Battle of Lake Erie re-enacted for its bicentennial

Tall Ships Festival follows in Erie from Sept. 5 to 8


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At Ohio's Put-In-Bay Monday, about 550 people aboard a total of 17 ships will set sail and re-enact the Battle of Lake Erie to mark its bicentennial.

In that famous naval engagement on Sept. 10, 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry commanded a fleet of nine American ships and fought so brilliantly that he forced an entire British squadron to surrender.

That victory, during the War of 1812, gave U.S. forces control over the Great Lakes and made Perry an American naval hero.

The re-enactment is the high point of a series of events marking the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie. The tall ships participating in the five-day event at Put-in-Bay will then sail east to Erie for the Erie Tall Ships Festival, which will run Sept. 5-8.

Craig Samborski of Draw Events in Duluth, Minn., has staged concerts with Bruce Springsteen and Metallica in National Football League stadiums and oversees a tall ships event held in Minnesota.

Choreographing the Battle of Lake Erie, Mr. Samborski said in a telephone interview, "is probably the most difficult event I have ever worked on because it's such a historic event and there's a real desire to make everything picture perfect."

More than 1,000 pleasure boaters have registered so they can observe the action. The Lake Erie Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit, is organizing the event on the western basin of Lake Erie.

Just getting all the people to Put-in Bay, on South Bass Island near Sandusky, will be a challenge because there are only so many ferries, Mr. Samborski said.

"This is a marine event of national significance. The ships have a safety zone bubble around them. You cannot get closer than 500 yards to the ships in the battle. We are making sure all the pleasure boaters know that information and don't violate it."

Mr. Samborski knows he can't control the winds or weather. So, Capt. Wesley Heerssen, who will command the U.S. Brig Niagara, has mapped out nine potential scenarios, depending on the winds.

On the day of the battle, the winds were from the southwest in the morning, then shifted to the southeast. The wind shift gave the tactical advantage to the American fleet of nine ships against the British fleet of six ships.

"If we get a north wind, we have a whole new set of GPS coordinates that we follow. We will advise the fleet of ships and pleasure boaters which battle scenario we're going to fight," Mr. Samborski said.

Had America lost the military battle, Mr. Samborski said, "The country would have looked a lot different."

The British had a deal with Tecumseh that if he aided them with his Indian warriors and defeated the U.S., his Shawnee tribe would receive land in Ohio and Michigan.

"The British wanted to get control of this part of the world to get access to Western America for commerce," Mr. Samborski said.

At the start of the battle, Perry was aboard his flagship, the Brig Lawrence. But his ship took such a heavy pounding and so many of his crew were killed or wounded that he was forced to leave the Lawrence and transfer his flag to the Brig Niagara.

"He fought until every single gun on his starboard side had been shot off of its mounts and his ship was so severely damaged that 80 percent of his crew were casualties," Capt. Heerssen said.

Once aboard the Niagara, Perry crossed the British line. As he did, the H.M.S. Detroit tried unsuccessfully to turn so her guns could fire. The Detroit collided with another British ship, the Queen Charlotte, whose bowsprit caught in the rigging of the Detroit.

"Neither one of them could maneuver," said Capt. Heerssen. Seconds after the collision, the Niagara sailed across the British line and fired a devastating broadside on the Detroit. Then, Perry reloaded and fired again.

Within minutes, the entire British fleet surrendered.

Between Thursday and next Sunday, the city of Erie hosts its Tall Ships Festival.

The festival benefits the Brig Niagara, which is based in Erie, where Perry oversaw the construction of his fleet 200 years ago.

On Thursday, a parade of sail will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. On Friday, school groups will tour the ships from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and the public can tour the ships from 2:30 to 6 p.m. On Saturday and next Sunday, the public can tour the ships from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

In addition, there will be entertainment, historical lectures and a fireworks display the night the ships arrive in Erie.

For more information, go to www.perry200.com.

state - lifestyle

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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