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Rachel's Journal

Aug 28, 2010 by Chris Pyle in General

Rachel’s voyage –August 2-12


[Note: Rachel Stevens missed the course due to illness, but joined the ship in Duluth, Minnesota, between  August  2nd and 12th. The following are excerpts from her journal.]


August 2, 2010


                I knew, stepping off the plane in Duluth, it was going to be quite the adventure. Going from the 98 degree days of Atlanta to the 60 degree mornings of Minnesota is not an easy adjustment. Especially when you only have one jacket.  But it’s hard to grasp the concept of cold when its 98 + 80% humidity and, thus, hard to pack accordingly. Still, I have a feeling two weeks of shivering will be well worth it.


I hooked a free cab to the docks and roamed through an assortment of tall ships in search of the Niagara. I found only an empty wharf and her info boards. With panic descending, I called Bob Harkins who reassured me the ship was on a day sail and gave me the number of the chief mate. I called and was told to return at 2 to assist on the next day sail.


I was positively vibrating with excitement (and caffeine) by the time the Niagara sailed in. As she floated up to the dock, bobbing like a piece of cork, I was surprised how small she is. 198-ft from spar to spar is not so great in comparison to the nearby buildings.


My first impression of the Niagara crew was a hurried “welcome aboard, someone take her,” from the chief mate. I was thrust into the hands of Ordinary Seaman Jeffery Gallager.  He showed me the quarter deck, the berth deck, the galley, and the ward room. The boat was so crowded with enthusiasts I could hardly meet the crew. As we left the dock, I joined three other newbie Niagara sailors on a tutorial of Niagara’s rigging. We followed 3rd mate Chris Cusson up and over the fighting top (first platform on the foremast). I did a lot better than some others who inched along like snails. During the remainder of the day sail, I trailed behind Jeff like a lost puppy trying to keep up (and failing), hauling when told, meeting who I could. Though willing and able—gun-ho, really—I’m very little help. Not knowing where to go or what to do when I get to a line is frustrating. I hate being out of my element. Since most of the ship had shore leave, I went back to the hotel and took a long, hot shower. 


August 3, 2010


                The next morning I rush out to buy toothpaste and a water bottle before the 8 am muster. Billy put me in Bravo Watch under Rob, the bo’sun, and Joe, the second mate. Niagara crew is divided into 3 Watches—Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. This means a third of the crew is always on deck ready to adjust the sails, steering at helm, and one on lookout. Billy sort of gave up trying to give me a matching set, so I end up with seabag 29 and hammock 31 and spot III. After I switched my stuff over, I went “on deck” and ran through the “lines.” Trying to adjust to the nautical jargon is oddly familiar. It’s the same with climbers, mountaineers, and kayakers; they all have their own language, so it’s not the first time I’ve had to mind my lingo.


Today, I'm under the wings of Alex Weber and Beth Landers. The crew consists of several different classes of sailors. Trainees, like me, don’t have a clue. Apprentices have usually sailed for a few months and have a basic understanding of what’s going on. Ordinary Seamen have been sailing for years and know what’s what. Able-Bodied Seamen are the pros. OSs and ABs  are paid crew, though ABs get a bit more.


Alex taught me how to steer: keeping a sharp eye on a great big compass, the tiller is moved port or starboard to keep the needle on a certain coordinate.


We are in a race against the other tall ships. We started, officially, at noon and are making our way toward some unknown finish line 300 nautical miles away. Billy was giddy as a school girl. I find it both funny and indicative of the type of Niagara’s atmosphere, though, that at 11 we were washing the deck instead of “unfurling” and setting forth like the rest of the tall ship armada.

Pride of Baltimore was our greatest opponent. She held first place for hours until we overtook her. But a couple hours later she had to turn back because she had daysails in Duluth on the morrow.


August 4, 2010


                The race is still on and Niagara’s fast. We’re making 10-13 knots (knot = approx. 1.2 miles) with the wind off our quarter (behind us). Occasionally we see the Denis Sullivan, but the rest can’t keep up. At some point, Billy got it into his head to put up as much canvas as possible—so they rigged up the sail from Cutter 2 behind the spanker. I'm spending a lot of time on helm or on lookout. So much so that I'm starting to want to hoist and haul. I hate having to stand idle and quiet, especially on the helm. Can’t distract the officers.


                Had a lovely 3-7 Watch. I went on deck to a clear, starry sky, the bright glow of the moon, and the pale canvas rippling quietly in the wind. As we sailed I was taken aback by the calm. Niagara is beautiful slipping through the dark water.


Sleep seems impossible. Ear plugs and all, the noise is so distracting. The hammock isn’t bad though. I have spot III, which is above the table storage area, so I don’t have to break it down every morning. Of course it clouded up later and the air cooled—a low pressure system, according to the bo‘sun. Alex has stuck to me like a tick—to the point I want to start swinging. But I’m just cranky. Assistance is always appreciated. Breakfast was bleak—I was too tired to care much or say anything intelligent. Went to “sleep” again til 11 and then restlessness caught me. I actually haven’t slept much, but the downtime is nice.


