Diálogo / June 3, 2011
By Larry Luxner
At precisely 3 p.m. on May 24, the Colombian Navy’s four-masted training ship, the ARC Gloria, sailed into the port of Alexandria, Virginia — as enthusiastic cadets onboard fired a 19-gun salute and heartily belted out Colombia’s national anthem. “Oh gloria inmarcesible! Oh júbilo inmortal! En surcos de dolores, el bien germina ya!” sang the sailors, as 160 spectators and dignitaries waited to board the colorful vessel, including Adm. Guillermo Enrique Barrera, Colombia’s defense attaché to the United States; Colombian Ambassador Gabriel Silva and Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille.
The Colombian Navy’s flagship sailed up the Potomac River before docking in Alexandria; from there the ship continues to Boston — where it will remain from June 3 to 6 — before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the Irish port of Waterford as part of its 2011 international tour.
During the five-month tour, which began May 13 in Cartagena, the Gloria will visit 10 countries. Besides the United States, these include Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, England, Spain and Morocco.
Commanded by Capt. Gabriel Pérez, the Gloria is one of the biggest tall ships still afloat.
“This vessel was built in 1968 at the request of the Colombian government,” said Pérez, who at 46 is three years older than the vessel he commands. Interviewed following an impromptu news conference onboard the Gloria, Pérez noted that “this is my second time at this pier. I was last here in 1995 during my cadetship. Now, nearly 27 years later, I come back as commander of this ship.”
Pérez supervises a crew of 163 people, including 81 cadets, six of which are women; 13 officers, of which two are women; 60 sub-officers, three invited officers from the Colombian Army, Police and Air Force, and six foreign officers from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Honduras and Ecuador.
“These ports of call are meant to show our friendship, and to support the Colombian Embassy’s mission in anything they want to do,” said Pérez, as cadets served hot cups of Colombian coffee and mingled with the visitors. “We talk about our culture and bring friendly messages from the people of Colombia to the United States.”
Other U.S. cities visited by the Gloria on previous tours include San Diego, San Francisco, New York and Tampa. In its 42 years of service, the Gloria has voyaged to 165 ports in more than 60 countries and traveled around 727,000 nautical miles.
Everywhere it docks, says Pérez, “people ask us lots of questions about Colombia. They ask us about the government, the armed forces, business, and about our careers as sailors. And of course they ask about drug trafficking too.”
The visit marked the Gloria’s second appearance in Alexandria in three years. During its July 2007 port of call, the Colombian tall ship made history when its passage under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge marked the first time both spans of the new bridge spanning the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia were opened for river traffic.
The Gloria measures more than 56 meters (257 feet) long. Its tallest mast is 42 meters high and the ship weighs 1,300 tons. The Gloria’s figurehead, coated in gold leaf, is named Maria Salud after the sculptor’s daughter.
Despite its relative youth, the Gloria’s wood-polished appearance and 23 sails make it seem like a relic of the 19th century. The glass display cabinets in the bar feature pre-Columbian gold and ceramic artifacts, and the vessel seems steeped in history. Yet it’s propelled by a diesel engine and guided by both computer monitors and electronic navigation instruments in the steering room.
“All cadets in the last year of the Naval Academy have to do one semester of practice, or six months of their academic career, on board this ship. It’s part of the program,” said Pérez. “Normally, the quantity of cadets is lower than the capacity of the ship. During the last semester, you can find only 35 or 40 cadets. When this happens, the Naval Academy sends cadets in their third year to do their onboard practice.”
He said the cadets practice the principles of sailing — which means everything from navigating by the stars to the latest in GPS navigation technology. They also learn to maneuver sails, ropes and all other nautical equipment. “And they have to study military matters as well as engine systems,” he said.
When the Gloria isn’t sailing around the world, it’s docked in Cartagena — a major Caribbean shipping port and cruise-ship destination.