Monthly Archives: June 2008

22. BOATWATCHING IN FALMOUTH

22 BOATWATCHING IN FALMOUTH

Falmouth, England, is blessed by both a generous harbor and a strategic location.  The harbor is entered through a fairly narrow entrance between prominent headlands and then opens up into a broad bay that forms a large well-protected harbor.  If this description sounds familiar, it is.  We are visiting Europe by ship, and a ship needs a harbor.  As sailors, we are interested in the great and historic harbors, which are usually built around a natural harbor that is both protected from the elements and easily defended from enemies.  So this description would fit all of the harbors we have visited so far.

The estuary of the river Fal, near the mouth of which lies the town of Falmouth, includes the river itself, which is navigable by large ships well inland, and many connected bays and creeks, usually with their own little harbors and quaint villages.  This harbor is located near the western end of the southern coast of England.  In this position it is handy for vessels sailing both south to France, Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean, and the southern trade wind route across the Atlantic, and for vessels headed west to Ireland and directly across what they call The Western Ocean—and we would call the Atlantic— to the Americas.

The Picton Castle anchored in Falmouth harbor.

The Picton Castle anchored in Falmouth harbor.

With this location and harbor, Falmouth has been important for a long time.  It was from here that the packets—the first ships that sailed on a regular schedule—began departing in the 19th century for Portugal, North and South America, and the Caribbean.  I believe that it was to this harbor that the little British Navy schooner Pickle brought the first news of the great victory of the British fleet over the combined fleets of France and Spain off Cape Trafalgar in Spain which ended Napoleon’s quest for control of the sea so he could fulfill his dream of invading England, and of the tragic death in that battle of England’s great naval hero Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.  (Those of you who have been to London will remember at the heart of that city, Trafalgar Square with its tall column with a stature of Nelson at the top.)

In the later days of the great sailing ships, which would sail halfway around the world for cargoes of grain form Australia or nitrates from Chile, ships might be away for a year.  Captains were commonly given the instruction for their return voyage to sail “to Falmouth for orders.”  At Falmouth they would receive instructions on which port to proceed to unload their cargo, depending on where their cargo would bring the best price. Later Falmouth was an important strategic harbor in both world wars.

Of great interest to me is that Falmouth, as a great and historic harbor, has spawned the development of some interesting types of traditional small vessels to meet its needs.  I love people watching, and I probably love boat watching even more, and Falmouth is a great place to watch boats, both historic and contemporary.

In earlier days, before the advent of modern charts and accurate electronic navigation, entering a harbor was a very perilous endeavor, particularly if the captain had never been there before and had only the vaguest idea of where he was and where the rocks and shore were.  In those days the use of pilots was crucial.  Often retired sea captains themselves, pilots knew the harbors, rocks and deep channels well and would meet ships at sea and guide them safely into port.  (Pilots are still commonly used by big ships in constricted waterways and in entering and leaving harbor, and are often required.)  Swift and seaworthy small vessels were needed to range far off shore and stay there, waiting for approaching ships to deliver pilots to them.  Piloting was a competitive business and so speed was important to deliver your pilot to a ship before your competitor did, and seaworthiness was crucial since pilot vessels had to range far offshore and stay there in all kinds of nasty weather to do their job.

In Falmouth two types of craft were developed to deliver pilots to ships.  The first, designed to range far offshore—often beyond the Lizard, the southwest point of England—were sleek pilot cutters of 40-50’ length.  These craft had fine bows for speed, plumb (straight up and down), with a graceful sweeping sheer (the line at the edge of the deck) and long elegant overhanging counter sterns.  The were cutter rigged with a single mast set well back, a long bowsprit to carry multiple headsails, and a big gaff-rigged mainsail with a topsail that could be set above it in light winds.  The second type of pilot boats, designed for inshore work, were long elegant rowing boats called gigs, that were propelled by 6 to 8 men each pulling an oar.

A Falmouth Pilot Gig with an all female crew out for an evening row.

A Falmouth Pilot Gig with an all female crew out for an evening row.

Once ships were in port their needs changed.  They needed crew ferried ashore and back, workmen, food supplies and spare parts brought out to them at anchor in the harbor.  To serve this need a different kind of vessel was developed, called the Falmouth Quay Punts.  These sturdy and seaworthy vessels were 18-30’ long, usually open and undecked, with plumb stems, almost vertical flat transoms, and low gaff rigs to fit under the overhanging square yards of the sailing ships they must lie alongside to serve.  These vessels have modern descendents still sailing and racing in Falmouth, and were the inspiration for the American Yacht designer Lyle Hess, whose best-known design is Serafin, which has sailed around the world.

Another kind of working boat seen in Falmouth Harbor are small half-decked cutters that dredge for oysters in the winter under reduced rigs, and race in summer under lofty rigs with colorful topsails.  (Like Chesapeake Bay in the US, to keep oysters from being over-harvested, they must be dredged from sailing vessels.)

Falmouth oyster dredging boats racing.

Falmouth oyster dredging boats racing.

