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 . . . .



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”

Benito Cereno

January 16, 2007

It is always a puzzle to know what to assign for reading in this course. This year I chose Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, a wickedly devious story about a slave revolt on a Spanish ship off the coast of Chile in 1799. I was persuaded to do so by Chris Benfey, my colleague across the hall in Shattuck. Chris is a wise fellow, and when he makes a suggestion, I listen.

Cereno is about ships and the sea, and therefore qualifies for this course. But it is about much more, and most particularly the culture of non-inquiry that leads tourists to look upon these islands and never see what lies beneath. The Spanish largely passed them by – no gold. The French and British saw their potential and imported slaves, who frequently revolted. Their descendants – like the late Maurice Bishop of Grenada – continue to revolt in different ways. In previous centuries, the revolts were against a white planter class. Now they are more likely to be against the white-run hotel chains that create gated resorts to which they sell package deals, and thereby guaranteeing that few tourist dollars will be spent in local businesses. All that is left for the locals is to become chambermaids, and clean up, yet again, after the white foreigners. Melville would have understood this new form of colonization, backed on occasion by the U.S. navy and its marines.

In Benito Cereno, Melville’s American captain, Asa Delano, is refilling casks of fresh water behind a deserted island when the San Dominick comes into view, her sails in tatters. Being a good fellow, he visits the mystery ship to offer assistance. There he finds a largely black crew and a dispirited Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, closely attended by his faithful black servant, Babo. To Delano, the good-hearted Christian from Duxbury, Massachusetts, black Africans are like Newfoundland dogs, and he looks upon them as kindly as he would dogs. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the good Captain is as dumb as a Newfoundland, and that the shrewdest men on the ship are the blacks. When Delano finally comprehends that the blacks have seized the ship in a bloody revolt, made possible by a naïve and kindly slaver owner, all he sees is the terrorism of dogs who have turned upon their masters.

Like most Americans of his time, Melville’s captain refuses to acknowledge the atrocities of slavery, for that would have required him to concede the rightness of their revolt. All Delano can see is the plight of his fellow, white, Christian captain, and the salvage award that will come if he recaptures the ship.

The only white to realize the awful truth is the troubled Spanish captain. Three months later, he dies in a monastery while Asa Delano sails home, serenely confident that he has done his Christian duty. Unlike Cereno, Delano still does not comprehend the enormity of the wrong he has done to the blacks. For all his republican values, he does not recognize that each of them had a right to freedom and that the only Christian thing to do was to aid their return to Africa, or at least stand neutral to their attempt, however impossible it might be.
Benito Cereno is a sly satire of the fugitive slave laws, as enforced by the Melville’s father-in-law, judge Lemuel Shaw, pillar of the Boston establishment Shaw was so enamored with the sanctity of law that he could not see the depravity in returning slaves to captivity. His counterparts today would be the state and local police officers who enforce the federal government’s efforts to deport illegal aliens, regardless of their circumstances.

But the novella could just as easily be a satire of how easily Americans accept what the U.S. military and CIA continue to do in the Caribbean, or in Afghanistan or Iraq. Like nineteenth century Yankees, we believe in liberty and national self-determination, but do not understand that these ideas – when we practice them – cannot be imposed upon people who, like the San Dominick’s slaves, don’t even share our language.

But Melville’s satire goes beyond that easy insight. Like his Puritan ancestors, Melville understands depravity. Years at sea exposed him to plenty of depravity, even among seamen of great courage. Melville shows us what happens to a good-hearted slave owner who gives the oppressed men and women he owns a chance for freedom. They repay his benevolence by flaying him alive and then hanging his skeleton below the bowsprit. Melville could have told the current captain of our ship of state a thing or two about bombing Iraq for ten years and then expecting its Muslim residents to welcome our Christian army as it grinds into Baghdad in tanks.

But Melville also could have warned Maurice Bishop of the dangers of carrying off a left-wing coup in Grenada and then not protecting himself against a revolt by fellow revolutionaries. Liberty, equality, and justice are grand ideals, but their survival depends, ironically, on the disciplined exercise of power.

— Chris

Operation Urgent Fury

January 9, 2007

It is difficult to think of this little spice island as a threat to the United States. Its population would barely fill the Rose Bowl and its chief exports are sugar, bananas, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. But after local leftists seized power in 1979, four years after independence from Great Britain, the U.S. government resolved to throw them out. The regime of Maurice Bishop had great ambitions for cooperative business ventures, education, and social welfare but committed the unpardonable sin of aligning itself with Castro’s Cuba. Bishop even endorsed the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Reagan administration was not amused. It ordered our secret government to destabilize Grenada and plan an invasion.

Reagan’s excuse came October 19, 1983, when Bishop was deposed by a murderous band of rival Marxists. Six days later, “Operation Urgent Fury” was unleashed upon the island. U.S. paratroopers dropped from the skies, along with thousands of comic books prepared by CIA propagandists. You can read an especially silly one at www.ep.tc/grenada. Americans soldiers gave their lives so that Grenada could again become a banana republic.

Congress was not consulted about this invasion, President Reagan said, because time was of the essence. U.S. medical students in the island’s north end urgently needed to be rescued. That was false, as school officials later explained.

The attack was also needed, U.S. officials said, to prevent Communist Cubans from building an airport that Soviet bombers could use to strike at the Panama Canal. This, too, was bogus; Soviet planes could just as easily attack the Canal from Cuba. Cubans were part of the airport’s workforce, alongside Canadians and Finns, but the company that employed them was from Great Britain. Contrary to what Reagan claimed, the airport was never designed to be a military facility, e.g. with hardened bunkers, and after the invasion the United States finished the project, to accommodate tourists like us.

