Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Week in the Life

As we secure the deck, the captains round up the passengers for a group photo, with us clambering in at the last moment before the cameras start snapping. This is our last break before the turnaround work starts, more deck washing, cooler cleaning, heads, brass, everything gets buffed, scrubbed and polished to perfection for the next group of passengers. It is and endless cycle of hard work, but when the tips are counted up while we feast on steaks and salad at the evening crew barbecue, we see the rewards our effort has earned, and after a quick night off on the town, we return to our beautiful schooner, ready to do it all
over again.
A Week in the Life
By Colin M. Graham

It was 6 a.m. and just getting light out when my cell phone alarm jangled me out of my rack: a 6.5-foot-long by 28-inch-wide bunk not large enough to sit up in separated from the rest of the midship house by a curtain. Still half asleep, I grab the bar attached to the overhead outside the bunk and lower myself onto my sea chest to start pulling on my clothes: Carharts with braces, crew t-shirt, wool socks and sea boots that I tuck my pant cuffs into. I grab my navy blue zip up hooded sweatshirt and start to head up the companionway, stopping on the second step because I forgot the most important part of my daily work ensemble: my leather sheath holding my four inch steel rigging knife and marlinspike, both made fast to my belt loop by two intricately knotted lanyards. Losing a knife is not only costly and frustrating, but if dropped from aloft it’s deadly.

Coming up on deck I head down into the galley where the mess crew is already preparing breakfast. All I need is some hot water for my tea, but it’s not ready so I grab a piece of last night’s blueberry shortbread. If I can’t have caffeine, a brief sugar rush will have to carry me through the morning routine. There are heads to clean, lanterns to fill, flags to raise, a donkey engine that needs to be prepped, and then a deck to wash. Imagine dropping a two-gallon bucket down 14 feet to the water, hauling it up to your chest and then throwing the contents on the deck. Imagine doing this maybe 150 times, all before breakfast. Screw the gym membership, this is my job and we still have six sails to set.
Schooner Heritage anchored off Wreck Island south of the town of Stonington on Deer Isle for a lobster bake. Two of our small boats that we row people ashore in are visible in the foreground, Lois Lane on the left and Archie on the far right.
Such began my 17th trip working as crew aboard the coasting schooner Heritage based out of Rockland Maine. Heritage is the newest vessel in Maine’s Windjammer fleet, a confederation of 12 (14 if you count the two ships that aren’t part of the official association) traditionally rigged schooners of the type that used to ferry cargo and supplies up and down the Eastern seaboard during the great days of sail. These ships now continue that tradition by carrying a cargo of a very different sort: paying passengers. We make no guarantees on the wind, weather and tides, and without an inboard engine (we do have a yawl boat that can give us a push if needed), most trips offer no specific itineraries, other than the traditional downeast lobster bake held on a different secluded island every trip.

In the previous month aboard, I had been the acting Mate aboard Heritage, but aboard our ship, crewmembers rotate job responsibilities as needed; one week I could be working the deck, the next assisting in galley, and often times doing a combination of both. It is useful for the crew to know how to perform all the jobs expected of us on the vessel, and frankly, it keeps us from getting burned out doing the same job week after week. I didn’t sign aboard Heritage to bake on a woodstove and do dishes, but after a solid month of running the deck routine, mincing garlic and making desserts can be a welcome change from morning deck wash, all-day sail handling and evening sail furling.
The three-masted schooner Victory Chimes, at left bears the distinction of being pictured on the back of the Maine State quarter.
No matter where we happen to be working certain things remains constant: the work is hard, physical and potentially dangerous, the hours are long, and being exposed to the elements in all sorts of weather can be frustrating. Hauling on wet lines with wet cold hands while looking upwards into the falling rain is enough to make anyone yearn for a dry bunk, but despite the occasional discomfort, the payoffs outweigh the sacrifice. You get to lay claim to a seafaring tradition that dates back hundred of years, learning skills and techniques that few people still know how to do. It toughen the body and the mind, and climbing out to the end of the bowsprit as the schooner charges through the spray to claw in a flapping sail is an experience that can only be described as exhilarating.