One night when I was on watch and confined to the ship at anchor out in the harbor we were treated to the spectacle of a sailboat race, where dozens of boats divided into racing, cruising, and traditional classes raced around the bay all around us.

In Falmouth we were fortunate to see the reproduction of John Cabot’s Matthew, she ship in which Cabot—trying to sail to China—discovered Newfoundland and North America.

The Matthew off Falmouth.

The Matthew off Falmouth.

Pendennis Castle

Pendennis Castle

Pendennis castle interiors.

As a major port, Falmouth has always been a target for attack, so it has beenfortified.  Since medieval times each new war has brought new fortifications.  On my second day in Falmouth I hiked up to the top of the hill overlooking the harbor mouth tolook at them.  The most interesting is Pendennis Castle.  Built by Henry VIII it was one of the first castles designed to hold and defend against cannons, with gun ports and extra thick walls, but it is also clearly a castle.  It stands on the open top of the hill, surrounded by Napoleonic era canon batteries and World War one and two cannons as well.

21. COHB AND CORK, IRELAND

21 COHB AND CORK, IRELAND

June 27,2007

Cohb is the port for the city of Cork and one of the principal ports of Ireland. The name is pronounced “Cove,” which was its original name, a name that was changed to Queenstown after Queen Victoria visited, and later changed back to its original name with an Irish spelling.  The harbor is entered between two headlands guarded by several generations of forts.  Inside it opens up into a broad bay with arms branching off in different directions that house an oil refinery, one of the oldest yacht clubs in the world, a terminal for the ferry to France, and one to unload imported cars from ships.  The town lies ahead as you enter, built up a hillside on an island.

We entered this harbor under nearly full sail and sailed across this bay, only beginning to take in sail as we neared the town.  The wind was blowing onto the town quay, a large concrete affair currently used by tugboats and occasional cruise ships.  We sailed up to this quay, taking in our last sails smartly just off the quay and drifting down to it with only a little help from the ships engine.

Cohb is an old town that has seen better days.  Today it is a quiet port and summer tourist destination.  The main street of shops runs along the harbor with row houses built up the hill behind it.  The town is dominated by a large Victorian, gothic cathedral that sits on the top of the hill.

A monument to the millions of emigrants who left Ireland, Cohb

A monument to the millions of emigrants who left Ireland, Cohb

On the quay next to where we tied up is a museum presenting the town’s long but often tragic history.  The port was fortified in the Napoleonic era against the threat of a French invasion, which never came but might have been welcomed by some of the Irish who had long suffered under the English yoke.  During the potato famine the late 1840s Queenstown (Cohb) was the port where three million people embarked on any ship they could find to flee starvation in Ireland to Canada and particularly to the United States.  Families often held “American wakes” for departing members whom they knew they would never see again.  Later immigration included convicts shipped to Australia and voluntary immigrants to the United States.  It might be said that Cohb was the wound through which Ireland bled her people until today there are far more people of Irish descent living outside the country than inside it.

A depiction of departing emigrants in the heritage museum.

A depiction of departing emigrants in the heritage museum.

As a port, Cohb prospered from its trade during wars as diverse as the American Revolution and the Crimean and Boer Wars.  But it was not far from here that the ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of some 1200 lives in WW I, with the survivors brought here and housed in hotels.  Cohb was also the last port of the tragic maiden voyage of the Titanic.  They gave a list of those who embarked at Cohb, many of whom perished in her sinking.  Despite this sad history the inhabitants of Cohb are friendly and hospitable.

Street musicians on the main shopping street in Cork

Street musicians on the main shopping street in Cork

One day I took the twenty-minute train ride up the river to the larger town of Cork.  Built on an island in the river, Cork is a nice old city with good shopping.  Donald, the ship’s cook and I wandered through the city shopping for things we and our shipmates needed.  A favorite place for me was the large old indoor marketplace filled with stalls selling fish, meat, produce, bread, cheese, and trinkets.  I loved walking through it drinking in the sights and smells.

Tired from miles of walking we stopped for lunch in a little café on the way back to the train station.  There by chance we ran into two shipmates on their way to take the bus to Blarney and decided to join them.  Blarney is a genuine tourist attraction with all the hype, hordes, and souvenir shops.  But the castle is a beautiful and fascinating building, well worth the visit.  It rises above its grounds to an imposing height.  Once inside it you climb ever higher through different chambers designed for defense, living space, cooking and praying.  At the top you come out on the battlements with splendid views of the grounds and surrounding countryside.  Here is the famous Blarney stone.  Legend says that if you kiss it you will be given the gift of a silver tongue, the gift of gab.  But to kiss it you must lie on your back and bend backwards to bring lips to stone, something I chose not to do.  Afterwards we walked the grounds through lovely trees and grottos.

Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle

A highpoint of Cohb for me and for most of the crew was the Commodore Hotel, a faded grand hotel, which provide a room between the dining room and the bar where we could sit out of the rain, plug in our computers, use their wifi, and get food or drink.  I caught up on email, resent back excerpts of my journal with pictures, wrote a new one, and through the wonder of Skype was delighted to talk to and see Barbara.

