Friday, January 14, 2005

Chris: Queasy Monday

The wind has been a constant 12 to 15 knots out of the east for the past 24 hours and looks to hold on for the next 24. Andy ferried us back and forth to the fort yesterday in the whaler. At 6:30 p.m. the ride in in the dark was something of a slalom, and back out under the stars was suitably wet. But the water is warm and the experience pleasant, except when trying to get on to the Jacob’s ladder from the leaping boat. You have to time your leap to coincide with the boat’s rise and then move smartly up the sides of the ship on the wooden rungs. It’s not a move you want to mis-time, especially in the dark.

We have been anchored all night west between the fort and a reef. The reef shines light green out of the sea; certain disaster if our hook were to drag in the night. In addition to a big navy anchor (not historically accurate but much safer) we have sent out five shots (450 feet) of chain with the anchor and now it has to all be hauled back on deck. We used the new electric winch (hidden during day under a tarp) to bring up the last three shots, but now the students are bringing up the rest by hand, walking round and round the capstan. Cindy is crouched on the deck taking the line as it comes off the drum and feeding it to a crew member who is flaking it out on deck in long strips. Each turn round the capstan brings in three inches of chain, which translates to about an hour per shot. When they are done we will wind up the two big Caterpillar diesels and motor all the way to Key West. As we pass the fort we will dogleg around Iowa Rock (made famous by an old dreadnaught that went aground here a century ago) southeast to the edge of the Atlantic, below the Marquesas, where Andy can catch some fish along the weed line, and then approach Key West from the south.

The first mate and I have been speculating on what this experience might do for my Mount Holyoke crew. Knowing they come from a privileged college, and very possibly privileged families, he has been impressed by the speed with which they have adapted to life at sea. “As well bred young ladies,” he observed, “most of them have not contemplated life without the usual amenities, like showers every day, let alone actually going without showers that long.” I have been thinking a lot about that as I watch them at work, with stringy hair, dirty clothes, and broad smiles. They are absolutely beautiful unadorned. We are turning young ladies into real women.

What the mate did not know, and there is no reason he should, is that five of the eleven students were financially assisted to make this trip, some full fare. This is a need-blind course, even if Mount Holyoke is not as blind to need as it used to be when admitting students.

The wind increased to above 20 mph by early afternoon. Seas ran 3 to 5 feet, with close peaks. "The fresh breeze blew. The white foam flew, the furrow followed free." Pairs of dolphins streaked towards us, to ride along in our large bow wave. The Cross of St. George on the mainmast flew above horizontal, which would mean small craft warnings in harbor. We steamed and sailed under stays’ls. The bow reared high, and then plunged into the sea, although it looked like the horizon was rising and falling. Some of us began to turn a little green and a sign went up: “Please do not vomit in the head.” I was one of the first to spew, despite years of sailing. Meanwhile the sturdier members of our group sat crosslegged on deck, oblivious to all the rolling and plunging, happily splicing new ratlines for the rig.

At 3:00 p.m. our forestays'l blew away. The watch went forward to haul it back on board, while the helmsman took us up into the wind and then over to the other tack to make the job easier. The wire stay on which this tall triangular sail was bent parted high on the mast and the halyard broke with it. Two men went aloft to recover the halyard while the watch carried the stricken sail below. The plan is to send it back up in the dawn's early light.

Another member of the crew went aloft to secure the main to'gallant yard, which was slewing about in its yoke. In this sea and wind the ship is rolling and pitching, scribing great arcs in the sky. Another crew member decided it is quiet enough to replace the main yard's portside brace pendant, a 25 foot long wire that runs from the yard's white-tipped end (or arm) back and down to a tackle that runs aft almost to the stern. So while we were regurgitating our lunches, he was working happily aloft, even singing. The sea was brilliant; the air is warm and, despite our queasy stomachs, it is another great day to be alive.