On July 3 aboard the Shabab Oman, the Arab world's sole entry in the dramatic sail-past the restored Statue of Liberty by the most famous sailing ships in the world, a writer summed up America's immigrant experience. Scanning the thousands of yachts gunwale to gunwale across New York's gigantic harbor, he said: "You know, the streets really were paved with gold."
He had a point. Once a symbol of wealth, the estimated 30,000 yachts that had poured into New York Harbor that day to mark the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty, were a symbol of the financial and vocational success achieved by so many of the early immigrants who poured into the United States believing the famous legend that the "streets are paved with gold." They weren't, of course, but they did lead to places that, soaked with the sweat of toil, often yielded wealth to the immigrants and their descendants.
Some of those descendants were in evidence July 3 as the Shabab Oman slipped away from it's moorings at the World's Fair Marina in Flushing, in the incredibly clear morning sun, to rendezvous with Small Ships and lead them down the East River as part of Liberty Weekend's Opening Day ceremonies.
Overhead, like darts flung at a target, the shuttles from up and down the East Coast, and farther, came thundering and flashing down onto La Guardia's runways, while ahead, trucks and cars raced across the Triborough Bridge, trying to beat the ban on traffic in downtown Manhattan.
On the ship's bridge, the officers conferred with pilot Craig Massey - their voices quiet and confident as they passed orders to the helmsman: "half-ahead... midship... starboard five... steady" - while on deck the Omani crewmen slowly lined up at attention as the ship eased into the East River.
By then, the early crowds were out in force, crammed onto the balustrades of Gracie Mansion - traditional home of New York City's mayor - packed into the windows of offices and apartment buildings and lined up on rooftops.
Slowly, majestically, the Shabab Oman cruised along in the sunlight, fleets of boats : swarming behind and beside her, the sailors coming to disciplined attention at such places as the United Nations building, wreathed in gun smoke as salutes were fired - and received. By 10:40, the Small Ships parade was over. Having passed the newly rebuilt Statue of Liberty, the Shabab Oman and its fleet sailed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and dropped anchor off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, amid the other 60 Tall Ships and Small Ships that would, on July 4, cruise up the Hudson River to launch the Independence Day festivities.
For Captain Prentis and the Shabab Oman, the July 3 Small Ships parade on the East River was the climax of a 102-day voyage that had begun March 22 in Muscat - when Sultan Qaboos himself boarded the ship to wish the crew a bon voyage ; the first of several highlights that marked their long cruise from the Arabian Sea to the East River.
As ancient Omani ships once did - when Oman's maritime empire extended to Zanzibar - the Shabab Oman first followed the southern monsoon coasts of the Arabian Peninsula and then headed north through the Red Sea, stopping at Jiddah. After emerging from the Suez Canal, the ship stopped at Alexandria, crossed the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, entered the Atlantic and, after a stop at Madeira, sailed to Bermuda.
The ship's landfall in America was at Newport, Rhode Island, once a major U.S. Navy installation and the site of the famous summer "cottages" built by wealthy U.S. magnates. Strung along the richly landscaped edge of Ocean Drive on low cliffs above the Atlantic, some of these "cottages" were larger than the original European palaces, chateaux and manor houses which they resemble.
Because of its location - rucked into a fold of Narragansett Bay just off Long Island Sound - Newport was not only a natural landfall, but also a natural jumping-off point for the now famous Tall Ships, which also appeared during America's Bicentennial extravaganza in 1976. And again, on Saturday, June 28, the city and its harbor played host to both Tall Ships and Small Ships. Visitors crowded in to Newport from the New England states and swarmed north from New York, cramming the expressways and jamming the Newport, Jamestown and Mount Hope Bridges that link Newport to the mainland.