I sat down with Rob for a bit and he showed me the bowline, clove-hitch, and slip tie. I practice while on lookout. It’s nice having something already down—I can tie figure 8s and half-hitches in my sleep.


August 5, 2010


                Lake Superior is beautiful. The water is such a deep blue, without the green and gray tones that cloud the Atlantic. I truly feel asea and haven’t sighted land in days. The horizon is a straight, unbroken line. It’s freedom. Conversely, there are so many rules on Niagara. You can’t dangle your feet overboard.  You always have to have shoes. You can’t sit down on watch. You can’t run or shout or swim. I'm getting sick of all the can’ts and don’ts in my life. But such was the life for sailors in the Perry’s navy.  None of that democratic coddling—just work, work, work.


The race has ended.  I'm not really sure when or where, but Beth just told me. We’re nearing the canal locks that lead us to Lake Michigan and, more importantly, port at Sault Sainte Marie.


It’s a good thing the race is over because the wind died and we’re creeping along at 1-2 knots. It’s remarkably slow. Captain held a long class on the battle Niagara was in. Paul fell asleep. It was interesting, though, to hear of how hard the men were pushed. They worked for several months straight just to build her, then the minute she’s done, Perry’s off with an undertrained, sleep-deprived, and sick crew. The lack of wind also emphasizes his point on just how sketchy naval battles were. Having to rely so heavily on the wind makes ships vulnerable and one realizes just how risky Perry’s charge was and why Eliot kept the Niagara back. According to the original Niagara’s logs, on the day of the battle the wind was a whopping 1-2 knots and gusty.  I can only imagine the thoughts and fear running through those sailors’ heads as they drifted so slowly toward their enemy, the possibility that they might become sitting ducks any moment. What a horrible way to do battle—30% death rate.


                It was late evening when we got to the locks. I’m amazed by the great things our ingenious little human minds can produce. The canal locks, a brilliant concept in itself, are a way to cross between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Because of the elevation difference between the lakes, water is either pumped into or out of the locks, depending on which way one’s headed. We dipped down until just the t’gallants were above ground level and a massive concrete wall towered above us.


Though we haven’t been voyaging long, I find it strange to see grass and buildings. After days of staring at the horizon line, all the colors and shapes are strange. I sometimes worry how used to the wilderness I become. Still, I can’t imagine what it would be like to sign onto a ship for years at a time. Jeff, an Ordinary Seaman, has been on since September and he’s antsy to get off at Green Bay.


My first dock watch was fun. Jeff hurriedly showed me how to tie on chafe gear with a few half-hitches. With only an hour to kill, Beth and I told hiking stories and did a deck check. Matt, Sydney, and Melanie slept on deck so I tried to walk softly in my foulies.

August 6, 2010


                The deck was busy as Isaiah and Paul restocked the galley. To keep the rest of us occupied, Rob and Ben held knot-tying and splicing classes. I'm pleased to say I have the bowline down—I can almost tie it one-handed. We left late afternoon, which was perfect because we were all hands for Bravo’s 1300-1800 Watch. I hate being all hands, then having to go on Watch.


                Alex told me we’ve been sailing more in this past week, than they have in the past 2 months. Apparently I picked a good leg of the trip because we’ve been zipping right along. The other day Captain kept the royals up through 2 watches—which is unusual because if royals have too much strain on them, the masts can break. But I’d trust anything Captain does. When he looks up at the rigging, he’s gazing with 40+ years of experience. A completely different point of view.


                A storm’s on our radar, slowly but steadily approaching. I got to furl the t’gallants with my fearless bo’sun. It was my second time aloft and it was terrifying. Night was falling and I could see the big, black clouds creeping up on the horizon behind us. From the t’gallants, you can see to the end of the world. Everything just stretches out before you—even the ship seems like a tiny, separate world. But with the wind starting to kick up its heels, I was mostly focused on trying not to fall to my death and, secondly, not to mess up furling. Rob was amazingly patient and I gave him a gratitude hug when we returned to deck. 


August 7, 2010


                I was fast asleep when all of a sudden I hear “Man Overboard! Man Overboard!” So I leap up and run on deck. I cast off the first life ring I come to and run back to where they’re lowering Cutter 1. Peter calms me down and explains it’s a drill (laughing at my distress the entire time). I then help him load the fake fallen sailor out of Cutter 1 onto deck. Captain then reviews our performance—not too bad, but we needed to keep up the cry longer. Then we have a practice fire drill, for which of course, I’d forgotten my post, and a practice abandon ship drill. That the abandon ship drill is so necessary makes me a little anxious. As much as I want to convince myself the ship is secure, I know there is a very real possibility of something going wrong.