This morning we awoke early to fog and light rain. By 6:30 we had used the ebb tide to help peel us away from the dock.  By now, at 11:00, we are bashing our way across the Celtic Sea, heeled over under all sail to t’gallants, close hauled for the Lizard—m the southwest point of England—and Falmouth, our next port.

20. BALTIMORE

20 BALTIMORE

Baltimore, Ireland, is an almost perfect place: beautiful. timeless, quaint, historic, and friendly. The harbor is bordered by high crags and cliffs to seaward, by the steep hillsides and ruined abbey of Shirkin Island to the west, the anchorage and village to the east, and inland by rolling hills dotted with occasional fields and houses.

The Picton Castle anchored in Baltimore harbor.

The Picton Castle anchored in Baltimore harbor.

The ruined abbey on Shirkin Island

The ruined abbey on Shirkin Island

My first day there was not pleasant, however.  I was on watch while the other half of the crew got to go ashore once the captain had gone ashore to clear us through Immigration and Customs.  Those of us on board spent the day scrubbing the hull with osphoric acid to remove all the rust stains that weep from every tiny pinhole in the paint on the ships side.  It is a miserable job, made worse by the steady rain, but at least the rain meant we had to spend less time washing off the acid.

The harbor entrance.

The harbor entrance.

Our efforts paid off when we were granted shore leave the next day on a brilliantly sunny day.  The village of Baltimore has a downtown about a half-block long, with a few pubs and restaurants and a small grocery, all over shadowed by a small, ancient, brooding castle.  Gary, the ships doctor, and I spent the afternoon hiking up to the headland at the mouth of the harbor with its great monument, know as Lots Wife since it looks like a pillar of salt.  From this promontory we were rewarded by dramatic views from the top of the cliffs to the crashing surf below, along the cliffs to the east, and to the corresponding headland across the entrance on Shirkin Island with its lighthouse.

Baltimore and the castle from the harbor.

Baltimore and the castle from the harbor.

We also toured the castle, built in the 1200s, occupied successively by the English military and Irish Clan chieftains until it was ruined in Cromwell’s time.  It remained a ruin until a decade ago when it was restored with a great blend of historical accuracy and taste and turned into a private residence furnished with a wonderful collection of period antiques.  The owners open it to the public at certain times and wandering through its great hall and battlements raised all kinds of pleasant fantasies about what it would be like to live in a castle.

Our stop in Baltimore was unplanned, since we came in to find shelter from a gale, but we stayed for days, alternately working aboard and exploring ashore.  All of the crew seemed captivated by the place.  The people were all very friendly, coming out in boats to see the ship and often invited aboard for a tour.  Ashore everyone knew who we were, since square rigged ships rarely visit, and went out of their way to make us feel welcome.  The schooner Pride of Baltimore has visited, and quite understandably was a big hit.  There are photos of her in the pubs and people still talk about her visit.

One of my personal highpoints came on the second day I was working aboard when three people came out to visit in a wooden boat of a traditional local type called a Heir Island Lobster Boat.  They came aboard for a tour and invited the bosun and I to go for a short sail.  Sailing their beautiful and responsive boat was a real highpoint for me.  I

The Heir Island lobster boat I was lucky enough to sail on, and the hills inland.

The Heir Island lobster boat I was lucky enough to sail on, and the hills inland.

Sailing on the Heir Island lobsterboat.

Sailing on the Heir Island lobsterboat.

Was surprised when Kolin admitted that although he has sailed around the world in the Picton Castle, he had never before sailed a boat less than 150 feet long.  To me, it is hard to conceive of being a sailor without being able to sail small boats as well as big ships.

Other days in Baltimore were less spectacular, like the rainy day spent in the less inspiring nearby town of Skibbereen waiting for a laundry to do the huge bag of laundry I amassed over the last month.  I spent a couple of very pleasant nights ashore in a guesthouse overlooking the harbor, staying with shipmates, eating great food.

In Baltimore the wife and children of Nobby, the Englishman who is the ship’s engineer, joined the ship for a while.  The presence of children changed the atmosphere aboard is subtle ways I could feel but not describe.  One day we were loading the skiff to go ashore.  I was standing in the boat to receiving and stowing knapsacks and laundry bags following the call “Stand by to receive laundry,” when the call, “Stand by to receive baby,” came. Before I could decipher this strange message I found myself holding and looking into the blue eyes of an eight-month-old, all bundled in her tiny life jacket.

Another high point for me was one night when I joined shipmates in a local pub where a revolving pickup group of local musicians played traditional Irish music on guitars, fiddles, concertinas, a flute and a penny whistle.  The ship’s sailmaker, a Scot from the Shetland Islands, sat in in and was welcome.  The music, in s room with old stone walls and dark beams overhead, created a very magical scene.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

The day we were to leave Baltimore it blew a gale of wind.  I, and a number of other crew had spent the night ashore, and when it came time to pick us up, it was blowing so hard that they had to send the rescue boat to pick us up since they were afraid the skiff didn’t have enough power move against the wind.  So we had to stay over a day, all on board and ready to go, but unable to move.