Despite traffic, wilting temperatures and a mid-afternoon thunderstorm, most visitors reported that the trip was worth it. Newport's elegantly reconstructed shorelines and it's magnificent estates are worth a visit by themselves. But on that last weekend in June there was also the panorama of wall-to-wall yachts, yawls, catamarans, schooners and fishing trawlers, the amusing crush of sun-glassed elders, in baggy shorts and colorful caps, squads of girls in striped tank-tops and a thousand varieties of T-shirts, and eager children clutching ice cream cones and long wedges of watermelons. In addition, out in the harbor, there were the square-rigged ships, their flags rippling in the sun-soaked breeze of a perfect day, their soaring masts, reefed sails and flapping pennants rich with history, ripe with nostalgia.
For many of the Omani crewmen, Newport was the first exposure to the freewheeling, often gaudy, incredibly casual costumes and customs of summertime America - and they seemed to love it. But for Newport and many New England visitors it was also their first - and only - exposure to Arabs and the Arab world - and they loved it too. Mr. and Mrs. Donald Rowell, of Narragansett, for example, had tied up beside the Shabab Oman and, they admitted candidly, were expecting the usual raucous behavior that Newport, and most of the Atlantic Navy towns have come to associate with sailors on weekend leave. "But not these boys," said Mrs. Rowell.'These boys were nice and quiet."
They were also happy and cooperative, as, during the weekend, some 200,000 visitors lined up in the sun to board one or more of the sailing ships berthed in Newport. Clad in blue, their blue-checked ghutras tightly rolled, the Omanis smiled and shook hands and, hour after endless hour, posed for photographs as thousands of tourists tried to record the visit for their albums and slide trays.
Meanwhile, down in his cabin, Captain Prentis was simultaneously arranging interviews with reporters and photographic sessions with TV cameramen, and trying to review the one-and-half-inch thick Captain's Guide an exhaustive outline of schedules, navigational instructions, harbor locations and parade procedures in New York. With a 15:00 departure scheduled for June 30, he had little time to spare. Yet he somehow managed to review, with more than a hint of amusement, the circumstances that had brought him to Newport.
Trim, graceful and gracious, Captain Prentis was rounding out more than 30 years of service with the Royal Navy when someone over dinner mentioned that the Sultanate of Oman was looking for a captain with some experience in square-rigged sailing ships. "Fortuitously," Captain Prentis said, "I was then possibly the only practicing master of square-rigged ships in the Royal Navy."
Aboard the Shabab Oman, training is important. The ship provides 30-odd training cruises of 10 to 14 days each year, plus one major cruise to such ports as Bombay, for 25 aspiring mariners from Oman and the other states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.
Those cruises, interestingly, are not restricted to sailors.They include air force officers, infantrymen, artillerymen, and even Bedouin guides. The point, Captain Prentis said, is to show the often parochially oriented military men the size and variety of the country they serve, by cruising up and down Oman's 1,930-kilometer coast (1,200 miles).
In addition to some British officers, the Shabab Oman has, usually, two Omani officers, one of whom during the Liberty Weekend was Lt. Yusuf Ali of the Omani coastguard.
On June 30, Shabab Oman slipped out of Newport and sailed to Long Island for the upcoming "Operation Sail" for Small Ships, and one day later the Tall Ships followed. Unexpectedly, the governor of Rhode Island showed up and requested that the ships circle the harbor, so their departure was delayed. But all along Rhode Island coast thousands of spectators obstinately stayed put- some of them from early morning to late afternoon. Laden with picnic hampers and ice buckets, folding chairs and parasols, they had claimed their spots early and were not to be dislodged. At last, though, the ships hauled anchor, ran out their sheets and, like the fleets of another age, headed for New York.
To modern sailors, used to the rumbling power of diesels, the sight of sails may seem less exciting than it does to landlubbers. But even sailors, sweeping the horizon with binoculars, were moved that day as the Tall Ships, hull-down, inched across the sea under full sail. From Point Judith, whose granite teeth once trapped hundreds of ships much like these, it was easy to see why, in the past, the cry of "Sail-ho!" would send sailors scrambling to the yard - arms to see if it were a friend with news and fresh food, or the enemy laden with shot and shell.
