A Tall Order for a Tall Ship: Pennsylvania's Flagship Niagara
At the helm of Niagara for more than two decades, Captain Rybka emphasizes the ship is not "an aging stage set" but its importance is in its "completeness, things at the ready, activity, life on board." Photo by John E. Baker

by Paulette Dininny
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXIX, Number 4 - Fall 2013

An Interview with Captain Walter P. Rybka

Continuing his stellar career with sailing landmarks - including several vessels built specifically to train sailors - Walter P. Rybka joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in 1991 as master of the Flagship Niagara. It was the Brig Niagara, his relief flagship, that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry commandeered and led the American forces to a stunning victory over the British at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. (A brig, especially popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for its speed and maneuverability, is a square-rigged, two-masted ship.) The battle proved to be the zenith of the ship's brief career, but Perry's triumph heralded the end of British dominance in America.

Born in 1950 in Brooklyn, New York, Senior Captain Rybka became fascinated with history and all things maritime at an early age. His parents took him and his three siblings to museums of all sorts and made frequent visits to the harbor. During a summer in college he worked to save for school, but then took out a loan to pay tuition so he could use his earnings to satisfy his passion for sailing.

Following graduation from college, his first job was with the South Street Seaport Museum in New York where he learned seafaring aboard the schooner Pioneer, built in 1885 by the Pioneer Iron Foundry, Chester, Delaware County, and the only surviving American iron-hulled sailing vessel. He learned well and soon became her master. In 1977 he joined an ambitious project to acquire and restore the barque Elissa in Galveston, Texas, and two years later became the restoration director, a position he held until 1983. He served as maritime consultant and sail training deck officer with the Elissa from 1983 to 1991. During this period he remained involved with the South Street Seaport Museum, Mystic Seaport Museum, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Maritime Museum. Rybka sailed as a mate aboard the Westward and the Corwith Cramer, both operated by the Sea Education Association, and served as master of the Californian, operated at the time by the Nautical Heritage Society. In 1991 he set sail for Erie.

Captain Rybka received the 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Sail Training Association (ASTA) at its annual conference on sail training and education, organized with the Sail Training Institute and held in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The award recognizes "an individual who has dedicated his or her life's work to getting people to sail and who has worked to preserve the traditions and skills of sail training." In recognition of this honor Captain David V. V. Wood, United States Coast Guard (USCG), Retired, wrote, "Since those early days, he has exhibited a single-minded passion for preserving - and conveying to future generations - the traditional skills, practices, and techniques of seafaring under sail." In 2012 Rybka was the recipient of the National Maritime Historical Society's Rodney N. Houghton Award for the best feature article in Sea History Magazine. He is the author of U.S. Brig Niagara Crew Handbook (1992) and The Lake Erie Campaign of 1813: I Shall Fight Them This Day (2012). As Niagara's Senior Captain he sails only about 25 percent of his time during the season to dedicate himself to administrative responsibilities. In the off-season he works to "make sure there is a next season."

This interview was conducted on the eve of the bicentennial of the 1813 battle which plays an important role in "War of 1812: Celebrating 200 Years of Peace," a commemoration continuing through 2015 to include the final battles of the war. The observance includes international participants including Forts Malden, Wellington, York, and Henry in Canada and England's National Army Museum and Windsor Castle. For the nation's commemoration Niagara participated in the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial Celebration held from August 29 through September 10. The celebration included a large fleet of tall ships, reenactment of the Battle of Lake Erie near Put-in-Bay, Ohio, the site of the 1813 battle, a parade of sail, and festivals in port cities in the United States and Canada.

Under the direction of Captain Walter P. Rybka, Niagara participated in Operation Sail 2000, billed as "the world's largest parade of tall ships," in New York's harbor on July 4, 2000. The international flotilla of sailing ships also presented a naval review before President Bill Clinton. Flagship Niagara League

Since you were interviewed for the Summer 1993 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage, what do you see as your greatest achievement as Senior Captain of the U.S. Brig Niagara?

It's the consistency we've managed to maintain in the quality of training for the professional crew and for the people who volunteer longer term where there is an apprenticeship, where there is real time for the passing on of skills.

We have provided a good foundation for many people who have become professional seamen in operational passenger and sail-training vessels. That's what we are recognized for . . . filling a unique niche, because there aren't many other places to go for this level of complexity of rig, for this level of traditional accuracy, and that's what I am most proud of when I see the officers who started as volunteers here and became professional.

What lessons have been learned about building and maintaining a square-rigged ship in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries?

It's hard to say I've learned anything different than what I knew twenty years ago. In 1993 we knew it would always be an uphill battle. And guess what? It still is.