                We’ve ducked into the cover of a little cove just out of the shipping lanes. At some point, we set anchor. It rained and I slept. The storm wasn’t as terrible as I feared, just a bunch of rain. The ship rocked and rolled, but I wasn’t terribly nauseas.  We called all hands once to brace the yards, but then I got to sleep again.

By evening, it’d passed. I helped Sam patch a hole in the fore tops’l. Sewing is an essential skill to have as a sailor. Most of the Oss and ABs have their own rig—a holder for their spike and knife—which they’ve made out of leather. The spike, a 5” metal spike, is used to help loosen or tighten ropes.


Later Paul, Jeff, and Joe whipped out their guitars and the majority of the crew crowded round to sing. Fern had an accordion, of all things, and a violin—which shows how homeschooling makes kids weird. Anchor watch with Rob which is always worthwhile. He’s so enthusiastic and positive—like a big kid. A lot like Beans, actually. Slept on deck with Peter and Amy.



August 8, 2010


                Awesome day. Captain held a class on the techniques of sailing. It was way over my head, but the ABs were fascinated. We took out the small boats. Rowing in a small boat is nothing like canoeing. Going out, I was bragging to Peter—oh, I'm an excellent paddler. Top-notch. But nope, I couldn’t get into the rhythm. Then I got to maneuver Cutter 1 under Chris’ instructions. It was mostly me following his instructions—“Okay, forward handsomely. Hard to port.” – and not really thinking myself. But I successfully docked against the Niagara without damaging anything so I’m putting that in the win category. Sailing with the captain was the best though. He’s such a sweet guy.  Funny, too. I always feel like I’m with my grandpa, though, and I just want to please him. Sailing the small boats really helps you understand the importance of sail position and wind.


Deck showers after sailing. The water was frigid but amazing. Joe and Billy, my shower mates, laughed as I danced back and forth. As it was the Captain’s birthday, we had a “formal” dinner and Isaiah made delicious cake. I had to borrow a long, blue dress from Fern to look the part—all I’ve brought are work clothes. Everyone ate together on deck which is nice. I feel like these little social gatherings are necessary to keep the crew laughing and happy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.


August 9, 2010


                The day started with rain and an all-hands call. Helped raise the anchor via the capstan.  As I walked round and round with the heavy wooden bar against my chest, I felt like the poor donkey in Pirates of the Caribbean.


We sailed into Manitowoc, Wisconsin, for fresh water. We arrived early afternoon. I helped throw fenders over portside. We were all excited about getting some shore leave; Bravo would be stood down at 1800 and we could all go eat real food (though the real joy came in not having to clean up after).  BUT Billy decided it was a great moment to rearrange the watches. Why he didn’t want to wait until morning muster baffles me. So instead of getting my evening, I’m now starting watch at 1800. Jeff, who got switched into Charlie along with me, was grumpy moods and stomped off to a bar;  I stomped off to shower. The Maritime Museum’s offered us hot showers.  Paul is no longer Galley Hand—I thought it was his permanent position, but no, he was only on rotation for the week. Peter replaced him and got his own cabin. Very cozy.


                I had dock watch with Ben 1800-1900 and stood guard at the gangway. Having to answer the many questions of curious passerbys made me feel relatively knowledgeable. Though, I kept denying the sweeps were oars until Ben corrected me. But at least I knew most of the facts. I think I can now fairly assert that Wisconsin folk are strange. Their accents are so nerdy, they’re all pale and, shall we say, not quite attractive. But bless their hearts, they are shockingly friendly—maybe more so than North Carolinians.


August 10, 2010


                Got to explore the Museum this morning before heading out.  Showered again too; I take what I can get. It was an interesting progression of shipping on the Great Lakes. The transition from tall ships to steam ships seems the strangest to me.


I love the action of sailing in and out of ports—getting to haul and feel useful. It’s a rare feeling for me these days. But I am sort of proud at the steps I’ve taken. I knew how to set up chafe gear at Manitowoc, and how to throw the fenders over. And I can find the braces, which I consider an accomplishment.


It’s weird being in a new watch. I was so accustomed to hanging around with the same 8 people. I hate not being with Alex and Beth—they’re both so nice and helpful and fun. We laugh so much and I have Jesse to run to if I need directions.  Ben, the head AB, likes to keep us on 1/3 hour rotations through helm and lookout. I find that odd, but it makes me feel a lot busier, which is the point. Rob kept Bravo watch on hourly rotations, and that could get tedious.


August 11, 2010


                Watch 11-3. Foul weather threatened. Because I was one of the few trainees in Charlie watch who’d gone up so high, Jeff took me to furl the main t’gallant.  It was pitch black. The wind had picked up.  I was terrified and, much to my chagrin, couldn’t  remember  how to tie off the gasket.  But I got a sick thrill out of perching precariously a hundred feet in the air while the ship rolled under me. The mixture of fear and amazement—it’s indescribable.