Lying on the hatch, looking up, waiting for the gale to die down.

Lying on the hatch, looking up, waiting for the gale to die down.

Of course, by the next morning the wind had not only died down from a gale, it had gone calm, forcing us to motor up the rugged south coast towards Cork.  We were half-way there before we got a sailing breeze, but two of the musicians from the pub had joined us, so we enjoyed music as we sailed.                                                                      

19. PASSAGE TO IRELAND WEEK THREE

19 PASSAGE TO IRELAND WEEK THREE

June 15, 2008, 11 AM

We are hove to approximately 325 miles southwest of Cork,
Ireland, our intended destination.  Heaving to is essentially parking a sailing vessel.  In
this case our helm is lashed to turn the ship into the wind, the engine is off, and we are
carrying only a single sail amidships, the main topmast staysail.  This sail serves to give
the ship a tiny forward motion and to lessen the rolling.  The ship is lying with the wind
and seas a little forward of the beam, rolling in fairly large swells.  The wind is not a gale,
blowing around 30 knots, and we could sail in it if it were not blowing in pretty much the
exact wrong direction.  We are waiting for the wind to die down or change direction,
slowly drifting away from Ireland at around a mile an hour.

After sailing pretty much the whole way from Lunenburg, for the last two days
we have been motoring in light winds to try to move away from a developing low-
pressure weather system and the gale winds that may accompany it.  When the winds
shifted against us and increased, we could make little progress either sailing or motoring
against it, so the captain chose to heave to and wait for a change in the weather.

Hove to, 325 miles from Ireland, the lookout’s view from the bridge.

Hove to, 325 miles from Ireland, the lookout’s view from the bridge.

My morning watch seems strange with no one at the wheel steering. The ship is
rolling quite a bit but no seas were coming aboard, only spray.  We are all bundled up in
our foul weather gear against the spray and some occasional rainsqualls.  The lookout has
been moved off the more exposed foc’sle to the bridge at the forward end of the
quarterdeck.  I had the third-hour lookout and spent it watching the horizon empty of all
but waves and chatting with the mate.  I saw no ships, but did see the plumes of some
spouting whales nearby

June 15, 4 PM This afternoon the weather has improved some, with occasional sunshine
coming through the clouds.  The captain called us together and explained what is
happening with the weather.  He said that we will get underway again as soon as we can
to resume our voyage to Ireland.

He also explained that since we left Lunenburg a week late, and have fallen
further behind schedule with light winds, we will not be going to Finland, since it is a
long way up the Baltic and we simply don’t have time to go that far and get back in time
to make our commitment to arrive in Bergen, Norway in time for a tall ships gathering.

I am disappointed that we are not going to Finland, a country I have never visited,
and in particular, that we will not be visiting the Aland Islands there, once the home of
one of the last fleets of large square-rigged sailing ships and now an interesting place
with a great heritage and a fine museum.

June 17, 2008  We have been sailing again for two days.  Today we are running before a
rising gale towards Ireland, trying to make a safe harbor before this wind reaches gale
force.  It is an overcast day with big seas running and we are leaping over them like a
horse in a steeplechase while rocking and rolling at the same time. Streams of water flow
across the deck. We are running faster than we have the entire passage, as if the ship
senses that it is nearing the land and is racing for it to complete the voyage.  It is thrilling
sailing and the entire crew seems excited and mesmerized.

Running towards Ireland before a rising gale

Running towards Ireland before a rising gale

Our intended destination has been changed, the captain has announced, from the
large harbor and city of Cork to the little harbor and village of Baltimore.  Yes,
Baltimore, no doubt the place after which the city in Maryland was named.  Baltimore is
40 miles closer than Cork, and its proximity will allow us to enter port and anchor before
dark and before the wind reaches gale force.  There are no objections to this change from
the crew.  No one relishes the prospect of having to ride out a gale.

With the big seas and rolling, streams of water surge across the deck.

With the big seas and rolling, streams of water surge across the deck.

June 17, 2008, 6 PM.  Landfall!  Out of the deepening grey ahead  we can make out
some darker gray shapes on the horizon.  Land!  We all gather at the rail to peer at it, only
our second sighting or solid land in three and a half weeks and revel at the prospect of
actually standing on something that doesn’t move.

We have passed the famous Fastnet Rock—a tall pinnacle with a lighthouse on
top—without ever seeing it in the haze.  What we are seeing is Cape Clear Island, at the
southwest corner of Ireland.  At first the island, and the one next to it, look in silhouette
very much like Maine Islands with a somewhat high profile and I feel a comfortable
familiarity.  But as we sail nearer, they rise higher out of the water than any Maine Island
except Monhegan, and I am brought back to the reality of Ireland.

Soon the captain gives the order to start taking in sail, and we are all busy taking
in first one sail and then another until—an hour later—all are taken in and we are moving
solely by the power of the ships deeply rumbling diesel engine.