With the Small Ships parade, Manhattan settled down to enjoy itself. By evening, expectations were running at fever pitch as President Reagan with French President Francois Mitterrand standing by, pushed the control button on Governors Island that triggered the relighting of the recently refurbished Statue of Liberty. By the time the presidents of the two countries had arrived on Governors Island, an international flotilla of yawls, schooners and ketches joined by cruisers, inflatable dinghies and kayaks, as well as naval ships, tour boats, fishing boats, barges, 350 Coast Guard vessels Shabab Oman, and the spectacular Tall Ships were on hand - stepping stones all across New York's vast harbor.
No one was disappointed. First the 20-meter (65-foot) base was drenched in bright red, then red-amber as the light moved slowly up the 27-meter (89-foot) pedestal and finally a brilliant blue light revealed the glorious 46-meter (151-foot) Lady Liberty.
One highlight of the opening night's activities was the swearing-in of 292 new citizens, from over 100 nations, on Ellis Island, as, simultaneously, more than 25,000 others became citizens in various places across the United States - on Ellis Island to the whistles and horns of ships blasting congratulations.
The next day - July 4 - the celebrations continued during what a headline in the New York Times called "A Very Special Day." It began with President Reagan boarding a battleship to review an armada of 32 naval vessels - 21 representing 13 foreign countries - and to receive a series of 21-gun salutes.
Meanwhile, the Shabab Oman and other Small and Tall Ships, sails unfurled, moved majestically across the harbor in a spanking 10-knot breeze, in a pathway cleared by 10 tugboats, the first two pumping red, white and blue towers of water 30 meters (100 feet) in the air.
On shore, 50 city blocks of lower Manhattan were closed to traffic to provide a pedestrian area for "the party": an enormous street fair called "The Harbor Festival" which began July 4 and lasted three days. The festival featured ethnic food and cultural shows - including Arabic - on eight stages especially erected for the occasion, and, unique to New York, camaraderie evident everywhere as persons of virtually every imaginable ancestry joined hands, and hearts, with hundreds of thousands of visitors, to wave flags and proclaim their patriotism.
As the day wore on, people milled about seeking the perfect spot to view what was probably the highlight of the celebration - the "biggest fireworks display in history" - as it was: a blazing 28 minute barrage of color from booming skyrockets which left awed viewers gasping. "We expected the best fireworks since Nero set Rome on fire, and we got them," bragged New York City's mayor, Ed Koch.
And it still wasn't over. On the next day, Nancy Reagan ceremoniously cut a ribbon to officially open the Statue of Liberty to the public again - after having been closed for a two-year, $69.8-million refurbishing. Meanwhile, the festivities continued with boat races, rowing races, blimp races,a parade of antique cars and visits to sailing and naval ships, like the Shabab Oman, which opened their gangplanks to the public. Still others swarmed through the streets of lower Manhattan, earing, drinking and making merry as they witnessed a Salute to Immigrant Cultures - with performers representing countless ethnic cultures - including a Near Eastern Music Ensemble which played traditional classical and folk music of the Arab Middle East.
The final event of the day was an enormous gathering - 800,000 persons - at Manhattan's Central Park for a concert by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Marine Band and an array of artists who interwove classical and patriotic tunes and ended the program by having the audience join in singing America the Beautiful.
Could there be more? Yes, indeed! Despite record-breaking heat, the final day of Liberty Weekend opened with a triathlon race of 450 athletes to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and ended with a Sports Spectacular of more than 100 top sports figures at an arena in nearby New Jersey and f three-hour extravaganza with a cast of 6,000. They performed on a 20-tiered motorized stage complete with waterfalls and fountains in a Hollywood-style finale, described, accurately, on one forlorn bumper sticker glimpsed in traffic. It read "Nobody Throws a Party Like NEW YORK."