                 Luckly, the storm ran by us. I got to set the jib with Ben. It was my first venture into the head rig. Though the nets always seemed an alluring nap spot, I’d never gotten the chance to actually go out. He just needed me to clear some line or something, but it was fun trying to sidestep along the footrope.


August 12, 2010


                It was a long, long day, weary and dreary and long. Watch 3-7. The night started clear, but slowly a fog drifted in. By 5 we were blowing the horn every few minutes. Somehow, it also came down to me doing a deck wash by myself. I love deck washes, but doing it solo is frustrating. Particularly when two other girls are clearing out cobwebs—third mate’s orders. This is why I’d never succeed in the military. I hate inefficiency. When incidents like this occur, I just want to stop everyone and explain that it would be quicker and more thorough if you put three girls on deck wash and then they could hunt down spiders.


We got stood down for breakfast but after we were called back up to assist Alpha as we neared Green Bay. Of course, Alpha went to unfurl sails and tried to make Charlie do dishes until Jeff said WTF, I’m not touching dishes. Because of heavy fog, we kept two lookouts. I was kept on lookout for a few hours as passed through a narrow canal into Green Bay, which was fine by me. I’d like to think it was cause of my brilliant updates; “uh, Chief Mate, there’s a cluster_____ of small boats two points off the starboard bow.” He chuckled.


 Before lunch, Susan told me I was galley major. So I got to set up all the tables down below, wash, peel, and dice veggies, store all the tables, and put away EVERY SINGLE GODDAMNED DISH (except for the 4 water pitchers, thank you Carrie) because everyone else was furling the sails as we came into Green Bay. Around 1430, Isaiah gave me a break so I took a nap until Sam came down at 1500 to ask me if I was feeling okay and didn’t I know we were all hands? Luckily Isaiah, blessed angel of culinary delights, intervened and I got to peel more carrots. So last day sailing kinda sucked, but the ship doesn’t exist for my entertainment.

  --Rachel Stevens



Coming home

Jun 27, 2010 by Chris Pyle in General

Coming Home

This week, I was shocked to discover that the most difficult part of this course was leaving the Niagara. From the outset, I had hoped that I would enjoy the experience, but I never imagined I would be so loath to return to “the real world.”  The transition has not been easy. In nearly every task, I find my mind wandering back to our days on board ship and missing the simplicity of a well-ordered life. While on board, I did not worry about the courses I am taking next semester, my study abroad applications, my work schedule, or the endless to-do list associated with my sister’s wedding. Without my computer or a reliable cell phone connection, there was little I could do to assuage these anxieties, even if I wanted to. Emails and to-do lists would have to wait.

 It was such a different environment from the world I had just left behind. I must confess that for as much as I love Mount Holyoke, it can be a stressful place. Being surrounded by such high-achieving women is intimidating! It seems that there is always something I should be doing to study for an exam, write a paper, get into graduate school, land a good job upon graduation, or win a fancy fellowship. At the college, there was always a deadline to haunt me unless I began working on it immediately.

The ship incited no such anxiety. For as little as I knew about pin rails, knots, or history, there was none of the stress I associate with Mount Holyoke. Work on the ship was so all consuming and  exhausting that I had little time for stress.  Indeed, it was a relief to escape “real life,” if only for a  while.  I actually relished the opportunity to suspend my incessant planning and simply follow orders.

Now as I spend my nights in front of a computer catching up on who-knows-what, I find myself wishing I were standing watch instead. As I don heels and skirts for my internship, I long for my tar-stained sneakers and running shorts. Most of all, I miss the comfort of just following orders.  If I want to wake up, I must set an alarm. If I want to eat, I need to make myself a meal. If I want to have a successful year next year, I must attend to all those emails and lists.  

--Kiki Boyles

Patriotic fog

Jun 27, 2010 by Chris Pyle in General


Patriotic fog

            For me the most lasting image of our voyage is of Put In Bay, Ohio, on Memorial Day weekend. Thousands of once beefy men and their bikini-clad women from Sandusky and Detroit roared into the harbor on Friday night for a weekend of beer drinking. As they lay about on their white plastic boats listening to boom boxes, I could not help but feel hopelessly anachronistic. I used to march in Memorial Day parades.

            We were at Put In Bay to take school children out for short day sails, near to the place where our ship’s ancestor took control of the Great Lakes, thereby persuading the Duke of Wellington that it would be futile to bring his army across from France following the defeat of Napoleon. But the children showed no more interest in the War of 1812 than the boaters bar-hopping on shore. The teachers showed even less. Some were interested in the guns on deck and the miles of rigging overhead, but no one asked why the United States had attacked Canada in the first place.

