January 29, 2007

January 29, 2007

I first learned about square-rig sailing as a member of the American crew of Mayflower II, a replica of the Pilgrim’s ship. She was then under the command of Alan Villiers, the legendary captain and author who kept the hope of sail training alive during the hard years of the Depression, World War II, and their aftermath. It was on Villiers’ bark Joseph Conrad, now at Mystic Seaport, that the students in this course got their first taste of climbing aloft on a tall ship. In many ways, the Castle’s captain and crew are living out Villiers’ dream, sailing their trim steel bark around the world.

My first encounter with Villiers, as a 17 year-old apprentice, was nothing short of terrifying. I had been told by the second mate to ring out eight bells on the great bronze bell amidships, and so I did: ding, ding, ding . . . . I was at the fifth ding when Villiers stormed out of his cabin high on the poop deck demanding to know who was ringing that bell. It was then made known to me, in no uncertain terms, that I was a wimp, and that the proper way to strike eight bells was smartly in pairs: DING-DING, DING-DING, DING-DING, DING-DING. I also learned that deep water sailors don’t have to appreciate you simply because you are on board.

I was reminded of this long-suppressed embarrassment reading Captain Dan Moreland’s excellent handbook for his crew, which begins with a passage from Villiers’ book on sailing around the world on the Conrad. The description captures my experience on the Mayflower 50 years ago and, I think, my student’s experience on the Castle.

The young apprentice may have come aboard with his head filled with queer ideas about sailing ships and the sea, principal among which is a fixed notion that all he has to do is look on while old sailors explain things to him, and then later on give the captain advice about sailing the ship. His first month at sea may be a distressing experience, shattering illusions right and left until he sees only the bare bones of real life remain. He expected romance and found work; he expected a “great life” and found himself principally called upon to perform feats of almost superhuman endurance – feats which everybody did daily and nobody ever noticed. Then after a while, . . . he finds that there really can be romance in those bare bones of life, if one knows how to go about looking for it . . . . Yes, the sailing ship can be hard, and it is not always a pleasant process to have the edges knocked off you . . . . But the [ship] casts a spell over those who sail in her . . . .



“That’s Well!”

January 18, 2007

January 14, 2007

This trip is not a Caribbean vacation. We were warned several times during the interview process. We were promised tight quarters and long days of hard work. All promises have been kept. There are forty-six on board the Picton Castle today. We share four heads, two showers, and one galley. We are experiencing life aboard a tall ship with not much deviation from the way it was when this type of transportation began.

Over the past couple of days we have noticed several luxury yachts motoring along side us. One of those yachts is anchored about a mile of our port side right this very moment. I can’t help but wonder what amenities she contains. There are probably state rooms with pillow top mattresses and a private head for each. No doubt that she holds a staff to prepare meals and attend to mechanics and piloting. She probably has a electric winch to lift the anchor. (Something that I am sure that all the sail trainees aboard this ship wish the Picton Castle would install.) Lifting the anchor on this ship entails two teams pumping the arms of the windlass for what seems like hours on end. The torture does not end until the First Mate calls “That’s well!” All participants then collapse from exhaustion.

The yacht in question is anchored off the shore of Petite St. Vincent. At night her lights are brighter than all the lights on the island tonight. The yacht’s annual budget including staff and supplies may well exceed the budget of any one of these tiny islands.

The idea of income redistribution has become a heated topic upon the Picton Castle. There is at least one of us who believes that there are far too many people on this earth and inequality is nature’s way of thinning out the population. But more of us believe that yachts that big should be taxed out of existence and the revenues used to help those less fortunate.


Who died?

January 17, 2007

Who died?

We have been laid over at Petite (pron. “petty’) Martinique, a sleepy little island off the northeast coast of Carriacou, waiting for a front to pass through. Across the bay is Petit St. Vincent’s, a private resort, invisible but for the yachts out front. The contrast is palpable; $10 million Tupperware motor yachts on one side of the bay, tiny houses with tin roofs on the other.