Land appears ahead and with time we can make out the narrow entrance to the
harbor.  There is a large white bottle-shaped monument on the towering cliffs of the
eastern headland, and a lighthouse on the equally high cliffs of the western headland.  It
appears that it may be hard to steer through the narrow entrance in these high seas but our
ship makes it through with no problem.

Once inside the entrance the seas die down and the force of the wind lessens.  We
are treated to the sight of a nearly landlocked harbor.  In the fading light we can make out
few details, but on our left is a rugged island with few buildings or trees, a ruined ancient
abbey, an inn, a few houses and fields, and cows grazing on the steep hillsides.  To the
right is an anchorage with a number of yachts and workboats anchored a mile or more
away in front of the village.  We cannot approach the village any closer because the water
is too shallow for our 14’ draft.

At 7:55 the anchor is release with a rumble of heavy chain and a splash.  We have
arrived!  But we don’t have much chance to think about it or react because before
anything else, we must clean up the ship, properly stow the sails, and coil the lines.  By
the time we are finished it is almost dark and we are exhausted.  We can’t go ashore
anyway, since we haven’t lowered our boat and haven’t cleared Immigration and
Customs.  Those things will have to wait until tomorrow.

As I lie in my bunk—which is strangely silent and still without the constant swish
of water past the hull and rocking and rolling we have experienced constantly throughout
the voyage and particularly in the last few days—I try to make sense of the experience.
This voyage has been much like a symphony that starts off softly, with muted tones, in
the first movement, the mild breezes of our first week; then becomes more lively and
varied in the second movement with the second weeks stronger and more varied winds;
rises to a climactic crescendo in the third movement as we stormed along racing the gale
to port; and then ends leaving the hall in a hushed silence.

18. MORNING MUSINGS

18 MORNING MUSINGS

June 10, 2008

“David, its 6:55. This is your wake-up call.”

I rouse myself reluctantly from deep sleep and pull back the curtain that screens my bunk.  It is Peter outside.  His beard has reached the point where it looks like a beard rather than that he neglected to shave, and his Mohawk haircut has begun to grow out. “It’s cool out and it might rain,” he adds and disappears.

I’m tired and don’t really want to wake up, but I brought it on myself so I can’t complain.  Yesterday I had galley duty, which meant that I was excused from all watches and once my 7 am to 7 pm day ended I was free to get a rare full night’s sleep.  But two of my watch mates were sick—one with a bug and the other seasick—so I elected to stand watch from 8-12 pm so the rest of my watch wouldn’t be left short handed.  As a result I didn’t get to bed until 12:20.

I have reached the itchy part of the voyage.  I haven’t had a shower in over a week, though a “critical areas” wash and a change of underwear a few days ago helped some. Since water is short, we are allowed one shower a week.  The shower I had planned for last night was given up to stand watch.  Maybe today.  A pimple on my butt hurts a little.  My hair has taken on a Smurf look so I just wear a hat most of the time.

Rolling over, I fight for wakefulness.  I feel my pants.  The legs are still clammy and stiff from the salt spray despite having been hung up for the night on the line strung over my bunk.  They are not inviting to put on, but I do.  I dress and eat a quick breakfast in silence, in a room of silent people, since others are still sleeping.  Then I struggle into my safety harness, knife belt, and foul-weather jacket and climb on deck.  A gray world greets me: gray sky, gray seas with foamy white tops, and gray sails above me.  The wind is around 25 knots, so we are sailing under reduced sail and the ship’s movement is lively.

At the muster at the beginning of my watch I am given the first lookout and climb up to the top of the foc’sle.  I am relieving Cory, a tall, broad-shouldered young man from near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  Culturally, he is Acadian: French-Canadian, but he has an exotic look since his parents—if I remember right—come from India and Syria.  With his dark skin and dark curly hair pulled back he reminds me that the sailors of old came from all over the globe.

My eyes scan outward from the ship, across and endless heaving sea to the horizon, and begin their ceaseless scanning.  With big waves I often see lumps on the horizon that grab my attention but then disappear since they are only waves.  Specks of white also catch my eye, but they are only whitecaps.  This morning, there are no ships and we are hundreds of miles from the nearest land.

Looking inboard, I see that the fore tack, an important line that controls the clew or bottom corner of the foresail, has been left in a jumbled mess dumped on the capstan.  It may need to be released and let out in a hurry so I coil the line properly so it will run out smoothly if needed, and lay the coil on the deck next to the capstan.

The lookout’s view.  The red object is the capstan.

The lookout’s view. The red object is the capstan.

The capstan is one of my favorite parts of the ship.  Painted red and black, it is a vertical, cast-iron, manually powered winch, about two-and-a-half feet high, with a sort of a knob on top with holes in it for the bars that are used to power it.  I know it to be around a hundred years old.  It was made by the Hyde Windlass Co. of Bath, Maine, a few miles from my home.  Bath, and the area around it on the Kennebec River, was the major shipbuilding area in the United States during the days of wooden ships, from the 1600s until the 1920s. The Hydes were a prominent local family of ship builders and owners who started a foundry that provided capstans, windlasses, and other gear for these ships.  So this capstan would have been standard on many the sailing ships of that era.  An exact duplicate of it is on display at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, which I visit regularly, so it is a familiar thing that reminds me of home.

