It looked like the most thrillingly ominous moment in South Florida since those halcyon days three centuries back when the pirate captain Black Caesar regularly raided the Keys. A four-masted frigate sailed into Biscayne Bay Saturday morning, lay down a booming barrage of cannon fire, and then tied up at the pier in Museum Park.
But Black Casesar hasn’t been seen in these parts since his public hanging in Virginia in 1718. And the vessel apparently menacing the park’s handful of early morning dog-walkers, for all its 18th century appearance, is actually the newest ship in the Peruvian navy, the BAP Unión, paying a friendly visit on its maiden voyage.
Oh, and those cannon shots: Though they impressed onlookers — “They really get Miami,” cracked a gawker on the dock — they were all sound and no fury. The two small cannons on the Unión shoot only blanks, not real projectiles, and they were just firing the traditional honorary 21-gun salute.
“Miami is an important city and a beautiful city, filled with nice people,” said the Unión’s executive officer, Commander Roberto Vargas, who maybe doesn’t get us after all. “We are very happy to be here.”
So happy, in fact, that the ship is welcoming South Florida to come aboard and say hello. Visitors can get free tours of the Unión at the Museum Park pier on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday.
Despite its superficially rustic appearance, the Unión is a thoroughly modern ship, complete with a steel hull, diesel engines for when the wind isn’t blowing, and a crew that’s one-eighth female, unheard of in the yo-ho-ho days. Christened just this year, the ship is a little more than halfway through a shakedown cruise that will cover eight countries and 8,900 miles in 98 days.
Though sailing ships have all but vanished from the navies of the industrialized world, at least nine Latin American countries still use them for training new sailors. As training vessels, they’re not only cheaper but, the Latin Americans are convinced, better.
“On modern warships, working with computers and satellites all the time, we forget that we have to learn the essentials of sailing,” said Vargas, whose 240-member crew is mostly composed of third-year cadets from the Peruvian naval academy.
“On a ship like the Unión, these cadets learn leadership, they learn cooperation, they learn group spirit. It’s impossible to work alone with these big sails — you have to work with other people. And most of the basics, like navigation and oceanography, are the same.”
Some things, however, are quite different. On no other of the 30 or so ships in the Peruvian navy do the crew members enter a new port in the ceremonial formation they deployed as they sailed into Miami on Saturday: standing at tenuous attention atop the narrow yardarms crisscrossing the Unión’s masts, about 190 feet in the air.
“The first time you do it, it’s pretty scary,” conceded Sebastian Luna, a 24-year-old cadet. “We have a security measure, a harness with hooks, so it’s safe. But it’s an experience with a lot of, how do you say it, adrenaline.”
Luna, like many other of the young crew members, was eagerly contemplating shore leave in Miami. When he went ashore at the Unión’s last port of call, Havana (yes, a Peruvian military vessel came directly to Miami from Havana; the times, they are a-changin’), his most adventurous activity was buying two boxes of Cohiba cigars. He was hoping to up his game in Miami.
“They told us to be sure to visit the AmericanAirlines Arena,” Luna told puzzled reporters, who began nodding as he ticked off his secondary objective, South Beach. A little further up the deck, Luna’s commander, Vargas, was less enthusiastic.
“Sending 89 cadets out each day in Miami!” Vargas shuddered. “They are young and feeling powerful. And I’m like a mother waiting at home for a kid to come back from a date.”
OK, he does get us.
If you go
What: Tours of the Peruvian navy’s new four-masted sailing ship, the BAP Unión.
Where: The pier in Museum Park, 1075 Biscayne Blvd. (one block north of the AmericanAirlines Arena).
When: Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m; Monday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
More information: On Museum Park, http://www.bayfrontparkmiami.com/Facilties.html
On parking, https://www.miamiparking.com/find-parking/