One narrow cement road runs through Petite Martinique. At first examination there appears to be little to no commerce. Signs are not required. Everyone knows everyone else; what few goods there are can be purchased from tiny homes or shacks. Gloria bakes white bread and sticky buns, which are only available in the late afternoon. Maire McLean sells coconut oils from her home on the main street. The hills are alive with sheep and goats, which look alike, except that the tails of goats point skyward. The sheep and goats are for eating on special occasions.

In the late afternoon a half-dozen women set up their battered Weber grills, fill them with charcoal, and sell barbequed chicken and beer to single men who have no one to cook for them. There is a desalinization plant and a diesel generator that provide water and electricity to the entire island. The Internet service never works. The health center is run by a single nurse; serious medical care by Cuban-trained doctors is a long boat-ride away in Grenada. Elementary school ends at the fifth grade; after that the students a “bused” to Carriacou by boat starting at 6:00 a.m. If there is a library, I did not find it.

Most of the houses are made of cinder-blocks, with sheet metal roofs. The newer ones, built by retirees who earned pensions toiling up north, have concrete balusters. Some even have gingerbread rake boards under their eves. Wash water is collected in big plastic cisterns from gutters when it rains.

Scattered among the white, concrete houses are tiny, shingled shacks with steep roofs and multi-paned sash windows. Most are collapsing from rot. These are a legacy from the time that black sailors from these islands sailed with Nantucket whalers – again going off island to support their families. There is no historic preservation down here; these monuments to a bygone era will merge with the volcanic dust in a decade or two.

The islanders who do not seek their fortune up north fish off the surrounding reefs and sell their catch up the line in big Martinique. Then they smuggle rum, whiskey, or appliances on the return run. (In Grenada we could only find German-brewed Heineken; here we drink the Dutch brew, which is much better. Jack Daniel’s is cheaper here than at home.) If the government of Grenada were to end the smuggling, Petit Martinique would become a ghost town, until purchased by the Marriott Corporation.

However, the chances of ending smuggling here are not good. The story is told of a Grenadian police chief who felt the need to arrest a smuggler, possibly for killing a rival from Venezuela. First he directed his sergeant to make the arrest, but the sergeant resigned instead, so the chief went to the island himself. News of his mission preceded him and when he approached shore in the late afternoon he saw that everyone was gathered around the graveyard in their best clothes. As the anchor line ran out, a messenger swam out from the beach to plead: “Oh, commissioner, sir, please come ashore quickly.”

“I don’t want to disrupt a funeral,” he replied.

“But, sir, we don’t like to bury someone after dark.”

“Well, who died?,” the puzzled chief asked.

“No one yet,” the swimmer explained. “It’s your funeral; the coffin is ready and the grave is dug. But please hurry, because it will be dark soon.”

The chief wisely raised anchor and sailed home.

During the early 1980s, the People’s Revolutionary Movement officially governed this smugglers’ haven, but it is said that its officials, like the chief, always decamped before dark.


Laura in my heart

January 16, 2007

All tall ships have an extended family of former crew members; a network that spans continents and seas. The Picton Castle’s family is especially large, and many wrote in after last month’s tragedy at sea. Many wrote warmly of Laura Gainey, with whom they had sailed from Cape Town to Lunenburg and through the Great Lakes.
The most eloquent was a 12 year-old girl, Mikayla:

“The PC’s search ends today, the reports say. My head understands but my heart is going to explode, I think, because I feel so bad for the PC family, . . . crew on the ship right now, . . . crew not on the ship, and me too, and the Gainey family. I am very proud of everybody and very sad for everybody. . . .

I have been thinking and thinking and thinking and I though the world was sure gonna be a terrible world because of the loss of Laura, but now I am thinking the world will just have to be a better place because lots of us were so lucky to know her.

Laura who just sparkled; such a hard worker, always energetic and busy, but always willing to help a sailor in training learn the ropes. She understood why I want to be a sailor, because she loved it so much. She was a bit shy and quiet, too, so we were kindred spirits. She also taught me to make the best salad dressing ever, but I don’t know if I know how to make it for less than 40 people.

I am going to be a better person because she was my friend and she was a very good role model and the kindness she gave me. Laura wrote to me last Tuesday that I would be in her heart as she sailed the seas and that she would be honoured to sail with me some day.

My parents tell me that big things or sad things shape people, so I won’t ever be the same Mikayla. I do feel older already.

I am even more determined to be a sailor and to work even harder. I will have Laura in my heart as I sail the seas or on land the rest of my life.

— Mikayla”

What next?

Others wrote caringly of the crew, the ship, and the traditions of the sea. None was more understanding than Jeff Bolster, a master mariner.

“Now that the search has been called off, and the Gainey family and Picton Castle
have to accept irrevocably that [Laura] is gone, decisions must be made about “What’s next?”

One response is to head immediately for the closest port of call, say Bermuda. Some might say that anything else would be a mark of disrespect for Laura. Others might say that the crew will be unable to cope, and will need grief counseling. But the traditions of the sea . . . suggest just the opposite. The crew of the Picton Castle needs to resume their course for Grenada. . . .

The fundamental lesson at the heart of seafaring under sail is perseverance. For centuries men and women have tested themselves in the face of daunting weather, mechanical malfunctions, and physical and psychological hardship. It has never been a secret that there is a degree of danger in the deep sea. It is fair to say that with anything worth doing, especially in the realm of physical challenge or outdoor activity, a certain risk exists. How we handle the situation in the unlikely event someone is hurt says a great deal about us. The Picton Castle’s crew will terminate the search for Laura with a celebration of her life – a life re-energized and given direction by sail training – and then they will sail on. . . .

Ships have always been a metaphor for stability in the flux of life. In the primal chaos of the ocean, a well-managed and well-navigated ship sails a course that provides direction for those aboard. It is no coincidence that after being disoriented by the hardship that life sometimes delivers, we say: “We need to get our bearings.” The crew of the Picton Castle now needs to get their bearings, to resume their voyage. They sail with a new appreciation of the value of life, and what it means to take out-of-the ordinary challenges. They sail with Laura in their hearts and minds. They will not forget her. But they sail to honor her dream. It is what she wanted to do.

— Jeff Bolster, Master Mariner”

Dreams can come true

January 16, 2007

January 13, 2007

When I was small, in the drawing class at school, I liked to draw a tall ship sailing in the sea. I had no idea what a ship or the sea looked like, but I had some theories. I thought that the sea was an endless area full of water which started in China. I do not know why I chose China and not any other country. Furthermore, I was born and lived my whole life in the desert of Algeria, where there is no surface water and the drinking water comes from tens of miles away. I got to ride the desert ships (camels), but never thought I would one day sail on a tall ship.

Despite the fact that I lived in a desert, I loved water and always wanted to sail on a ship like the one I used to draw. This time my dream came true, I am sailing on the Picton Castle and in the Caribbean. This trip has been full of interesting things and surprises. When in Carriacou, which is a small island part of Grenada, I got to go to the beach and see the beauty of the Caribbean Sea. One of the most beautiful beaches in the island was Paradise Beach, which I really liked, and I got the opportunity to go swimming, but sadly I was not able to go snorkeling.

Even though I come from a totally different environment, but I felt the connection to the place and it seemed as if I have lived here for many years. After Carriacou, we are heading to Petit Martinique, which is even smaller island, and I am sure I will experience even more exciting things.


It’s a girl!

January 16, 2007

January 14, 2007

As a French person, calling the ship a “she” is very strange to me. In fact, I have always seen English as a very logical language because what is female will be feminine, what is male will be masculine and what is neither of them will be neutral. For instance, in French, a plane is masculine but an aisle is feminine, a chair is feminine but an armchair is masculine, and as a matter of fact, there are no rules when it comes to the gender of things. So why is a ship a “she” in English? I asked the bosun the question and his answer was very interesting.