            Our ship, with its giant American flag, recalled a momentary victory in support of a failed invasion. Americans remember the victory but forget the invasion. Public school textbooks neglect to mention that American soldiers torched whole villages in Canada in the dead of winter, thereby encouraging the burning of Washington, Nor do they record how close the United States came to military and financial ruin because of the incompetence of its war-makers. Had any of us committed these truths as we showed off our ship, we might have been accused of disloyalty. At Put In Bay, our ship was wreathed in the fog of patriotism making it impossible to see across the lake, where Canadian monuments celebrate our defeat.

            The most salient memory most Americans have of the War of 1812 is not to be found in our ship, but in the “Star Spangled Banner.”  If one listens to Francis Scott Key's words, however, they are more about survival than victory. But the function of war memorials is not to warn voters of lives wasted for no good end, but to persuade another generation that there is glory to be had in allowing politicians waste theirs. Thus, the American invasion of Canada cannot be remembered for what it was -- an ill-advised challenge to one of the world’s superpowers by a small, unprepared nation that was very lucky, when the killing ended, that Great Britain was even more tired of war than it was. 

            The war was a resounding political success for Madison’s Republicans and Clay’s “War Hawks,” who turned their foolhardy war into a mythic triumph of nationalism and, in the process, destroyed the more conservative, anti-war Federalists of New England. But who questions the party politics that lie behind most wars, especially during beer-soaked celebrations of Memorial Day?

                                                                                    --Chris Pyle           



Sailor Pastimes

Jun 25, 2010 by Susanna G Labowitz in General

As an avid Internet junkie, I thought I might waste away on the three weeks out to sea. I, however, was pleasantly surprised to find a wonderfully funny, musical, dancing crew ready at all times to entertain themselves and the rest of us. While precious down time was frequently occupied by reading or writing in journals, my favorite sailor pastime was, by far, sitting at the bow of the ship, listening to someone play guitar, sing, and sing along with them. Singing wasn’t something left only to the off work hours, Alpha watch began singing the classics while washing dishes, even while setting a sail or two. Though we never learned any traditional sailor ballads, it is clear to me that music is and was an integral part of the sailing experience. Though never much of a singer myself, hearing Travis and Brian’s endless renditions of “Friends in Low Places” bonded our watch and lifted our spirits, even on the longest days.


-Susanna Labowitz

The Cook!

Jun 15, 2010 by Susanna G Labowitz in General

The last thing I expected embarking on a tall ship was to be spoiled, and then Isaiah was there. 


Usually, he's and A.B. on the Niagara, but circumstance called for him to step in as our cook, and step in he did. Creature comforts are few and far between on the Niagara. Our cozy hammocks and a clean set of clothes can provide a whole lot of relief after a long watch, but there is nothing like a hot meal. Isaiah managed not only the task of feeding 30-some people hearty meals 3 times a day using a wood-fired stove, but catered to a number of food allergies, including one of my own. Everything was delicious and, even after spending all day in a hot galley, Isaiah was always cheery. The trip wouldn't have been have as fun without 3 square meals, served with a smile. 

 Louise Opel

Day Sails and Squalls

Jun 15, 2010 by Susanna G Labowitz in General

The Niagara offered 2 days of day sails during our stay at Put In Bay, OH. Day sails are, to say the least, hectic. All the activity of casting off, setting sails, maneuvering, stowing sails, and docking was stuffed into 3 or 4 hours for 2 very sunny, hot days. Moreover, I wanted to do it with some semblance of grace, because we had a crowd of guests on the ship. For a trainee like myself, it was exhausting, but there were minimal fumbles and the daysails proved to be a good way to drill the skills we were learning.

 This became apparent a couple days later when, on the way from Kelly's Island to Erie, we found ourselves outrunning a squall. We were ordered to take in a sea stow all sails. It happened without a hitch, which was unsurprising with such a skilled professional crew, but I was surprised to feel truly useful for the first time on the voyage. I felt like I did my small part aptly, for once, and I have a suspicion the day sails helped cement a few lessons well in my mind. They're hard work, but certainly useful for a student. 

Louise Opel 

Living with Sailors

Jun 08, 2010 by Chris Pyle in General


I have spent my entire life living in an all female environment. At Mount Holyoke, this is obvious. Except for the occasional boyfriend visiting the residence halls, Mount Holyoke women enjoy an oasis of female companionship during their four years of college. Prior to my time at Mount Holyoke, I did not have much experience living with men either. With two sisters, a female dog, and a few purportedly female aquatic pets, my home growing up was always dominated by female forces. In sum, I have never cohabitated with any members of the opposite sex. This all changed radically when I came aboard the Flagship Niagara just two and a half weeks ago.

Just a few days before climbing onto the ship, I had been waist deep in finals, making the late night struggle alongside my fellow South Mandell-ians, whom I had known for at least the full academic year. We fought through the all-nighters together, interspersing the occasional call for more caffeine with girl-talk study breaks.

