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.

A Life At Sea

Between the admonishments of the boatswain and the encouragements of the crew, there is one moment that stands out from my time on the Niagara. We were sailing back from Toledo and were too early to arrive at home. Tall ships like to make an entrance, cannons blazing, sails full, making a spectacle of themselves. It doesn't do to show up before the crowd is on the dock to watch the arrival. Another volunteer and I stood at the rail, looking at the Erie Maritime Museum across the water. "I want to go home," she said wistfully.

A high, thin voice chimed in behind us: "You want to go home? I want to go sailing!" The voice's owner turned to me: "How about you? You want to go home, too?"

There was only one right answer: "No, Skipper. I want to go sailing."

Skipper wasn't the captain, at least not of the Niagara. It's part nickname, part honorific, and Art Kimberly is the man who owns it. On the Niagara, he held the position of sailmaker, and it was one he took seriously, sitting on the dock long after the sun had gone down, bending close over a sail or boat cover as he thrust a needle through the heavy fabric with a sailor's palm. He showed the same enthusiasm for any task — you had to be quick to beat Skipper to a brush for the early morning deck wash.

Photo of a splicing workshop on the Picton Castle

I'm not sure how old Skipper was when I met him. He'd stopped going aloft the year before, and not entirely willingly, but he was sort of a square-rig guru around the Niagara. From 1966 to 1989, he and his wife Gloria, whom he unfailingly referred to as his "precious bride," had owned the Brigantine Romance, which circumnavigated the globe with a cast of hands who still refer to themselves as the Marineros, which was Skipper's term for them.

Bert Rogers was a Marinero, shipping out on the Romance in 1978. He was supposed to go for three weeks, but he stayed on for two years, and has been involved in tall-ship sailing ever since. I mention another Marinero, and Rogers describes him this way: "Dan Moreland is another protégé of Skipper's, and he and I are great friends. What Dan has done is he has taken what Skipper used to do, and although Dan would never claim this himself, I think he does it even better."

Dan Moreland answers the phone in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, where he's getting ready for the Picton Castle's next voyage. This trip will stay close to home, by the standards of Moreland's ship, which has completed five circumnavigations of the globe. They'll leave Canada for Europe, jog down to Africa, then sail back across to the Yucatan and Cuba, covering 15,000 miles in about a year.

A berth on the upcoming trip will run about $45,000 ($43,850 CDN) for the whole year, and Moreland says they have no problems filling the bunks. The Picton Castle's web page helpfully compares the cost of a voyage to climbing Mount Everest ($60,000), or even flying around the world on commercial airlines ($8,000 just for the tickets).

Picton Castle occupies a unique place among modern tall ships. Boats that make the kind of passages Moreland plans are mostly military or merchant training vessels, and most of them are based in Europe. He doesn't see the Picton Castle as an oddity, but as the normal way of things. But then, he takes the long view.

"In the 19th century," he explains, "when steam took over from sail, seamen started coming along who'd never been in a sailing ship. What shipping companies discovered was that they were nowhere near as good. They realized that people trained in sail were infinitely better mariners. In a sailing ship, every member of the crew is an engineer, because the engines are the sails, they're just much more attuned to the ship. A deckhand on a steamship mostly just chips rust."

Sail training, Moreland says, evolved from that practical need, and it's not a need that's gone away. "I'm fully expecting a revival in that kind of vocational sail training," he says, "because it just makes 'a better goddamned seaman.' You're more alert to the wind, you're closer to the water; you have to worry about things a guy in a 100,000-ton bulk carrier just doesn't have to worry about."

A number of the crew from Picton Castle continue to work on boats. Moreland says that while they have workshops onboard, they're more likely to be teaching wire splices, or navigation, than college courses. "Our program," he says, "is the ship and the sea.

"As much as we treat this as maritime training, ultimately it's a voyage, and you take from it what you want to. But across the board, a successful crew member that completes the voyage is deeply empowered in ways that are difficult to put into words, because they've been tested, and they've proven up to the task, and it's demanding. When they leave, they're strong. They're not scared of things, they're not scared of tackling problems. That, I think, is the great strength of sail training, on any ship."

Swallowing The Anchor

Photo of the Chief Mate and Captain piloting out of the lagoon on the Picton Castle

For me, sailing continued after the season ended on the Niagara. I drove to Baltimore, knocked on the side of a boat and asked for a job. It was the Clipper City, a 158-foot-long replica lumber schooner that left the dock for three short sails a day, mostly booze-cruises to the outer harbor and back. I was lucky to get a day off a month, and the maintenance aboard ship was brutal and unrelenting. Still, I was happy to be working on a boat.

Later, I secured a berth aboard the Pride of Baltimore II. I admit to a certain bias, but to my mind, the Pride, with her raked masts, is the most graceful vessel anywhere in the world, and Jan Miles, her captain, the finest seaman. Sailing the Pride from Baltimore to Europe was a graduate education in traditional sailing. I worked my way ashore after that — first as a shipwright, later as a journalist and teacher — and I still have trouble putting into words what, exactly, I got out of the experience.

Ann Costlow is better at it, but then, she has more concrete goals. For 16 years, Costlow was a stockbroker, working in an office overlooking Baltimore's Inner Harbor. She'd sit looking out the window as the Pride of Baltimore II came in and think to herself, "I'd so much rather be down there." In 2000, she left her desk, where she'd been watching the boat through a pair of binoculars, and marched down to apply for a job as a cook. She remembers the interview going something like this:

"Do you have any experience as a cook?"
"Not really."
"Do you have any experience sailing?"
"No."

She wasn't hired. Six months later, when the boat emerged from its winter cover, she tried again. Still no dice. Then the phone rang. The ship's cook had quit, via e-mail, at the last minute, and they needed someone to fill in for six weeks, starting immediately. Was she still interested?

Costlow brought her boss the binoculars and pointed at the harbor. "You see that boat down there?" she started. "I have a chance to go sailing on that boat." The boss, it turned out, had spent time as a teenager working on an Alaskan oil pipeline, and still looked back fondly on the adventure. Costlow lined up someone to cover, and went sailing.

"It completely shifted my priorities," she says. "Everything I thought was so important — money — just had no value. I went back to work as a broker for six months, but felt like a caged wild animal." Costlow has sailed on the Pride since; she's even on their board of directors now, but she didn't leave her job for the sailing life. She had a different dream. As she talks, her employees are getting ready for the lunch rush at one of the two restaurants she now owns. She opened the first one in 2003, and she recently began franchising the business, Sofi's Crepes. For Costlow, sailing "took away so many obstacles," she says. "It showed me there's nothing you can't try or do."End of story marker



 


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: