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 . . . .



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