So what is it like to work on a schooner? Well first let me tell you about my ship.
The Heritage behind the Nathaniel Bowditch at right and the schooner American Eagle at right. Note the size of the Heritage next to the Bowditch.
All of the schooners in the fleet are unique in one way or another: the Lewis R. French, launched in 1871, is the oldest commercial sailing vessel still in operation in the country, the three-masted schooner Victory Chimes is the vessel featured on the back of the Maine State quarter. The Nathaniel Bowditch won class honors in the storied Newport Bermuda Race in 1927.

The Heritage however bears the distinction of being the only vessel designed, built, owned and operated by her captains Doug and Linda Lee. Doug Lee drew up the plans himself and he and his wife Linda, along with Captain John Foss of the schooner American Eagle built the vessel over the course of three winters. Building a vessel of her size was an undertaking the likes of which had not been seen in about 60 years. She was built for the windjammer business and as Captain Doug often says, “she is not a replica; she represents the next generation of coasting schooner, incorporating design improvements that make her better suited to her trade.”
Keith and Ian standing by on the foremast before the topmast has been lowered and with the jib topsail still set. Two crewmembers are required to go aloft to pull out the iron pin at the base of the topmast and as it comes down to keep the shrouds that support them from becoming fouled up.
Here the jib topsail has been struck and the topmast lowered enough for us to clear the bridge. When we passed under the Deer Isle Bridge (seen ahead) we were so close to the structure that we were able to talk to one of the workmen on it without having to raise our voices.
One of the improvements that makes her better suited to carrying people is her size. She’s absolutely massive. Her hull is red oak; her spars are Douglas fir and had to be shipped by rail car to Rockland where she was built. Her sparred length is 145 feet and her length on deck is 95 feet long. Her beam or width is 24 feet; she carries six sails totaling 5,200 square feet (mainsail, main topsail, foresail, forestaysail, jib, and jib topsail), 2,500 gallons of fresh water and draws eight feet of water at the stern and 18 feet with her centerboard down. She has accommodations for 30 passengers, eight crew and if you put her on a scale to weigh her, it would top out at 165 tons. She represents a lot of boat, and after spending two months in the spring sanding, priming, varnishing and painting every square inch of her, even the pictures don’t really do her size justice.

Her size makes her an extremely comfortable ship. She rolls very little and she can run downwind like a freight train, but because her rig (her masts and topmasts) is so high — it is actually the tallest rig on any vessel in the fleet — that in order to pass underneath the Deer Isle Bridge, we need to ship both of our topmasts so we don’t tear them off. This is an interesting procedure.
I personally enjoy working aloft, just look at that view! Passengers always ask us if it’s scary having to work so high up on a platform that is constantly moving. Having to work aloft is a common duty for the professional tall ships sailor, and it is something that one grows accustomed to doing, but only to an extent. You can’t be afraid to the point where you are no longer able to do your job, but that being said, careless mistakes up there are catastrophic and careful attention must be paid to the work that is going on. Being aloft raises my heart rate and gets my adrenaline flowing and while the heights don’t really bother me, I’m acutely aware and extremely cautious in the work I do; they say the moment that you become truly comfortable working aloft on a ship is the moment you no longer have any business being up there.
Since everything onboard is so much bigger than on other schooners of her type, passenger assistance is paramount. Not that we make everyone on board work, our clients are on vacation after all, but for many of them, participating in shipboard activities is part of the allure. It would simply be impossible for the eight crew members alone to raise some 2,000 plus pounds of mainsail.
Keith and I leading a group of passengers in hauling up the peak halyard on the main. Two crewmembers stand by the pin rail, which is where lines are made fast and line up a group of passengers (the more the merrier) to haul in time with us so our collective strength makes raising the sail easier. Whenever we raise the mainsail and the foresail, we sing a chantey to help everyone keep the same rhythm. The chantey, which is based on the old sailor’s cadence “Haul Away Joe,” has a repeated chorus sung together with each crewmember improvising verses in between.

