Why Everything We Did Out There Mattered
"Of course, change happens on land, but I have never experienced a change as profound and in as short a time as I did at sea on a tall ship. I know I changed. I have become a much more confident, accomplished and worldly person from the experience. "
by Matthew Maples
Night watch on the tall ship Picton Castle. The “longest” watch of the day. Coldest would have been just as appropriate. My gloveless hands were numb from the unexpected chill of early July. Apparently light was in as short a supply as warmth in these northern latitudes for we could not even see one another’s faces as our watch fumbled to muster for duty on deck as midnight approached. In my nearly two months on board the Picton Castle, I could not remember a night as inky as this one - or one as cold. Glancing backward from my lookout post on the bow of the ship, I could not see anyone beneath our towers of gray sails. The ship would have looked abandoned had it not been for a handful of running lights.
The view forward was similarly stark. The seas were black, the skies pasted with a sticky cement-gray overcast that reduced the usual brilliance of the moon into a choked and ruddy dimness left to hang limply over the horizon. Everything was wearing shades of gray. To my eyes, the world looked as devoid of color as a black-and-white movie. As lookout, it was my responsibility to keep an eye out for dangers and to help spot navigational aids. A quick scan of the horizon revealed the same result as before- nothing but fog. There was no one out here but us, the handful of us manning the ship on her return to her homeport of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
Frost-tipped wind filled our sails from the port side, giving the ship the momentum it needed to rise on top of waves and then roll slightly to starboard before repeating the motion. The labyrinth of wavelets ahead of us led to a glowing horizon, the moon gave off just enough light to illuminate walls of fog. From my vantage point, it looked as if our solitary ship, with a jealous clutch of wind in her sails, was rolling through murky waters toward an illuminated horizon of feather-like fog where all the ghosts of the world would be found in expectation of our arrival.
A seemingly long solitary vigil passed before the slow clank of boots on metal steps tolled the passing of the hour and my relief from forward lookout. After a ship check below decks, I let my own ill-fitted and clumsy boots gravitate toward a source of light, heat and the cloying scent of burning diesel. My stiffened hand unbolted the door to the galley.
As the galley door swung open, I was instantly greeted by a breath of crisped hot air and a menagerie of tired but grinning faces. I soon had the source of their smiles, newly baked breadsticks (expertly twisted into knots) and still gooey Rice Krispies Treats, in hand. Our watch had clustered in the galley house to find refuge from eerie chills and busied themselves with creating baked goods, which were as much a relief for late-night stomachs as they were an excuse to fire up our 120-year-old diesel stove hours early for warmth. Many hours were passed in jovial company as we rotated out to complete our duties and ensure that the ship was safe and manned as we carried her through the night, en route to her home.
An hour after sunrise, the order came from the second mate to myself and two shipmates to go aloft and stow the royal and t’gallant, the two topmost sails on our fore and mainmasts, which were nearly one hundred feet in the air and still heavy from the rain. Placing my feet and hands on the slick, tarred ratlines, I clambered in full gear, heading for the top of a pitching foremast.
A handful of weeks earlier I was standing in line at a fluorescent-cast Baltimore 7-11, my arms cradling an assortment of junk food. As I stood in a stalled checkout line I scanned the magazine rack for news. Lindsey Lohan was acting out again, Paris Hilton was lamenting over a stint in prison and there were a half-dozen premature quips concerning an American election over a year away. I quickly realized that the only thing I had missed on shore while I had been away with the ship for several weeks previously was the pleasure food I held in my arms. As I left a convenience store populated by faces I did not recognize I thought, “Why is it that everything we [the crew] do out there [the sea] matters more than anything happening here [on land]?”