There was a period when we really were on a good footing in the mid- to late 1990s. It was pretty unstable in 1991, 1992, and 1993, but from 1994 to about 2002 we had a good level of funding. We had an excellent level of maintenance - not luxurious but a sound operation where we couldn't afford a lot of frills but we could afford everything we really needed. Since 2003 the budget has been steadily declining. In 2009 PHMC was hit hard by the state budget that severely reduced financial support for our sailing program which would have been terminated. The [Flagship Niagara] League worked very hard to keep the ship operational, and has been the case since. By that time we were able to earn income too, which came with the Coast Guard's Sailing School Vessel certificate in July 2005. It is very much an on-the-stretch effort nowadays because the economy has had a downturn and the ship is older.

What benefits have accrued to the Commonwealth by continuing to sail Niagara?

The ship gains a lot of recognition for the Commonwealth when it goes places and is seen. It's known that Pennsylvania is where it comes from and makes a positive impression.

People sometimes are critical that the crew doesn't seem informed about all the advantages of opening a business or an industry in the [Erie] area, but they are not trained chamber of commerce representatives. At the same time when they put on a good show taking the ship into port, handling her well, furling the sails quickly and neatly, the ship is shipshape. The storyboards are out, the crew is polite. People come on board and have a good time, and we are making a good impression for Pennsylvania and Erie.

Where does Niagara rank among U.S. tall ships sailing today?

If we rank it in terms of how far ranging the ship goes, it is not an oceangoing ship. We don't go offshore. In terms of a place to go to gain a foundation in very traditional seamanship, handling a square rig, and the basic skills of the sailor, Niagara has a very well-deserved reputation as a ship the serious sailor should go to. We get referrals that way.

Niagara is not necessarily unique in kind. It is unique in degree. The combination of a ship that is very true to period for the early nineteenth century, that has the full and complicated square rigging of a warship, that is historically interpreted and that carries a story with it like this, that still offers a variety of programs from day sails to museum visitation to in-depth seamanship training . . . that combination is unique in degree to this ship.

Very often we are going just a little way down the lake to an industrial city for a festival, which is not like going to Bermuda, Istanbul, or Tahiti. For those people who are looking for authenticity, the difficulty, and the challenge, this ship is satisfying and there is no place else you are going to do better.

Artist Percy Moran (1862-1935) created The Battle of Lake Erie (circa 1911), in which he depicted Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (standing in the bow of the boat) while a crew rows him from his flagship, the Lawrence, to the Niagara during the September 10, 1813, naval battle. library of congress

What are the challenges you face in a changed economy as they relate to the future of the ship?

Ships need dollars to float. Think of money as water that floats all boats. All businesses - and all sailors - have to have some water under the keel to keep the ship afloat. It's hard to stay afloat even if you reduce the draft in cost; the depth available is pretty slim. We haven't gotten stuck aground yet, but it's hard to maintain under-keel clearance.

The ultimate value of Niagara is intangible. It doesn't mean it's not real, but it's not concretely measurable in terms of product that you sell by the unit.

We have to put ourselves in a place that defines why this is worth the extra money. If the museum is looked at as what museums are - cultural institutions that preserve artifacts, stories, or bits of culture to make education available to people and if we look at the ship as another manifestation of that in regards to the craft of seamanship as well as everything the museum teaches and has available - we can make a very good case for why this is worth supporting. If it ever gets looked at just in business terms of, "Well, it's a T-shirt shop with a boat ride attached," we will fail because it's not worth it on that basis. If you look at it as an educational process that has long-range outcomes, then you can put it in a perspective that says "this is worth it." But it is a challenge because it doesn't readily fit categorizing as any one type of business.

How difficult is it to balance the ship's mission to promote the Commonwealth and the Erie region with interpreting that period of United States history and preserving square-rig seafaring skills?

It's not that difficult really. It's a matter of putting each in proportion. The ship is freighted with history - that is our cargo - and all hands are part of the delivery. We can only deliver so much. We have to devote time to training for seamanship and to maintaining the ship. That's part of the product, but that's also part of the delivery. That's how we get the ship to someplace else safely and then we can do something to promote the Commonwealth when we get there. As a trade show representative, we are not going to do a lot of appearances compared to something you load in a semi-trailer truck and hit a series of conventions. But when we do get there, we offer a unique venue, an interesting visual background. We can do all three, but it has to be understood that there is a limit to what you do on seafarers.

What strides have been made in the past two decades to raise the ship's profile?