Once on the Niagara however, my tight knit group of fellow Mount Holyoke students was quickly replaced by a group of strangers in much tighter quarters. Approximately twenty individuals would be sleeping in their newly strung hammocks in a room about half the size of the South Delle common room. Not only would we be sleeping in such a confined area, but there would be no escape from this new male-dominated culture. I do not think I had fully considered the implications of living with all women until I was faced with this most stark of contrasts. As one might imagine, it was something of an adjustment.

More than once, the Mount Holyoke trainees were caught in conversation that seemed downright outlandish to the men who had decided to listen in, and vice versa. There were topics, which I believed to be completely legitimate dinner table conversations at school that somehow did not float so well once on board. This is not to say that living with men is so terrible. It is just very different. Yes, I realize this sounds incredibly obvious.  Regardless, after living with women for so long, it is difficult to imagine anything else.

At this point, I can say that I adore the men I had to learn to live with on the Niagara. I am greatly indebted to all of them for their endless patience with me in the past couple of weeks, and I would not trade this co-ed experience for anything. However, I must say that I will be a bit more appreciative of my Mount Holyoke living space come September.


Kiki Boyles  





Up Aloft & In The Rigging

Jun 06, 2010 by Susanna G Labowitz in General

            Richard Henry Dana, Jr. wrote, in Two Years Before The Mast, “Unintelligible orders were so rapidly given and so immediately executed; there was such a hurrying about, and such an intermingling of strange cries and stranger actions, that I was completely bewildered. There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life.” When we first stepped onto Niagara, we were entering a whole new world, so unlike the one with which we were familiar. It was a world we would later classify as a reality in which we could not stay. But for two and a half weeks, as Niagara became home and our shipmates our companions, we grew from landsmen to sailors. English words were traded for sailor jargon, everyday chores were strangely altered, and we were expected and encouraged to do many things which our mothers would surely not have allowed were we at home; thus we began our life at sea.
Sailor Jargon
Floor = Sole
Downstairs = Down Below / Below Decks
Upstairs = On Deck
Kitchen = Galley
Bathroom = Head
Stairs = Ladder
Rope = Line
Pulleys = Block & Tackle
Ceiling = Overhead
Hallway = Companionway
Ramp = Gangway / Brow
Wall = Bulkheads
Boatswain = Bo’sun
Main Mast = Mainm’st
Staysail = Stays’l
Chores & Everyday
1.      Make your bed…a.k.a. stuff your sheets inside your hammock, tie it up, and stow it.
2.      Brush your teeth…by spitting off the bow (on the leeward side).
3.      Eat your breakfast…as fast as you can and possibly crouched on the deck.
4.      Wash the deck…with a fire hose.
5.      Coil every loose line…so that it can be run out moments later. Do it again. And again.
Things My Mother Would Not Allow At Home
1.      Taking a nap on the sole (floor) in the middle of the day.
2.      Waking her up in the middle of the night if I have a question.
3.      Washing the dishes with a bucket of lake water.
4.      Climbing seventy feet in the air and letting go with my hands so I can work (while still maintaining 3 points of contact, of course).
5.      Referring to juice as “red drink” and “yellow drink.”
6.      Swearing
7.      Standing lookout and reporting every boat, buoy, and piece of floating debris (just joking...sort of).
8.      Dismantling the table after I have finished eating.
Eliza Braunstein

The Fire Hose

Jun 06, 2010 by Susanna G Labowitz in General

 Between cooking with a woodstove and using electricity on a wooden ship, there’s a very real danger of fire. During fire drills – and if there were a real emergency – I’m part of the damage control team. This means that I set up the fire hoses and pull them across the deck to the scene of the fire. Sometimes I tend the hose, either spraying lake water over the rail or pretending to hose down the Captain’s cabin. Other times I tend the fire hose while our fully outfitted “firemen” put out the fire.
      We also use the fire hose to wash the deck. I love deck washes because the deck is covered in rushing water and we’re allowed to have bare feet. We “swab the deck” with brushes and make certain to get all the sand and grime off. Wetting down the deck has the dual purpose of expanding the wooden deck boards. They swell with water and stay watertight. Additionally, they’re less likely to split under the hot sun.
            But the third use of the fire hose is my favorite. We get to take fire hose showers! Though the water is frigid Lake Erie water, all of Bravo watch crowded under one day and, I might add, stayed under longer with fewer squeals than Alpha watch!


Eliza Braunstein

The Sound of Music

Jun 06, 2010 by Susanna G Labowitz in General

There are some moments on a ship when you realize you never want to be anywhere else. One evening last week, half the ship’s company gathered on the bow. The sun was setting and the sails were snapping in the light wind.  I was perched on the monkey top with my corduroy overalls rolled up to my knees and my legs swinging. To the strum of the guitar, we launched into Hey Jude, Wagonwheel, and several improv sequences which detailed the passing of the jib as we sailed along.