Of course, it would be unfair to try to pass such a statement off as a fact, but I did think that question in reference to my time sailing on the barque Picton Castle and I must have had a reason. I have done much contemplation to produce an answer to my own question but a truly fulfilling answer yet eludes me. However, I cannot deny a tangible fact, two months time beneath the masts of Picton Castle made a greater impression and change to me than any other experience in twenty-two years of my life thus far. I am a substantially more confident, accomplished and worldly person. Yet, at the same time, I feel humbled. If I was asked what caused these changes I would reply, “I crewed and sailed on a square-rigged tall ship.” A deceptively simple answer because that statement entails much more than would be initially realized. The life associated with sailing a tall ship is rife with an assortment of challenges and unique experiences, especially for the beginner…
“Set headsails!” “Set the main topmast staysail!” “Set topsails!” The crew of the Picton Castle sprang into a frenzy of action as Captain Dan Moreland gave a series of orders from the bridge. A dense undergrowth of cast-off lines lay at the feet of tree-trunk-thick masts. Crew members grabbed handfuls of nameless, thick lines to haul down to the deck. As what appeared to be chaos unfolded around me, confusion must have re-arranged my face. Here I was on the deck of a tall ship during a parade of sail in Charleston, a place I had dreamed about being since childhood and had anticipated for months, and I had only a vague notion what the Captain was talking about and I had absolutely no clue about what to do! As I tried my best to make myself useful by helping haul on lines, I wondered, “What have I got myself into?”
I surely am not the first and almost certainly not the last person to think such words on a tall ship. A traditional sailing ship may as well be its own country, for its landscape is entirely foreign and it is populated by people who seem to have a different language, unique customs and a sleeping schedule surely considered peculiar by many on shore. Those new to tall ship sailing will likely (as I did) face a substantially significant learning curve before they can navigate (pun intended) this new world beyond the shore.
Enough generations have passed since the last tall ships carried cargo commercially. Enough time passed so that the skills once familiar to many of our ancestors for thousands of years are now largely alien to the average person. However, not enough generations have passed to render such skills lost to time. Thankfully, within the hulls of today’s fleet of operating tall ships the skills of traditional seamanship are alive and available to be passed down to 21st century people ambitious enough to learn them. Working with lines, knots, and the maintenance of gear on a ship, navigation and sail theory, are some of the skills that need to be learned. I found that becoming relatively competent in them was a real challenge. It was hard, but I was ambitious and eager to learn.
When I first put my feet on the deck of the Picton Castle, I would have been at a loss to describe the purpose of a halyard. Seven weeks later I got a real test of my ability at sail handling. After docking in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia the Picton Castle let all its sails hang to dry to recover from a rainy day prior. I was on watch with two newer crewmembers while the rest of the crew was ashore or asleep. We expected our watch to be routine and uneventful, but then gusts of wind interrupted our expectations by filling our waiting sails with wind. Propelled by the wind, the ship strained at her dock lines that constrained her, hauling many of them bar-tight with awful creaking sounds. Fearing damage to our dock lines, the old dock itself or worse, we quickly contacted our bosun who told us to take in sails. For the first time ever, I had to direct others while we dropped headsails and took in many of the square sails with all the speed we could muster until enough wind was spilled to take the excessive strain off our dock lines.
While this event is not impressive or unusual to many, it was a benchmark for me. It proved to me that I really did learn how to handle the sails on Picton Castle. A goal I considered ambitious while looking at Picton Castle’s 170 some lines in the weeks prior. Several weeks before I left Picton Castle, I was promoted from trainee to assistant deckhand – tangible proof that I had improved and was now a novice in seamanship, as opposed to clueless and uninitiated. It was not easy for me to learn, but I realized that learning the skills to sail a tall ship were attainable.
Learning the skills of the traditional mariner is only half of the challenge of tall ship sailing. The other half is adjusting and then thriving to a new lifestyle that bears little resemblance to the lifestyle of the contemporary westerner in the world today. Long hours of physical activity, constant exposure to the elements, living with a number of people in small spaces and no flushing toilets, all conspire against a new trainee. There were days for me where I had been working long hours, was constantly hungry, somewhat seasick, wet from a rain and dampness that had been perpetuating all week, working with disagreeable shipmates, while being a bit crabby myself.
