A Thoroughly Impractical Guide For Going To Sea

By Chris Landers
Published: April/May 2012

In the summer of 1998, I was working in the basement mail-order department of a Washington, D.C. bookstore, whose regular clients included Walter Cronkite (in New York) and Squeaky Fromme (in jail). In my spare time, which was abundant, I read Moby Dick, skipping over incomprehensible phrases like Ahab's command to "Furl the t'gallant-sails, and close-reef the top-sails, fore and aft; back the main-yard; up Burton, and break out in the main-hold."

I wanted to make a change, to get out of the basement and into the world, to do something more like the characters I read about, none of whom labored in bookstore basements. So at the age of 24, I signed on for a two-week tour on a square-rigged ship that ended up lasting for five years. I learned to "furl t'gallant sails" and "close-reef topsails" and do it in the dark with a 40-knot wind. I'm not suggesting that ditching it all and going to sea is the solution for everyone. I'm just saying it worked for me.

Photo of the Pride of Bailtimore II a squared-rigged sailling ship

Before The Mast

In the years since, it's sometimes occurred to me to wonder why I did it. Sailing was hard work in uncomfortable living conditions. It's physically and mentally exhausting. The pay, when there was any, was appallingly low, and the working hours were, basically, all of them. I saw hurricane-force winds drag two 600-pound anchors across a harbor in Ireland, roused myself from sleep at 4 a.m. to climb 100 feet in the air during a North Atlantic gale, and held my breath clinging to the head rig as it plunged through icy waves. But I also saw the phosphorescent trails of dolphins as they played in the bow wake at night, and felt the relief of tying up to a foreign dock, with a new city to explore, at the end of a long passage.

There are more than 100 tall ships in the United States, almost all of them offering some sort of sail-training program, from team-building day sails, to semesters at sea, to 'round-the-world voyages. Just about anyone, of any age, can go to sea. But why should they? Bert Rogers is the executive director of Tall Ships America, which until recently was called the American Sail Training Association and serves as an umbrella organization for traditional sailing. If anyone can make the case for sail training, it's Rogers.

"At the deepest philosophical level, people get a chance to live a life and interact with each other and the larger world in a way that is utterly different and, in my opinion, much more satisfying and rewarding," he says. "It opens peoples' eyes to understanding that life can be more than just getting sucked into the latest distraction on your computer screen or in popular culture."

For those of you who were updating your Facebook status while Rogers was speaking, there's more: "To get a little less abstract and down into the more tangible benefits, people learn courage. People learn self-confidence and indeed a sense of competency. When you walk aboard a ship, it's an alien environment, an alien culture, a different language; it's a new social organization. You're disconnected from all the plug-ins that you have and take for granted in your normal life ashore. So when you cast off and go to sea, it's a clean slate."

Rogers started the Harvey Gamage Foundation in 1996, with the purchase of a schooner of that name. That organization later became Ocean Classroom, with the acquisition of two other schooners. Now they specialize in taking college and high-school students on trips as long as four months, thousands of them a year.

Photo of Pride Of Baltimore ll crew member aloft setting sail

"I used to tell kids when they'd come aboard about going aloft, and they'd say they were afraid, and I'd say, 'Of course you're afraid. Nobody's born without a natural fear of heights.'" He recalls. "'What we'll prove here is that you can transmute that fear into confidence. It happened to me and it happened to everybody else here and it will happen to you.'"

It was the end of the summer season when I wiped the slate clean and carried a crisp, new duffel bag aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara. Built as a replica of Oliver Hazard Perry's flagship during the Battle of Lake Erie, his famous quote, "We have met the enemy and he is ours," is on all the Niagara's brochures (the other version, by the comic-book character Pogo, is written in marker in the bilge of the ship: "We have met the enemy and he is us!"). The 198-foot-long Niagara sails under the auspices of the state of Pennsylvania, from a home port in Erie.

To say the Niagara was different than what I was used to would be an understatement. Lying out on a yardarm is nothing like keeping your balance on the Metro. The ship had its own language and customs, and just about every piece of equipment could be deadly in the wrong circumstance. Each of the Niagara's lines had a name and a purpose, and God help you if you mistook either. Volunteers were given a Xeroxed pin chart, and I walked the deck placing my hand on each pin or cleat, trying to remember its name. Here was a halyard, this one was a sheet, and the clews and buntlines were on the pin rail by the mast. I developed a sort of flat-earth understanding of what was going on. I knew what the lines looked like from the deck, but had no idea what was attached to the other end.

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For A Life Before The Mast

The crew handbook for the U.S. Brig Niagara contained the following unattributed quote: "He who would go to sea by choice would go to hell for recreation." Still interested? Tall Ships America (formerly the American Sail Training Association) serves as a clearinghouse for all things related to a life before the mast, whether you're looking for a couple of days as a guest aboard the Pride of Baltimore II, a semester on the Harvey Gamage, or a 14-month circumnavigation aboard the Picton Castle (and everything in between). Executive Director Bert Rogers suggests checking out their website (www.sailtraining.org) and contacting them if you need any advice.

Capt. Dan Moreland calls Art "Skipper" Kimberly "the last of the old Turks." For more about Skipper, his wife Gloria, and the Brigantine Romance, check out this movie trailer on Youtube:

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