Gazela Primeiro: Philadelphia's Tall Ship

This Portuguese-built vessel that used to fish cod over the Grand Banks has stood the test of time thanks to generations of care. Read more about the ship in _The Heart of a Ship: Stories from the Crew of _Gazela Primeiro.


The Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild (PSPG) was founded in 1971 as the Heritage Ship Guild of the Port of Philadelphia. While its mission has always been to preserve historic vessels, it wasn't until the mid-1980s that the Guild took on the responsibility of maintaining Gazela Primeiro, and in 1988, acquired ownership outright. (The Guild also maintains the 1902 tugboat Jupiter.) What makes the Guild unusual is that it goes far beyond maintaining these historic vessels. The Guild actively sails them. After donating just 50 hours of their time, volunteers qualify to crew aboard either vessel. Gazela's volunteer crew sails the Eastern Seaboard each summer and has welcomed visitors aboard in ports from Newfoundland to New Orleans. The Guild relies on donations of time, materials and funds to carry out its mission, and has just one employee who leads the volunteers in ship preservation projects. But wooden ships periodically require attention beyond the scope of even skilled volunteers, and it's been 20 years since Gazela's hull was rebuilt—a testimony to her sturdy construction by Portuguese shipbuilders over a hundred years ago. The hull and other support timbers are now in need of comprehensive restoration. The Guild is presently raising the funds that will address these issues and ensure the ship's continued vitality for years to come.
Courtesy Michael Ford

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A flood of memories come to mind when I think back over my time with Gazela. Some memories are quite visceral, like the feeling of the cold mist in my face standing lookout on the galley roof; crawling into my warm bunk after a dog watch; and lounging on the break, sun on my back, reading an original copy of Darwin's Voyages. Then there are memories more elusive and harder to put down in a few brief sentences—the transformative effect of living history that connected me to generations of sailors, my own ancestors included; or how my heart beat faster and my wanderlust peaked as we set off from the dock to cries of, “Godspeed.” With it all, the thought that keeps pushing to the forefront and demanding the last word is a quote from Mark Twain, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness …" — Rodney SadlerEd King

