Sailors always have been pioneers of change. For centuries, they were the lead agents in bringing the world closer together. Until the last century, we traveled by ship, and we traveled everywhere on the sea’s broad highway.
My own life as a sailor began in earnest in 1960, when I decided that my avocation of racecar driving no longer suited my lifestyle or my family commitments. So I learned to sail. A few years later, I bought, on impulse, my first sailboat at a New York Boat show-a 22-foot sloop-and began exploring the sea and the shorelines of America. There were several more sailboats after the first, each a bit larger than the last, and all named Wyntje in honor of the first woman to marry a Cronkite– a distant ancestor in the NewAmsterdam colony in 1642. Nothing compared to the experience of sailing, which brought out the Walter Mitty in me. In the winter, I would weigh anchor for the Caribbean, and in the summertime, my wife, Betsy, and I would set sail from our home on Martha’s Vineyard to visit familiar and favorite haunts along the northeastern sea coast.
What began as a hobby quickly evolved into a passion. In my book Around America, I described sailing from Cape May to New York. “The sailor who rounds Sandy Hook for the first time without losing a heartbeat or two,” I wrote, “has no romance in his soul.” Thus, my familiarity with the last stretch of the journey in each Operation Sail was already rich by the time I came to know its organizers.
Indeed, Sandy Hook is the hinge to America’s front door, and the approach to New York Harbor is one of my favorite passages on water. For more than a century before the Statue of Liberty’s torch was lit, the nation’s oldest lighthouse on Sandy Hook blinked out a welcome to arriving vessels and millions of immigrants. Fort Hancock nearby is almost as old, built as the first in a string of defenses to protect New York from the British in the War of 1812. The most important battery in that string was built at the Narrows, now spanned by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the starting point for every Operation Sail parade of ships.
I first came on board in 1976 for the Bicentennial Operation Sail, and for many years thereafter, I served as an advisor to the organization. During that event, which I dubbed “the grandest birthday party in the history of the world,” I broadcast programs from aboard the USCGC Eagle and managed radio communications with the other vessels. My fondest memories of that celebration are of the ardent crowds. Millions of spectators, 10 to 20 deep and shoulder-to-shoulder, cheered from the shorelines of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey. Scores more from around the world watched the occasion on television, enthralled as an armada of the world’s great square-riggers paraded in review. In the calm of that day, the glorious crafts’ bow waves purled in barely a whisper, but together those whispers rose into a chorus that sang of the goodwill and global fellowship of the international sailing community.
Each of the subsequent sails was bigger and grander than the last. Operation Sail 1986, which paid tribute to the centenary of our Lady Liberty and to the principles for which she stands, drew more than six million people to the waterfronts of New York on a resplendent Fourth of July weekend. Broadcast across the globe, the image of sailors gathered together from around the world, united by the simple brotherhood of the sea, brought inestimable and enduring benefits.
In 1992, we gave special emphasis to the Age of Discovery-that era when ships brought worlds together. In the 1400s, when the voyages of the Age of Discovery began, nations and cultures were insulated, unaware of the ways of life beyond their borders, wary even of their neighbors. Today, we are all discoverers, as people from almost every nation on earth now walk the streets of every other nation.
The millennial Operation Sail was another memorable event, with more than 35 countries represented. The International Naval Review that year promised to be the most spectacular to date, but a torn Achilles tendon kept me from appearing on the reviewing aircraft carrier, the now-retired USS John F. Kennedy, or “Big John,” as she is more affectionately known. Nothing, however, could prevent me from serving as a trustee and honorary chairman. I was hooked on the thrill of Operation Sail, the exhilaration I felt at the sight of so many seagoing marvels gliding up the Hudson, their pennants aflutter, their acres of sails taut with wind or clewed up so that the young sailors manning them could line the yardarms in a show of symmetry.
The old sailing ships now are important sites of learning, as many actively serve as training vessels for the next generation of mariners or provide character-building experiences for young men and women around the world by introducing them to the joys and rigors of sailing. I saw this at work firsthand as chair of the National Maritime Education Initiative, which seeks, through modern sail training, to preserve the relevance of the glorious vessels of a bygone age and to further the legacy of our maritime heritage.
We may not yet be one peaceful world or even a world that agrees on many things, but Operation Sail celebrates the fact that we have, indeed, become one world. Ships made this possible, and it seems fitting to commemorate their contribution with a harbor full of sails and sailors.
Operation Sail reminds us that ships brought so many of our ancestors to the Americas, brought cultures and commodities across oceans, brought us to that critical pitch of communication and commerce that has made today’s global awareness possible. Operation Sail has allowed us to see clearly how vessels from all lands — the voyaging canoes of Polynesia, the junks and sampans of Asia, the dhows of the Arab world, the barques and full-riggers of Europe and America — connected and transformed the world.
The world today seems smaller in its distances but greater in its possibilities. It still offers wide horizons and fresh landfalls to us all.