In the crew verses we poke fun at ourselves and fellow crewmembers sing about the weather or what we’re going to be doing for the day; pretty much anything we can think of, and the funnier it is the better. It brings a bit of levity to some of the grunt work, and having fun is really what this is all about.
When we don’t have enough passengers to help us with the main and the fore, or if it’s raining and most people are below, we use our 1921 International Harvester, one cylinder donkey engine Joe. He takes much of the work out of raising the main and the fore, and we use him to haul up our 500 pound anchor, but because he is an 89-year-old make and break engine, he can be a bit fussy at times. To start him, first you generously apply oil to just about everything, give him a healthy does of starting ether, connect the starting handle to the fly wheel and then as they say in Midcoast Maine, you “give her the dinnah!” Basically you crank away like a demon and wait until you hear the spark fire, then give it one last hard crank to get the piston over top dead center and pray like hell the engine slowly grunts to life. When it does, it’s a great feeling: man’s conquest over machine. When it doesn’t, you’d better hope you get it going quickly before the Captain comes up on the foredeck to give both of you “the dinnah.”
Once the mainsail and the foresail are up, Joe gets a new dose of oil and is switched over to power our windlass — the giant ratcheting drum that cranks up our anchor. As mate, this can be a stressful time. If our yawl boat (the ships only source of propulsion other than our sails) is hoisted on her stern davits and we plan to sail right off the hook, well, you’d better hope everything goes smoothly, because once the anchor is off the bottom, we’re either drifting or we’re sailing.
As the windlass cranks away, one person stacks the chain back in the chain box while the mate oversees the process, waiting for the moment when the anchor is ‘straight up and down,’ meaning all the slack or scope in the chain has been taken up and the anchor is just about to break free from the bottom. This is one part skill and two parts feel; you need to listen to the strain on the donkey engine and watch to see how the chain hangs from the hawsepipe. Right before we’re free of the bottom, the jib is set, the ship starts falling and we’re underway. We hook the anchor and bring it aft to the wooden beam called a cathead where it is stored. This is always interesting. You have to put slack back in the chain by throwing loops off the windlass and trying not to lose fingers in the process. Then when the top ring on the anchor is made fast, we hook it again closer to the base to bring it up along side and lash it to the rail. One must be careful to keep it from marring the paint on the hull as it comes up, but sometimes the physics of manhandling a 500-pound piece of iron are against you and you ding the side.
This is what happens when you ding the side with the anchor. You get the honor of repainting the topsides. Sailing the schooner hard is fun, but there is always a tradeoff to be had, which is the constant work we do to maintain the vessel and keep here looking immaculate.

To be fair, the old adage “take care of your ship and she’ll take care of you” couldn’t be more true, and work of this nature, while not always what I’d call enjoyable, becomes a labor of love. The two months we spend in the spring readying the ship to sail is something of a bonding process; when you put long hours into preparing the vessel, it gives us a sense of pride in keeping her looking her best.

