Ask the Tall Ship Sailor

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to know how a sailing ship worked. And there’s just no better way to learn it than to find a ship, pay for your passage, and sign on. I chronicled some of the trip here.

I didn’t have an internet connection in the North Atlantic, and the events of the voyage kind of outstripped a friendly conversation on a message board. (For those who don’t know, a crew member, Laura Gainey, was lost overboard in a storm and never found.) Since then, the ship and the accident have been investagted by the country of registry, a Canadian news show, and the Canadian Transportation Safety Board; Laura’s family have set up a charitable foundation; the ship was the setting for a reality TV show and is currently in Europe; and the people I sailed with are still in my thoughts. The final TSB report came out last week.

If you’ve seen tall ships in the movies, or docked at a festival, and you want to know what goes on without going through it yourself, ask away.

That is something I’ve always wanted to do! I’ve sailed on little sail boats a bunch and think that would be awesome, though I’d rather get payed to do it some how… Did you get it to be a pirate and board other vessels and such? Oh! and the eye patch did you get an eye patch?!
…feel free to ignore the bad humor :dubious:

How long were you on board?
What did it cost?
How much do they let you do?
Did you have prior sailing experience?
Did it help with a Square Rigger?
Have you ever been on a large Sloop like the Clearwater?
If so how did they compare?

Did you climb the ratlines? Was it hard to do?
Did you furl sails on the main yardarm, balancing on a footrope?

Why is it called the dog watch?

We joked about pirates a bit. We all got crew t-shirts that said “we are the real pirates of the Caribbean”. (Although, sailing in the “Caribbean” sounds to me like you lie in your lounge chair and have people bring you drinks; I like to say I sailed to the “West Indies”.)

There was a bit of a pecking order. We weren’t a real spit-and-polish operation (no navy or millionaire was picking up the tab); everything had to work, and then we could make it look pretty. The experienced sailors on board spoke rather dismissively of the folks on the yachts and cruise ships; saying they weren’t really sailing, just pressing buttons. Seeing our cold showers and cast-iron stove, the other sailors may have had a different view.

No eye patches.

I was supposed to be on for a three week passage, turned out to be more like six. There were about 10 days in Lunenburg getting her ready and waiting out some weather, four days doing search patterns, and four days anchored at Nevis. Cost was a little under $4000. They asked if I could stay for another leg, but I had a few things to get back to, like paying the rent. (I’m still kinda kicking myself for that; a group of students from a women’s college was coming on board for a semester-at-sea program.)

They let us do damn near everything. Hell, that ship wouldn’t sail without everyone pitching in. I hauled on lines, took the helm, cooked (and cleaned), furled sail in the rigging. If you want to make a ditty bag, do rope wicking or splicing, or learn how to navigate with a sextant, there’s someone there who can teach you. At anchor, we generally took one-hour turns doing night watch, and I was even making log entries for that. I never got engine-room detail, but some trainees did.

When I was a kid, a friend of my dad’s had a 24’ sloop, and I remember going out a couple times. But I didn’t really pick up the details. Then in college I took a course through the rec center in 2-person, 10’ boats on an inlet on Puget Sound. That helped in terms of what to look for; know what course you want, where the relative wind is from, how to tell if the sail is trimmed properly. A square rigger isn’t really much different. The angles you turn the sails to are about the same, except instead of a single sheet there are lines (braces) going to the ends of all the yards. The fore and main masts had five yards each, so 10 yards (5 hauling, 5 easing) all at the same time. They tried to make those changes at watch change, when 2/3 of the trainees were on deck. And the square rigger can’t come as close into the wind as a fore-and-aft rig.

I hadn’t been on a large sloop before that trip, but just last summer I went for a day sail on a large schooner in Boston Harbor. All the passengers had to pitch in to raise the sails, but then they wouldn’t let me do anything. I’d say the manpower is about the same, but on a square rigger it has to be on multiple lines working together. And there’s probably more work aloft on a square rigger (that was never mandatory, not everyone likes heights). The rest probably carries over. If you know how to sweat lines, you’d have a head start on most of the trainees.