A ship is feminine because she acts just like a woman, if you take care of her, she will be good to you, if you don’t, she may not listen to you and do whatever she feels like. You have to love her or she will let you down, if you make her happy, she will do the same for you. At the time when sailors were only men, she was their girl.

Moreover, the bosun told me that they are many parts of the ship that are named after body parts. Toilets are called the heads because before toilets were installed, sailors used to go on a little plank at the bow of the ship, and the name just stuck. The ribs are the structure of the ship, the middle part of the ship is the waist, the outside parts of the blocks are called the cheeks, some parts of some lines are called the eyes, etc …

The bosun is probably the fourth person in the hierarchy of the ship, after the captain, the chief mate and the second mate. The mates are mostly in charge of the sailing, whereas the bosun has to take care of the ship as his priority. Michael, the Picton Castle’s bosun, has his captain’s license and was first mate on the last ship he sailed on, but he wants to get some experience before starting as captain on another training ship next fall. He has lots of stories to tell us, with a very calm voice, and lots to teach us too. He told me his favorite part of the training is when people have just figured out the lines, and that for the first time they realize that they have pulled on the right rope at the right time.


Petite Martinique

January 16, 2007

January 14th, 2007

Imagine you are 80 feet in the air, standing on ratlines of natural fiber in bare feet, looking out over an expanse of blue and the green peaks and valleys of Petit Martinique and its surrounding islands. Now imagine you’ve got a weighty coffee can of tree tar strapped do your harness, which rides high and tight on your waist. The tar, however, is not just contained within the coffee can, but coats every exposed inch of skin on your body. You’re sticky, you’re a nice toffee brown color, and you’re loving it. This is what tall ship sailors call “tarring the rigging.”

Today, I began tarring at 10:00 am, climbing the mizzen mast under grayish skies. I began brushing the tar on the ratlines and shrouds, realizing very quickly that hands are far better tools than brushes. I massaged the sticky brown stuff (which smells remarkably sweet, like molasses), into the rigging, all the while trying not to let the goop rain down on the deck and on my fellow crew members who were working below. Standing on the ratlines, which are ropes about 1 inch in circumference, inevitably becomes hard on the feet for a land lover like me, so I found myself switching my weight from the balls to the heels of my feet quite often. As I moved tediously downward on the rigging, I clipped by belt harness onto the shrouds and soon found that leaning out against the resistance of the harness helped reduce the strain my left arm, which was holding my upper body as I painted tar with my right hand. I steadily moved down the mizzen mast and when I reached the bottom, Lindsey, the second mate and leader of our watch, gave me another assignment: the main mast. I climbed to the t’gallant, far higher than I’ve been yet, this time under a hot beating sun and a blue sky with streaks of impending Caribbean rains. The adrenaline rush was intense, but I took my time and began to get into a “zone.” Soon, I was able to take a few strokes with the brush and then pause to look all around me. The tiny picturesque and colorful houses, the yachts and fishing boats and dinghies in the harbor, the green hills of petit Martinique – all these things looked so much more beautiful from my new vantage point.

My feet finally reached the deck at 2:30 pm. I was coated in tar, I was sun burnt, but I was beaming. It took about an hour of scrubbing my skin with sunflower oil to get all the tar off. In many ways, this voyage has required me to test my limits. I’ve learned that jumping in the ocean can be a suitable shower, that walking on the deck of a ship while underway requires impeccable timing, that one really can “work up” an appetite. But most of all, I’m learning that I, along with my Mount Holyoke friends who are here, can do some pretty crazy things, some things that we would perhaps never have envisioned ourselves doing. And not only do we do these things, we enjoy them, we derive satisfaction from them. MacGregor hit the nail on the head when he said, “sailors work and play really hard.”