The Captains may own her title, but the sweat and effort the crew invests gives us a very real sense of ownership. Her appearance is also a reflection on her crew, and when our ship looks amazing, so do we.
Once all sails are set, the anchor mud has been washed from the deck, we go charging across the bay. Depending on the weather, we’ll either head for a quiet and beautiful anchorage, find an island to have our lobster bake, or head to a coastal town like Stonington or Castine to take people ashore. This picture is taken looking aft, the red windlass in the foreground and foresail drawing nicely aft of the foremast. This day we were bowling along at close to 10 knots (roughly 12 miles an hour) and are heeling a fair amount on a gray and windy day. For being such a large vessel, the Heritage certainly can move! We can’t control the weather, but we do say that the weather will be perfect for whatever it is we’re going to be doing. Despite the lack of sun, the amount of wind makes this a good sailing day.
There is such a thing as too much wind, and when this happens, it’s a scramble to take in sail. The first sail to come down is the jib topsail, way out at the end of the jib boom. When the command is given to strike her, we scramble forward to loose the halyards, drag the sail down with the downhauls, and make the sheet fast before two of us don lifejackets and climb out there to claw in the flapping sail and make it fast. It’s always exciting, but for us it’s just another day at the office. There is a prodigious amount of food served on any windjammer and the Heritage is no different. We have four meals per day, and two desserts. Some people come for the sailing, others for the cuisine. Making incredible food on a wood burning stove, especially when the boat is heeling over sharply is a true feat. Here lunch is being served on deck. This day it was lentil and curry soup, garlic bread, fresh homemade honey wheat bread and a variety of sauces, condiments, jams, and spreads. It pays to stay active helping the crew on these trips; otherwise it’s easy to put on a few extra pounds.
Of course, the highlight of all the fine dining aboard is the lobster bake. We carry all of our locally bought lobsters aboard in a live tank and when we find an island that looks inviting, we drop the hook and make ready the boats to row ashore. Archie is our primary launch, capable of holding 16 people plus two crew. We lower her down from her davits and once the boat is loaded I get to give a brief instruction on rowing. The first trip is always a bit interesting; oars smacking into each other, water splashing, total bedlam, but passengers usually get the hang of it by the time we hit the beach.
Being the coxswain in Archie can be a bit nerve wracking, especially when the Captain is sitting next to you, impeding the swing of the big after oar and watching your technique. It’s actually quite a lot of fun and hey, everybody in that picture is doing their part to reduce their carbon footprint.
By the time we get the first group of passengers ashore, everything for the bake has been set up and people can get started on chips and dip while the crew starts on the burgers and dogs cook while waiting for the water to boil.
No rest for the weary however, Keith and I taking Archie back to the schooner to get another group of people. Standing up and rowing forward is certainly an acquired skill, but once the passengers see how well two of us handle that boat, they are usually inspired to give it their all on the return trip.
Once the water boils crew and passengers alike throw the bugs in the stainless steel pot and quickly cover them with seaweed that we’ve gathered. The seaweed acts as a lid so the lobsters steam, and we always throw them in upside down so they cook in their own juices and the meat doesn’t dry out. This is just about the only break we get as crew, so we try to make the most of it.
Once the lobsters are done, we take the tub off the fire and dump it out. Remember the seaweed we put on top? The lobsters tumble out on top of it, plating themselves beautifully. The captains and crew (and the occasional volunteer) do a little dance, pose for a photo opportunity with the schooner in the background and volia! Lobster bake.
But for the crew the day is not quite done yet. After rounding up the passengers, cleaning the beach and getting back aboard, the head sails still need furling while the rest of the crew squares the galley away and gets ready to set out another dessert. Furling the headsails is similar to trying make sense of a giant heavy canvas bed sheet that has been flung haphazardly over rigging and lines, and then flake and roll it neatly on the jib boom without having it roll back off again. At first it can be frustrating, especially if you get lines rolled up with the sail, but after a few months of practice, one of us can usually get all three sails done neatly in about a half hour. With two, we can do it in easily half the time, but we don’t always have the luxury, because there is much to do before the sun goes down.
Sunset on the schooner Heritage. It is maritime tradition to strike the ship’s colors at sunset, oftentimes accompanied by the sounding of a gun. Not being ones to eschew tradition, we strike the flags every night at sunset and fire off the cannon at least once a trip. Aboard our vessel, the night we fire the cannon also happens to be silly hat night, as is obvious be the captain’s “safety glasses.” After the flags are down and the kerosene lanterns lit, and dessert dishes done, the crew is off for the night, free to chat with passengers, play music and generally just unwind.
On the last day of every trip on our back into Rockland, we skip breakfast and serve a champagne brunch. The captains and passengers toast the crew and then the crew toasts each passenger as they walk by with plates full of steaming food. Once they’ve all eaten, we fall on the spread, eating quickly because everything is about to be a flurry of activity as we approach the dock and because this is our last meal until supper.

Recycling is sorted, sails and yawl boat come down, starboard davits are swung in and fenders are dropped. After about 30 frenetic minutes, we all stand by to receive the dock lines and tie the schooner up to the dock. There are four other vessels in our cove that we need to maneuver around, and as we are the last to come in, all eyes are on us; there is no room for mistakes. Tension builds, heaving lines fly over the rail and the thick dock lines pulled through chocks and panamas (holes in the waist of the vessel) and are made fast. The gangway comes on, and we’re docked. Done, for now.
This captures one of those moments that makes the hard work all worth while. Watching as the sun sets off a few secluded island in Penobscot Bay looking off the stern at the end of a long day you can’t help but think to yourself, ‘man, is this a great job or what.’ This is part of the payoff right here.
Photographs by Colin Graham.
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