ESSEX — The launch of the latest Essex schooner is now history.
Close to 2,000 spectators watched the 60-ton splashdown of the Schooner Ardelle in Essex on Saturday evening at high tide at the historic Burnham Boatbuilding yard.
The air filled with hushed anticipation from the crowd after the christening when the workers began to sledge hammer away the wooden blocks keeping the vessel, crafted by Harold Burnham and his colleagues, in place at the water's edge just about 6 p.m.
Then, within about 15 minutes, it was all over. The Ardelle floated on the calm waters after it listed dramatically to one side.
The atmosphere was tense when the boat began to move along its track, with a palpable gasp from the crowd. Then it stopped. More work was done to free the blocks and let Mother Nature takes its course.
Barry O'Brien, who serves on the board of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, explained to the crowd what they were watching, and what they could expect to see.
"At some point, gravity will take over," he said.
And that it did, when the Pinky Schooner hit the river, followed by cheers and a "hip-hip hooray." About a dozen boys and girls seated on the bridge over the river then plunged into the high-tide water.
The launch capped the latest edition in a near 200-year tradition. Essex has been the birthplace of approximately 4,000 schooners, and Harold Burnham is the 28th Burnham to operate a shipyard in Essex since 1819, according to his website bio, written by Laurie Fullerton.
David Calvo, a Gloucester woodcarver, came to the waterfront with his son to see the sight.
"I tip my hat to (Burnham)," said Calvo, "because it's a lost art which takes a lot of effort to keep that skill alive — especially when the demand for these boats isn't there.
"But he does it for the love of doing it and the beauty of it," he added, "and it was clear (on Saturday) that this skill is still recognized and applauded as evident by all the people who came to watch."
Spectators thronged every inch of the water's edge, while countless others watched from every nearby roof and porch and dozens of boats in the nearby marina. The approximately 54-foot vessel is named after Burnham's grandmother,
Daisy Nell, a musician, sailor and chair of the Gloucester Schooner Festival, was among those in the crowd, sharing both her words and music.
She explained the term "Pinky" schooner, which simply means the vessel is pointed at both ends.
"It's also called a double-ender," she said. "Like Pinking shears, it's pointed. 'Pink' may refer to an old-fashioned word that means pointed. It's a very old design and it's very seaworthy.
"That's why dories are double-ended," she added. "They were designed as working boats to fish in all kinds of weather.
"This is historical," said Nell, a lifelong Essex resident. "You can't grow up in this town without hearing about 'schooner this' and 'schooner that,'"
She described Saturday's event as dramatic.
"There was real tension but it was so exciting," said Nell. "It was a big boat in a small section of the water.
"To the crowd it was exciting," said Nell. "For the people working on the boat, it was very tense. Thank God everything went well. "The pure physics of it are so stunning."
Some of the onlookers worried about the men working just inches away from 60 tons of wood that was about to make its move.
Karen Wilk of Manchester and Brenda Treuhaft of Beverly, who both saw the Schooner Thomas E. Lannon launched in 1997, wanted to again catch the historic site of another hand-built wooden craft launched into the sea.
Treuhaft, who was a volunteer for the Gloucester Schooner Adventure, said she has a passion for wooden boats as well as maritime history.
The schooner Ardelle will remain in the water for the wood to swell, and — at some point in the weeks to come — will be moved to the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center in the city's inner harbor.
The vessel will take the route around Halibut Point to get to its next destination.
"You never know what's going to happen when a vessel is launched," Nell said. "They say it's a launch, but it's a little like a birth."
Gail McCarthy can be reached a 978-283-7000, x3445, or at email@example.com,