Days like that were the exception, not the norm, but they did happen. Normally, I would never work that hard on land. On this tall ship however, I found myself going above and beyond what I normally would be willing to do. Why? I wanted to succeed and I believed that to succeed on a tall ship I needed to redefine my sense of self – this was probably the most significant adjustment from shore life. Contemporary society values “the individual.” We are used to being able to make our own choices and prescribe ample time for our own privacy. On ship your personal wants and needs (within reason) become less important because you are part of a team that, in one aspect or another, needs to be available at all hours to run a ship as smoothly as possible. There is no place for selfishness, but ample need for selflessness. A crew needs to operate as cohesively as possible, thus hierarchy is as surely embedded in the foundation of the ship as the keel to ensure that everyone knows their place and responsibilities. A hierarchy taken much more seriously than most civilians are used to and for good reason, the waters can be dangerous. Even though your personal desires take a backseat to your responsibilities, your ability to carry out your duties actually increases your importance. Why? I found that I had much more responsibility on the ship then I ever had on land. Even seemingly routine duties like lookout, anchor watch and making fast or casting off dock lines during docking maneuvers can have catastrophic consequences if such duties are neglected. I found it oddly interesting that I could have responsibilities on ship of a magnitude that would have never been given to me on land. Granted, these responsibilities are inherently simple to carry out, provided that one follows directions and remains aware of the situation, but nonetheless they can have serious consequences. On normal shore life however, I doubt that I, and many others near to my age, would be given the chance to carry out responsibilities with consequences as serious without substantial red tape. I am happy to report however, that by simply following directions and being aware, people on ship aged as young as fifteen to their elder years could, on a whole, fulfill their responsibilities successfully without a stifling amount of red tape.
It was challenging to overcome the learning curve and lifestyle changes on board the Picton Castle. I had plenty of help. The professional crew of the Picton Castle may as well have been saints for their patience in teaching us trainees. While many of the concepts and skills associated with tall ships are daunting at first, they are often quite simple when understood. I definitely respect them for being willing to show me how to do something that is simple to them three times, and then show me again! They taught well, for I did learn and in my last few weeks I found myself teaching newer trainees the pin rail, line handling and steering at the helm. There was much to learn from the professional crew and they were happy to show us, so long as we were engaged and willing to work just as hard to learn. Like all the other difficulties to overcome, I put substantial effort and will into learning. That effort, coupled with enthusiastic teachers, made it possible to achieve my goal of being a useful crewmember to my shipmates.
You might wonder, “If sailing on a tall ship is so hard, and full of responsibility, why would anyone want to do it?” It is hard, true, but the real motivation for me was the experiences and sense of accomplishment that makes the hard work more than worthwhile. Experiences like the thrill of scurrying up the ratlines to be the first on the fore royal yard or the tense moments of anxiety as the ship cautiously sails in a busy shipping lane where vessels and heavy buoys are concealed behind thick curtains of fog, only to be revealed at sudden, random moments. I remember my amazement one evening, as I was lying out in the head rig of the ship while dolphins swam off the bow, no more than fifteen feet underneath me. I remember the serenity of being at the helm on a moonless night, the sky above our swaying gray canvas towers lit with a multitude of stars that I had never seen before, the scene completed with a dash of the arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, a brilliant white belt studded with stars that seemed to slice the star field from horizon to horizon. Still, the best sights happened during my lookout shifts on the bow, when I could often scan from horizon to horizon and see (with some satisfaction) that there was no one out there but us. I would then spare a quick glance backwards to see all our canvas set, massive canvas spires with curves carved by the wind, a sight and viewpoint that few have seen in the generations since the waning years of great sailing ships.
Besides the fantastic sights and new scenery that one sees while sailing, there is the aspect of the floating community of a tall ship that is a remarkable experience unto itself. Separated from land, the amount of people that you have contact with is considerably smaller. Coming from many states and nationalities, we all lived, worked, ate and slept in close proximity with one another – privacy was limited to your bunk. Many would consider such conditions to be bothersome, as a member of modern society is accustomed to having ample amounts of space and privacy. Contrary to being a curse, this amalgamation of diverse people in a small space created a very sociable and close community. I never felt lonely, for chronic
socializing was inevitable when small spaces are filled with adventurous people. We all learned a lot from each other, whether working hard on deck as a team or sharing bad jokes below decks. People that I knew for only a few weeks became close friends – we spent enough time together, relying on one another for that to happen. Our tall ship crew was more or less a close-knit community of friends, even if we had only known each other for a few short weeks. Living in such a community, sharing troubles, wonders and experiences as surely as we shared resources and stories created a unique community unlike any I had ever experienced on land. In so sharing our resources and living so closely together, I believe we got a feel for a
different sort of self-sufficient community life, quite different from the more isolated and self-focused lifestyles that most 21st century westerners live. It is a different way of living, a different kind of society that is a worthwhile experience.