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(Note: The 1902 steel tugboat Jupiter, like Gazela, is operated under the watchful eye of the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild. Jupiter is also maintained by Guild volunteers, many of whom cross back and forth from one ship to the other as need dictates. While the two may differ in form and history, the heart of their volunteers are identical.) My family has been involved in the maritime industry since 1926. I'll start with my grandfather, Captain Chester Rickards. As a boy at age 15, he would get up at 0500, and catch the trolley from southwest Philadelphia to Delaware Avenue. He worked all day until the tug shut down, mostly for a good meal, since wages were bad. He received his captain's license in the early 40s and was employed by Kenneth Meyle's Independent Pier Company.
I have memories of Pop coming home at all hours of the day and night when we would have family holidays together. The first thing he would do was get a shower. The beautiful smell of a tugboat was on his clothes. When my parents got divorced in 1967, Pop and Mom agreed to take either my brother or me on any given weekend to babysit while my parents worked out their divorce. Pop had this great idea to take me out on Triton, which was Jupiter's sister. Meyle named most of his tugs after Greek gods and they were docked at Pier 34. The day would start at 0500. I’d throw on clothes, and we’d fly down Delaware Avenue, which was paved with cobblestones that had settled into a wave pattern. We would arrive at Pier 34, and Pop would grab my hand so I wouldn’t trip over the cleats. He knew where each one was located, even at night. When we rounded the corner, there they were, the fleet all lit up, running idle, smoke spewing out the stacks. It wasn’t a day to play. Pop had two standing orders: “The engine room is off limits,” and, “Stay out of the lifeboat. It’s not a playhouse.” On any given day, Pop said, "You will help the cook clean potatoes, onions, and carrots, do dishes (I had to stand on a milk crate to reach the sink), mop the galley floor, clean the head, clean the pilot house windows, sweep the quarters, polish the brass, and Pledge the woodwork." At first, I was thinking this stinks, I could be in bed sleeping, or watching Captain Kangaroo or Captain Noah. But after awhile, I would ask to go to Mom and Pop's again, just to ride on my new BIG toy. The crew really liked me, because I did most of their clean up details, and they kept watch on me while Pop was steering. Some great memories included getting my plate of food, sitting on the forward bit, watching the sun rise behind the Walt Whitman Bridge, and every now and then, glancing up at the wheelhouse and seeing Pop looking down at me as if saying, "Don't worry, I have control of this monster." Pop also allowed me to take the helm of Triton while hip tow to a barge, and, of course, standing on the same milk crate. Great memories. I would have never traded my younger years for anything. From 1975 to 1978, I worked as summertime painter for Interstate Oil Company, chipping and painting tugs and barges all summer, never getting a day off. Again, great memories. I sailed deep sea from 2001 to the present. One day, I happened to be stopped in traffic on Delaware Avenue near Pier 40 when something caught my eye. There was Jupiter. The last time I had seen her was in 1973. Back in those days, when the tugs were waiting for work, they would tie up together, sometimes three deep. It seems Jupiter was always in that three-deep pack. All the crews would board other tugs for conversation and to get any latest news. It was like a block party without the grub or grog. I explained to the guard about the tug, and he let me board her. The flashbacks started going in my mind. I said to myself, I have to join, if anything, to relive my childhood. I did. I am also proud to say that my son, Chris, volunteered his weekends to help paint and give guided tours of Jupiter. Chris also did his Eagle Scout project on her. My younger son, Scott, has said he would also like to do his Eagle project on Jupiter. This makes me proud to think that they would show interest in the tug that has worked the rivers of Philadelphia with their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Captain Rickards. I know my Dad and Pop are smiling down from heaven. I still thank Pop for giving me a taste of hard work at an early age and for an industry that I enjoyed later in my life. — Scott G. Rickards
Ed King

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Gazela took me home ... literally. My sisters and I knew it was Newfoundland when we were kids but it was never called that. It was "home," "up home" and the "home people." Apart from the neighbors and the kids in the driveway that's all we knew, the home people. Uncles and aunts, all ironworkers and housewives, except Aunt Alice. She worked at Crown Cork & Seal in the factory. Her husband, Murph, fell when she was pregnant with their first and only child, Billy. I loved to hear tell of the stories about cod and squid jiggin’ and icebergs and hoppin’ pans of ice for seal. “Someday,” I’d say, “Someday.” Then after a couple of years volunteering, I got a call from Ray Bender. "Look, you've been working on this ship forever, and you've never sailed. Gazela's going to Newfoundland this summer. You might not get another chance like this." My mom had died some months before and I thought it right to make the pilgrimage, to sail the same seas and retrace the route Bill Mahoney and MaryAnn McGrath had taken so many years before. So with tar on my hands and tears in my eyes, I sailed through the Narrows into St. John's Harbor. Gazela had taken me home. — Jimmy MahoneyJohn Gullet