The President also claimed that a coalition of neighboring islands had requested the invasion, but their so-called request was drafted in Washington.

The invasion diverted attention from President Reagan’s decision to cut and run from Lebanon after 242 marines were killed by a suicide truck bomb. Some critics said diversion was the invasion’s chief purpose. What they did not know was that the invasion had been practiced by marines two years earlier on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

The attack violated the U.S. Constitution, the UN Charter, and international law, but was applauded by two-thirds of the American public. In Connecticut Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, criticized Lowell Weiker, a Republican, for raising constitutional objections to the Grenadian invasion, and won the election. In Washington, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney saw how easily inattentive voters could be lied into supporting unconstitutional wars to depose foreign regimes.

After the invasion, Bishop’s agricultural cooperatives were shut down. Labor unions were reorganized, and a new right-of-center government welcomed American investors. St. George’s, with less than half the population of South Hadley, became home to 118 off-shore banks and a haven launderers, tax evaders, and swindlers.

Most Grenadians don’t like to talk about this invasion, known locally as “the intervention.” Most Americans little know or long remember what happened here, three years before most of our sailors were born. But the graffiti on local bridges urging “Americans go home” remains a fading reminder that the Caribbean is, militarily speaking, still an American lake. We are mere tourists, learning how to sail, but all around us are memories of recent military operations, including Panama to the west and Cuba and Haiti to the north. Remnants of covert operations surround us, too, in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia. If “Kick ‘Em Jenny” lurks below the sea, “Kick ‘Em Sam” is just over the horizon.


Vaseline on Eggs

January 8, 2007

The Castle took a terrible beating in the confluence of several storms, and we have been able to help with cleaning her up and packing in new stores. One of our first jobs was to scrub down all the heads with bleach. Several no longer work, and that too has become a challenge of a different sort. Then we wire-brushed rust and undercoated it with rust inhibitors. This required unlashing all sorts of gear and laboring in high heat and humidity. Then Senia and I were sent below to wipe Vaseline on 400 eggs before they were stored away in the hold.

Our group has been divided between two watches as we sit here at the quay. The port watch has done the lion’s share of the labor; the starboard watch has been able to see more of the island. Saturday morning the port watch got the morning off and grabbed a van and guide for a quick trip into the hills which, like everything else on the island, were devastated by hurricane Ivan. Seventy percent of the houses and nearly all the churches and municipal buildings lost their roofs. The trees were all stripped bare.

But Annandale Falls is a bucolic glen, unspoiled by the devastation. We were greeted by “Super Splash,” one of several locals who plunged 60 feet into the pool below. After a couple of demonstrations, he left it to us to climb the cliff and follow his example, and three of us—Becky Gavagan and two crew members, Evan Rickett and Travis Anderson—attempted the challenge. Evan and Travis studied the problem scientifically, ascertaining that the target hole underwater was about the size of a Volkswagen. Becky studied them for a while and then practiced her well honed leadership skills, leaped first, forcing the men to follow her.

Evan, I’m delighted to report, sailed with us on HMS Bounty two years ago. I’m hoping he will again become a guest blogger.


The Neighborhood

January 8, 2007

Grenada is a small island, about the size of Martha’s Vineyard, but looks larger, because of a mountainous interior, well-watered by northeast trade winds.

We landed at Point Salines, on the southwestern corner of the island, and took a twenty minute cab ride north to the capital. St. George’s harbor opens to the southwest, and has two branches: the deepwater Carenage to the north and a yacht-deep Lagoon to the east. We found our ship in the Carenage – where tall ships used to be careened on the beach to scrape, paint, and repair their bottoms.

St. George’s is built along the sides of an old crater. An old fort, built by the French, stands guard to the west. That’s where the leaders of the next-to-last coup were murdered in 1983. The murderers, deposed by US Marines, reside in a prison up the hill back of town.

On November 18, 1867, there was an earthquake in the Virgin Islands to the north, which caused the water in St. George’s harbor to drop five feet. The reef in front of the Lagoon appeared, and then disappeared, as the water rose four feet over its normal level and sloshed three or four times into the Carenage, wiping out many of the boats and buildings there. Fortunately, no one was lost in the slosh, but there is an underwater volcano three or four miles off Grenada’s north coast. It’s name is “Kick ‘Em Jenny,” and she is the southernmost active volcano in the Lesser Antilles.

Jenny’s summit, 4,300 feet above the ocean floor, rises and falls, but is currently 580 feet below sea level. Sailors pass over it without noticing, but it has erupted 10 times since 1939, sending six foot tsunamis into northern Grenada and the southern Grenadines. The last time it boiled was in 1979, flooding Grenada’s beaches with dead and rotting fish.

Grenada is one of the Windward Islands, on the easternmost arc of a long string of volcanic protuberances. The trades blow in from the east and north east, which puts Grenada and Barbados (further to the east) to windward of the other Antilles, which arc up torwards Cuba. Those further west and north (like the Virgins) are called the Leeward Islands, because ships sailing downwind from Europe reached them later. The Windward Islands are also called the Lesser Antilles, because they are dwarfed by the Greater Antilles of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Jamaica.

We will sail north through the Grenadines to Martinque – a former French colony, which will put the prevailing winds on our steerboard side, if you happen to be a Viking. For the most part, we will be in the lee of the islands, sheltered from the trades and deep sea swells. But not, of course, from Jenny – the old troll under our sea bridge.