The distance from most Inner Harbor docks to the Francis Scott Key Bridge is less than six nautical miles. Yet the journey separated the beginner sailor from the journeyman. It was an initiation right of sorts, a passage from the protection of an enclosed harbor to the thrills of the open water.

“The bridge was a sign of freedom for me, because when I got there, I knew I could go anywhere,” said LeMart Presley, who learned the craft in a tiny sailboat and is now a U.S. Coast Guard licensed 100-ton master captain. “When you see those big cargo ships coming in, and you see where they are from, you think, ‘I can go there, too.’”

And Presley has. Since his first outing to the Key Bridge more than 20 years ago, he’s led sailing trips to the British Virgin Islands, Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Spain and Greece. This year, he’s taking a group sailing on the French Riviera. What began with four or five Black novice sailors forming their own group, the Universal Sailing Club, in a ragtag flotilla to the bridge, has morphed into an elite group of captains and mariners who travel around the world.

Last week, the 47-year-old continuous truss bridge crumpled in seconds when it was struck by a massive cargo ship that had lost power. The incident left six bridge workers presumed dead — the bodies of two have since been found — and government officials scrambling to secure funds to clean up the mangled mess in the Patapsco River and build a new bridge.

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Campers with the Downtown Sailing Center raise their fists in triumph after sailing to the Key Bridge.

For many commuters, the Key Bridge was little more than a piece of industrial infrastructure, a means to an end, a conduit to a job at a plant or a downtown office. But to the sailors, crabbers and boaters like Presley who passed under it regularly, the bridge was much more. Seeing it on an outbound journey was a sign of basic keel boat mastery. Looking at it while traveling inbound, the bridge was a symbol of being almost home.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge might be more iconic, the Golden Gate might be prettier, but there was something so Baltimore about the Key Bridge. It wasn’t flashy, could be genuinely stunning, and did its job without attracting much attention until the day it collapsed.

“I didn’t think I would ever get out there,” said Eric Eppler, who began sailing in 2015 after realizing he was spending too much time in a basement apartment and office.

Now Eppler, a board member of the Downtown Sailing Center, says his first bridge run opened up a world to him he’d never known on land. New sailors are always asking if they can make a “bridge run,” but doing it successfully requires fair weather conditions and patience. The trip can take four hours, and the wind changes frequently between the center’s base at the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the bridge.

At the summer camp the DSC runs, making it to the bridge is a sign the teenagers can masterfully navigate winds and tides, Eppler said. The accomplishment is sometimes the thing that makes them want to continue in the sport. Often, they will post photos of themselves high-fiving or smiling as they go under it.

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Campers with the Downtown Sailing Center cheer when they reach the Key Bridge.
Campers with the Downtown Sailing Center cheer when they reach the Key Bridge. (Courtesy of Downtown Sailing Center)

A friend of Eppler’s, who goes by Vaunita and did not want her last name used for privacy reasons, began sailing in 2017, but she could not do a bridge run because she was on dialysis. The four-hour run would take her away from the machine too long. In 2020, six months after the kidney transplant, she was finally able to go. Rain poured down, but she’s smiling in every photo.

“I looked above my head, and I could hear the traffic and the people above me, and I am thinking, they have no idea what this feels like,” she said. “I feel small. I feel large. I feel like I am in control. I feel like I am getting a divine lesson.”

When Vaunita finally met her kidney donor, it turned out that she was also a sailor, and the two formed an organization, Dialysis to the Docks, to bring more dialysis patients aboard sailboats.

Stacy Spaulding has made many memorable bridge runs, including racing with the Baltimore City Yacht Association to the bridge on Tuesday nights. But one of her most memorable was in 2009, when her father, Ken Spaulding, came for a visit.

Her father had taught her to sail growing up in San Diego, but her husband had never been out, so the trio rented a 19-foot sailboat and “made a run for it,” Stacy Spaulding recalled.

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It’s a memory she holds on to since her father passed away in 2016 at age 64; her husband has become an expert sailor, and together they’ve made many trips to the bridge. Seeing the it in the distance while inbound always meant it was time to tidy up — they’d be home soon.

Ken Spaulding, pictured at the Key Bridge during a sail with his daughter, Stacy. The photo has become a cherished memory since her father, who taught her how to sail, died in 2016.
Ken Spaulding, pictured at the Key Bridge during a sail with his daughter, Stacy. The photo has become a cherished memory since her father, who taught her how to sail, died in 2016. (Stacy Spaulding)

Like Eppler, Spaulding said sailing gave her a glimpse into an industrial ballet few can see from the road, and one that made her appreciate her adopted hometown all the more.

“What’s hidden on the highways is obvious from the water,” she said. “You have cars rolling on and off at the port. You see the cruise ships. You see the pilot boat, and you learn what the bay pilots do. You watch the tugboats, and when you see them, you know some big ship is going to be moving. This is a major part of the city that, if you don’t see it, you don’t even know it’s there.”

Part of what captain Leon “Bobby” Washington loved about the Key Bridge was showing it off to his clients. A longtime waterman who trotlined for crabs near the bridge, Washington also had a business where he took clients out to fish for spot and croaker. Most were from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and weren’t familiar with Baltimore’s Key Bridge. So, he would take them there, drop anchor, and let the bridge work its magic as a beautiful backdrop for catching dinner.

“People would always ask, ‘What bridge is this?’ And I’d tell them. They’d have no idea it was even there. And it was like a monument. Just so pretty to see.”

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Sunset from LeMart Presley's boat, Cool Breeze Sailing Charters.
Sunset from LeMart Presley’s boat, Cool Breeze Sailing Charters. (LeMart Presley)

Mark Eustis, a cartographer as well as a recreational fisherman and sailor, said most of his experiences navigating the Key Bridge involved deep concentration while trying to avoid large cargo ships. Sometimes, he would sail from his home near Annapolis with friends to grab dinner in Baltimore, and marvel at the bridge’s stillness in the moonlight. Now, like everyone else in the mariner community, he is mourning what he can no longer see.

“That bridge was very Baltimore. Lots of steel, industrial, on the water,” he said. “It was solid, it was there, it was part of the landscape, and until not too long ago, you could always rely on it being there, doing its workmanlike job.”