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One of the questions passers-by frequently ask around Gazela is, "What do you do with this ship?" What folks are usually getting at is whether we carry passengers, do dinner cruises or some such. It's generally easier to explain what we don't do than what we do … My new answer for that question is, “We do whatever we have to, to make sure she’s around for the next generation.” This may sound like an evasive answer, but it really encompasses the motivation for just about everything we do. Obviously, all the maintenance and repair work is toward this goal, but every port festival we attend or ticket we sell to a dockside event brings in the revenue needed to support that work. Even the fact that we still actively sail the ship plays an important role in her preservation. Every shipwright will tell you that a ship left at the dock rapidly dies, none more so than a wooden ship. Since we will be taking the ship out to sea, we cannot take shortcuts in her repair and maintenance. The role of the people of the Guild cannot be underestimated, either. It is not possible to separate ship preservation from skills preservation. Without all the great people who have given their time and effort to this ship over the years, she would simply not still be here. By the same token, literally hundreds of people have learned the skills of maintaining and sailing a wooden ship because Gazela is here. Many people who started as volunteers on Gazela have moved on to do this work professionally (myself included). Another question we get a lot is, "What do I need to do to join the crew?" to which the answer is, "Not much." I like to call Gazela "the public access square-rigger." When you stop to think about it, it's remarkable that just about anybody can join the crew of a ship like this with no prior experience and little more than a willingness to work and learn. Because of this open nature, people of all walks of life have learned what it's like to work together as part of a sailing ship's crew. Regardless of the skills you have when you first come aboard, Gazela has this amazing ability to get you to go far beyond what you thought you could ever do.
Doug Whitman

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It was 1995, and hundreds of people were lining the pier as the Portuguese cod-fisher, Gazela Primeiro, docked in St. John's, Newfoundland, for the first time in over a quarter century. The captain was greeting visitors as an older man with weathered skin and lively blue eyes approached. The man waited with the deference due a ship's officer. When the captain turned and smiled hello, the man introduced his wife and young granddaughter in heavily accented English, then took from a well-worn envelope the black-and-white photo of a young man casually walking down a course yard 30 feet off the deck. With obvious pride, the man patted his chest then pointed aloft to the yard directly above. He was the young man in the photo, and this was his ship. Tears welled up as he took the captain's hand, and in his most formal English, thanked the young officer for keeping his ship safe and bringing her back so his granddaughter would know something of the man her grandfather had been and the life he had led. I was at the rail with the captain that day when the old seaman brought his family aboard. After thanking the captain he turned to me with a huge smile, took my hand and said, “Women sailors ... not in my day. But I think it’s good! Thank you. Thank you for my ship.” There were tears in my eyes, too, and electricity in his grip that seemed to span lifetimes. We were from completely different worlds, yet somehow we shared this remarkable ship. That visit to St. John's stands out as one of the highlights of my 25 years aboard Gazela. In that time, I've often thought about the changes the ship has witnessed and the people whose lives she's touched. I've seen young people come aboard as volunteers and grow into accomplished adults, many going on to careers in the maritime trades. I've seen people donate their professional skills for a chance to add to the life of the ship. I've seen an inordinate number of people meet, marry and raise families. I've seen older folks, men and women, come to the ship at a time in their lives when they weren't sure a fast-paced world was still in need of their contributions, only to find out how valuable they truly were. And I've seen seamen in St. John's embrace unlikely sailors and call them shipmates. For myself, I've learned teamwork, tolerance, cooperation and humility. If the ship or my crewmates needed it, I tried my best. Sometimes I succeeded and gained confidence. Sometimes I fell short and learned humility ... again. Always there was growth, always there was camaraderie and always, at the center, was the ship.
Ed King

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I joined the Guild during a particularly stressful time in my life. Work was annoying, I was living alone and my wonderful children were busy at college. Each Saturday morning, I'd look forward to the end of my 2300-to-0700 shift when I'd change my clothes and head down to Gazela for the day. Gazela practically saved my life and most definitely saved my sanity. The Guild family is one of the best groups of people that I have ever met in my 62 years on earth. On December 6, 2009, I met the love of my life, Sue Michener. We had brunch in town and then I took her to Gazela to introduce her to my extended family. Sue is now in her second year volunteering on the ship. Although our time has been limited recently, we are looking forward to spending much more time aboard when we retire in two years. The Guild, Gazela and Jupiter will always be a part of our life and our family. —ALAN FRIEDPhiladelphia Ship Preservation Guild

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Excerpted from The Heart of a Ship: Stories from the Crew of Gazela Primeiro, with the permission of Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild. All rights reserved. To buy a copy and support PSPG, go to King

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