The profile has been raised quite a lot by participating in the Tall Ships Challenge because twenty years ago the ship was new and unknown. Niagara has sailed more during these last years, especially since 2005 when we received the U. S. Coast Guard's (USCG) Sailing School Vessel certificate. We have visited about 120 ports in the last twenty years. That's quite a spread in geographic recognition and name recognition.

What obstacles face you in day-to-day operations in areas such as sufficient crew, money for maintaining a living exhibit subject to USCG rules, and day sail opportunities?

The Coast Guard has been very cooperative, and is satisfied we are professionals. But the fact remains that the regulatory environment is getting ever more complex. Every last part is a challenge and makes it difficult to sustain the operation. We have to see our way through it the best we can because the ship's best bet is to stay operational.

Volunteers assist crew members with a variety of critical duties to, in the words of Captain Rybka, "gain a foundation in very traditional seamanship." Niagara sails with a professional crew of twenty. Commonwealth media services/photo by Alex Belloti

What is Niagara's lifespan as an active sailing vessel? Will the ship be around for another twenty years?

There is no finite lifespan for a sailing vessel because, if you wish to, you can keep renewing the parts bit by bit as you go along and at no point is the ship unseaworthy. We have had to do a greater level of structural repair to the ship year by year. We might end up reskinning her [outer planking] a couple of times bit by bit. We have already replaced about 25 to 30 percent of the bulwark planking, almost all the spars, 10 percent of the deck, and have recaulked the deck three times. We have done renewals over the years as anything deteriorated or was damaged. This added up to a substantial amount of the ship that has already been changed so most of the ship is twenty-two-years old, but there are significant parts that are fifteen years, ten years, five years, or one-year old. If we can keep enough interest in her, enough demand for the ship, we can keep the ship sailing indefinitely.

Why must she be sailed to preserve her?

This is subtle, and Americans don't generally do subtle. The fact is that sailing the ship wears out some of the gear. But it keeps the people on hand that you need to take care of the ship, and it keeps the demand for the ship being taken care of in the forefront of people's minds. The ship will deteriorate whether it is sailed or not sailed.

On the other hand, there are factors dockside that will be hard to overcome if you don't sail. For instance, if the ship sits for months at a time you [must] wash the deck every day so you keep the deck planks swelled tight so they don't leak; areas always in the afternoon shadow will start to grow moss and have rot pockets. On a ship that is moving, some of it is in a different pattern of sunlight every day.

If you want the ship to be more than an aging stage set which has to be replaced every so many years . . . what does it mean? The ship means completeness, things at the ready, activity, life on board. There is hustle and bustle on it, the sound of tools, smells of the wood stove, wet paint, tar. This is a machine that just arrived somewhere and it is going to be here for a little bit before it carries a message, carries a cargo, carries out a mission that is done by going somewhere else. If you needed to just sit in one place, you didn't build ships, you built buildings. Ships are built to go places.

If you want to interpret the ship as a ship, if you want her to feel, look, and act like a ship then you might as well use it because then you are getting all the benefit out of it and the costs are going to be there regardless.

What would you tell parents about the experience their teenage or college-age children might have as trainees aboard Niagara?

I thoroughly believe with all my heart that it is an experience that they will grow from. It's not that sailing ships teach values of community service or of character that are different than other activities designed to do the same thing. Sailing ships doesn't have a unique claim on that.

What they have a unique claim on is that the environment is such that they are spectacularly efficient at this because the demands are there in degree and in combination. The demands made are greater than they are in most other endeavors; they are all made at the same time, and they are right in front of you. You can't evade them, you can't not see it, and you can't get out of it. If you are not pulling your weight it's patently obvious to everybody on the ship.

At sea it's pretty obvious that if we don't do this right, we could drown. If we don't do this right, we are not going to get anywhere. If we don't do this right, somebody could get hurt. It is very serious. We have an excellent safety record; we work at that. We don't take extreme chances, but inherently when you go into the ocean, the desert, or the sky, you are going into a place that humans don't go . . . except by competence, by vigilance, by reliance on the technology you bring with you.

We don't have to create a boot camp atmosphere to instill discipline. The ocean does that for us. It is hard, but I don't know anybody who hasn't said it was worthwhile after they did it. I have had several people say, "This is the hardest thing I have ever done, but it was the most worthwhile." I have had people say, "I thought I made a terrible mistake when I came here, but now I don't want to leave," which is a factor that needs noting and that is that Niagara isn't something you get in a day.

Sailing is an immersive experience and it needs to be that way. It creates its own community and its own environment. It's more the essence of the voyaging experience and signing on as a green hand in the nineteenth century; you've been working as part of this crew and maybe you never do it again, but you were a sailor, by God, for those weeks or months you were on board. You were part of this group and you did this work. Niagara is about one of the only sailing school vessels that people can walk away with that feeling.