A few nights later, we gathered again in the park at Put-in-Bay.  Sprawled across a picnic table or laying in the grass, and later piled in the gazebo as a storm rolled in, we spent over two hours singing as Paul played guitar. A passing tourist smiled as Cat Steven’s Wild World echoed through the park and with a collective effort we were successful, too, in recalling all the verses of Piano Man. Though our voices lacked harmony, there was something magic and nearly unexplainable about singing with my shipmates as the sun set over the water.
            As the first raindrops fell and the mosquitoes swarmed, we made for our ship. The masts and rigging stretched high above the harbor, a beacon to welcome us back. As John Denver once wrote, the country roads will soon take us home. But every time I hear that song, I will think of Niagara and of my shipmates and of the magic that I found when I sat and listened.

Eliza Braunstein


Finals onboard the Brig Niagara: The Pinrail Chase

Jun 05, 2010 by Chris Pyle in General

On the morning of our last voyage, all of the trainees and professional crew engaged in a great Niagara tradition, the Pin Rail Chase. The Pin Rail Chase is the culminating “exam” for all of the trainees, which tests our knowledge of the ship and all that we have learned in the past two weeks. Included on this exam, is of course the pin rails, to which each line is made fast. Knots and other ship-knowledge may also be incorporated into the challenges. For each round, a member of each watch, Alpha, Bravo, or Charlie, must step up to compete against the other watches. Trainees compete against trainees, Ordinary Seamen against other Ordinary Seaman, and Able Bodied Seaman against other Able Bodied Seaman. This exam had been anticipated for days, as we had all been warned by the senior members of our watches that this test would be coming. All of the honor of our watch would be riding on our performance in the Pin Rail Chase. The tension on the ship on the morning of the Chase was palpable. Each watch had spent their last night preparing and studying deep into the night. Potential “trick” questions were discussed: Charlie watch was advised not to blink when asked where either the water line or the pickup lines were located.

 Charlie Watch on the Bridge 

      The morning was ripe with competition and anticipation. At the beginning of the competition, the rules were set. There were no rules, except that technically we were not supposed to run on deck. However, as the games progressed, running became the only option as the war became fierce. Everyone had prepared well, and as a result, winning each battle depended on quick feet and perhaps a bit of deception. Body checks became a reality, and bruises were certain to appear by the next morning. In the end, Charlie watch made a valiant fight, but were nudged out by Alpha watch. Bravo came in at a sad third place. I have it on good authority that this was one of the best, most intense Pin Rail Chases in the recent history of the Niagara.


-Kiki Boyles

Small Boat Sailing

Jun 05, 2010 by Hannah L. Rachootin in General

During our stay at Put In Bay, Ohio ("The Key West of the Midwest"), we split our time between giving tours and sailing on the small boats that we carried with us throughout the voyage.  The smaller boats are called Cutters.  While they are all designed to like the period small boats that would have accompanied the original Niagara, Cutter I has a motor so that we can use it for assistance when we arrive at a port or in the event of someone falling overboard.  The other Cutters can be either rowed or sailed, I rowed in Cutter IV and sailed Cutter II (and rowed her when there was no wind).  Though sailing vessels like Niagara are of course wind powered, there is a huge human-power component as well:  there are always a line that needs hauling on or coiling, and a wealth of other tasks to do.  Ironically, I found it far easier and more relaxing to pull oars on the small boat; the wind may be free, but it not easy to capture. 

Sailing the small boats was  fun, and gave us a valuable perspective on sailing the Niagara herself.  It was very easy to understand what was going on, since there was only one sail to think about, rather than a dozen, and only two lines to pull, not two hundred.  We all took turns controlling the sheet, helping pull the sail around from one side of the mast to the other to tack, and steering at the tiller.  The most exciting part of the sail was when we found out that one of our lines was rotten and the yard and sail fell from the mast into the water.  All of us trainees were startled--I thought someone had fallen from the boat--but our shocked silence was quickly interrupted by the quiet laughing of Captain Rybka. 

In the battle of Lake Erie, one small boat in particular played an important role, shuttling Oliver Hazard Perry from the destroyed Lawrence to the Niagara where he finished the battle victoriously.  Had it not been for his intact small boat, (and the Niagara!) Perry would not have been remembered as a war hero.   



Recreating History: Past, Present and Future

Jun 03, 2010 by Chris Pyle in General

  The Brig Niagara has been raised and reconstructed several times since 1913. On this particular replica the Niagara carries pieces of the original in the doors of the Ward Room. Otherwise what remains of the original voyage is the crew preserving traditions.

The deck consists of over 170 running lines, many over 100 feet in length, just as they would have been in 1813. Perry’s crew of 150 men used these lines (the ones connected to sails) as their only mode of transportation. This meant small squalls that Niagara would power up and escape from today, would have to be sat out by the 1813 crew. Today the Niagara can be effectively sailed with a crew of 18 experienced seamen. On this Voyage to the Past, in particular, Niagara sailed with 18 professional crew members and 19 trainees. This sail concluded without a hitch, because as Perry knew all too well, experience and competence makes all the difference.

