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“Rocking the NIAGARA, a Blast and a Half!”

Posted by alexsailor on July 29, 2006

Well, this blog may be very long especially after I think through the plethora of experiences that took place during my 5 day voyage on the US Brig Niagara from Bay City, Michigan to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Woah, now I feel like I can truly talk about sail-training and understand why it changes people to the extent that it opens your eyes to a new world…of living, sleeping, working, and thinking.

This is a ship where, when one boards it, you have to be ready to work, to learn the ropes and never be idle. For someone like me who needs to be moving around alot, this was perfect. Sometimes, however,  it can be overwhelming, depending on how much sleep you get and what the weather is like. Each day melts into one another as even permanent crew members aren’t sure of what day of the week it is. One lives day by day, following the maps, performing duties, receiving lessons from our captain on the history of the ship and important knot-tying lessons, as well as much more.

On the first day, I was completely lost as I saw the 170 lines fasted to the pins spread along the ships inner walls continuing all the way down to the stern. How will I ever memorize the names of all these ropes, let alone haul or ease upon the right ones when asked to? Also, let us not forget that there is an important breakdown of jobs and ranks, something that I guess clued me into the fact that this vessel still has some ancient militaristic-like procedures that do continue. There is a captain, carpenter, Bosun, a cook and assistant cook, 4 mates with each one leading one of the four divisions which contain about 5-6 trainees/deckhands as well as one experienced AB (able-bodied seaman) and one ordinary seamen (experienced deckhand). Then 1st and 3rd division are grouped together as the Starboard Side in which they will also sleep and eat on the starboard side of the berth deck as well as perform watches together, whereupon 2nd and 4th division spending a greater amount of time with one another on the Port side. Finally, when someone explained this to me, I understood the importance of where one is placed, how to formally address higher officers in changing positions, using a head, maintaining a constant degree of respect for each individual and each one’s personal privacy since there are at least 38 members aboard sharing small tight quarters. 

I got to truly know the people with whom I was working with and learn a lot from each person. Josh, an physics major and a great seaman taught me a ton within the first day as he said, “I will be dunked in nautical terminology that will probably first go over my head, but later on, with enough dunks, I should be able to retain a good portion of it!” Every question I had, he explained to me such as the physics of the wind, sea direction, how to fill in a rough log, reading the compass while steering the tiller, sheets & tacks, clews & buntlines & leechlines for hauling, and so much more…

Joal was probably the best teacher for me after my first introduction to 3-point contact aloft training with Rocky, a strong grandmother who has no fear of any rigging challenge! I was so nervous to climb the shrouds, however the idea of being aboard such an astounding vessel without going aloft was unfathomable since I knew that it was an opportunity that may not come to me quite often. So I decided to put the harness on, the same kind that one uses for rock-climbing or ice-climbing. I got up on the shrouds next to Rocky and a Picton Castle deckhand from Norway. I start climbing on the windward side as she is beside me, watching my every movement up along the side of this huge moving vessel. I looked down to see water flying smoothly behind the ship as it passes quickly through the water. I kept telling myself, “Just don’t let go or else you are going to have a long fall into some cold water!”. I’m sure Rocky couldn tell I was climbing quite slowly since I realized that one cannot latch the harness to anything while climbing aloft, but only when going onto a yard, so my first challenge was to get up these shrouds. My feet weretrembling and I looked up to see the lines bunching up at the top with minimal footspace….OMG. This was going to be interesting. I knew that my arm muscles are a little on the weak side so I was hoping that I didn’t need to use them too much- lol.

Finally, I made it atop the fighting top which is where the first yard is placed. I felt relieved and I sat down to expand my vision. I was loving it up there. I soon had to get down, knowing that it would not be an easy task as my feet tremble some more and I bring each foot slowly down to the next rung underneath. I did not climb the shrouds until our fourth day at sea, whereupon Billie, the 2nd Mate of my division asks me to help out in furling some sails on the mainmast. He asked if I got aloft training and I quietly responded, “uhhh yes”. He replied, “Ok, good, put a harness on and you will be joining Joal”. I slowly climbed up on the windward side by myself, watching every step I took and Joal, the ordinary seaman waited for me, carefully making sure that I strapped in next to him on the mainsail.

I learned how to stuff the sail and reef into the skin while making a gasket using a finishing it with a slippery butterfly knot. I gained more confidence in what I am doing up there. The crew and some people on the starboard side were watching me, mouths wide open, thinking that I was never going to go up there again. Adrenaline pumped through me as the excitement of standing and working with my friends where the real action takes place is now tangible.

I can honestly say now that I can furl sails! Later on in the afternoon I am asked to perform a rig check. Joal says he can accompany me and we work together checking the rigging not only up to the upper main sail but all the way to the top of tagallant main sail! The slightest wave that hits the ships goes through to the top of the mast into my hands bringing my body to rock in the same motion. I can see for miles all around me as white birds hover in the sunset. I thanked Joal for pushing me a little to experience this and he is content to see that I conquered a huge fear of mine and got a great day out of it. Even other members of the crew, our Mate Billie, and Rocky as well couldn’t stop staring at me as I was checking the rigging, gasket coiling ropes, and getting a real feel for sailing. As Joal said, how can someone go aboard a ship as a trainee and never want to go aloft, you learn so much from being up there, touching the sails, and working with the lines that run through your fingers down to the deck. One can’t get the entirety of this tall ship when just running blindly pulling on lines, but to actually be in them, trimming them and feeling the power that they bring when unfurling them, is a full-bodied taste of tall ship sailing!

-Alexandra Hagerty ASTA 2006 Intern

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