Thrilling reenactments captivate spectators of all ages. phmc erie maritime museum/flagship niagara league

What are your thoughts on the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie?

This ship was built for interpretative purposes, and we have been telling the story [of the battle] for twenty-five years. Such important anniversaries only come around once in our lifetime. This is the two hundredth anniversary of one of the most important battles in United States naval history.

You participate in commemorations because of how you feel about yourself, how you feel about other people, and how you feel about where we come from as a people. All of those reasons are beyond financial gain considerations. Money is essential. We have to have some money in our lives . . . to be able to pay our way. It is the basic building block of our economy, our business, our civilization, but money can only be looked at as a way to facilitate achieving things of value. It is of itself not a value. It is not worth enough to be used as a measure for anything that is truly valuable. If you look at things that people should truly value in their lives - love, honor, courage, compassion, wisdom - all are beyond price. The ship doesn't guarantee you'll find all those things, but it gives you a good opportunity for finding a bunch of them in one place.

The ship gives you a place to have part of the culture preserved. It's not just that you are learning to splice rope or learning skills that are largely obsolete and just satisfying for their own sake. It's that you are learning a commitment to each other that is a level of trust; that is the essence of any society. Any society is based on trust, but on a ship the need for trust is readily apparent and visible and it is something that just comes out quicker and it reinforces that. The teaching is one-on-one, the voice being the primary means of communication. We have gained a lot in that we have access to so much information now, but something is not quite the same.

[There is a time and place for communications technology] . . . and this is not it. Something you have to do in close proximity to other people is a fundamental human experience that is so basic that no one would think to describe it as a necessary experience if for the fact that people can avoid it now in our society. Fifty years ago you wouldn't have thought that this would be described as a desirable outcome by which you learn something.

However, now we are so potentially isolated from each other. Everybody works in their own cubicle and has available an infinity of information, but they have so few points of face-to-face contact. A sailing ship at least requires you to behave for a time much the way a human has had to behave, has been expected to behave, and has been comfortable behaving for 99.99 percent of the time we have been on the planet as human beings, but which is not necessarily the case in their world or their workplace otherwise.

The level of common language or bond . . . it takes longer to get there. That is why I think, interpretively, at museums and ships, a good tour, a well-trained guide who really knows the story and presents it as one human talking to another, is the best because that is the fundamental nature of the experience, especially at the time the ship was sailing. That is the way you communicated. The one experience young people probably haven't had is having someone tell them a good story. Don't buy the gadgets. Invest in your people. I putter along with what I do and hope that it makes a difference to some people.

Crowds gathered in 1913 to see the newly rebuilt Niagara on the battle's centennial. Library of Congress

In his own words: Captain Rybka's eye-opener

One of the eye-openers I had is a story I always tell about the college kids helping to put on the [large, heavy winter] cover. We put out a call to Mercyhurst University and Gannon University fraternities to help because we knew it was going to be a windy day and hard to hold this thing in the wind. We wanted extra bodies. So about thirty of these kids show up, and they are strong, athletic, and smart. This is the next generation of doctors, lawyers, and engineers in America. They pitch right in. We put the big top up and are wrestling this thing in the wind in big pieces and holding it down and we are getting to the point where we have to tie it down. Then the professional crew said, "Okay, now tie it off." The college kids' jaws dropped open. Not one of them knew how to tie a single knot.

Now, of course, the joke was on us because we assumed they could tie something. I thought maybe it would be half-assed and we would have to re-do half of it, but it didn't occur to me that they would just stare at you blankly when you said, "Tie it off." So I said, "All right, let me try to talk you through it. Take a clockwise turn." Mouths are still hanging open. Their wrists are extended over their heads, all pulling on this rope, and I'm looking at thirty digital watches.

Then I say, "Start crossing it the way you would start to tie your shoelaces." Well, they are up on their tiptoes pulling on this and I'm looking at their pants raised over their ankles and there are thirty rows of Velcro shoe closures. This is utterly beyond their experience. They have never picked up a piece of rope that didn't have a snap hook or something that was already fastened to it.

The basic experience of fifty years ago when you used string to tie up a bundle or tie the Christmas tree to the roof of a car to bring it home is beyond them. They have experience with gadgets that weren't thought of when I was young, but something like rope that's been around for five thousand years or pulling a string and tying up something with it, they have absolutely no concept of it.