The up keep of the Niagara today ranges from similar daily routines to maintenance that, because of modern technology is unnecessary and only practiced once each year for show. Several days ago one of these occurrences took place. One watch was instructed to holy stone the deck. This process consisted of laying down sand and water and scrubbing the deck with stones to sand the deck and reduce the possibility of splinters. Perry’s crew is said to have done the entire deck twice a day. Our current crew was only able to complete a five by five foot area in one hour; incomparable to the man power of 1813.

Regular deck washes are still commenced twice a day, just as they would have been done in Perry’s time; once to clean the deck and once to create a bulge in the deck to enhance water resistance and cool the deck on hot days. On hot days similar to the last 16 days I have spent on the Niagara, steam can often be seen evaporating from the deck seconds after the water touches it. Though, I must say, I would much rather be seeing cold water steam off the deck than rain landing on it from above.

--Molly Markoski

Sailing Full and By

Jun 03, 2010 by Hannah L. Rachootin in General

My favorite place to work on the ship is at the helm, pulling the tiller back and forth to steer the ship.  The Niagara weighs 311 tons, or about as much as 160 cars.  In order to not be overtaken by the weight of water piling up on the rudder, the tiller is connected to ropes and tackles on each side.  When we gave tours to school children, we demonstrated the mechanical advantage of the tackles by having the strongest two members of the group push with all their strength on the tiller itself while two or three kids held them back with just their thumbs and forefingers pinching the ropes connected to the tackles. 


Ordinarily on the Niagara, two helmsmen stand at the helm, one on either side, using the tackles to follow the orders of the officer in charge.  The orders are quite simple: “half right,” “touch left,” etc.  Most of the time, we are given a compass course to steer and adjust the tiller to maintain the course ordered.  Occasionally the officer checks in, telling us to “Mark your head” and report our current course in degrees. 

On the way back from Put In Bay, Ohio, we had our best sailing day of the trip; all the sails were set and the wind was strong and steady.  I was called to the helm, but this time everything was different. Instead of standing on deck with a partner, I was told to stand on a deck box up against the bulwarks and hold both steering lines at once, steering “full and by,” rather than a compass heading.  I was told to watch for the sails luffing, or losing the wind, and to try to stay right on the edge of the line of wind.  I had no idea what to do, or which way to pull the tiller.  Along with not really knowing what to look for, my new position was disorienting.  But I was alone, and driving the ship.


 Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am not the most confident driver of one car, let alone the equivalent of 160 cars.  The chief mate did not care about my hesitance to take control, however, and turned away, leaving me to fend for myself, straining my neck to look for the clues I would theoretically be able to see 120 feet up in the rigging.   

I was relieved and gratified to hear after a few minutes that I had actually gotten the hang of it.  The terrifying idea of steering such a massive vessel became liberating.  It was the most exhilarating driving I have ever done.  But after an hour, when I was relieved from the helm, I had trouble unclenching my fingers from the ropes and straightening them out.  I had not realized that I’d been holding on for dear life. 



No One is Left Behind and Everyone is Important

Jun 02, 2010 by Susanna G Labowitz in General

  So far the voyage has been fantastic. I graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst two days before driving to Erie, Pennsylvania. The following two weeks completely changed my life. I feel as though I am now free to sail the world. I always wanted to travel upon graduation, and I’ve found my ticket. I have learned a great deal about sailing, open water, community, family and what it means to be a part of a dedicated and functioning team. Each person is needed for every step. No one is left behind and everyone is important. We’ve all done a fantastic job “learning the ropes” and really understanding the procedures involved in sailing a brig.


I am extremely proud of the whole Mount Holyoke group as well as the kids from Alleghney College and Edinboro University. We’ve all come a long way. We gave tours of the U.S. Brig Niagara to 600 school children one day in Put-In Bay, Ohio. We really knew our Battle history. I was extremely impressed by the amount of knowledge Eliza dispersed about carronades in the Battle of Lake Erie. That night we had squall coming in close to the ship. All of us took on the role of professional crew members securing the Niagara as the squall moved passed us onto another island in the lake. Everything was handled beautifully by the crew as well as the officers and captain. I’ve been strongly considering the idea of never returning to land because who wants to be a lubber? I mean nothing in the world beats sea stowing the t’gallant over one hundred feet in the air on a windy day.  Life on the ship is a much more fulfilling one and I’ve never had a moment on this trip in which I could imagine wanting to be anywhere else. The open water and the family of the crew is the most genuine life I could have ever asked for or dreamed of being in my day to day life. The ship encompasses more of a home experience than any that I have lived in for the past four years. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I plan to travel on many ships as possible as long as I can climb those shrouds everyday upon the open water, without a vessel or piece of land in sight. Nothing beats the feeling of knowing that you’re key part of something so much bigger than the ordinary. I am a sailor, and plan on being one for the rest of my life, or at least until my hands split and my back is no longer capable of such.


-Amanda Welch