Interesting to get a reply to this thread from the Rocketeer.

Climbing the ratlines is pretty easy. The shrouds are stretched so tight that it’s like climbing a ladder. The tricky part is what’s called the futtock shrouds. The mast is in segments. The shrouds go from the side of the hull, angling inwards to the top of that first segment. Where the mast segments meet is a platform (called the “top”) that carries the next set of shrouds. Supporting that platform from underneath are the futtock shrouds, and they angle outwards. So there’s a bit of an overhang. (It wasn’t bad for me, but I’m tall enough to reach past the top while my feet were still on the ratlines. Would probably be a little trickier for someone shorter.) It also makes for a bit of a blind spot when you’re climbing past the top. When you’re reaching for a handhold on the way up, or a foothold on the way down, you have to feel around a bit. It takes practice.

(Going aloft was optional, and they took us all through it one-by-one while we were in port and the ship was stable.)

Furled sails on the yards, too, on the footrope. Like the shrouds, it’s not bad once you’re in place; the yard is about waist-high and you can bend over it to take some of your weight on something more stable. The yard is a little ahead of the mast, and there are lines (called “buntlines”) that go up the mast, out to the yard, and down to the bottom edge of the sail. So when you first step on the footrope, the buntline is behind you. And if you’re working your way out to the end of the yard, there’s a point where you have to bend your knees, lean backwards, and duck your head under the buntline.

Somebody should ask me how many lines there were, and how I remembered them all.

We never used that term. We did have a cat on board.

Wikipedia has an entry for “dog watch”. 4 - 8 p.m., eh? I was on the dog watch and didn’t even know it.

Oh, c’mon now, you know why. :smiley:

What was the “ship community” or culture like? You were strangers when this started, right? All having to work VERY close together and also having no living space to speak of - and you aren’t folks who are in the Navy or trained to be submariners or something where that close-in lifestyle is both trained for and understood. What rules where established and what informal understandings were reached.

And, if I may ask - how was that community affected by the unfortunate accident?

And thanks for this thread!

The lash?

Because it’s curtailed! And remember: always choose the lesser of two weevils! Oh, how I adore Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

How many lines were there? How did you remember them all?


Were you obliged to wear a harness of any sort while aloft?

I have read that it is impossible in practical terms to reconstruct a working replica of one of the old tall ships of the Napoleonic era, because it would run afoul of too many modern safety standards.

We all got along pretty well, maybe there’s something about being on such an adventure that had us on our best behavior. Everybody had a bunk, about 7’ x 3’ x 3’, with a curtain, and you didn’t go into anybody’s bunk or their storage without their permission. We were all there for the same purpuse, might as well get along.

They were mostly great people, though. I made up nicknames for everyone in case they ever make this into a movie. ‘Shoulders’ was a retired firefighter from Chicago; every morning at watch change he and ‘Grandma’ would sing some old song together. If ‘Buzzsaw’ asks about his nickname, I’ll tell it it’s because he’s a carpenter; everybody else will know it’s because he snores. But it all worked.

There was a computer on board, with satellite internet, but they used that pretty sparingly. We had lots of sympathetic e-mails come in after the accident, from other sailors. It’s a small community, at least the people who do it for a living. I went to the link What Exit? gave and found two of my shipmates with her crew.

Longer term is harder to say. I’ve been reading calls for stronger regulations and standards. Few people make their life on the sea, and very few of them sail these ships. I think it will always be a niche meritocracy. Everybody heard about what happend and they’ll all be that much more vigilant; but it’ll never be soft, warm, and 100% safe, either.

Yes, no, and no.

In that order.

About 130. We each got a diagram of all the pins on the ship, with the names left blank. We filled them in as we learned them. Some we used a lot, like the braces. (They turn the yards port and starboard. Five yards each mast, two braces on each yard, two masts; 20 lines) Some followed a pattern. (To raise and lower the square sails, it was clew, bunt, bunt, leach; clew, bunt, bunt; clew, bunt, bunt; clew, bunt, bunt; clew, bunt; x2 (port and starboard), x2 (fore and main masts); 60 lines) In general, for a group of lines, the ones farther forward worked the lower sails, so remember “up and aft”.

