Friday, January 07, 2005

Chris: Friday

At home we pass from building to building, oblivious of the weather. Here all our senses are alive. We are acutely aware of the weather. We feel it on our skin. We taste it in our mouths, and we wonder what more dampness, high flying mare's tails, a red dawn, or rising swells will mean. I am a walking barometer; my sinuses can detect a hurricane 600 miles away.

We are still trying to learn the lines. Hundreds of them descend to the deck, and we have to find the right ones, even in the dark, in order to shorten sail or change tacks. Each sail is controlled by more than a dozen ropes, some coming down to the sides of the ship inside the shrouds (side stays), others coming down to a pin rail surrounding the mast. There are buntlines which haul up the lower edge of each sail to its yardarm. They run down the front of the sail, like the cords to a Venetian blind. Behind the sail are the clewlines, which haul up the corners of the sail to the yard, if the sheets are let loose. There are also leech lines which pull the outer edges of the sail in and up to the yard. Then there are the braces which run out to the tips of the yards and allow us to rotate the great sails from one side to the other. And there are lifts, which go up from the ends of the yards to the upper masts, and keep the yards from tilting, and dropping us into the sea. Beneath each yard are footropes, which hang from stirrups, and on which we stand, with our bellies on the yard, to haul the sail up, furl it into a tight roll, and lash it to the yard with gaskets. Running along the top of each yard is a rod, called a jackstay, to which we can tie various ropes, and to which we can cling for dear life.

Everyone wears a harness when they go aloft, with a line to snap on different places as a safety measure. Harnesses get in the way, however, and are soon ignored, like training wheels on bicycles.

Climbing the lower shrouds (side stays) is easy, like going up a ladder against a wall. Sailors are taught to go up the windward shrouds, so that they will be blown onto the rigging, not off . The more the ship heels, the easier it is to climb the windward shrouds. The spooky part comes when you arrive at the "top," where the first section of mast meets the second. The "top" is not just a platform, where tourists can rest and enjoy the view. The platform rests on spreaders, so that the topmast shrouds can keep the next section of mast from falling over sideways. The topmast shrouds don't just run down to the edge of the top; they slant inwards sharply and attach to the lower mast. This short section of side stays, beneath the top, is called the futtock shrouds. Reaching them is like encountering an overhang as you mount a sloping cliff. To get past this outcropping to the relative safety of the top, you have to reach out, over your head, and climb backwards, hauling yourself up and over the edge and then up the topmast shrouds, until you can swing around and step on to the platform. This is easy at the dock, but more challenging at sea, because the ship rolls and pitches, while its three masts scribe lazy elipses in the sky.

Sailors are taught to hold on to the shrouds, rather than the footropes--called ratlines--when they climb. The shrouds are fat and strong--steel cables wrapped with tarred marlin to keep the water out. Ratlines are lighter stuff. They can rot and break. Museum ships are the worst. They go no where and do nothing. Rain water snuggles into their fibers; you can almost hear them rot. In November of my freshman year in college, when I should have been writing papers, I snuck down to New York City to help bring the Mayflower back from a summer of showboating at the Circle Line's 42nd Street pier. A bitter wind was blowing off the Hudson as we bent on sails for our final salute to the Big Apple. One of my jobs was to carry ropes aloft to crew members strung out along the main yardarm. I had about 70 pounds of line coiled across my chest as I started up the futtock shrouds. Then a ratline beneath my feet gave way and I suddenly found myself hanging in space. Fortunately, I was
able to swing my feet inward, monkey-like, and find better footing. Then I slowly began to make my way down towards the deck. But the first mate had seen what had happened and as we met he asked, quite calmly, where I was going. "I thought I might go back down to the deck for a moment." "No, you are not," he said. "You are going up there," pointing to the top of the mast, 100 feet in the sky. "You will go all the way up, cross over to the other side, and come back down." There was no point in arguing. He was bigger than me. So I did as I was told; up over the futtock shrouds, up the topmast shrouds, which were loose and twisted back and forth as I climbed. Needless to say, when I arrived back at the top, I was ready to go back to work. Nothing more was said, but the mate knew. Had he allowed me to go down to the deck, I would never have gone aloft again.