Thoughts of home make me think of Barbara.  I worry about her and hope that she is all right.  By now she should have done her presentation at Bowdoin Commencement, had a trip to New York, and started her sabbatical year.  I hope that she has been able to get some rest and has begun the long list of things she wants to accomplish this summer.  And being a news junkie in withdrawal, I wonder what is going on in the world.

But I push these thoughts from my head.  There is nothing to be gained from thinking and fretting about things I cannot know and can do nothing about.  A phone call will tell me once we reach Ireland.  Until then I must accept that my world is this ship, 148 feet long, and that I am cut off from the world.  Removal from my normal world and immersion in the different world of the ship was part of the idea of this voyage.  To live for a while a 19th century seafaring life and learn as much as I can about it.  To fully experience life here on the ship I must banish too many thoughts of the outside world to live in the present, and the historic past as it relates to this ship.  Looking around me, I can see objects on the foc’sle, that are very real and functional in the present, but like the capstan, have a real history to them as well.

The base of the capstan.

The base of the capstan.

The lettering on the base of the capstan documents its history, the ship’s bell—used by the officer on the foc’sle to signal the captain on the quarter deck how much anchor chain is out—bears the ship’s name, and the year 1928, the year the ship was built, in Selby, on the east coast of England. Other objects have a histories that I don’t yet know, like why the bullet blocks on the headsail sheets have a different shape, and what sort of ship the anchor windlass came from. There are many histories I know, and many more that I want to learn.

The ship's bell.

The ship's Bell

Headsail sheet blocks

Headsail sheet blocks

The anchor windlass

The anchor windlass

Heave away, haul away…for we’re bound for South Australia

This fragment of an old sea chantey has been playing in my head for several days now.  It no doubt comes from the days when steam ships were slowly squeezing the last life out of sailing ships as a commercial enterprise.  After 1900 sailing ships could only compete hauling low-value cargos over vast distances.  These included hauling grain from South Australia across the Pacific and around Cape Horn halfway around the world to Europe, and nitrates from the Pacific coast of Chile around the Horn to Europe for use as fertilizer (and no doubt for German munitions to be used in World War I.)  For this trade huge ships were built, many times the size of this one, like the four-masted bark Peking, now at the South Street Seaport in New York.  Crews no bigger than our own sailed these huge ships on voyages that might last six months with no sight of land, through the most storm-tossed and lonely seas in the world.  The last few days, as we have plowed through gray seas that could be anywhere in the world, it has been easy for me to feel a kinship with those men and their Herculean voyages.

Those great ships were freaks, however, in comparison to a thousand years of sailing ships.  As our captain explained in a talk yesterday, most of the world was explored and most of the cargo carried by sailing ships over the years was done by vessels the size of ours, or smaller.  Columbus’ Santa Maria, Cook’s Endeavour, Darwin’s Beagle, Bligh’s Bounty, and the ships that carried many of our forbearers across the Atlantic and opened trade with China were this size or smaller, often with quite similar rigs.  Sailing this ship gives me a keener understanding about what it must have been like on all those other ships.

A presence looms behind me.  It is Luke, the big Falstaffian Australian on my watch, his long blond dreadlocks covered by a black knit hat that increases his considerable height like the shako on a Coldstream Guardsman.  He is here to relieve me at lookout.  An hour has flown past.  My eyes have never stopped scanning the horizon, but I have failed to see any ships, except in my mind.

17. MORNING WATCH

17 MORNING WATCH

June 8, 2008

I am awakened at 7:00 AM, as usual, tearing myself away from sleep to dress and have a quick breakfast.  By 7:45 I am on deck strapping on my safety harness and knife belt.  My watch begins with a muster at 7:50, where I am assigned the second hour lookout.  Having no assigned job the first hour means that I do “Domestics,” cleaning below decks.  I decide to tackle the head in our berthing area, the most used and a challenge.  I start by squirting cleaner into the toilet, and then begin to wipe down the walls in the shower and head with a sponge and a different cleaner.  I drag the heavy rubber mats out of the shower and head on deck, where a watchmate will scrub them.  Switching to a different sponge which has three corners cut off a opposed to the two of the wall sponge—designating a grubbier sponge—I attack the area around the toilet, clean the toilet itself, and start on the floor.

A cry of  “Hands to set the inner jib!” sends me on deck leaving my mop behind, climbing the ladder to the fo’csle head and up to the bow.  Here I take down the coil of the downhaul and flake the line in a serpentine pattern back on top of the foc’sle so it will run out easily when the sail is raised.  On command, others begin to haul on the halyard and out on the bowsprit the sail begins to rise.  I begin to help haul in the sheet when the lead seaman tells me to make off the downhaul and coil it down.  The sail is not fully trimmed in yet so I make my way towards the bow mindful of the still flogging sheets with their deadly blocks.

