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.