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.”


Life Lessons

January 16, 2007

January 11, 2007

It has been nearly a week since we embarked on this adventure of a lifetime. Among our Mt Holyoke group are ten traditional aged students and three Frances Perkins Scholars. One might wonder why someone my age (38) might want to take a trip such as this.

First of all, I am a visual learner. I have read all about bunt lines and clew lines, standing rigging and running rigging, but to tell you the truth it did not make much sense until I began tugging on them. Secondly, because I began my family before I went to college and am now a single mother with four sons, I am extremely self-sufficient, very rarely asking a neighbor for an egg never mind asking a sailor to save my life. For this past week it has been a necessity for me to learn to depend heavily upon others.

This ship is all about team work and trust. We learn the ships hardware in teams. We take orders, answer and obey each order in teams. The Captain expects this of us so that he can assure the safety and efficiency of the group as a whole. Each individual is responsible for the protection of the ship and crew members on a rotating watch schedule. We watch for fires, floods and unwelcome guests. We protect each others lives. The day might come when the members of this crew will have to depend upon me.

It felt so much like home

January 16, 2007

January 12, 2007

It is really busy here, even if you are off-watch. There are many things to do and see in the islands, and that is why I was not able to keep up-to-date with my entries for the blog. I have been accumulating them in my journal and never had time to type them up.

My second day in Grenada was amazing, touring the island with members of the MHC group, crew members Evan and Travis, and Sara, another sail trainee. The whole trip was full of surprises and fascinating things. In this trip, I got to see and taste fruits that I never even heard off. In addition, I got to see the beautiful landscapes of Grenada, such as mountains, forests and waterfalls.

I went to the market, which reminded me so much of the Friday market back home. This was not the only thing that I found in the island similar to that of Algeria. Though, the two countries are geographically located in different continents, they still shared many cultural similarities. For instance, when walking in the street, I felt safe. Moreover, the way people drove in the streets, high speeds and no organization, was another similar aspect. In addition, one of the most interesting things was that of Taxi drivers. One can get a Taxi very easily because you do not have to ask for it, the drivers would offer you a ride, but you would have to negotiate the prices. Nevertheless, there was a tradition different from home, the piping style. I found it an interesting way of communication between the drivers, they would pip every other five minutes. It was funny but interesting at the same time.

In just a day, I got to experience many things that I never thought would have the opportunity to experience. I really enjoyed and loved Grenada, which reminded me so much of home; however, it was really sad saying goodbye to the island and the people. It was an amazing and unforgettable experience, and I hope I would be able to visit Grenada again in the future.


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

Turbid Waters

January 15, 2007

January 11, 2007

Our first week on the Picton Castle has been amazing. We have done things I have only dreamed of doing. After being daunted by the sheer number of lines when we first boarded, I am now familiar with nearly all of them.

I have been collecting data on the turbidity of the waters we have been sailing. Turbidity is amount of particulate matter that limits the penetration of sunlight and therefore what can grow and thrive. I have been measuring this simply by lowering a secchi disk into the water and recording the depth at which it disappears from sight. The data will be used as part of an independent research project. This trip has made me appreciate how much local, non-scientific knowledge can broaden my thinking about marine science.

Yesterday we hiked to a secluded beach where we snorkeled, swam, and chilled for the day. The scenery on both Carriacou and Grenada is endlessly green. Fruit trees abound. Hard to believe that just a few years ago Ivan blew every leaf off the trees and most of the roofs off houses. Our guide in Grenada sent us back to the ship with a pile of exotic fruits he picked for us along our way – mangos, bananas, nutmegs, coca beans, cashews.

The sailing has been awesome. Today we sailed off the anchor at Tyrrel Bay to sail north past Union Island and back to Hillsborough. The wind blew from the east at about 15 knots and we set all but the royals and a couple of staysails. Most of us have climbed aloft a few times; some have gone out on the man catcher net beneath the bowsprit to furl headsails. The pro-crew have now accepted us as friends, and are there to help us climb aloft, secure lines, coil the proper way, and generally become useful. The other trainees are also very nice and supportive and as a whole we have had many great times.

Tomorrow we will move to another bay, practice small boat handling, do more snorkeling, and barbeque on a deserted beach.


Teaching and Learning

January 15, 2007

January 11, 2007

Many of us did not know what to expect before boarding the Picton Castle in Grenada. After my first week of being on the ship, I can easily write that this experience has been much more than I could have ever anticipated. Although my initial goal was to learn how to sail a tall ship, my experience thus far has reached far beyond my own expectations.

Between the long days of sail training, domestic cleaning, ship up-keeping and the slow days of unwinding, relaxing and exploring the Caribbean islands, I have learned that there is much more to tall ships than just sailing.

As I sit here reflecting on the last week I have spent here, I can here Joe (our carpenter) singing and strumming his guitar. It is the moments like these when the work day is over and we are all together under the stars, that I tell myself to never forget this.

Although this trip has been filled with different physical and mental challenges, I have found that, in addition to learning all the “how to’s” with sailing, becoming integrated into the actual crew has been an experience all in itself. As we are all learning about the bunts and clews and braces to haul and ease, we are also gaining knowledge from each other—professional crew and sail trainees. To be on a crew is to be a part of a family. I personally sensed this almost immediately upon first boarding the ship when there was an initial reluctance from the professional crew to become close with any of the new trainees. This apparent attitude was understandably explained by the recent loss of a crew member in a man overboard incident that occurred in the North Atlantic within a few weeks before our scheduled journey through the Caribbean. However given the circumstances of long and hard working days combined with the beautiful atmosphere and vibrant cultures of the Caribbean islands, it became inevitable that the professional crew, sail trainees, and us (the Mount Holyoke students) would quickly bond. Through this, I have personally found that the professional crew has a lot of knowledge to offer that involves more than just the mechanics of a tall ship. The stories that some of the professional crew are willing to share are insightful and enlightening. As a sailor walks softly and speaks quietly, a sailor’s story is filled with volumes of journeys from the tragic to the spiritually fulfilling.

In my sail training I have felt the trust and respect that binds this crew together. I have found that my most favorite thing to do during sail training is working aloft. I never really knew if I had a fear of heights, but all of my anxieties about climbing up the ratlines and working my way across the yard standing on a line quickly diminished when I looked around and saw I was surrounded by people I trusted and respected, regardless of how long we have all known each other. Aside from learning that I am in fact not afraid of heights, I am convinced that working aloft was most comfortable for me because I knew I had been properly trained by a crew who cared about me and my safety.

Along with bonding over training, I have observed that the playing has also created a strong crew. Whether it’s swinging from the bow of the ship into the water during a group swim or jumping sixty feet off a cliff alongside a waterfall, we are all here cheering each other on and it creates a truly positive atmosphere for everyone to learn in.

The generosity and good humor of the island locals has made traveling particularly easy for all of us. I felt that the dynamic of the islands we have visited is somewhat similar to that of the ship. In a way, this ship is its own small island. On the islands, the locals take pride in their communities and are more than willing to show us around once we express interest in learning about their lives. Similarly on the ship, the crew is proud of what they are a part of and as long as we are willing to learn and see things from their perspective, they are more than happy to teach us.

A logo on a t-shirt in a stand on Paradise Beach in Carriacou read: “Live slow. Sail Fast.” We all enjoyed the logo and even talked much about it after which also lead to a quote mentioned by one of the trainees: “Lose your mind. Find your soul.” This trip so far has definitely reached beyond the academic winter term standards and entered a soul searching dynamic which often goes hand in hand with traveling.

I can’t wait to learn more. I can’t wait to see more. I can’t wait to find out more about myself with these wonderful people I have met!