Shouting behind me makes me pause and look.  It is the captain on the bridge.  I can’t hear what he is saying but decide from the vehemence of his tone that I should not do what I was about to do and return to the after part of the fo’csle. The lead seaman who had sent me says apologetically, “I shouldn’t have sent you there so soon.”  I am told to report to the captain and walk aft and climb up to the bridge to do so.   He explains that he was yelling at me because the sheet should be trimmed in and under control before anyone goes up to the bow for safety sake, and that I should approach from a different, safer angle, which is a good idea.  I explain that I was following orders and am grateful for his warning and advice.

By the time I return to the fo’csle the sail is raised fully and sheeted in. I return –carefully approaching from the captain’s safer angle—and make fast the downhaul and coil it up.  As I finish the order “Stand by to set the mainsail!” comes and I head aft to help.  When the big sail is released to drop from its yard I help haul in the tack, the thick line that holds down the clew, the windward lower corner of the sail.  That line will take great strain and it takes four of us pulling together to haul it in tight and make it fast.  Then it is a matter of coiling and hanging the lines that we have been using before I return to mopping the head floor.

Nicki coils a line.

Nicki coils a line.

I haven’t finished mopping when I realize that it is time for me to be on lookout. Again I leave my mop and climb the steps up to the top of the fo’csle.  I tell the previous lookout that I am there to relieve her, and she tells me that there are no ships in sight.  As she does so, my eyes sweep the deck and I see that a short but critical line called a tack pennant that holds down the lower corner of the inner jib has broken and is dangling in the wind.  It is one of a pair of lines that form and inverted V.  If the other one breaks under the great strain of the strong winds we are experiencing, there will be nothing to keep the sail from sliding up its stay and making a big mess.  In strong winds, anything that breaks could be dangerous.  I call back the previous lookout, point out the broken line, and ask her to report it.

Before she can do so the order comes, “Hands to brace the fore yards.”  The Bosun summons me down from lookout to help.  Amidships, we haul on the braces, the lines that swivel the yards around the masts to catch the wind.  This process takes four or five people, hauling together on successive lines, to change the angle of the yards to the captain’s satisfaction.  I overhear the captain make a remark that we have “turned the corner,” and changed our course to sail directly towards Ireland.  For days we have been sailing eastwards, south of our course to Ireland, to avoid some low pressure systems that have been passing to the north of us that could cause storms to our north.  This has put us on a course for the Azores, and we had begun to be tantalized by the hope of a stop at these Portuguese Islands which were the end of the known world in Columbus’ time.  The captain’s comment puts an end to these hopes.  Our course has changed from east to northeast and there is noting between us and Ireland, 1,200 miles away.

During the process of hauling on the braces to trim the yards I try several times to tell the Bosun about the broken tack pennant, but he is too busy with what we are doing to talk and puts me off.  Finally I get to talk to him and tell him about the damage.  His response is to tell me that it is serious and I should have told him more forcefully.  I knew it was important, but not that it was that important.

I return to my post as lookout on the fo’csle head, scanning the horizon for ships or anything else of importance.  I suddenly see a large black object only 100 feet off our bow.  It is a whale, and I report it to those on the deck aft of me, who crowd the rail to see it.  Closer inspection shows it to be a sperm whale, the species of Moby Dick, prized by the old whaleships.  It is the first and only sperm whale that I have seen and I am thrilled, particularly when others talk about how rare this sighting is.

I return to scanning the horizon, moving around the fo’csle so I can see through 360 degrees.  Eventually my hour as lookout ends and I am relieved.  I then do my ship check, winding my way through the ship to see if all is well.  When I am finished, I report to the mate of my watch.  Finally, after two hours of activity, I get a few minutes breather.  Normally I would be assigned a job painting or doing other tasks, but this is Sunday, so we are not doing that sort of work.  Instead, I get to sit on a box on the quarter deck and talk to Nicki, a young woman from Vancouver, about her reasons for coming on the trip: a desire to escape the ordinary, have an adventure, and see some of the world; common sentiments among us all.

My next task is to wake up the next watch, easy since most are up already.  As I am about to go below to do this the Bosun stops me.  One of my watch mates is seasick and he needs someone to do the next lookout.  “Give me two minutes and I’ll do it,” I tell him.  After hurrying through the wake-ups I am back on the foc’sle to relieve the lookout, only a few minutes late.  “There is nothing out there,” he tells me and leaves.

I just begin my scan of the horizon when I see the mate of my watch on the quarter deck, pointing off our starboard bow.  I look in the direction he is pointing and in the distance I see an island: faint, dark, high and cloud shrouded. To the right of the first Island is a second, larger and more distant than the first.  The Azores!  After fifteen days at sea I am thrilled to see land, even in the distance. But I am chagrinned that I hadn’t seen it on my own and that the previous lookout either didn’t see it, or didn’t think it was significant enough to tell me about it! I climb down off the foc’sle to tell Donald, the cook, since I know he will want to see it.  He joins me, as does another, and we excitedly discuss this and other landfalls until the mate sends me word that I am supposed to be looking not chatting.

All we saw of the Azores, a distant view of Corvo Island.

All we saw of the Azores, a distant view of Corvo Island.