It looks impossible when you’re starting, but I learned enough to be helpful pretty quickly. To be honest, though, I didn’t know them all by the time I left, and some sails we didn’t even use during my trip.

Harnesses were required if you were going aloft for anything prolonged. If you were just going up and down, like taking a tool to someone, it was optional. They’ve changed that since I left; harnesses always.

I suppose it’s a bit like washing windows on a skyscraper. The dangerous part is obvious, and learning how to manage that danger is subtle. And sometimes it can go wrong. It’s worth noting, though, that Laura was swept overboard when she was on deck. And I never saw a wave come high enough to reach the area she was in.

If you’re talking about fighting ships, up in the rigging might be the safest place. Cannons recoiling across the gun deck? No thanks.

The Barque Eagleis a couple miles from my house, and I grew up in the rigging of the ships at the seaportin Mystic, CT. They’ve a very nice shipyard there where they built the Amistad. I’ve a couple good friends who are shipwrights - the old way, all custom woodwork. There are a couple hundred Oak Trees in the back parking lot brought up from Hurricane Katrina - they are seasoning for use in the shipyard. Some of those timbers are 48-60 inches in diameter - just huge!

I love watching the shipwrights work on the whalers, or the beautiful Cape Cod Cutter 1929 that sits out front. These are old New England beauties, very much like the sandbaggers and sloops you have up there in Nova Scotia.

I’ve got a question for you -

What was your favorite smell aboard the Picton ?

What was the results in the report? Did you agree with the findings?

Also the damn giant splinters from the Cannon balls hitting the deck. Being aloft or on the guns probably was often safer.

I remember watching episodes of the reality TV show they filmed onboard (Tall Ship Chronicles I think it was called). There seemed to be a lot of talk about people not liking the captain, and the narrator seemed to blame a high crew turnover on him. Was this something you noticed too, or was it just a bit of tv drama?

I went down to New London a few months after I got back to see the Eagle. Very nice ship. (It seems a bit conflicting to point out the bed where Hitler slept.) Same rigging as the Picton Castle (three masts, five yards on the fore and main), but about half-again as large. Those cadets have it soft, there’s a motor on the windlass and everything.

In fact, it was a trip to the tall ships festival in New London in 2004 that got me thinking about this trip in the first place. And there’s a log entry on the PC site about working with the Mystic Seaport folks. It’s a small community. I’ll have to come down there someday for a look around.

Favorite smell? Land, maybe. There’s nothing like it after three weeks at sea. Coffee in the morning when you’ve been on watch for three hours and the sun is coming up. (I hardly ever drink coffee, but I do like the smell.) Cookies from the cast-iron stove in the galley. I even made pizza one night.

There was a shop in Lunenburg where they build dories by hand, the lumber in there had a nice smell. There were all kinds of oils and varnishes on board, but we weren’t doing much with those during that kind of weather. I spent three hours polishing the bell one day, but damned if I can remember what Brasso smells like.

The report is here if you’d like to read it.

There’s never just one thing. They cite the decision to sail, fatigue, poor communication, and a few others. I suppose I agree, but I’m not enough of a sailor to know where the real decision lies. So many things could have been just a little different and changed everything.

Dan Moreland is the usual master. I think this was supposed to be an easier trip, so a previous mate was the captain, and then Captain Dan took over again when we stopped at St. Kitts.

I wouldn’t say he’s not likable, just very taciturn and hard to know at all. Everyone is there to sail, and they’re happy to take on trainees and share their skills. But teaching is a skill of its own, and I’m not sure they’ve pursued that side of the training. Or maybe there’s so much to learn, and the consequences of not learning it, that the best way is expect everyone to pull their own weight from the start. Not everyone thrives in that environment.