'Once you take a cannon off of land and put it on a vessel on the water, it becomes a gun. The Californian has six-pound long guns. We also have a swivel gun. Our enemy for the weekend, the Lynx, has a carronade -- it's a six-pound gun with a much shorter barrel, therefore much shorter range," says George Sutherland, the boatswain of the Californian, one of the Maritime Museum's ships. On Saturday, February 4, and Sunday, February 5, the museum will conduct battle reenactments using the Californian and a visiting rival ship, the Lynx. "The Californian is loosely based on the C.W. Lawrence, the first revenue cutter sent out to California just before it became a state in 1850," says director of marketing and communications Michael Shanahan. Built in 1984, the Californian is 145 feet long, weighs 130 tons, and boasts 9 sails composed of 7000 square feet of canvas. "[The revenue cutters] were smaller, faster, and heavily armed so they could chase down slower, larger merchant ships." Sutherland describes the revenue service as "A combination between the Coast Guard and the IRS."
"As far as we know, there weren't any ship-to-ship cannon battles in San Diego Bay in the 19th Century, so we are not reenacting a specific battle," explains Shanahan. However, it is plausible that revenue cutters might have had run-ins with privateers (privately owned ships that, during times of war, were authorized by the government to attack and capture enemy vessels). It would be in a privateer captain's interest to avoid paying the taxes revenue cutters set out to collect.
The Lynx, based in Newport Beach, is a replica of a privateer ship of the same name that was built in 1812. According to privateerlynx.org, the Lynx "was among the first ships to defend American freedom by evading the British naval fleet, then blockading American ports."
The crew onboard the Lynx will wear period costumes, but the Californian's crew will not. "We're sailing with volunteers," says Sutherland, who explains that of approximately 75 people available, only 6 to 12 will compose a crew at any given time. "We ask our volunteers for so much of their time, [we wouldn't] then ask them to buy their own costumes. The Lynx is a set crew, a hired crew -- they can [easily] wardrobe those people...[but] it's just really difficult for us to do. We try not to misrepresent history as much as we can. If we're not going to be able to do it right, we'd rather not do it." Appropriate costumes for the period would have included "fancy headgear and brass buttons," Sutherland says. "When they came out on deck, they were dressed to the nines in full regalia, not in torn-up clothes."
Up to 40 spectators will be invited onto each ship and given the opportunity to participate in the battle. "They'll smell the black powder and see the flashes of the guns," Shanahan says. "Both crews encourage people to get involved in the sailing of the ship, learning how to haul lines and maybe take a chance at the helm."
"This is not rehearsed," says Sutherland, whose favorite aspect of the battle is strategy. "This is not 'Tom Sawyer's Island,' where the boats are on tracks. You get different currents at different times of the day that can push the boats in different directions, and the wind conditions can change in 15 minutes. Once the first shot is fired, there are no rules."
Each of the Californian's four six-pound guns fires half a pound of black powder. "It's a rather violent explosion; earplugs are a must." Sutherland explains that in historical battles, such as the Battle of Trafalgar, which was fought between the English and the French in 1805, the guns were loaded with a variety of shot. "There could have been a round shot [like an iron or steel ball] or a grapeshot [a cluster of smaller such balls]. They fired chain shot, or two round shots connected with a chain. This would rip big holes in sails and rip out the rigging. The purpose of naval battle is not to necessarily sink your enemy's ship, but to strategically put them in a position to disable them and then take their vessel as a prize."
Sutherland looks forward to his battle with the Lynx. "We try to treat these [battles] as though they would have been actual naval engagements by trying to take out a bow or stern, which causes [the most] damage. If you take out the stern, they lose the rudder and the ability to steer; it could possibly kill the captain. We'll be maneuvering around, chasing each other, taking a lot of turns. It's so much fun with the Lynx because we're similarly sized and similarly rigged." -- Barbarella
"Cannon Battles on San Diego Bay"
Saturday, February 4, and Sunday, February 5
1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
1492 North Harbor Drive
San Diego Bay
Cost: $50 adult, $25 children under 12
Info: 619-234-9153, ext. 101 or www.sdmaritime.com