Ship, Shipmates, Self
Posted by Erin on July 11, 2010
I’m listening to my new shipmates, Rebecca and Angela, singing and playing ukulele together. They’re sitting on the foredeck of the Denis Sullivan, at our dock in Cleveland. We’ve just come off of a three-day sail from Toronto, and a parade of sail into Cleveland Harbor. The water is just barely rippling, the sun is setting, and my friends’ lovely, lilting voices complete the calm scene. It’s been a hot, windless passage through the Welland Locks and across Lake Erie.
As sweltering as it was outside, I heard hardly a complaint from the sailors. In fact, complainers are somewhat disdained aboard tall ships. In an environment as contained and cramped as a boat, there isn’t room for complaints! Sailors can be incredibly resilient in the face of uncomfortable or difficult situations, and even make light of them. During a gale, with gusts up to 40 knots, I once heard a mate remark that it was “a bit wet out.” While the locks were slightly less exciting than a gale, they were long and tiresome, and the crew of the Sullivan endured it without a murmur.
Seamanship is not just about line handling, tying knots and setting sail. The ability to endure hardship with grace is a quality that makes a good seaman, because complaining can affect morale aboard a ship. What makes a sailor a “good shipmate” is his ability to not make the lives of his companions more difficult. He pulls his weight and observes certain traditions that have developed from centuries of maritime living. They’re mostly common courtesy: don’t cause drama, always ask before you board a vessel, etc. But others are less obvious. For example, it is considered impolite to ask the cook what she’s making for dinner. If everyone asked, she would have to answer the same question about twenty times (depending on the size of the crew). You never brush your hair below, but on deck, to leeward, in order to keep the boat cleaner. You also never brush your teeth in the sink, because there are a limited number of heads on board and someone might be waiting. The list goes on.
For a beginner, these rules can be overwhelming partly because they are mostly unspoken. Though most of them are easy to follow, the combination of all of them becomes a way of life. And I think most sailors enjoy being surprised at meal times!