with their ancestors, that changes you. You are a different person," she said.

"Sometimes when I sit and think of the enshacklement of the Africans, my emotions get conflicted. So many emotions, really," said Sam Yokie, a crewman from Freetown, Sierra Leone. He looked over at the ceremony on Sullivan's Island. "I think about our people taken without their will, to be in a whole new world, and I feel a connection to these people. I come to this place and I feel home also."

The Spirit of South Carolina fired its cannon and the tall ships trailed each other in, flags streaming like the seas beneath them. From the rails, the steepled port city in the mist looked much like it did two centuries ago. The motorboats, the container ship, looked strangely out of place.

Harbor Fest 2008

Today's events

Cost: Most events are free, but wristbands are needed for boarding the tall ships. Adults, $15; children 6-11, $5. They can be purchased on site or at www.charlestonharborfest.org and www.etix.com.

9:30 a.m.- 4 p.m.: Water Shuttle (Spirit Line Cruises) between Patriots Point and Aquarium Wharf (discount offered to boarding-pass holders).

9 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.: Bus shuttles between Patriots Point and Charleston Maritime Center (free to boarding-pass holders).

10 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.: Charleston Water Taxi between the Maritime Center and Patriots Point (discount offered to boarding-pass holders).

10 a.m. - 5 p.m.: Festival open to the public- Maritime Center, Liberty Square, Ansonborough Field and Patriots Point (boarding passes required to board tall ships and shuttle buses).

Downtown

11 a.m.: Welcome Ceremony. Charleston Maritime Center, 10 Wharfside St.

11 a.m.: Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation speaks. Education Village Stage (Liberty Square).

Noon: Spirit Knot Tiers rope-making demo. Education Village Stage.

Noon: Cannon-firing demo (Pirate Camp, Ansonborough Field).

2 p.m.: Cannon-firing demo. (Pirate Camp).

2 p.m.: Spirit Knot Tiers, Education Village Stage.

3 p.m.: Animal Antics by the South Carolina Aquarium, Education Village Stage.

3 p.m.: Pirate Costume Contest/ Parade (meet at the Maritime Center for Parade to Pirate Camp).

4 p.m.: Cannon-firing demo (Pirate Camp).

Mount Pleasant events

(All events at Patriots Point.)

10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Live music.

10 a.m.-5 p.m.: Helicopter harbor tours available. $20 per person.

10:15 a.m.: Kayak rolling demo.

10:30 a.m.: Kayak tryout for kids.

Noon: 'Rail Jam' extreme wakeboarding demo.

1 p.m.: 'Rail Jam' extreme wakeboarding demo.

3 p.m.: 'Rail Jam' extreme wakeboarding demo.

4 p.m.: 'Rail Jam' extreme wakeboarding demo.

If you're boating

Boats won't be able to travel Horse Reach or Hog Island Reach on the Cooper River on Saturday and Sunday in the late morning or early afternoon, when an air show takes place for Charleston Harbor Fest.

The Coast Guard is creating a safety zone directly underneath the aerial performance. Waters in those reaches, roughly from the Ravenel Bridge to the tip of Shutes Folly, will be closed to unauthorized traffic.

Recreational boaters will be allowed to anchor at the foot of Drum Island and at the left of Shutes Folly.

The zone will be closed 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 1:30-2:45 p.m. on both days. Traffic needing permission to pass through the safety zone can contact the representative for the captain of the port on VHF-FM channel 16 or via phone at 724-7616.

The Coast Guard will be making broadcasts on the day of the performances to provide current information at the start and finish of the performances.

Special service

Circular Congregational Church and Plymouth Congregational Church have organized a special service, inspired by the presence of the Freedom Schooner Amistad, to be held at Circular at 150 Meeting St., downtown at 11 a.m. Saturday.

The service, whose theme is reconciliation and remembrance, will recall the struggle for freedom that the Amistad symbolizes, Circular member Susan Dunn said. "It gives us the opportunity ... to recommit ourselves to freedom and justice," she said.

The service will include an address by Nichole Green, curator/director of the Old Slave Mart Museum and McClellanville native, as well as music from local church choirs.

Others taking part in the service include representatives from the national United Church of Christ organization, members of the Amistad's crew, and Amistad America Inc., which owns and operates the ship.

Reach Bo Petersen at 745-5852 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.