I am soon back to serious business, since the mate has also sent word that there is a ship ahead that I should look out for. It is not yet visible, so I walk back to the chart house to look at the Automatic Identification System, an electronic device with a transponder system that responds to other ships and gives them a ship’s name, location, bearing, and Closest Point of Approach.  This ship is 20 miles away, just off our starboard bow, and still out of sight over the horizon.  Back on the foc’sle, after ten minutes of watching and waiting I see a dark lump on the horizon which looks more like a rock than a ship.  I walk back to the quarterdeck to report this sighting to the mate.

Gradually the tiny lump on the horizon grows and becomes a container ship on a course to pass us fairly close by.  But I don’t see it pass.  I am relieved at lookout by a member of the next watch.  My watch is over, and I hurry amidships to join the other members of my watch for a brief muster before we disband and go to lunch.  It has been a busier than usual morning and I like that.  I have made some mistakes, had some successes, and learned some things.

16. PASSAGE TO IRELAND WEEK TWO

16 PASSAGE TO IRELAND WEEK TWO

Saturday, June 7, 2008

So far, we have had an almost perfect training passage.  We began to learn the parts of the ship and all the lines (ropes) while we were still at the dock in Lunenburg and putting the rigging and sails together.  Then we had a couple of days at anchor in Lunenburg harbor getting used to being on the ship away from the dock before we sailed.  Our first week at sea gave us light winds, which allowed us to learn how to handle the ship without the strain, stress, and danger of a lot of wind.  This week has brought us more wind, not enough to be a gale or a danger, but enough to drive us along and to enable to learn how to handle the sails and the ship in moderate and even slightly strong winds.

We have had good sailing this week, never having to use the engine, and just enough variation in the strength and direction of the wind to gain experience in handling the sails.  We finally have the royals, the uppermost square sails, bent on and have been using them.  They help our speed in light winds, since winds tend to be stronger higher up off the surface of the sea.

Bending on the main royal.

Bending on the main royal.

Bending on the main royal, nearly 100 feet above the deck.

Bending on the main royal, nearly 100 feet above the deck.

When the wind gets stronger we take in some of the sails so the ship is not pushed too hard, usually starting with the royals—the uppermost square sails, followed by the t’gallants—the second highest square sails.  Removing the uppermost sails reduces the ships heeling—the lean to leeward from the pressure of the sails—since being up high they have the most leverage, and reduces the chance of the slender upper masts and yards breaking.    After that, we might take in the spanker—the gaff-rigged sail on the mizzen mast—for balance, since it is the closest to the stern and in strong winds a push on that sail may make the ship want to weather-vane into the wind.  Or the captain might decide to take in the mainsail to reduce the drive and keep us from going too fast.

When the wind gets lighter, we set more sails to keep us moving, reversing the process described above.  When the wind changes direction we brace the yards around to trim the sails to take advantage of it.  In general, the wind has been from the south and we have sailed southeast to east-southeast, towards the Azores.  We are now approaching that group of high, mountainous islands and may even see some of them.

The rhythm of watches—8-12 in the morning and 8-12 at night—continues to structure my day, as does meals.  Sleep and meals are often high points of the day, nurturing us as we shepherd the ship across the sea.  There is also time for recreation: conversations with shipmates, reading, writing, matinee movies on someone’s computer, and—for others—smoking, cards, and chess.  One day I heard the faint sound of a fiddle and traced it to the ship’s hold, where I found Gary—a dentist from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, practicing his fiddle in the only place he could find that wouldn’t bother anyone.  Noise is an issue, since we are running 24-hours-per-day and someone is almost always sleeping.

Gary practicing his fiddle in the hold.

Gary practicing his fiddle in the hold.

We have seen quite a bit of wildlife on this voyage.  Those who have voyaged a lot say it is more than they have seen before.  We have been almost constantly accompanied by sea birds and we hear them chattering at night.  We have seen a number of dolphins and finback whales, and even one day an orca.

The orca whale.

The orca whale.

Dave, Erin, and Jackie

Dave, Erin, and Jackie

A passing yacht.

A passing yacht.

The captain has begun to hold classes in the late afternoons—when the weather is good—on what is called “marlinspike seamanship.”  So far we have covered some basic spices and seizings.  Splicing is joining two ropes by intertwining their strands.  We have learned the eye splice—making a loop in the end of a rope, the short spice—joining two ropes together end-to-end, and the long spice—joining two ropes together end-to-end without making the result too thick to go through the sheave of a block (pulley).  Seizing is joining two ropes by winding twine around them to keep them together.  We learned two ways to seize two parallel ropes together and one way to seized two ropes together at right angles.  These are all traditional skills of the sailor, and things I have wanted to learn.  If fact, learning things like this is one of the major reasons I came.

I am enjoying myself a great deal.  I am gradually fitting in more with the rest of my watch and the rest of the crew, which pleases me greatly.  I am looking forward to Ireland to be able to call Barbara, have a shower, get my laundry done, and see some of Ireland.  But I am in no great hurry to be there.  For now I am enjoying the voyage.