Monday, January 10, 2005

Chris: Saturday

On Saturday we raised the main to’gallant yard, which is like hoisting a 35 foot long log 85 feet into the sky. This black log carries a furled sail, numerous hanks of rope, and assorted wires. The halyard was wrapped around the capstan and the students walked it round. It was clear to the captain and me that the yard was rigged to go up upside down, but we said nothing, waiting to see if the crew would figure it out. Eventually, after a little prodding from the captain, they did, and lowered it back to the deck for re-rigging. Then they hoisted it again, up past Anna who was standing on top of the main yard to guide its rise, and up to Mike and others standing on the cross-trees. It rose to the top of the topmast, and then suddenly dropped about eight feet, swinging in towards Anna. She never flinched, and stood by her post. It fell because a strop, used to hold a hauling block (pulley) to the bulkhead, broke, giving one of the crew a severe whack in the head and sending him below for an ice pack. Our hero of the day was Mike, who seemed totally comfortable working at the top of our highest mast, wisely clipping on with his harness, but otherwise fully absorbed in his tasks. He is greatly admired by all. But he was up there with Megan, a first-year student at Smith and a member of the ship’s crew. She not only wrestled with the errant yard; she filmed the exercise for us.

According to the captain, sailors in the Queen's Navy could lower and raise a yard in nine minutes. It took us over two hours to hang this one aloft, without reeving all her lines to the deck. So this Bounty is not ready to return to naval service. Has too good a sense of humor, anyway.

After dinner--another triumph by our good cook Ralph--the first mate Andy reminded us of the contract. The crew would bring us to the Dry Tortugas, we and they would sail us to Key West, but we will bring them home. That means that our group has to select its own captain and mates and learn all the commands for working each mast, as well as navigate. Curiously, our group is more confident of its capacities to do both dead reckoning and celestial than to work the ship, although that was before tonight’s maneuvers in the dark. They have each received one-on-one tutorials in the chart room for the past three days.

We raised the Dry Tortugas at about eight p.m., a faint glow in the southern sky. Our permit to land is not until 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning, so we sailed back and forth all night. Night time is the best time to learn the ropes, because we have to find them in the dark. On the 12 to 4 a.m. watch we wore ship four times, clewing up the fors'l, setting and dousing the main and mizzen stays'ls, and clewing and unclewing the spanker.

The lighthouse on Loggerhead Key flashes every 20 seconds. On the port tack at night it was about 20 degrees off the starboard bow. On the starboard tack it was about three degrees off the starboard fantail. These islands lie so low on the horizon that it wouldn't take much of a tide to wash them away. Ponce de Leon dubbed them "Las Tortugas," after sea turtles he slaughtered here in 1513. The old conquistador was searching for a fountain of youth, but there are no fountains of any kind on these shoals. If you want fresh water, or any other libation, you must bring it yourself. The Park Service makes this emphatically clear. Smokey is not a St. Bernard.

The harbor here is dominated by Fort Jefferson, one of the largest forts ever built on the American coast. Begun in the 1850s, it was promptly rendered obsolete by advances in naval gunnery and a dearth of foreign predators. Like many military construction projects, however, the absence of enemies did not deter Congress, and construction continued well after the Civil War. Were the fort not here, no one would visit but birds and turtles, and the Park Service rangers would be even lonelier, and drier, than they are now.

The bulbous guns of old Fort Jefferson were never fired in anger. During the Civil War its walls were used to house Union deserters, and afterwards Dr. Mudd, who was exiled here for setting a bad actor’s broken leg. Mudd performed so well during a yellow fever epidemic that he was paroled in 1869.
posted by Chris