What it taught me was how esoteric, how removed from the modern world this experience [of sailing Niagara] is and then that makes me amazed that people are such quick learners because this is an immersion course on another planet when they come aboard the ship. Some of the simplest things that we take for granted by virtue of our age are stuff they've never heard of. It doesn't mean it's better. It means if you want to communicate or if you want to keep a sense of yourself as a culture, of what it is to be human, of what human experience has been over the centuries, you have to recognize that takes special effort now.


Ship Stats

Today Niagara makes many ports of call during the sailing season. Commonwealth media services/photo by Alex Belloti

Pennsylvania's sailing goodwill ambassador, so designated by the state legislature in 1988, is the fourth vessel to bear the name Niagara. Earlier restorations and reconstructions - thwarted by inadequate funding and the toll of the unforgiving passage of time - failed to preserve the original warship. Constructed in 1813 to protect the vulnerable American coastline on Lake Erie against the British, the brig was deliberately sunk in 1820, along with other ships that fought in the War of 1812. It was raised and rebuilt for the centennial of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1913. This vessel began deteriorating and a second restoration was begun during the Great Depression and, stalled by lack of money, remained unfinished until 1963 when another attempt was undertaken. In 1984 the General Assembly of Pennsylvania authorized the construction of the vessel which, by the time of her launch, amounted to $4 million. An elaborate and extensive restoration was carried out in 1988, after PHMC and Erie citizens joined forces to make Niagara once again seaworthy. Noted naval architect Melbourne Smith led the project. To preserve the spirit of the 1813 vessel, conserved timbers were used in nonstructural parts of the new hull.

The keel was laid on May 7, 1998, at an Erie harbor construction site. Work swiftly progressed and on September 10, the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, the hull was launched in Erie's harbor.

The ship's first day sail took place in 1990, and the following year PHMC hired Captain Walter P. Rybka to train a primarily volunteer crew. In 1992 engines were installed to facilitate the ship's first voyage to the East Coast. Niagara has since been active, sailing the Great Lakes and along the East Coast. In 2001 a lengthy process to convert the ship to a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Sailing School Vessel (SS V) was initiated. By 2005 four watertight bulkheads were built to compartmentalize the vessel to improve stability necessary to meet SS V requirements. Many other improvements were made, including installation of state-of-the-art electronic navigation equipment, emergency alarm systems, and updated engineering devices to satisfy USCG requirements. In 2006 Niagara earned its first revenue, from student tuitions, while underway.

Although Niagara has auxiliary power and modern navigation equipment, she lacks amenities such as warm water, showers, and privacy. The brig is sailed by a crew of about twenty professionals supplemented by an equal number of volunteers willing to live under Spartan conditions, including hammock berthing and living out of a duffel bag.

The National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, added Niagara to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Name Niagara
Owner Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
Operator Flagship Niagara League
Ordered December 31, 1812
Launched July 4, 1813
Sunk 1820
Raised March 6, 1913
Restored/Rebuilt 1913, 1931–1943, 1963, 1988
Re-commissioned 1990
Homeport Erie, Erie County
Flag U.S.A.
Rig Brig
Hull wood
Sparred Length 198 feet
Length on Deck 116 feet
Length Overall 123 feet
Loaded Waterline
Length 110 feet
Beam 32.5 feet
Draft 11 feet
Rig Height 121 feet
Sail Area 12,000 square feet
Tons 162 gross register tonnage
Power Twin 180 HP diesels


Erie Maritime Museum

The Erie Maritime Museum, PHMC's newest attraction along the Pennsylvania Trails of History®, serves as Niagara's homeport. phmc erie maritime museum

The Erie Maritime Museum, the newest of PHMC's museums along the Pennsylvania Trails of History®, opened in 1998, is the homeport of the U.S. Brig Niagara. Through exhibits and programs,the museum dramatically illustrates the War of 1812 and the September 10, 1813, Battle of Lake Erie during which Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry trounced British forces to regain control of the Old Northwest region for the United States. The museum also chronicles Erie's postwar history, including the story of the USS Michigan/Wolverine, the U.S. Navy's first iron-hulled warship; Erie's status as the world's leading freshwater fishing port in the early twentieth century; and the environmental degradation and rebirth of Lake Erie. The Erie Maritime Museum is administered by PHMC in partnership with the Flagship Niagara League. To plan a trip visit the Flagship Niagara website or the Erie Martitime Museum website.


Paulette Dininny, a native Pennsylvanian, is a writer and former Washington, D.C. reporter who covered regulatory and legislative issues. Her articles have appeared in regional and national magazines, among them Smithsonian, and newspapers. A resident of Erie, she frequently writes about Niagara and the Erie Maritime Museum. Her most recent article, "A Flag Bears Witness - Don't Give Up The Ship" appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage in recognition of the bicentennials of the War of 1812 and the Battle of Lake Erie.