Nobody is supposed to be out on a yardarm when we maneuver the ship, and therefore brace the yards around. Nor is anyone supposed to mess with the lifts. Years ago I was straddling the end of the foreyard, trying to tame a sail as we came into harbor, when someone on deck got the bright idea to brace the yard around, and let go the lifts at the same time. Suddenly my end of the yard plunged ten feet, and whipped back at the same time. I was nearly spilled off the front before I clutched. As it was, I ended up looking 60 feet down and aft, as the sides of the ship and tugboat alongside presented a pair of foaming jaws waiting to grind me up. That's why you don't mess with the lifts, or haul braces, when sailors are out on the yards.

Captain Walbridge doesn't give many orders. The crew knows what to and does it with quiet efficiency. I saw this first at the Port of Albany in November, as they re-rigged the ship after motoring through the Eire Barge Canal. I couldn't hear anything from dock as the huge bowsprit was shipped home and the jib boom sent out. Nor did I hear much as the foreyard was hoisted into place. At Mystic Seaport, the demonstration crew insisted on singing every time they hauled a line. Here we just grunt quietly to ourselves, except when we raise a heavy tops'l yard. Then it is call and response: the prosaic heave-ho.

After three days at sea I begin to suffer from NWS--the newspaper withdrawal syndrome. Snug in my wooden-walled bunk, which fits me like a coffin, I dream of Saint Anna of the Tailgate, who hands me my New York Times every morning.

Over the Christmas holidays Nicole told her grandmother that she would be sailing on the Bounty, and her grandmother gave her a short history, written in 1922, of Nicole's great-great grandfather, who had sailed out of Salem and Boston in Melville's time. Joseph Osgood went to sea at age 16 and became the captain of a full-rigged ship at 20--the age of most of our crew members today. In his mid-20s, Osgood took his wife and two-year old daughter to China, twice around the Horn, in the clipper ship "Gamecock." A few years later, he took the family to India, where he delivered the ship "Oriental" to new owners and brought his family across the Arabian Desert to Cairo, and home from England on the steamer "Adriatic." The Osgoods might not approve of their great-great grand-daughter setting a topsail, but they would be amazed to learn that she has clocked more miles crisscrossing America in her pick-up truck than they did sailing tall ships around the world.

Captain Osgood would also be shocked to learn that of the 30 souls handling this great ship, 18 are women--ten from Mary Lyons' seminary and eight from the Bounty's own crew. The only women to go to sea in his day did so as wives or passengers; no proper young lady of his time would ever be seen with bare arms and legs, draped over a yardarm. His wife, however, would have had plenty of arduous work of her own below decks, and would have toiled in a cumbersome long dress, even on windy days at sea. A fully-dressed woman in Mary Ann Osgood's time carried 43 pounds of clothing on her back.

Most of our crew are as inexperienced as Melville was when he first shipped out for Liverpool. Two, however, are ringers. Natalia logged 3,800 miles from Tahiti to Honolulu on SEA semester's brigantine, Robert C. Seamans. It was on that voyage than she became, among other things, a movie star. Cindy joined the Seamans in Honolulu and, with a broken arm, sailed to San Francisco.

I decided not to join a watch for the first few days out. We have calm weather and plenty of sailors, so I have been joining every watch and napping in between. For the past two mornings I have watched my students climb aloft in the pre-dawn light, lay out along the main top'sl and main yards, and set sails. This morning I took the helm from Nino so that she could join Natalia and Anna on the main yard. All still wear their harnesses and clip on aloft. We are making about three knots under fore and main courses, main tops'l, and stays'ls. The ship is perfectly balanced in this configuration, with no drag on the rudder.

Cindy and Natalia have taken up celestial navigation with a vengeance, timing each other's sightings and writing them down. Elettra is learning dead reckoning this morning from Andy, the first mate.

The captain taught me how to make a new spar on deck with nothing but a circular saw and power plane. He buys 2x10 joists from Home Depot and, laminates them with home-made clamps on deck. The spars are then painted white at each end and slathered in tallow in between.

Nighttime is spectacular now that Florida has sunk below the horizon. First two nights we were accompanied by shrimp boats; last night we were all alone. When the sea was calm, even Venus shimmered across the water. The dolphins play with us day and night. Last week I reread Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner--the Dover edition with Gustave Dore's magnificent illustrations. I'm now convinced that Dore must have stood a night watch to capture the massiveness of the ship's bow works
and lines in the starlight.
posted by Chris