Yes, it is a hardworking lifestyle that I found quite challenging, especially at the beginning. But it can be learned and the lifestyle adjustments can be overcome. When I, for the most part, knew what I was doing I found the work to be enjoyable. Of course, for the experiences of the sights I saw on the ship, the people I met, the things I learned, and the altered world view that travel brings really made the moments that I remember. I am thankful for the challenges though, they made me push myself farther than I otherwise would have done. It is a hard but uniquely fun lifestyle.
Since I posed that question at the Baltimore 7-11, I have had some time to consider why that short time on the water, sailing on a tall ship meant more to me then what I had experienced on land. The best explanation that I’ve managed to appropriate is change. Of course, change happens on land, but I have never experienced a transformation as profound and in as short a time as I did at sea on a tall ship. I know I changed. I have become a much more confident, accomplished and worldly person from the experience. Why did I change though?
I believe it is because of the sea itself. The sea and the sailing ship are inextricably intertwined by change. The sea is in a perpetual flux. The weather, current and tide alter the conditions of a restless ocean. Therefore, the ship that uses sails must respond, she has no choice if she wants to be successful. To meet the whims of the ocean, the crew of the sailing ship have to be ready, willing and able to counter and take advantage of the ocean’s alternating personalities at all times. In so meeting that challenge, those who choose to sail on a sailing ship and intend to be successful will change. They will be challenged at every step. They have to be, because the ocean itself is perpetually in motion.
Or maybe I felt that everything we did was more important because of the grand welcomes our ship received as we sailed into ports, the endless swarms of boats that would come near us just to gawk. It might have been my head swelling from our crew being a colorful attraction at crew parades in ports. Maybe because the thrills of working aloft at sea or the excitement of new sights at sea surpassed that of life on land. Or perhaps it was because the moments of complete serenity, whether sailing into a sunset at sea or underneath a brilliant canvas of stars, was more profound than any such similar moments seen from shore. It might have been because I shared these things and more with a fantastic menagerie of people.
Regardless, it would be ridiculous to say that everything we did out there, out at sea meant more then the things that were happening on shore. After all, we were just normal people sailing while very important business deals were closed on land, diplomacies written by politicians and famous, important celebrities were serving time in prison. If anything we must have been fools for missing out on all the glory-laden movies that will win the next Oscar’s.
But…if two months sailing on a tall ship could mean more, and create more change in me and others than a lifetime thus spent on shore basking in the glow of such important things, if it created more positive change in me and others, then maybe, just maybe, it really was more important.
After that call to go aloft on that cold, wet July night, I moved as quickly as I could up the ratlines. It went much slower then usual. Barefoot and without hindering clothing was one thing, but foul weather gear with three layers underneath was another matter. By the time I reached the fore royal, I was breathing heavily, either from the excitement of being so far aloft or from the funny feeling of trying to push thick boots that didn’t quite fit in between ratlines that seemed too small for feet in general. I stretched my left leg as much as possible, but the footrope for the royal was just out of reach – until I ripped a bigger hole in the inseam of my foul weather pants – then my now unrestrained legs could easily make it to the footrope. With a leg and two arms, I hauled my weight over to the wooden yard. To my right, my watch leader, Nadja, was already on the yard. My shipmate Shawn followed closely behind me, laying on to my left. We all knew what to do first, reaching down we brought in the first folds of wet, heavy canvas up to the yard underneath our stomachs.
As Nadja was fastening the buntline to hold up the middle section Shawn and I spared a glance at the scenery from our lofty position nearly one hundred feet up. We could see that the awful thick fog that seemed to be an institution of these waters did not follow us up the ratlines – it hugged the surface of the water, a wall about thirty feet high that spread out across the waves, leaving a fuzzy halo around our ship. I and then Shawn looked out to the port side, toward the horizon. Shawn spoke first, “Is that Nova Scotia?” Sure enough, there it was, from the distance it looked like a grayish-green silhouette on the horizon, barely jutting out of the fog. We finally got our first view of fabled Nova Scotia, our destination. I enjoyed the sight, Nova Scotia was the place I had been anticipating for months.
“Guys, you can look at it later!”, said Nadja. She was right, we still had three more sails to furl before the next watch took the deck. Leaning over, I clutched another fold of canvas, and I did it again and again.