I guess what I meant is this: there was a time when three-masted sailing ships, men-of-war and of commerce, regularly moored off this ancient city on a hill. That era was echoed last weekend, when the Italian Navy training vessel the Amerigo Vespucci (official site, in Italian, with heroic photos of the ship at sea) called in at Tangier's downtown port.
Given that my native country – the United States of America – is named after the 15th century Italian explorer, it was only natural that we visit the ship named in his honor. She's a beauty: all rich, polished woods, shiny brass, and rigging meticulously bound in place. Our guide was a young woman cadet, fresh from medical school in Belgium, who doubles as the ship's doctor when she's not climbing the mast like all the other plebes.
Italy gets double duty out of the ship too. A great training vehicle, its primary function may very well be cultural diplomacy. We visited on a Sunday morning, where the after-deck was set up for mass – no chance of shocking tolerant Tangerois, who grew up living next door to mosques, churches, and synagogues.
Italy is of course no longer the principal Mediterranean sea power – Roman galleys and Venetian galleons have long ago been supplanted by ships from countries far from the Med's shores.
The American Sixth Fleet, based in Naples, has lots of nice ships too, though the battleship gray of a destroyer doesn't have the same effect as a three-masted ship sailing into your harbor. Despite the most peaceful of intentions, there are still lots of people who bristle at the sight of cannons – plugged though they may be – or surface to air missiles pointing towards their apartment building.
But the US does have a lovely, peaceful-looking sailing ship, the Coast Guard's Eagle, "America's Tall Ship." How about a little North African cultural diplomacy for the US Coast Guard cadets? After all, America's "brown water Navy" has been venturing further and further afield in recent years. No point in leaving all the military cultural diplomacy glory to the Blue Water Boys of the US Navy.